Postcard from London: Poms see Aussies in dim new light
For a nation whose history is not exactly littered with foreign invasions, illegal immigration and refugee crises, Australia has a strange fascination with border security.
John Howard discovered the political mileage in appearing to be tough on border protection with his “we’ll decide who comes here” speech of 2001.
Kevin Rudd knows he can’t stray too far from Howard’s approach to retain the affection of middle Australia and has even sticky-taped the words Border Protection on to the end of the Australian Customs Service as if to prove his dedication to the cause.
The fact is that Australia’s border is so far from anywhere to make banging on about securing it a bit of a nonsense.
Compare a few boatloads of refugees every year with the 28,000 people stopped as they tried to cross the channel tunnel into Britain clinging to lorries last year.
Of those who make it, including those who arrived at the airport, there are an estimated 725,000 illegal immigrants in London alone. That’s a problem that could justifiably merit a “tough stance”.
But for whatever reason the whole border issue resonates so loudly with the Australian public that it should be no surprise that a TV producer – with the full co-operation of the Howard Government – turned it into a ratings winner. Channel Seven’s Border Security. Watching a show about one of the most tedious places on earth, the customs hall, is not for everyone but the show has been an undoubted hit for Seven.
And that was fine while Border Security was contained within our borders, quarantined away from the eyes of rest of the world.
I used to tune in occasionally for a giggle at the poor old Vietnamese lady who didn’t know that a jar of turtle egg chutney was a threat to the very survival of Australia or the Spanish guy who had a speck of marijuana dust in the pocket of his backpack and found himself turned around and put on the next plane out.
The Customs officers would deal with people with just the right amount of “sirs” and “madams” and “please come this way” and “I’m just worried about you” to pass as respectful, but the message was clear: You’re a bunch of dopey buggers who should consider yourself lucky that we’ve even let you land here. No one mentioned that the sign warning passengers that they could request not to be filmed was only written in English. Families who stand by and let the cameras roll while their undies and toothpaste are strewn across the inspection table are pretty much all non-English speaking.
For me it was a bit of an eye-opener to see the hoops that foreigners had to jump through to get past the door at arrivals. I didn’t consider the show much more than a uniquely Aussie fascination that somehow found its way on to the air. But it seems someone went and exported Border Security to the world and it looks different to how I remember.
Renamed Nothing to Declare, the show plays on a virtually constant loop on two channels on Britain’s Sky TV.
Marvelling at our zero tolerance approach to arrival card fiddlers might be fun for John and Janette Public at home, but showing it off to the rest of the world is embarrassing.
We look like a bunch of arseholes in blue polyester.
I share a house in London with a Thai girl and a Colombian guy and they are fascinated by the show and actually tape it when they’re not home. With passports like theirs they’re used to getting a grilling on arrival but both claim to have never seen anything like the Australian Customs Service.
After watching someone being berated for daring not to have made a hotel reservation before they landed, there’s not much point in trying to explain that Australia prides itself on being the home of the fair go and the underdog and the battler and all that.
Australians would like to think that the world understands us but with so much news competing for space, mention of Australia in the UK is pretty much confined to the sports pages and the odd boy survives a fortnight in the belly of a crocodile story.
If you’re not following the Ashes - and believe it or not, not everyone is - your impression of Australia probably comes from Neighbours, Home and Away, Kath and Kim and the Crocodile Hunter.
Add Government-sanctioned bullying in the arrivals hall to that and it might be time to rethink what entertainment we export to the rest of the world.
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