Sharks, Boats and Winning Votes (or: The Fantastic Mystery Of Public Sentiment Right About Now)

“It’s not very nice to hook sharks who are minding their own business and shoot them in the head.”

I can get on board with that statement.

“And killing the critters probably won’t put a stop to shark attacks happening in this state.”

Likewise. For sure.

It’s also exciting to rally behind a cause, particular one that has such a seemingly straightforward and workable premise: bug-eyed, powerful villain (Colin “Cullin” Barnett) cruelly attacks the innocent, misunderstood underdog (ol mate Sharky, who may or may not be voiced by Barry Humphries). The good guys (noble activists) can float out and remove baits from the drum lines, saving the day in a Captain Planet-style triumph (cue majestic synthpop-meets-community-rap theme song). Plus, seriously, how heartening is to see 4,000+ people show up on the beach to protest a government policy? Crikey, (the ghost of Steve Irwin speaks through me) maybe compassion’s not dead after all? Maybe apathy doesn’t reign supreme?

And yet I find myself bewildered and more than a little dejected. I love you, shark-huggers, I really do, but your enthusiasm and good-heartedness can only do so much to cheer me. See, I’m in a state of bafflement, observing the prevailing public outrages and the not-so-prevailing ones. What’s being said and how loudly, how often; what does and doesn’t weigh on people’s minds. I find it to be a fantastic mystery.

For what it’s worth, here’s what I think about the whole shark cull issue, in 500 words or less.

Let’s start with some facts – everyone likes facts. According to the IUCN, Tiger sharks and Bull sharks are not yet considered threatened, while Great Whites are slightly worse off – “vulnerable” (but not yet endangered, contrary to some reports by well-meaning activists). That’s good news, sort of! These men in grey rubber suits are not facing extinction or ecosystem-destorying scarcity in the immediate future.

Now, since the policy became an encroaching reality, many online dissenters have asserted that the plan will be useless, that there’s “no science” to support the tactic. I began to believe that myself, when the Greens Party announced that 100 shark scientists and “professionals who work with sharks” had co-signed an open letter to the WA Government decrying the policy and suggesting alternatives. Far be it from me to contradict 100 experts, not to mention swathes of surfers, whose hobby literally rides atop the threat of shark attack, and even shark attack victims, who’ve come out saying they’d rather let their attackers live in peace.

If you read that open letter, you’ll find that the scientist cohort never said the catch-and-kill approach wouldn’t work. They just reminded the government that there are more humane options, and that when we swim, we should know the risks (which, growing up in WA, we all do). There is, as it happens, evidence to show that baited drum lines do make beaches safer to swim in (see ABC’s “fact check” video on the matter or this article). So while the image of a shark with a rifle to its head may upset you (I’m certainly not a huge fan), it might be a bit misguided to say that Colin’s brutal fishing trip is doomed to be totally ineffective.

But hey – that’s not really what I want to tackle (no pun intended). I don’t want to convince you that the cull is an OK idea. I don’t love it myself. What mystifies me is the widespread outrage brought on by this particular issue, this lonely and comparatively minor issue. The sudden vitriolic attacks on a state government which previously attracted only the default quantity of scorn. One picture of a fish being killed goes up on ‘Perth Now’, and the comments flow in:

“UnAustralian absolutely disgraceful!!!”

“Disgusting!!!!! Shame shame shameful and the arrogance is unbelievable”

“I reckon we should feed the WA premier to the sharks”

And so on. I can relate to the distate, totally, but to me it boils down to a simple fact: humans do – historically, increasingly, constantly – harm animals in the name of self-interest. You can probably pre-empt my elaboration on that: a shark is a fish, which we kill by the squillions. Granted, individually a Great White is more ecologically “precious” than a tuna, but overall the fishing industry is more ecologically harmful. And is there an intrinsic difference between the two animals’ right to live?

In terms of the need to kill these dudes, the shark at least might take a bite out of your leg – there’s a pre-emptive self-defence vibe. We’re not going to stop swimming or surfing (are we?) so it makes sense to protect ourselves from becoming lunch. A tuna, however, is doomed to die simply ‘cause we reckon the little guy tastes good on a rice cake with some basil and cracked pepper. I don’t want to get on a cynical high horse here, I’m as hypocritical as the next guy, but it’s entirely likely that most people opposing the shark hunt have gone to a fish ’n’ chip shop and munched on “flake,” which is, of course, shark. Colin’s killed one so far; between thirty and a seventy million (seventy million!) sharks are killed by people each year for recreational or commercial purposes. So, shouldn’t we be about seventy million times as outraged at the latter?

I’m not sure, to be honest. But you get what I’m getting at. And yet, my main point, what I’m ACTUALLY getting at, my main source of bafflement and distress, is still to come.

Here it is, in a pair of neat statistics. According to recent polls reported by the Sydney Morning Herald:

80% of Australians oppose the WA Government’s Shark Cull policy.

60% of Australians want the Abbott government to “increase the severity of the treatment of asylum seekers.”

Reading the latter line makes me feel ill. Genuinely, physically ill and a little light-headed. What is going on here? Seriously, in what twisted nightmare is that a real statistic? Suddenly, the shark cull seems like a tragic – if not conscious – distraction from the bigger fish to fry.

A bit of background, again, so we’re on the same page – though given the context of this article, I may be preaching to the choir on this one. Firstly, as you surely know by now, it’s not illegal to seek asylum, even if arriving by boat. The 1958 Migration Act makes this clear. Secondly, no asylum seeker arriving by boat has ever been found to be a terrorist or threat to national security. Third, asylum seekers are denied the right to work (since August 2012), and they don’t receive any assistance from Centrelink – so they can’t “take our jobs” or our sweet sweet welfare moneys. And despite politicians’ claims that boat people are “queue-jumpers” (Tony Abbott, 2012) or “economic migrants,” (Bob Carr, 2013), 90-94% of asylum seekers who arrive by boat are found to be genuine refugees. Last year, despite having one of the world’s stronger economies, Australia ranked 49th for refugee intake, while 80% of refugees continued to be hosted by developing countries.

Those are a few of the dry, but important “myth-busting” statistics, often touted by the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre. But perhaps more eye-opening and terrifying is the largely obfuscated day-to-day reality that asylum seekers endure. The scary truth about how we treat those who come to us seeking a safe haven from persecution and violence.

Conditions in offshore processing centres have been gut-wrenching to hear about for a long while. For the sake of discussion let’s start December 2012. Amnesty International representatives visit Nauru and report their findings – that there is a lack of legal representation for asylum seekers, and a lack of health services; the camps – comprised of leaky army tents – reach temperatures exceeding 40°C, often flood, and are plagued by rodents and insects. Nine men are on hunger strike. During the visit, one man tries to hang himself from a tent pole. Amnesty advises that the centre be closed and all asylum seekers be returned to Australia.

In July 2013, a former guard at Manus Island named Rod St George publicly admits that Immigration staff at the detention centre had been ignoring a series of rapes and assaults on male detainees. The men who’d been assaulted were forced forced to remain in the same cramped tents as their abusers, since there was nowhere else to put them. Some detainees were sewing their mouths shut in protest. Suicide and self-harm occurred “almost daily.” The tents were scorchingly hot; medical services and facilities inadequate. St George says the centre “couldn’t even serve as a dog kennel.”

All this, and 60% of Australians want the Abbott government to “increase the severity of the treatment of asylum seekers.”

I remember the day, also last July, when Kevin Rudd appeared on the telly to announce a new asylum seeker “solution,” and I naively thought maybe the team had engineered a useful plan – channeling, say, the vastly cheaper and more humane idea of community processing, or at least processing on-shore as per the insistence of the Australian Human Rights Commission. Instead, we saw Labor take the low road of deterrence through cruelty. “If you come here by boat, you won’t be settled in Australia,” came the threat. Deals were struck with neighbouring nations for resettlement locations: first Papua New Guinea, then Nauru. Wherever it would be, it wouldn’t be here, they said – a reassurance aimed at winning over voters who were scared, prejudiced or under-informed, an attempt to beat Tony Abbott at his own fearmongering “stop the boats” game.

Fast-forward slightly to August. The UN finds Australia guilty of almost 150 violations of international human rights law for its indefinite detention of 46 refugees. In September, the Coalition, led by Tony Abbott, sweeps into power and – lo and behold – things don’t appear to be getting better.

“Operation Sovereign Borders” comes into play. The boats don’t stop coming, though we do stop hearing about them (at the time of writing, even Scott Morrison’s meagre “weekly briefings” have ceased) because the revelation surfaces that it’s a national security threat to mention the boat arrivals. Seems legit.

In November, in Brisbane, a 31-year-old asylum seeker named Latifa gives birth and is promptly separated from her child. Latifa must return to the detention centre, while the baby remains in hospital. She has a six-hour window each day in which to visit the infant; the rest of the time, she’s locked up. The father isn’t allowed to visit at all. Soon, Immigration minister Scott Morrison will give the go-ahead for families with newborn babies to actually be sent to offshore detention centres.

And 60% of Australians want the Abbott government to “increase the severity of the treatment of asylum seekers.”

Early this month, it emerges that women in detention centres do not have easy access to sanitary items, let alone birth control, and must request them one-or-two-at-a-time from guards in a humiliating twist on Oliver’s “please sir, may I have some more?”

In more recent weeks, it the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre reports that pregnant women on Nauru are requesting abortions because they fear their babies will not survive the heat and filth of the detention camps. Women who do give birth are told that their babies are considered “illegal,” like them. People are referred to by their boat number, not by name.

And 60% of Australians want the Abbott government to “increase the severity of the treatment of asylum seekers.”

January 26 crops up: Australia Day comes and goes. The headlines that aren’t accompanied by waving flags and meat pies are devoted to the killing of the first shark. I feel the weird cognitive dissonance of wanting to celebrate Australia whilst constantly digesting new information about the our government’s cruelty, both towards our indigenous brothers and sisters and foreign friends seeking refuge. I swallow the sick joke of spouting self-congratulatory hashtags like “mateship” and “a fair go” as the wheels are in motion stripping desperate people in detention centres of the right to legal aid and appeal. I want to celebrate the awesome things about the country, its breathtaking beauty, the inspiring side of its history, its achievements, its clever and cosmopolitan culture, but the anniversary of the first colonial fleet’s arrival feels like a jarring day to do so.

And 60% of Australians want the Abbott government to “increase the severity of the treatment of asylum seekers.”

I try to console myself. People have been misled, right? By Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison’s weasel words, by News Corp, et cetera; people are making their assessment based on lies, simplifications, hidden realities and skewed half-truths. If that 60% slice of Australia knew a bit more about the situation, I tell myself, if those folks dug a little deeper, they’d feel differently. But such a suggestion feels both condescending and unduly generous. Besides, even if it’s is true, it’s cold comfort. It’s a hypothetical. It doesn’t change the reality.

For now, I’ll keep wondering how we got to this point, trying to make sense of it all. I know I haven’t even scratched the surface of the tip of the iceberg, and have a lot more self-education and listening to do. It’s 6am now, and I need to sleep, but maybe soon I’ll read Chris Tsiolkas’ essay, “Why Australia Hates Asylum Seekers.”

And maybe we’ll keep protesting the shark cull and maybe, maybe it will achieve something tangible. It may not have saved the first shark, but it’s definitely mounted the pressure, the onus is on Barnett to defend it, and people are already stealing bait off those darn drum lines. And maybe if that reminds us of the fact that we can affect real change, we’ll begin to feel ready to tackle problems that are not so straightforward. Problems that require us not only to protest, but to debunk and erode the prejudices that surround us and live within us. To heal a culture of fear and hate. When we start to do that, there’ll be every reason to celebrate.