Sunday, March 29, 2015

Tim Winton's Palm Sunday plea: Start the soul-searching and stop turning back the boats

For the past few years, as traumatised people have fled towards safety, towards what they believed was a civilised and compassionate haven, our national peace of mind has been built upon the hidden, silent suffering of others. Photo: Angela Wylie

Palm Sunday commemorates the day an itinerant prophet spoke truth to power. Jesus of Nazareth arrived at the gates of Jerusalem in a parody of imperial pomp. But he was a nobody. Instead of a stallion, he rode up on a borrowed donkey. In place of an army, he had a bunch of lily-livered misfits throwing down their cloaks and palm branches as if he was a big shot. Street theatre, if you like. And a week later he was dead. He was there to challenge the commonsense of the day. Armed with only an idea.

Jesus used to say things like this. If a child asks you for bread, will you give him a stone? Awkward things like that.

His followers called his idea The Way. Many of us are here today because the idea has stuck. We try to follow the Way of Peace and Love. Just another bunch of lily-livered misfits.

For generations, in communities all over the globe, Palm Sunday has been a day when people walk for peace and reconciliation. And not just Christians. People of every faith and of no faith at all come together as we have today in solidarity. To express our communal values and yearnings, the things that bind us rather than those that separate us.

We belong to a prosperous country, a place where prosperity and good fortune have made us powerful. Yes, whether we feel it or not, we are exceptionally powerful as individuals and as a community. We have the power of safety. We're richer, more mobile, with more choices than most of our fellow citizens worldwide. Not because we're virtuous, but because we're lucky. But we don't come here to gloat. We're here to reflect. To hold ourselves to account. We didn't come here today to celebrate power or to hide in its privileged shadow. We're here to speak for the powerless. We're not here to praise the conventions of the day, but to examine them and expose them to the truth. We're not here to reinforce the status quo. We gather to dissent from it. To register our dismay at it. We're here to call a spade a spade, to declare that what has become political common sense in Australia over the past 15 years is actually nonsense. And not just harmless nonsense; it's vicious, despicable nonsense. For something foul is festering in the heart of our community, something shameful and rotten.

It's a secret we don't want to acknowledge. We hide it from ourselves. At times, it seems we're content to have others hide it from us and for us. But we hide this dark secret at great cost. To faceless strangers. To innocent people. To powerless children. We hide this dirty secret at a terrible cost to ourselves as individuals and as a community.

What secret are we hiding? Well, it's awkward, and kind of embarrassing. You see, we're afraid. Terrified. This big, brash wealthy country. We have an irrational phobia. We're afraid of strangers. Not rich strangers. No. The ones who frighten us out of our wits are the poor strangers. People displaced by war and persecution. We're even scared of their traumatised children. And if they flee their war-torn countries in boats, well, then, they're twice as threatening. They send us into wild-eyed conniptions. As if they're armed invaders. But these people arrive with nothing but the sweat on their backs and a crying need for safe refuge. Yet, they terrify us. So great and so wild is our fear, we can no longer see them as people, as fellow humans. First, we criminalised them. Then, we turned them into faceless objects. Cattle. Well, maybe that's not quite right. You see we're sentimental about cattle. Especially cattle on boats. We have values, you see, standards of decency. We hate to see suffering. We're moved to pity.

But for someone seeking asylum, someone arriving by boat, this special species of creature called a "boat person", the pity isn't there. Pity is forbidden. All the usual standards are overturned. Their legal right to seek asylum is denied. They're vilified as "illegals". And their suffering is denied. As if they're not our brothers and sisters. Yes, we hate suffering. But apparently their kind of suffering is no longer legitimate. And therefore, it's no longer our problem. Our moral and legal obligations to help them are null and void.

Since August 2001, Australians have gradually let themselves be convinced that asylum seekers have brought their suffering and persecution and homelessness and poverty on themselves. Our leaders have taught us we need to harden our hearts against them. And how obedient we've been, how compliant we are, this free-thinking, high-minded egalitarian people.

We're afraid. But the government has made them go away. They have stopped the boats. And spirited the victims away. Now, we don't have to see their suffering. In fact, we're not allowed to see it. They're out of sight, and out of mind. And here at home, all is well, all is calm again. For the past few years, as traumatised people have fled towards safety, towards what they believed was a civilised and compassionate haven, our national peace of mind has been built upon the hidden, silent suffering of others.

And that, my friends, is what our elected representatives have done. Using the military, using warships. Using spin and deception in Parliament. Shielding its deeds from media scrutiny. With the collusion of our poorer neighbours, the client states of Nauru and PNG. The political slogans have ground their way into our hearts and minds. The mantras of fear have been internalised. We can sleep at night because these creatures are gone. It wasn't enough to turn these people away. We had to make them disappear.

So. All is well. Nothing to be afraid of any more. Until we find other poor people to be afraid of. Folks who are here already. Australians who are poor and powerless and, therefore, somehow troublesome, embarrassing, even dangerous. Because that's the thing. Once you start the cycle of fear, there's always someone new and different to be afraid of, some new group to crack down on.

But will we ever sleep easy? I wonder. Because there'll always be the creeping suspicion that some poor person could be white-anting our prosperity, our privilege, our Australian specialness. Or maybe we won't sleep because, deep in the back of our heads, somewhere in our spirit, we'll feel a flicker of shame, a twinge of conscience. Maybe I caught a glimpse of a child's face behind the wire. For a second, I saw a resemblance. Could have been my kid, my grandkid, the little girl next door. Just a kid. A face behind the wire.

My friends, we weren't always this scared. We used to be better than this. I remember because I was a young man when we opened our arms and hearts to tens of thousands of Vietnamese. Australians were poorer then, more awkward, less well travelled as a people. And yet, we took pity on suffering humans. No cages, no secret gulags. We had these people in our homes and hostels and halls and community centres. They became our neighbours, our schoolmates, our colleagues at work. I was proud of my country, then, proud of the man who made it happen, whose greatness shames those who've followed him in the job. Those were the days when a leader drew the people up and asked the best of them and despite their misgivings, Australians rose to the challenge. And I want to honour his memory today.

It breaks my heart to say it, but fear has turned us. In the past 15 years, it's eaten into our public spirit and made a travesty of our most sacred values, the very things we thought we stood for as a society: our sense of decency, fairness, justice, compassion, openness. In our own time, we have seen what is plainly wrong, what is demonstrably immoral, celebrated as not simply pragmatic but right and fair. It's no accident that both mainstream political parties have pursued asylum seeker policies based on cruelty and secrecy. First, pandering to irrational public fear and then at the mercy of it. Because these policies are popular. I don't deny it. It hurts me to acknowledge it. But it's a fact. A hard-hearted response to the suffering of others has calcified and become the common sense of our day.

We used to be better than this. I still believe we're better than this.

So what's happened to this country? I'm confused. I read the news. But as events unfold, I don't always recognise my own people. This still looks like the country I was brought up in but it doesn't always feel like it. You think mining royalties have had a dip? Well, spare a thought for the Fair Go. Because that currency has taken a flogging. There's a punitive spirit abroad, something closer to Victorian England than the modern, secular, egalitarian country I love.

In the days of Charles Dickens, child labour was acceptable, respectable. It was common sense. So was the routine degradation of impoverished women. Charity was punitive. Until Victorian reformers like Dickens exposed the common sense of his era as brutal nonsense, the suffering of children was inconsequential. The poor were human garbage. They were fuel. Victorian England extracted energy and sexual pleasure from the faceless bodies of the poor. When they became a nuisance, they were exported, "offshored". In chains. Some of these faceless, degraded people were our ancestors. Mine was an unaccompanied minor, a little boy. A boy consigned to oblivion. A boy without a face. I've been thinking of him lately. Public events have made it unavoidable.

And yet from this brutish convention, this hellish common sense, we made something new here in this country, something better. Where Jack was as good as his master. We turned away from the callous feudalism of the Old World and made this place a haven for decency. We granted everyone a face. Some, to our shame, later than others.

The face is the window of the soul. It's the means by which we make ourselves known. To those of us of religious faith, it's the means by which we recognise the Divine spark in each other, the presence of God. To those who aren't religious, it's the way we apprehend the sacred dignity of the individual. We present ourselves to one another face-to-face, as equals. When you rob someone of their face, of their humanity, you render them an object.

In this country, a nation built upon people fleeing brutes and brutality for 200 years, we have a tradition of fairness and decency and openness of which we're rightly proud. Whether we're inspired by the Christian parable of the Good Samaritan, the universal dignity of humankind, or the sanctity of the individual, we've always thought it low and cowardly to avert our gaze from someone in trouble or need, to turn our face from them as though they did not exist. When I was a kid, there were a few salty names for people like that. You didn't want to be called out as one of those. That's where our tradition of mateship comes from. Not from closing ranks against the outsider, but from lifting someone else up, helping them out, resisting the cowardly urge to walk by. It distinguished this country from the feudalism and patronage of the Old World. When the first boat people arrived in the late '70s, we looked into their traumatised faces on the TV and took pity despite our misgivings.

Now, of course, we don't see faces. And that's no accident. The government hides them from us. In case we feel the pity that's only natural. Asylum seekers are rendered as objects, creatures, cargo, contraband, and criminals. And so, quite deliberately, the old common sense of human decency is supplanted by a new consensus. Built on hidden suffering, maintained by secrecy. Cordoned at every turn by institutional deception. This, my friends, is the new common sense. According to this new dispensation, Australia does not belong to the wider world. We're nobody's fool. We have no obligations to our fellow suffering humans. Unless it suits us. Because we are exceptional. And beyond reproach. It seems we are set to distinguish ourselves by our callousness, by our unwavering hardness of heart. We will not be lectured to by outsiders. Or, come to think of it, by insiders, either. Not about human rights, not about torture, not about the incarceration of children. We will bully critics and whistleblowers into silence. We will smear them. We will shirtfront them.

Which is to say that we live now as hostages to our lowest fears. But to assent to this newly manufactured common sense is to surrender things that are sacred: our human decency, our moral right, our self-respect, our inner peace. To passively assent to this is to set out together on a road that leads to horrors, a path from which we must turn back before we lose our way entirely.

To those in power who say they're exiling and caging children for their own good, I say we've heard that nonsense before. So, don't do it in my name.

To those who say they're prolonging misery to save life, I say I've heard that nonsense before. You don't speak for me; I don't recognise your perverse accountancy.

To those in power who say the means will justify the end, I say I've heard that nonsense before. It's the tyrant's lie. Don't you dare utter it in my name.

To those who say this matter is resolved, I say no. For pity's sake, no. For the love of God, no. A settlement built on suffering will never be settled. An economy built on cruelty is a swindle. A sense of comfort built upon the crushed spirits of children is but a delusion that feeds ghosts and unleashes fresh terrors.

If current refugee policy is common sense, then I refuse to accept it. I dissent. And many of my countrymen and women dissent alongside me. I don't pretend to have a geopolitical answer to the worldwide problem of asylum seekers. Fifty million people are currently displaced by war and famine and persecution. I don't envy those who make the decisions in these matters, those who've sought and gained the power to make decisions in this matter. I'm no expert, no politician. But I know when something's wrong. And what my country is doing is wrong.

Prime Minister, forget the boats for a moment. Turn back your heart. Turn back from this path to brutality. Turn back from piling trauma upon the traumatised. Because it shames us. It grinds innocent people to despair and self-harm and suicide. It ruins the lives of children. Give these people back their faces, their humanity. Don't avert your gaze and don't hide them from us.

Because the secret won't hold. It's out already. There are witnesses. There will be testimony. We will remember. In another time, and very soon, I think, our common sense will be nonsense. And you'll have to ask yourself, was it worth it? This false piece of mind, this stopping of the boats. Was it worth the price paid in human suffering? You're not alone; the rest of us will have to face it, too.

Jesus said: "What shall it profit a man to gain the whole world only to lose his soul?" And I wonder: What does it profit a people to do likewise, to shun the weak and punish the oppressed, to cage children, and make criminals out of refugees? What about our soul as a people?

We're losing our way. We have hardened our hearts. I fear we have devalued the currency of mercy. Children have asked for bread and we gave them stones. So turn back. I beg you. For the children's sake. For the sake of this nation's spirit. Raise us back up to our best selves. Turn back while there's still time.

This is author Tim Winton's speech at the Palm Sunday Walk for Justice4Refugees in Perth.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Malcolm Fraser was unflinching in his support of Indigenous Australians

Malcolm Fraser was a figure well regarded in Indigenous Australia. He was a vocal opponent of the intervention and helped those living under its policies to voice their concerns
Larissa Behrendt The Guardian March 23, 2015

‘Malcolm Fraser’s concern for the marginalised ... is shown by his commitment to issues concerning refugees, the environment and Aboriginal people.’ Photograph: William West/AFP/Getty Images
Shakespeare was wrong when he wrote in Julius Caesar that, ‘the evil that men do lives after them. The good is oft interred with their bones’. It seems that with the passing of Australian political giants Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser that it is the good that lives on while the faults are laid to rest………
Based on the last two decades of his life, it is almost hard to imagine that Fraser was not only a conservative prime minister, but in many ways the forerunner of the brutal ‘take no prisoners’ opposition leader that Tony Abbott subsequently mastered. My experience of Fraser was of a tireless advocate of human rights and a figure well regarded in Aboriginal Australia.
It was Fraser’s government that followed through on the Whitlam proposal to establish a land rights regime in the Northern Territory, through the enactment of the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976……..
………..Fraser was unquestionably a champion of a multicultural Australia. Initiatives such as the establishment of SBS and his willingness to accept the flood of refugees flowing after the victory of the communists in the Vietnam war stamp him out as a beacon of enlightenment given the developments in subsequent decades. Also, his willingness on the international stage to advocate strongly against the apartheid regimes in then Rhodesia and South Africa………
His government also took some important measures in terms of the protection of the Australian environment…………….
He was, however, as we all are, a product of his times. As a member of the Holt, Gordon, and McMahon governments he was a prominent and vocal advocate for Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam war. Also, as prime minister, his government effectively destroyed the introduction of universal healthcare by the Whitlam government. It would take the Hawke government to finally install Medicare as the permanent replacement of Medibank……….
And while his environmental credentials on the Barrier Reef and Kakadu national park are to be lauded, it should also be remembered that he failed to take action to protect the Tasmanian wild rivers and it would seem that, if he had have triumphed in the 1983 election, would have allowed the construction of the Franklin Dam, and its destruction of a unique area of World Heritage value in Tasmania………..
He was a thoughtful opponent of the Northern Territory emergency response, joining Alastair Nicholson in his concern…………….
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Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Vanuatu's Cyclone Pam disaster exposes aid cuts Hamish McDonald The Saturday Paper March 21, 2015

Illegals undermine seasonal labour; Asia-Pacific policy adrift; Israel election.

A father and son amid the ruins of their home in Vanuatu’s capital, Port Vila.
Vanuatu’s distress from the direct impact of a level-five cyclone will quickly disappear from news reports, if it hasn’t already. And no doubt the cruise ships will soon be back in Port Vila for their passengers to buy the souvenirs knocked up by locals to earn some cash.
Cyclone Pam has come at an awkward time for the Abbott government, however. Its savage cuts to the aid budget announced by Treasurer Joe Hockey in his midyear adjustments in December are due to take about $1 billion from the current $5 billion in the 2015-16 fiscal year. This is the largest-ever slash to Australia’s aid program, and will be followed by further cuts. By 2016-17 the aid budget will be 33 per cent below the level set before Abbott took over.
The question now is whether Foreign Minister Julie Bishop will sacrifice even more of her turf in the upcoming budget, as Hockey still seems to be trying to pursue fiscal consolidation at the same time Abbott has dumped many of the last budget’s savings and is talking of putting money in family pockets ahead of election year. Cutting foreign aid is an easy option.
So far Bishop’s managed to keep the aid programs in Asia and the Pacific largely intact, by cutting programs further afield in places such as Latin America and Africa and by the administrative savings of merging the formerly separate AusAID into the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. But with 92 per cent of our aid now going to the near region, principally to Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, and large humanitarian crises such as Syria making demands, the scope for further cuts looks limited without eating seriously into Canberra’s ‘soft’ strategic power.
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Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Hey Tony, Not all of us can live in Kirribilli

The Hoopla March 11, 2015
We now know what Tony Abbott meant when he promised before the 2013 election to be the first ‘Prime Minister for Aboriginal Affairs’. When the Western Australian government confirmed it was closing 150 remote Indigenous communities yesterday, the self-declared Prime Minister for Aboriginal Affairs backed the move, saying the ‘taxpayer should not have to fund people’s ‘lifestyle choices’.
WA premier, Colin Barnett, said the closure of the communities was because commonwealth funding for them would soon run out, and support for them would fall on the states.
Tony Abbott said:
‘What we can’t do is endlessly subsidise lifestyle choices if those lifestyle choices are not conducive to the kind of full participation in Australian society that everyone should have. In order to get kids to school and adults to work, you’ve got to have a school.’
‘If people choose to live miles away from where there’s a school, if people choose not to access the school of the air, if people choose to live where there’s no jobs, obviously it’s very, very difficult to close the gap. It is not unreasonable for the State Government to say if the cost of providing services in a particular remote location is out of all proportion to the benefits being delivered, fine by all means live in a remote location, but there’s a limit to what you can expect the state to do for you if you want to live there.’
The critical response condemning Abbott was swift………..
Image: The PM’s residence, Kirribilli House
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Sunday, March 8, 2015

Police investigate Save the Children whistleblowers over Nauru abuse report Exclusive: Immigration department asks AFP to investigate submission to Human Rights Commission detailing sexual and physical abuse of children

Ben Doherty The Guardian March 4, 2015

Child asylum seekers on Nauru stage a protest.
Child protection whistleblowers who alerted the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) to child sexual abuse, violence and self-harm on Nauru are being investigated by the Australian federal police.
Guardian Australia has discovered the AFP has been asked by the Department of Immigration and Border Protection to investigate Save the Children staff who anonymously wrote a submission to the commission’s inquiry, outlining cases of sexual and physical abuse of children, and acts of self-harm……
The commission was refused permission to visit Nauru. It relied on first-hand professional accounts such as submission 183, and testimony from detainees. The commission found: ‘Children on Nauru are suffering from extreme levels of physical, emotional, psychological and developmental distress.’
Tony Abbott has rejected the report as partisan, and a ‘transparent stitch-up‘.
The AFP confirmed to the commission it was investigating the author or authors of submission 183 over the attached working documents.
Police are investigating a suspected breach of section 70 of the Crimes Act, concerning ‘disclosure of information by commonwealth officers’. A single disclosure carries a penalty of up to two years in jail………….
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Friday, March 6, 2015

Removed for being Aboriginal. Is the NT creating another stolen generation? Padraic Gibson The Guardian March 4, 2015

There are more than 900 Aboriginal children in ‘out of home care’ in the NT. New laws will devastate groups trying to regain Aboriginal control over Aboriginal child welfare

There was a case in the Northern Territory recently in which a Warlpiri woman had two grandchildren removed from her care. In my experience, it was a fairly typical case. She was living in Alice Springs, looking after two of her grandchildren, one of whom had lost both parents to tragic early death. There were allegations that the grandmother was neglecting the children and they were removed from the local school without her knowledge or consent. ‘Neglect’ is the most common reason for removal of Aboriginal children.
These children were shifted between a number of non-Indigenous foster households. During visits they confided to their grandmother that they had been physically assaulted while in care. They lost use of their Warlpiri language……….
She was accused of being a drinker when she never touched alcohol.
The allegations did not stand up in court when they were finally tested after more than 12 months. She was accused of being a drinker when she never touched alcohol. The children were said to have chronic school attendance problems, when a look at the actual roll showed they had a great attendance record. Aboriginal cultural practices, such as having extended family members regularly stay at the house, were said to be a ‘disruption’ to the children’s lives, when they were actually a source of love and strength.
This case should serve as a warning to the dangers of new legislation for ‘permanent care orders’ in the Northern Territory……….

In reality, in many places in Australia throughout the stolen generation period, including in the Northern Territory during the 1950s and 1960s, forced removals of Aboriginal children overwhelmingly took place on grounds of ‘neglect’ or ‘destitution’ and these decisions could be challenged in court. The problem then, as today, is that ‘welfare’ decisions are taken in a policy context of assimilation, where Aboriginal culture is pathologised, communities are impoverished and Aboriginal people lack meaningful access to the courts………
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Wednesday, March 4, 2015

The Government's delusory tolerance rhetoric Kerry Murphy Eureka Street March 2, 2015

‘Those who come here must be as open and accepting or their adopted country, as we are of them. Those who live here must be as tolerant of others as we are of them.’
Prime Minister Abbott’s National Security Statement last week quite rightly spoke of threats to Australia and the need to address them.
………….These statements of the Prime Minister would seem uncontroversial and it would be hard to think of someone who might disagree with these values. However, what about the situation where we treat people ‘who come here’ quite unfairly, vilify them and punish them just because of how they come to our country. We would not like them to reciprocate the attitude towards us!
One point in particular is the language used to describe people arriving by boat without a visa. There are several different levels of language used, from legal to populist. Whilst for some, criticism of populist language may be seen as being ‘political correctness’, there are times it is appropriate to be technically correct because the populist language maybe offensive, or vilifying…….
……….In the Migration Act people who are not citizens are either ‘lawful non-citizens’ (s13) or ‘unlawful non-citizens’ (s14). The term ‘illegal’ has not been used in Migration Law since 30 August 1994 when the Act was changed to repeal the term. However the term has survived in common use, and was revived by the former Immigration Minister to the extent that it appears in official Departmental publications………..
Curiously, the term is mainly used in the context of people arriving by boat without a visa, not for those who overstay their visa. People who arrive by boat without a visa are referred to in Migration Law as ‘unauthorised maritime arrivals’ or UMAs. The previous (and current) Immigration Minister uses the term ‘Illegal Maritime Arrivals’ (IMA) and this is what is used in all Departmental correspondence or in public statements.
Some might say, illegal, unlawful, what is the difference. Well, firstly, if there were no difference, then the Minister and Prime Minister would not have insisted on such usage. Even Phillip Ruddock referred to people as ‘unlawful’, never as ‘illegal’. So for the politicians, there is some value in the word illegal, which they do not see in the legalistic term unlawful…………
It is useful to remember that there is no offence in arriving in Australia without a visa…….
By regular repetition of the term ‘illegal’ certain politicians have reinforced a view that there is some ‘criminal’ or ‘nefarious’ element or aspect to the people involved……..
We prevent them from working when released into the community (as the Labor Government did)……
Kerry Murphy is a partner with the specialist immigration law firm D'Ambra Murphy Lawyers and member of the boards of the IARC and JRS.
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