Two years ago, I was fortunate enough to host a Melbourne Writers Festival panel on how Australia treats and talks about refugees.
The talk included author and long-time advocate Arnold Zable who noted that part of the function of offshore detention was to strip people of individuality, presenting them as as a seething, invading horde that we cannot hope to understand and that don’t understand us.
Zable’s words came to mind in the opening few minutes of Safe Harbour, SBS’s new four-part mini-series that dramatises Australia’s attitudes to people seeking asylum who try to arrive by boat.
A crew of five fairly wealthy white Australians have their idyllic sailing trip disrupted by a fishing boat containing several dozen people of various races hoping to make it to Australia.
Ryan, the yacht’s captain, boards the fishing vessel, only to find himself quickly overwhelmed by men, women and children screaming unintelligibly at him as he shouts over and over, 'Do you speak English? Do you speak English?!'
Cutting back forth between these events and five years into the future when Ryan crosses paths with Ismail, an Iraqi who was on that boat with his family, Safe Harbour does not shy away from depicting all Australians as responsible for the lives of those who seek safety and shelter on these shores.
The drama functions as a microcosm of the entire country, as the white family argues over whether to tow the boat into Australian waters or to take it to Indonesia.
“We can’t just leave them here!”
“We have to think about our family.”
“We can’t send them back to Indonesia.”
“No one forced them to get on that boat!”
These are snippets of conversations that have taken place in private homes, in the media, and in parliament as the country “debates” whether to help people fleeing violence and persecution or to make them someone else’s problem.
It’s not giving too much away to say things take a dark turn for both families.
The implication is clear: our own future as Australians is as much at stake as theirs and how we deal with this issue will reverberate for many years to come, and given the watching eyes of the international community, it is clearly not one we can keep brushing aside.
The UN has described Australia's detention regime as “torture.” A New York Times editorial denounced it as “cruel, shortsighted and shameful. ” Chinese activist artist Ai Weiwei recently warned our treatment of refugees is giving Australia “such a bad name.”
Safe Harbour deliberately recalls the sinking of the Siev X, which then-PM Howard infamously and incorrectly claimed involved parents throwing their children in the water, declaring “I certainly don’t want people of that type in Australia.”
In recreating that tragedy, the show reminds us that actions have consequences and until these actions are reckoned with, things will only get worse for everyone.
However, the implication that the asylum seeker issue represents a kind of national loss of innocence is not a realistic one. To view our cruel treatment of refugees as a kind of departure from an otherwise exemplary moral record is certainly tempting but it is also a fantasy.
At least part of the reason why Australia’s punitive mandatory detention policy has continued for so long – and with the support of so much of the population – is precisely because such injustices are built into the fabric of our history; we have just become very adept at ignoring and then erasing them.
'Do you speak English?!'
Ryan, who genuinely wants to help, is clearly frustrated at the chaos and cacophony of terrified screams on the doomed fishing boat in the opening scene.
This cultural and language gap is one way in which our politicians have secured public support; they are different, they can’t speak English, they could be a threat, we are better than them.
English is the marker that separates the desirables from the undesirables.
As such, this scene flips the first days of colonial settlement and Terra Nullius on its head, where the Aboriginal population’s lack of English was all the justification the British needed to claim the land.
Speaking English – or being as close to English as possible – is the barometer that determines access to this land, and it is this that is our original sin – the asylum seeker issue is just one manifestation of that legacy.
There are plenty of others. Last week alone, our political discourse was dominated by Sunrise’s latest plummet into troll television, where a guest seriously called for another Stolen Generation and Immigration Minister Peter Dutton’s proposal to fast track refugee visas for white South African farmers whose property is being seized by that country’s government.
“We suffer in our own countries, we suffer to leave, and then we suffer some more,” Matou, an African says to Ismail, a devout Muslim, in Safe Harbour. “We end up in a stinking fishing boat while they end up in a palace. Seems to me your god has favourites.”
Of course, it’s not Ismail’s god who has favourites, but those who play god with the lives of others.
Thriller Safe Harbour airs over four weeks, exploring issues facing asylum seekers once they settle in Australia. All episodes will be available after broadcast anytime, anywhere, for free via SBS On Demand. Join the conversation with #SafeHarbour. Watch episode two now: