Stunning as Sydney Harbour may be, it was the politics that riveted my attention as I flew out of the historic, watery and lively capital of the ‘Lucky Country’. I had spent the morning before my flight indulging in a little tourism. We walked the path named after the good-hearted wife of the 1830s Governor General: Mrs McQuarrie’s Road. It circles a beautiful park and lines the harbour. There, my host, Peter Murphy and I happened upon the vast tanker pictured above.
Commissioned to deal with about 500 asylum seekers that head, it is estimated, each month for the Oz coast (6,789 arrived in 2010 compared to e.g. 1.75 million refugees in Pakistan) it seems big enough and ugly enough for the grisly task of hauling people off leaky boats or out of the sea, and then screening. As Peter noted, naming it Customs and Border Protection is a tautology: Customs is border protection.
Prime Minister Gillard has called a special cabinet meeting for Monday, 12th September, and all the signs are that she is about to do a deal with a rabidly right-wing and racist opponent in order to keep asylum seekers from stepping by boat on to this vast territory she governs precariously. (These refugees are less than 50% of Australia’s annual total. The rest arrive by plane, but don’t seem to invite the same sort of moral panic.) The ‘White Australia’ policy of the past seems to be rearing its ugly head again.
My hosts in the Greens and in the Labour party tell me that Julia Gillard’s determination to flout legal opinion and Australia’s commitments under international human rights law is likely to split her party. This may well lead to the collapse of her administration, conceding the next election to Tony Abbott, leader of the Liberal Party.
That seems a little careless, given the good fortune of Australia’s extraordinary mining boom. Few Prime Ministers would want to throw away an opportunity to make history and use the revenues and collateral of those mineral resources to finance the transformation of Australia’s economy away from a dependence on fossil-fuels. But Mrs Gillard appears ready to do so.
Australia’s economy benefits from an ‘income shock’ courtesy of an apparently unstoppable mining boom. The Australian Manufacturing Workers Union argues that the mining sector benefits from taxpayer subsidies that are not on offer to manufacturing. So Australia’s manufacturing base and public sector are being systematically eroded, as I personally witnessed in Wollagong, home to Bluescope Steel which has just announced 1,000 redundancies.
Aussies feel increasingly insecure as rising electricity and water prices – said to be the result of privatisation – rob their bank accounts of cash that would normally be spent elsewhere. The heated and inchoate debate around the imminent ‘carbon tax’ seems to add to the sense of insecurity. Australia might be the beneficiary of a great fortune – a projected 475 billion dollars of inward investment – but it is not making Australians more secure.
And as for Australia’s big four banks: something about them seems to me to be good to be true. But more of that later.