Indifference to asylum seekers starts close to home

Mothers on Christmas Island are so devoid of hope they were reported to have  attempted suicide to give their kids a future. Pregnant women on Nauru request abortions to save their unborn children a fate worse than death. And there are more than 200 children shipped to offshore detention. How did Australia, a nation with a strong tradition of celebrating family life and diversity, become so callous about the fate of thousands of children and their parents?

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Are we to conclude that as the planet fills up and its problems become more urgent, Australians are becoming more insular? We are retreating into our own domestic situations – and bugger everyone else’s. It’s seems we find it easier to focus on the wellbeing of our own kith and kin, our difficult renovation and the next family holiday than heading out into the world to fix what’s wrong.

It’s not just asylum seekers who are being left behind. While opposition to the Coalition’s 2014 budget has been fierce, in the Essential poll of June 3, more people thought the ALP should vote for the six-month waiting period for the dole for under 30s (47 per cent) than thought the party should vote against it (41 per cent).

Asylum seekers

The fate of asylum seekers remains shrouded in secrecy. Photo: AAP

In a survey earlier this year by CSIRO on attitudes to climate change, “Respondents ranked climate change as the 14th most important concern among 16 general concerns.’ It’s sad that the cost of living, education, electricity and housing prices were among the issues that ranked more highly than a catastrophe that is already killing hundreds of thousands a year.

Popular culture reflects our narrow concerns. The appropriately named drama series Offspring has been a phenomenal success with Australian women.

But despite its willingness to tackle life issues such as infertility and gay marriage, it shies away from controversial topics such as asylum seekers. Meanwhile the characters exist in a middle class bubble divorced from the gross social and economic inequalities of its quirky inner city backdrops. Nina, the show’s central character, was reflecting the zeitgeist when she said recently after a particularly wrenching crisis: ‘I just want everyone I love to be happy and safe – it’s all that matters!’

For many parents, having kids prompts them to a new urgency about the state of the planet and a determination to fight social and environmental wrongs, for example by assisting newly-arrived refugee families with food and furniture, and lobbying governments to reduce carbon emissions.

But the idea that the family is the only thing that matters seems to dominate more and more – and its effects are insidious.

It encourages us to choose private education and health, which means we lose our incentive to fight for top-quality health and education services that don’t depend on income.

It’s why so many of us vote for the parties that tell us our own families are going to be better off, with tax cuts and bonuses to middle class families, and breaks for the wealthy – so our aged care and childcare services flounder.

Meanwhile our poverty and inequality rates remain higher than the OECD average, while our public social spending is below the average. And you can’t get a seat on the train because there’s no money left over for infrastructure spending.

If we accept that we’re part of a larger society, everyone benefits – through greater tolerance and creativity and a meritocracy that allows the best minds from all classes to get ahead. By welcoming asylum seekers and those who are socially marginalised, your kids will learn empathy and a respect for diversity.

Catherine Magree is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Melbourne. She has an interest in social justice issues and her background encompasses working for community organisations including the Brotherhood of St Laurence.

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