Go Back shows (again) that we can challenge ideas

Go Back To Where You Came From season two was filmed in early 2012, but the timing of its showing, two weeks after federal parliament endorsed the Pacific Solution, was perfect.

Again, Go Back has had a discernably positive impact on public conciousness.

Some of the most revealing scenes were in Afghanistan, where Catherine Deveny, Angry Anderson and Peter Reith arrive amidst rioting just days after the burning of the Koran by US troops. This provoked  complaints from Reith about “lack of security”—in the country his government sent more than 300 asylum seekers back to!

The scene where Reith is confronted by one of those asylum seekers, Rezai, a Hazara man who was detained on Nauru and returned to Afghanistan, confirms Deveny’s accusation that Reith “has blood on his hands”. Rezai explains that of those sent back from Nauru, at least 11 were killed and many others imprisoned or tortured. Rezai remains in Afghanistan, still scared for his life. This is all the evidence we need to oppose any attempt by Labor to do this again.

Go Back to Where You Came From has shown (again) that we can challenge the xenophobic myths about refugees

In a Somalian refugee camp with 150,000 people and intermittent access to drinking water, Allan Asher, Imogen Bailey and Michael Smith find out Australia has resettled only 171 Somali refugees in the last year.

Similarly, in Indonesia, Reith’s group experiences the conditions that encourage people to make the trip to Australia by boat. One family they meet have spent five years waiting for the UNHCR process of registration, refugee determination and resettlement. An Afghan Hazara mother tells them, “I don’t like to go by boat [to Australia]. It’s dangerous—but I don’t have any option”.

Reith’s group meeting with Indonesian fishermen who served mandatory five-year jail sentences in Australia for “people smuggling”, provides insight into this arbitrary punishment.

But as Labor has now removed the mandatory sentencing requirement, it is particularly unfortunate that Go Back does not adequately address the myths surrounding people smuggling. The discussion perpetuates the idea that those who organise the boats are ruthless profiteering criminal masterminds. This notion has been central to the Labor government’s demonisation of asylum seekers by proxy and has to be countered.

Changing ideas

It would be unrealistic to expect 20 years of mandatory detention and 11 years of offshore processing to be overturned by three hours of TV. But Go Back provides much insight into how public opinion can be shifted underneath the government to force change.

Predictably, establishment figures Peter Reith and shock jock Michael Smith have far too much invested in demonising asylum seekers to be moved by their experiences. They have the most to gain by shifting the debate to the right.

Smith clutches at racism—for example, by casting aspersions on a Somali family for naming their son Osama—so that he can maintain the hateful schema upon which he has built his career. Reith is backed into many a corner but refuses to budge.

On the program and since, he has referred to the children overboard scandal as, “a minor incident, long finished”, or as “a bit of a stuff-up”. But Imogen Bailey is absolutely right to point out that children overboard was crucial for turning public opinion against asylum seekers. He has never apologised for orchestrating the scandal and for comments like those of Howard’s at the time time, “I certainly don’t want people of that type in Australia, I really don’t”.

Tellingly, he admitted on SBS’s Insight that asylum seekers arriving by boat are technically not “illegal”—but that using that term was a good way to promote Coalition policies! He continues to blame boat people for taking places of those resettled from UN camps, without explaining that his government deliberately combined the two quotas.

It shows that politicians like Reith deliberately push the debate to the right and see much to gain from doing so. In contrast, Angry Anderson’s turn-around is a reminder of those in the first series of Go Back, such as Raquel, a young unemployed woman from Sydney’s Western suburbs—and stereotypically anti-refugee—whose worldview was shattered.

On Insight, Anderson admitted his prejudices were based on ignorance and is “angry” no one told him on the plight of Afghan Hazaras. He goes from calling asylum seekers “illegals” to referring to them as “desperate…with no other choice.” But his transformation needs qualification. His remark that “I don’t want any part of a policy that can end up with people in boats smashing up against those rocks” shows that he still buys Labor’s central lie, uncritically accepted as truth by the mainstream media, that “tough policies” can prevent deaths at sea. Reith repeats the myth regularly that Howard’s policies “stopped the boats”.

These are two lies, along with many more, that the refugee campaign must unravel. Go Back’s strength is that it shows us all that that can be done.

Mark Goudkamp


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