Unapologetic insolence from an aging subversive

Unapologetic insolence from an aging subversive

Sunday, 9 December 2018

What has Changed?

Pic courtesy Canberra Times

I have a subscription to the Vietnam Veterans' Museum on Phillip Island, and they send me newsletters from time to time.

The most recent edition has an article on Vietnamese boat people, and I'll post it here in its entirety -

On 26 April 1976, the first boatload of refugees fleeing from Vietnam sailed into Darwin Harbour, heralding a series of arrivals over the next few years.

The vast majority of refugees from Vietnam, however, arrived in Australia by plane after selection officials in refugee camps established throughout South East Asia. Since 1976, Australia
has become home to a thriving Vietnamese community. In 2011, the national census showed that 185,000 people in Australia were born in Vietnam. By early 1975, it was apparent that the North Vietnamese forces would soon overrun the south.

Just before the fall of Saigon, the U.S. and other foreign forces evacuated the first wave of people seeking to escape. The second wave of refugees emerged as the Communist government began to dismantle the old regime. Those associated with the former government were sent for re-education, others lost their jobs or were moved to work on rural reconstruction projects.

The very first Vietnamese refugees to reach Australia were orphan infants evacuated by Operation Babylift in the weeks before Saigon fell in April 1975. Amid fears for their safety, more than 3000 infants were flown out of Vietnam, mostly to the U.S. but also UK, Canada and Australia. The Australian public was supportive of Operation Babylift, for example, the Women’s Weekly ran a two-page article that emphasised the impact of the war on Vietnamese children. The first adult refugees arrived in the 20m Kien Giang, which sailed into Darwin Harbour on 26 April 1976. 

The 20-year-old captain, Lam Binh, with his younger brother and three friends, made the 3500 km journey to find refuge. Lam was not a sailor by trade, but taught himself navigation as part of his escape plan. His original map was nothing more than a page torn from a school atlas, and while getting better charts later, it extended no further than Timor. The rest of the journey was done by dead reckoning.
The exodus of refugees from South Vietnam continued in 1977, boats carrying 21,267 people arrived in neighbouring Asian countries including Hong Kong. In 1978, 106,489 arrived, and before
June in 1979 another 166,604. These people encountered dangerous sea, overcrowded vessels and attacks by pirates and we only know about the ones that survived, countless others were probably lost at sea. 

Australia has benefitted by the arrival of these people and with their hard work ethic, they have proved to be an asset to Australia. Very often when we get Vietnamese visitors at the Museum, we sometimes give them a little badge of the crossed fags of Australia and South Vietnam.

It's a pretty fair summary of the history, gentle reader.
Recently, (in August) a boat load of Vietnamese asylum-seekers was refouled (sent back to the place they were escaping), after they managed to elude border patrol vessels.
I can't help noting the contrast between what happened forty years ago, and what happens now.
It tells us a great deal about what has become of our national psyche as a consequence of the politics of fear and loathing. Back in the seventies, asylum seekers arriving on boats were never used as a political wedge. The potential was always there when it came to the Vietnamese.
I witnessed an incident in 1978 which made it obvious that there was always a rich vein of xenophobia simmering below the surface which could have been used.

At the time, I was Teacher-in-Charge of a Special Education Unit at a High School in Brisbane's western suburbs. There was also a migrant unit located in the same school at the time, catering almost exclusively for students who were Vietnamese refugees.

I had access to a wheelchair accessible bus, and a licence to drive it. Occasionally, the Teacher-in-Charge of the migrant unit and myself would get our heads together to solve the problem of getting the Vietnamese kids out and about in the community to access a range of valuable experiences.

I would drive a combination of the Vietnamese kids and my own cohort of students with disabilities. It worked well, because the wheelchair bound kids were helped by the able-bodied migrant kids in terms of mobility and access.

There was a screening of "To Kill a Mockingbird" at a small cinema at Enoggera. The book was on the curriculum of the English as a Second Language programme at the migrant unit, and it was also part of the Year 10 English curriculum for some of the kids with disabilities, so we organised a joint excursion.

Upon arriving at the cinema, and just as the Vietnamese kids were helping the students with disabilities into the theatre, a bloke turned up and started abusing the migrant kids in the foulest terms. There was an army base at Enoggera and this character, out of uniform but identified by his haircut, was obviously army. He used the same jargon that I had occasionally heard in Vietnam.

I got the kids out of the way into the theatre (and out of earshot) and used two words (one with four letters) to tell him to take himself somewhere else immediately. He got the message, and jumped into a car and drove off. Fortunately the Vietnamese kids didn't really understand what he was saying - their English wasn't up to it - but the kids with disabilities did. They were indignant.

If the government in power at the time had decided to take political advantage of the kind of paranoia exhibited by my mate at the cinema, the flow of refugees would have been stopped cold. There are sufficient idiots in the community to make this strategy work in a close election.

Howard used fear of asylum seekers in 2001 to win what had looked like an election the Coalition was bound to lose. We're hearing the same rhetoric again, of course.

Contrast the behaviour of the Fraser government in 1978, with what we're observing now, particularly from the hard Right of the Coalition, and the nutters in PHON, and you can see how far we have fallen as a nation.

Once we were a proud and compassionate people. Now we have a government that panders to paranoia, fear and loathing to cling to power. Perhaps the "base" that the Conservatives are always referring to describes pretty clearly the instincts to which they appeal.

After the result in the recent by-election in Turnbull's old seat, perhaps the old technique has passed its use-by date.

We can hope....

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