(Sorry for the cryptic headline. Unless I want to agonise about them, I suck at headlines.)
Having lived through Australia’s refugee debates of the 1970s, I have wondered many times why today’s debate is so much different. Part of it is, I believe, that we know so much more today than we did then.
In short: in the 1970s, we knew about the boats that made it here – and didn’t suffer headlines and agonies about the boats that didn’t.
I spent quite some time looking over Trove (if you’re not familiar – the National Library’s online archive) for references to the “boat people” from the 1970s. There are plenty (it documents Ita Buttrose's pro-refugee campaigning in Women's Weekly, for example), but something’s missing: that era lacked today’s debate over preventing tragedies at sea.
While the political decisions made in that era by Malcolm Fraser eventually did “stop the boats”, it didn’t happen instantly. Several years elapsed between the government deciding how many refugees would be accepted, the implementation of the policy – and the cessation of boat arrivals (in the early 1980s).
Today, for reasons both humanitarian and political, an urgent imperative is given to “stopping the boats”.
I went searching for some other data to explain this – and when I couldn’t find it, I tried to confirm it with a good source.
If you go looking for the numbers of Vietnamese and Cambodian refugee boats that went down in the 1970s, good luck: I could not find any such data, and the Australian Border Crossing Observatory at Monash University confirmed that it held no such data (it hopes to launch research to document this; again, good luck).
Nor could I find any headlines talking about sinkings.
This is the cold equation: in the 1970s, we didn’t worry about the boats that didn’t make it, because we didn’t know about them.
In those days, a boat might carry a map and, if it were lucky, a ship-to-shore radio it was probably reluctant to use. Today’s vessels are no more seaworthy, but communications technologies are available and affordable: neither GPS nor portable satellite phones existed in the 1970s, nor emergency beacons or mobile phones – all of which are both available and affordable today.
Also: Australia has vastly expanded its patrols. Also: there are vastly many more satellites watching over the ocean. And so on.
Which leads me to a question: to what extent does knowledge make us responsible for what happens to the boats? Are we, in trying to find a “quick fix” to “stop the boats”, assuming a responsibility that properly belongs to the people on the boats?
Yes: if we take our time implementing a policy, as the Fraser Government did, boats will set out and never arrive. In trying to make ourselves responsible for preventing those deaths, we have created a political impasse that’s frozen our policy that’s lasted so long that…well, so long that if we’d had the leisure that the Fraser government had, we would now have a policy in place that would probably be reducing the number of arrivals.
The sad irony is that our consciences – whether prompted or unprompted, unforced or exploited by politicians – are contributing to the very thing that makes us uncomfortable: the boats are still setting out. We could demand better policy from our leaders; but not if we keep demanding a fast fix to stop the boats setting out.