THE ARRIVAL OF the MV Tampa in Australian waters in 2001 was misrepresented to the public as a threat to national sovereignty. The people on the Tampa were rescued at the request of the Australian government. They comprised for the most part terrified Hazaras from Afghanistan, fleeing the Taliban. The Taliban’s regime was universally recognised as one of the most brutal and repressive in recent times. The notion that a handful of terrified, persecuted men, women and children fleeing such a regime could constitute a threat to our national sovereignty is so bizarre that it defies discussion.
I was shocked to see Australia’s response. The government denied the Tampa’s request to land its bedraggled cargo in Australia; it sent the SAS onto the ship, and 438 men, women and children were held on the deck in the tropical sun, day after day. I knew nothing about our refugee policy, but I knew it was wrong to treat human beings that way.
By the time the case was over, I knew a lot more about refugee policy, and a lot more about the Australian character. I knew that it was not possible to stay in this country unless I tried to do something to combat these obvious injustices. On 26 August 2001, MV Tampa rescued 438 people whose boat, the Palapa, had sunk. It rescued them at the request of Australia. It acted according to the tradition of sailors the world over.
The people rescued by the Tampa were, most of them, terrified Hazaras from Afghanistan: men, women and children. They were fleeing the Taliban. We knew all this. We also knew that the Taliban was a brutal and repressive regime. We knew that Hazaras, one of the three ethnic groups in Afghanistan, had been persecuted for centuries, but that the persecution had become increasingly harsh under the Taliban, who come from the Pashtun ethnic group.
The captain of the Tampa asked for medical help. Many of the women and children were ill or injured. When the Tampa entered Australian territorial waters off Christmas Island, Australia sent the SAS and took control of the ship at gunpoint, to prevent the refugees from coming ashore.
The arrival of the Tampa in Australian waters was misrepresented to the public as a threat to our national sovereignty. The notion that 438 terrified, persecuted men, women and children constitute a threat to national sovereignty is so bizarre that it defies discussion.
The idea that Prime Minister John Howard could revive his flagging prospects for re-election by using the SAS to keep those people from safety reflected a profound malaise in the Australian character.
The judgment in the Tampa case was handed down at 2.15 pm Eastern Standard Time on 11 September 2001, nine hours before the terrorist attack on America. From that moment, the government ran two different ideas together: border control and security. The catch cry ‘border protection’ confuses national security with refugee policy. In that confusion we lost our moral bearings.
DURING THE TAMPA litigation, the Howard government cobbled together the Pacific Solution. It is hard to believe, but the first incarnation of the Pacific Solution, terrible though it was, was more benign than the present version. But it had its victims. One of them was Mohammad Sarwar.
On 26 August 2002, the Afghans who had been rescued by Tampa were preparing to commemorate the twelve-month anniversary of their rescue. That morning, Mohammad Sarwar woke, sat up, uttered two short cries and fell back dead. His friends wrote to us:
We regret to inform you that in early morning of 26th August Mohammad Sarwar ID NO 391 an Afghan Tampa Asylum Seeker died. He was quite young and seemed to be in his mid twenties. He was a Hazara from Central Afghanistan. He was one of the 438 asylum seekers who were rescued from ocean by the Norwegian freighter MV Tampa. He spent almost one year on board the Tampa and Manoora and in detention on Nauru. He was hospitalised in Nauru for the first few weeks on Nauru. He was refused refugee status by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Just a few days earlier to his death he was interviewed on his appeal to the negative decision he had received on his claim for protection. His close associates, who had seen him coming out of the interview room, had seen he was very concerned and unhappy for the ways he was asked question. In the recent weeks he was seen to be stressed, worried, depressed and almost isolated. But Mohammad Sarwar was proved to be a voiceless, quiet and would speak very little of his concerns and pains he might be suffering. Recently, he was seen sitting alone and thinking very deeply.
Eventually, he has sought the asylum only God can grant.
Both Australia and Nauru refused to conduct an autopsy.
At the time Mohammad Sarwar died, the Australian government was forcing and cajoling Afghans to return to their country. Mohammad Sarwar’s family asked that his corpse be returned to Kabul. Australia refused, saying it was unsafe to return a corpse to Afghanistan.
Mohammad Sarwar was an early victim of the Pacific Solution. Another was Australia’s character.
IN THE WAKE of 9/11, the government sent a care package to every Australian household. It included a fridge magnet – a sure protection against terrorism – and a letter from Prime Minister Howard. The letter included this observation:
Dear Fellow Australian,
I’m writing to you because I believe you and your family should know more about some key issues affecting the security of our country and how we can all play a part in protecting our way of life…
As a people we have traditionally engaged the world optimistically…our open, friendly nature makes us welcome guests and warm hosts…
It was controversial. As Don Watson wrote at the time, ‘This rose-coloured boasting smells of some nightmare ministry of information…the phrase as a people might not be a lie, but it smells like one.’ Australia’s history of conservative political philosophy, Watson argues, is in such contradiction to Howard’s claim of optimistic openness that it borders on ‘fantasy and self-delusion’. Yet, people who disagree with Howard’s idea of Australianness as glossy and insipid are quickly labelled unAustralian, and are then encouraged ‘to shut up or piss off back where they came from’.
There is the problem: by our response to boat people since August 2001, we may have redefined our national character.
MR HAMIDI HAD fled Saddam Hussein’s regime. Within a couple of weeks of his arrival in detention in Australia, officers of the Immigration Department noted that he had suffered torture in Iraq at the notorious Abu Ghraib Prison, and that the form of torture which most frightened him was being locked in a small room. In Abu Ghraib, he had regularly been held in a small cell where he was randomly electrocuted through water in the floor.
After fifteen to eighteen months in detention, he fell into hopelessness and despair. It is typical for asylum seekers in Australia’s detention system to lose hope after about fifteen or eighteen months. When Mr Hamidi fell into hopelessness, he started self-harming. Whenever he could find a bit of broken glass or a bit of razor wire, he would cut himself. When he cut himself, the Immigration Department officers did two things: they gave him Panadol (which seems to be the universal treatment in immigration detention) and they put him in solitary confinement – in a small cell. This did not help him. After a couple of weeks in solitary confinement, he would come out even more desperate than when he went in. He would then harm himself again, and would be given Panadol and solitary confinement. This went on for five years. Eventually, some lawyers in Adelaide took a case to the Federal Court seeking an order requiring that Mr Hamidi, and some others in similarly desperate circumstances, should be taken to the Glenside Psychiatric Hospital in Adelaide for assessment and, if necessary, for treatment. The Commonwealth resisted the application and fought the case for several weeks. Eventually, the judge determined that the detainees should be sent to Glenside for assessment and, if necessary, for treatment.
When Mr Hamidi was taken to Glenside he was assessed mentally and physically. The physical assessment showed that he had ten metres of scarring on his body from his self-harming in immigration detention. He subsequently got a protection visa, but his health was ruined. Saddam Hussein tried to kill him and failed. Australia tried to incapacitate him and succeeded. Chance bludgeoned him almost to death.
THERE WAS A case that, for me at least, forever changed my view of this lucky country. It concerned an Iranian family – mother, father, and two daughters aged eleven and seven at the relevant time. They were members of a small, pre-Christian religion: a religion which, in Iran, is regarded as unclean. If ever you think chance has dealt you a bad hand, try being a member of a religion that is regarded as unclean. There are plenty of historical precedents that show what a hard time those people get. This family stayed on in Iran for as long as they could bear it, because their parents and grandparents were buried there. But one day, after a shocking incident involving the eleven year old, the family f led Iran and ended up in detention at Woomera. After about fifteen or eighteen months they were all in a bad way, especially the eleven year old. The girl had stopped caring for herself: she had stopped grooming, she had stopped brushing her hair; she was careless with her clothing; she had stopped eating. She was frightened to go to the toilet block, which was about a hundred metres from their cabin, and she would wet the bed at night and wet her clothing during the day.
Back then, if you were held in Woomera and had serious psychiatric needs, you would get to see the visiting psychiatrist approximately once every six months. The girl needed daily psychiatric help. A psychiatrist from Adelaide, who had heard about the case, went to Woomera and delivered a report to the Immigration Department saying it was essential that the family be removed from Woomera and placed in a metropolitan detention centre so the girl could get daily psychiatric help. The report emphasised that the child was at extreme risk. Eventually, the department agreed to move the family from Woomera in the South Australian desert to Maribyrnong in the western suburbs of Melbourne. There, although the purpose for moving them was that the eleven year old should get daily psychiatric help, for the first two-and-a-half weeks of their stay nobody came to see her: not a psychiatrist, not a psychologist, not a doctor, not a nurse, not a social worker – nobody at all. It was as if they hadn’t even arrived.
On a Sunday night in May of 2002, while her mother and father and young sister were up in the mess hall having their evening meal, this little girl, alone in the family’s cell in Maribyrnong Detention Centre, took a bedsheet and hanged herself. But she was only little and didn’t know how to tie the knot properly, so she was still strangling when the family came back from dinner. They took her down and she and her mother were taken straight away to the general hospital nearby. They were accompanied by two Australasian Correctional Management guards so that, as a matter of legal analysis, they were still in Immigration Detention.
Kon, a lawyer from the Asylum Seekers Resource Centre who had been looking after the family’s visa application, heard about the incident and went to the hospital at about 9.30 that night. He said hello to the guards, who knew him well because he was a regular visitor of Maribyrnong. He said he just wanted to speak to the mother to see if there was anything he could do to help. They said, ‘No, you’re not allowed to see them, because lawyers’ visiting hours in Immigration Detention are nine to five,’ and they sent him away. Kon then rang me at home and told me what had happened.
Are we a country that treats children this way? Apparently we are.
BY 2008, THE boats had virtually stopped arriving. In July 2008, the first Rudd government introduced a number of reforms to the Migration Act, which satisfied about 90 per cent of the concerns of refugee advocates. A while later, however, chance played another wild card: Tony Abbott became leader of the Opposition by one vote. As soon as he became leader of the Opposition he began complaining publicly and loudly about boat people. Mr Rudd responded by mounting a ferocious attack on people smugglers. It seems that in the heat of the moment he had forgotten that his moral hero – Dietrich Bonnhoeffer – had been a people smuggler, albeit a benevolent one. He had forgotten, it seemed, that Oskar Schindler was a people smuggler and that Gustav Schröder, captain of the St Louis, were both people smugglers.
When Julia Gillard became Australia’s first female prime minister, she ran a very ambivalent line about boat people. While expressing some concern for the circumstances that led them to flee, she said she understood why Australians were concerned about boat people arriving. The asylum-seeker debate went off on a new tack at about that time.
The low point of the debate was seen in the campaign that preceded the federal election of September 2013. That election campaign, for the first time in Australia’s political history, saw both major parties try to outbid each other in their promises of cruelty to boat people.
Tony Abbott won the election and made good on his promise to mistreat boat people. We now have the harshest imaginable policies in relation to boat people and arguably the harshest treatment of boat people of any country that has signed the Refugee Convention.
In broad outline it goes like this.
When boat people arrive at Christmas Island, they have typically spent eight to ten days on a rickety boat. They have typically come from landlocked countries and have typically never spent time on the ocean. Typically, they have had not enough to eat and not enough to drink. Typically, they have had no opportunity to wash or to change their clothes. Typically, they arrive distressed, frightened and wearing clothes caked in their own excrement.
They are not allowed to shower or to change their clothes before they are interviewed by a member of the Immigration Department. It is difficult to think of any decent justification for subjecting them to such humiliation.
When they arrive, any medical appliances they have will be confiscated and not returned: spectacles, hearing aids, false teeth, prosthetic limbs, are all confiscated. If they have any medications with them, those medications are confiscated and not returned. According to doctors on Christmas Island, one person has a full-time job of sitting in front of a bin popping pills out of blister packs for later destruction.
If they have any medical documentation with them, it is confiscated and not returned. The result of all of this is that people with chronic health problems find themselves denied any effective treatment. The results can be very distressing. For example: a doctor who worked on Christmas Island told me of a woman who had been detained there for some weeks and who was generally regarded as psychotic. Her behaviour was highly erratic for reasons that no one understood. The consultation with this woman was very difficult because, although the doctor and the patient were sitting across a table from each other, the interpreter joined them by telephone from Sydney.
Eventually, the doctor worked out that the problem was that the woman was incontinent. She could not leave her cabin without urine running down her leg. It was driving her mad. When the doctor worked out that this was the cause of the problem, she asked the department to provide incontinence pads. The initial response was ‘we don’t do those’. The doctor insisted. The department relented and provided four incontinence pads per day – not enough, so that the woman needs to queue for more, but the incontinence pads made a profound difference to her mood and behaviour.
A COLLEAGUE OF mine visited Christmas Island in September 2015. Here are extracts from notes he made at the time:
There is identifiable and dysfunctional tension between Border Force who manage the centre, Serco who run the centre and Immigration who make all the decisions. This enormous discord and resentment creates enormous incompetency and faulty service delivery as a result. I arrived at the centre after lengthy correspondence with Immigration to be told Serco was not aware of my application to visit. I was then questioned by a Border Force Superintendent who questioned what political or advocacy group I was a part of?
I visited the centre on three days [and spoke to a number of detainees]. The detainees told me they were woken in the middle of the night in their previous Immigration Detention Centre by a group of men, Border Force officers, who are geared up for violence. They are taken from their beds in underpants, pyjamas – one man said he made the entire trip in one shoe. They are handled with extreme force and any resistance is met with violence and verbal abuse. One very small and young detainee was shoved to the floor and his head was hit. He still had the scar on the side of his face.
They are put on a plane and arrive at various airports where they are held until transported to Christmas. One detainee was handcuffed for twelve hours straight and still has problems with his wrist as a consequence. When they arrive on Christmas Island they find many of their belongings missing: personal photos and mementoes, watches, rings, clothes and shoes.
I was told by the detainees of ongoing physical and psychological abuse. Detainees spoke of the kindness of some Serco staff members, but said these ones are in the minority. They are regularly called cunts, arseholes, they are told, ‘Get the fuck out of here,’ ‘Shut the fuck up.’
Consistently they are told, ‘It’s your fucking fault you’re here.’ One notorious staff member they all spoke about stands in people’s faces and says, ‘Fucking hit me…I dare you.’ One detainee asked me with complete genuineness, ‘Why do they need to speak to us like this? We always do what they ask.’ Another staff member was consistently named as being particularly racist and sadistic.
If you speak out, or defend a friend – you are threatened with consequences. These start at the most extreme Red Section where detainees spend up to a week (one detainee spent four days here during which time he started to cut and tear at himself ). This space has a metal door with a cement bed, a toilet, a camera and a light that stays on twenty-four hours. Food is passed through a grate.
Every detainee I saw is profoundly depressed and suicidal. Of the seven men I saw, five are self-harming on a regular basis. They said the place is awash in blood – from bashing and constant self-harming.
A man with obvious mental-health issues, from Iraq, who arrived on Christmas Island on a boat two-and-a-half years ago and has never left, explained to me in great detail his plans to slit his own throat and would kill himself any way he could find. He said repeated requests to be transferred anywhere…even Nauru or Manus are ignored and not even responded to. I begged him to give me some time, to see what I could do to help him – I even told him I am suffering from cancer and don’t have the choice he does. I told him his life was valuable and please not to kill himself. He was incredibly gracious and took my hand and said how incredibly sorry he was I had cancer. He said, ‘You deserve life, but I am sorry I can’t live mine like this anymore.’
On the above visit, which was my last, I was escorted out by the Director of Operations. He questioned me about what this man had said, specifically his threat to cut his own throat. I told him that yes he had said this and I am very concerned for his wellbeing. He raised his eyes and told me, ‘It’s very unfortunate he did this as he was doing so well.’ I said that the man is mentally unwell and in need of help and he proceeded to tell me he was attention seeking and would be reprimanded for this behaviour. I was incredulous and asked if he was serious. He said, ‘Absolutely…he will be reprimanded.’
ASYLUM SEEKERS WHO arrive at Christmas Island are assessed to see if there is any medical reason why they cannot be sent offshore, to Nauru or Manus. In either place, they are held in detention centres run by Transfield Services (an Australian company). Guards are provided by Wilson Security (another Australian company). Medical services are provided by International Medical and Health Services (an Australian subsidiary of a French company). Nevertheless, Australia insists that what happens in offshore detention is nothing to do with Australia. That is not only absurdly false, it overlooks the small detail that we spend about $5 billion a year on the detention system. If that number is unimaginably big, it is the equivalent of one million Geelong chopper rides a year.
A few days ago I got an email from a health worker on Manus: ‘The situation as you can imagine is very grim. Around 80 per cent of transferees are suffering serious mental health issues. PNG staff are slowly being ‘trained’ to take over various roles with mostly undesirable results. East Lorengau is not working. One refugee is lingering in hospital for over two weeks with undiagnosed stomach problems. One refugee doctor is suffering severe mental health issues.’
Here is an extract from a statement by a doctor who worked on Manus and whose professional experience includes the provision of healthcare services in maximum security prisons in Australia:
On the whole, the conditions of detention at the Manus Island Offshore Processing Centre are extremely poor. When I first arrived I was considerably distressed at what I saw, and I recall thinking that this must be similar to a concentration camp. The detainees are detained behind razor wire fences, in conditions below the standard of Australian maximum security prison. My professional opinion is that the minimum medical requirements of the detained population were not being met. I have no reason to believe that the conditions of detention have improved since I ceased employment at the Manus Island OPC.
The conditions of detention appeared to be calculated to break the spirit of those detained in the Manus Island OPC. On a number of occasions the extreme conditions of detention resulted in detainees abandoning their claims for asylum and returning to their country of origin. At the Manus Island OPC, bathroom facilities are rarely cleaned. There was a lot of mould, poor ventilation, and the structural integrity of the facilities is concerning. No soap is provided to detainees for personal hygiene. When detainees need to use the bathroom, it is standard procedure that they first attend at the guards’ station to request toilet paper. Detainees would be required to give an indication of how many ‘squares’ they will need. The maximum allowed is six squares of toilet paper, which I considered demeaning.
A large number of detainees continue to be in need of urgent medical attention. Formal requests for medical attention are available to the detainees. The forms are only available in English. Many of the detainees do not have a workable understanding of English and the guards will not provide assistance.
IN FEBRUARY 2014, Reza Barati was killed on Manus Island. Initially, Australia said that he had escaped from the detention centre and was killed outside the detention centre. Soon it became clear that he was killed inside the detention centre. It took nearly five months before anyone was charged with the murder of Reza Barati. Nobody has yet been brought to court.
Just a couple of weeks after Reza Barati was killed, I received a sworn statement from an eyewitness. The statement included the following:
J is a local who worked for the Salvation Army. He was holding a large wooden stick. It was about a metre and a half long…it had two nails in the wood. The nails were sticking out. When Reza came up the stairs, J was at the top of the stairs waiting for him. J said ‘fuck you motherfucker’. J then swung back behind his shoulder with the stick and took a big swing at Reza, hitting him on top of the head.
J screamed again at Reza and hit him again on the head. Reza then fell on the floor.
I could see a lot of blood coming out of his head, on his forehead, running down his face. His blood is still there on the ground. He was still alive at this stage.
About ten or fifteen guards from G4S came up the stairs. Two of them were Australians. The rest were PNG locals. I know who they are. I can identify them by their face. They started kicking Reza in his head and stomach with their boots.
Reza was on the ground trying to defend himself. He put his arms up to cover his head but they were still kicking.
There was one local – I recognised him – he picked up a big rock, he lifted the rock above his head and threw it down hard on top of Reza’s head. At this time, Reza passed away. One of the locals came and hit him in his leg very hard…but Reza did not feel it. This is how I know he was dead.
After that, as the guards came past him, they kicked his dead body on the ground.
Australia regards itself as having no responsibility for Reza Berati or anyone else held in Manus or Nauru. But we pay Transfield Services to run the detention centres there. We pay Wilson Security, the Australian company that employs the guards. When the government disclaims responsibility for what happens in offshore detention centres, it is deliberately misleading you. In May 2015, the Australian Parliament passed the Australian Border Force Act. Among other things, it makes it a criminal offence for a detention centre worker to disclose things they have observed in the detention system. The penalty for disclosing facts about the detention system is two years in prison. Recently, the UN Special Rapporteur François Crépeau was due to inspect the detention centres on Manus and Nauru. But on 24 September 2015, he cancelled his visit to Australia because the Act would discourage workers in Nauru and Papua New Guinea from disclosing information to him.
In civil society, it is a criminal offence to know of child sex abuse and fail to report it. But in Australia’s detention system, it is a crime to report it. You can be sure there is something profoundly wrong with the system when the government goes to such lengths to hide the facts from us.
AUSTRALIA’S SYSTEM OF mandatory detention has been trenchantly criticised by Amnesty International and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. In late 2013, UNCHR delivered a report on conditions in the Regional Processing Centre (RPC) on Manus Island, saying: ‘UNHCR was deeply troubled to observe that the current policies, operational approaches and harsh physical conditions at the RPC do not comply with international standards…’
It also reported on conditions in Nauru: ‘Assessed as a whole, UNHCR is of the view that the transfer of asylum seekers to what are currently harsh and unsatisfactory temporary facilities, within a closed detention setting, and in the absence of a fully functional legal framework and adequately capacitated system to assess refugee claims, do not currently meet the required protection standards.’
Just as a person’s character is judged by their conduct, so a country’s character is judged by its conduct. Australia is now judged overseas by its behaviour as cruel and selfish. We treat frightened, innocent people as criminals. It is a profound injustice. It is a hard thing to be forced by circumstances to leave the country of your birth in search of a place that is safe. The play of chance is worse again for those who must seek protection in a country whose language and culture is radically different from their own.
How much worse must it be to find that your bid for freedom ends up with punishment as harsh as anything you might have experienced at home. I have received messages from many refugees from many countries over the course of many years that say, in substance, ‘In my home country they kill you quickly; in Australia they kill you slowly.’
ONE OF THE most distressing things about the present situation is that it is based on a series of lies. When politicians called boat people ‘illegals’ and ‘queue jumpers’, they are not telling the truth. When politicians say that they are concerned about people drowning in their attempt to reach safety, they are not telling the truth. The Abbott government reintroduced temporary protection visas. Temporary protection visas offer only three years’ protection, and they include a condition that denies the prospect of family reunion. This has one obvious practical consequence: families who wish to rejoin the husband or father who is living in Australia on a TPV are not allowed to come to Australia by any orthodox means, so the only way in which the family can be reunited is by the women and children using the services of a people smuggler. TPVs are a positive incentive for people to use people smugglers.
Quite apart from this, there is something indecent about the idea that, in order to prevent people from drowning in their attempt to reach safety, you punish the ones who don’t drown. That is precisely what this country is doing right now.
Like most of you, I am aware that Donald Horne was speaking ironically when he wrote of Australia as ‘the lucky country’. But in most important ways, compared with the boat people who try to reach safety in Australia, we are indeed lucky. Over the past fifteen years, 94 per cent of boat people have been assessed, by us, as refugees genuinely fleeing the fear of persecution. In Australia, most members of the community never have to fear persecution; never have to fear the late night knock on the door; never have to fear for their human rights.
But it is all because of the play of chance. Imagine, for a moment, that you are a Hazara from Afghanistan. You have fled your country and you have come down the north-west corridor through Malaysia and Indonesia. You can travel through both of those countries because they give you a one-month visa on arrival. While you are in Indonesia you can go to the UNHCR office in Jakarta and apply for refugee status. If you are a Hazara from Afghanistan, you will almost certainly be assessed as a refugee. But when your one-month visa expires, you have to hide because if you are found by the police, they will jail you. You cannot work because if you work you will be found and then you will be jailed. You cannot send your children to school because if you do you will be found and then you will be jailed. If the UNHCR has assessed you as a refugee, you can wait patiently in the shadows until some country offers to resettle you. That may take twenty or thirty years.
Now, for just one minute, imagine that chance has put you in that position: you are that person. Will you wait in the shadows for twenty or thirty years or will you take your courage in both hands and get on a boat? I have never met an Australian who would not get on the boat. It’s a very strange thing that we criticise, revile and punish those who do precisely what we would do if, by chance, we had not the luck to belong to this country.
Whether this thinking will bear fruit may soon be tested. In the last weeks of its existence, the Abbott government shifted its position quickly in response to public opinion. It had initially resisted the idea of receiving Syrian refugees. Public opinion could see, however, that bombing Syrians and turning our backs on them was not a good look. Germany conspicuously agreed to take eight hundred thousand Syrian refugees, with very few questions asked. That made our claim to be ‘the most generous country in the world’ look a bit hollow. Given that Germany’s population is about four times ours, we would have had to receive two hundred thousand refugees rather than the present quota of 13,750. Abbott volunteered that we would take twelve thousand Syrians. Whether the Turnbull government engages in cherry picking remains to be seen. There is a real risk that the Howard government sentiment will survive: ‘If they come in the front door, they are (more or less) welcome; if they come in the back door, we will jail them.’ It’s too early to tell whether community attitudes have actually changed.
If they have, government attitudes are likely to change. Some preliminary community responses have been surprising and encouraging. Melbourne responded swiftly and decisively against the idea of Border Force officers cruising the streets and ‘speaking to anyone who crosses our path’. The original idea, apparently, was to have squads of public transport officers, police and Border Force officers who would intercept people at places like Flinders Street station and check their Myki card, identity and visa status. Melbourne heard of the proposal on the morning of Friday 28 August 2015. Melbournians turned out in force to protest. By mid-afternoon, the exercise had been cancelled in a flurry of buck passing. In my view, Melbourne’s reaction – so swift and decisive – showed that we know where to draw the line. Perhaps I am an optimist, but I think it showed what sort of country we really are.
Despite the wilful cruelty of government policies, we are still the fundamentally decent country. Perhaps someone should tell our politicians.
This is an edited version of ‘What sort of country are we?’, the Hamer Oration delivered by Julian Burnside at the University of Melbourne on 28 September 2015.