THE POOR ARE DESPERATE FOR A PIECE OF BREAD: a critic of the second series of Go Back to Where You Came From, SBS TV, 2012

By Ajak Kwai


The first series of the SBS program Go Back to Where You Came From started in 2011. The reaction was very positive because it was new; people didn’t know the whole story about the refugees and it provoked those who were extreme.

In Australian politics refugees and asylum seekers have been used by Australian politicians, especially since John Howard’s leadership that started in 1996. However, refugees who come to Australia by boat are locked up for a long time.

In the 1970s and 1980s, a similar situation happened when the Vietnamese first arrived; they were first locked up before processing. The treatment of non-White migrants and refugees to Australia has been an issue since the Nineteenth century. The White Australian policy showed the fear of Australians to outsider.

Beneath the surface of Australian society, racism is still boiling over. It needs to be discussed rather than covered up. In spite of Australia’s multiculturalism in the 1980s and 1990s, the birth of One Nation showed the continuation of Australia’s ‘White’ policy. During the John Howard government, Australia’s racism became obvious to the whole world. The behaviour of Australia upset the United Nations, which said it was against human rights.

Howard’s plan was to process asylum seekers in detention centres offshore, in Nauru, which is not Australian territory. The issue of asylum seekers and their method of entry to Australia by sea from Indonesia has continued to escalate public fear and political unrest. Since the election of the Labor government in 2007, and a sharp rise in asylum seekers seeking refuge in Australia by sea from Indonesia, the asylum seeker issue has dominated the politics and social discussion.

Go Back to Where You Came from: Raising awareness or Entertainment? 

The SBS program Go Back to Where You Came From investigated all these things. The question I am most an interested in is; what is this program‘s purpose?. Is it to raise the social awareness of racism in Australia? Or is it really entertainment that is just to stir up society over this issue?

I believe that it was just a kind of entertainment that plays with the big issues with no real feeling.   The emotions they play with are not their emotions or their lives. The whole show’s set up was the idea that by walking in someone’s shoes they will feel the same pain and in this way they can understand and appreciate what the asylum seekers went through and why they would risk their lives and come by boat to Australia.

But, the participants could never fully relate to the experience. I think the whole program was like an adventure, a reality TV show for a particular audience who wanted to feel the pain of other people, that if they share the pain their conscience is clear. I also think, as some of the participants said on the Insider program when they returned, there was a lot of editing that changed dialogue and action to suit the producers’ script.

Also, Angry Anderson admitted he has said what he thought the producers wanted to hear so he could “get the gig”. In this moment I realised that Go  Back to Where You Came From  was show business. Just another type of entertainment for another type of audience.  It also made me realise that the refugees and asylum seekers they used in Australia and visited overseas were like toys. A discussion of Michael Smith’s statements can show how his character was used to provoke the audience.

Michael in Somalia

In the first visit from Michael Smith and Angry Anderson to the refugees and the former asylum seekers’ houses in Dandenong, Abdi’s house and Hamid’s house, Michael was very arrogant. On the way, Michael said, “what will we find…we’ll probably find some smelly cous cous.” This indicated his attitudes towards the refugees and to people from cultures other than the traditional Anglo-Celtic Australian culture.

His words were not consistent, especially when he went to the camp with 3500 refugees, where most were children and woman.

In Somalia, Michael Smith was shown becoming friends with the children and showing them photos of his children in Australia, his swimming pool and the Australian way of life. He also said about the Somalis, “is this what we want to turn Australia into?” after he had cried and was shown to be more compassionate. It seems like the producers wanted to continually show contrasts to make drama and to stir the boiling pot of racism in Australia.

Consciences for sale: advertising Go Back to Where You Came From DVDs

This is exactly what I think it is: Go Back to Where You Came From is just another piece of commercial television. The picture shows the purpose of the show. It is helping to sell products to an audience who can never walk in the shoes of the people it uses.

And this is the questions I want to finish with: Was Go Back to Where You Came From for refugees? Was it beneficial for refugees or was it form of entertainment? Ask, who benefits?: SBS TV, the producers, the academics involved, the six prominent and outspoken Australians who all “got the gig”, who after taking a life-risking “refugee journey” – in fact just a different type of reality TV show – can get benefit in the media for their career, even though I don’t believe they are bad people.

What really benefits is that big boiling pot of Australian racism. I wish the Somalis and Afghanis had told them all: Leave us alone. Don’t make us toys for your television. Go back to where you came from.


2 thoughts on “THE POOR ARE DESPERATE FOR A PIECE OF BREAD: a critic of the second series of Go Back to Where You Came From, SBS TV, 2012

  1. Great ending! I found this a thoughtful and well fleshed-out article, examining the precepts of the program and its reasons for being. Angry Anderson’s telling slip and Michael Smith’s trail of absurd comments were good evidence to your conclusion, perhaps a few more examples found among the other participants could have been useful, but it came across as a cool and level appraisal of a disappointing program.

  2. When fully operating, the Nauru detention centre will house around 1,500 asylum seekers, including women, children and family groups, while around 600 will be sent to Manus Island.

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