Climate change

I gave a speech for 350.org.au

I have long considered climate change the principal issue facing the world.  It is a first-order issue.  Refugees are a second-order issue.  Here is the speech I gave:

Climate change is the single biggest issue facing the world today.

Perhaps the biggest issue that has ever faced the planet.

Climate change resists simple solutions. To begin tackling it, we must first begin undoing the complex web of of factors that have existed for centuries and have brought us to this point.

These include:

  • Global structures that have been based on fossil fuels and the exploitation of cheap energy and labour for centuries
  • The inequalities and power dynamics that are the legacy of colonisation
  • Giant corporations that have more power now than ever before in history and will do anything to protect their profits: The East India Company once ran India: global corporations today make the power of the East India Company look modest.
  • And a new global economic system that has eroded the power of nation states to set and effectively enforce policy.

This complex web of factors makes it more difficult to solve the climate change issue: more interests are involved than, for example, in banning the use of CFCs in order to reduce the hole in the ozone layer.

For many people climate change is a relatively new issue. It was brought into public focus in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. It was reiterated by Kevin Rudd, who in 2007 called it the ‘greatest moral challenge of our time’.  And he went to Copenhagen in 2009 but somehow he lost his way after that.

But scientists have known for a long time that climate change was happening.

In the 1820s, the French mathematician Jean Baptiste Joseph Fourier was trying to understand the various factors that affect Earth’s temperature. But he found a problem – according to his calculations, the Earth should have been a ball of ice.

The Sun did not seem to provide enough energy to raise the temperature of Earth above freezing. Fourier’s initial ideas, that there must be additional energy coming from the Earth’s core or from the temperature of outer space, were soon dismissed. Fourier then realised that the atmosphere, which at first seemed transparent, could be playing a crucial role.

In 1861, the Irish physicist John Tyndall demonstrated that gases such as methane and carbon dioxide absorbed infrared radiation, and could trap heat within the atmosphere. He recognised the implications and said that these gases “would produce great effects on the terrestrial rays and produce corresponding changes of climate.”

He was right.  But in 1861 the amount of CO2 which was being released into the atmosphere was a tiny fraction of what happens today.  Although CO2 levels started to rise with the industrial revolution, when Tyndall drew attention to the subject, the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere was less than 300 ppm.  It now peaks at something like 410 ppm.

In the 1890s the Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius identified the warming influence of water vapour in the atmosphere.  This was the first indication of a positive feedback loop: more CO2 meant a warmer atmosphere; a warmer atmosphere can hold more water as vapour; more water vapour in the atmosphere traps more heat, and so on.

In the 1950s the Canadian physicist Gilbert Plass confirmed that doubling the level of  CO2 in the atmosphere would lead to an increase in global temperatures of 3-4 decrees Celcius.

In the 1970s, Exxon knew that burning fossil fuels was warming the planet. This was years before it became a public issue.   Exxon understood what this would mean for its business, and has since spent an estimated $30 million promoting the denial of climate change and questioning the science.  Gosh: that’s how the tobacco industry defended itself: deny the science, create doubt, attack your opponents.

22 years ago the first UN Climate Change conference was held in Berlin.  World leaders came together to work out what to do about climate change. In 1995 there was about 358 ppm of CO2 in the air.

Now, 22 years later when the first global climate agreement is finally in place, the figure is more than 400 ppm.

That has locked the planet into 1 degree of warming even if we stop burning all fossil fuels right now.

Burning fossil fuels such as coal, petroleum, and natural gas is the leading cause of increased anthropogenic CO2; deforestation is the second major cause.

The rate of increase in the release of CO2 into the atmosphere is startling:

In the 150 years from 1751 to 1900, about 12 gigatonnes of CO2 were released from fossil fuels and cement production worldwide.

In the 112 years from 1901 to 2013 the figure was about 1,400 Gigatonnes: an average of about 12 gigatonnes of CO2  per year, but the rate has been accelerating:

In 1990: 22.5 gigatonnes of CO2

In 2010, 33.5 gigatonnes of CO2

Half of the greenhouse gas emissions in our atmosphere were released after 1988. If fossil fuel companies were honest about the damage fossil fuels cause, we wouldn’t be in the situation where we have a 5 year window in which to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

But, thanks to the work of Exxon and other fossil fuel companies who put their own profits above the future of the planet, we’ve suffered through 21 years of policy inaction. Even worse, their climate denialism has muddied the water so much that people now believe climate change is a conspiracy dreamed up by the Chinese or a corrupt UN that wants to take over the world meaning that effective national policies that will have the least cost impact are often difficult or impossible to achieve.

In democracies, these tactics poses a very real threat. At a time when entire nations are at risk of sinking below the seas, Donald Trump has committed to pull the US out of the Paris Agreement because quote: The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive. Here in Australia, we are no better! The Australian Government continues to block any real action on climate change and our former Prime Minister claimed that ‘coal is good for humanity’ and our current Prime Minister seems largely beholden to the far right’s agenda on the issue: more coal and gas and no national strategy to reduce emissions or plan for a transition from fossil fuels.

This is compounded by the fact that developed countries like Australia, the UK and the US – whose centuries of reliance on coal, oil and gas have caused this climate crisis – are increasingly turning into national fortresses, leaving the most vulnerable to a changing climate stranded, quite literally, at sea.

Australia

Let’s take a moment to look at what Australia is doing — or not doing — on climate change.

A report in the Guardian Australia on 30 November illustrates the problem.  An expert advisory panel reported that Coal-fired Queensland, with just 7% of its power generation from renewables, could lift that to 50% by 2030 with little appreciable cost to electricity consumers.  The Queensland government would subsidise renewables.  The federal energy minister, Josh Frydenberg criticised the report.  The Guardian article continues:

Coal companies like Rio Tinto have called on Queensland to abandon its own renewables target to simply align with the commonwealth’s 2020 goal of 20%. But Bailey says it’s clear the state’s plan was “developed in the absence of federal policy” and with doubt that even the 2020 commonwealth target will be achieved.

He says the failure of the prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, to put policy daylight between him and his predecessor, Tony Abbott, shows conservative politics in Australia will be dragged kicking and screaming towards energy sector reform.

Antipathy towards renewables and acting on climate change among the hard right of the Coalition stands in contrast to moves by “conservative parties in other parts of the world”, Bailey says. He cites Germany and California as advanced economies already boasting more than 30% renewable power.

“You go to Europe, this is not an issue,” he says. “It seems to be a particular LNP [Liberal National party] Australian thing but they seem extraordinarily intransigent on it and, while we see more and more extreme weather events occur, they are stopping us from dealing with some of those big issues around climate change. …”

We are a uniquely embarrassing case on the global stage, in that early on, we put in place a fairly comprehensive domestic climate policy with a carbon price by the minority Gillard Government that was then dismantled and replaced with an impotent measure that pays polluters and has seen our emissions rise every year since.

Watching Malcolm Turnbull fade into the shadow of what he could have been is like watching the slow destruction of a man the country once respected on so many of our most important issues. He has been so unwilling to lead his party, and has granted so much power to the fringe right of his party – particularly on the issue of climate change and asylum seekers – that Australia’s global reputation on climate change has gone from global leader to global threat.

As a case in point, here is a short but non exhaustive list of what the Government has done since the world signed the Paris Agreement a year ago:

  • Fast-tracked the Adani coal mine in Queensland – one of the biggest coal basins in the world that if developed would blow any chance the world has of remaining below 2 degrees of global warming. This is more than just a climate fight. It is also a fight over land rights and how the government has granted mining leases on indigenous land and repeatedly refuses to acknowledge the claim by the traditional Wangan and Jagalingou owners on this land.
  • Attacked environmental groups standing up for our climate and to protect our natural environment. The Turnbull Government has launched a two pronged attack on environment groups – the first attack is by seeking to amend the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act — or the EPBC. This act allows groups and individuals to legally challenge resource projects if they are a threat to water or the environment. This is an incredibly important provision – introduced by the Howard Government – that allows for a check and balance on Government’s power. The second attack is on the tax deductible status of environmental not-for-profits. This is an attempt to silence groups like 350.org and others who are standing up against fossil fuel projects.
  • Recently, investigative reporting discovered that the government censored a UN report on the extent of bleaching in the Great Barrier Reef and how much of a role climate change had to play in it. Even though the health of the reef recently got a “D” on the Australian government’s annual report card for the fifth year in a row and large-scale bleaching in the northern part of the reef threatens to see it never return to a productive state.
  • The Government has launched an ideological war on renewable energy after the recent South Australian blackout. This culminated in Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg attempting to bully the states out of their ambitious renewable energy targets and pushing them instead to focus on promulgating onshore gas production. As you, probably know, gas is in fact a non-renewable fossil fuel that releases methane into the atmosphere that is 86x more potent than carbon at warming the planet.
  • And then there was Tony Abbott’s asking the mining industry to “demonstrate its gratitude” to the retiring Federal Resources Minister – Ian MacFarlane – who dismantled the mining tax. The Industry duly listened, and MacFarlane broke a Parliamentary code of ethics by accepting a $500k per year job with the Queensland Resources Council — on top of his $140k Parliamentary pension — so that he can spruik for the Adani Carmichael coal mine in Queensland.
  • The Australian government actively resisted and watered down restrictions on financing of coal plants by OECD export credit agencies last year because the government wants more coal plants to be built so that there are new markets for Australian coal.
  • The Government has slashed the budget of ARENA — Australian Renewable Energy Agency — by $500 million– after trying to kill it off entirely. ARENA provides grants to innovative new renewables projects and is essential to keeping Australia at the forefront of research and development. If Turnbull was serious about ‘innovation’, ARENA would be the flagship organisation of this push. Instead, the Government created and funnelled money into a new major national fossil fuel research program called the Oil, Gas & Energy Resources Growth centre. You couldn’t dream this stuff up!

Australia’s political donation laws are outdated and not up to the task, so it is hard to get a clear view of how much is actually donated. But in the three years leading up to the 2016 election the fossil fuel industry donated almost $3.7 million to the major parties in direct donations.

In return the industry saw $7.7 billion in subsidies comes its way, priority access to any land they desired to develop and unbeatable access to the ears of our decision makers, including some of the most plum and influential roles in the country on retirement.

Indirect donations and the revolving door of jobs — such as that of the former Minister Macfarlane — would show significantly more influence.

Brad Burke, the former Corporate Affairs Director of Santos, is now Malcolm Turnbull’s senior strategist.

Senator James McGrath is now a QLD Liberal Senator.

Patrick Gibbons was the corporate affairs manager of mining company Alcoa was Greg Hunt’s senior adviser as Environment Minister.

Josh Frydenberg’s current adviser previously worked for Shell and then Energy Australia.

That our Government is awash with former fossil fuel executives goes a long way to explaining why we are currently a global embarrassment on climate change. And as to why we are not addressing our biggest contribution to climate change: that Australia remains the world’s biggest coal exporter.

To use a crude analogy: if fossil fuels are the drug, then Australia is the pusher.

This is a nice little arrangement between the fossil fuel industry and our Government. By exporting our coal, we are exporting our emissions to other countries that we are not required to take responsibility for under our UN climate commitments. Just Australia’s domestic emissions equate to 1.5% of the world’s carbon emissions – 16th in the world.

However, if we add emissions from our exported coal to our domestic emissions, Australia’s carbon footprint trebles in size and we become the 6th largest emitter after China, the USA, Russia, India and Indonesia – all of which have populations over 250 million.

Even worse is that if the above mentioned the proposed Adani coal mine and development of the Galilee Basin supported by the QLD and Federal Governments, we would be responsible for 705 million tonnes of CO2 per year. Opening up the entire Galilee Basin would see Australia become the world’s seventh largest contributor of emissions in the world!

This is at a time when reports are telling us that if there is any chance of avoiding the ‘safe’ 2 degree warming scenario that NO NEW FOSSIL FUEL PROJECTS can go ahead, and that current ones need to be scaled back.

Fundamentally, we have to do better.

Globally Australia is under extreme pressure to lift its game on climate. At the recent UN climate meeting in Marrakesh, we got more questions than any other country. Including questions from allies like the US and NZ. And from countries like China that want to know why we have no credible climate policy and what we are going to do about it.

BUT, the Turnbull Government, like the Abbott Government, is impervious to international pressure.

So, it is therefore up to us – Australian citizens – to lead the way on climate and make the moral case for climate change leadership.

We need to emphasise that by refusing to act we are missing out on the new jobs that the transition to clean energy is creating. China, Europe and the US are investing billions into this burgeoning industry, while Australia is cutting its funding to that same source of new jobs.

We need to emphasise that global warming is real, and if we let it run away from us we are mortgaging the future of our children and grandchildren.  The Federal Treasurer emphasises that we must avoid creating inter-generational debt.  He says this in connection with the Federal budget.  He needs to speak to Josh Frydenberg: climate change is the biggest inter-generational debt imaginable.

We need to emphasise that climate change provides the biggest existential threat to our neighbouring Pacific Islands and across Asia. At least five reef islands in the remote Solomon Islands have been lost completely to sea-level rise. The rapid changes in the Solomon Islands has already seen whole coastal communities have to relocated. These are communities that have in many cases lived in these areas for generations.

Historically, Australia has been looked to as a leader in the Pacific region. Our recent approach to climate policy has severely weakened this view. Responding to the scrapping of the carbon tax and the defunding of climate science research bodies, the Marshall Islands Foreign Minister Tony de Brum said this:

“It just does not make sense, it goes against the grain of the world.

Not only [is Australia] our big brother down south, Australia is a member of the Pacific Islands Forum and Australia is a Pacific island, a big island, but a Pacific island. It must recognise that it has a responsibility.

The problems that have befallen the smaller countries are also Australia’s problems. You cannot remove Australia from the life and blood of the Pacific.”

For our conservative politicians climate change is a ‘wedge’ issue they can use against the Labor Party and the Greens to prove to their fringe right constituencies and their cheerleaders in the Murdoch press that they have the right mettle for the job.

We need to emphasise that climate change provides the biggest existential threat to the identity of Australia itself.  What sort of country are we?  Are we really a country that would do nothing to save the planet?  Are we a country willing to destroy our region and mortgage the lives of future generations so we can continue to live prosperous, self-indulgent lives.

What we need to do is consider the precautionary principle.  More particularly, we need to force our politicians to consider the precautionary principle.  About 97% of the world’s scientists accept that climate change is real, anthropogenic and dangerous.  Deniers would point out that science is not decided by popular vote.  True enough, although it is often useful to listen to people who know what they are talking about.  But let’s accept it: the scientists may be wrong.

Let’s give odds of 80% against the scientists: that is, let’s assume there is an 80% chance they are wrong.  But if they are right, if the 20% chance comes in, the result will be catastrophic and could have been avoided.  20% chance of a catastrophic, avoidable result is worse odds than Russian Roulette. So next time someone argues the denialist case, ask them if they are willing to play Russian Roulette with their children or grand-children.

And let’s face it: if we spend the money to avoid climate change, and if the denialists turn out to be right, the worst you can say is that we cleaned up the planet for no reason…

In my opinion we have to make sure it never gets to this. We cannot trust the lives of millions of people to the whims of inward-looking fortress nation states.

That is why the current moment in history is critical. Until recently, the fossil fuel industry had a firm grip on the levers of power. They have been able to manipulate governments around the world to ensure that they could continue to drill, dig and frack for oil, coal and gas. But the world is rapidly changing.

A powerful global movement against fossil fuels is building. It is helped by the internet and a determination to build a better world.  It includes local communities, first nations people, university students, farmers, politicians, business leaders, even politicians.

This movement is forcing a reckoning on the future of fossil fuels. It was behind the success of the Paris Agreement last year. It is why BP walked away from drilling for oil in the Great Australian Bight. It was the cause of the ban on unconventional gas in Victoria. It is behind the states and communities announcing ambitious renewable energy targets despite every Federal Government effort to undo these targets.

The potential is huge. But its power rests with you.

Yes, 2016 has been a bad year for progressive causes and particularly for climate change at a time when we can least afford it.

But politics is like a pendulum and we need to be ready for when it swings back. Donald Trump will stumble. In Australia, the Turnbull Government has already lost the faith of the people just five months after the Federal election.

But, as Shakespeare said, When they fall, they fall like Lucifer – never to hope again.

They will resist.

We need to be resolute.

We need to be strong.

We need to be ready.

We need a robust and diverse movement of Australians ready to prove to our politicians that climate change matters. The movement against fossil fuels doesn’t have money or vested interests on our side. But we have the science, the evidence of the impacts already happening, and the liveability of our planet, our very future, as our authority.

Now we need to use it.

 

More on anti-Islamic rants

As mentioned before, a person who lives in Australia emails me regularly (at least a couple of times a week) ranting about Muslims.

He is clearly having an unhappy, insecure life.  Some part of me feels sorry for him.  But my pity for him is dimmed when he advocates:

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

I have said a number of times that our detention system, which involves locking up innocent men, women and children for years in harsh, hostile conditions, is not consistent with core Australian values.  A couple of weeks ago he wrote to me saying “I am yet to hear you articulate what you mean by “core Australian values“.”

This morning he wrote to me again, saying:

“I am still waiting for you to articulate what you mean by “core Australian values“.  I assume fire bombing children is not one of these?”

My response:

You are right: core Australian values do not include fire-bombing children, or bombing children at all, so we should not have taken part in invading Iraq.

Mistreating children is probably not consistent with core Australian values, so deliberately harming children by locking them up on Nauru is probably wrong.  And putting aside some of the nastiest episodes of white settlement in Australia, deliberate mistreatment of innocent people is probably not consistent with core Australian values, so locking up innocent boat people for years “as a deterrent to others” is probably not consistent with core Australian values.

And I would add that concentration camps and strafing people in boats (both of which measures you have advocated) are definitely not consistent with core Australian values.

In my view, the nearest we get to a core Australian value is the ideal of a fair go for everyone.  And (if I am feeling optimistic) I would say that core Australian values include the Golden principle.  It is one of the few, practically universal, philosophical precepts, captured in the Christian teaching: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  In its original Biblical expression it says: “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.”.

Described in the West as the Golden Rule, it is found in many religious and secular philosophies.  It is found in Brahmanism: “This is the sum of Dharma [duty]: Do nothing to others which would cause you pain if done to you”.   In Buddhism:   “…a state that is not pleasing or delightful to me, how could I inflict that upon another?”.    In Confucianism:  “Do not do to others what you do not want them to do to you”.   In Islam: “None of you [truly] believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself”.   And in Taoism:  “Regard your neighbour’s gain as your own gain, and your neighbour’s loss as your own loss”.

The same principle has been advocated by secular philosophers, including Epictetus,  Plato,  Socrates,  Seneca  and  Immanuel Kant.

And also close to being a core Australian value is the Love Thy Neighbour principle.  I know you’re keen on that one, because you included it in an email to me.  It is mentioned in Leviticus 19, but Matthew gave it a useful twist which you may have overlooked.  You refer to Matthew 5.14.

It is worth reading Matthew 5.43-44:

“43 ¶ Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy.

44 But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you”

Although you quote the first part of Matthew 5.43, it seems that you add a qualification which the Christian bible would reject.  It seems you would say “Love thy neighbour (unless he is a Muslim)”.  That directly contradicts the very scripture you cite.

It seems that the “Love thy Neighbour” principle is central to Christian teaching (Matthew repeats it at 19.19 and at 22.39; Mark propounds it at 12.31 and says it is one of the two most important commandments (his word).  But in urging mistreatment of innocent (Muslim) people you betray that value.  How strange that you invoke a central Christian principle but urge people to traduce it.  I gather you are not a Christian.

But if you are a Christian, it might be worth asking yourself whether hypocrisy sits comfortably with anything you would identify as a core Australian value.

I imagine he will go to church next Sunday and pray for the souls of people he likes, and for the damnation of people he doesn’t like.  With Christians like him, who needs atheists?

Dishonest Dutton: at it again

The following news item appeared in The Australian on 21 November 2016, under the caption ‘I won’t be bullied’ (if you follow the link, you have to scroll down for the piece):

Immigration Minister Peter Dutton has crossed swords with Bill Shorten in a fiery question time exchange, accusing the Opposition Leader of misrepresenting him about his comments last week in which he criticised parts of Malcolm Fraser’s immigration policy in the 1970s.

The Opposition Leader asked Mr Dutton about the comments he made on Sky News and his statement that Malcolm Fraser “did make mistakes in bringing some people in the 1970s and we’re seeing that today”.

Immigration Minister Peter Dutton in Question Time.

Immigration Minister Peter Dutton in Question Time.

Mr Shorten asked what people Mr Dutton was referring to and whether he would apologise to Australia’s hard working migrant communities including the Vietnamese community.

But an angry Mr Dutton slammed the question, beginning his answer by saying: “I’m not going to be misrepresented by this great fraud of Australian politics.”

Mr Dutton accused Mr Shorten of unfairly trying to demonise him. “I won’t be bullied by this union leader. That may have been his working life. He may have bullied people and he may have double-crossed everybody he’s come across in his working life, but I won’t be bullied and I won’t be demonised by this union leader,” Mr Dutton said.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten.

But Mr Shorten persisted, following up the question with a second on the same topic in which he again pushed Mr Dutton to nominate the country from which people should not have been allowed into Australia when Mr Fraser was Prime Minister.

Mr Dutton said that he had received advice that, out of the last 33 people to have been charged with terrorist-related offences, 22 were from a second and third generation Lebanese-Muslim background.

“If the Leader of the Opposition wants somehow to conduct a phony debate in this country and not to be honest in relation to these matters, that’s an issue for him,” Mr Dutton said. “I’m not going to shy away from the facts … Many people who have built this country over many decades deserve to be praised. But I am going to call out those people who are doing the wrong thing.”

There’s a couple of things to be said about this.  First, and most obvious, Dutton seemed to be channelling his inner Julia Gillard as he (perhaps unwittingly) adopted the style of her famous misogyny speech.  Second, and unlike Julia Gillard’s misogyny speech, it was laced with dishonesty.  Until the end of his “answer”, Dutton kept well away from dealing with the question.  When finally he addressed the question, he suggested that Shorten “wants somehow to conduct a phony debate in this country and not to be honest in relation to these matters”.  But Dutton is chronically dishonest about matters in his portfolio.

He refers to boat people as “illegal arrivals” which falsely suggests that boat people break the law by coming here the way they do, in order to seek asylum. It is a lie.  It is a lie on which the Coalition have supported the deliberate, wilful mistreatment of boat people since the Tampa episode in 2001.  It is a sad thing that Dutton, a former Queensland copper, brings to his role as a Minister of the Crown the habits he learned in an earlier career.  Or maybe he has taken up lying more recently, because it is good for his political career.  Who knows?  What difference?

Just as bad as his dishonesty, Dutton finally justified his comments by suggesting that 22 people descended from immigrants who came to Australia 40 years ago.   Over 10,000 Lebanese immigrants came to Australia during Fraser’s time as PM.  On ordinary population growth figures, there would now be about 50,000 Australians who can trace their ancestry back to a Lebanese immigrant who came to Australia during that time.  So Dutton is troubled by the fact that 0.04% (that’s one 40th of 1 %) of a particular cohort are behaving badly.  Australians with no Lebanese ancestry are 6 times more likely to engage in criminal behaviour.

Dutton is, apparently, putting into practice the philosophy of that great Attorney-General George Brandis, that “People do have a right to be bigots…

Border Force making it harder to visit detention centres

[Since first posting this, there have been more developments: see at the foot of the post]

I have received a number of reports about how absurdly difficult it is to visit people in immigration detention in Melbourne.  Bear in mind that the people held in immigration detention have not committed any offence: they are just held in detention for as long as it takes to consider their claim for refugee protection, or for as long as the goons at Border Force think it will take to break them, although they probably check with their boss, Peter Dutton, who has never really stopped being a brainless, heartless Queensland copper.

MITA is the Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation at 120-150 Camp Rd, Broadmeadows (in Melbourne’s northern suburbs).

Here is a visitor’s account of the difficulties:

Every week we try to visit, there always seems to be a change in process and seemingly arbitrary tightening of the “rules” for admission to MITA.

This coincides of course with the background new migration legislation proposed, an ominous symptom of which was the deportation in the middle of the night of a man from MITA [recently]. We visited that day and noticed the subdued tone of the visiting centre – already reduced to a shadow of the freedom and hospitality it unto recently was allowed. For example, there are no comfortable chairs now, only spartan tables and strict policing of the number of seats allowed at those tables.

These are just some of the ever-tightening and dehumanizing regime we have witnessed. One positive is that our students have witnessed these things.

To cut a long story short, Border Force has now had to approve school visits. But even that wasn’t enough. We now have to print out a form every time, with the risk that we may not be let in, miss out, or undergo the mind-numbing, expanding logistical headaches of taking students to the centre. If we say they are 17 y.o., then they can be questioned. If they say they are 18, then we somehow have to get forms printed out for them to fill in and sign. Still no guarantee. If we miss out, we have to do it all again. The delays that Border Force makes makes us miss out. We have discerned that the detainees look forward to this contact and understand graciously the purpose of bringing (senior) students along. Normally we travel there in groups of 5-7.

The latest blockage I am sharing with you – emails from ABF. … When I finally organized the forms of visiting teachers, the email wouldn’t ge through, because the attachment was too large!

As I joke, with English teacher’s perspective: Kafka is alive and well at MITA and Border Force!

The above are just the tip of the iceberg of the creeping dehumanizing. For the detainees … it hardly bears contemplating…

I set our below some email exchanges between would-be visitors and Border Force.  For those whose minds go numb reading emails from Officialdom, the Border Force emails decode as something like this:

“We hate you and we hate that you are trying to bring comfort to the innocent people we lock up, so we are just going to fuck you around until you give up…”

An email chain between a teacher and Border Force to set up a visit by the teacher and some senior students in early November went like this:

Teacher to Border Force: I would like to request that the following people [named]… be permitted to visit [named detainees] on …November

Border Force to Teacher: In order to process your visit application the authorising delegate requires the following forms to be completed and submitted for each person attending … [asks if anyone is under 18]

Teacher to Border Force:  We have been visiting detention for the past 3 years with students.  I have always filled out this form on arrival.  I do not understand why this process is being added.  Particularly without warning.  Particularly when it means that we can not visit today.  We have permission from the Department of Immigration to visit.  We are not an official visitor. … Can I please have a telephone number that I can reach you on.

Teacher to Border Force: I have now spoken with Patrick Gallagher from Canberra.

I request the following please: an explanation of why we are an official visit.  I have copied in an email from the Department of Immigration and Border Protection that clearly states that we are not an official visit.  I would like clarification.

I also seek clarification about why I can no longer visit the detention centre on my own.  I have done this often in the past, in addition to times that I have brought students to the detention centre and as I was planning to visit on this Thursday I would like to be able to do this.  MITA is not allowing me to book a visit.  Can you please clarify why this is occurring?  I would great appreciate your intervention here so that I can visit.

Border Force to Teacher: Under the current settings within the Immigration Detention Network, visits from organisations such as yours are categorised as official visits and must be treated as such.  There has been a significant amount of change within out Immigration Detention environment that explains the changes in the visits protocol since the attached 2014 email was written.

Here is an email from my colleague, to Border Force to set up a visit:

I would like to book a table of six for next Thursday 17th November, for the 6-8pm visit session:

AB (teacher – myself); CD (student); EF (student) 

GH (detainee); JK (detainee); LM (detainee) 

Could you kindly arrange this for us please?

Look forward to hearing from you soon.

Here is the reply:

In order to process your visit application the authorising delegate requires the following forms to be completed and submitted by each visitor:

Please note that we require at least seven days’ notice to process a visit application. Please send your visit request along with relevant completed forms to detention.visits@border.gov.au

For further information please go to http://www.border.gov.au/Busi/Comp/Immigration-detention/visiting-a-facility

Kind regards

MITA VISITS TEAM

T: +61 3 9280 6105

120-150 Camp Road

Broadmeadows VIC 3047

I like the “Kind Regards”.  Somehow, any trace of kindness is completely absent.

Another person, who is a friend of my colleague, tried to set up a visit for members of her refugee support group.  She got this from Border Force:

I thank you for your email.

Under the current settings within the Immigration Detention Network, visits from organisations such as yours are categorised as official visits and must be treated as such.  There has been a significant amount of change within out Immigration Detention environment that explains the changes in the visits protocol since the attached 2014 email was written.

It appears that you are aware of the current visit request protocols that are in place setting out the requirements for you and your organisation to visit.  If you would like clarification re the process please advise and I will set out the procedures that need to be followed to accommodate your request. …

* * * * * * *

As noted above, there have been more developments since I first posted this.  I have received the following update:

…since you posted the blog, we have had more stuffing around. We have missed out now on several visits (for which our Year 12 students had been waiting all year for), the latest for both Thursday and Friday because of the absurd requests for yet more paperwork, yet more paperwork, yet more “processing time”, because we have to wait “7 days” to be processed…..yet we have to book 7 days in advance otherwise we will miss out on the limited number of tables available! We have to fill out virtually identical forms every time. It takes a lot of goodwill from fellow teachers, all of whom are already saddled with excessive workloads – not to mention paperwork and duty of care at this end whenever we cross the street, let alone go to MITA!!

It also needs to be stressed how much we bend over backwards to accommodate the protocols and processes, which literally are changing every week.

Our project, like [another teacher’s similar project], has a deep process of discernment and reflection behind it, as one would expect with our spiritual motivations for the visits to MITA. The decision to give moral support to our innocent friends locked up in the gulag (many of whom are profoundly affected mentally and emotionally but always put on their best, hospitable faces for our group, treating the students especially with graciousness) has not been taken lightly. As you saw, our language and diplomacy are a given. Occasionally, there is a gem of an individual staffer at MITA. They too are under incredible pressure from above – from the heartless Qld copper ultimately. But week to week, we experience knock backs for one procedural delay or another.

The latest experience this week was a “vetting” conversation with an official from Border Force. The person on the phone asked me about half a dozen questions….do we have links with other schools?….what’s the purpose of our visits….motives?…have you any projects a part of it…..(no projects, no agendas, just a friendly face and moral support)…have you any visitors under 18….we need to respect the privacy of our clients….how will you do that….etc. etc.This phone conversation, which involved the officer taking notes, came after we had already been given approval!!

Are we living is a dystopian, post-Brave New World imitation of normality?  Has the Donald J Trump tide swept across our shores already?

At least we should be grateful for dedicated teachers like AB and CD who are willing to keep on trying, despite all thepassive-aggressive resistance put up by bureaucrats.

Big Deal

Australia has announced an agreement with the US in relation to refugees presently held on Nauru and Manus.  In announcing the agreement, Prime Minister Turnbull and Immigration Minister Dutton were careful to avoid giving any significant detail of the arrangement.  For example, they did not say how many people would be accepted by the USA and they did not say on what terms refugees would be accepted by the USA.  They did say that the arrangement would not be available for anyone who arrives in Australia in the future seeking asylum.

It is sad that Mr Turnbull, who is a lawyer by training, is so ready to ignore the law, distort the facts and lie to the public in order to appease the right-wing of his party.  There is something pathetic about the sight of a Prime Minister, who is independently rich and successful, having to sacrifice his values in order to hold onto his job.  Mr Turnbull criticised Mr Shorten for rejecting the government’s proposed lifetime visa ban.   He said this was a mark of Mr Shorten yielding to the left wing of the Labor party: an odd charge to make, given that Mr Turnbull’s present stance is a mark of his capitulation to the hard-right of his own party and a betrayal of his personal standards of honesty and decency.

Turnbull and Dutton did not say whether the resettlement arrangement was contingent on Labor supporting the lifetime visa ban legislation presently before the Senate, although Turnbull criticised Labor for opposing it in the lower house.  It is difficult to understand why it would be contingent on a lifetime visa ban, unless the USA required it.  There is nothing to suggest that it has.

Prime Minister Turnbull made it clear that any detainee who does not accept resettlement in USA will have to return to their country of origin; and any detainee who has been assessed as a refugee and who does not accept resettlement in USA will probably have to remain in Nauru indefinitely.  Mr Turnbull announced that Australia is “in the final stages of negotiation with Nauru” to persuade it to offer 20 year visas.

The announcement on 13 November left a number of important questions unanswered. Without those questions being answered it is impossible to know whether this is a welcome development or an exercise in cynicism.

Turnbull and Dutton were not able to say whether the arrangement would still apply when Donald Trump is inaugurated as President in January.  President-elect Trump has expressed unequivocal anti-Muslim views: in late 2015 he called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.”

We need to know how many people will be offered resettlement.  We need to know whether Muslims will be accepted by USA as part of the arrangement. It is an important consideration, given Donald Trump’s express hostility to Muslims. If resettlement was offered to 5 non-Muslim refugees on Manus, the entire exercise would be exposed as a cynical attempt to defuse an increasingly embarrassing Australian policy.  If, on the other hand, the arrangement was available to all 1800 detainees on Nauru and Manus it would seem to be a welcome development.  So far, it’s too early to tell.

Mr Turnbull’s announcement was interesting in other ways.  He said:

“We have put in place the largest and most capable maritime surveillance and response fleet Australia has ever deployed.  Any people smuggling boats that attempt to reach  Australia will be intercepted  and turned back.  Australia’s border protection policy has not changed: it is resolute, it is unequivocal: those who seek to come to Australia with people smugglers will not be admitted to Australia.” and

“We have significantly reinforced the security of our borders”

These statements are interesting because they fall back on the old lie: that mistreatment of boat people is an exercise in “protecting” our borders.  He later referred to boat people who come to Australia “unlawfully”.  That is the other element of the government’s dishonesty about boat people.  People who arrive in Australia seeking to be protected from persecution do not break any law.  And we do not need to be protected from them.

Australia is a signatory to the Refugees Convention (1951).  It was the world’s response to the chilling fact that, during the 1930s, Jews fleeing Nazi Germany were turned away from many countries where they sought a safe place to live.  An essential purpose of the Refugees Convention was to spread the load of refugee movement, so as to give substance to Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) which declares the right of every person to seek asylum in any  country they can reach. By taking steps to prevent asylum seekers reaching Australia, we are in effect denying that right.  By seeking to justify those steps with the language of “illegals” and “border protection” politicians like Turnbull and Dutton are denying that right by lying to the Australian public: they are seeking to persuade us that closing our borders to refugees is a laudable thing.  It is not laudable: it is heartless and dishonest.

Mr Turnbull also said:

“We anticipate that people smugglers will seek to use this agreement as a marketing opportunity to tempt vulnerable people onto this perilous sea journey”

This facile observation overlooks a basic fact about people-smuggling: it is wholly demand-driven.  Refugees do not need to be lured by the prospect of resettlement: they use people smugglers because the perils of the journey look less terrifying than the persecution they seek to escape.

Whether the deal happens or not, one thing remains clear: Mr Turnbull has sacrificed his intellect and his values to hold onto the prize of being PM.  It’s sad to watch.

 

News from Manus

I have just received another report from Manus.  Here it is, in edited form to preserve the anonymity of people involved:

“In addition to declining mental health-we had an attempted suicide by hanging in October-a number of refugees suffering from serious medical health issues. Some refugees are being  taken to Port Moresby for medical treatment and stay away for 6 weeks or longer. Some of the treatments are very minor and would be classified as day surgery in Australia. For instance, one refugee had a cyst behind his ear. They removed the cyst, yet he stayed for another 5 weeks in Port Moresby. Then there is a waiting list for urgent cases who seem to drag on and on. It makes no sense. With their permission, I would like to inform you of the following four refugees who are suffering from physical ailments and who have been placed on the waiting list for surgery. Some have had ‘treatment’ in Port Moresby, to no avail.

AB from —  has issues with his knees and left wrist. In Port Moresby he was informed that he had a form of arthritis, however medications did not alleviate the pain. Later he was diagnosed as not suffering from this condition. He remains in pain, untreated.

CD is in fear of losing his left hand. It is discoloured and numb. He had botched surgery in Port Moresby.

EF has ‘blown up’ kidneys. In Port Moresby they looked at the wrong file and he was administered incorrect treatment. He is suffering from severe kidney pain and placed on the waiting list-again.

GH is suffering from intestinal issues which had been misdiagnosed in Port Moresby. Following his treatment his condition  is worse, and his medication is  affecting his kidneys. Nothing is being done to assist him.

Then there are a large number of refugees who suffered injuries during the February 2014 riots. The vast majority of these injuries have not been treated correctly, or not at all. Nearly three years later, their injuries continue to impact on their lives.”

(end of report)

Don’t forget, these people are suffering from conditions which result from their prolonged detention in Manus.  They were taken there by Australia against their will.  They did not break any law by trying to come to Australia to escape persecution.  We have mistreated them and broken them.

If you were in their shoes, how would you feel?

Remember the war poets on Remembrance Day

Lest we forget.

The first World War produced remarkable poetry.  In earlier times, war poetry tended to valourise war.  Not so between 1914-1918.

The lacerating poetry of the First World War showed just how powerfully the truth can be told.  Wilfred Owen in particular, and his mentor Siegfried Sassoon, showed how poetry can strip away the protective layers of delusion which protect us from the truth of what we do.

Good poetry sees the world in ways which are invisible to most of us – until we read the poems.  By doing that, it can smuggle uncomfortable ideas into complacent minds.

Wilfred Owen died just a week before the Armistice. Only four of his poems had been published.  In 1937, Siegfried Sassoon persuaded a publisher to publish a book of Owen’s poetry.  Two years later the second World War started.  It was a predictable consequence of the Treaty of Versailles: the Treaty had impoverished Germany; the misery experienced in Germany made it possible for Hitler to take power in 1933; Hitler made himself popular by blaming all of Germany’s problems on the Jews and he poisoned the public attitude to Jews by vilifying them grotesquely.

Something similar is happening across the Western world today: Muslims are the target these days.  Muslims are being vilified by people who should know better.  One person emails me regularly with anti-Islamic rants.  In one email he contrasts the Christian teaching “Love thy neighbour” with his assertion that the Koran preaches violence and hatred.  Apparently he thinks that Muslims are not our “neighbour”, despite Christian teaching.

He has even urged that Australia should create concentration camps and put all Muslims in them; and he has suggested strafing refugees in their boats.  It is the thinking of a person who has forgotten.  He has forgotten not only the core teaching of the Christian religion which he appears to espouse.  He has forgotten where hatred and vilification lead to.

Lest we forget, as that person has forgotten.

Here are a couple of Wilfred Owen’s poems.

Dulce Et Decorum Est

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! — An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, —
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Anthem for Doomed Youth 

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

Complaint to International Criminal Court names Abbott, Morrison, Dutton, Turnbull

A consortium of international lawyers, led from England, has asked the prosecutor at the International Criminal Court to take action against Australia for crimes arising out of its policy towards asylum seekers.

The Consortium has issued a 52-page Communiqué which alleges that the Australian Government is guilty of international crimes because of its policy of indefinite mandatory detention of refugee “boat people” and their forcible removal   to Manus Island (part of Papua New Guinea) and Nauru (which is called the Pacific Solution).

The Communiqué fully explains that the Pacific Solution, which was revived in 2012 and remains in place, appears to have, as its primary objective, breaking the spirit of the people held on Manus or Nauru.

The mistreatment of asylum seekers is not limited to the Pacific Solution.  Christmas Island which is part of Australia, more than 1500 kilometers north-west of mainland Australia,  also had detention centres.

The people are kept in these “Offshore Processing Centres” whilst their asylum claims are processed.  Reports of cruelty and mistreatment are numerous and getting more serious.

The Communiqué is supported by witness evidence from doctors, workers, visitors and former detainees at the Offshore Processing Centres.  Key findings include:

  • As at 31 March 2014, there were 153 babies, 204 pre-schoolers (aged 2 to 4 years old), 336 primary school aged children, and 196 teenagers in Immigration Detention. As at 31 January 2016, 142 children remained in Immigration Detention.
  • The average child spends 231 days in Immigration Detention.
  • On average, the general population of refugees spend 457 days in Immigration Detention.
  • There is inadequate food and water, a lack of medicine and medical treatment, overcrowding, and a subsistence of violent incidents. Further, the length of detention is generally indefinite at the outset.
  • Conditions are unhygienic. On Nauru, showers are generally restricted to 30 seconds each day. Staff have said that the water has run out on multiple occasions, with overflowing, blocked toilets and faeces on the floor.

Reports from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees are highly critical of the Pacific Solution and Australia’s treatment of those seeking asylum.

Amnesty International has also issued several reports equally critical of Australia’s policies towards refugees and the conditions in which they are held.

The Communiqué cites precedents in international law which show that Prime Ministers and Ministers for Immigration in Australia, Nauru and Papua New Guinea could be held personally responsible as perpetrators of crimes.

The lawyers behind the Communiqué consder that there is no option remaining, other than the International Criminal Court  (ICC).  Previous legal action before the UN Human Rights Committee, UN Human Rights Council and the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD) have not changed the Australian Government’s course.  Asylum seekers who have had their detention recognised as arbitrary by the WGAD and are still in detention over a year or more later – including those with children. The previous Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, in response to comments by the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, stated that ‘Australians are sick of being lectured to by the UN’.

As such, the ICC is really the venue of last resort.

Courtenay Barklem, former human rights adviser at the Law Society of England and Wales said: “This scandal sullies Australia’s record on human rights.  We expect Australia to have higher standards and not to mistreat some of the most vulnerale people through deliberate government policies.  This diminishes Australia’s reputation in the eyes of the international community.”

It names every Australian PM and Immigration Minister since 2002, as well as Mr Baron Waqa (current Nauruan President and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade).  It details the cruel treatment of boat people by successive Australian governments:  communique-to-icc

Oppose Lifetime Visa Ban

Here is my submission to the Senate enquiry on the MIGRATION Legislation AMENDMENT (Regional processing cohort) BILL 2016

The Bill relevantly inserts sub-section 46A(2AA)

The effect of that provision is to “prevent unauthorised maritime arrivals (UMAs) who were at least 18 years of age and were taken to a regional processing country after 19 July 2013 from making a valid application for an Australian visa”.

The Bill should be opposed, for the following reasons:

  1. In the short term, it will operate to prevent people who are currently in a Regional Processing Centre, and who have been assessed as refugees, from being reunited with members of their immediate family who are presently living in the Australian community.  That is a result which most Australians would regard as needlessly harsh.  It would be unsafe to assume that the present Minister would exercise his discretion in favour of allowing the family to be reunited: he has previously refused to exercise his discretion in favour of a result which most people would regard as in keeping with Australian values.
  2. In the medium to long term, it would mean that people presently in a Regional Processing Centre and who are assessed as refugees and who settle in (say) Canada or Sweden and rebuild their lives there will never be able to visit Australia for tourism, or business, or any other legitimate reason.  This has absurd and pointless possibilities:
    1. A person builds up a successful business in Canada and wants to visit business associates in Australia, but is not able to make a valid visa application;
    2. A person settles in another country and wins a Nobel Prize; or becomes eminent in some field, and is invited to visit Australia to give a lecture, but is not able to make a valid visa application.
  3. The medium to long term effect is founded on a misconception.  It assumes that a person who has been held in misery for years at Australia’s direction and who makes a new life in another country will (if allowed to visit Australia) want to discard their new life and relocate to Australia.  It is difficult to understand this conceit: in my experience most refugees who have been held offshore for years and are forced to resettle in a third country do not share the Australian view that this is the best country in the world.  It contradicts ordinary human experience: relocating just once to a new culture is hard; to do it a second time (leaving one safe place to go to another safe place) seems unlikely.
  4. This measure, which is ostensibly intended to send a message to people smugglers would have been unthinkable in Australia 25 years ago.  It can only be contemplated now because Australia has adopted a policy of undisguised cruelty to people who arrive here seeking protection.  International opinion does not hold us in high esteem: we have distinguished ourselves as cruel and selfish.  Australia’s suggested excuse for its harsh, deterrent policies is a pretended concern about refugees drowning, because of the indifference  of people smugglers.  This is a plausible, but false, reason.
    1. It is false because, if we deter people from escaping persecution and they are killed by their persecutors, they are still dead, just as if they had drowned.
    2. It is false because, if people try to escape persecution by heading towards Europe rather than Australia, and if they die in that attempt, they are still dead, just as if they had drowned.
    3. It is false because, if they  succeed in getting to Australia without drowning, we send them to Nauru or Manus where, after years of misery, they try to kill themselves – even children.  If they succeed in their self-harm attempts, they are still dead, just as if they had drowned.
    4. It is false because, if they succeed in getting to Australia without drowning, we abuse them and punish them.  All the psychiatric evidence demonstrates that prolonged detention of an innocent person is seriously damaging.  And they are innocent: they commit no offence by coming to Australia without a visa to seek protection from persecution.  Calling them “illegal” is false, even if it is politically effective.

It is time for the Senate to take a stand and say that our mindless cruelty has gone too far: it should not be allowed to go any further.  It is worth considering that Australia (because of its geography) has traditionally received very few refugees who arrive without prior permission.  Contrast our position with that of Jordan and Lebanon which, being adjacent to Syria, have received millions of Syrian refugees in recent years.  The purpose of the Refugees Convention, to which Australia is a signatory, was to spread the load of refugee movement so that the burden would not be born principally by countries adjacent to the source of refugees.  By our increasingly harsh policies, which are explicitly intended to deter boat people, we are contradicting the central purpose of the Refugees Convention.

Anti-Islamic rants

A person who lives in Australia emails me regularly (at least a couple of times a week) ranting about Muslims.

He is clearly having an unhappy, insecure life.  Some part of me feels sorry for him.  But my pity for him is dimmed when he advocates:

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

This is a real person with some seriously toxic ideas.  And just a few days ago (just before the election in the USA) he wrote:

“America’s first Muslim President will soon be history and the States are now saying that they want no part in the invasion of the USA by Muslims”.  It boggles the mind.

Here is a selection of his emails from the past: anti-islamic-rants

A Grim Report from MITA

Melbourne Immigration Transit Accomodation at Broadmeadows (MITA) was the scene of another degrading episode.

Border Force was living down to its reputation if thereport is even partly true.  (Note: since this was first posted, the story was covered on 7 November 2016 in The Guardian Australia:

“Sad News Today.

In the early hours of the morning, people in detention at the Broadmeadows MITA Melbourne awoke to distressed cries in Avon Compound.

They saw a man dragged out of his bed in his underwear, handcuffed and dragged away by many guards.

They heard his cries and pleas not to be taken back to Nauru for about 40 minutes and then silence.

We have since found out that he was taken by an Air Force plane and flown to Brisbane and then Nauru.

The Dutton /Turnbull war on refugees is now resorting to the Air Force to secretly remove people in the dead of night.

This man’s case was on file but not yet lodged which meant that immigration were not required by the Court to notify his lawyers, 72 hours in advance. His lawyers were not notified.

This man was brought to Australia for surgery after suffering on Nauru for over a year. Even after the camp was opened he was in such pain that he was unable to leave the camp.

Finally he was brought to Australia for surgery and started to recover. He is a quiet, gentle man who always looked out for others.

This removal has created intense fear and distress across the camps as people are hearing the terrible news. People are literally terrified.

We are reassuring them that the 72 hour notification period still stands and that no one with this in place can be removed without a legal battle.”

The Human RightsLaw Centre has said that “forced deportation would terrify hundreds of refugees and people seeking asylum currently in the Australian community but still fearful of being sent back offshore.”

The HRLC is also of the understanding that this man had already been assessed as a refugee and was legally represented but was removed without any notice to him or his lawyers.

You can join us to keep updated on incidents as they occur. Visit: AUSTRALIAN WOMEN IN SUPPORT OF WOMEN ON NAURU  to join.”

More news from Manus

A colleague has recently given me an update about things on Manus.  Note in particular that Australia is not the attraction: they just want safety and certainty.  Instead we mistreat them and grind them into despair.  We are crushing them.  Is this really what we want our politicians to do?  What has happened to Australia?

The spirits of everyone is very bad there is a lot of hopelessness there.     I was talking to a friend of ours and asked him did he know anyone elsewhere that could sponsor him for a visa.  He doesn’t have anyone anywhere else.    He just looked at me and said “I am going to die here”.  He is early 20’s

They have no faith in anything anymore including the court process.   Of course every time that the court process stalls it brings on those feelings again.

The reality is the hopelessness and boredom, they really feel like there is nothing left for them now.

Australia is in the process of building roads between the centre and Lorengau.    

A lot of the refugees don’t want to come to Australia: they just want to go somewhere and be safe.  Unfortunately it appears that Australia does not have any third country willing to take them.   

 

What Would You Do?

Politicians repeatedly urge us to hate, and punish, and mistreat people who come here as boat people.  Their anti-boat-people policies and laws are said to be justified as a deterrent, so that people will not risk drowning.

Let’s test that.

Imagine for a moment that you are a Hazara from Afghanistan. (About 99% of Hazaras are assessed as refugees: they are the equivalent of Jews fleeing Germany in the 1930s).

You have fled your country and you have come down the northwest corridor through Malaysia and Indonesia; countries that give you a one month visa on arrival. While you are in Indonesia you can go to the UNHCR office in Jakarta and apply for refugee status.  If you are a Hazara from Afghanistan, you will almost certainly be assessed as a refugee. But when your one month visa expires, you have to hide because if you are found by the police, they will jail you. You cannot work or send your children to school, because if you are found they will jail you. If the UNHCR has assessed you as a refugee, you can wait in the shadows until some country offers to resettle you. That may take 20 or 30 years.

Now, for just one minute, imagine you are that person. Will you wait in the shadows for 20 or 30 years or will you take your courage in both hands and get on a boat?  I have never met an Australian who would not get on the boat.

It’s a very strange thing that we criticize, revile and punish those who do precisely what we would do if we were in their shoes.

And do we really think we are saving lives by our harsh policies?

Stopping refugee boats arriving is not a self-evident good.  It might stop people drowning inconveniently in view of Australians at Christmas Island.  But if they do not get on a boat and are, instead, killed by the Taliban, they are just as dead as if they drowned.  If they head towards Europe and drown in the Mediterranean, or suffocate in the back of a truck, they are just as dead as if they drowned.

The real difference is that our conscience is not troubled by their un-noted death somewhere else.

Reza Berati was murdered on Manus, by a person whose wages were paid by Australian taxpayers; Hamid Khazaie died because of medical negligence in Australia’s Immigration Department;  Omid Massoumali died on Nauru when he set himself alight in despair, after having been found to be a refugee, but faced with the prospect of spending the rest of his life on Nauru.

Reza Berati, Hamid Khazaie and Omid Massoumali are just as dead as if they had drowned.

It is worth remembering that boat people are, by definition, people with enough initiative to take steps to escape persecution, and enough courage to risk their lives at sea.  And they are fleeing the same extremists we are fighting in the Middle East.  So what’s not to like about them?  Stopping the boats prevents our society from receiving people who are brave and determined.

The Great Australian Lockout

Early yesterday, 30 October  2016, Malcolm Turnbull stood in front of the press and announced new policy that would impose a lifetime ban for people who came to Australia by boat, seeking protection. Senator Hanson immediately stated her full support.

Hanson’s support colours the proposal in a way that should make us careful: it’s like getting an approving nod from Donald Trump.

Let’s hope the ALP has the courage to act like an opposition, by opposing the legislation: there are many problems with the proposal.

First: it means that people who have family living in Australia on Temporary Protection Visas will never be able to see their families again.  There are men right now who are held on Manus who have wife and children living in Australia.  The problem is that the family members are on TPVs: that means that if ever they leave Australia they will not be allowed back.  these are people who we have recognised as refugees: people unable to return to their country of origin because of a well-founded fear of persecution.

The legislation, proposed by Turnbull, will break families apart permanently.  It would be deeply troubling if Labor supported it.

Second: it achieves nothing at all apart from intensifying the misery suffered already by people held in offshore detention, at vast (and pointless) cost to Australian taxpayers.

Third: it involves a fundamental contradiction of Australia’s obligations under a range of international humanitarian conventions.

The Refugees Convention (1951) was designed to help spread the burden of refugee movement, so that all civilized countries would help protect refugees, rather than leaving the burden to countries adjacent to trouble spots.

The Convention Against Torture  (1984) was designed to prevent torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.  We already breach its provisions by the way we treat people in offshore detention.  The UN Special Rapporteur made findings against Australia in 2015, which the LNP government ignored.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) It is hard to imagine less humane treatment of a child than preventing the child from ever seeing one of its parents again.  We already breach the Convention by our mistreatment of children in Nauru detention.

Fourth: apparently the government does not even understand its own proposal.  As I write this, Barnaby Joyce is speaking to Raf Epstein on ABC radio.  He seeks to justify the measures by the desire to stop people drowning in their attempt to reach Australia.  It is hard to understand how anyone is saved by further mistreatment of people who have already risked their lives to get to Australia and have spent the last 3 years suffering on Manus or Nauru.  In addition, he referred to them as people who had come to Australia “Illegally”.  He is wrong: it is not an offence to get to Australia by boat seeking protection from persecution.

The big question is this: when LNP politicians like Barnaby Joyce, Peter Dutton, Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison refer to boat people as “illegal” and refer to fending them off as “border protection” are they misinformed or are they lying to the public.

In my opinion, they are lying.

They have had 15 years (since Tampa) to notice that boat people are never prosecuted for the manner of their arrival (because it isn’t “illegal”).

They have had 15 years to notice that it has been stated publicly and often that boat people are not “illegal”.

They have had 15 years to seek legal advice on the question.

In my opinion, when Barnaby Joyce, Peter Dutton, Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison refer to boat people as “illegal” they are lying.  They are lying to help hold onto power.  The public should never believe anything they say.

 

Petition for a Bill of Rights in NSW

The Newtown Amnesty International Action Group has put up a petition for a Bill of Rights in NSW:

nsw-bill-of-rights-petition

Victoria has a Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities.  The sky has not fallen in.

The ACT has a Human Rights Act.  The sky has not fallen in.

Don’t be troubled about the name: no-one is suggesting that we need a Bill of Rights like the USA Bill of Rights.  In the 20th and 21st centuries, a Bill of rights means something which protects basic human rights against the government.

John Howard made the most cogent point about a Bill of Rights during the Rudd years.  He was asked about a Bill of Rights and said it was a bad idea “because it interferes with what Parliament can do”.  That is precisely the point!

In early 2010 Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced, peremptorily, that Australia would not have a Bill of Rights.  This, notwithstanding that the Brennan enquiry had recommended that we should have one.  Rudd’s rejection of a Bill of Rights caused very little concern in the community.  Not only is Australia the only Western democracy not to have coherent human rights protection, we are the only country in the world which has turned its mind to a Bill of Rights in the 21st century and decided not to have one.

So: look at the Newtown Amnesty International Action Group petition and consider signing it.

Frightening effect of Islamophobia

It seems that a lot of Australians are frightened of Muslims.  this Islamophobia has been whipped up by politicians who ought to know better.

It is terrifying to see just how frightened people can react.  One Australian has been writing to me relentlessly urging that we establish concentration camps for Muslims!

Yes: concentration camps.  Here is a portion of a recent email from this person:

“What is wrong with Concentration Camps? They were good enough for a former Australian Prime Minister – Billy Hughes.

It is fantastic that of-shore Concentration Camps have been established to protect Australia from the Muslim Invasion.

More should be established on the Mainland to house Muslims that have been allowed into Australia and who pose a threat to the safety of other Australians.

Cicero would have fully supported Concentration Camps to protect the safety of the people. …”

I can do no better than quote something Helen Razer wrote:

“In a post earlier today that linked to an article written by me I incorrectly identified those who disdain Islam as “racist”.  I am sorry  about this. As you so deftly and cleverly remind me, “Islam is not a race”. You are, therefore, not a racist.

I didn’t mean to call you a racist.

I meant to call you – how can I put this? – history’s worst reflex.

I meant to call you the frail and fearful idiot who learned nothing of the lessons of 1933.

I meant to call you the descendent of Nazism.

I meant, much more kindly, to say that your belief that a little cultural difference is responsible for all the shit in your life is a product of an under-informed mind and an ugly spirit. …”

The idea that any person in the early 21st century could call for concentration camps is so shocking as to defy belief.  But the person who emailed me has sent me many emails in recent months arguing, repeatedly, that concentration camps for Muslims would be a good idea.  I prefer not to ask his attitude to Hitler, Nazism and anti-Semitism.

New restrictions at MITA

I have just received the following report about arbitrary restrictions at MITA (Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation):

“Since I started visiting (just after the Border Force Act in July last year), the onshore detention regime has become increasingly prison-like, and this appears to be a directive from the DIBP (though nothing is ever confirmed).

I was visiting there on Thursday (September 28) and was told about the latest in a string of humiliating rules, which is that ‘detainees’  are no longer allowed to go to the toilet during visits.  On Thursday, several people were ‘allowed’ to go and return, but at last night’s visit, the guard it was enforced strictly and no one was allowed back to the visits room if they needed to go to the toilet.

I’m really just calling out the latest in a string of humiliating rules and can only echo a friend’s (Uniting Church Minister, Lisa-Stewart) FB post:

Many of us have adapted to the new rigidity relating to visiting, the most recent: clearing the centre between visits, which entails our friends being lined up like children to exit under guarded supervision. We smile and throw kisses and wave loving goodbyes to cover that humiliation.

Now, to add insult to grave injury, another layer of senseless bureaucracy has been imposed that serves no purpose other than to further humiliate our friends. 

From now on, our friends can not go to the toilet during our two hour visiting block. Well, they can, but if they do leave the centre to visit the toilet they are not permitted to return. Why? What purpose does this possibly serve?

Well, if you think I’m going to shut up about it Serco and Border Force, you can get stuffed. For more entertaining reading, read the rest of the rules, especially relating to property. Nothing spoils a birthday surprise more than having to submit a written request for your own present, get permission from not one, but two layers of bureaucracy : Serco AND Border Force, then ask your visitor, who has probably travelled afar to come and visit you in the only available afternoon visiting slots, to get there a bit earlier – 5-7 HOURS earlier to drop the present off. Assuming you get permission. Which I doubt.

Mad. Mad. Mad. And worse than that, cruel. I’ve attached an email sent out by Pamela Curr on Thursday night and a copy of the new rules. Lisa’s post points out the idiocy of the Property gifting rule, which appears solely designed to save Serco the inconvenience of processing visits and receiving Property at the same time. 

Like so many of the visiting rules, the toilet rule is clearly designed to make visits more difficult and unpleasant – for many people, a visit only happens once a week (if that) which is their only connection to each other (they can no longer apply to visit each other even though this was promised when they segregated MITA by gender and family status a few months ago) and to friends and supporters outside. Even Facebook access is now restricted.  …”

 

Renate Kamener Oration 2016

Renate Kamener Oration 2016

Is Islamophobia the new anti-Semitism?

Julian Burnside

Introduction

It is a fine thing for a family to remember a loved one with an annual speech.    To remember your loved mother each year by a public act of remembering is a truly wonderful thing. In The Tempest, Prospero says: “We are such stuff as dreams are made on; and our little life is rounded with a sleep´. If Shakespeare was right, this annual oration means that the sleep is not dreamless.

The Rabbi who celebrated her life at the Cremation on Friday 13 March 2009 said of Renate Kamener:

We are gathered to show our great love, admiration and appreciation of a remarkable and special woman – Renate Kamener – adored daughter, loving wife and life-partner, wonderful mother, supportive sister-in-law, welcoming mother in law, generous and giving colleague and trusted and valued friend.  …

Incidentally, the Rabbi was close to an hour late for the service, because he got the time wrong.  Renate was known by all of her friends and family for her appalling lack of punctuality, and a member of the family commented “even in death she keeps us waiting!”

In his 2011 Renate Kamener Oration, Gareth Evans said this:

Renate Kamener was a remarkable woman, and I feel honoured and privileged to have been invited by her family to give this second Oration in her memory. I was first introduced to Renate and Bob, more decades ago than any us would now care to remember, by my then Melbourne University Law School colleague, and their fellow refugee from the South African apartheid regime, Julian Phillips, and it was in that context that I first became aware of the risks they had taken in opposing that regime, and of their passionate commitment against racism in any form and for human dignity and decency in every form.

He spoke movingly of Renate Kamener’s intense commitment to Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation, and of what he referred to as “a life of great and recognized service to humanity”.

Renate was born on 8th June, 1933, in Breslau, Germany.  As the Rabbi pointed out, “the mention of Germany in 1933 will immediately ring alarm bells for many of you as the year that Hitler became chancellor and began to put into practice his anti-Jewish rhetoric…”

Anti-Semitism

Anti-Semitism has a long history, but notoriously reached an appalling peak in Germany between 1933 and 1945.

Gareth Evans touched on this in his 2011 Oration.  He said:

As no-one here this evening needs reminding, least of all the Kamener family, who like so many others of you have contributed so much to the Australian community since you or your forebears fled the horrors in Europe of the 1930s and 40s, no crime in history has been more grotesque than the Nazi Holocaust, with its comprehensively and meticulously organized extermination of six million Jews.   Even if some other mass atrocity crimes, those of Stalin and Mao for a start, have involved even more unbelievably large numbers, none has more fundamentally demeaned our sense of common humanity.

I do not intend to rehearse the miserable history of anti-Semitism.  Its traces go back a very long way.  It is often overlooked that the document signed by King John at Runnymede on 15 June 1215 and later called Magna Carta contained several provisions which can only be understood as an expression of anti-Semitism.  Shakespeare’s plays reflect enduring anti-Semitism in Britain, and the trial of Alfred Dreyfus in 1894 was an expression of deep-seated anti-Semitism in France.  Incidentally, it is not widely remembered that the Vichy regime deported Alfred Dreyfus’ granddaughter Madeline.  She was gassed at Auschwitz in 1944.

Boat people

As most of you are aware, I have been greatly concerned about Australia’s mistreatment of refugees in recent years.  I know many of you have also been concerned, and perhaps for the same reasons.

The origins of that mistreatment can be traced back to the Tampa episode in 2001.  The MV Tampa went to the help of a small refugee boat, the Palapa.  Most of the people on the Palapa were terrified Hazaras from Afghanistan, fleeing the Taliban.  It is often overlooked that Hazaras from Afghanistan now and Rohingyas from Myanmar now are as likely to be genuine refugees as Jews from Germany in 1939.

The captain of the Tampa rescued the people from the Palapa them to Christmas Island: a speck of Australian sovereignty in the Indian Ocean.  Those 434 Hazaras escaped the Taliban, a regime so harsh that we saw fit to help the Americans blast it back to the Stone Age just a couple of months later.  But they marked the start of a campaign which, in recent years has become a policy of deterrence: a policy designed to make people think persecution at home is better than mistreatment by Australia.

When the Tampa entered Australian territorial waters off Christmas Island, John Howard called in the SAS, who took command of the bridge of the Tampa at gunpoint.

Then there was a stand-off.  The rescued Afghans were stuck, sweltering on the steel deck of the Tampa in the tropical sun.  The matter went to Court.  The case ran four or five days.  Judgment was reserved.  Then the judge delivered a decision: at 2.15 in the afternoon, Melbourne time, on 11 September 2001.  Ten hours later the attack on America took place.

It is a nice coincidence that this event in honour of Renate Kamener is being held 15 years, to the day, after the judgment in the Tampa litigation; on the 15th anniversary of the events which, more than anything else, triggered Islamophobia

The start of Islamophobia

After September 11, 2001, in public and political discourse, there were no longer terrorists, just Muslim terrorists; no boat people, just Muslim boat people.  And John Howard started calling boat people “illegal”.

The notion that 434 frightened, persecuted men, women and children constitute a threat to national sovereignty is so bizarre that it defies discussion.

The Coalition have persisted in calling boat people “illegal” ever since.  It is a lie.  When Abbott won government in 2013, “border control” became “border protection”.  It was not easy to watch an interview with Scott Morrison, when he was Immigration Minister, without hearing him talk about “illegals” and “border protection”.  (It was not easy to watch his interviews at all, disfigured as they were by his easy personal brand of hypocrisy and dishonesty). It is a matter of history that the Abbott government, whose leading figures were conspicuously Christian, were so dedicated to vilifying refugees, that they renamed the Department of Immigration and Citizenship: it is now the Department of Immigration and Border Protection.

But boat people do not threaten our borders in any sense, and we do not need to be protected from them.  But government propaganda, never contradicted decisively by the Labor party, has persuaded a significant percentage of the Australian public that we are being protected from dangerous criminals.

Most people, even the most empathetic, would not resist the idea that criminals should be sent to jail.  And if boat people are “illegal” then placing them in detention seems natural and reasonable.  It does not evoke a reaction of empathy.

The matter is different once you recognize that the people held in detention centres are not guilty of any offence.  It looks different when you see that boat people are held in detention for an indefinite time – for as long as it takes to resolve their claim for protection.  They may be jailed for months or years or perhaps even forever.  No-one can tell them in advance how long they will stay in detention.

What we do to boat people

When boat people arrive at Christmas Island, they have typically spent eight or 10 days on a rickety boat.  They have typically come from landlocked countries and have typically never spent time on the ocean.  Typically, they have had not enough to eat and not enough to drink.  Typically, they have had no opportunity to wash or to change their clothes.  Typically, they arrive distressed, frightened and wearing clothes caked in their own excrement.

They are not allowed to shower or to change their clothes before they are interviewed by an officer of the Immigration Department.  It is difficult to think of any decent justification for subjecting them to that humiliation.

When they arrive, any medical appliances they have will be confiscated and not returned:  spectacles, hearing aids, false teeth, prosthetic limbs, are all confiscated.  If they have any medications with them, those medications are confiscated and not returned.  According to doctors on Christmas Island, one person had a fulltime job of sitting in front of a bin popping pills out of blister packs for later destruction.

If they have any medical documentation with them, it is confiscated and not returned.  The result of all of this is that people with chronic health problems find themselves denied any effective treatment.  The results can be very distressing.  For example:  a doctor who worked on Christmas Island told me of a woman who had been detained there for some weeks and who was generally regarded as psychotic.  Her behaviour was highly erratic for reasons that no-one understood.  The consultation with this woman was very difficult because, although the doctor and the patient were sitting across a table from each other, they did not have a language in common.  The interpreter joined them by telephone from Sydney: about 5,300 kilometres away.  Eventually, the doctor worked out that the problem was that the woman was incontinent of urine.  She could not leave her cabin without urine running down her leg.  It was driving her mad.  When the doctor worked out that this was the cause of the problem, she asked the Department to provide incontinence pads.  The Department’s initial response was “we don’t do those”.  The doctor insisted.  The Department relented and provided four incontinence pads per day:  not enough, so that the woman needs to queue for more but the incontinence pads made a profound difference to her mood and behaviour.

In February 2014 Reza Barati was killed on Manus Island.  Initially, Australia said that he had escaped from the detention centre and was killed outside the detention centre.  Soon it became clear that he was killed inside the detention centre.  It took nearly five months before anyone was charged with the murder of Reza Barati.  Nobody has yet been brought to court.

Just a couple of weeks after Reza Barati was killed, I received a sworn statement from an eyewitness, Benham Satah.  The statement included the following:

“J … is a local who worked for the Salvation Army.  …  He was holding a large wooden stick.  It was about a metre and a half long … it had two nails in the wood.  The nails were sticking out …

When Reza came up the stairs, J … was at the top of the stairs waiting for him.  J … said ‘fuck you motherfucker’ J … then swung back behind his shoulder with the stick and took a big swing at Raisa, hitting him on top of the head.

J … screamed again at Reza and hit him again on the head.  Reza then fell on the floor …

I could see a lot of blood coming out of his head, on his forehead, running down his face.  His blood is still there on the ground.  He was still alive at this stage.

About 10 or 15 guards from G4S came up the stairs.  Two of them were Australians.  The rest were PNG locals.  I know who they are.  I can identify them by their face.  They started kicking Reza in his head and stomach with their boots.

Reza was on the ground trying to defend himself.  He put his arms up to cover his head but they were still kicking.

There was one local … I recognized him … he picked up a big rock … he lifted the rock above his head and threw it down hard on top of Reza’s head.  At this time, Reza passed away.

One of the locals came and hit him in his leg very hard … but Reza did not feel it.  This is how I know he was dead.

After that, as the guards came past him, they kicked his dead body on the ground …”

A short time later, Benham Satah was taken into the Wilson Security cabin in the detention centre.  Wilson Security provide the guard services on Manus and Nauru, and in your local park.   They are incorporated in Panama, presumably to avoid the inconvenience of paying Australian tax on the vast amounts they are paid by the Australian government.  The Wilson Security people tied Benham Satah to a chair and beat him up.  They told him that, unless he withdrew his witness statement, they would take him outside the camp, where he would be publicly raped by locals.

In 2015 I got an email from a health worker on Manus:

“…The situation as you can imagine is very grim. Around 80% of transferees suffering serious mental health issues. PNG staff are slowly being “trained” to take over various roles with mostly undesirable results. East Lorengau is not working. One refugee is lingering in hospital for over two weeks with undiagnosed stomach problems. One refugee doctor is suffering severe mental health issues….”

Here is an extract from a statement by a doctor who worked on Manus who has spent most of his  professional life working in the prison system in Australia:

“…On the whole, the conditions of detention at the Manus Island OPC are extremely poor. When I first arrived at the Manus Island OPC I was considerably distressed at what I saw, and I recall thinking that this must be similar to a concentration camp.

The detainees at the Manus Island OPC are detained behind razor wire fences, in conditions below the standard of Australian maximum-security prison.

My professional opinion is that the minimum medical requirements of the detained population were not being met. I have no reason to believe that the conditions of detention have improved since I ceased employment at the Manus Island OPC.

The conditions of detention at the Manus Island OPC appeared to be calculated to break the spirit of those detained in the Manus Island OPC. On a number of occasions the extreme conditions of detention resulted in detainees abandoning their claims for asylum and returning to their country of origin.

At the Manus Island OPC, bathroom facilities are rarely cleaned. There was a lot of mould, poor ventilation, and the structural integrity of the facilities is concerning.

No soap is provided to detainees for personal hygiene.

When detainees need to use the bathroom, it is standard procedure that they first attend at the guards’ station to request toilet paper. Detainees would be required to give an indication of how many ‘squares’ they will need. The maximum allowed is six squares of toilet paper, which I considered demeaning.

A large number of detainees continue to be in need of urgent medical attention.

Formal requests for medical attention are available to the detainees. The forms are only available in English. Many of the detainees do not have a workable understanding of English and the guards will not provide assistance.  …”

The recent release of several thousand files from the detention centre on Nauru provided a useful insight into what is happening  there.  The files revealed, among other things, something many of us have known all along: there have been hundreds of incidents of sexual assault, including child sexual assault.  The offences have been committed mostly by guards or by Nauruan locals.

But one document raised less concern than it should have.  It was a report that Save The Children had directed their staff that they should not spend longer than 5 weeks on Nauru at a time.   More than that would be a danger to their mental health.  We have held hundreds of men, women and children in detention on Nauru for more than three years.

But why?

So the question that needs to be asked is this: why has it been so easy to persuade the public that boat people are criminals who deserve to be locked away and mistreated so grotesquely that even children in detention harm themselves or kill themselves?

I fear that the true answer is Islamophobia.  Since 9/11 the Western world has been induced to believe that all boat people are Muslims and all Muslims are a threat to our way of life, our very existence.

The idea of people coming to Australia, without papers, without an invitation, causes astonishing anxiety.  It is generally overlooked that they come here looking for a place where they can live in safety.  Perhaps our reaction is a dim echo of 1788, when the arrival of uninvited boat people led to the rapid – and brutal – extinction of the existing culture.  But most Australians miss that little irony.

It is often overlooked that John Howard’s response to the Tampa was explicitly political: he took the position he did in order to win back some previous Liberal supporters who had drifted across to Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party.  Little did he realise that, just 15 years later, there would not be much difference between the Liberal party and One Nation.

The LNP response to boat people has gone through three distinct phases.

“illegals”

From the time of the Tampa episode in 2001, refugees were disparaged as “illegals”, “queue-jumpers” and people who had thrown their “Children Overboard”.  Each of those tags is false.  I mention this because, apart from anything else, it shows that the party which calls itself “Liberal” is perfectly happy to lie to the public in order to pursue policy objectives.

It is a lie to call refugees “illegals”.  The word suggests plainly that the person has committed an offence.  But it is not an offence to come to Australia, without papers, without a visa, without an invitation, and ask for protection.

The rhetoric of “illegals”, coupled with renaming the Department “Immigration and Border Protection” has been used skilfully, but dishonestly, by Abbott and Morrison and Turnbull and Dutton to convey a key dog-whistle message: that boat people are criminals from whom we need to be protected.  It is the crucial lie which makes it possible for Australia to reward the party that promises the greater cruelty to asylum seekers.  It is worth remembering the miserable fact that the 2013 Federal election campaign was the first (and I hope the only) time in this country in which both major parties tried to win political support by promising cruelty to a specific group of human beings.  If they had promised cruelty to animals, it might not have worked so well.

Unless we are really a country of people who would willingly mistreat innocent human beings simply because they have come asking for protection from persecution: as often as not, fleeing the same extremism we are fighting in the Middle East.

This should not be mistaken as a partisan attack on the Coalition: the Labor party has been conspicuously silent on the subject.  Both in opposition and in government, Labor has ducked the opportunity to correct the public debate by telling the truth: that boat people are not illegal, that there is no queue.  It is a painful irony that Labor has failed to make the very simple point that Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights gives every human being the right to seek asylum in any territory they can reach, and that Australia played a leading role in the creation of the UDHR, and that a Labor icon, Doc Evatt, presided over the General Assembly of the UN when the UDHR was entered into force.

But that was a time when Labor values were more than just a marketing campaign formulated by reference to populism, and completely untroubled by humanitarian considerations.

People smugglers

Next, the rhetoric swung to an attack on people smugglers.

Soon after Tony Abbott won the leadership of the coalition, he started criticising the Rudd government for the fact that boat people were arriving in Australia.  Rudd, who had introduced some well-designed reforms in July 2008, responded swiftly: he attacked the people smugglers.  In April 2009, Rudd said people smugglers were the “absolute scum of the earth” and should “rot in hell”.  He said that “People smugglers are engaged in the world’s most evil trade and they should all rot in jail…”

Rudd’s venom was a response to visible deaths of asylum seekers after an explosion sank a boat carrying asylum seekers off Australia’s north west coast.  It is possible that Rudd thought abusing asylum seekers was no longer a good look, but people smugglers were fair game.  He had overlooked that not all people smugglers can be conveniently fitted into the same miserable moral category.  He seems to have forgotten temporarily that his great moral hero, Dietrich Bonnhoeffer, was a people smuggler.  So too were Oskar Schindler and Gustav Schroeder.

Schindler’s activities are well-known, from Tom Keneally’s book and the film based on it.

It is worth recalling here what Schroeder did.  In May 1939, just months before the start of World War II, a ship called the St Louis left Hamburg, carrying 900 Jewish refugees.  Gustav Schroeder was its captain.  The St Louis was denied access to every port it approached, despite Schroeder’s efforts.  It got as far as Cuba, and was warned off the coast of Florida at gunpoint.  Schroeder took the St Louis back to Europe and put his cargo ashore in Antwerp.  After the low countries were occupied by the Nazis, more than half the refugees on the St Louis were captured and ultimately perished in concentration camps.

In light of the current political attitudes in Australia, it is worth noting that Captain Schroeder was a people smuggler.  Those countries who denied the St Louis the right to land might look back now and ask whether their decision was a policy success or a humanitarian tragedy.

The ferocity of attacks on people smugglers increased when Australians watched, on television, the terrible wreck of an asylum seeker boat on 15 December  2010.  It was a shocking sight, and significantly increased the political impact of attacking people smugglers.

Of course it is tragic when asylum seekers die in a desperate attempt to reach protection.  It is also tragic when they stay behind and are slaughtered.  The key difference is that, when they stay behind and become another statistic in the grim arithmetic of ethnic cleansing, we do not empathise with them; our conscience remains untouched.  When we learn that they have perished in an attempt to seek safety here, it seems different.

Why is that? Is it because they have tried to engage us? Is it because the ethics of proximity has begun to operate, so that we feel a heightened sense of responsibility for them? Is it because, seeing their last moments on the TV news, we understand their agonies, although perhaps not the desperation which drove them?  Is it simply because, in the unhealthy environment of current domestic politics, their fate is automatically drawn to our attention by politicians trying to exploit the occasion for their own political advantage?

If you had been a Jew in Germany in 1939, would it have been better to chance your arm with a people smuggler (Schindler, Bonnhoeffer, Schroeder…) or stay put and face a different risk? And which is more tragic: to die passively or die in an attempt to escape? One thing is certain: if the Taliban get you, you are just as dead as if you drown.

Rudd was later replaced by Gillard.  She reintroduced the Pacific Solution.  Then Rudd replaced Gillard, and he cranked up the Pacific Solution to its harshest form ever, as part of a policy of deterrence.  The 2013 Federal election disfigured Australian politics: it was the first election in which both major parties tried to woo voters by promising cruelty to a group of human beings (boat people).  If they had promised cruelty to animals, it might have been received differently.  Between them, during the 2013 election, Rudd and Abbott trashed whatever was left of Australia’s reputation.

By small degrees, sections of the public began to realise that people smugglers were not necessarily quite as wicked as the politicians had made out.  The prosecution of Ali al Jenabi, so well retold in Robin de Crespigny’s book the People Smuggler, drew attention to the simple, central fact that people smugglers provide a service which some desperate people need.  The existence of people smugglers does not create a demand for them.  When you are running for your life, you will take whatever services are available.

Drownings

The graphic scenes of horror as a boat smashed to bits on the coast of Christmas Island gave the Gillard government a new line of attack: the drowning excuse.  While it may seem superficially persuasive that we would take steps to prevent people drowning, we need to examine why people risk their lives at sea, and ask whether our concern about drowning is the true reason for our actions: it looks different when you realise that, in our ostensible concern about boat people drowning, we punish them if they don’t drown.

The following facts are uncontroversial:

  • Boat-people come here principally from Afghanistan, where the Hazaras are the target of Taliban genocide, and from Sri Lanka, where the Tamils are being persecuted in the wake of their failed liberation movement, and Rohingyas from Myanmar.  Those three groups have dominated boat-people numbers in the last few years.
  • Hazaras, Rohingyas and Tamils are really desperate in their bid for freedom.  Apart from any other consideration, a person has to be desperate to take the risks they in fact take in their attempt to reach safety.
  • Most boat-people who arrive in Australia end up being assessed as genuine refugees, legally entitled to our protection: over 90% of them are ultimately successful in their asylum claims.  This compares with a success rate of about 40% among asylum claims of people who arrive here by air on short term visas, such as business, tourist or student visas.  The different success rates are readily explained: the boat trip is dangerous: it is a mark of sincerity that a person takes the risks it involves.
  • Some of the boats carrying asylum seekers sink, and some of the refugees drown.  The number who have drowned is not clear, but it looks like about 2-3 per cent of them since 2000.

A person facing death or torture is not likely to be deterred by the prospect of being locked up in a detention centre, or even by the risk of drowning.  Desperate people will take desperate measures.  The experience of the Jews in the 1930s and the Vietnamese in the late 1970s tells us that.  Common sense and ordinary experience tell us that.  Over the years I have asked Hazaras I know personally, and who came here as boat-people, whether they had been aware of the risks before setting out.  Some did.  I asked them why they took the risk: they said that the Taliban represented a greater risk.  Others did not: they did not know where they were being taken.  For that group, deterrence is not a relevant consideration.

It is also significant that, at present, asylum seekers who get to Indonesia face the real prospect of being mistreated and jailed by the Indonesian authorities if they are caught.  In addition, they are not permitted to work or to send their children to school.  I suspect that most Australians faced with the same problem would choose the same solution: take a risk and get on a boat.

One of the strangest phenomena in Australian politics over the past decade is that we are apparently willing to revile and mistreat people who act exactly as we would if we had the misfortune to be in their shoes.

Islamophobia

So, we have a number of false explanations for conduct which, I hope, does not reflect the genuine character of this country.

But what is the true explanation?

A leading politician once said this:

“…after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.”

The person who said those words was Hermann Goering.  It is hard to contradict that statement; it is hard not to see it at work right now across the Western world.  It is a matter of real concern that anti-Islamic views are apparently driven by our political masters.

A survey in 2015  took a nationally representative sample of 1000 adult Australians.  It found that almost 70 per cent of Australians have a very low level of Islamophobia, about 20 per cent are undecided and only 10 per cent are highly Islamophobic.  The survey found that women tend to be more worried about terrorism than men. Where a respondent lived did not have a significant impact. People were more worried about terrorism if they were older, had lower levels of education, were unemployed, were employed in a non- professional role or if they supported the Liberal or National parties. They were less likely to be worried about terrorism if they had regular contact with Muslims, felt tolerant of migrants or had lower Islamophobia scores.

The survey concluded that most Australians display low levels of Islamophobia, and are willing to have Muslims in their family or friendship group (although they are even more welcoming of members of other major religions). There are pockets of prejudice and anxiety directed towards Muslims, for example among the aged and those facing financial insecurity. But the great majority of Australians in all states and regions are comfortable to live alongside Australian Muslims.

Islamophobia, it seems, is being driven from the top and for political advantage.

I do not want to be misunderstood: I deplore Muslim extremism, Hindu extremism, Christian extremism: I deplore extremism and terrorism of all kinds.  But I would not readily assume that a person fleeing extremism is an extremist.  I would not readily assume that a person fleeing terrorism is a terrorist.

It is no accident that repelling people who are seeking a safe place to live is now framed as an aspect of National Security.

It is no accident that, since 9/11, women who wear a head-scarf in public feel unsafe.

It is no accident that the news emphasises Islamic terrorism, in a way which we did not see during the 20th century, when duelling Christian sects committed appalling acts of terrorism in Northern Ireland.

And I think it is no accident that, in recent years, a number of Australian Jews have expressed their concern at the mistreatment of asylum seekers: they seem to recognise that Islamophobia looks worryingly like anti-Semitism.

And all Jews know where that can lead.

Coffee, croissants and crusades

12 September 1683 is the date on which the Ottoman siege of Vienna ended.

In 1683, Vienna was struggling to survive a siege by the Ottoman Turks.  A Pole named Kolscitzky, who was learned in Turkish, came to their rescue.  He escaped through enemy lines to reach the Duke of Lorraine, who hurried to relieve the city.  The Turks were repelled and Vienna was saved.  Kolscitzky became very popular and famous.  He persuaded a baker to produce a sweet bread roll in celebration of Vienna’s victory over the Turks.  It was shaped like the crescent on the Turkish flag.  We call them croissants because at some point the French took ownership of this Polish-Austrian idea.

Although croissant and crusade are similar words, they are not etymologically related, but there is a connection between them.  While croissade-crusade came from Latin crux (French croix),  croissant is French for crescent.

The crescent which the croissant imitates refers originally to the new moon as it grows towards the first quarter: the word comes from the Latin crescere to grow (from which we also get crescendo, and increase).  As a new moon grows it is a waxing crescent moon (a tautology); after the first quarter it is waxing gibbous (from the Latin for hump) and then full.  As the full moon declines, it is waning gibbous, then after the last quarter it is waning crescent (a contradiction in terms).

During his perilous journey, Kolscitzky had learned how to make coffee.  After the siege ended, he came by  a sack of coffee beans abandoned by the retreating Turks.  He was the only person in Vienna who knew what coffee beans were for.  He opened a café which quickly became famous for the drink and popular for its croissants.  He served the coffee with milk and honey, a precursor of the style now known as Vienna coffee.  Although the French stole the croissant, they had the good sense to leave Vienna coffee to the Viennese.

 

A passenger talks back to Myki system

Dr Michael Enright had a bad run-in with Authorised Officers over a Myki disagreement.  So far, nothing out of the usual.  The Myki officers issued a summons seeking to have him fined.  The summons was eventually withdrawn, but with a “warning”.

He was offended, and wrote back to them.  Here is his letter, which I publish with his permission:

“How dare you write to me in such a braying and patronising manner.

By what authority, moral or legal, do you both withdraw a charge and issue what you claim to be an official warning? If your original charge had been so enforceable, why was it withdrawn? You cite your discretion. I would cite the ineptitude of the system you represent.

 Those who preside over the system you represent are engaging in a dance with fantasy, grounded as it is in a perception of infallibility in the face of mounting public and legal pressure to the contrary. I challenged your officers on the day the fine was imposed and stood by this to represent not just myself, but all the other unfortunate, valid myki-carrying card holders who have endured your officers bringing their bullying tactics onto the civilized streets of this city.

 I do not recognise your authority or your so-called warning.

 You represent a morally bankrupt and largely unenforceable regime characterised by standover tactics, relying as it does on officers employing an instrument of extortion. Apart from being generally dishevelled and unkempt in appearance, your myki officers occupy public places in a manner and with an appearance one would associate with the more unsavoury street gang elements, albeit endowed with powers clearly in excess of their social skills and beyond their capacity to interpret in the immediacy of a situation.

 Your system is a disgrace, ignores reasonable argument, and has a press gang air that has no place in Australian twenty-first century society.

I trust that your vile, cruel, bullying, foul and odorous system, those who oversee it and those who seek to enforce it will soon be consigned to their rightful place in a democratic society; the dustbin of the inglorious past.”