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Proud nation can be compassionate

Proud nation can be compassionate

Being proud of Australia is a good thing on Australia Day, but embedded in nationalism always lurks the danger of an exclusionary attitude to people who are not exactly like us, says James Dunn. The best nationalist is an internationalist, who knows that human beings come first, nations second.

Observing Australia Day – Circumspect Reflection or Surging Nationalism

Australia Day is an occasion to celebrate our good fortune to be living in one of the richest, most spacious and most beautiful countries on this planet, and to reflect on our achievements. It is also a time for circumspection, a time to reflect on our shortcomings, our darker side, and to come up with ways to strengthen our nation.

We have been endowed with great advantages, hence the Lucky Country term, but we need to look beyond our friendly environment and past achievements. Unfortunately a strong nationalist surge is driving much of our observances of Australia Day, which at times comes dangerously close to the notion of a master race, glorifying our military exploits and our sporting prowess.

Surely a good Australian is first and foremost a good citizen, and citizenship is about community enlightenment, global awareness and readiness to take a stand on issues that matter, based on a commitment to humanitarian ideals. There is certainly much more to it than the current superficial flag waving and flag wearing, those expressions of directionless nationalism. National citizenship, as JFK once put it, is not about what your country can do for you but about what you can do for your country.

A current issue we need to do something about is how to deal with the disturbing presence of racist sentiments, which have led to violence against Indian students and discrimination against our Muslim community. On this issue it was good to hear the wise words of retired General Peter Cosgrove. But I cannot understand why the good General has also expressed his strong opposition to the move for a Charter or Bill of Rights? Certainly we have our strongly embedded democratic standards, but we also harbour a certain selfish nationalism.

This move for a Charter or Bill of Rights is surely of fundamental importance to getting Australians to be seriously committed against racial, ethnic or religious intolerance. An important function of a charter is to confront the community at large with its responsibilities as well as those of our politicians, our judges and all those exercising authority in relation to those human rights standards that form the very fabric of a functioning democracy. Australia may have ratified these conventions years ago but thanks to political inaction they have virtually remained in limbo, and need to be projected before all of us as a national code of conduct, as well as our human rights.

That was the aim of those supporting last year’s national consultation, which unfortunately aroused some opposition, including from Bob Carr and Peter Cosgrove, many of the Opposition on the spurious grounds that a Charter would weaken our parliamentary system. The contrary is surely true, for the charter would confront our politicians with the need to observe what has become a virtual universal code of conduct.

It would serve to counter the extravagant and sometimes spurious mandate claims often advanced by the leaders of victorious parties. Electoral victories in a democracy are not a matter of winner take all. There is an over-riding responsibility for political leaders to look beyond their own political agendas and uphold those human rights and civil liberties Australia has accepted by virtue of ratification of the relevant conventions.

Hopefully this year we shall get closer to having a charter, but because of opposition from some leading politicians and from other dignitaries like Cardinal Pell, that outcome rests under a cloud. It would certainly act as a definitive condemnation of the racism that still exists among us, a sentiment that some of our politicians are not averse to exploiting.

Tony Abbot’s statement on border protection was a disappointing approach to the asylum seeker problem. We do not want a return to John Howard’s shameful handling of the Tampa affair, nor to the notorious Pacific Solution, reminiscent of those infamous Soviet gulags.

In relation to this issue, in the first place we need to recognise our own negative role for we took part in those US-led military operations against Iraq and Afghanistan that led to a great loss of life and massive social disruption, as well as an upsurge in sectarian violence. The fact that tens of thousands of Iraqis and Afghans have been seeking to abandon their countries, with a small number of them risking the dangerous journey to Australia, is hardly surprising. Their plight should be at the top of our agenda. They deserve not to be greeted by a wall of prejudice but by an understanding humanitarian response from Australians, many of whose ancestors also came in ships, disregarding the concerns of the original inhabitants. Let’s hear less about border protection and people smugglers, the latter simply exploiting a lucrative situation we helped create.

James Dunn* James Dunn AM is a former Australian diplomat, UN human rights expert and a member of CLA.

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