In June of 2018, I nervously waited at a border crossing between Tajikistan and Afghanistan.
I was preparing to enter Afghanistan’s Badakhshan Province to report on an unexpected tourism boom occurring in the wild and remote Wakhan Valley.
Hemmed in by mountains, the Wakhan has long been a safe haven in Afghanistan. It is where a more moderate Islam prevails and the Taliban are rejected.
I felt confident in crossing, but was intimidated at the border by an elderly local uncomfortable with my presence. As I received my stamp, he spuriously warned of a Taliban attack. Out of fear and inexperience, I sought advice from a local police officer, Sadikalar, who promised my safety before inviting me to stay with him and his family.
At Sadikalar’s mudbrick home, we discussed the war and the ways of the world. In the background flickered a TV, which was broadcasting Indian soap-operas dubbed in Pashto.
Suddenly, I heard an Australian accent. On the screen I saw General Angus Campbell standing alongside a map of Australia with a line crossed through it, like a no-smoking sign, broadcasting the menacing messages of Operation Sovereign Borders.
I cringed: while I was enjoying unconditional hospitality in my host’s country, an advertisement paid for by my tax dollars warned Sadikalar that he would never be welcome in mine.
It was illustrative of a tendency of our government, particularly since the Coalition’s 2013 victory, to both figuratively and literally broadcast images of Australia to the world that diminish our standing.
There’s a misconception in Australia, perhaps fuelled by self-congratulatory rhetoric of our leaders, that we are universally respected, that we’re seen as fun-loving larrikins who punch above our weight in sport, and are viewed as a people who don’t take ourselves too seriously.
In some places that may be true. But in the 60-odd countries I’ve been fortunate enough to visit, Australia’s reputation among regular people is often unenviable.
This week, Australia’s feverish obsession with border security reached its predictable crescendo by criminalising predominantly non-white Australian citizens for entering their own country.
It is an overreach that will irrevocably tarnish Brand Australia.
Some Scott Morrison opponents might be comforted by believing the decision is ‘un-Australian’. But after two decades in which shallow border security debate, borne of political opportunism, has consumed our national conversation, the cold truth is that this decision was quintessentially Australian: no other advanced country would contemplate such a measure, let alone enjoy the political breathing-space to do so.
It has crystallised the rendering of Australia under the Coalition – an often cruel country that is suspicious of the world, resistant to inevitable change – be it demographic, economic or environmental – and incapable, or perhaps unwilling, to tackle big problems.
Our pariah-like status on climate is known internationally. But so is our tendency to imprison innocent children indefinitely, to broadcast warnings from our military into the living rooms of vulnerable people across the world, and now to flippantly criminalise our own for having ever dared leave Fortress Australia.
Sometimes, it seems as if this self-flagellation is designed to inflict maximum reputational damage.
Take our migrant worker program – a policy which, on a daily basis, results in tens of thousands of young foreigners being exploited, abused, and underpaid while performing essential economic functions.
These workers should depart Australia ambassadors for our virtues. Instead, they often return home telling stories of $3 an hour wages, sexual assault at work, and of being forced to live in squalid shipping containers.
The Morrison government justifies its India ban by claiming a majority of Australians support the decision.
This is almost certainly true. But instead of spruiking that fact, the Coalition should be shamed by it. Nearing a decade in office, it has so divided Australia that most now believe criminalising their compatriots for entering their own country is reasonable – even rational – policy.
The task of leaders is to elevate our better angels while taming our darkest impulses.
The Morrison government’s strategy has always been the opposite, and it will spoil our reputation for decades to come.
Edward Cavanough is the director of policy at the McKell Institute. You can follow him on Twitter at @edwardcavanough