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Borders, Bullies and Global Health
Posted on Apr 20, 2007
By Scott Tucker
What do the numbers really tell us?
Prime Minister Howard’s comments came soon after Health Minister Tony Abbott asked a committee of chief health officials to consider new national policies for people living with HIV and AIDS. In turn, that request followed two highly publicized cases of HIV-positive men accused of trying to spread the disease.
All people over the age of 15 who apply for permanent residence in Australia are tested for HIV, and people under that age are tested if either of their parents is HIV-positive. People under 15 are also tested if there is medical reason to consider a possible infection, or if the applicant is seeking specific kinds of visas related to adoption or an unaccompanied humanitarian visa. Spouses, life partners and family members of citizens are generally given special consideration.
According to an April 14 article in The Australian, “A 2005 study on HIV and migration in Australia found that many migrants found out about their HIV-positive status only after undergoing the Immigration Department health check.”
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Figures suggesting a sharp rise in the number of HIV-positive immigrants are now disputed by some leading AIDS and healthcare groups in Australia. Bronwyn Pike, health minister for the state of Victoria, had been widely quoted as stating that the number of interstate residents and immigrants arriving in the state with HIV had risen from 16 in 2004 to 70 in 2006. But Baxter of the Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations said in a Sky News broadcast, “The Victorian minister has given a completely misleading account of these figures.” According to Baxter, only 20 people were diagnosed with HIV overseas and most were born in Australia or New Zealand.
Even when considering this number, the executive director of the Victorian AIDS Council, Mike Kennedy, said “that more than half of those  were born in Australia or New Zealand, which brings the number down to nine [who were born overseas].” An Australian born overseas who contracted HIV in Australia and was later diagnosed out of that country would have be included in that figure. As Kennedy concluded, “The numbers might be really, really tiny.”
The numbers simply do not approach any standard of good science. But numbers alone cannot be expected to tell the story of HIV and immigration anywhere on Earth; one must know the stories behind the numbers. Epidemiology may not be an absolutely exact science, but it is a science requiring a much higher level of evidence and approximations.
White Australia: an old ghost revisiting?
In 1998, Prime Minister Howard argued for greater immigration restrictions and acknowledged later (in tortured syntax worthy of his friend Dubya) that he had paid a political price for his views:
The “White Australia Policy” is a catch-all term to encompass the laws and regulations restricting nonwhite immigration to Australia from about 1900 to the early 1970s. White Australia also refers to the historical campaigns designed to promote white immigration in the same period. By the 1940s this brand of racial populism was pulling apart and fragmenting, and legal reforms opened the way for greater nonwhite and non-British immigration. The Australian government passed the 1975 Racial Discrimination Act in that year, which officially removed many of the old racist barriers to immigration.
The labor movement in Australia has both a troubling and marvelous history. As in the United States, racial divisions often ran right through the working classes. Though examples and episodes of solidarity across racial lines are part of Australia’s union and labor history, the “native” labor movement also began a series of protests against “foreign” workers in the 1870s and 1880s. Many of the workers considered non-Australian were Pacific Islanders. These “Kanakas” were brought into Australia as indentured workers. Asian workers, including many Chinese, were subjected to low wages and poor working conditions. They faced racial exclusion from most major unions at that time.
In a classic example of the contradictions of class, resistance to immigration restrictions often came from wealthy rural land owners. (Consider the deep divisions within the Republican Party in the United States today regarding workers who migrate north across our national southern border. The Democratic Party is also compromised on this issue by its own class alliances with the Republicans.) Between 1875 and 1888 all Australian colonies outlawed all further Chinese immigration, though those who were already residents officially retained the same rights of citizenship as workers who had arrived from Europe.
By 1901, however, the new Federal Parliament passed new legislation to “place restrictions on immigration and ... for the removal ... of prohibited immigrants.” The Immigration Restriction Act of 1901 was modeled in part upon similar contemporary legislation in South Africa. Edmund Barton, the prime minister, argued in favor of the bill in this manner: “The doctrine of the equality of man was never intended to apply to the equality of the Englishman and the Chinaman.” The Aboriginal peoples simply did not figure in that equation.
The White Australia movement threw a long shadow over Australian politics, even as late as the racial nationalism of the One Nation Party, which received 9 percent of the vote in the federal election of 1998. At the peak of the party’s influence, one of its leaders, Pauline Hanson, said:
“I and most Australians want our immigration policy radically reviewed and that of multiculturalism abolished. I believe we are in danger of being swamped by Asians. Between 1984 and 1995, 40 percent of all migrants coming into this country were of Asian origin. They have their own culture and religion, form ghettos and do not assimilate.”
About a decade later, in December of 2006, the former One Nation leader was once again using the old racial rhetoric. She had made herself infamous for her public views on Asian immigrants and Aboriginal welfare. In her maiden parliamentary speech in 2006, she turned her attention to Muslims and Africans.
“We’re bringing in people from South Africa at the moment. There’s a huge amount coming into Australia who have diseases; they’ve got AIDS. They are of no benefit to this country whatsoever; they’ll never be able to work. And what my main concern is, is the diseases that they’re bringing in and yet no one is saying or doing anything about it.”
John Howard has just said plenty about it, though he takes care to speak in a more diplomatic code. What the Liberal Party may actually do if it wins the next election is an open question. An Australian blogger named Olney Garkle (writing at the website bilegrip.com) looks toward a chastened and renewed Liberal Party. Whatever his ideals and illusions may be, maybe he shares them with a significant number of Liberal Party members:
“But is the Federal Liberal Party really the Liberal Party as we used to know it? Not at all. It is, in effect, the John Howard Party, the JHP. There are but a handful of true liberals left in Parliament. The rest have sold out to mankind’s lowest instincts as personified by their leader. ... A Labor victory will consign remnants of the almost terminally divided Liberal Party to oblivion for several elections. But once purged of extremist Howardites, it will return as the other party our democracy must have.”
Two Australian AIDS activists respond
Interviewed for this article, two gay Australian AIDS activists commented upon Howard’s ambitions—and his declining fortune in Australian public polls.
Peter Cashman was a founding member of Los Angeles ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power). He has lived in the United States for 25 years but follows Australian politics and culture closely. We talked by phone April 13 and I asked him what he thought of Howard’s recent statements on immigration and HIV.
“Pandering to his base,” Cashman said. But he underscored the irony of Howard speaking for the people of Australia on the issue of HIV and healthcare:
“Australia has made many cutting-edge contributions in health education and HIV prevention programs. Australia learned a lot from—and gave a lot back to—the whole international movement of AIDS activism.”
Cashman pointed out that the total current figure of AIDS-related deaths in Australia is just over 6,500. That is no insignificant number, but given the total population of Australia it is a fairly small number. Especially, as Cashman noted, if we compare it to the AIDS-related deaths in the County of Los Angeles alone. Beyond the demographics and statistics, he underscored another point:
“Generally, even quite conservative governments in Australia—and Howard’s Liberalism is quite conservative—have deferred by and large to public health and scientific communities on HIV and AIDS issues. Howard has really cut a different figure in this political season. Howard’s polling numbers are probably the lowest they’ve ever been. Of course, it’s not all about him—I would also acknowledge that Australia has one of the more restrictive HIV immigration policies in the world.”
Between the letter of the law and the spirit of decency, there has been room in Australia for interpretation. Howard, however, has just spoken as if that is an annoying political loophole that is best closed before the elections in late 2007 or early 2008.
Paul Kidd is an Australian journalist, AIDS activist and blogger who responded by e-mail to my e-mailed questions. As I saw by reading his blog—cheekily titled buggery.org— his husband, Brent Allan, is an HIV-positive immigrant to Australia. I asked Kidd how they were able to stay united as a couple and win Allan’s case. How did the Australian authorities include him among the exceptions?
“After being rejected by the Department of Immigration,” Kidd replied, “we took our case to the Migration Review Tribunal, which has power to adjudicate these matters. Essentially our argument was that we had a genuine relationship and a strong attachment to Australia, and that if Brent were not granted permanent residence, we would have to separate. On compassionate grounds, our application was successful. It took four years and a great deal of money to make that happen, however.”
In the course of discussing the racial politicking around AIDS and immigration, running the full spectrum from implicit to explicit, Kidd added this piece of the puzzle:
“Howard has also been criticized for his handling of the so-called Tampa Affair, a diplomatic standoff between Australia, Indonesia and Norway which occurred during an election campaign in 2001. The MV Tampa, a Norwegian-registered vessel, rescued 438 mostly Afghan refugees en route to Australia from Indonesia. Howard ordered the master of the ship to return the refugees to Indonesia, although under international law they should have been taken to the nearest port, which was Christmas Island, part of Australian territory. During the standoff, Howard declared: ‘We decide who comes into this country and the circumstances in which they come.’ This infamous slogan more or less summarizes the Howard government’s approach to asylum seekers, and has been used politically by Howard’s party, the Liberal (i.e. conservative) Party.”
Gambling with the debased currency of racial and sexual fears, Howard may gain some political capital within his faction of the Liberal Party. But that party may still suffer a truly sweeping and historic loss to the Labor Party in the next big elections. Howard’s main political rival, Kevin Rudd, is a Labor Party MP, Member for Griffith (Queensland), and may become prime minister. Rudd is also unafraid to acknowledge the uglier history of colonialism in Australia, and the racial background radiation and fallout that still remain. I would not forecast whether Rudd will steer the Australian Labor Party in the same direction as Tony Blair steered “New Labour” in Britain. If he does journey with such trimmed sails and flags, then the ill winds of Reagan and Thatcher have not yet spent their driving force upon global politics.
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