Don’t let the UK’s love of Australia stretch to our barbaric treatment of refugees | Brydie Lee-Kennedy | Opinion
When I first moved to the UK from Australia, I discovered an odd compulsion that British people had upon meeting me. After breaking the ice with a comment about how much I must love Fosters (I’ve never tried it) and dropping a reference I didn’t understand to 1990s-era Neighbours, they’d get to the real meat (on the barbie) of our conversation. “So,” they’d say, cheerfully, “Australia is really racist, right?”
They weren’t wrong. Australia is really racist. But for a (usually white) British person to be smug about the racism of a nation that Britain colonised, while enacting genocide against the indigenous population, seemed a little hypocritical. Racism, like rabbits and tuberculosis, was a pest that Britain dropped on the island before disappearing and letting us sort it out for ourselves. And unfortunately we can’t just release myxomatosis and hope racism dies frothing at the mouth in public parks.
Still, there’s no denying that, while the early white settlers in Australia might have introduced racism, subsequent generations have nurtured and honed it. So it was no surprise that Boris Johnson, a man with a true talent for racist comments, decided to enthusiastically endorse Australia’s current immigration policy while ignoring the mandatory detention of refugees in prison-like facilities.
While discussing positions he would take if he becomes prime minister (an increasingly likely scenario – everything is so terrible), Johnson said, “We must be tougher on those who abuse our hospitality. Other countries such as Australia have great systems and we should learn from them.” He singled out scientists as the type of migrants the UK should be welcoming, though given his party’s long-running inaction on the climate emergency he may want to rethink that.
Johnson stanning Australia’s immigration system while ignoring the brutal treatment of refugees (which, not to brag, has been repeatedly condemned by the United Nations and is considered a human rights emergency by Amnesty International) is no surprise. If Johnson is famous for anything, it’s bad hair and worse opinions. But it is part of a curious tradition of British people becoming fascinated by – and subsequently bastardising – Australian culture.
Have you ever been to a Walkabout? I have, once, and it will haunt me for the rest of my life. It was 5pm on a Thursday and I was in Liverpool with a group of locals who thought it would be a nice idea to take me somewhere “familiar”. I’ve been in a lot of terrible Australian pubs (again, bragging) but none of them matched the lurid misery of this Walkabout. From the disappointing (at least make the beer cold if you’re faking a hot climate) to the offensive (I am fairly certain those “decorations” were not provided by Indigenous artists) to the completely baffling (neon tubing is actually a very minor part of Aussie decor), it was a surreal carnival version of my home country.
Consider also the case of Peter Andre. Not content to let him be an exceptionally ab-having crooner, Britain plucked him from our sunny shores. You lot then dropped him directly into the reality TV morass where recent interviews suggest he had a pretty rough time of it.
And then there’s the avocado issue. Now, I’m a fan of avocados, a millennial and a homeowner, though the media would tell you such a person doesn’t exist (the trick is that homeownership is less about bread fillings and more about inherited wealth). And for many years Australians enjoyed our nice green toast in peace. But London cafes have picked up the trend and are now selling it at bonkers prices despite the fact that avocados in England are terrible. They taste of nothing! The brunch emperor has no clothes!
Rupert Murdoch, uncomfortably humid summers, Holly Valance, the use of the C-word in casual conversations – Brits have a tendency to take Australian ideas and push them to terrible extremes. And in suggesting that Britain adopt our dystopian policies, Johnson has hit on one of the touchstones that unites our two nations – state-sanctioned racism; though how you could push offshore detention centres to an even more terrible extreme I don’t know. Avocados may not travel well across the oceans but it seems that cruelty does. Imagining the horrors of Australia replicated here is enough to drive a person to drink – but don’t make it a Fosters.
• Brydie Lee-Kennedy is an Australian-born, London-based columnist and writer for TV and theatre