PERHAPS it was the slight weight gain stemming from the recent addition to the Billabong’s library of a book chocka with American barbecue recipes and marinades. Or it may be that the desk chair, like the bottom it has cradled for so long, simply fell victim to time’s wear and ravages. Whatever the reason, there was an explosive crack when a poor Bunyip sat down last week to tickle the keyboard and ended up sprawled on the study’s axminister. This turned out to be a blessing, as the skirting-board perspective revealed an unopened packet of Silk Cut under the desk drawers, bringing back happy memories of the last passage through an airport duty-free shop.
The smokes were still tasty and the chair, now fixed, brought its own blessing en route to the repair shop, which is in an industrial estate on the border between Williamstown and Altona. To get there one needs to drive along Kororoit Creek Road, where a maze of town houses is under construction beside the bird refuge, which looks a lot like a tidal swamp. They made quite a sight, those units, so striking that the Bunyipmobile came to a stop while memories consumed its driver. Once, in a different Australia, the address had been the site of a migrant hostel, where New Australians were housed while finding jobs and coming to terms with their new homeland. Some remained in residence for three or four years.
How different things are today. Earlier, on Melbourne Road en route to the upholsterer, one of the most arresting sights was the spectacle of three tented women, veiled from head to toe and escorting a posse of nippers, near Newport railway station. Perhaps their husbands -- mind you, it could be but a single hubby for all -- are productive new arrivals, and perhaps there is not a penny of public subsidies supporting their homes. Perhaps, but not likely.
How much better would it be, rather than arguing about Nauru or sending children to the waiting procurers in Malaysia, if Australia turned back the clock and re-introduced the hostel system? The message would be that you are welcome to come, but the only taxpayer largesse you can expect will be a bed in a hostel’s Spartan accommodation and free meals at its cafeteria. Other than that, you will need to learn English, pick a footy team to support and build your own future.
It would blunt UN criticism of Australian inhumanity and, one suspects, diminish the appeal of the land of milk and welfare cheques those people smugglers have found so easy to sell. One suspects the number of illegal aliens arriving by leaky boat would see a precipitous decline. Those who did arrive, however, might be precisely the sort of fresh citizens we need – the sort who are grateful for the chance to get ahead in a new land, expect no public charity, and won’t mind a little discomfort while finding their feet.
It’s just an idea, and. these folks’ recollections, testaments to how well the hostel system worked, suggest it is a good one.