- by Floyd Kermode
- The Guardian
- Issue #2045
Photo: John Englart – flickr.com (CC BY-SA 2.0)
That’s right, you read the headline correctly. Normally it’s the other way round. Australians copy the UK, at least when we’re not copying the US. A lot of our culture derives from the UK. That’s why we have a foreign monarch’s face on our currency, and lawyers who wear wigs.
However, when it comes to barely concealed racism, and the treatment of asylum seekers, the British government has had a look at the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison government and said “We’ll have some of that.” Rishi Sunak, the British Prime Minister, has taken to giving his speeches from a lectern with “STOP THE BOATS” on the front. The current Immigration Minister has continued her predecessor’s policy of paying Rwanda to take refugees the Conservatives don’t want. What’s going on?
One thing that is definitely going on is that the UK government is in dire trouble. Brexit, and the way the Tories have gone about it have not been good for the British economy. The conflict in Ukraine has caused gas prices to rise. There’s a wave of strikes as workers like transport workers and nurses, who were praised as essential during the pandemic, are taking to the streets because they can’t live on empty gratitude. Furthermore, and probably the first priority for the party of Cameron, Johnson, Truss and Sunak, their position in the polls is dire. Overall the British public do not trust the Tories to run the National Health Service or the economy.
So it is that the government has cast about for good ideas that will inspire people. What it has pulled up seems to be some of the worst ideas of the Abbott government. Remember when Abbott, asked about the economy, could only answer “We stopped the boats”? This didn’t stop him from being chucked out as leader soon afterwards, so it turns out “We stopped the boats” does not answer every question. Remember when Scott Morrison prided himself on having a little model boat in his office with “I stopped these” engraved on it?
It’s important to remember these things because they’ve been buried under later scandals. The Coalition’s mishandling of the bushfires, its failures during the pandemic, sports rorts all piled up on the mistreatment of blameless asylum seekers, something that has worked for them since John Howard was PM. Remember when Australia paid Cambodia millions of dollars to take a few refugees – the only ones they could find who decided that taking their chances in Cambodia was better than indefinite detention? The Coalition spent $4.77 million to resettle six people in Cambodia. Six refugees were resettled in Cambodia. Only two stayed there.
The conservative government in Britain has paid Rwanda about $1.83 million dollars to resettle so far no people, so in that respect, they’re outdoing the Coalition in incompetence.
It’s known that there is a fair bit of interchange between the UK and Australian political systems. Lynton Crosby worked for both the Howard government in Australia and for Cameron in the UK. Tony Abbott, the oddball anglophile who tried to bring back Knights and Ladies to the Australian honours system, is constantly using his generous former-PM perks to pop over to the UK to offer them opinions on how to be right-wing properly (when he’s not rubbing up to Orban in Hungary). So we shouldn’t be surprised that the UK Tories sometimes look to Australia for inspiration.
As they rub their hands over new ways of harvesting votes from xenophobia, British conservatives might want to reflect on the ultimate fate of the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison government. Despite desperate last minute attempts to stir up some anti-asylum seeker panic, the Coalition was thrashed in the polls by an electorate tired of incompetence, pork barrelling and active hostility to action on carbon emissions. One of Morrison’s last actions as PM was to get some text messages sent out warning about “refugee boats from Sri Lanka.” That didn’t save him from having to pack his “I stopped these” ornament and get out of The Lodge. Racism and fear of foreign invasions can go a long way, but it can’t stop the people of a country working out where their real interests are.