This week I had the most marvelous letter from a reader that began with a sentence saying how much she had enjoyed listening to my book “A Distant Shore”. It was the first letter from someone who had commented on an audio version of a novel, and she was complimentary about the story and the subject it tackled, the way our country and both sides of federal politics has now agreed on the chilling manner they will treat people seeking asylum in future. If I quote a sentence from her letter, it is because it relates to the above title of this brief article.
“The story really touched my heart and I too would be out fighting for these unfortunate people, were I younger and had my sight.” Her letter then apologised for using the term “these people”, as she remembered how the main character in my book had spoken about hating the use of this dismissive term. But I wrote in reply to thank her for the letter, and to point out she’d used “these people” in an affectionate manner, a way that could never cause offence. It is the loudmouths of radio and the racists who make this expression sound so odious. The same words when spoken by former Prime Minister Abbott were always aggressive, utterly different than if said for instance, someone like lawyer Julian Burnside. My letter writer, her name is Val, told me how she rang a radio station one day trying to support refugees. In her own words, “I got a flogging from the remarks of later callers. I couldn’t believe it. Even a one-time friend, who was a refugee of sorts, said we do not want these people here.”
I treasure Val’s letter, and letters like it. I’m glad I wrote the book, although it may have sold less than others because of the subject matter. But I wrote it after seeing the photo of three young Iraqi sisters; beautiful girls aged six, seven and nine, who were among 142 children drowned on SEIV X, at a time when we were preparing to fight a war against their country. It was the time when refugees like these little kids and their parents were fleeing from Saddam Hussein, the time when John Howard chose to declare “we will decide who comes to this country, and the manner in which they come.” It was the arrogance that was so self-important and cruel. Perhaps another, kinder speaker could have made it sound less like a demeaning sneer.
The war against Saddam solved nothing, there were no weapons of mass destruction, it was an indulgence by a third-rate American President that contributed to much of what is happening in the middle-east today. Sadly, the hope that many of us cherished when Howard lost the election and his seat, that the treatment towards those seeking sanctuary would improve was a fleeting moment of goodwill, lost in the next change of government by the slogan election of “stop the boats” and the absurdity of “team Australia” and handing out gongs to a member of royalty who had no room for another decoration on his uniform
Both sides of our politics now line up to help populate Nauru and Manus Island, uncaring of sexual assaults and kids being brought up in festering circumstances that will, in years ahead, be remembered as far from our finest hour.