I didn't clearly get what racism was until I lived in Australia and experienced it among my co-workers, middle class media people who, on one hand sentimentalised convict and bushranger legends, and on the other denigrated native Australians as a matter of course.

From what I've seen there's been scant progress since, other than wealthier Australians taking up native Australian art, such excellent decor, while native Australians - if you get to see them in the nicer parts of town - look as tragic as they did then, drunks huddling over booze, flaked out in parks, sidelined from purposeful life.

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I've never seen a native Australian shop assistant, hotel clerk, or restaurant worker, jobs in which tourists might come across them rather than in abject misery in places where social workers struggle to stop them obliterating themselves from the map.


We're not perfect, colonialism isn't, but I don't expect to hear people I know speaking the same way about Maori, and in fact Maori had a special status distinct from all other Pacific and "coloured" people under the notorious White Australia policy of 1901.

That dream of a continent of whiteness persists, I suspect, despite occasional exasperated intakes of people of different ethnicity. And I suspect it lingers behind the Manus Island affair, where Jacinda Ardern's current offer to take 150 protesting men to "help" the Australian government is more likely to be seen as one-upmanship than a display of principle.

We got into the same position in 2001, when Ardern's mentor, former Prime Minister Helen Clark, took Tampa refugees from a distressed fishing vessel to this country to settle.

The 433 mainly Afghan people had been discovered on a disintegrating ship by a Norwegian tanker. Its captain asked permission to bring them into Australian waters along with five crew.

That was refused, causing a diplomatic row between Australia and Norway.

There had already been a series of attempts by overloaded ships to reach Australia and claim the right to stay, and Australia's attitude has hardened over that time, rather than softening in the wake of Clark's kindly - maybe also grandstanding - deed.

The result was the detention centres, now set up in Nauru and Papua New Guinea, where would-be refugees are sidelined from life with no expectation that Australia will relent.

That's an ugly situation, reflected in the equally ugly status of New Zealanders deemed undesirable who are now held in detention centres too, in seeming abrogation of their human rights.

These are people who have served jail sentences of a year or more, or committed serious crimes such as child sex abuse, rape and murder.

Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis has called that a double indemnity, being punished twice for the same crimes.

Some have lived in Australia all their lives, and may never have visited this country. Their families are often obliged to leave with them.

Both situations are evidence that Australia is determined to pick and choose who lives there. Why, then, would they suddenly go soft on the Manus Island people, however much they riot?

Nothing about this is straightforward. While we might - maybe - open our arms to 150 bonafide Manus Island people, and accept them as refugees, Australia has no intention as far as we can see, of ever opening its doors to them. What must rankle is that New Zealand can serve as a weak back door entry point, forcing Australia to take them should they want to move there in future.

Since 2001, Tampa year, the rights of New Zealanders in Australia have been eroded.

We may have a special category visa that allows us to live there indefinitely, but it does not guarantee citizenship.

About 200,000 of us now live there without a right to social security, ineligible for unemployment and social security benefits or federal disaster relief, though we pay the same taxes as Australians.

I'm pleased that we have a Prime Minister who has principles and believes in standing by them, but politics being the art of compromise, I'd hate to see pure motives lead to unfortunate outcomes.

The more Ardern continues to make her offer, the more intransigent Malcolm Turnbull is likely to become.

The Tampa case riled Australians, who have never led the world in tolerance.

A year later riots broke out in Cronulla between Lebanese, Muslim and European populations. Cries of "**** off wogs!" and worse set the tone.

Against that they have also suffered terrorist attacks, have foiled a good many more, and continue to patrol their waters for illegal shiploads of migrants, to their benefit and ours.
Moral leadership may be a fine position to adopt, but it helps no one when it points to our friendly neighbours as heartless bastards.

Rosemary McLeod is a journalist and author.