My Liberal candidate sent out a letter the other week. In it is an outline of the Coalition’s five-point plan, which takes a hardline position on border protection:
A Liberal candidate wanting to ‘stop the boats’ is nothing newsworthy. Nevertheless, when the Liberal candidate in question is Chisholm electorate’s John Nguyen, a former boat refugee, the media aren’t the only ones noticing the irony: since sending out the letter, Nguyen has been accused of hypocrisy by the general public. According to an article published in The Age, a screen shot of the candidate’s website highlighting his refugee background, and the letter in question was posted on Facebook and shared fifteen hundred times. The article then went on to attract over three hundred comments, most of which Nguyen reports as being ‘absolutely nasty’.
The Liberal candidate has agreed to take time out of his pre-election schedule to explain his position. He’s been out of the office, so before he sits down with me, he asks his campaign staff whether there has been bad press. More ‘boat refugee stops boats’ puns, I wonder as I sip my water. Will I too be put in the ‘bad press’ basket?
The campaign office in Mount Waverley is as expected. Nguyen’s smile plasters the shop front windows, obscuring the workings inside. The walls of the office are dotted with slogans and electorate maps.
There’s artwork adorning the walls at the back, however it is the kind one expects to find in a community house. I put it down to the candidate renting out the space from a non-profit. I will later learn that it’s the other way round—Nguyen has put aside some space in his office for local volunteer groups to use. It’s a softer side of the Liberal candidate that has been left behind in the online media frenzy.
Nguyen finally joins me. Standing tall, clean-shaven and only thirty-nine, there’s a boy scout’s earnestness about him. He fits the model migrant stereotype: a partner of a well-known accounting firm, an active member in his community, engaged to be married to a non-Vietnamese Australian.
He speaks of his experience as a boat refugee. He tells me that his father was a major in the losing army. After the war, his father was sent to a reeducation camp. Also suffering persecution because of their Chinese ethnicity, his grandparents fled Vietnam by boat, taking Nguyen and his siblings with them. The family spent three days and three nights at sea before reaching Malaysia.
Nguyen was five when his family risked the journey; he didn’t understand what was happening. Nor does he remember much, sometimes bits and pieces. ‘I was walking to the beach and walking along the pier the other day and I walked out and saw the horizon, a flat horizon,’ he says. It triggered something. ‘I recall being on a boat and eating dried noodles for three days. I recall being put on the shoulder of someone when we landed.’
In Malaysia, the family was processed by the UN. They were later flown to Australia ‘with the blessings of the Government’. Nguyen points out that his situation was different to what is happening today: people ‘flying by plane to Indonesia and Malaysia and paying people smugglers to get on a boat to come to Australia’. It’s a small distinction but it is one that many anti-boat-refugee Vietnamese Australians insist upon when quizzed about asylum-seeker policy.
The Liberal candidate was lucky enough to be part of the first wave of refugees, when Australians were still sympathetic towards boat people. He was also lucky enough to grow up in Fawkner, in Melbourne’s north, where there weren’t many Asian families and the racial taunts were few. When I ask about his personal experience of racism in the 80s and 90s, in particular the use of ‘yellow peril’, ‘flood’, and ‘invasion’, Nguyen shakes it off, ‘I certainly experienced some racial taunts growing up but I was very dismissive.’
He is equally brusque when I question the language used in the letter sent out to his constituents. ‘There’s nothing toxic in what I’m saying. This is the same language that we [the Coalition] have been using over the last three to four years. We’re saying that if elected, our plan includes delivering a stronger, diverse economy…[and] securing our borders and once again stopping the boats. And stopping the boats is making sure that we’re minimising the evil trade of people smuggling.’
‘But why not frame it as “stopping people smuggling”?’
‘It just so happens that this particular letter says that securing our borders is important. I suppose the language that we are using—’
‘Could be tweaked a little?’
‘Could potentially be tweaked. But it’s about keeping things simple…People all live busy lives. We want to keep the message as easy to understand as possible.’
He reveals that all Liberal candidates for the 2013 Federal Election are sending out the same message and that it was unfortunate in his instance, with his boat refugee background. ‘It’s quite disappointing,’ he adds. ‘It’s actually quite sad that people feel that they can attack me based on seeing words that they haven’t even substantiated…I like people to understand the facts before passing judgment.’
He also makes an interesting observation. When it comes to asylum seekers, there’s little difference between the major parties’ positions. The Howard government might have introduced the restrictive Temporary Protection visas, but it was the Keating government that introduced mandatory detention. If reinstated, Tony Abbott promises to turn back boats, whilst Kevin Rudd will continue to rollout genuine refugee resettlement in developing world conditions in Papua New Guinea. In a Parliamentary Library research paper, Janet Phillips and Harriet Spinks write:
With a return to offshore processing in the Pacific and a proposal that certain temporary protection measures be introduced, the policy difference between Labour and the Coalition are minimal. In fact, both sides of politics are in agreement on most of the measures in place to deal with these issues (including mandatory detention for unauthorised boat arrivals) (via ‘Boat arrivals in Australia since 1976’).
‘Policy should be more about deterring people because we just don’t want people risking [or] paying people smugglers,’ says John Nguyen. ‘We need them to come through the right channels. And you know, I get this question every day and I keep saying to people, “If you were the Government, what would you do?”’
Unfortunately, many of the tactics are questionable. For instance, the Temporary Protection visa that the Coalition wishes to reinstate has its critics, including former Labour immigration minister Chris Evans:
The Temporary Protection visa was one of the worst aspects of the Howard government’s punitive treatment of refugees, many of whom had suffered enormously before fleeing to Australia.
There is clear evidence that the TPV arrangements did nothing to prevent unauthorised boat arrivals and, in fact, arrival numbers increased not long after the regime was introduced.
Another disturbing effect of such harsh visa conditions was that more women and children risked their lives with people smugglers on leaky boats. (via ‘Budget 2008-09 – Rudd Government scraps Temporary Protection visas’)
I asked Nguyen about his thoughts on TPV, in particular the corresponding increase in women and children attempting the perilous journey by boat due to TPV’s restrictions on family reunions. ‘You get a solution that some people may think is unfair,’ says Nguyen. ‘But you also have to look at it from the perspective of the big picture: sixteen million people in refugee camps that we need to look at also.’
It’s this figure of sixteen million that John Nguyen keeps on revisiting. Having been once a part of this number, he seems compelled to act as its advocate. Throughout the interview, from the very start, Nguyen reminds me that border security is about protecting the integrity of our country’s immigration system. Everyone should have an equal chance of coming to Australia. ‘For every [boat] person that we take as a refugee under the humanitarian program of twenty thousand, another person is missing their turn.’ Some of these refugees have not been in camps for a day or two; some have been waiting to be resettled for decades. ‘So my issue is what do we say to these people who are patiently waiting to be accepted into our country? What do we say to them?’
His words are touching. But is his concern genuine or is it another case of political posturing? Like the rest of the voters in the Chisholm electorate, I’ll soon have to decide on September 7.