Alternative Law Journal
The Sydney Editorial Committee for this issue of the Alternative Law Journal decided to focus on Australia as a world citizen. The Committee's deliberations on our theme occurred before and after the Olympics. We wondered if the Olympics would still be relevant six months after they and the Paralympics had finished. Much had been written about the Games before they occurred. They had bad press, arising mostly from 'own goals' and there was general doom saying. Once they had begun, and when they were over, the consensus was the Games were a huge success. Critics became converts, and those who may have felt we should never have got involved in the first place kept their silence and probably contented themselves watching episodes of The Dream.
The eyes of certain parts of the world were on us and we were both praised and praiseworthy. We were seen by outsiders as welcoming, friendly, enthusiastic-even curious and supportive of other countries' sporting pursuits. We were, after all, the country which put our indigenous people at the very center of our opening and closing ceremonies, as well as emphasising our multicultural heritage. Of course the media picked up stories about how much our medal tally actually cost in terms of the amount of taxpayers' dollars per athlete, of financing the elite sports via bodies such as the Australian Institute of Sport, but there seemed little public interest in these details.
So, what could you say about the Olympics in the context of an issue critiquing Australia's role as 'good world citizen'? We were surely exemplars of the title, we put on a stunning performance for our visitors. Sydney shone and so did we all. In the weeks following the games an e-mail circulated around Sydney (and no doubt more widely) entitled, 'It's OK to stop smiling now'. The e-mail listed the behaviour that would have to stop now the games were over: no more helping lost strangers, no more saying g'day and smiling ... Looking back at the period in the context of this issue of the Journal, there was much that was purely for show. We were on our best behaviour so everyone would approve of us and it is remarkable we were not so concerned
about the attitudes and direction of the country and its leaders or what the world thinks of us in other, clearly more defining, areas. One ethics expert opined that breaking bread with one's neighbour was a good way to break down barriers and foster understanding. One wonders how many of the residents of migrant detention centres would have an opinion on such matters.
We fretted that the opening ceremony would involve inflated kangaroos on bikes, that we would be seen as lacking taste and unsophisticated, and for the most part we, therefore, seemed happy with the symbolism and importance as well as the aesthetic beauty of the indigenous presence in the event. Yet our record on indigenous affairs remains poor. In the international context we lag behind many other countries in our recognition of indigenous rights, a fact of which our current government seems positively unashamed.
We are happy to embrace athletes who come from other countries as our own, particularly if they win medals, and are photogenic, but it seems to take allegations of sexual abuse of a young boy at a detention center for questions to be raised about how we treat our refugee population and why we continue to mandatorily detain them.
There can be little doubt the games are over: 2001 is a year of State and fed eral elections and the impact of the Western Australian and Queensland elections has already driven our political masters further away from any leader ship role. In refugee rights, indigenous affairs, social security, education, and public health our leaders are rapidly at tempting to catch up to 'public opinion’ as defined by unrepresentative radio folk and the likes of One Nation . Instead of leading by dealing in facts and not myths, by mobilising support rather than pandering to the polls, our politicians are demonstrating yet again how lacking in principle they are. No doubt they take an apparent support for One Nation as an indication there are sizeable portions of our community that are neither particularly interested in improving conditions for indigenous Australians, nor welcoming or tolerant of difference. Rather than dealing with such attitudes by argument and adopting moral positions, our leaders reinforce the intolerance.
The grand Olympic Games motto 'celebrate humanity' was quoted ironically by many during exposts of the corruption of the IOC in the lead up to the Games. It is no less ironically applicable to the host country, which has repeatedly and angrily rejected the condemnation of the international community with regard to its record on human rights.
At the end of the day Australia projected an image of itself to the rest of the world which it thought would make it liked - the image of a friendly, humanitarian, environmentally aware nation, proud of its indigenous and multiethnic heritages. The question would seem to be: if this is what makes us liked, if this is what makes us like ourselves –now the neighbours have left, the best crockery and cutlery is safely stowed away, and we have changed out of our collective Sunday best - why don't we endeavour to become that country in reality instead of just for show?
Siobhan McCann and Peter Wilmshurst are Sydney lawyers.