Many of the oldest roads, bridges and early colonial buildings of Australia were built by convicts working out their sentences in horrific conditions. In the modern era the joke is on us: their descendants now live in a country with a stratospheric standard of living, healthy economy, and vast natural beauty. Being able to trace your heritage to convicts rather than free settlers has become fashionable. The buildings put up by such convict gangs are cherished historical structures. There was a time when we sent men and women to Australia for anything from violence to almost trivial acts of larceny. Today the UK government is risking a cause celebre with a 21-century deportation, a story about just how stuffy and miserable us poms can be.
The self-styled activist Trenton Oldfield faces an immediate return to ‘the lucky country’ following his 6 month sabbatical at Her Majesty’s pleasure. Mr Oldfield was pinched for ruining the boat race. On the basis that “those who come to the UK must abide by our laws” the Home Office considers his continuing presence not to be "conducive to the public good."
Ignore the fact that his British wife is expecting a child who may be born here without a father, because that is perhaps the least surprising aspect of this lunatic decision. To employ Australian slang, the injustice of deporting the man stands out like a shag on a rock.
Trenton Oldfield ruined a sporting event which I and millions of others enjoy watching. The boat race represents the best of amateur competition, and coming from a country which is passionate about sport, Mr Oldfield ought to have respected that. As the rare breed of Aussie with a library tan, Mr Oldfield put on his bathers and decided that his protest was more important than the Oxford vs Cambridge race. There is no doubt that Mr Oldfield is a few prawns short of a barbecue, but getting rid of the man is embarrassingly reactionary.
Of course we have to draw a line somewhere when it comes to those on visas committing crimes, but no sensible person would deport someone for getting points on their driving record, or drinking on the tube. The imposition of a custodial sentence might seem like a robust measure of whether a person has outstayed their welcome, but six months in the slammer for jumping into the Thames always seemed like tough justice. Mr Oldfield’s motivations may have been misguided, but he clearly never sought to hurt others, or to gain financially from his actions. His protest was against elitism, and yet he chose to disrupt a meritocratic contest. In the manner of the dumbest, noisiest protesters, he wanted to make a bold statement. If you’ll forgive me, he wanted to make a splash. Ill-thought through, aimed at pissing off some Oxbridge types, and justified with platitudes, it was the sort of protest that might have raised a cheer from the People’s Assembly.
However angry I am with Trenton Oldfield, I am angrier still that the Home Office does not accept that six months in jail is a sufficient or even disproportionately high penalty for a politically motivated protest. How miserable and cantankerous have we become when ‘the public good’ means getting rid of disruptive but nonviolent protestors? As far as I can tell, Oldfield is no ‘dole bludger’ - he came here on a visa for highly skilled immigrants. He may be a fruit loop, but have we given up on the idea that those who have visited prison have paid their debt? He hasn’t caused trouble since, and there’s every indication that he may have learnt his lesson. I hope for his child’s sake that he has done some growing up.
Trenton’s dip was a selfish act, but it was not a malicious or avaricious one. The public good demands tolerance for protests, even moronic ones. Let him stay here at least until his visa expires, and show that poms aren’t sending petty criminals to Australia any more, and that we’re capable of giving people a fair go.