I’m a bit late posting this: just came across it again. it’s the Barry Jones Oration I gave in 2013.
Are We There Yet? Julian Burnside
It is a great privilege to be giving a talk in honour of Barry Jones.
Like many others, I first became aware of Barry when he was an apparently permanent fixture on Pick-a-Box. Most of us remember that he often tangled with Bob Dyer and quibbled about the expected answer, most famously when he was asked who the first British Governor-General of India was. He gave the expected answer, Warren Hastings, but then pointed out that, strictly, Hastings was only the Governor of Bengal. The first Governor-General of India was Lord William Bentinck.
But what distinguished Barry’s participation in Pick-a-Box was a disconnect between his purposes and Bob Dyer’s purposes. For Bob Dyer, the show was all about competing for material reward; for Barry it seemed to spring from a genuine interest in knowing things. I will never forget how excited I found it to see a person who knew so much about so much.
His extraordinary run on that show started in 1960 and ended in 1968. Viewed from the present, that may not seem such a long time but, to orient it to my own life, it began when I was in year 6 and ended when I was in my second year at Monash University. I did not imagine then that I would later be able to count him as a friend.
No-one who lived through those years could forget the mark Barry made in his mighty struggle to save Ronald Ryan from the gallows. While Barry did not manage to save Ryan from the crazed vindictiveness of Henry Bolte, he won the larger fight: although Ryan was eventually hanged, in February 1967, he was the last person to be executed in Australia.
Barry once predicted that one day there would be more computers than cars in Tasmania. He was ridiculed for this.
The received wisdom then was in line with what had been said for years by people who should have known:
- In 1943, Thomas Watson, the chairman of IBM said: “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.”
- In 1957 the editor in charge of business books for Prentice Hall said: “I have traveled the length and breadth of this country and talked with the best people, and I can assure you that data processing is a fad that won’t last out the year.”
- And 20 years later, in 1977, the president of Digital Equipment Corporation, Ken Olson, said: “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.”
In this and many other things, Barry sees much further than any of us. It is no accident that he is the only Australian to be a Fellow of all four learned academies: the Australian Academy of Science; the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia, the Australian Academy of the Humanities and the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering.
In 1962, when I was in year 8 at school and Barry was cleaning up all comers on Pick-a-Box, I discovered the writing of James Thurber. In particular, his Fables for our Time and Further Fables for our Time. These were little stories in the style of Aesop’s fables: short, simple stories which generally had small animals as the main protagonists and ended with an explicit moral.
Thurber’s reason for choosing that style was probably the same as Aesop’s: it meant he could write subversive things, but get under the radar of government censors. He wrote during the McCarthy era, when dissident thinking was even more dangerous and unwelcome in America than it is today.
In the last of his fables, Thurber tells of a lemming who, on his way home after a late night, stumbles, hits his head and, dazed, starts running towards the cliff. He accidentally starts a stampede. The other lemmings who follow him toward the cliff are no more certain why they are running than he is. They hurtle over the cliff, some shouting “We are saved” and others shouting “We are lost”.
The moral of the story was: “All men should strive to learn before they die, what they are running from, and to, and why”.
As a 12-year old I was greatly impressed by that moral. It has stood the test of time: I am still impressed by it, as the most unassailable single sentence of philosophical truth.
Thurber’s question shares a frontier with the question all children ask, as the miles roll tediously by: Are we there yet?
The answer depends on where you trying to go.
For human beings, we discover we are there just as we go over the cliff. At that moment it is a bit late to deal with Thurber’s question.
For Societies, Thurber’s question is just as important, but the cliff is a much more abstract idea. But every Society should ask: Are we there yet? Because asking that question focusses the mind on where we are trying to go.
Barry has a 17 year advantage on me, and his memory is far better stocked than mine. He would certainly have details which would illuminate the present landscape better than I can. But even with my more limited vision, it looks as though Australia has not worked out what it is running from, or to or why.
As a country, we are performing way below our potential. We have never been perfect. No country is. But I am old enough to remember how things were in the 1950s.
Post-war migration to Australia presented some interesting challenges for us.
I remember during the 1950’s hearing people of my parents’ generation talking about the DPs and dagos and wogs who were coming into the country. Old Australians complained that New Australians were too religious, they had too many kids, they didn’t learn English, they didn’t fit in. Their women dressed all in black from head to foot and their food was weird: coffee, with froth on the top. Spaghetti which didn’t come from a tin. And, heaven help us, they ate squid.
They challenged our view of ourselves.
What I did not notice at the time was that, by small degrees, those same people began to adopt some of our ways, and we began to adopt some of theirs. It became smart and fashionable to eat at Italian and Greek restaurants.
The stereotypes of the 1950s faded, and our fear of wogs and dagos evaporated.
One way or another, things seemed to work out fairly well. Bit by bit the White Australia policy was dismantled. In 1967 we overwhelmingly supported a referendum to recognize Aboriginal Australians as part of the human population of the country which we had colonized in 1788.
The Pill and the Swinging Sixties did not spell the end of civilization.
Despite the direst predictions, it turned out that 6 o’clock closing was not essential to the good functioning of Society.
And some time in the 1960s the divide between Catholics and Protestants – something which had broken families in the past – faded away.
In the late 1970s there was another wave of new faces, this time refugees who had fled Vietnam and Cambodia. Fraser persuaded Whitlam that we should let Vietnamese boat people come to Australia. A lot came: about 25,000 a year for a few years. Fraser said we had been part of the problem and we had to be part of the solution.
The problem was brought to us in terrible images and in real time. For the first time in the history of human conflict, we saw events as they unfolded. Previously, we had to wait until the hostilities ended before we got the pictures. We only learned of the concentration camps when allied troops conquered Germany and the world was exposed to the skeletons, living and dead, in Belsen and Auschwitz and Dachau and other places, and suddenly we understood what the Jewish refugees had been running from when we turned our backs on them at the Evian conference in 1938.
But the Vietnam war came to us each night on the TV news. And newspapers showed us the appalling image of a Buddhist monk who set himself on fire in 1963; and by another photograph of a police chief blowing a man’s brains out in the street.
Later, a photograph of a naked child running, terrified, from her burning village. And images of vast areas devastated by napalm.
It was to Fraser’s credit that he persuaded Whitlam not to make a fuss about the arrival of refugees from Vietnam and Cambodia.
We took another small step forward in 1992, when the High Court departed from centuries of learning and held that Australia had not been terra nullius in 1788: that Aborigines had been here as the owners of the land when white settlers arrived. Rai Gaita illuminated the significance of the Mabo decision when he explained the thinking which had supported the doctrine of terra nullius for so long:
“We love, but they ‘love’; we grieve, but they ‘grieve’; and of course we may be dispossessed, but they are ‘dispossessed’. That is why, as Justice Brennan said, racists are able ‘utterly to disregard’ the sufferings of their victims. If they are to see the evil they do, they must first find it intelligible that their victims had inner lives of the kind which enable the wrongs they suffer to go deep”.
So far, so good. As a Society, Australia had come to grips with a lot of contentious issues. It hadn’t been perfect, but it was not bad. And we knew that the idea of a fair go was in our DNA: it was not just a marketing idea.
But in 1998, something important and fundamental started to shift. Or perhaps that is just when I began to pay attention. By chance I was briefed to act for the Maritime Union of Australia in what turned out to be a fairly contentious case.
Patricks was one of the two big stevedoring operations in Australia. They were caught out training an alternative, non-union workforce in Dubai and never offered a convincing explanation.
Early in 1998, rumours began to circulate that Patricks were about to do something drastic. As the weeks went by, the rumour firmed into a suggestion that Patricks were about to dismiss the entire unionized workforce on the Australian waterfront. Rumours are not evidence and so there was not much to work with. Innocent of any knowledge about the Workplace Relations Act, I asked what would happen if Patricks acted as the rumour suggested.
Those in the team, who were cleverer and better informed than I was, told me that the workforce would be reinstated, because of the provisions of the Workplace Relations Act. I asked innocently if there were any exceptions to that. They said that the only exception was if Patricks were going out of the business of stevedoring. Well, if they were to go out of the business of stevedoring, Patricks would have to sell their assets, so I suggested that we should write to Mr Corrigan asking for an undertaking not to dispose of Patricks’ assets and not to dismiss the workforce. If he did not give the undertaking sought, then his refusal would provide the evidence we needed.
He treated the request dismissively. He did not give the undertaking. We prepared a motion for injunctions, returnable on the Wednesday before Good Friday. The motion simply sought an order restraining Patricks from disposing of its assets or sacking its workforce.
On Wednesday morning, 8th April 1998, Australia woke to headlines saying that the entire workforce of Patrick Stevedores had been dismissed and had been replaced by an alternative, non-unionized workforce. When I arrived in court, Counsel for Patricks told me that administrators had been appointed to Patrick Stevedores. This was a surprising turn of events. My time practising as a commercial junior in the 1970s and 1980s made me think immediately of Bottom of the Harbour schemes. I thought that probably the court would be unimpressed by Patricks acting precipitately and doing the very thing which the court had been asked to restrain.
The Judge granted a holding injunction and directed that the matter should come back for further argument after Easter. Patricks were required to provide us with all relevant documents showing what had gone on. The picture revealed by those documents was truly astounding.
The previous year, in September 1997, the assets of the main stevedoring companies had been sold to new companies and the resulting credit balances were sent upstream to a holding company. The companies which had always employed the workforce – apparently large and successful stevedoring companies – were left with two assets only: their workforce, and contracts to provide the workforce to the new owners of the assets. These labour hire contracts were, in effect, terminable at will by the company with the assets. The employees had no job security whatever and no means of knowing the fact.
The effective result of this arrangement was that the labour hire company could be jettisoned without harming the enterprise. This made it possible to dismiss the entire workforce in a single stroke. On the ground, nothing at all had changed: Patrick Stevedores still had the appearance of prosperity which it had enjoyed for many decades, but it was a mere shell. The workers were hostage to a corporate shadow, and a CEO with secret plan.
The only party bound to gain from this strategy was the company which owned the assets. The only people bound to lose were the employees. As it happened, an obliging Federal Government had agreed in advance to provide the labour hire company with enough cash to pay the accrued entitlements of the employees when the workforce was sacked en masse. Thus the risks associated with the stevedoring venture were transferred to the workers and underwritten by a Government enthusiastic for waterfront reform at any price.
The case ran at an astonishing pace. We resumed argument before Justice North on the 15th April. The argument ran for three days. On the 21st April, Justice North delivered his Judgment and granted injunctions pending trial. At 3 o’clock that afternoon the Full Federal Court convened. They ordered a stay of Justice North’s orders pending appeal.
The Full Court appeal began the next day, 22nd April and ran over to the 23rd April. At 7 o’clock that night the Full Court gave judgment, upholding the order of Justice North. At 10 pm Justice Hayne in the High Court granted a stay of the Full Court’s orders, pending an application for special leave to the High Court.
The following Monday, 27th April, the seven judges of the High Court convened in Canberra and began hearing Patrick Stevedores’ application for special leave to appeal from the Full Federal Court’s orders. The application ran until the afternoon of Thursday, 30th April.
The following Tuesday, 4th May 1998, the High Court delivered judgments upholding the judgment of Justice North. The process of going from Judge at first instance to appeal to a final hearing by 7 judges of the High Court took three weeks. Ordinarily it would take between three and five years.
For me at least it was a shock to learn that any Australian government would conspire to break its own laws in an attempt to break the union movement: it’s not how patrician blue-bloods are meant to behave. But the Coalition government argued all the way to the High Court that it was OK. They lost.
Then things got worse.
Since the Russians had left Afghanistan, the Taliban had escalated their attacks on the Hazara minority. Millions of Hazara fled Afghanistan. A few thousand reached Australia.
In August 2001, the Palapa I was carrying 438 Hazaras towards Australia.
It began to sink. Australia asked the Norwegian cargo ship, the Tampa, to rescue them. But when it tried to put them ashore at Christmas Island, Australia sent the SAS to take command of the Tampa at gunpoint.
John Howard said the people rescued by Tampa would never set foot in Australia. He said any asylum seeker trying to get protection in Australia would be sent to Nauru: a tiny Pacific Republic with a population of 10,000 people and an area of just 21 square kilometers. He ordered that no humanizing images of the Hazara refugees were to be allowed.
Then September 11 happened. And the Liberal government headed into the 2001 election on the indecent slogan that “We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which thy come”. Liberal propaganda called asylum seekers “illegals” and “queue-jumpers” and said that asylum seekers had thrown their children into the sea.
The Labor party said nothing to contradict the lies. The Liberals, it seemed, had turned into a party which was prepared to lie to the electorate, and gain popularity by mistreating the most helpless people in the world.
For the next few years the cruelty and dishonesty continued. Asylum seekers, innocent of any offence, were held in detention for years until they collapsed into hopelessness and despair.
A little girl, ten years old, held in detention in Melbourne, hung herself.
A little boy, eight years old, held in detention in South Australia, slashed his arms with razor wire.
A man who had been in detention for five years cut himself so often he had ten meters of scarring on his body, but the government insisted that the only treatment he needed was solitary confinement and Panadol.
The Liberal government argued all the way to the High Court that a man who had not committed any offence and was not seen as a risk to anyone, who had been refused a visa but could not be removed from Australia because he was stateless, that this man could remain in detention for the rest of his life.
What was shocking was not only that the government won, but that a Liberal government was prepared to make the argument in the first place.
The Immigration Department held Cornelia Rau in detention for more than a year, in wretched, degrading conditions. She was filmed as she was dragged, naked and protesting, from her cell in Baxter detention centre, being manhandled by a group of guards.
Eventually the Department discovered that she had a visa and was entitled, all along, to be in Australia. It paid her a huge sum in compensation for the brutality and humiliation she had suffered.
We deported Vivian Alvarez-Solon from Australia and dumped her in the Philippines. The Department then realised that she was legally entitled to be in Australia: but it ignored that fact and did nothing to correct its mistake for the next two years.
We ignored the fact that David Hicks was being held and tortured in Guantanamo Bay by our allies, the USA. The Americans told him that, even if he was charged and found not guilty, he would not be released from Guantanamo. We knew this.
Hicks was held without charge for five years and the Australian government did nothing to help him. The Howard government eventually interceded on his behalf when public opinion swung in his favour, and Howard saw that there was an advantage to be had from helping him.
Then Kevin Rudd became leader of the Labor party and won government in late 2007. He promised a better, more humane, policy concerning refugees. And he delivered it.
But then Tony Abbott became leader of the party which still called itself Liberal.
He re-started the anti-refugee rhetoric. Rudd responded by attacking people smugglers. He called them “vermin” and the “vilest form of human life”. He seems to have forgotten that his moral hero, Dietrich Bonnhoeffer, was also a people smuggler.
The attack on people smugglers was ham-fisted at best, and hypocritical at worst. For a start, it lumped all people smugglers into one irredeemable moral group: they were the “scum of the earth”. When today’s refugees wash up on our shores, Abbott and Morrison speak with concern about the boat people who die in their attempt to get to safety, but their concern is utterly false. Instead of attacking the refugees directly, which is their real purpose, they attack the people smugglers instead.
Because, aren’t people smugglers the worst people imaginable? We overlook the fact that Oskar Schindler was a people smuggler, and so was Gustav Schroeder, captain of the ill-fated MS St Louis which left Hamburg in May 1939 with a cargo of 900 Jews looking for help. He tried every trick in the book to land them somewhere safe, but was pushed away. He ended up putting them ashore again in Antwerp, and more than half of them perished in concentration camps.
We also overlook the fact that, without the help of people smugglers, refugees are left to face persecution or death at the hands of whatever tyranny threatens them.
Many recent boat people are Hazaras from Afghanistan. They are targeted ruthlessly by the Taliban, who are bent on ethnic cleansing. The Hazara population of Afghanistan has halved over the past decade, as Hazaras escape or are killed. The Taliban want to get rid of all of them. We have overlooked, it seems, that we are locked in mortal combat with the Taliban; and that my enemy’s enemy is probably my friend.
For a couple more elections and a couple more fractured administrations, things kept sliding to the right. It is a striking fact that the Labor party’s stance on refugees is well to the right of John Madigan – a DLP Senator.
The Pacific Solution was begun by Howard’s Liberal government in 2001, it was abolished by Rudd’s Labor government in 2008, and it was re-started by Gillard’s Labor government in 2012. In 2013, Rudd topped it with the PNG Arrangement.
Then in 2013 we had an awful election campaign in which Rudd and Abbott competed with each other in their promises to mistreat asylum seekers. It’s tempting to think that if Pauline Hanson had been asked to help Rudd, she might have been concerned that he was too far to the right for her taste.
The Liberal won the election. Australia lost.
The Labor party lost a lot of talent when half its front bench followed Gillard out the door.
The Liberals quickly showed their true colours when we learned that senior members of the new government had been rorting their parliamentary expenses. That was no surprise: but it was interesting to see that the new Attorney-General was involved. Haughty, supercilious, self-righteous George Brandis had elbowed his way to the trough with the best of them.
After all wasn’t Brandis the one who had ferociously attacked Peter Slipper for visiting a winery and charging the taxi ride to the Commonwealth? Brandis went to a friend’s wedding and billed the Commonwealth $1600. When he was found out two years later, Brandis repaid the $1600 but said he had done nothing wrong.
Peter Slipper is still facing criminal charges for much less.
And Tony Abbott has billed the Commonwealth for every fun-run and lycra cycle-fest, not to mention his Tamworth photo opportunity which apparently cost us about ten grand. Over the last couple of years he has had his hands in our pockets for about $3 million.
Just last week, Scott Morrison issued a directive to Immigration Department staff that boat people were to be referred to as “Illegal Maritime Arrivals”. Calling boat people “illegals” is now official Coalition policy, it seems.
It is a lie.
Scott Morrison and Tony Abbott know it is a lie.
But they lie to us deliberately, in order to dehumanize asylum seekers. That way they can mistreat asylum seekers and gain political advantage from doing so.
What is striking about the “illegals” lie is that Abbott and Morrison, and others in Cabinet, claim to be devout Christians.
But with their stealing from us, and lying to us and their claim to Christian belief smells like hypocrisy.
Since very recently, people held in our detention centres are again being addressed by use of their camp number, rather than by name. There are 1700 children in detention – innocent children, jailed indefinitely. Ostensibly for our protection. It is monstrous.
So here’s the problem.
By 1998, we had stopped running from our fear of foreigners and our fear of Communism; we had come to enjoy the idea that the world saw us as part Crocodile Dundee, and part Jack Thompson; part Kath and Kim, and part Edna Everage.
It’s a strange mix, but kind of endearing. It was a good place to be.
Now, we have a hard right-wing Liberal government, led by dishonest, self-seeking hypocrites.
Now, we have a weakened, right wing Labor opposition.
Now, we believe it is good policy to mistreat people who are escaping persecution.
Now, we are a country which is seen overseas as selfish, greedy and cruel and we have no political leadership at all.
We are well into the process of redefining Australia and what it is to be Australian. Most of us have not noticed because, for most of us, life is good. But a surprising number of people have admitted to me that they are ashamed to be Australian.
The sight of the major parties competing in their promises of greater cruelty to boat people was new in Australian politics. We have never been perfect, but this was something without precedent.
It is painful to recognize that we are now a country which would brutalize one group in the hope that other people in distress will choose not to ask us for help.
What are we running from? No one can say.
It’s not hard to see what we might be running to: but why?
The new path we are on has plenty of precedents in history. We know what can happen when governments conspire to break their own laws. We know what can happen when a Society thinks it is acceptable to see one group as less human than the rest, and use that as an excuse to mistreat them. We know what can happen when governments start stealing from the people and lying to them.
We know where those paths lead.
Are we there yet? Not yet. Not quite.
It is not too late to turn back.
In the past, I’ve said I wasn’t interested in politics. But it’s clear to me that things need to change, and that has motivated me to run for parliament, because of the situation our community, our country and our planet are facing. In late 2018 the IPCC issued a report which said that we have until 2030 to take serious steps to tackle climate change, or it will be too late. The idea that we will reach a point of no return is deeply worrying.
I’ve decided to stand for election in Kooyong because I have lived in this electorate my entire life, and I don’t feel like moving.
For years the major parties have allowed people to be misled and ignored when it comes to climate change, to refugee policy, to addressing inequality. They’re driven by self-interest and by the demands of their big corporate donors pulling the strings. People are not being listened to and they are not being respected by the Liberals or Labor.
I’m standing for the Greens because their policies are centred around people: caring about how people are treated, about the opportunities we have throughout our lives, the world we live in and the world we hand on to those who come after us…and they deliver results.
Time and again, we have seen the advocacy of the Greens, in Parliament and in the community, deliver outcomes, lead the political debate and give voice to the people and issues the major parties ignore.
As a Greens candidate and as a Greens MP, I’ll have honest and frank conversations with people about how we have been let down by the Liberals and Labor, and how the Greens’ plans put the well-being of everyone at its centre.
Climate change is the biggest single issue we all face, and it too is about humanity. It’s about our survival, but it’s also about jobs, health, power bills, the liveability of our towns and cities, whether it’s too hot to enjoy our summers, whether our community parks are protected, and whether we have clean air and clean water that doesn’t make us sick.
We need plans to address climate change, to make the transition to renewable energy technology and exports that will ensure workers are not hung out to dry as the world continues to move away from coal. The Greens are the only party talking about how we deliver this.
The current member for Kooyong, Josh Frydenberg, has consistently been in a position to deliver climate change action – as Environment and Energy Minister, as Treasurer, as Deputy Liberal Leader – but he has consistently disappointed us.
When Josh Frydenberg was the Minister for Energy, he championed policies that would have meant more coal, more pollution, higher prices and less renewable energy. He was unable to grasp the opportunities that renewable energy has provided Australia. Meanwhile, his party continues to accept donations from coal and mining giants.
The renewable energy sector has been badly damaged by the instability within the Liberal Party over the past few years. By comparison, the Greens helped established the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and Renewable Energy Agency and a price on carbon – they developed a world leading package that was then wrecked by Tony Abbott and the Liberal Party.
Refugees and people seeking asylum is another issue of great importance to me. To their great shame, the Liberals and Labor have used used people seeking our protection from war and conflict and the most appalling abuses of their human rights as a political tool for decades (stretching all the way back to Paul Keating).
Australia is a kind and compassionate country, yet we have been subjected to decades of this corrosive debate, acting as though offering support for people who need it is an intractable problem.
I have acted pro bono in many cases concerning the treatment of refugees. It concerns me greatly that the Liberals have lied about the treatment of refugees for years, and Labor has been too cowardly to call them out on their lies. I will be campaigning to end the major parties’ cruel and internationally condemned offshore detention regime. The Greens values reflect my values. They care about people, and they are the party that consistently stands up for human rights.
In my career, the cases I am proudest of are those where I have worked to protect people or remedy the injustice they’ve faced by attacks from big corporate interests or from cruel and craven government actions.
I’ve defended the rights of workers, of refugees, of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, of our environment – against governments and against corporate giants.
That’s the challenge we are all facing right now: big corporate donors dictate terms to politicians who care more about their own jobs, and about looking after their mates, than they do about the people they’re elected to represent. This is the challenge the Greens are ready to take on.
Unlike both major parties, the Greens are a party that, again and again, show leadership, achieve outcomes and champion big ideas when it comes the issues that really matter. This is the only way we’ll deal with challenges as significant as the future of our planet and the most vulnerable people that occupy it. And that’s why I’m running. I hope you’ll join me on this journey.
If you would like to support my campaign you can visit: www.greens.org.au/burnside
Here is a letter by Freddie Steen to the Editor of the Sydney Morning Herald. I agree with every word of it.
The Editor ,
Cathy Wilcox(“political cartoon, 1/8) cuts to the core: Dutton’s punitive, care-less position on the human status of men seeking asylum , lets young men die.
A breach of the 1951 UN Refugee Convention RG Menzies freely signed in 1954.
The death of Hamid Khazaie is now world history as a preventable death in administrative immigration detention, in itself illegal in PNG.
But there is so much more.
The Biloela Tamil family with two babies, remains locked up in Melbourne Detention.
The body of the young Iranian who could stand it no more on Nauru , lies in an undertaker’s vault in Brisbane and his widow, mother and 12 year old brother are refused travel to bury him.
Baby Asha from Nauru, and baby Ferouz born in Brisbane’s Mater Hospital are still living in limbo.
Mojgan the Brisbane student plucked out of Year 12, separated from her Australian resident husband , and re detained in Darwin detention is now living in Brisbane with uncertainty, on a visa that is temporary.
And “ Ali”, the 63 year old Hazara refugee is dying with terminal cancer in Brisbane immigration detention, when 2000 doctors signed a petition telling the Minister that palliative support and medical services on Nauru are not at an Australian standard, and Ali must be brought here.
There are 60 000 + people residing among us illegally without a valid visa , yet a proven Afghan refugee who came the dangerous way by boat five years ago , is deprived at the end of his days of the freedom he dreams of for his family , for which he risked his life.
Like tens of thousands of Australians, this makes me ashamed and sad.
Frederika E Steen AM
Climate change denial is on the rise, encouraged no doubt by the example of that great intellectual President Donald Trump. That other intellectual giant Andrew Bolt had a crack at me recently for what I thought was the modest suggestion that we need to listen to what the scientists are telling us. Good on Bolt for his ability to take cheap shots from behind the shelter of the Murdoch press. But still, it was a cheap shot on an issue which deserves more serious attention. Trump may not have the intellectual rigour to think about these things, but Bolt might.
What drives people to question climate science is the desire to profit from exploiting coal resources. But what climate change sceptics like Trump and Bolt ignore is the precautionary principle.
If global warming is real, it threatens everyone. It raises questions about the viability of the human species on Earth. In simpler times, the worst consequences of global warming would threaten only a portion of mankind. However, the growing interdependence of all people means that a catastrophe in Western agriculture or in Chinese manufacturing or in the major trading cities will have consequences for practically every human being.
The solution to global warming is, primarily, a question of science. However, history shows us that scientific solutions are generally compromised by politics. Politicians in most nations are answerable to their people. Without careful leadership, the people of most nations will prefer their own interests ahead of others’ interests. This is true locally and globally. The refusal of Australia and the USA to ratify the Kyoto Protocol was a regrettable example: it was a triumph of selfish, insular concerns over the dictates of science and the interests of the entire world.
The debate about global warming is a useful illustration of the way politics and self-interest can damage public discourse. The 5th report of the IPCC is clear: global warming is real, dangerous, and to a significant degree the result of human activity. These findings are accepted as true by about 97% of the world’s scientists.
Some groups have a vested interest in slowing or stopping action to combat climate change. Big oil and the coal industry are obvious examples. They have a lot to lose, and delaying action on climate change serves their interests. The debate, unfortunately, has tended to focus on sniping at specific facts identified by the IPCC. And some people, quite correctly, argue that science is not decided by democratic majority.
Morgan polls indicated that in 2008 about 35% of Australians nominated the environment as a major issue: by 2013 this had fallen to 7%. The debate shifted from acceptance to doubt to indifference. What is staggering about the shift is that it ignores the seriousness of the problem itself.
If climate scientists are right, we have less than 5 years in which to act on climate change. Even Tony Abbott eventually acknowledged that climate change is real and (at least in part) anthropogenic. Even so, it must be noted that his chief business advisor, Maurice Newman, denied climate change as did some members of Abbott’s cabinet.
Turnbull seems to have thrown his hat in the ring with the fossil fuel industry, so if he has any concerns about climate change, he has subordinated them to his political survival.
If climate scientists are wrong and, of course, they might be wrong, then we will spend a lot of money for no advantage. But if they are right…
Suppose there is an 80% chance that all the scientists are wrong (that is, only a 20% chance they are right). If we do nothing about climate change there is only a 20% chance of an avoidable catastrophic outcome.
But that is worse odds than Russian roulette. In Russian roulette, a revolver with 6 chambers has just one bullet in it. When you hold the revolver to your head and pull the trigger, you have a one chance in six of a bad outcome. One in six is more favourable odds than on in five
It may be objected that, in Russian roulette, you hold the gun to your head, and if the one in six chance goes against your child, then the child dies. If climate science is right, we won’t all die. OK, so try playing Russian roulette with your children, but hold the gun to their stomach: if the one in six chance goes against your child, it’s not fatal, just dangerous and very painful.
Other arguments which support taking action just in case include: if you were told that 97% of engineers predicted that the bridge will collapse, will you walk across it? If the airline tells you there is a 97% chance that the plane will crash, will you nevertheless get on board?
Those who would withhold action on climate change (by denying it, or by extending the argument about the steps that should be taken, thereby delaying any action at all) are playing Russian roulette with our children’s future. But those who doubt will ultimately fall back on the idea that it is people in other countries who will bear the brunt of climate change. This idea is rarely articulated, because it is self-evidently unrespectable to say that other people’s suffering is less important than our own. But if anyone makes the argument, they are not only immoral, they are also wildly optimistic.
I gave a speech for 350.org.au just recently. Here is the substance of what I said.
And before you read it (because it’s a bit depressing) cheer yourself up with First Dog on The Moon’s recent excoriation of our “Leader” Malcolm Turnbull on the subject of climate change. It is interesting that we still think of Malcolm as the country’s “Leader”. If anyone is taking us for this latest ride it’s Cory Bernardi or Peter Dutton or Eric Abetz or the collective gang of science-deniers in the LNP party room.
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.
- 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.
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.
Pauline Hanson’s One Nation colleague Senator-elect Malcolm Roberts says Pauline Hanson is a “highly intelligent” and competent person who will hold One Nation together. I guess it’s all in the eye of the beholder. Malcolm Roberts does not impress as intellectually gifted. The Age online reports on 7 August 2016:
“Speaking on ABC’s Insiders program on Sunday, Senator Roberts, the climate sceptic who secured One Nation’s second Queensland Senate spot last week, also challenged anyone at the national broadcaster to provide “empirical evidence” that proves human production of carbon dioxide is affecting the climate.”
The overwhelming majority of climate scientists (about 97% of them) disagree with him. Here are some actual facts from the Climate Institute in response to Roberts.
If climate scientists are right, we have to take urgent action on climate change. Even Tony Abbott eventually acknowledged that climate change is real and (at least in part) anthropogenic. Even so, it must be noted that his chief business advisor, Maurice Newman, denies climate change as did some members of Abbott’s cabinet.
But let’s assume Roberts is right and climate scientists are wrong. And of course they might be wrong: scientific truth is not decided by majority vote. If they are wrong, and we act quickly as they say, we will spend a lot of money for no advantage. But if they are right and we do nothing…
Suppose there is an 80% chance that all the scientists are wrong (that is, only a 20% chance they are right). If we do nothing about climate change there is only a 20% chance of a catastrophic outcome. A one in five chance of an avoidable, catastrophic outcome.
But that is worse odds than Russian roulette. In Russian roulette, a revolver with 6 chambers has just one bullet in it. When you hold the revolver to your head and pull the trigger, you have a one chance in six of a bad outcome. One in six is better odds than one in five
It may be objected that, in Russian roulette, you hold the gun to your head, and if the one in six chance goes against your child, then the child dies. If climate science is right, we won’t all die. OK, so try playing Russian roulette with your children, but hold the gun to their stomach: if the one in six chance goes against your child, it’s not fatal, just dangerous and very painful.
Other arguments which support taking action on Climate Change just in case include this: if you were told that 97% of engineers predicted that a particular bridge is unsafe and will collapse, will you walk across it? If the airline tells you there is a 97% chance that the plane will crash, will you nevertheless get on board?
Those who would withhold action on Climate Change (by denying it, or by extending the argument about the steps that should be taken, thereby delaying any action at all) are playing Russian roulette with our children’s future.
Among those people are Pauline Hanson and Malcolm Roberts. The tragedy is that if their stupidity results in further delay on Climate Change, they will not live to see the consequences for the next generation.
In any debate about evolution or existential threats to the survival of the human species we are inclined to under-estimate the time-frame of the Universe.
Most people know that the Big Bang was about 13.8 billion years ago. But that’s such a long time that it is hard to give it full weight.
Wikipedia has a Cosmic Calendar (it’s not as “hippy-trippy”as it sounds. It was popularized by Carl Sagan). It compresses the history of the Universe, from the big Bang to the present, into 12 months. You can see it here.
What is truly remarkable is to recognise that, if you take the Big Bang as 1 January and the present as midnight on 31 December, life on earth did not emerge until November. And that was just pond-slime. Dinosaurs appear on 25 December and disappear on 30 December: they survived 130 million years. Homo Sapiens emerges about 6 minutes before midnight on 31 December.
Think about it: if dinosaurs existed for 5 days; we have existed for 6 minutes, and agriculture began just 21 seconds ago. On the same scale, Christ was born about 5 seconds ago.
Those of us who grew up in one of the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) are taught that the Creation took 6 days. Here’s how the days went:
Day 1: “Let there be light”
Day 2: “Let there be a vault between the waters to separate water from water.” (The sky)
Day 3: “Let the water under the sky be gathered to one place, and let dry ground appear. … Let the land produce vegetation”
Day 4: “Let there be lights in the vault of the sky to separate the day from the night…”(The Sun and the Moon)
Day 5: “Let the water teem with living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the vault of the sky.”
Day 6: “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals…”
So we grow up with the idea that we have been here from close to the beginning, that we are made in God’s image, and that we are in charge.
In the 17th century, Bishop Ussher of Armagh added up all the events recorded in the King James version of the Bible, and calculated that the creation happened on 23 October 4004 BC. As it happens, that is about 8 seconds before midnight on 31 December.
Taking the most generous view of the Creation story in Genesis, human beings emerged on the last of the 6 days of Creation. If you divide the actual history of the Universe into 6 parts, the last day stretches back a bit more than 2,000,000,000 (2 billion) years. But Homo Sapiens emerged about 200,000 years ago.
But these details do not matter much: the Creation story has us believing we were here from the start, and it’s not too bold to reckon we will be here to the end. After being around for 130 million years, dinosaurs probably thought something similar (if they thought at all).
We should step back and ask whether our place on this planet is as secure as we think. Maybe we need to take better care of it.
The Golden Rule
One of the few philosophical precepts which is practically universal is 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 neighbor’s gain as your own gain, and your neighbor’s loss as your own loss”.
The same principle has been advocated by secular philosophers, including Epictetus, Plato, Socrates, Seneca and Immanuel Kant.
The foundation of the idea is reciprocity and, in this setting, reciprocity is an expression of enlightened self-interest. Little wonder then that the idea is widespread. At its least, it tempers our basest impulses; at its highest, it produces acts of extraordinary altruism.
But the principle of reciprocity, and the Golden Rule which springs from it, sits uncomfortably with selfishness, which is a near-universal human characteristic. Human infant are near-perfect parasites: their every instinct is directed at self-preservation. It is a necessary characteristic in creatures which remain dependent on others for a very long time, unlike the infants of other species.
So: self-interest has been naturally selected because it helps us survive to adulthood. But as we grow up we learn that the way we behave now may have consequences later. We learn that it is often strategically wise to postpone or subordinate our immediate interests in favour of others.
The tension between these forces is everywhere to be seen and especially at times of stress. There are three areas in which I want to examine this tension: in relation to global warming; in relation to our treatment of boat people, and in relation to marginalized groups within our society.
The attempt of world leaders in 2009 to reach agreement at Copenhagen on dealing with the impact of climate change provided a useful illustration. The stakes at Copenhagen could scarcely have been higher. Depending on your view of the science, the leaders of all the world’s nations were deciding whether human existence on the planet would still be viable for the grandchildren of infants born today. The same issues are still in play: right now in Paris. Who knows what the result will be.
In the tension between selfishness and enlightened self-interest at Copenhagen, enlightenment did not get a good run. The problem, of course, is that enlightened self-interest is simply selfishness deferred or subordinated in the hope that greater rewards are to be had for ourselves by accommodating the reciprocal claims of others. Our willingness to accommodate the interests of others dissolves quickly when circumstances cast doubt on whether we can collect on the promise. So as time runs out, developing nations see continued CO2 emissions as their last chance to catch up to the living standards of the developed world. And the developed nations look askance at China and India and complain that their total emissions exceed those of the West, even if the West’s per capita contribution tops the charts. Ultimately, selfish considerations triumph because no one is confident that they can collect what the principle of reciprocity promises. Where the circumstances suggest that the other side will not reciprocate your altruism, enlightened self-interest aligns with unalloyed selfishness.
Establishing a generally acceptable refugee policy faces the same tensions. It inevitably involves striking a balance between the same, mutually incompatible human sentiments: selfishness and enlightened self-interest. At its foundation, our willingness to help others in distress springs from the fear that we may ourselves be in like distress some day, and would wish to be treated kindly. Or else it springs from a sense of guilt that we have somehow permitted another to suffer in ways which conscience cannot justify. It is no accident that the Refugees Convention was the product of World War II and, especially, the horrors of the Nazi death camps when they were exposed to the World’s gaze in 1945. Although most people in most nations must have reckoned as slight their prospects of ever being refugees in like circumstances, the enormity of what had happened persuaded them that they should be charitable. Many countries, including Australia, had avoided doing anything to help Jewish refugees before the war. A combination of guilt and fellow-feeling persuaded the world community to do better in the future, or at least to promise to do so.
Having signed the Refugees Convention, Australia was in the happy position of being geographically remote from most of the places which have, typically, generated refugee flows. We created a modest off-shore resettlement programme, under which a fixed number of refugees would be identified in refugee camps overseas and would be offered resettlement in Australia. This had the dual benefits of instilling a sense of our own virtue and, incidentally, enabling us to select refugees in accordance with our current demographic needs and social inclinations.
But it was still, ultimately, about numbers. Clearly enough, after the War, Australia set out to increase the population. “Populate or perish” was the catch-cry. The objective was helped by migrants and refugees.
Of course, some refugees managed to arrive here apart from the resettlement programme, but in such small numbers as never to present any difficulty or, let it be noted, provide any great opportunity for political exploitation. We were, without having to say so, able to decide who came into Australia and the circumstances in which they came.
After the Vietnam war things changed. Large numbers of Indo-Chinese boat people headed this way and – unlike the position in previous wars – the point of displacement was not very far away. The Coalition government of Malcolm Fraser took a stand of clear principle: we had been involved in the Vietnam war; our involvement was part of the reason people were fleeing; we therefore had a moral responsibility to receive them. And we did, in substantial numbers. They arrived at a rate of about 25,000 a year, but they were absorbed into the community with relatively little fuss. Their children are now doctors and engineers and scientists; their cuisine is now an embedded part of our way of life.
Our response was very different during the Prime Ministership of John Howard, even though the arrival rate was much smaller. During the whole of John Howard’s time as Prime Minister, the total number of boat people who came to Australia was about 15,000: a smaller total in 11 years than came in the first four years of the Fraser government.
What the Howard years showed is that the public can quickly be inflamed to fear and hatred of refugees if that course commends itself to the government. There are three main approaches which will achieve this result: emphasize their ‘otherness’; call them criminals; and create the spectre that they are coming in large numbers. The Howard government used each of these devices. Each of them affects the balance between selfishness and enlightened self-interest. If they seem to be very different from us, we will have more trouble getting used to them; if they are criminals, we need to be protected from them; if they come in large numbers we will not be able to cope. With attitudes like these, enlightened self-interest suggests that we should discourage or repel them. What good can come of it? And of course if they are ‘illegals’ then they simply do not deserve our charity. [Please note: boat people are not “illegal”. It is not an offence to arrive in Australia without papers and seek protection from persecution. Would someone please tell the tabloid journalists this simple fact. And then tell the politicians.]
The Rudd government also came under pressure about refugee policy. Rudd’s first Immigration Minister, Senator Chris Evans, abolished the shameful Temporary Protection Visas and announced a new philosophy of immigration detention. A key element of this was that immigration detention should be for as short a time as reasonably possible, and children should not be in detention at all, except as a last resort. This did not cause any grief when it was announced in July 2008, perhaps because very few asylum seekers were arriving on our shores. (Australians are capable of great generosity, especially if it is not called on).
But by the start of 2009, things had begun changing. Afghanistan had convulsed again, with the Taliban’s brutality causing a new wave of terrified Hazaras to flee. And in Sri Lanka the ill-fated attempt of the Tamil Tigers to establish their own homeland was finally crushed. Refugee boats began arriving regularly. By the end of 2009, about 2,800 boat people had come to Australia, most of them being taken to Christmas Island for processing. Newspaper headlines emphasized the number of arrivals, and the Federal Opposition, led by Tony Abbott, began taunting the government with the suggestion that refugees were arriving in Australia as a result of the Rudd government’s “soft line on border protection”. It seems that Christmas Island was used as a place of detention and processing for political and strategic reasons. But Christmas Island is tiny, and its detention capabilities were eventually overstretched, creating an artificial crisis of sorts.
The public reaction was not quite as it had been in 2001 when the Tampa rescued 438 Afghan asylum seekers from a sinking boat. But the Tampa episode happened just two weeks before September 11, and refugee policy elided with border control and swiftly morphed into border protection. Suddenly we needed to be protected from refugees. This time the reaction was simply a reaction to the numbers.
Under the leadership of Tony Abbott, the Opposition started talking up the numbers, creating a climate of panic in the tabloid media in which the numbers could be deployed to poison the public mood. The argument – sometimes explicit, sometimes just conveyed by impressions – was that we must not receive refugees in large numbers because we are a large, but dry, continent; we must conserve our precious resources, especially water; we cannot take all the world’s refugees, so we must adopt a firm stance: people smuggling is a ‘vile’ trade, and we must not be soft on people smugglers. If we are seen as a soft touch, we will be overrun. It is worth noting that Kevin Rudd responded to Abbott’s fear-mongering by criticizing people-smugglers and (in his second reincarnation as PM) revived harsh treatment of boat people as a deterrent measure.
It is at this point that the tension between selfishness and enlightened self-interest is tested. Selfishness inclines us to keep this country to ourselves, and to share it only with people who can benefit us. Enlightened self-interest tells us that refugees, and migration generally, have benefitted Australia in countless ways and it tells us something more subtle about the idea of being true to your values. But concerns about climate change and environmental sustainability of finite resources are readily harnessed as a rational basis for resisting increased numbers of refugees. After all, it is argued, the carrying capacity of this fragile continent is finite and limited. Millions of refugees are on the move, and we cannot take them all. It sounds respectable and rational, especially as we consider the need to take into account the prospect of environmental refugees in the near future. But there are several answers to this which present, and future, governments will have to take into account.
First, the number of boat people getting to Australia at present is still tiny and is likely to remain so. Looking at global refugee flows misses the point that very few of them come here. If numbers are a concern, here are some to consider:
- Australia’s population: 23 million
- Number of visitors arriving in Australia each year (for tourism, business etc): ~ 4.5 million
- Number of permanent new immigrants each year: ~185,000
- Refugee/humanitarian quota per year: 13,500
- Number of asylum seekers who come to Australia by air each year: ~5,000 (it varies)
- Number of asylum seekers who came to Australia by boat in 2009: approx 2,800 (equivalent to 5 days’ migration intake)
It is hard to understand why anyone can be much troubled by an unauthorised arrival rate of 2,800 per year. Or 8,000 or 28,000. In the abstract, it makes sense to be concerned about the number of unauthorised arrivals each year: but as a matter of practicality, there can be no rational basis for concern unless the numbers are demographically relevant which, in Australia, they clearly are not. The Australian situation is very different from that in other countries: some Asian and African countries receive millions of unauthorised arrivals each year; Europe receives hundreds of thousands of unauthorised arrivals each year.
We have never had that problem in Australia, nor are we likely to. The arrival rate of asylum seekers in Australia is never likely to be very great, largely because the voyage is difficult and dangerous. Our geography insulates us, as our history demonstrates.
The largest number of boat people to arrive in Australia in any one year was just on 25,000. That was in 2012. Before and since, the numbers were much smaller. But even 25,000 people arriving in one year is not a large number, when considered in context.
Australia’s treatment of boat people came in for intense criticism by more than 100 countries at Geneva in November 2015. Because of the large number of countries who wanted to comment on Australia, each nation had only 65 seconds in which to comment on Australia’s human rights regime. It should be a source of major embarassment to us, but went largely unnoticed.
An Alternative Approach
If I could re-design the system, it would look something like this. Boat-arrivals would be detained initially for a maximum of one month, for preliminary health and security checks. That detention would be subject to extension but only if a court was persuaded that a particular individual should be detained longer.
After that period of initial detention, boat arrivals would be released into the community on an interim visa with a number of conditions that would apply until the person’s refugee status was decided:
- they would be required to report regularly to a Centrelink office or a post office, to make sure they remained available for the balance of their visa processing;
- they would be allowed to work;
- they would be entitled to Centrelink and Medicare benefits;
- they would be required to live in a specified rural town or regional city.
A system like this would have a number of benefits. First, it would avoid the harm presently inflicted on refugees held in detention. Prolonged detention with an unknown release date is highly toxic: experience over the past 15 years provides plenty of evidence of this.
Second, any government benefits paid to refugees would be spent on accommodation, food and clothing in country towns. There are plenty of towns in country areas which would welcome an increase in their population and a boost to their local economy. According to the National Farmers Federation, there are about 90,000 unfilled jobs in rural areas in Australia. It is likely that adult male asylum seekers would look for work, and would find it.
But let’s look at some hypotheticals. Let us suppose that the unprecedented spike in arrivals seen in 2012 becomes the new normal: so, we will expect about 25,000 boat people to arrive here each year. And let’s suppose all of them stay on full Centrelink benefits for the whole time it takes to decide their refugee status.
If these very unlikely possibilities come about, it would cost the Federal Government about $500 million a year, all of which would go into the economy of country towns. By contrast, the current system costs about $5 billion a year. That’s an unimaginably large amount of money. If you need another measure, each year our detention system costs about one million Geelong Chopper Rides. By adopting this alternative approach, we will not only stop causing great harm, we will save about $4.5 billion a year, and we would be doing good rather than harm.
The Need to Deal with These Problems
It is vital for the future of Australia that we understand these matters clearly, because there is another predictable source of quasi-refugees in the foreseeable future: people from Pacific Island nations which become uninhabitable because of climate change. Global warming is a fact. Only contrarians and the lunatic fringe are putting up any real opposition to the idea that the IPCC reports are accurate, but possibly conservative.
Whether or not we manage to co-operate globally to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the polar ice-caps are melting, glaciers are retreating, and the Greenland Ice Shelf is at serious risk. Apart from regional effects on arable land and the consequent effects on world food supplies, population in low-lying areas will be profoundly affected by rising sea levels.
A sea level rise of one to two metres, coupled with the effect of tidal surges and storms, will displace tens of millions of people around the world. Displaced populations in the coastal areas of continents and large islands will likely move inland. Depending on the continued viability of coastal cities, the movement is likely to be slow – it will likely happen over a number of decades. Abnormal weather events, like Hurricane Katrina, may cause sudden displacement of large populations, although they will probably not be permanent displacements.
Pacific islands present a different challenge. Many of them already have fragile economies. Many of them are low-lying. As a matter of certainty, a number of them will disappear or become unlivable if sea levels rise between one and two metres. Their inhabitants will look to Papua New Guinea, Indonesia and (especially) Australia.
Although we think of them in prospect as ‘environmental refugees’, this is not accurate as a matter of law. A refugee is a person who meets the criterion in the Refugees Convention of 1951, that is: a person who, being outside his or her country, is unable or unwilling to return to it because of a well-founded fear of persecution on grounds of race, religion, nationality, politics etc.
Environmental refugees may be unwilling to return – and if their country has disappeared, they certainly will be unable to return – but not for fear of persecution. They are not refugees within the Convention definition. But we refer to them as refugees because of the obvious analogy between their position and that of other refugees.
Environmental refugees may turn out to be the greatest challenge facing Australia in the domain of refugee policy during the next generation. What will we do to prepare ourselves to meet the challenge? And what is the right response to the challenge? For reasons set out later, I do not think the demographic challenge associated with environmental refugees is terribly difficult. What may be more difficult is the ethical challenge. Put simply, will we turn them away and let them drown? Or will we receive them and treat them humanely?
The Copenhagen Conference ended in failure. What was seen by many as an opportunity for the human race to respond in a united way to a global threat which has no equivalent in recorded history has generated no agreement, no united front: it was dominated by national selfishness. There seemed to be general agreement that the problem is important and real, but the response brings to mind the unhappy image of a philosophical debate between the pilot and the navigator as the 747 heads spectacularly towards a mountain. The seriousness of the matter was well expressed by Christina Ora from the Solomon Islands. She published in The Age newspaper an account of the speech she gave at Copenhagen. She said:
“I am 17 years old. For my entire life, countries have been negotiating a climate agreement. My future is in front of me. In the year that I was born, amid an atmosphere of hope, the world formed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change to solve the climate crisis.
In the Solomon Islands, my homeland, communities on low-lying atolls are already being displaced by rising sea levels. Communities have lived on these atolls for generations. Moving from one province to another in the Solomon Islands is not just like moving house. Your land is your identity. It is part of your culture. It is who you are.
I am scared, and so too are the people from these atolls about what this means for our culture, our communities and our identity …”
There are great technical questions involved in our response to climate change, and great political questions involved in responding in a way which will be effective. But Christina Ora got directly to the heart of the moral problem when she wrote those words. Her home and her identity are threatened in the most fundamental way. What are we going to do about it? At present, the answer seems to be: nothing useful.
The civilized nations of the world need to recognise the fact that environmental refugees are human beings who deserve a place to stand and a chance to survive, because they, like us, are members of the human race. But their claim for our help is stronger than that. The wealth of the developed world, the wealth we enjoy today in Australia, was created by the very activities which have caused global warming. The conditions we enjoy today came at a price to the environment, a price we have been able to recognise for at least the time since Christina Ora was born. We cannot decently expect the Pacific Islands to pay the price for us. The life we enjoy so much in Australia has had its impact on Christina Ora’s country: an impact which may prevent her from having a place to live. She wrote:
“Because of climate change, I am uncertain about what is to come. How can I feel that my future is safe? How can I be sure that my home village won’t disappear in 10 years’ time? How can I be sure that my community won’t have to find a new home? How can I be sure that I will be able to raise my children in the same place that my mother and father raised me? I am not sure. I am scared and worried.”
We owe her.
Apart from all the other steps which need to be taken, we need a new international treaty which recognizes environmental refugees as people who are entitled to protection. It is a global problem and calls for a global response. This is no revolutionary idea: it is a matter of simple decency. It is the Golden Rule in action. Unfortunately, apart from trade and commerce, we are not good at global co-operation. Australia can, and should, develop its own framework for the protection of environmental refugees who arrive on our shores. Ideally, it should be done in co-operation with our Pacific neighbours.
Australia is well placed to take constructive steps to help protect environmental refugees from the Pacific. It will certainly need careful and sensitive planning, because environmental refugee flows are likely to have features which are not shared by traditional refugee flows. In particular, their escape to safety is likely to be more planned, and much less hurried, than is typical among those fleeing persecution. The threat can be seen long before it hits. Entire communities are likely to move. Resettling them should take account of that reality. This brings with it an increased need to help preserve their cultural integrity as far as possible.
The prophets of doom will, of course, raise the spectre of Australia being engulfed by a tide of environmental refugees. In truth, the likely numbers will not be very great in demographic terms. For example, the population of all the islands comprising Micronesia is a total of about 575,000 people. The population of all of the islands comprising Polynesia is a total of about 662,000 people. The population of all of the Pacific islands, is about three million people. Even in the unlikely circumstance that all of those three million people had to be absorbed into the Australian population over the course of 10 years, it would be manageable, although it would have a significant demographic impact. On present trends, regardless of climate change, we are likely to receive, voluntarily, about two million permanent new migrants over the next 10 years.
Of course it is highly unlikely that the entire population of the entire Pacific would need, or for that matter choose, to move to Australia. So the numerical size of the problem will certainly be less than three million people. A more realistic way of looking at the matter is to consider which Pacific islands are most likely to become uninhabitable over the next decade. That restricts the range to the smaller islands. If we adopt a population of 50,000 or less as indicating smaller islands which are more likely to be inundated and made uninhabitable by rising sea levels, the picture becomes much simpler. There are 11 island nations in Oceania with populations smaller than 50,000. Their combined populations total 87,000 people. That number of people could be absorbed into the Australian community in a single year with no discernable difficulty at all.
As a matter of ordinary human experience, people are generally reluctant to leave the place of their birth unless they have to. If the population of low-lying islands in the Pacific are forced to move because their homeland becomes uninhabitable, the scale of the problem is one which Australia can manage, and the nature of the problem is one which Australia ought to manage. We should be prepared to recognise them as people who deserve protection, and grant it to them without resentment.
It may be objected that all of this sounds like a lot of trouble. Perhaps we will ask the rest of the world to shoulder the burden for us, as we did while we held Afghans and Iraquis on Nauru under the ‘Pacific Solution’, or as we did, even more brazenly, when we asked the rest of the world to take care of 78 Tamils held on the Australian Customs vessel Oceanic Viking in November 2009. But it is not as simple as that: it is not just a transient embarrassment that the international community thinks poorly of us for a time.
Our response to the legitimate claims of environmental refugees will define us. If we respond by shutting our doors, or by denying that environmental refugees have legitimate claims to our help, we declare ourselves to be selfish and thankless, just as surely as we showed ourselves to be callous and xenophobic when we embraced, for a time, the refugee policies of John Howard.
Given the scale of the major problems, it might be thought that individual goodness and national reputation count as trivial. But they are not. They go directly to a fundamental existential question: Do we think that we, as a nation, can survive while being true to our values? Do we genuinely believe the things we have for generations said about our ethics and ourselves? Or do we think that, when the crunch comes, it’s everyone for themselves? These questions involve much more than issues of presentation and packaging; they are matters of identity: Who are we?
If we take global warming as a reason to pull the drawbridge up, we will betray the entire accumulated legacy of human civilization which, with all its flaws, has always aspired to goodness even while falling short. We will betray the identity we have hewn for ourselves out of this tough country since the time of white settlement.
I had a conversation with Tim Costello some years ago which significantly changed my way of seeing things.
He told me of a time when he was running the Collins St Baptist Church. A guy who had been sleeping rough for quite a while had turned up at the Church wanting a feed. Tim was talking to him. The guy said that that conversation was the first time in two weeks he had had eye contact with any other human being.
I can scarcely imagine what that must be like. That man had, at least in his own mind, completely disappeared.
I have thought about that conversation often. The idea of such alienation haunts me. But there are many people in our society who have, at least in their own minds, disappeared. These are the people who, because of mental health problems, or simple bad luck, find themselves nursing a grievance that no-one wants to hear about. The more they complain, the more they are ignored; the more they are ignored, the louder they complain. The louder they complain, the more they are avoided, viewed with suspicion. And once that cycle sets in, their problems become more and more real to them, less and less real to those around them.
These are the people who ring late night talk-back radio and harangue the host until even the panel operators know to filter them out. They are the new outcasts.
My conversation with Tim came in useful during the first round of Australia’s recent panic about asylum seekers. Between 2001 and about 2006, a lot of Australians were persuaded to be anxious about boat people arriving here. After all, the Howard government had told us they were illegals; that they had thrown their children into the sea; that they had jumped a queue somewhere. And the struggle to prevent the country from being swamped by this tide of potential terrorists was paraded as “border protection”.
Howard recognised that there were votes to be taken from One Nation if only he could make us fear the alien horde and position himself as our protector. It worked.
There is a story that I have on fair authority which shows clearly what was going on. Howard was about to enter the House of Representatives to deliver his speech explaining the government’s response to the Tampa. Jackie Kelly approached him in the lobby. She said that a lot of her constituents were deserting to One Nation. Howard waved his speech in front of her and said “Don’t worry – this will fix it”. As most people thought at the time, the government’s response to the Tampa was purely political. Of course, Howard had a great run of good luck in 2001. His government refused to let the Tampa put its bedraggled cargo of rescued Hazaras ashore on Christmas Island; he cobbled together the Pacific Solution while the court case about Tampa continued. The judgment at first instance in the Tampa case was handed down at 2.15 Eastern Standard Time, on September 11, 2001. The result was not noticed in the newspapers next morning, because a group of Islamic extremists had attacked America.
From that moment, there were no terrorists, but Muslim terrorists; there were no boat people but Muslim boat people and, although it was never clearly stated, all boat people were suspected terrorists – our worst nightmare. For those who did not see through the political opportunism, boat people were aliens to be feared.
Of course, if the true facts were understood, our response would have seemed rather odd. it did not suit the politicians to acknowledge that boat people were not illegal, that there was no queue, that they had not thrown their children overboard, and that they were trying to escape the same extremists we were so frightened of.
For my sins, I became involved in the issue. I was regularly asked to speak, at public events and private, about asylum seekers. It seemed to me that the key to the problem was to explain the facts. Naively I thought that most Australians would recoil at the idea of wilfully mistreating men, women and children who had done nothing wrong but try to escape to safety.
A couple of unexpected things happened. First, I got a few death threats. It surprised me that, having done a few pretty contentious cases in my career, I should receive death threats for going to court pro bono on behalf of people who were, self-evidently, voiceless and powerless.
And whenever I was quoted in the media saying something outrageous like “It is wrong to imprison innocent children and drive them to suicide”, I would receive a torrent of hate mail.
The anger and intensity of the hate mail astonished me then, and it still does. It struck me as remarkable that people would write to a complete stranger in such bluntly abusive terms. And the mail I got was seriously, vigorously abusive.
Since I had set myself the goal of converting all of Australia to understanding the facts, I decided to answer all the hate mail. After all, these people had self-identified as disagreeing with my views. My reasoning, flawed as it looks now, was that if only the people who disagreed with me could understand the facts, then they would come around to my way of seeing things. If enough people changed their views, the government policy would have to change. Clearly I did not know what I was dealing with.
Still, I resolved to answer all the mail I could. Mail that came by post was impossible to answer because, as a rule, people who use the postal service are a forgetful lot who did not include a name or address. But most of it came by email and, even if I did not know the sender’s identity, I could respond by simply hitting the reply button.
I sat up late at night answering emails: thousands of them, mostly abusive. Some of them all in capitals; lots of exclamation marks and lots of very rude words. I am no shrinking violet, but I was astonished by the rudeness of many of the emails I got. Unpopularity brings strange rewards.
Since their complaints fell into a few recognisable patterns, I had a few standard responses. Typically I would grit my teeth and say something like “Thank you for your email. I gather you do not agree with me. But did you realise that … “ they do not break any law by coming here asking for protection; there is no queue… etc
If I was surprised by the rudeness and vehemence of most of the emails, what followed was even more astonishing. Nearly all of them responded to my reply…and every response was polite. The responses fell into a few patterns, but typically they said “thank you for answering me, I did not expect to hear from you. The facts you sent me are all very well, but …” and then they would set out other objections. I replied with more facts to answer those objections.
Over the course of thousands of bits of hate mail, I estimate that about 50% ended up saying, in substance “Thank you for discussing this issue with me. I agree with you now”; and about 25% ended up saying, in substance “Thank you for discussing this issue with me. I don’t agree with you, but it is good that you stand up for what you believe”. The other 25% remained entirely unconvinced and, I assume, continued to vote for Mr Howard.
What struck me in all this was the story Tim had told me. I guessed that the people who wrote to me – and who did not expect a reply – were so alienated from the community that their only means of expressing their anger and fear and resentment and confusion was by writing to someone mildly prominent.
It occurred to me then that the passion which drove their initial hostility was the mark of people who were alienated from the community: they were accustomed to being ignored, so they fall to shouting abuse as a way of getting attention. Just once listen to them, and they quickly fall back to observing the ordinary rules of civil behaviour.
This is not just an argument for good manners: I think it goes much deeper. Too many people in our community feel alienated from it and that alienation is unstable: it tends not to self-correct, but to amplify itself.
We are a prosperous country: most of us are genuinely lucky. But we are not good at sharing our luck, and we have a strange habit of thinking that those who are less lucky must be, in some way, responsible for their own misfortunes.
There are many reasons why members of the community become alienated from it. They may have been dealt a bad hand: they have been born poor, they have been badly educated, they have a mental or physical disability, they have bad luck in employment, they make bad choices which lead them into a hopeless life. Any one of these disadvantages can lead to a cascade of events which leave a person at the bottom of the pile. And when compassion turns to vindictiveness these people suffer twice for the disadvantages they could not avoid.
Because everyone, it seems, knows my name, address and occupation I get a lot of unsolicited requests for pro bono help. It has been interesting, not to say distressing, to see the sort of troubles that plague people in our community. I get a large number of requests for help. I make it clear that all I can do is offer pro bono advice. I have a group of talented interns who help me deal with the problems.
What is distressing is that the majority of people who write to me this way do not in fact have a recognisable legal or human rights problem. Typically they are people who have had some bad luck, have made some bad choices, and find themselves trapped in a spiral of disadvantage, distress, unemployment and mental instability. At that point, anything that looks like a legal or human rights problem prompts them to reach out for help. I imagine that medical clinics have a similar experience.
When I write to them with further questions, or with advice about what to do, it usually becomes clear that they have already been to just about every imaginable place for help: Legal Aid, a Community Legal Centre, government departments, their local doctor or MP. No-one can help them, because they have no single, clear problem apart from the fact that they feel alienated from everything. Part of their distress is caused by feeling so isolated.
The most distressed, and distressing, group are people who are probably paranoid schizophrenics. One person who writes to me quite often is convinced that the police, and other government agencies, are spying on him all the time and that they have a secret control order against him. He is intelligent and well-educated. He sends video footage of ordinary street scenes, at the traffic lights, in shopping centres, in suburban streets and he asserts (and no doubt believes) that various people captured on his videos are in fact plain clothes operatives – stalking him, watching him, keeping him in a kind of open prison. He points out, rationally enough, that such conduct is a serious breach of his human rights. And if the innocuous scenes he sent showed what he sees, he would be right. But they do not show what he sees. They prove nothing at all. He insists that the Commonwealth government have a secret control order against him: but he can offer no explanation how a control order can work, if it is kept secret from everyone.
The difficulty with people like this man is that they cannot be convinced that their view of the facts does not line up with reality. And it is hard for a lawyer to tell a would-be client that he needs psychiatric help.
The end result is that people like him get pushed from pillar to post but rarely if ever get the help they actually need.
There are only a couple of bright spots in this dismal tale.
The first concerns a lady who turned up in my chambers one lunchtime, quite distressed and wanting to see me. We chatted for a bit, but the long and short of it was that she had been receiving treatment for paranoid schizophrenia, her treatment had been interrupted; she became convinced that her treating doctor was trying to kill her with the medications he had prescribed, so she decided not to take it any more. She wanted me to take possession of the diary she had been keeping because she was confident that she would soon be killed and she wanted me to have the evidence which would identify the guilty party.
We spoke for some time. Somehow I managed to persuade her to go to a new doctor – someone who could not possibly know or conspire with her treating doctor – and agree to take whatever medication he prescribed. In the meantime I would protect her diary.
About two months later she turned up again. She had been to another doctor. She had taken the medication he prescribed. She was feeling a lot better, and realised that she had misjudged her original doctor. In the circumstances, she did not need me to look after her diary any more.
How odd that one of my few successes in the field of human rights should result from a modicum of medical knowledge and a bit of common sense.
The second bright spot is this. Most of the people who write asking for pro bono help have simply not got a legal problem. While they may have had a genuine legal problem in the past, typically it is buried in history and statute barred years or decades before. The real problem is that their lives have gone off track, and they no longer feel any connection to the society which has let them down so badly. A surprising number of these people seem to benefit from having their problem taken seriously, from getting a written advice in response to their letter, or from being listened to for half an hour.
The message is clear: in our Society there is a large number of people who feel alienated. They feel, with some justification, that the show is being run for the benefit of others and not for them.
A decent concern for our fellow citizens says that we should notice these alienated ones and help them know that they belong with us. And if simple human decency will not impel us to do it, then enlightened self-interest should: once there is a large enough group of disaffected individuals in our midst, the chances of some of them taking steps to damage the rest of us increase. And who is to say they are wrong? Who among us would long tolerate being excluded from the goods Society has to offer?
The moral rebranding of a nation goes to the heart of inter-generational justice, just as surely as our environmental legacy does. But this is easily overlooked. It involves more than issues of deceptive packaging. We are handing over to the next generation a world beset by problems which are unique in human history and which do, without exaggeration, involve challenges for civilization as we understand it, and perhaps for the continued survival of the human species. We should avoid saddling the next generation with a tarnished national reputation to add to these burdens. But more than that, we should try to hand over a country which has had the decency to be true to its declared values.
Individuals and groups have faced equivalent tests before this. Many people have seen the film Hotel Rwanda. It is set against the backdrop of the genocide which occurred in Rwanda in the first half of 1994, when Hutu rebels slaughtered 900,000 Tutsis in the space of 100 days. The central figure in the film is Paul Rusesabagina.
Paul is a Hutu married to a Tutsi woman. He is manager of a hotel in Kigali. When the Hutu uprising begins, the world turns its back on the slaughter. Paul turns the hotel into an ad hoc refugee camp for almost a thousand people, and keeps them safe at immense personal risk. He calls in favours, he bribes corrupt officials and he witnesses unspeakable horrors. There is a key moment in the film where he has a chance to escape to safety, but decides, on the instant, to stay at the hotel until the refugees are safe. We see it immediately as an act of heroism but also of madness – Who in their right mind would risk taking on the Hutu mob?
The remarkable thing is that the film is entirely true. Paul Rusesabagina commanded personal resources beyond imagining. He succeeded in saving the 1,000 refugees who crowded into his hotel; with them, he escaped to safety; he now lives in Belgium. He has been given Amnesty International’s “Enduring Spirit” award, and in 2000 he received the Immortal Chaplain’s Prize for Humanity.
He brings to mind Primo Levi’s friend Lorenzo, in Auschwitz. Levi wrote of him:
“… he constantly reminded me, by his presence, by his natural and plain manner of being good, that there still existed a just world outside our own … a remote possibility of good, but for which it was worth surviving…”
The events in Rwanda developed with astounding speed: no-one recognised in advance the direction things would take; no-one imagined in advance that the Hutu uprising would be so swift and so savage.
It is not possible for any of us to know how we would respond in similar circumstances. It is undeniable however that some people have the strength to recognise that there is a time to say, regardless of the cost, “this cannot happen”.
We are mistreating boat people, out of a misconceived fear that they are criminals: a fear provoked by political lies.
We are denying the reality of climate change.
We are increasingly disinclined to notice those of our own citizens whose luck has dealt them a bad hand.
And all the while we cherish the belief that, as a nation, we are generous, decent people.
Paul Rusesabagina held true to his principles at the point when it mattered most; in Auschwitz, Primo Levi’s friend Lorenzo did the same. Most of us would like to think we could act with similar decency, even if we had not the same courage.
But we are failing the test with refugees, and soon we will be tested again. The circumstances will not be as dramatic; it will not be the occasion for epic heroism. But our choices will decide whether our neighbours in the Pacific have a chance of living, or will be left to drown as their islands disappear. We will choose between selfishness and decency. Our response to the plight of climate refugees will tell the next generation of Australians who we were. Will we be true to them? Will we be true to ourselves?
If we had to answer that question right now, as the Federal Government shows by its conduct that it does not believe global warming is real, then the answer would be disappointing. So it is time to stand up and declare ourselves. Australia can cope with the predictable number of climate refugees likely to seek a home here. We like to think that it is in our decent and generous nature to help those who need our help. We can do it. We can do it and survive.
For the sake of future generations of Australians, let us hope that we will we be true to ourselves when it counts. If we are to be led by enlightened self-interest, we need to recognize minimal cost of living up to our ideals, and the immense value of doing so.
 King James Bible, Matthew 7:12
 Mahabharata, 5:1517
 Samyutta Nikaya v. 353
 Analects 15:23
 Number 13 of Imam Al-Nawawi’s Forty Hadiths
 T’ai Shang Kan Ying P’ien
 “What you would avoid suffering yourself, seek not to impose on others.”
 “May I do to others as I would that they should do unto me.”
 “Do not do to others that which would anger you if others did it to you.”
 “Treat your inferiors as you would be treated by your superiors.”
 “Act as if the maxim of thy action were to become by thy will a universal law of nature.”
 If This is a Man Primo Levi.
Here is the first performance of Wind Farm Music Dedicated to Tony Abbott https://youtu.be/fbLiBCdZyBg
And here is another: https://youtu.be/ky-w9qrCO-E
Lots more to follow, I hope
The score and parts are available, free of charge, here: https://www.mediafire.com/folder/zgkxv0xa8xwpp/Wind_Farm_Music
I recently commissioned Sydney-based composer Lyle Chan to write a short piece for piano trio.
We were chatting at the Melbourne International Chamber Music Competition. I thought about commissioning him to write something. Normally when I commission a piece, I give the composer a completely free hand. But for the first time, I had very specific requirements: I wanted a short piece of music for piano, violin and cello, which must contain quotes from famous pieces of classical music, and must be called “Wind Farm Music, Dedicated to Tony Abbott”.
Lyle completed the piece within a week, and wrote the following epigraph to the score:
“This music is a vision of happy wind turbines, high in the air, soaking up the sunshine, catching fragments of music that rise into the sky after it leaves the ears of the people who listen to them. The music tangles up in their airfoils and the turbines are laughing, delighted. “
From the windmills of the middle ages to the first electricity producing turbine in the 19th century, human beings have ground grain and pumped water with wind power. This music – the music of Beethoven, Bach, Vivaldi, Schubert, Rossini – was around at that time, and the music is still here today, reminding us that it witnessed humans who knew a kinder and more loving way of fulfilling its needs.
Political? Of course. There is a long and honourable tradition of art in service of political protest. That’s why politicians are a bit jumpy about funding the arts.
This music is intended to counter the absurd idea that wind farms are “ugly”; a reminder that harnessing the wind to help save the planet is a fine thing. It is a reminder of our obligation to future generations
Lyle and I hope that piano trios around Australia will perform the piece (just the right length and tone for an encore). We encourage them to record it and put it up on YouTube. We want everyone to hear it.
The piece is subtitled “A quodlibet for piano trio”. A quodlibet is a musical work made up of fragments of other music. Great composers throughout history wrote them, including famous examples by Bach and Brahms.
Wind Farm Music Dedicated to Tony Abbott will have its world premiere by Seraphim Trio at 12.30 on Wed 19 Aug 2015, at the State Library of Victoria.
Wind Farm Music Dedicated to Tony Abbott is available online.
You can download the score, parts and a digital playback from this folder:
Performances here https://youtu.be/fbLiBCdZyBg and here: https://youtu.be/ky-w9qrCO-E
Lots more to follow, I hope
Katharine Murphy has a good piece in today’s Guardian
It includes these observations from Tim Flannery:
The Climate Council’s chief councillor, the scientist and climate activist Tim Flannery, said Australia needed to step up its level of ambition for the international talks because the Abbott government’s domestic policies had attracted international attention.
“Given Australia is one of the world’s largest coal producers, and the 13th largest contributor to climate change in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, the eyes of the world are on Australia right now,” Flannery said on Monday.
“This is likely the first time in recent history that Australia has come under such sustained criticism from other countries over its domestic policies.
“We risk becoming a pariah if we don’t join the rest of the world in doing our fair share to tackle climate change.”