Monday, July 1, 2019

It’s hard to think of any issue that’s affected Australian politics more than asylum seekers.

Bigger than the GST, or Franking credits, or even climate change, the lingering spectre of what to do with people seeking refuge on our shores has been a point of contention since at least the end of World War II. In the last two decades, that conversation has become a screaming match.

Barrister and human rights and refugee advocate, Julian Burnside, was thrust into the debate during the defining time of the modern discussion: mid to late 2001. This year saw the Tampa crisis in August, and the ‘Children Overboard’ scandal months later in October. It’s unsurprising then that these events open Burnside’s documentary, Border Politics.

Ever since the then-Howard government lied that a group of cornered refugees threw their children into the open sea in hopes of securing rescue, many Australians have accepted that boat arrivals are a lower class of people. This narrative still drives our policy today.

If this seems like a one-sided view, it’s reflective of the image presented by Border Politics. Burnside uses his lawyerly skill to layer the argument, gathering the evidence, presenting it in a clear way, then summing up with clear direction. And it’s a persuasive take.

He takes us through the history, documenting the shift in attitudes towards refugees, in Australia and around the world. From an open and welcoming Ellis Island in the early twentieth century, to Donald Trump’s border wall today. It’s an unflinching and unforgiving portrayal, highlighting the Government-mandated torture, social destruction and even death we’ve come to accept as the acceptable price of keeping our borders ‘sovereign’.

Burnside doesn’t simply drop these horrors in our laps and walk away however. He also shows places things have worked better – even if successes in countries like Scotland only further highlight Australia’s failings.

As a documentary, Border Politics is more technically slick than it needs to be. The subject matter is compelling enough – and Burnside is adept at distilling complexity down – that it could have been much drier. But it looks good and is well put together. The constant jumping around the world does feel disconnected at first, but it serves a purpose. This is an overwhelming, worldwide problem and requires global thought. Unfortunately, the sum of Australia’s contribution to the current international discourse is to give countries wanting to close their borders our ‘cruel to be kind’ talking points. Other governments have begun pointing to our policy – of trying to make our treatment of refugees worse than the terror they’re fleeing – as something to be emulated. In real-world scenarios, it takes very little insight or exploration to find the flaws in this logic. And Border Politics lays them out.

This film is not a centrist take. Burnside does not gently prod, ‘both-sides’ it, or leave you in any doubt where he stands. It is intended as a wake-up call and delivers as such.

In the years since 2001, Australians have built homes in the trenches they’ve dug in this discussion, so it seems unlikely the film will reach those who are happy with our current trajectory. But for anyone unsure, or looking for genuine facts, it is required watching. – Mark Russell

  • Border Politics will screen at Armagh in Melbourne on Frday 26 July at 7 pm. For more information, see event post here or contact Delia Paul