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.