I’ve spent the last two months in Australia preparing for this trip and arriving here after the gloom and austerity that currently pervades Britain and Europe has been a bit of a shock to the system.
Australians often call their home ‘the lucky country’ and the sobriquet feels particularly apt at the moment. Australia is one of the few economies in the world that has managed to avoid the global financial crisis and prosper.
According to the IMF, it is the only advanced economy to record positive economic growth last year. The Aussie dollar is thriving. Once worth 35pence it’s hitting 63p today, a 25 year high, and almost running on par with the US dollar. Unemployment isn’t really an issue; in fact politicians and the media seem more concerned with a shortage of skilled labour. Consequently, there’s been little let up in consumer spending, property values continue to rise (by over 13% in the last 12 months) and first time buyers are struggling to make it onto the ladder. A recent survey showed that housing affordability in relation to income is now worse in Sydney than in London.
The reason for the country’s success lies in an economy tied to raw materials – in particular iron ore and other minerals that feed China’s burgeoning industries. Confident Australians are now predicting another 20 years of economic boom times.
But the lucky country is only lucky for some. The Australian handling of refugees and illegal immigrants – in particular those desperate enough to attempt the journey by boat – is disgraceful. Arrivals are detained in prison style camps on Christmas Island, a tiny island 1600 miles north of Perth, for processing.
Some stay there for more than a year. Many never make it to mainland Australia other than, when their applications are refused, for the return flight to their own country. And while they are imprisoned there, for call it by whatever name you will that is the truth of it, they are the subject of media ire and political barnstorming.
Politicians in particular compete to take the hardest line. The conservative opposition leader Tony Abbot has promised to do ‘whatever it takes’ to stop further arrivals, with some pundits suggesting that this could include towing boats back out of Australian territorial waters. And last week, the Labor Prime Minister announced the country would refuse any Afghan and Sri Lankan applications for six and three months respectively, saying that the situation in both countries had ‘improved’. Though not enough, it should be noted, to remove Australian troops from Afghanistan.
To get a perspective on the impact that so called boat people make, newspapers quote figures of just over 4000 arrivals in the last three years. And this is in a country that anticipates a necessary population growth of 15 million in the next 30 years in order to meet its labour market demands and fuel the growth that contributes to ongoing affluence.
Australia is not alone in the world in taking a hysterical approach to refugees. But it, in particular, is a country that has been built on the back of continued immigration and that was able, even in the relatively recent past of the 70s and 80s, to welcome Vietnamese refugees (arriving in similar boats) with sympathy and consideration.
It’s a shame that despite the intervening years of continued prosperity, the lucky country no longer feels able to share its good fortune with those who need it most.