By JULIAN BURNSIDE
I had a conversation with Tim Costello some years ago which significantly changed my way of seeing things.
He told me of a time when he was running the Collins St Baptist Church. A guy who had been sleeping rough for quite a while had turned up at the Church wanting a feed. Tim was talking to him. The guy said that that conversation was the first time in two weeks he had had eye contact with any other human being.
I can scarcely imagine what that must be like. That man had, at least in his own mind, completely disappeared.
I have thought about that conversation often. The idea of such alienation haunts me. But there are many people in our society who have, at least in their own minds, disappeared. These are the people who, because of mental health problems, or simple bad luck, find themselves nursing a grievance that no-one wants to hear about. The more they complain, the more they are ignored; the more they are ignored, the louder they complain. The louder they complain, the more they are avoided, viewed with suspicion. And once that cycle sets in, their problems become more and more real to them, less and less real to those around them.
These are the people who ring late night talkback radio and harangue the host until even the panel operators know to filter them out. They are the new outcasts.
My conversation with Tim came in useful during the first round of Australia’s recent panic about asylum seekers. Between 2001 and about 2006, a lot of Australians were persuaded to be anxious about boat people arriving here. After all, the Howard government had told us they were illegals; that they had thrown their children into the sea; that they had jumped a queue somewhere. And the struggle to prevent the country from being swamped by this tide of potential terrorists was paraded as “border protection”.
Howard recognised that there were votes to be taken from One Nation if only he could make us fear the alien horde and position himself as our protector. It worked.
There is a story that I have on fair authority which shows clearly what was going on. Howard was about to enter the House of Representatives to deliver his speech explaining the government’s response to the Tampa. Jackie Kelly approached him in the lobby. She said that a lot of her constituents were deserting to One Nation. Howard waved his speech in front of her and said: “don’t worry – this will fix it”.
As most people thought at the time, the government’s response to the Tampa was purely political. Of course, Howard had a great run of good luck in 2001. His government refused to let the Tampa put its bedraggled cargo of rescued Hazaras ashore on Christmas Island; he cobbled together the Pacific Solution while the court case about Tampa continued. The judgment at first instance in the Tampa case was handed down at 2:15 Eastern Standard Time, on September 11, 2001. The result was not noticed in the newspapers next morning, because a group of Islamic extremists had attacked America.