“Boat People” Symposium

Saturday 15 October 1995
Murdoch University


Associate Professor Alec McHoul
Centre for Research in Culture and Communication

I promise this will be very brief. Even though I'm listed as both summarising and closing, I will try to do both in one go. I'll perform two speech acts at once ... I can also juggle and tap dance. (Actually, to be honest, I can't tap dance).

To start with, I'd like everybody to thank the people who were behind this, who did the real work behind this: Peter Stuart, Liza Kappelle, Nic Perpitch, Cynthia Baker and Kim Le Souef. They're the people who did the work and I think you should thank them. Thank you all very much. I speak on behalf of myself, Ien Ang and Liz Wood.

I also speak as somebody who has neither been through any of these experiences, nor as one who has an expert perspective on any of these issues. So I'm neither experienced nor do I have a perspective. I'm more or less useless in this respect; that is, I speak as an intellectual only. I'm only capable of that kind of meta-thinking which is parasitic upon people who can genuinely think - people who are forced to think, by virtue of having to undergo the kinds of experiences of arriving in Australia that we've talked about today, or else are experts on the issue by virtue of having to deal with those people directly. (Though it's also true that if Chris Doepel goes through his records he'll find that I was threatened with deportation from Australia twice in my attempt to escape from a dictator called Margaret Thatcher. But that's another matter entirely.)

That's as far as I could go personally along that track. But what I've been able to do today - and I think that that's what I wanted to do when I came here this morning - was to learn something, to learn about people's experiences. And I think that our first two speakers this morning Lan Tran and Saret Tach were incredibly brave to come here and speak about their experiences. I was quite overcome by their capacity and ingenuity for explaining to me the kinds of experiences that I just couldn't possibly imagine. And one of the conclusions that I came to from listening to those speakers was about the people who are in this so-called "Boat People" category, this group of people who arrive on our shores in a seemingly similar way: and that is that not many of them have an awful lot in common.

There are many varieties of person that we call "Boat People". There are people who arrived at different times in history, under different Australian governments, who've been processed and dealt with in quite different and distinct ways, who have quite different and distinct origins, who have very different reasons for wanting to come to Australia, and who've had quite different destinations since their arrival. It's very hard to find a single feature that would define them - and on those grounds what I think we can find is a degree of complexity. That's a degree of complexity that I hadn't seen before, and it's one that I hope that you'll be able to take with you into the further forums that you go to and that you deal with in your everyday and professional lives. And when these questions come up, you may be able to return to your experiences today and what you've heard from our speakers about their experiences. So whatever your position - whether you take a Left or a Right position on this (or whatever position you take on it) - you may at least be able to make others aware of the complexities of the issues. You might be able to say, after today's symposium, that these issues can't be cut through by a few simple slogans, whether they're the kind of slogans that has to do with "queue jumping" for example - and we've heard a long list of those today - or whether they're very simple kinds of humanist statements about "rights", "dignity" and so forth. It looks as if the issue is much more complex than that simply dichotomy. So the first that I would ask you to do would be to take the complexity of those primary experiences (and the issues they address) with you.

In the afternoon session we've seen a set of different perspectives from a group that I'll loosely bring together as "experts". And again we've seen that there has been a diverse range of opinions and views about, as well as theorisations of, this issue. Again - when we come to ideas of this kind about primary experiences - it's complex, and again there is not necessarily much agreement. We've seen the administration shit on the media; the media shit on the administration; and we've seen almost everybody (to paraphrase Tom Lehrer) shit on the Government. We've heard that a certain (capital-R) Right-thinking group thinks that the Government's weak and that the public is too wishy-washy and humanitarian over these issues. And we've seen people from the Left who think that the Government's far too strong and that the public may be far too bigoted and racist. We've heard both of those rather simplistic views and it looks as though we haven't reached any definite conclusions on the matter. (Though I think I agree with Christabel Chamarette by and large - even though I'm not really supposed to say what I think at this point.)

In this sense, then, we've deliberately organised something that's come out of an attempt to complexify these issues. This is quite often what intellectuals do. It was once said that a philosopher is a person who kicks up a lot of dust and then complains like hell because he can't see anything. Maybe that's one of the things we've done today. We've kicked up a lot of dust and we can't see anything definite. What else is dust for? But, as dust usually does, I think it will settle. And out of our sense of complexity and confusion will come some fresh debates and some fresh discussions at a more informed and higher level. This is what our afternoon experts have brought here for us. And so, secondly, I would ask you to take the complexity of those (secondary) expert positions with you.

But why on earth did we do this? We set this up initially because of something that Ronald Wilson said about "Boat People" and justice at his going-away speech, when Murdoch gave him an honorary degree for his remarkable services as Chancellor. He'd been so restrained - giving out those degrees for so many years - and then he just went ahead and told us what he thought about justice and tolerance - very directly. It was very hard not to be moved. And a group of us - Ien and myself and Krishna Sen - were sitting around a day or two later having a coffee, as intellectuals do, from time to time, between their hard labours of construing, and we reminded ourselves that in the 1970's in Europe a group of quite different intellectuals had been very interventional with respect to the refugee problem of those times. We were particularly thinking about the group around Foucault in Paris in the 1970's: they occupied buildings; they went on marches; they engaged in a whole range of directly political activities. Then we began to wonder: what have intellectuals in Western Australia, or in Australia generally, done about what is an incredibly difficult and complex issue of the same kind and involving the same kinds of injustices? (I can see George Aditjondro shaking his head over there, and I suspect he's probably going to offer me a very round number as an answer to that question.)

So we decided that we could, at least, within the limits of our meagre powers, talk about it. We haven't asked you to occupy any buildings today. But I think what we can do is to ask you to take forward, maybe not a single and definite new view, but maybe a whole range of new views, into the forms of life that you have beyond this institution and this forum, into the forms of writing and reportage that you engage in, and into all the legal, bureaucratic, media, governmental, educational and other decision-making bodies that you deal with.

So there may be only one thing we can conclude that's more or less simple from our set of complex issues, and that is that there's a fairly firm agreement that criminalisation and detention is inhuman. We've begun to see the media agreeing on that. And obviously people who've been through that experience agree on that. The people who are grant-in-aid workers, and in the religious communities around those people, agree on that. We're seeing that at least some politicians can agree on that matter. That some lawyers can. And I even suspect that - if it were possible to do this in a way without detention - the Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs itself would be quite happy to see that practice go away.

So we've heard a lot about detention, caging and incarceration. But we haven't heard much about the other side of that - and the other side is something called freedom. And I'd like to say something about the question of freedom. So of course this then gets emotional and so I have to move out of the strictly intellectual realm and into that of the poetic. I'll quote you the poet Bob Dylan on the question of freedom. This is how I'll end. (I would have sung this for you if I'd brought my Telecaster but I haven't - and naturally I can see you sighing with relief.) I'll simply quote the song.

You have to imagine the narrator and his lover going into a building late at night because the thunder has started - they go into a building to shelter from what seems to be a storm. And it begins this way. (I'll only read one verse).

Far between sundown's finish an' midnight's broken toll
We ducked inside the doorway, thunder crashing
As majestic bells of bolts struck shadows in the sounds
Seeming to be the chimes of freedom flashing
Flashing for the warriors whose strength is not to fight
Flashing for the refugees on the unarmed road of flight
And for each an' ev'ry underdog soldier in the night
An' we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing.

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