In this wondrous age of technology, the news cycle is an unforgiving beast. The ease of communication and a population conditioned by ad breaks to have a short attention span means stories are old news within hours, let alone days or weeks. Whether that's a good or a bad thing depends on whether you are trying to get away with something--most faux pas get forgotten as soon as the next juicy scandal comes along.
With that in mind, it may seem a bit strange for me to reference a news story from late last month, but it's one that managed to stick with me, even amidst what can only be described as tumultuous times. The article concerned the amount of pro bono (free) hours various law firms spent representing those who couldn't afford their services (short version - a lot), almost made me feel bad about all the lawyer jokes I've told. Almost.
Um, what did you say?
As laudable as that is, it was something else that caught my eyes. Almost only mentioned was a statement from one of the lawyers associations, condemning comments by Immigration Minister Peter Dutton. In an interview, he said that he thought representing refugees for free in cases where the government was “un-Australian”.
This is not some isolated comment, either. This is the same government that has threatened doctors and other healthcare workers if they talk about conditions in refugee camps, and outsource the problem to other countries because it makes it easier to manage the information the public gets—and saves money of course (and before people make this a partisan issue, Labor had an almost identical immigration/refugee policy last election).
Not a good sign
When people start talking about something being un-Australian, usually what they mean is something that is not in line with their personal beliefs, or a challenge they have no other way of answering. After all, what is un-Australian, or even Australian? Who gets to define it? I don’t think I could give a definitive list, but there are a few things that I think are definitely not Australian values, including the fact that it is not the government’s place to decide it.
And to me, that is what bothered me so much about the Immigration Minister’s comments. It’s not so much that he is wrong, but that he is dangerously wrong. People can have different opinions on what they consider un-Australian, but he is not just some bloke in the pub that you can either have an argument with about it or ignore. When governments, or those in power, start using those sort of terms as a way of silencing dissent bad things start to happen. I believe this is true as a general rule, but it is completely at odds with Australia’s national identity and history.
Don’t have to be mad to live here, but it helps..
Even before Australia was a nation in its own right, there has been a distrust of authority that is at the very core of the national psyche. It’s more than just a result of the fact we were originally used as a dumping place for criminals, some of those who had good reason to feel hard done by—though this has no doubt helped!
I think it is more to do with the fact that those people already here before the British had to be self reliant, and those who have arrived since have generally been the same. To be willing to go start a new life in a country on the other side of the world takes certain qualities—non-conformity, a sense of adventure and, most of all, a belief that they are control of their lives.
In our Blood
Our history proves that we have little time for slavish obedience of authority, or unquestioning acceptance of being told what is good for us. Our heroes are bush rangers or mavericks, we celebrate a bunch of miners refusing to pay taxes, we even like our sportspeople to give the establishment headaches—no other country would have embraced Shane Warne like we have…just ask Kevin Pietersen.
Australians are raised to reject the idea that the government knows best, and that that they are immune to criticism. The idea that asking them questions, or holding them accountable, or criticising their policies, is somehow unpatriotic runs contrary to everything we stand for - dare I say, even un-Australian. In Australia, we don’t believe the government - just like individuals - is entitled our trust, or respect, they have to earn it.
A Fair Go for All
Add that to the fact that every Australian loves an underdog, I think that the lawyers helping refugees for free against all the resources the government has on its side is pretty Australian. Another core value is that of a “fair go”, so making sure it isn’t only those with money who can afford legal representation seems pretty much in line with that.
Like anyone else, the Immigration Minister can call whatever he wants un-Australian. But, in this country, his position doesn’t bring some special protection from the same response that some clown down at the pub would get if they were wrong - being told he is full of, well, you choose the world. To expect anything else would be…un-Australian.
David Goodwin is the Editor of The Salvation Army’s magazine, Warcry. He is also a cricket tragic, and an unapologetic geek.
David Goodwin archive of articles may be viewed at