We have heard several Australians say that there is one ongoing government policy that makes them ashamed: the treatment of asylum seekers.
Immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers used to find a very open door in Australia. When the Vietnamese "boat people" came in the 1980s, they were held for a few weeks for medical checks and paperwork before entering Australian society.
In 2001 the Norwegian ship Tampa picked up Afghan refugees rescued from a sinking vessel. The Australian government refused to let them land in Australia. The Howard government then won an election based, in part, on fear of large numbers of refugees flooding Australia. The processing centers for refugees and asylum seekers turned into concentration camps patrolled by armed guards. The weeks of health checks and paperwork turned into years of isolation.
It is likely that the new Rudd government will undo some of the policies of their predecessors. It has already started to do so on the touchiest issue, the treatment of aborigines. Indeed, since Prime Minister Rudd issued the "Apology" to the aboriginal peoples, there is a sense among most Australians we have met that problem is heading toward a solution. The wounds caused by the stolen generation, massacres, and general ill-treatment are starting to heal.
Not so with the treatment of asylum seekers and refugees. To be sure, there must be many Australians, especially Liberal/National voters, who support to tight controls on refugees. But for the people we talked to, including some Liberals, the asylum-seeker policy is the one great source of national shame.