UNHCR: “Australia must end harmful practice of offshore processing”

Here is a statement made on 24 July in Geneva by Filipo Grandi.  How many times do we have to be told we are behaving badly?  Blame: Howard, Ruddock, Rudd, Gillard, Marles, Abbott, Morrison, Turnbull, Dutton…

All of them dishonest. All of them have committed crimes against humanity by their indefinite imprisonment of innocent human beings.

Geneva, 24 July 2017 Statement by Filippo Grandi, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

Australia must end harmful practice of offshore processing

Australia’s policy of offshore processing in Papua New Guinea and Nauru, which denies access to asylum in Australia for refugees arriving by sea without a valid visa, has caused extensive, avoidable suffering for far too long.

Four years on, more than 2,000 people are still languishing in unacceptable circumstances. Families have been separated and many have suffered physical and psychological harm.

In light of this dire humanitarian situation, last November UNHCR exceptionally agreed to help with the relocation of refugees to the United States following a bilateral agreement between Australia and the US. We agreed to do so on the clear understanding that vulnerable refugees with close family ties in Australia would ultimately be allowed to settle there.

UNHCR has recently been informed by Australia that it refuses to accept even these refugees, and that they, along with the others on Nauru and Papua New Guinea, have been informed that their only option is to remain where they are or to be transferred to Cambodia or to the United States.

This means, for example, that some with serious medical conditions, or who have undergone traumatic experiences, including sexual violence, cannot receive the support of their close family members residing in Australia.

To avoid prolonging their ordeal, UNHCR has no other choice but to endorse the relocation of all refugees on Papua New Guinea and Nauru to the United States, even those with close family members in Australia.

There is no doubt these vulnerable people, already subject to four years of punishing conditions, should be reunited with their families in Australia.  This is the humane and reasonable thing to do.

The Australian government’s decision to deny them this possibility is contrary to the fundamental principles of family unity and refugee protection, and to common decency.

UNHCR fully endorses the need to save lives at sea and to provide alternatives to dangerous journeys and exploitation by smugglers. But the practice of offshore processing has had a hugely detrimental impact. There is a fundamental contradiction in saving people at sea, only to mistreat and neglect them on land.

Australia has a proud humanitarian tradition, manifested in its support for overseas aid and its longstanding refugee resettlement programme. I urge Australia to bring an immediate end to the harmful practice of offshore processing, offer solutions to its victims, for whom it retains full responsibility, and work with us on future alternatives that save lives at sea and provide protection to people in need.

At a time of record levels of displacement globally, it is crucial that all States offer protection to survivors of war and persecution, and not outsource their responsibilities to others. Refugees, our fellow human beings, deserve as much.

Background Approximately 2,500 refugees and asylum-seekers have been forcibly transferred by Australia to ‘offshore processing’ facilities in Papua New Guinea and Nauru since the introduction of the current policy in 2013. Of these, some 1,100 remain in Nauru and 900 in Papua New Guinea.

Following the Australia-US bilateral agreement on relocation, UNHCR has referred more than 1,100 refugees to the US over the past eight months. Another 500 people are still waiting for the outcome of the refugee status determination processing being carried out by authorities in PNG and Nauru, under the Australian arrangement.

Refugees left homeless as Manus Camp demolished

Here is a press release from the Refugee Action Collective concerning the demolition of Charlie compound in the Manus Island detention centre.  You will see from this that the Australian government, and its contractors, seem to regard the well-being of the refugees as irrelevant:

Refugee Action Coalition

MEDIA RELEASE

MANUS HUMAN RIGHTS TRASHED AS REFUGEES FORCED TO MOVE

Charlie Compound, where ten Rohingya, Pakistani and Afghan refugees have been living for a month has been demolished after power and water was cut off and the refugees were evicted by PNG police and immigration officials last week. (Photos attached.)

The eviction and demolition are the latest moves by an increasingly desperate government to try and force people out of the detention centre to meet the deadline for the end of the Ferrovial contract on 31 October.

The ten refugees have been living in Charlie since Border Force announced that the Foxtrot compound was being closed at the end of June. They have been forced to try to find accommodation elsewhere in the detention centre defying attempts by Border Force and PNG immigration to force them to move to the East Lorengau Transit Accommodation, closer to the Lorengau settlement on Manus Island.

But there are fewer places for them in an increasingly crowded camp.

The latest notice inside the detention centre days that there are 102 days until the detention centre closes. But only people determined to be refugees are allowed in East Lorengau but it is unsafe and has even fewer services than the detention centre. There are around 60 refugees presently living at East Lorengau, but, in turn, they are being pressured to sign agreements to be resettled in PNG. Although PNG has no resettlement arrangements. The few who have signed for PNG resettlement are living precariously in Port Moresby.

Refugees have again been told that Foxtrot compound is going to be closed ‘in the next few days’. But there is nowhere for them to go.

To make space within the detention centre, refugees will have to forced to move out of Oscar and Delta compounds to East Lorengau. Yet East Lorengau, has room for only around 280 and there are over 700 refugees in the detention centre.

There are around 60 refugees at East Lorengau, who are being pressured to sign agreements to be resettled in PNG.

Any forced closure of Foxtrot would create badly overcrowded and unsanitary conditions inside the detention centre.

Neither Border Force nor PNG immigration have any legal power to use force on refugees inside the detention centre.  In April 2016, The PNG Supreme Court found that all the Manus detainees are being held unlawfully.

“Withdrawing power and water, closing down accommodation areas, ending services and activities have become the method of choice for Border Force to pressure the refugees,” said Ian Rintoul, spokesperson for the Refugee Action Coalition.

“They hope by creating intolerable conditions, they can force enough people out of the detention centre. This kind of coercion amounts to further human rights abuses of people the government has no right to imprison. Such abuses that have already cost them $70m million in damages for the years of unlawful detention.

“Things are coming to a head. Minister Dutton says he wants to close the detention centre but there is nowhere in PNG to put the asylum seekers and refugees and no third country. There is no prospect of refugees from Manus being settled in the US before the deadline.

“That leaves Australia – a choice the Minister, and the Labor opposition will find the decision hard to swallow. But it is a dilemma of their own making. The sooner everyone is brought to Australia, the sooner they will get the safety and security they need. “

For more information contact Ian Rintoul 0417 275 713

Demolition of Charlie Compound

Parliament and Dual Citizenship

Two Greens Senators, Scott Ludlam and Larissa Waters, recently quit the Senate after discovering that they held dual citizenship: Ludlam is, apparently, a citizen of New Zealand, and Waters is, apparently, a citizen of Canada.  You wouldn’t have guessed: both have normal Aussie accents, and both have worked tirelessly in support of Australia’s interests.

The sudden departure of Ludlum and Waters from the Senate focussed renewed attention on section 44 of the Commonwealth Constitution.  Section 44 provides:

“44. Any person who:

(i) is under any acknowledgment of allegiance, obedience, or adherence to a foreign power, or is a subject or a citizen or entitled to the rights or privileges of a subject or a citizen of a foreign power …

shall be incapable of being chosen or of sitting as a senator or a member of the House of Representatives.”

Senator Ludlam said “About a week or so ago it was brought to my attention that I hold dual-citizenship nationality of Australia and New Zealand”.  Given that section 44 is the relevant provision, it is ironic that Scott Ludlam, who is now 47 years old, has lived in Australia for 44 years.  He came here when he was a 3-year old.

A few days later, Senator Larissa Waters also announced she was leaving the Senate, as she had been born in Canada and came to Australia when she was 11 months old.

According to news reports on 20 July, Senator Richard di Natale is now trying to find papers showing that he has renounced any rights to Italian citizenship.  It is significant to notice that, if your citizenship of another country  is a thing of the distant past, digging out documents to show that you no longer adhere to that other country could be challenging.  Given that a lot of people come to Australia as young children born in another country, or are born here to parents who came here from another country, the challenge is a large one.  And add to this that you would have to find out whether the law of the country where you were born, or where your parents came from, recognised you as a citizen in the particular circumstances.

In a multi-cultural country like Australia, it looks a bit crazy.

When a person is elected to the Commonwealth Parliament, they take an Oath of Allegiance in the following terms:

“I [name] do swear that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, Her heirs and successors according to law, So help me God”

This is a little less comprehensive than the Governor-General’s Oath of Office:

I, [name], do swear that I will well and truly serve Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, Her heirs and successors according to law, in the office of Governor-General of the Commonwealth of Australia, and I will do right to all manner of people after the laws and usages of the Commonwealth of Australia, without fear or favour, affection or ill will. So help me God!

It is mildly surprising that members of the Parliament have to swear allegiance to a person who would be disqualified from being a member of the Australian Parliament.  Queen Elizabeth the Second is a British national, she is not a citizen of Australia, but she is our Head of State.  It is also disconcerting that the Governor-General is not constrained in the way members of parliament are.  the governor-General might or might not be a citizen of Australia, and traditionally was a British, but not an Australian, national.

But putting those minor quibbles to one side, no-one has ever suggested that Ludlam, Waters (or any other Greens member) has been untrue to their oath of allegiance.  Given that their connection to New Zealand or Canada respectively is so remote, and so slight, that is not surprising.  Whatever your views about Greens policies, Australian democracy is the weaker for losing Senators Ludlam and Waters.  We should consider very carefully whether section 44(i) is too wide and indiscriminate in its reach.

And here is Ian Holland’s take on the same question, published on 20July 2017 in the Brisbane Times 

Changes to Citizenship Laws

The Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee is holding an enquiry into proposed changes to the Citizenship Act.  The bill being considered is the “Australian Citizenship Legislation Amendment (Strengthening the Requirements for Australian Citizenship and Other Measures) Bill 2017”.

The Bill includes the following provision:

“At the end of section 46 Add:

Required information or documents

(4)              …

(5)              The Minister may determine:

          (a)              an Australian Values Statement; and

          (b)              any requirements relating to the Australian Values Statement….”

The Minister (that is, the Immigration Minister) is therefore given the power to decide what constitutes an appropriate statement of Australian Values. The significance of that power should not be underestimated.

The values which define a nation’s character are, typically, very diverse. It is not easy to imagine that every person in any nation would identify the same values as characteristic of that nation. The proposed amendments noted above would produce the result that adherence to Australia’s values would become a touchstone to citizenship. It seems odd then that one person should have the power to determine, for the nation at large, what its values are. For example, the history of Australia since white settlement could lead a person to suppose that Christian principles were central to Australia’s values. But that proposition would be inconsistent with aspects of Australia’s conduct (past and present) and inconsistent with section 116 of the Constitution, which says:

“The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth.”

It is worth noting that the proposed s. 46(5) may not prevent a Minister from including, in a Statement of Australian Values, a requirement to adhere to Christian principles. This would be objectionable on at least four obvious grounds:

  1. The fact of growing Islamophobia in the community;
  2. The fact that people from various religious backgrounds join the Australian community and contribute greatly to it;
  3. The fact that such a requirement would be inconsistent with section 116 of the Constitution, even if not in breach of it;
  4. The fact that the indigenous peoples of Australia embrace religious views which are pre-Christian.

It seems highly undesirable that any one person, whether a Minister of the Crown or not, should have the power to determine what the nation’s values are, especially when his or her determination has the potential to affect a person’s right to citizenship.

There is a further point. A Statement of Australian Values already exists, as part of the process of applying for permission to enter Australia. If it is a template for what is proposed, then we have a problem.

The Australian Values Statement, in Form 1281, provides as follows:

“AUSTRALIAN VALUES STATEMENT

This statement must be signed by the main applicant and each person aged 18 years or over who is included in the visa application, unless they have already signed it on the visa application form…

I understand:

  • Australian society values respect for the freedom and dignity of the individual, freedom of religion, commitment to the rule of law, Parliamentary democracy, equality of men and women and a spirit of egalitarianism that embraces mutual respect, tolerance, fair play and compassion for those in need and pursuit of the public good;
  • Australian society values equality of opportunity for individuals, regardless of their race, religion or ethnic background;
  • the English language, as the national language, is an important unifying element of Australian society.

…”

(emphasis added)

What is notable about the parts emphasised is that they are difficult to reconcile with the idea of imprisoning innocent people who have sought a safe place to live, and in particular they stand awkwardly with treating asylum seekers the way we do in order to deter others from seeking asylum in Australia.

If we are to have a Statement of Australian Values, the Parliament should ensure that it genuinely reflects Australia’s values as reflected by its conduct as a nation, and the Parliament should ensure that all members of the Parliament could, in good conscience, say that they embrace and live up to the Values reflected in the Statement.

It is notorious that Australia’s treatment of people seeking asylum has been trenchantly criticised by various NGOs. If we are to have a Statement of Australian Values, it should either reflect our willingness to behave in ways that had attracted that criticism, or else our conduct as a Nation should be made to conform to the Statement of Values. Failing one or other of these, the proposed Statement of Australian Values would only survive at the frontier where self-delusion meets self-congratulation.

And while it is true that the English language is important in Australia, there are some Federal MPs whose grasp of English is so tenuous that they would probably fail the Values Statement.

Submissions can be made online at http://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/ Committees/OnlineSubmission or via email to: legcon.sen@aph.gov.au

The text of the bill and the Explanatory Memorandum can be found here

Nauru: How it is

I have received a first-hand account of how things are on Nauru at present.  It’s not good. How much are we paying each year to maintain out offshore warehousing?  $500,000 per person per year…

Sounds like pretty bad value.

Nauru is a very small island nation. It is smaller in area than Tullamarine Airport in Melbourne.  Here is the report I received.  I have edited it slightly to ensure that the person who wrote it cannot be identified:

The ring road (the only real road) is 23 km long. From the ring road you can drive up to the Island’s centre, which is elevated. There, it is much hotter without any breeze like you get on the ring road. On this elevated plateau are the RPC’s (Reception and Processing Centres).

RPC1 is occupied by service providers like Broadspectrum and IHMS.

Due to lack of housing, ‘positives’ remain located in either RPC 2 or RPC3. So-called ‘settlements’ are scattered around the ring road and most refugees prefer to live there, because there is access to the ocean, the shops and a cooling breeze.

HOST International works from the Community Resource Centre, located close to the airport on the ring road. HOST employs refugees in numerous positions. Some work as IT support, some as community liaison officers, others as employment officers. In the office, refugees are treated with respect by ex-pats. In the office are also Nauruans. They are part of the government and predominantly work in housing, employment and child protection.

Australia’s history with Nauru centred on phosphate mining. By nature, Nauruans are not hard working. Think Fiji, Rarotonga, Vanuatu…developing countries. Not as poor as PNG, but nevertheless without much prospect, mainly due to its isolated location and tiny size.

The Nauru government holds all power. This power is absolute. They issue or, as the case may be, withdraw visas for ex-pats.  Land can only be owned by Nauruans (this is a very important issue). Nauruans in general are not well educated. However, they are well looked after: they have land, they do not pay rent and they have been given power over ex-pats and refugees, because after all, it is their island.

So, imagine this tiny island being run by not so well-educated, entitled people: Nauruans feel they are very, very precious and every single ex-pat and refugee have to bow to their whims. It leads to unrealistic situations. Example: ex-pats and refugees-are told over and over again that they MUST NOT overtake Nauruans while driving on the ring road. They must be extremely cautious NOT to splash Nauruans by driving through water. Consequences are dire: Nauruans will cut off your car and bash you up, regardless of age or sex. Example: One refugee who works on Nauru, accidently cut off a Nauruan. Before he could apologise, the Nauruans got out of their car and bashed up the refugee very badly. No point going to the police because they are Nauruans also. Refugees are routinely bashed up by angry locals for no specific reason. Nauruans are a very jealous people. Example: Some Iranians refugees had settled on the ring road. They started a business – as many try to – by renting a huge house on the beach front and converting it into a restaurant. Hard working, and with stunning ocean views, the business thrived. Soon the Nauruan landlord found out, and told them to pack up. He simply evicted them. The building has been empty ever since.

Housing is a real issue. Some Nauruans are extremely rich but they do not want refugees to live in their houses. So, all along the ring road you see empty, neglected houses and units which could easily house numerous refugees who are instead housed in the hot and oppressive camps (“Reception and Processing Centres”). No-one can do anything: it is in the hands of the Nauruans.

In the office, ex-pats have to be very careful talking to Nauruan staff. Nauruan staff MUST always be in the right. If not, they simply revoke your visa. Example: An Australian worker had a difference of opinion with a Nauruan staff member. Within half an hour that person’s visa was revoked and he was transported to the airport, never to return. HOST International is powerless to stop any of this. Employees are warned by HOST, to be very careful NOT to criticise Nauruans or their government, because it is not possible to know what is being overheard.

When it comes to dealing with foreigners, Nauruans, and the Government of Nauru, have all the power and, although many welcome refugees on their island, many do not. Refugee children are bullied at school but the Nauru Government has no policies in place with respect to child protection. It is all new to them and they are unwilling to take advice from experienced ex-pats. Refugees have limited opportunities: They can NEVER own land, they are ALWAYS  at the mercy of ruthless landlords, jobs will go to Nauruans first and, even if a refugee manages to get a job, they can easily lose it due to jealousy of the Nauru Government. Most refugees who are employed, are employed by HOST or by Broadspectrum.

 

 

Border Force: A threat to us all

Never forget the lesson of Martin Niemoller.

The lesson is: when government’s misbehave, it’s just a matter of time before they will come for you.

Recently, two Australian citizens arrived back in Australia after a long overnight flight.

They had nothing to declare and filled out customs declarations accordingly. The dogs sniffed their bags, legs etc and soon lost interest.

Nevertheless the Australian Border Force people (ABF) decided to single them out for closer inspection. ABF staff were particularly unfriendly and treated them as suspects.

It was 6 am and ABF turned the Australians’ luggage inside out. They took X-rays of the luggage, but found nothing. Not surprising, as there was nothing to find.

But ABF then decided to confiscate the travellers’ iPhones, iPads and laptop computers. They kept the travellers at the airport for almost 2 hours. Finally, they said that the travellers – two Australian citizens who had just returned from a holiday – were suspected ‘people smugglers’.

ABF then confiscated the travellers’ iPhones, iPads and laptop computers “for forensic testing”. They kept them for the next ten days. Nothing was done to protect their personal, private and confidential information on their electronic devices.

During the ten days they kept the electronic devices, ABF made NO effort to contact either of the Australian citizens. Instead, the citizens had to chase ABF in an attempt to have their electric equipment returned.

Eventually the equipment   was returned. The Australian travellers have not been charged with any offence (probably for the good reason that they had committed no offence). But there was no apology from ABF, and no explanation.

Just for a moment, try to imagine how it feels: You arrive back in Australia tired, the ABF men in black rummage through all your luggage and then keep your iPhone, iPad and computer for ten days. I thought that’s what happened in Police States. But with two former Queensland policemen in charge (Dutton and Quadvlieg), expect the unthinkable.

Be aware, be very aware!

And remember the words of Martin Niemoller (he is in the centre of the photograph of people taken in by the Nazis), the Lutheran pastor who was taken in for questioning by the Nazis in July 1938:

When they came for the Communists I said nothing, because I am not a Communist.

When they came for the trade unionists I said nothing, because I am not a trade unionist.

When they came for the Jews I said nothing, because I am not a Jew.

And when they came for me There was no-one to speak for me.

A brief account of Human Rights activism

On 1 July 2017 I gave the inaugural Ralph Summy lecture for Ngara.

The event honoured Ralph Summy and was also the occasion of the award of the inaugural Australian Activists of the Year Awards.  The winners were Murrawah Johnson and Adrian Burragubba of the Wangan and Jagalingu Traditional Owners Family Council, for their tireless work in opposing the Adani coalmine, which will destroy the traditional lands of the Wangan and Jagalingu.

NGARA: Inaugural Ralph Summy Speech: 1 July 2017

WHAT SORT OF COUNTRY ARE WE?  WHAT SORT OF COUNTRY CAN WE BE?

Contents

Ralph Summy; … Two steps forward, one step back; … The Melian dialogue; … Slavery.; … The Zorg; … The American Declaration of Independence; … Dred Scott; … The Declaration of the Rights of Man; … The Universal Declaration of Human Rights; … The Trevorrow case; … Australian Values; … Conclusion

Ralph Summy

Today’s talk is given in honour of Professor Ralph Summy.

Professor Summy taught political science at the University of Queensland for more than 30 years. He established an interdisciplinary major in peace and conflict studies.

In 1971 he wrote a thesis called Australian Peace Movement 1960-67: A Study of Dissent. He wrote it for the purpose of a Master of Arts at the University of Sydney. It is an interesting thesis because it covers the history of a movement of which I was vaguely aware during my years of blind passivity. The period covered by his study begins in 1960 (when I was in Grade 6 at school, and hopefully I can be forgiven for not paying attention to what was going on) and ends in 1967, which was my first year at university and had become vaguely aware of things that were happening. The big name in political activism during the years that I remember included Jim Cairns. Jim Cairns gets numerous references in Ralph Summy’s thesis. It is easy to forget these days that the big issues back then included the nuclear arms race, the war in Vietnam and (in Australia specifically) conscription. I was acutely aware of the war in Vietnam and conscription because my birth date had come out of the ballot, by which people were chosen for conscription, and because I was a university student when I turned 18 I was able to defer my call-up until I finished my degrees. I finished at university in 1972. The Federal election that year was fought at least in part on the issue of conscription, and I was due to be called-up at the start of the following year. But Gough Whitlam won that election, and had promised during his election campaign to abolish conscription. He did so and as a result I wasn’t called up. That was a relief, of course. But it has to be conceded that I had voted against self-interest in December 1967, because I voted Liberal.

It is easy to forget that the 1966 election followed shortly after Harold Holt (who was then Australia’s Prime Minister) had said that Australia would go “all the way with LBJ”.

It is also easy to forget that Holt had been given the Prime Ministership by Sir Robert Menzies, who had begun his record run as Prime Minister of Australia in 1949 (the year I was born – I didn’t catch up with the news until a bit later) and Liberals continued to hold government in Canberra until 1972. Ralph Summy’s thesis includes the useful reminder that a Victorian SOS pamphlet included this sentence: “Why … the Menzies-Holt government committed Australian troops is because the government believes that Australia must blindly follow American policies in order to consolidate the Australian-American alliance, which the government regards as necessary to Australian security”.

The more things change, the more they remain the same.

The catchcry “all the way with LBJ” was universally recognized in Australia, although it originated in America. In March 1964, Democrat Party supporters in New Hampshire called “all the way with LBJ and RFK”. In October 1966, LBJ visited Australia and Harold Holt declared that Australia was “all the way with LBJ”. Holt had been treasurer until January 1966, when Robert Menzies stepped down as Prime Minister and handed over to Holt. Holt was sworn in as Prime Minister on Australia Day 1966. (Interestingly, his first Cabinet included Billy McMahon, John Gorton and Malcolm Fraser). LBJ’s visit to Australia was usefully timed in October 1966, because the Federal election was held in November that year.

Holt’s declaration that Australia would go “all the way with LBJ” was wildly contentious, because of course it was a direct reference to Australia’s continued involvement in the war in Vietnam. Holt disappeared in late December 1967, presumably drowned at sea near his beach-house at Portsea. So, his big issue and his death fit neatly into Ralph Summy’s thesis.

Summy’s thesis notes that the Parliamentary party of the ALP had made known in May 1966 that conscription would be a major issue in the election later that year. Arthur Calwell in a motion of dissent from the policies outlined by Harold Holt in his first statement as Prime Minister, noted as the first item “emphatic opposition to the dispatch of conscripted youths for service in Vietnam”. It is easy to forget what a contentious issue conscription and the war in Vietnam had been. It is altogether fitting that this speech is in honour of Ralph Summy, whose thesis provides such a powerful reminder of the simple truth that political activism can ultimately achieve results.

Tonight we honour Ralph Summy.

Two steps forward, one step back

Because Ralph Summy was an activist, and because the Australian Activists Award is to be presented tonight, I was asked to keep my talk largely upbeat. After all, activists should not be discouraged.

It will be no surprise to anyone here that occasionally I find it difficult to remain upbeat in my pursuit of something approximating justice for refugees in Australia. However, it is important to notice that political activism sometimes takes a while to meet its mark (for example, the activism summarized by Ralph Summy and which was in large part responsible for the end of conscription and the end of Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War). And equally it is important to notice that various other forms of political activism have also produced striking and enduring results – results which should still be celebrated.

The cause of human rights often advances and then slips back. We are in a slippage phase at present.

My general proposition tonight is that the slippage phases should not discourage us: taken in the long sweep of history, the activists are helping humankind make progress.

The Melian dialogue

Although I am sure there are many earlier examples, it is useful to start with Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian Wars. The second Peloponnesian war ran from 431BC until 404BC. Athens wasn’t doing too well and decided that it needed a launching place somewhere close to Sparta. The island of Melos was an ideal candidate. But the island of Melos had never done anything to harm the Athenians and was, in all possible respects, a neutral. The Athenians sent a delegation to speak to the commissions of Melos and explained to them fairly bluntly that they were planning to take over Melos and that there was an easy way and a hard way. They acknowledged that the Melians had never done any harm to the Athenians but then pointed out that this was irrelevant “You know as well as we do” they said “that justice is only relevant between equals in power. Where power is unequal, the strong do what they will and the weak suffer what they must” (the Melians stood their ground and Athens took them over the hard way: they murdered the men and raped the women).

Although it is easy to be cynical about our conceptions of justice, the legal system still aims to achieve justice and in particular justice of a kind which does not depend on whether the antagonists are equal in power or one weak and the other strong. It may not be a perfect system, but at least its objectives have taken us some distance from the theoretical underpinnings and harsh consequences of the Melian dialogue.

Slavery

Let me give another example of progress. It is easily forgotten how differently slaves were seen before the heroic and pioneering work of William Wilberforce in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries. Before Wilberforce started campaigning against slavery, slavery was common and accepted and, in some places at least, was regarded as fundamental to the continued economic prosperity of the British Commonwealth.

The Zorg

In 1781, a ship variously called The Zorg or The Zong (one appears to be a misreading of the other) set sail from the coast of West Africa, bound for Jamaica. The captain was Sir Luke Collingwood. As was the custom at the time, its cargo was fully insured.

The cargo comprised 470 slaves.

Because of faulty navigation and changes in the weather, supplies of food and water on the ship looked as though they might not last the distance. By the 29th November, 1781 overcrowding together with malnutrition and disease had resulted in the deaths of seven crew members and about 60 slaves. Captain Collingwood decided to throw a further 133 slaves overboard. By that extreme measure, he hoped that the remaining food and water would be sufficient for the balance of the voyage.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the case ended up in court: not on a charge of mass-murder but on an insurance claim. The insurer defended the case on the footing that the market value of the slaves had fallen below the insured value. There was no suggestion that anyone would be charged with murder. In fact, the Solicitor-General John Lee said that a master could drown slaves without any impropriety. He said: “What is this claim that human people have been thrown overboard? This is a case of chattels or goods. Blacks are goods and property; it is madness to accuse these well-serving honourable men of murder. They acted out of necessity and in the most appropriate manner for the cause. … The case is the same as if horses had been thrown overboard”.

The case of The Zorg is one which is almost inconceivable in modern times. In that simple proposition you see that we have, in fact, made some progress in our conceptions of justice. William Wilberforce was a great activist and although it took a long time he succeeded.

The American Declaration of Independence

It is easy to forget that, at least until the English Civil War, the received theory of Government was that Kings ruled by divine right and they could not safely be removed.

The English Civil War (1642-1647) was the result of growing tension between King Charles I and his Parliament but it had not been fought when the British colonized North America by establishing a settlement at Jamestown, Virginia in 1607. By 1773, the Americans had tired of being taxed by a British Government in which they had no say. Their direct expression of discontent was called the Boston Tea Party. The British Parliament had been trying to raise funds to help out the East India Company. It increased import duties by passing the Tea Act in 1773. On December 16, 1773, the so-called “sons of liberty” boarded three ships in the Boston Harbour under cover of night and threw 342 chests of tea into the harbour. This was a trigger for the American Revolution which began in 1775 and ran through until 1783. However, by July 1776, the revolutionaries had decided that the time had come to declare America’s independence from the British. On the 4th July, 1776, in congress, the 13 United States of America declared:

“When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature’s god entitlement, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,

That whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its power in such form, as to then shall seem most likely to affect their safety and happiness …”

The reference to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” is widely known and universally famous. But the simple explanation of the nature of government and the source of power to form government is often overlooked but was truly revolutionary.

The Declaration of Independence was a truly revolutionary act, the result of years of careful thinking and calculated activism. Even though some of the large objectives of the preamble to the Declaration of Independence have not yet been achieved, it has to be said that it was a great triumph and a step in the right direction.

When I say that not all the objectives had been achieved, I have in mind in particular the case of Dred Scott

Dred Scott

Dred Scott was born a slave in Virginia, in 1799. He was owned by Peter Blow. The Blow family moved to St Louis, Missouri, in 1830. Missouri had been acquired in 1804 in the Louisiana purchase. It had been admitted to the Union in 1820, as a slave State, as part of the Missouri Compromise. The Missouri Compromise allowed Missouri into the Union as a slave State, but otherwise prevented the admission to the Union of slave States above 36º30’ north latitude. In effect, it guaranteed that slavery would not spread to the other States acquired in the Louisiana Purchase. It had been a hotly contested measure. Since Eli Whitney had invented the cotton gin in 1794, cotton had been a great source of wealth in the southern States, but its profitability depended on slave labour to pick the cotton.

In 1830, Blow sold Scott to Dr Emerson, an army surgeon. Emerson took Scott with him to his various postings. They spent the next 12 years in free States, principally Illinois. They returned to St Louis in 1842. Emerson died in 1846. His executors were his wife, and her brother John Sanford.

In 1846, Scott sued Mrs Emerson in the St Louis Circuit Court. In form, it was a petition for freedom, based on the fact that he had spent years in a free State, and was therefore released from slavery. A decision of the English courts (Smith v. Brown & Cooper (1705) 2 Salk 666) provided an argument that the simple fact of having spent time in a non-slave State meant that Dred Scott’s condition of slavery was dissolved

Judge Alexander Hamilton heard Scott’s case. A technicality in the evidence led to its failing. The Judge granted leave for a new trial. He won; but the decision was reversed by the Missouri Supreme Court in 1852.

By this time, Mrs Emerson had remarried. Her new husband was an abolitionist. She made over Scott to her brother and co-executor, John Sanford. Sanford lived in New York. Thus Scott was able to sue in the Federal jurisdiction, since the suit was between residents of different States. The action was for assault.

Sanford (erroneously called Sandford in the Court record) filed a plea in abatement on the basis that Scott was a slave and therefore not a citizen. Accordingly, so the argument went, there was no suit “between citizens of several States” and the Federal jurisdiction was not attracted. In other words, he sought to have the action struck out peremptorily as incompetent.

The matter was argued in December 1855, and was re-argued in 1856. Powerful interests wanted to retain the institution of slavery: American plantation owners, as well as English manufactureres and merchants. Slavery had been abolished in Britain and its Colonies by the Emancipation Act 1834, but that did not prevent English commerce from benefitting from it indirectly. Such was still the position when Roger Casement undertook his tour of investigation in the Congo Free State (1901-04), and Brazil (1906-11).

The first question in issue resolved to this: was a slave capable of being a citizen under the Constitution, so that his action against a citizen of another State would attract the Federal jurisdiction?

Chief Justice Taney and Justices Wayne, Nelson, Grier, Daniel, Campbell and Catron said that the answer to the first question was No. Taney J said:

“The question before us is whether the class of persons described in the plea in abatement compose a portion of this people, and are constituent members of this sovereignty? We think they are not, and that they are not included, and were not intended to be included, under the word “citizens” in the Constitution, and can therefore claim none of the rights and privileges which that instrument provides for and secures to citizens of the United States. On the contrary, they were at that time considered as a subordinate and inferior class of beings who had been subjugated by the dominant race, and, whether emancipated or not, yet remained subject to their authority, and had no rights or privileges but such as those who held the power and the Government might choose to grant them. …

They had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race either in social or political relations, and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect, and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit. He was bought and sold, and treated as an ordinary article of merchandise and traffic whenever a profit could be made by it.” (emphasis added)

The ideas expressed, and the intensity of the language used, strike the modern ear as shocking, especially in light of the introductory words of the Declaration of Independence (1776):

” … We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Taney J dealt with those words in this way:

“The general words above quoted would seem to embrace the whole human family, and if they were used in a similar instrument at this day would be so understood. But it is too clear for dispute that the enslaved African race were not intended to be included … for if the language, as understood in that day, would embrace them, the conduct of the distinguished men who framed the Declaration of Independence would have been utterly and flagrantly inconsistent with the principles they asserted …”

McLean J (dissenting) did not agree in the result on this issue, but expressed himself in language not much happier than that of Taney J:

“In the argument, it was said that a colored citizen would not be an agreeable member of society. This is more a matter of taste than of law. Several of the States have admitted persons of color to the right of suffrage, and, in this view, have recognised them as citizens, and this has been done in the slave as well as the free States. On the question of citizenship, it must be admitted that we have not been very fastidious. Under the late treaty with Mexico, we have made citizens of all grades, combinations, and colors. The same was done in the admission of Louisiana and Florida …” (per McLean J at 533).

Curtis J (dissenting) found in the words of the Constitution ample authority for the proposition that a slave could be a citizen of the United States.

The second question was whether a slave could become a free man by entering a free State. The question had precedents in English case law. In 1678, it had been held that if a Negro slave came into England and was baptised, he thereupon became a free man. If he were not baptised, he remained “an infidel” and was not freed: Butts v. Penney 2 Lev 201. This rule was later relaxed: in Smith v. Brown & Cooper Holt CJ had said:

“As soon as a Negro comes into England, he becomes free: one may be a villein in England, but not a slave.”

In Somerset v. Stewart (1772) 98 ER 499, Lord Mansfield had decided on a habeas corpus application that a Virginian slave who had arrived in London must be set free. Lord Mansfield’s decision is famous for its declamatory final sentence “The black must go free”. It is less well-remembered that his Lordship had tried to avoid having to decide the matter. He had said in the course of argument:

“… a contract for the sale of a slave is good here; the sale is a matter to which the law properly and readily attaches … The setting 14,000 or 15,000 men at once free … by a solemn opinion, is much disagreeable in the effects it threatens … An application to Parliament, if the merchants think the question of great commercial concern, is the best, and perhaps the only method of settling the point for the future …” (emphasis added)

The majority in Dred Scott’s case held that the English authorities had no application in the different constitutional framework of the American Union. Specifically, the 5th Amendment prevented the slave being freed by passing into a free State. So far as relevant it provides:

“No person shall … be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation.”

To allow that a slave be freed by virtue of travelling to a free State would involve a deprivation of property without due process. It is an interesting irony that a slave owner could not be deprived of ownership of his slave without due process, but the slaves were deprived of liberty without due process. The relevant difference is that slaves were not considered “people” for Constitutional purposes.

For good measure, 6 of the 7 judges in the majority held the Missouri Compromise to be unconstitutional, as contravening the 5th Amendment. Thus they struck down the measure which had, in effect, quarantined slavery to the southern States where the cotton industry was the principal source of wealth, and slave labour was the principal engine of that industry.

The Dred Scott case [reported under the name Scott v Sandford 60 US 393] was decided by the US Supreme Court on 6 March 1857. It provoked bitter controversy. It was one of the precipitating causes of the American Civil War (1861-1865). Abolition was the great question over which the war was fought During that war, on 19 November 1863 (87 years after the Declaration of Independence) Abraham Lincoln famously re-stated the founding proposition of the American Union:

“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. …”

In so saying, he was unequivocally advancing the cause of abolition. His address at Gettysburg is regarded as a clarion call for the abolitionist cause.

The Dred Scott case resulted in the resignation of Curtis J, and blighted the reputation of Taney J. He was a decent man and a fine lawyer. He had voluntarily freed his own slaves, at great personal cost, and had 35 years earlier described slavery as “a blot on our national character”. Ironically, the decision in the Dred Scott case is generally regarded as a blot on the record of the US Supreme Court.

The decision was an exercise in strict construction which reached an unpalatable result by chaining the words of the Constitution to their historic origins. In 1992 Scalia J. – himself no bleeding-heart liberal in matters of construction – said that “ … the Court was covered with dishonour and deprived of legitimacy” by the Dred Scott decision.

On 28 July 1868, in the aftermath of the Civil War, the effect of the decision was overturned by the 14th amendment to the US Constitution.

The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen

The French Revolution started in 1789. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen was prepared at about the same time. It is not surprising to learn that Thomas Jefferson had a hand in drafting it. It was influenced by the political philosophy of the Enlightenment and principles of human rights, as the U.S. Declaration of Independence was. Jefferson had prepared the first draft of the Declaration of Independence.

The first five articles of the Declaration are immediately recognisable as a reflection of modern thinking:

  1. Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions may be founded only upon the general good.
  2. The aim of all political association is the preservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man. These rights are liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression.
  3. The principle of all sovereignty resides essentially in the nation. No body nor individual may exercise any authority which does not proceed directly from the nation.
  4. Liberty consists in the freedom to do everything which injures no one else; hence the exercise of the natural rights of each man has no limits except those which assure to the other members of the society the enjoyment of the same rights. These limits can only be determined by law.
  5. Law can only prohibit such actions as are hurtful to society. Nothing may be prevented which is not forbidden by law, and no one may be forced to do anything not provided for by law…

For all this, it is worth noticing that these principles expressly did not apply to women or slaves. And it is worth noting that in 1791 Olympe de Gouge prepared the Declaration of the Rights of Woman. The following year she was executed by guillotine.

Two steps forward, one step back…

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

The next giant step forward resulting from activism which I would identify did not happen until the middle of the 20th Century, although I am sure there were plenty of other significant advances between 1776 and 1948.

It is widely forgotten that anti-Semitism was common through the Western world until the end of the Second World War. Arguably, anti-Semitism hasn’t disappeared but has simply gone underground. There are clear traces of anti-Semitism in the earliest version of Magna Carta. There are clear instances of anti-Semitism in Shakespeare, notoriously in the Merchant of Venice. But the horrors of the holocaust gave anti-Semitism the bad name it always deserved.

The Second World War gave rise to a new need to protect human rights. After the war ended, it was impossible – indecent – to permit a continuation of the anti-Semitism which has disfigured many countries (including England and Australia). The holocaust showed where that line of thinking leads if left unchecked. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 and the Refugees’ Convention in 1951 were the most prominent expressions of a new global concern to see that those who fear persecution should be protected.

The Universal Declaration (10 December 1948) was the work of a surprising activist: Eleanor Roosevelt. She was the widow of Franklin Delano Roosevelt who had died shortly before the end of the Second World War. She was also cousin to Roosevelt and had grown up in the rich surroundings of the Roosevelt family. But Eleanor Roosevelt was a genuine egalitarian and had set her heart on responding decisively to the horrors of the Second World War.

When I say Eleanor Roosevelt was a true egalitarian, it is worth remembering that from the death of FDR in 1945 until her death in 1962, Eleanor Roosevelt spent most of her time at a small property called Val-Kill in upstate New York. Val-Kill is truly remarkable in a number of ways. It is strikingly plain. It is a very simple old farmhouse. The sitting-room is furnished with very ordinary chairs and very simple bookshelves. But there are photographs on the wall one of which is a photograph of Eleanor Roosevelt having tea in that very room with John F. Kennedy. Next to the sitting-room is the dining-room. The dining-room table seats 10 or 12 people. Many great heads of state dined at that table. But Eleanor Roosevelt was always conscious of the need to have equal numbers of locals whenever she was entertaining dignitaries. And the crockery on which dinner was served had been bought at a Five and Dime store. Eleanor Roosevelt must have been a truly remarkable person. Her sense of the equality of all human beings still lives and breathes at Val-Kill.

After the end of the Second World War, Eleanor Roosevelt set her heart on creating a Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It begins as follows:

PREAMBLE

Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,

Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people,

Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law, …

As with the Declaration of Independence, some of the rhetoric goes beyond what has ultimately been achieved but it remains the case that for such a document to be universally acknowledged in the United Nations is a mark of progress to which all activists can aspire.

The Trevorrow case

The Trevorrow case happened half a world away, and 150 years later.

Bruce Trevorrow was the illegitimate son of Joe Trevorrow and Thora Lampard. He was born in November 1956. They lived at One Mile Camp, Meningie, on the Coorong. They had two other sons, Tom and George Trevorrow.

They lived at One Mile Camp because, in the 1950s, it was not lawful for an aborigine to live closer than one mile to a place of white settlement, unless they had a permit.

When Bruce was 13 months old, he got gastroenteritis. Joe didn’t have a car capable of taking Bruce to the hospital, so some neighbours from Meningie took him to the Adelaide Children’s Hospital where he was admitted on Christmas Day 1957. Hospital records show that he was diagnosed with gastroenteritis, he was treated appropriately and the gastro resolved within six or seven days. Seven days after that he was given away to a white family: Mr & Mrs Davies.

The Davies lived in suburban Adelaide. They had a daughter who was about 16 at the time. She gave evidence at the trial as a woman in her late middle age. She remembered the day clearly. Her mother had always wanted a second daughter. They had seen an advertisement in the local newspaper offering aboriginal babies for fostering. They went to the hospital and looked at a number of eligible babies and saw a cute little girl with curly hair and chose her. They took her home and, when they changed her nappy, they discovered she was a boy. That’s how Bruce Trevorrow was given away in early January, 1958.

A short time later Bruce’s mother, down at One Mile Camp Meningie, wrote to the Department asking how Bruce was doing and when he was coming home. The magnitude of her task should not be overlooked: pen and paper, envelope and stamp were not items readily obtained in the tin and sackcloth humpies of One Mile Camp, Meningie. But Thora managed to write her letter, and it still exists in the South Australian State archives. The reply is still in existence. It notes that Bruce is doing quite well but that the doctors say he is not yet well enough to come home. Bruce had been given away weeks earlier.

In South Australia in the 1950s, the laws relating to fostering required that foster mothers be assessed for suitability and that the foster child and foster home should be inspected regularly. Although the laws did not distinguish between white children and aboriginal children, the fact is that Bruce’s foster family was never checked for suitability and neither was he checked by the Department to assess his progress. He came to the attention of the Children’s Hospital again when he was three years old: he was pulling his own hair out. When he was eight or nine years old, he was seen a number of times by the Child Guidance Clinic and was diagnosed as profoundly anxious and depressed and as having no sense of his own identity.

Nothing had been done to prepare the foster family for the challenges associated with fostering a young aboriginal child. When Bruce was 10 years old, he met Thora, his natural mother, for the first time. Although the Department had previously prevented his mother from finding out where Bruce was, the law had changed in the meantime and they could no longer prevent the mother from seeing him.

The initial meeting interested Bruce and he was later to be sent down to stay with his natural family for a short holiday. When the welfare worker put him on the bus to send him down to Victor Harbour, the foster mother said that she couldn’t cope with him and did not want him back. His clothes and toys were posted on after him.

Nothing had been done to prepare Bruce or his natural family for the realities of meeting again after nine years. Things went badly. Bruce tried to walk from Victor Harbour back to Adelaide (about 80 kilometers) to find the only family he knew. He was picked up by the police and ended up spending the next six or eight years of his life in State care. By the time he left State care at age 18, he was an alcoholic. The next 30 years of his life were characteristic of someone who is profoundly depressed and who uses alcohol as a way of shielding himself from life’s realities. He had regular bouts of unemployment and a number of convictions for low-level criminal offences. Every time he was assessed by a psychiatrist, the diagnosis was the same: anxiety, profound depression, no sense of identity and no sense of belonging anywhere.

The trial had many striking features. One was the astonishing difference between Bruce – profoundly damaged, depressed and broken – and his brothers, who had not been removed. They told of growing up with Joe Trevorrow, who taught them how to track and hunt, how to use plants for medicine, how to fish. He impressed on them the need for proper schooling. They spoke of growing up in physically wretched circumstances, but loved and valued and supported. They presented as strong, resilient, resourceful people. Their arrival to give evidence at the trial was delayed because they had been overseas attending an international meeting concerning the repatriation of indigenous remains.

The second striking feature was the fact that the Government of South Australia contested every point in the case. Nothing was too small to pass unchallenged. One of their big points was to assert that removing a child from his or her parents did no harm – they even ventured to suggest that removal had been beneficial for Bruce. This contest led to one of the most significant findings in the case. Justice Gray said in his judgment:

“[885]          I find that it was reasonably foreseeable that the separation of a 13 month old Aboriginal child from his natural mother and family and the placement of that child in a non-indigenous family for long-term fostering created real risks to the child’s health. The State through its emanations, departments and departmental officers either foresaw these risks or ought to have foreseen these risks. … ”

That finding was not only supported by evidence, it also accords with common sense. We all have an instinct that it is harmful to children to remove them from their parents. The finding was based on extensive evidence concerning the work of John Bowlby in the early 1950s, which showed that it is intrinsically harmful to remove a child from his or her parents, in particular when this occurs after nine months of age.

At the time Bruce was given away, the Aborigines Protection Board of South Australia had already been advised by the Crown Solicitor that it had no legal power to remove aboriginal children from their parents. One of the documents tendered at the trial was a letter written by the secretary of the APB in 1958. It read in part:

“… Again in confidence, for some years without legal authority, the Board have taken charge of many aboriginal children, some are placed in Aboriginal Institutions, which by the way I very much dislike, and others are placed with foster parents, all at the cost of the Board. At the present time I think there are approximately 300 children so placed. …”

After a hard-fought trial, the Judge found in Bruce’s favour, and awarded him a total of about $800,000.

There are a few things to say about this. First, Bruce’s circumstances were not unique. There are, inevitably, other aboriginal men and women who were taken in equivalent circumstances while they were children and suffered as a result. Although they may seek to vindicate their rights, the task becomes more difficult as each year passes. Evidence degrades, witnesses die, documents disappear.

Second, litigation against a Government is not for the fainthearted. Governments fight hard. It took Bruce’s case eight years to get to court, and the trial ran for some months. If he had lost the case, Bruce would have been ruined by an order to pay the Government’s legal costs.

Kevin Rudd’s Labor government was elected in late 2007. The new parliament assembled in Canberra on 13 February 2008. At that first sitting, the Government said ‘sorry’ to the stolen generations. It seemed almost too good to be true: the apology so many had waited so long to hear. And it was astonishing and uplifting to hear some of the noblest and most dignified sentiments ever uttered in that place on the hill. It is worth recalling some of the words:

“Today we honour the indigenous peoples of this land, the oldest continuing cultures in human history.

We reflect on their past mistreatment.

We reflect in particular on the mistreatment of those who were stolen generations – this blemished chapter in our nation’s history. …

We apologise for the laws and policies of successive Parliaments and Governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians. …

For the pain, suffering and hurt of these stolen generations, their descendants and for their families left behind, we say ‘sorry’.

To the mothers and the fathers, the brothers and the sisters, for the breaking up of families and communities, we say ‘sorry’.

And for the indignity and degradation thus inflicted on a proud people and a proud culture, we say ‘sorry’. …

We today take this first step by acknowledging the past and laying claim to a future that embraces all Australians.

A future where this Parliament resolves that the injustices of the past must never, never happen again. …”

13 February 2008 will be remembered as a day the nation shifted, perceptibly. The apology was significant not only for marking a significant step in the process of reconciling ourselves with our past: it cast a new light on the former Howard government, which had refused to apologise to the Stolen Generations. It set a new tone. And it reminded us of something we had lost: a sense of decency.

Most of the worst aspects of the Howard years can be explained by the lack of decency which infected their approach to government. They could not acknowledge the wrong that was done to the Stolen Generations; they failed to help David Hicks when it was a moral imperative: they waited until his rescue became a political imperative; they never quite understood the wickedness of imprisoning children who were fleeing persecution; they abandoned ministerial responsibility; they attacked the courts scandalously but unblushing; they argued for the right to detain innocent people for life; they introduced laws which prevent fair trials; they bribed the impoverished Republic of Nauru to warehouse refugees for us. It seemed that they did not understand just how badly they were behaving, or perhaps they just did not care.

One of the most compelling things about the apology to the stolen generations was that it was so decent. Suddenly, a dreadful episode in our history was acknowledged for what it was. The Prime Minister’s apology makes no difference whatever to whether or not Governments face legal liability for removing aboriginal children. But it acknowledged for the first time that a great moral wrong was done, and it acknowledged the damage which that caused. The most elementary instinct for justice tells us that when harm is inflicted by acts which are morally wrong, then there is a moral, if not a legal, responsibility to answer for the damage caused. To acknowledge the wrong and the damage and to deny compensation is simply unjust.

Australian Values

In recent times there has been considerable discussion of the statement of Australian values which, it seems, will become inextricably linked with applications for citizenship. The statement includes the following:

“Australian society values respect for the freedom and dignity of the individual, freedom of religion, commitment to the rule of law, parliamentary democracy, equality of men and women and a spirit of egalitarianism that embraces mutual respect, tolerance, fair-play and compassion for those in need and pursuit of the public good;

Australian society values equality of opportunity for individuals regardless of their race, religion or ethnic background …”

It would be good to see Federal parliamentarians place hand on heart and swear that these are values they embrace. The wilful mistreatment of asylum seekers sits uncomfortably with these values.

Conclusion

As I have been asked to be optimistic in this talk, I won’t say much about refugees, nor will I attempt to reconcile the Statement of Australian values with the facts surrounding our treatment of refugees. But let me give you an example that we might choose to follow. Just a few weeks ago I was in Jordan, investigating their treatment of refugees. Jordan is a country which faces some interesting challenges: it has Israel and Palestine on the west; Iraq on the east and Syria on the north. One way or another, this means that quite a few uninvited refugees have walked from one or other of those countries into Jordan, looking for a place of safety. In addition, Jordan has a population of only 9.6 million people and a fairly fragile economy, because it does not have any oil.

In the north of Jordan, just about five kilometres from the Syrian border, is a refugee camp called al Za’atari. The Za’atari camp presently holds about 80,000 people, all of whom arrived in Jordan as uninvited refugees. But for the fact that they arrived on foot, they would have been boat people. The Za’atari camp is an open one: people inside the camp are allowed to get jobs outside the camp and they go out each day and return each evening. The camp contains almost 2,000 shops which have been established by refugees and are run by refugees. They include not only the best falafel shop I’ve ever been to but also two shops where you can hire bridal gowns!

The 80,000 people in the Za’atari camp are just the tip of the iceberg. There are about 1 million refugees living in the community in Jordan. They are all informal refugees: that is, refugees who have simply turned up looking for protection. To put that figure in perspective: in the approximately 60 years since Australia signed the Refugees’ Convention, we have received fewer than 1 million refugees in total. Of that group, fewer than 100,000 were informal refugees. It need hardly be said that in recent years Australia has been hostile, to the point of paranoia, about informal refugees arriving here. Jordan manages informal refugees with remarkable grace, and yet it has not signed the Refugees’ Convention. In the last few years it has received far more informal refugees than we’ve received since we signed the Convention 60 years ago, but Jordan treats them well.

So, if you are an activist in relation to the interests of refugees, keep at it. Human decency will eventually find a way. Sometime, perhaps even in the near future, Australia will find that it is able to respond to refugees as generously as Jordan does.

To conclude, on the same trip that took me to Jordan I was taken to Lesbos. Lesbos is a Greek island just four kilometres off the coast of Turkey. As a result of that little accident of geography, Lesbos has received a lot of refugees who have fled through Turkey and who want to get to safety in Europe. A lot of them land on Lesbos. While I was in Lesbos, I heard a story about a beach there which, occasionally, has a big tide which washes up tens of thousands of starfish. The starfish are stranded on the beach as the tide recedes. If they stay on the sand they will dry out and perish. A little girl who lived in Mytilene, the main town on Lesbos, was very concerned about the starfish. She went down to the beach. A grown-up said to her “you can’t save them all”.

Her response was to bend down pick up one starfish, throw it into the ocean and say “well I saved that one”.

And that is my message tonight: every one of us, by seeing the difference between what is right and what is wrong, every one of us can make a difference by doing something. And if enough of us do something, we can achieve everything.

 

 

 

 

Assange: 5 years, and counting

WikiLeaks’ publisher Julian Assange will have been arbitrarily detained by the UK at the Ecuadorian embassy in London for five years as of Monday June 19, 2017 (nearly seven years in the UK total). There are many valuable lessons in the case for the international human rights system, refugee law and diplomatic relations.

An Amicus brief has been filed in Inter-American Court of Human Rights. The essential points of the Amicus brief are these:

1. states have the right and sometimes the duty to grant asylum in areas of effective control  such as embassies; a related practice is seen in UN compounds

2. the importance of this norm is increasingly seen in its actual and potential contribution to saving lives and keeping order by assessing refugees at or near their source of origin

3. the host state (the state that the embassy etc. is located in) has positive and negative duties in relation to the asylum granted

4. should the host state not facilitate enjoyment of the asylum or remove the underlying threat that gave rise to it the asylum seeker will eventually suffer indefinite detention by virtue of their ongoing confinement

5. the indefinite detention of an asylum seeker is a form of arbitrary detention creating additional obligations on the host state to restore freedom of movement to the asylum seeker

6. in practice most host states resolve the actual or threatened arbitrary detention of such asylum seekers through safe passage out of the territory or by removing the underlying threat

(the US continues its attempts to bring a prosecution against Mr. Assange for revealing human rights abuses by its military and secret services; the UK continues its attempt to arrest him for applying for asylum in the first instance as a claimed “bail violation” of his house arrest conditions; Sweden dropped its extradition warrant and closed its investigation after finally taking his statement last year–he was never charged. details: https://justice4assange.com/).

The English translation of the Amicus brief is here: Amicus_brief_English

Is it detention or jail?

I received an email today from a person who is held in immigration detention.  The email read, in part:

We are told over and over again, from the moment we arrive that this is not a jail or prison and the Serco personnel are not guards. At 7:45 this morning I was coming out of the shower when the door was abruptly opened and about 15 ABF in all black barged in. I was rudely instructed to get dressed quickly and go to the common room with the rest of the detainees in this building. We were lined against a wall and a sniffer dog was used on all of us. They then entered each room and did a thorough search, and after, the dog sniffed the room.

Our area and closets were torn apart and each item examined. Very little was put back and it was difficult for us, the handicapped, to straighten up after. I had an asthma attack. There are four buildings and each was searched.

Of course nothing was found as we are searched before and after every visit. It was draconian, stressful and humiliating. If it is not prison, it is as close as it gets.

So: this is “immigration detention”.  It is “administrative” not punitive.  Gosh that make me feel better…

You think this government would never treat YOU that way?  Remember the words of Pastor Martin Niemoller, who was jailed by the Nazis in 1938.  He said:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—  Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—  Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

 

Form 866 and Australian values

Here is Form 866, which must be completed by all asylum seekers: form_866c

Have a look at the Australian Values Statement, which is part of each Form 866:

99 AUSTRALIAN VALUES STATEMENT

You must sign this statement if you are aged 18 years or over.

I confirm that I have read, or had explained to me, information provided by the Australian Government on Australian society and values.

I understand:

• Australian society values respect for the freedom and dignity of the individual, freedom of religion, commitment to the rule of law, Parliamentary democracy, equality of men and women and a spirit of egalitarianism that embraces mutual respect, tolerance, fair play and compassion for those in need and pursuit of the public good;

• Australian society values equality of opportunity for individuals, regardless of their race, religion or ethnic background;

• the English language, as the national language, is an important unifying element of Australian society.

Could Dutton seriously say that he “values respect for the freedom and dignity of the individual, freedom of religion, commitment to the rule of law”?  And would you believe him?

And for that matter, could any member of the Coalition government say on their oath that they embrace those values?  and if they embrace those values, why are they mistreating refugees the way they do?

Quadrant, Franklin and other nastiness

It is alarming to see the views some Australians have.  On 23 May, Roger Franklin published an article in the online edition of Quadrant, in which he said it would have been better if the bomb which killed so many in Manchester had instead been detonated in the ABC studios during last Monday night’s Q & A.  Specifically, he wrote:

“Life isn’t fair and death less so. What if that blast had detonated in an Ultimo TV studio? Unlike those young girls in Manchester, their lives snuffed out before they could begin, none of the panel’s likely casualties would have represented the slightest reduction in humanity’s intelligence, decency, empathy or honesty.”

Beyond that bit of foolish poison from Roger Franklin, there is a person who emails me regularly, advocating various anti-Muslim responses.  For example, he advocates:

  • banning all Muslims from Australia
  • supporting Pauline Hanson and Donald Trump
  • putting all Muslims in Concentration Camps
  • strafing Muslim boat people (for the millennials, strafing means machine gunning)

More recently, he wrote this:

  • (in relation to Angela Merkel): “Poor Herr Hitler must be rolling in his grave to see that Germany is being led by: (i) a women, (ii) a former Communist, (iii) who is inviting in the enemies of the Aryan race to destroy the Fatherland.  This is not going to end well”
  • (in relation to the Manchester bombing): “After the attack in the UK do [you] now agree Concentration Camps are the answer to protect our children from Muslims?”
  • (in relation to 2 Sudanese refugees, accused of involvement in a home invasion): “How about electrocuting these bastards as well or at least putting them in concentration camps as did our former Prime Minister – Billy Hughes?”
  • the famous “Rivers of Blood” speech of Enoch Powell … must be one of the greatest speeches of our time.”
  • “Human Rights are bullshit”

And he fired up about Yassmin Abdel-Magied:

“Do you recall the fate of the American William Joyce who was better known as Lord Haw Haw? Joyce promoted an evil ideology of world domination through violence using the media. Yassmin Abdel -Mageed (sic) is also promoting an evil ideology of world domination through violence using the media.

The British hung Joyce. What punishment should be given to Yassmin the Traitor?”

The trouble with stuff like this is that it gives vent to some weird inner frustration with no regard to the facts.  Lord Haw Haw campaigned against Britain during the second World War and was hanged as a traitor.  Yassmin Abdel-Magied quietly invited us, when we are not at war,  not to forget refugees held on Manus and Nauru, and not to forget Syria and Palestine.  They are things we should not forget.  Maybe my frequent emailer is the real traitor, for betraying the values Australia defended during two world wars.

What people like Roger Franklin (and my frequent emailer) do not seem to understand is that their rabid views are just as dangerous as the views of Islamic extremists and other madmen.  Dangerous because, by inciting hatred against all Muslims, they run a very clear risk of radicalising some Muslims who (understandably) feel that they are not welcome in our community, even if they have never said or done anything which could be a threat to any of us.  Radicalising young people is a foolish and dangerous thing to do: it creates the very risk Roger Franklin (and my frequent emailer) are so upset about.

Incidentally, Roger Franklin was very rude about Lawrence Krauss, who was on the Q & A panel which Franklin would have liked to see bombed.  What Franklin wrote was this:

“A smug stick insect and tireless self-promoter, fellow guest Lawrence Krauss, the warmist shill who has the gall to present himself as a man of science, couldn’t resist the temptation to demonstrate a nuanced acuity. Below are his actual words, reproduced verbatim. Try not to throw up.

You’re more likely to be killed by a refrigerator, in the United States, falling on you.

If you need to read this loathsome creature’s glib sophistry once more, just to grasp the full breadth of its breathtaking brazenness, brace yourself and do so.

Tumbling refrigerators are a bigger hazard  than Islamic terrorism? God Almighty but that Krauss is a filthy liar.”

Let’s put to one side that Franklin did not understand Krauss’ point.  The simple fact is that dying in a terrorist event is a very unlikely way of dying.  I am not trivialising it: it is a terrible thing.  But here are the statistics:

 

Dutton’s latest bit of nastiness

At 9.38am on Sunday 21 May 2017, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton revealed his worst attack on refugees.

He said asylum seekers living in the Australian community had until 1 October to file applications for protection, failing which they would be or they will be denied Government payments, subject to removal from Australia, and banned from re-entering the country. There are about 7,500 people in the community who are affected by this edict.

The problem is that, for most people, the deadline will be impossible to meet.  The reason is simple:

  • the applications are very complex.  Have a look at it : form_866c
  • they have to be completed in English;
  • they involve all sorts of difficult and subtle legal issues;
  • they cannot be adequately completed without legal help;
  • asylum seekers do not generally have access to interpreters;
  • the Government has already cut legal support for people seeking asylum;
  • asylum seekers cannot generally afford to pay for legal help;
  • the free legal refugee support services are being crushed by the burden of trying to provide the help that is needed.

The result of these facts is that many asylum seekers will not be able to comply with the Dutton deadline.  One of the refugee support services, the Asylum Seekers Resource Centre, said this:

“The introduction of an impossible deadline that immediately places thousands of people at risk of being deported to danger.   In the 62 years since Australia ratified the Refugee Convention no government has ever dared to do something so unlawful and despicable.    Based on the heinous action of our government, there is now more people at risk of harm than ever before.”

Put to one side whether the deadline will be legally valid, it is worth recognising the dishonesty surrounding Dutton’s announcement.  Despite being a Minister of the Crown, Dutton is chronically dishonest:

  • He refers to asylum seekers as “illegal”, even though they have committed no offence by coming to Australia the way they do;
  • He refers to offshore detention as “border protection”, even though we do not need to be protected from asylum seekers:  they are human beings looking for a safe place to live;
  • He said many asylum seekers had been in the community for years: but he failed to admit that they were not allowed to apply for protection until late 2016;
  • He referred to asylum seekers who have not yet applied for protection as “fake refugees”.  This prejudges whether or not they are refugees and therefore entitled to protection;
  • He referred to the fact that social welfare benefits for refugees was costing the economy $246 million each year: he did not mention that locking refugees up on Manus Island and Nauru was costing the economy billions of dollars each year, and that offshore detention is the most expensive form of detention.

Have a look at the Australian Values Statement, which is part of each Form 866:

99 AUSTRALIAN VALUES STATEMENT

You must sign this statement if you are aged 18 years or over.

I confirm that I have read, or had explained to me, information provided by the Australian Government on Australian society and values.

I understand:

• Australian society values respect for the freedom and dignity of the individual, freedom of religion, commitment to the rule of law,

Parliamentary democracy, equality of men and women and a spirit of egalitarianism that embraces mutual respect, tolerance, fair play and compassion for those in need and pursuit of the public good;

• Australian society values equality of opportunity for individuals, regardless of their race, religion or ethnic background;

• the English language, as the national language, is an important unifying element of Australian society.

Could Dutton seriously say that he “values respect for the freedom and dignity of the individual, freedom of religion, commitment to the rule of law”?  And would you believe him?

It is interesting to see Dutton’s callous attitude in context.  The target for his government is boat-people, that is, people who come to Australia without invitation.  Jordan has a population about one third of Australia’s, and its economy is weak.  Jordan is in a difficult part of the world: it has borders with Israel, Syria and Iraq.  Jordan has not signed the Refugees Convention.  Nevertheless, right now there are more than a million uninvited refugees in Jordan.  That is more uninvited refugees than Australia has received in the 70 years since it singed the Refugees Convention.

How strange that Jordan treats refugees so well and Australia treats them so badly, even though Jordan has not signed the Convention and we have.

 

PNG Navy shoots refugees on Manus

Here is a very powerful message I received by email from an Australian citizen:

 

This is beyond the pale.

My husband, [xxx], used to bleakly joke about how Australia’s Immigration Department really just should shoot all the boat people and get it over with.

Now the PNG Navy really is shooting at them.

It is beyond despair.

According to the ABC’s PNG correspondent, Erik Tlozek, it all started over a footy match where the locals got cranky that some of the refugees were playing on the field.

Then the Navy stepped in and started to shoot.

The details thus far are still murky, and I don’t know if there are any deaths. It’s still unfolding, if we’re ever allowed to get any information….transparency is a huge issue and we have to challenge the lack of it.

So far, we’ve had state-sanctioned torture in these camps. Now it’s state-sanctioned murder.

Enough. As reluctant as I am to put my head above the parapet, this is a call to legal arms (and legs).

I will write; you have to do the legal work…

[zzz] just reminded me that it was Kevin Rudd – Labor – who set up offshore detention. Onshore detention like Baxter was not enough for the right wing voting minority , apparently. (Besides, they’re clogging up the M4 in Sydney with all their boats on trailers…)

And don’t forget, it remains Australia’s responsibility by distance, no matter how the thugs like Morrisson and Dutton try to hide it under a nicely-ironed linen cloth….all very bright in Canberra. Very murky in PNG ; and Christmas; and Nauru…follow the money, boils and goils…..

There are yet undisclosed amounts of money paid as Baksheesh to the PNG Government, whose rulers buy their new Merc or BMW…

It’s said we live in the age of Enlightenment..let’s get some light on this issue for once and for all, before we cark it from sheer fatigue…

It’s hard not to agree.

The effects of Trump’s travel ban

The piece below was written by Mem Fox, the much-loved Australian children’s author.   It details the shocking treatment she received when she tried to enter USA recently.

It is important to remember that, if you give people great power, they will use it. And some will misuse it.  Read this piece and imagine being a hapless traveller to gulag America. Imagine  being a boat person stranded in Nauru or Manus.  .

**********************

I was pulled out of line in the immigration queue at Los Angeles airport as I came in to the USA. Not because I was Mem Fox the writer – nobody knew that – I was just a normal person like anybody else. They thought I was working in the States and that I had come in on the wrong visa. I was receiving an honorarium for delivering an opening keynote at a literacy conference, and because my expenses were being paid, they said: “You need to answer further questions.” So I was taken into this holding room with about 20 other people and kept there for an hour and 40 minutes, and for 15 minutes I was interrogated. The belligerence and violence of it was really terrifying The room was like a waiting room in a hospital but a bit more grim than that.

There was a notice on the wall that was far too small, saying no cellphones allowed, and anybody who did use a cellphone had someone stand in front of them and yell: “Don’t use that phone!” Everything was yelled, and everything was public, and this was the most awful thing, I heard things happening in that room happening to other people that made me ashamed to be human. There was an Iranian woman in a wheelchair, she was about 80, wearing a little mauve cardigan, and they were yelling at her – “Arabic? Arabic?”. They screamed at her “ARABIC?” at the top of their voices, and finally she intuited what they wanted and I heard her say “Farsi”. And I thought heaven help her, she’s Iranian, what’s going to happen? There was a woman from Taiwan, being yelled at about at about how she made her money, but she didn’t understand the question. The officer was yelling at her: “Where does your money come from, does it grow on trees? Does it fall from the sky?” It was awful.

There was no toilet, no water, and there was this woman with a baby. If I had been holed up in that room with a pouch on my chest, and a baby crying, or needing to be fed, oh God … the agony I was surrounded by in that room was like a razor blade across my heart. When I was called to be interviewed I was rereading a novel from 40 years ago – thank God I had a novel. It was The Red and the Black by Stendhal – a 19th century novel keeps you quiet on a long flight, and is great in a crisis – and I was buried in it and didn’t hear my name called. And a woman in front of me said: “They are calling for Fox.” I didn’t know which booth to go to, then suddenly there was a man in front of me, heaving with weaponry, standing with his legs apart yelling: “No, not there, here!” I apologised politely and said I’d been buried in my book and he said: “What do you expect me to do, stand here while you finish it?” – very loudly and with shocking insolence.

The way I was interviewed was monstrous. If only they had been able to look into my suitcase and see my books. The irony! I had a copy of my new book I’m Australian, Too – it’s about immigration and welcoming people to live in a happy country. I am all about inclusivity, humanity and the oneness of the humans of the world; it’s the theme of my life. I also had a copy of my book Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes. I told him I had all these inclusive books of mine in my bag, and he yelled at me: “I can read!” He was less than half my age – I don’t look 70 but I don’t look 60 either, I’m an older woman – and I was standing the whole time. The belligerence and violence of it was really terrifying. I had to hold the heel of my right hand to my heart to stop it beating so hard. They were not apologetic at any point. When they discovered that one of Australia’s official gifts to Prince George was Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes, he held out his hand and said: “It’s been a pleasure to meet you, Ms Fox.” I was close to collapse, very close to fainting, and this nearly broke me – it was the creepiest thing of all. I had been upright, dignified, cool and polite, and this was so cruelly unexpected, so appalling, that he should say it was a pleasure. It couldn’t have been a pleasure for him to treat me like that, unless he was a psychopath. In that moment I loathed America. I loathed the entire country. And it was my 117th visit to the country so I know that most people are very generous and warm-hearted. They have been wonderful to me over the years. I got over that hatred within a day or two. But this is not the way to win friends, to do this to someone who is Australian when we have supported them in every damn war. It’s absolutely outrageous. Later in the hotel room I was shaking like a leaf. I rang my friend, my American editor and bawled and bawled, and she told me to write it all down, and I wrote for two hours. I fell asleep thinking I would sleep for eight hours but I woke up an hour and a half later just sobbing. I had been sobbing in my sleep. It was very traumatic.

After I got back to Australia I had an apology from the American embassy. I was very impressed, they were very comforting, and I’ve had so many messages of support from Americans and American authors. I am a human being, so I do understand that these people might not be well-trained, but they now have carte blanche to be as horrible and belligerent as they want. They’ve gone mad – they’ve got all the power that they want but they don’t have the training. They made me feel like such a crushed, mashed, hopeless old lady and I am a feisty, strong, articulated English speaker. I kept thinking that if this were happening to me, a person who is white, articulate, educated and fluent in English, what on earth is happening to people who don’t have my power?  That’s the heartbreak of it. Remember, I wasn’t pulled out because I’m some kind of revolutionary activist, but my God, I am now. I am on the frontline. If we don’t stand up and shout, good sense and good will not prevail, and my voice will be one of the loudest. That’s what it has taught me. I thought I was an activist before, but this has turned me into a revolutionary. I’m not letting it happen here. Instead of crying and being sad and sitting on a couch, I am going to write to politicians. I am going to call. I am going to write to newspapers. I am going to get on the radio.  I will not be quiet.

No more passive behaviour. Hear me roar.

Wilson Parking: hopeless

What sort of operation is Wilson Parking running?  How hard can it be to run a  car park?  Apparently it is much to hard for the geniuses who run Wilson Parking.

For almost a decade I have had a permanent car park at a site run by Wilson Parking.  In February 2017, the Wilson people had the brilliant idea that they would replace the card by which permanent parkers get into and out of the car park.

Problems started (probably due, at least in part, to the fact that Wilson car parks have no staff: just a machine that you touch your card on in order to get in or out).

First, the card would not let me into the car park.  So, you press the intercom button on the machine at the entry to the car park and eventually a human being speaks to you.  You explain the problem, while other drivers queue up (impatiently) behind you: they also want to get in.  they do something from their remote vantage point and the boom opens to let you in.

I tried ringing Wilson Parking.  they are as difficult to contact by phone as Centrelink is. Eventually I managed to get someone to speak to me: they said they would reset the card.

Resetting a card must be awfully difficult: for the first half of February, I had to use the intercom help service every time to get into the car park.

Second, For the whole of February, when I try to leave the car park, the machine has told me either that my car is not present or that the car park number is invalid.  I do not understand how the first message could possibly be true, and I do not understand what the second message means.

So, every time I have tried to leave the car park in February, I have had to wait for someone to respond to the intercom call.  It can take a while.

Most of the time, they tell me again that my card will be reset.  I can’t wait.  Just imagine the luxury of being able to park my car and (at the end of the day) leave, without having to wait at the end of an intercom in order to explain that their system is hopeless.

Third, I wrote to them in mid-February, politely explaining the problem, since speaking to them is so difficult. Here is my email to them:

To whom it may concern:

  1. Please take this email seriously
  2. Please read this email
  3. Please reply to this email
  4. I have had a permanent car park at 200 Queen St Melbourne for about 8 years
  5. Recently Wilson Parking introduced the Wilson One card
  6. Every day last week, and again this morning, the boom gate does not respond to the card: this happens when I am entering and when I am leaving.
  7. This morning I had to speak to 4 different people on the intercom before I could persuade someone to allow me in.
  8. I have tried ringing Wilson Parking to explain the problem, but no-one answers the phone.
  9. If this problem is not fixed by this afternoon, I am going to detail my concerns on social media.  I will not hesitate to suggest that people use a parking service that treats its customers properly (eg, by letting them in and out)

Very best wishes …

Three weeks later, I have not had a response.

This is part of the same corporate beast that runs security on Manus and Nauru.  And parking people in those places is vastly more expensive than parking a car with Wilson Parking.

PS: I posted this on Monday 27 February.  On Tuesday 28 February, I tried to enter the car park and the machine told me I was already present!  Yet again I had to press the intercom button and wait for someone to ask me to read out the 16-digit number on my Wilson One card and (eventually) let me in.  My attempts to call head office continue to end in frustration.

.

Climate Change

Climate change denial is on the rise, encouraged no doubt by the example of that great intellectual President Donald Trump.  That other intellectual giant Andrew Bolt had a crack at me recently for what I thought was the modest suggestion that we need to listen to what the scientists are telling us.  Good on Bolt for his ability to take cheap shots from behind the shelter of the Murdoch press.  But still, it was a cheap shot on an issue which deserves more serious attention.  Trump may not have the intellectual rigour to think about these things, but Bolt might.

What drives people to question climate science is the desire to profit from exploiting coal resources.  But what climate change sceptics like Trump and Bolt ignore is the precautionary principle.

If global warming is real, it threatens everyone.  It raises questions about the viability of the human species on Earth.  In simpler times, the worst consequences of global warming would threaten only a portion of mankind.  However, the growing interdependence of all people means that a catastrophe in Western agriculture or in Chinese manufacturing or in the major trading cities will have consequences for practically every human being.

The solution to global warming is, primarily, a question of science.  However, history shows us that scientific solutions are generally compromised by politics.  Politicians in most nations are answerable to their people.  Without careful leadership, the people of most nations will prefer their own interests ahead of others’ interests.  This is true locally and globally.  The refusal of Australia and the USA to ratify the Kyoto Protocol was a regrettable example: it was a triumph of selfish, insular concerns over the dictates of science and the interests of the entire world.

The debate about global warming is a useful illustration of the way politics and self-interest can damage public discourse.  The  5th report of the IPCC is clear: global warming is real, dangerous, and to a significant degree the result of human activity.  These findings are accepted as true by about 97% of the world’s scientists.

Some groups have a vested interest in slowing or stopping action to combat climate change.  Big oil and the coal industry are obvious examples.  They have a lot to lose, and delaying action on climate change serves their interests.  The debate, unfortunately, has tended to focus on sniping at specific facts identified by the IPCC.  And some people, quite correctly, argue that science is not decided by democratic majority.

Morgan polls indicated that in 2008 about 35% of Australians nominated the environment as a major issue: by 2013 this had fallen to 7%.  The debate shifted from acceptance to doubt to indifference.  What is staggering about the shift is that it ignores the seriousness of the problem itself.

If climate scientists are right, we have less than 5 years in which to act on climate change.  Even Tony Abbott eventually acknowledged that climate change is real and (at least in part) anthropogenic.  Even so, it must be noted that his chief business advisor, Maurice Newman, denied climate change as did some members of Abbott’s cabinet.

Turnbull seems to have thrown his hat in the ring with the fossil fuel industry, so if he has any concerns about climate change, he has subordinated them to his political survival.

If climate scientists are wrong and, of course, they might be wrong, then we will spend a lot of money for no advantage.  But if they are right…

Suppose there is an 80% chance that all the scientists are wrong (that is, only a 20% chance they are right).  If we do nothing about climate change there is only a 20% chance of an avoidable catastrophic outcome.

But that is worse odds than Russian roulette.  In Russian roulette, a revolver with 6 chambers has just one bullet in it.  When you hold the revolver to your head and pull the trigger, you have a one chance in six of a bad outcome.  One in six is more favourable odds than on in five

It may be objected that, in Russian roulette, you hold the gun to your head, and if the one in six chance goes against your child, then the child dies.  If climate science is right, we won’t all die.  OK, so try playing Russian roulette with your children, but hold the gun to their stomach: if the one in six chance goes against your child, it’s not fatal, just dangerous and very painful.

Other arguments which support taking action just in case include: if you were told that 97% of engineers predicted that the bridge will collapse, will you walk across it?  If the airline tells you there is a 97% chance that the plane will crash, will you nevertheless get on board?

Those who would withhold action on climate change (by denying it, or by extending the argument about the steps that should be taken, thereby delaying any action at all) are playing Russian roulette with our children’s future.  But those who doubt will ultimately fall back on the idea that it is people in other countries who will bear the brunt of climate change.  This idea is rarely articulated, because it is self-evidently unrespectable to say that other people’s suffering is less important than our own.  But if anyone makes the argument, they are not only immoral, they are also wildly optimistic.

George Brandis QC A-G

Q&A on Monday 20 February 2017 included Attorney-General George Brandis QC.

Brandis showed rather unhappy aspects of himself, as he sought to justify enormous and extravagant expense allowances for Federal parliamentarians while justifying the meanness of NDIS funding, disability allowances, Community Legal Centre funding and the harshness of automated Centrelink debt recovery.

There was a common theme in Brandis’ position.  He seemed to prefer meanness to generosity.  He seemed unsympathetic to people who are struggling to survive; he does not care what we do to refugees; he does not care that his party has lied systematically to the public for years about boat people; he can’t be bothered to check the law in an area which, whatever your position, is contentious.

He chose to blame Labor for every difficulty, no matter that his party has had years to correct the situation which, he asserted frequently, was created by Labor.  I don’t have much time for Labor, but watching him blame everything on a government which was defeated four years ago is simply pathetic.

It would be charitable to assume some kind of neural deficiency rather than a deep-seated personality disorder.

On robo-debt, Brandis seemed mildly concerned that a man had committed suicide after being chased for an alleged debt of $18,000 (this was later revised down to $10,000, without explanation).  The way the system “works”, the burden is on the recipient of the debt notice to prove the demand is wrong.  Most lawyers (at least, most lawyers who have actually practised law) respond instinctively against civil claims in which the Defendant has to prove that they do not owe the money claimed: the usual situation is that the person who makes a claim must prove it.

Brandis urged that anyone who received a robo-debt demand should ring Centrelink and discuss the claim: he seemed not to understand that getting Centrelink to answer a phone call is extraordinarily difficult.  Several people in the audience with practical experience of the matter told Brandis how difficult it is to get Centrelink to answer a call, but our esteemed Attorney-General continued urging the same course.  He cruised calmly on like a Spanish galleon in full sail, completely untroubled by any facts. Perhaps that’s the world he lives in: when he wants to speak to someone he simply instructs a staff-member to arrange it. He appears to know nothing of the world experienced by ordinary people, and did not seem willing or able to learn anything about it.

When tackled about the reduced funding for Community Legal Centres, he tried to blame Labor.  It seemed not to occur to him that, as Attorney-General, he could arrange increased funding for Community Legal Centres and for Legal Aid.  After all, Community Legal Centres deal with about  260,000 clients each year.  Their total funding is about $40 million a year.  So it costs the government about $153 per client for a CLC to help people who can’t afford lawyers.  That’s pretty good value, but government funding is about to fall to about $30 million a year.  Brandis did not seem to notice this as a problem, just as he didn’t notice the grotesque difference between his position on welfare payments and his position on parliamentary entitlements. Interestingly, Brandis presides over a department which spends about $792 million per year on lawyering.  He has access to excellent legal advice.

Perhaps Brandis regards his government’s legal problems as vastly more important than the legal problems of any ordinary Australian.

And then we got to refugee policy.  Confronted with the awkward fact that several thousand men, women and children have been locked up on Nauru and Manus for over 3 years, Brandis again tried to blame it on Labor.  It is true that Kevin Rudd’s government  put them there, but Brandis party, in government, could have removed them. Instead, it left them to swelter for years on end, suffering torment and abuse which includes hundreds of reported cases of child sex abuse and at least 5 deaths that we know of.

But the most surprising development was when I asked Brandis directly whether boat people commit any offence by arriving in Australia seeking protection from persecution.  He said Yes, they do.  He is wrong about that.  I asked him to identify the provision in any legislation which makes it an offence.  He protested that he could not be expected to identify a particular statute and a particular provision.  He is wrong about that, too.  The Coalition government has, for the past 15 years, called boat people “illegal”.

I assume Senator Brandis sometimes finds time to consider his party’s policies.  So he can hardly have missed the fact that men, women and children who have fled persecution were being branded as “illegal”, and were being locked up in shocking conditions for years.

Unless he has slept through the past 15 years (and I would not rule that out as a possibility), Brandis must be aware of a few related things:

  1. the Coalition, of which he is part, has called boat people “illegal” for the past 15 years;
  2. some irritating people (including me) have been pointing out for years that boat people commit no offence by coming to Australia as they do.
  3. If they don’t commit any offence by coming here, calling them “illegal” is misleading at best, and dishonest at worst.
  4. He has a big staff of highly qualified lawyers and access to lots more.

If he had ever had any of his staff research the question, he would know affirmatively that boat people do not commit any offence by coming here the way they do.

And yet, when I asked him what offence he thought they committed, he protested that he could not be expected to remember what section of what Act.

If the first Law Officer of the country paid more attention, he might have paused to wonder whether his own party’s marketing was honest or not; he might have paused to wonder why no boat people are ever prosecuted because of their means of arrival.

But it seems that our Attorney-General is much too busy enjoying the fat perks of office to think about these things. Either Brandis does not care or he is a hopeless lawyer.  In either case, it will be a relief to see him leave the Parliament and the country.

The only available conclusions are either:

  • He has never bothered to have the question researched; or
  • He lied, because he knew the true answer

Really, Attorney-General?  Did you expect anyone to believe you?

Brandis is a disgrace to the office he holds.  The first law officer of the country should be a bit more curious and a bit more honest.

[Incidentally, both before and after the show, Brandis conspicuously avoided speaking to me in the Green Room.  So I will add pettiness and a lack of manners to my criticism of him]

The Apology, 9 years on

On 13 February 2008, Kevin Rudd apologised to the stolen generations.  It was not great rhetoric, but it was a fine moment, because (for once) we heard a Federal Politician who sounded sincere. 9 years later, here is a message from Liberty Victoria:

Yesterday marked the ninth anniversary of the apology to the Stolen Generations. For many Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians, it was a hugely significant day and an important step towards redressing the extraordinary and inexplicable harm leveled against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders by successive governments.

It also marked the start of a new commitment: to do more and do better for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, and to close the enormous gap across basic health, education and employment indicators.

Yet nine years on, the gap remains a gaping gulf. In many areas, that picture is even worse than it was nine years ago.

This anniversary, Liberty Victoria joins the call for the inclusion of specific and measurable justice targets. Curbing the over-imprisonment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, one of the most imprisoned groups of people in the world, and reducing the number of children in out-of-home care, must be priorities if we are to meaningfully close the gap and start redress the harm done by past and present governments.

This anniversary of the apology, take the time to rewatch the apology Kevin Rudd gave back in 2008. Imagine – or remember – the hope that these words gave to so many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders; that, this time, the change would be real and it would happen. As a country, we need to seriously grapple with the need to do better across all areas, including the justice sphere, and we need to do that now.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xiLnsFyAVqE

 

What’s wrong with politics today

It is blindingly obvious that something is seriously wrong with politics at present.  In the West, at least.

Barry Jones wrote a great piece on that theme for The Saturday Paper.  The article included the following observations:

Lincoln’s views, published on broadsheets, were extremely subtle and nuanced, without bitterness, personal attack or exaggeration.  He could always see the other side of an argument and often set it out, fairly.  In 2016, 156 years later, Donald Trump won the Presidential nomination of Lincoln’s Party. … Lincoln was reflective, self-doubting…Trump is unreflective, posturing in a way that may conceal deep insecurity, narcissistic, always personalising issues (the hero v.  the devil), talking – shouting, really – in slogans, endlessly repeated with no evidentiary base.  He appeals to fear, anger, envy and conspiracy theories.  …” 

Here is the full article.  It should be compulsory reading in Canberra: Trumpism-Barry Jones

What has happened to this country?

A concerned member of the public recently sent me a letter which, in my opinion, captures a large part of the problem Australia is still wrestling with: the problem of how we respond to people who are not the same as us.  Her letter includes this:

Despite  the  challenges of nature  and distance and its relatively  small  population,  Australia has always had the opportunity to be the best and fairest nation in the world.

Resource rich and fuelled by determined folk, the country has produced ample to provide for all. Inheriting a tested system of law and growing a new expectation for fairness and democracy, the possibility that the country could mature into a relative utopia was always in reach.

 I was born in WA, grew up proudly Australian, worked in public service and as a selfemployed businesswoman, married  and had children  who  I expected  would  have the  advantages  of  a generous, intelligent, compassionate and wealthy nation.

 How wrong was I? The blinkers are off and things have changed greatly over the past decade or so.

 The opportunistic swindling of funds from those who most need them, the persecution of the most vulnerable in our society and the utter torment inflicted on people seeking asylum all perpetrated by our government in an immoral grab for votes and control and enabled by mainstream media  have overtaken all efforts towards social conscience and benign leadership.

 What frightens me most is the sheer number of Australians    including members of my family, despite my efforts to enlighten   who have fallen under the spell of disinformation.  Paranoia is rife and the ugly fear that others may be receiving more’ at our expense is too easy to incite in a poorly educated (by design?) and insecure (also by design?) public.

 Im no longer proud to be Australian.   I feel personally degraded by the inhumane treatment of refugees desperately seeking our help.  I go to bed each night and wake each morning with the burden of humiliation in my mind. Not just the humiliation of those in detention, but my own. How am I to deal with having this shame forced upon me by my own leaders? This may seem selfish, but Im seriously concerned for the welfare of those detained on the islands and I know Im not alone. Its depressing to the point where the emotional and psychological impact on everyday Australians is apparent.  I was sad at Christmas and find it hard to be positive going into the new year.

 No amount of propaganda or deceit by government or media will assuage the guilt in anyone with an ounce of compassion, or the good sense to see the damaging consequences to the refugees and to Australia.  Many simply dont see that if our government is comfortable treating human beings as disposable,  it wont stop  with refugees, ethnic and indigenous people      it will extend  such ruthlessness to mainstream Australians too.  Think Centrelink and Medicare. …”

It is a sad thing when an Australian citizen no longer feels proud to be Australian.  Today’s politicians betray the country in various ways:

  • they make up reasons for putting a ring of steel around the country
  • they seek to avoid the obligations we voluntarily undertook when we signed the Refugees Convention
  • They cause Australia to breach our obligations under the Convention Against Torture
  • They cause Australia to breach our obligations under the Convention on the Rights of the Child
  • They cause Australia to breach our obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights

No wonder Australians feel ashamed, when they cut through the political dishonesty peddled by people like Abbott, Morrison, Turnbull and Dutton.

Facing the fact that we are punishing people who have committed no offence is very painful.

Facing the fact that we are breaking our promises to the international community is very painful.

Facing the fact that we are behaving like a rogue state is very painful.

Facing the fact that we are behaving in ways which contradict our image of ourselves is very painful.

So all credit to Justine Pitcher for capturing the problem so well, and thanks to her for letting me quote her letter.  Join with her in expressing your disgust at our political “leaders” and what they are doing to trash this country’s character and reputation.