Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Dark Victory: a window onto real Australia?

while sick, I read Dark Victory.

John Howard (then Prime Minister of Australia) said of the people rescued by the Tampa and sent for processing to Nauru, “We have always stood ready to take our fair share’. In the end, New Zealand took 186. Australia took one.” (page 289)

This book investigates recent Australian political history, most particular August 23-November 10, 2001. It begins with the Tampa incident, in which a boatload of refugees, seeking refugee status in Australia, were rescued by a passing cargo ship, the Tampa and then refused entry into Australia. It documents the politics, including the way John Howard and his Labour Liberal party fought, and won, an election, by merging a post 9/11 fear of terrorism with the arrival of Afghan and Iraqi people seeking refuge in Australia. It describes the military role, including towing boats back to Indonesia and the death and trauma that resulted. (The net impact was the forcing of 2390 boat people away from Australia, at a cool cost of about $500 million).

In doing so it suggests a profound racism lies at the heart of Australia, what one commentator called “dog whistle” politics, pitching a message to one group of voters that other groups do not hear. It raises some disturbing questions about the lack of hospitality in Australia, and the privileging of (white) colour.

The book is compelling written (I read it in a day, while sick), mixing personal narratives with the complex machinations of government affairs, military chains of command and media response. It is surprisingly free of editorialising, choosing instead to simply lay out the facts.

From a missiological perspective, it is interesting to see the church portrayed as prophetic in it’s critique of the government, sounding a clear call on behalf of the poor and dispossessed. This however, was what I call church “powerful” – leaders and thinkers. It left me wondering what on earth was happened at the local congregational level. What were pastors in rural churches preaching (or not preaching), during this period. (That would make a fascinating research project).

It is easy to feel a bit smug, reading this as a New Zealander, hearing our name mentioned as a country willing to make space. The cynical part of me wonders what would happen if we weren’t protected by the great red land, and if boat people were arriving on our shores? Is their “dog whistle” politics at work when Brash talks of Kiwi not iwi, or Winston Peters wants New Zealand land for New Zealand owners?

Posted by steve at 01:42 PM


  1. That was a fantastic book, Marr is a very interesting guy.

    I read it as a part of a book club a number of years ago, refreshing, critical, inspiring and prophetic…

    Now, 8 years after the event, have we learned anything? Are we different people? is our government acting in a different way?

    Comment by Darren — December 9, 2009 @ 5:51 pm

  2. New Zealand had its share of boat people back in the days of Vietnam refugees. There’s a big difference between the refugee processing unit in Auckland and the internment camps of Australia.

    I remember back in 2001 the wave of refugees from Afghanistan was becoming an issue, we did reflect on issues of hospitality to the alien at the congregational level in Robina on the Gold Coast. It wasn’t a rural congregation, but we did have a significant number of people who were convinced that these people were most likely terrorists. It wasn’t helped by the September 11 bombings. But we did have a chance to talk and pray about it and address our attitudes towards the ‘other’.

    Comment by Duncan — December 9, 2009 @ 6:02 pm

  3. Thanks Duncan. Any insights into how the conversation was started, and maintained, in a way that cultivating a culture of listening carefully to voices one might disagree with? It seems so easy for church to be a mirror of a politicised culture, on both sides, conservative and liberal. So i’d be fascinated to see some good examples of listening.


    Comment by steve — December 9, 2009 @ 6:12 pm

  4. Yes, one of the nastier moments in more recent history.

    The connection between local congregations and the public voice of the church is something we’re working hard to create and maintain, at least in the uniting church here. Though i’d want to question your ‘leaders and thinkers’ / ordinary congregational member dichotomy.

    The first thought off the top of my head is that the Asylum Seeker Project is a local congregational initiative in Melbourne, and has grown to become extremely influential both nationally and internationally in policy making and public awareness – the director of the ASP regularly addresses the United Nations, for example, on refugee issues, and is often called on by the government for advice. While she is the voice of the project, the volunteers, management committee and support all come from ‘ordinary’ congregation people. If they don’t like what’s happening in the project, the director has to respect their voices and together they discern what the direction should be.

    That seems to me to show that the split between ‘leaders and thinkers’ and ordinary congregational members can be an artificial construct…

    I remember at the time of Tampa we had large numbers of requests for resources for education and worship from congregational ministers. The Synod Justice Unit developed resource packs for congregations, which included discussion guides to open up conversation. The ASP were inundated with requests for speakers. There was also a wave of financial support and volunteering from the wider church, which indicates they were wanting the broader church to focus on the issue. I’m not saying it couldn’t be done better, and certainly not that there was universal agreement [by any stretch of the imagination], but i think there was a serious attempt across all expressions of the church to address the issue and respond faithfully.

    Comment by cheryl — December 9, 2009 @ 6:48 pm

  5. and a mistake in your post – John Howard was the leader of the Liberal Party, not the Labor Party. The Liberal Party are the conservatives in Australia.

    Comment by cheryl — December 9, 2009 @ 6:50 pm

  6. thanks cheryl. very helpful. my brief exposure to aussie context says that melbourne might be a little more socially justice aware than some other cities. so that might “colour” (pun intended) your reflection.

    yes, my “local congregation” vs speakers/thinkers might be artificial. but if so then, it leaves the question of who was Howard “whistling at,”? surely not just those outside the church? it’s just that here in New Zealand, there are a fair few “redish necks” sitting in local congregational pews.


    Comment by steve — December 9, 2009 @ 7:41 pm

  7. If you want a window into “Real Australia” how about you wait until you move here and spend time with us as a people. These books are written from one point of view and reflect social comment not the reality of where most of us Australians live.

    Comment by Mark Stevens — December 10, 2009 @ 4:19 am

  8. For what it is worth, one of our well known historians says that it is impossible to understand Australia without understanding the place of racism and alcohol in our history

    Comment by kerry — December 10, 2009 @ 1:33 pm

  9. I’m trying to remember what got preached in my church back in 2001. I can’t remember anything specific said about those issues, they were raised probably more in prayer times than sermons.
    The policy of my church seemed to be not to raise party-political issues. Saying what Scripture says on issues was fine, and praying for govts, but it was uncommon to say anything too partisan, particularly near elections.

    At the time I was in a part of Adelaide where refugees only existed on the news, and many of us were ashamed of our government for doing the wrong thing.

    Seven years later I found myself leading a youth group who are all refugees, and I have contact with others who are sacrificially helping and advocating for refugees, who you might meet when you’re in Adelaide.

    Comment by Eric — December 13, 2009 @ 11:56 pm

  10. Great stuff Eric. And your blog looks fascinating.

    It’s strange for us moving to Adelaide. Up till now we’ve been in church ministry, so we look for a place within walking distance of the church. But moving to Adelaide, we’re linked to a college, not a church. So where to live? How to make that decision missionally?

    Any chance you can give us a “tour” of adelaide from your geographic perspective when we arrive? Your comment adds such a helpful naunce to Mark’s comment – he wants us to meet real aussie – but the sheer physical location in which one settles offers a variant on the “real” that one meets.


    Comment by steve — December 16, 2009 @ 12:17 pm

  11. > Any chance you can give us a “tour” of adelaide from your geographic perspective when we arrive?

    Certainly! I look forward to it.

    Comment by Eric — December 18, 2009 @ 10:39 am

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