‘Thanks mate,’ she says, smiling as he gets up from his seat to let her slide in.
We’re boarding a flight to Melbourne, a flying bus with human cattle at various stages of finding their seats.
I smile to myself as I hear the exchange and move on towards row 15, frequently slipping into a seat just off the aisle to let others move past – I guess they misread the sign about rows 15 and above boarding form the rear of the plane.
I’m still smiling as I edge into my seat between two businessman; the word ‘mate’ is ringing in my ears. ‘Mate’, an iconic word in the Australian vernacular. The word that instantly tells me I’m home when it’s uttered by the blokes in Customs when I return from my latest overseas adventure. Instantly recognisable, ‘mate’, a word that indicates our level playing field, a symbol of our egalitarian society – crossing boundaries of race, religion, economic backgrounds, your place of birth, jobs and family structures. Mate.
But as I sit writing these words, strapped into my seat as we bump along the bitumen and the pilot lines the plane up for take off, the ‘mate’ also saddens me because we’re losing what it stands for.
We are losing our way.
‘Mate’ to my mind is coupled with our culture of a fair go for all. But those cultural concepts seems to be slipping more and more out of our reach.
A week ago our Minister for Immigration, Peter Dutton, stood in our national Parliament and talked about people who were born here, people whose parents were born here. But to Dutton these people were no longer our mates because their grandparents were born elsewhere, on Lebanese soil.
Letting their grandparents come here in the 70s was a mistake, Dutton said, because their descendants were more likely to commit terrorism offences.
For Dutton, people who were born here, thousands of men and women who are just getting on with their lives, having families, working, contributing, building lives for themselves, people who call Australia their country of birth and home, are mates no longer.
His pretext for these comments was that about 20 or so people Australians (whose grandparents were born in Lebanon) have been charged with terrorism offences.
As I watched Dutton stand in Parliament and draw a line oh so casually between this group’s racial bloodlines and terrorism, and then be lauded by our Prime Minister shortly afterwards, I was stunned. Struck dumb by the abject cruelty of the words Dutton uttered.
With a few short phrases he validated the racist views, the One Nation voters and the radical right who believe we should close our borders because anyone of colour or from somewhere else who asks for our help is not our problem. He validated that objectifying people because of the racial background is okay. He validated the use of broad generalisations to describe groups in our society.
He validated the woman who once told an ex of mine – a man who flew planes for a major airline – that he shouldn’t be speaking in Arabic. He was talking to his mother on the phone while standing in Sydney airport, wearing his pilot’s uniform. His father was born in Lebanon.
Dutton’s comments have marked that woman’s actions and views as acceptable.
In one insidiously calculated blow, he has made it okay to slander the character of an entire group of people whose only crime is their grandparents were born elsewhere.
It was the day Dutton made racism okay.
Of course, Australia’s been on a slippery slope for a while when it comes to racism and an increasingly insular perspective when it comes to rejecting those who are different to ‘us’ (whatever ‘us’ means).
A few thousand miles away, we keep men, women and children in despicable prison-like camps in a third world country until they agree to return to their country (the place they fled because of war, torture and/or persecution) or agree to go to another third world country. We want them to go anywhere but here because they came here the ‘wrong’ way. Their desperation drove them to make a choice involving a boat and for that sin they must pay and pay and pay.
Never mind international law, never mind they were never ‘illegal’ – that was just a word our government threw into media statements to justify their decisions and garner the support of those who were fearful of being taken over and deluged by ‘others’.
Strange how our media soon enough began republishing that word ‘illegal’, many a little too eager to tow the line. What happened to accuracy of the press? Channel 7’s special report on ‘illegal’ boats this week was just another regurgitation of the party line.
Our government spouts platitudes about stopping the boats and people smugglers to justify throwing millions of dollars at off-shore processing. They spend our tax dollars with cavalier abandon by sending refugees somewhere, anywhere else but here. All too often they go to places where the local population are barely equipped to deal with their own problems let alone provide the infrastructure and services to support the needs for refugees as they create a new life for themselves.
‘No,’ our government said when New Zealand offered to take many of those who arrived by boat. ‘Too close to our shores,’ I guess our government thought.
Or perhaps they are simply too mean-spirited. Better to send them where no one will hear their stories. And besides, those refugees are ‘other’ to us and not our problem. Never mind that we’ve participated in the wars that have ripped their home countries apart (how easily we forget the role of our armed forces in those countries where, while trying to do the ‘right thing’, we too often create more problems that we solve).
So, as I sit here on this plane beside the businessman tapping away on his Apple Mac, I wonder if the mateship we’ve claimed as our own, will be forever lost.
Perhaps we are not all created equal. Perhaps we don’t all deserve a fair go. Or perhaps this ‘mateship’ we laud as being an intrinsic part of our national character is disintegrating into gravel that will soon be washed from our shores.
Perhaps no one cares anyway and, for some, you can only be a mate it seems until it is politically expedient for you not to be.
In my office I sit across from a man who was born in the Torres Strait and yesterday we talked about Dutton’s antics.
‘What does he mean?’ he said, shaking his head in disbelief. ‘Australia is built on immigration.’
He and his Aboriginal colleagues are more educated than most on that topic.
The truth is, most of us come from somewhere else. Or our parents or grandparents did. And it doesn’t matter what colour your skin is or what religion you practice because I guarantee that our blood is all the same colour – red.
But that doesn’t matter anymore it seems because we’ve had a white male in a position of power get up in parliament and blame thousands of innocent Australians (whose grandparents were born elsewhere) for the sins of a handful of ratbags (conveniently forgetting that it’s possible that the propagation of rascism might have played a part in ostracising, marginalising and radicalising those people who committed terrorism crimes).
I don’t know how we stem this tide of deliberate divisiveness. Brexit and Trump show clearly that it’s hardly an Australian-only phenomena.
But we must find a way. Surely I cannot be the only person feel we are inexorably sliding towards a big black hole that we may all drown in?
Do we still believe in mateship and a fair go? And is there anyone left in our major parties with the heart, political fortitude and compassion to lead us out of this God-awful mess we are creating for ourselves as a nation. Unfortunately, I’ve seen little evidence of that spark of leadership yet. But there is still time for it to awaken in someone’s chest. There is still time for someone to stand up and be counted as a true leader who wishes to bring us together, not divide us and pit us against each other. There is still time for a leader to emerge who wishes to leverage our diversity to create something even stronger than what we have now. There is still time.
I have no patience for the likes of Dutton and Hanson, and not forgetting Morrison and his poisonous legacy (propped up by the likes of right wing hate and fear-mongers like Andrew Bolt). They all propagate division in our communities, and drive wedges between us and those who languish just off our northern shores.
I have no patience left at all.
My heart weeps but I will not let this division be the standard by which I live my life. I cannot believe that it is the best way to grow and strengthen our nation. We are losing our way Australia. Please find your heartbeat again.
Remember the fair go we have built our country on.
Remember that it’s our diversity that has made us great.
Remember to respect others and have compassion.
Because none of us have any control over where our grandparents are born.
And racism is not okay.