Winter 2017

Long battle for recognition

The notion of ‘unfinished business’ is a term often used to describe the struggle for equality and justice that Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders face in Australia today. Record incarceration rates (85% of prisoners in the Northern Territory are Aboriginal) that are higher now than when the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody reported in 1991. The nagging life expectancy gap between Indigenous and other Australians remains at 15–17 years.

And yet, despite these difficulties and the Stolen Generations and a history of dispossession, Aboriginal Australians have survived, and in increasing numbers. Custodians of the world’s oldest living cultures – if you lived here for 60,000 years you probably got something absolutely right! Nevertheless, the struggle for freedom, self-determination and recognition continues.

In terms of this ongoing fight for freedom Senator Patrick Dodson (and former Deaths in Custody Royal Commissioner) said late last year:

“There is nothing wrong with freedom, particularly if you are from the ruling class. There is a hell of a lot wrong with freedom if you have to battle to experience it—if you have to fight for it. I was born before the 1967 referendum, when we as Aboriginal people were not even counted in the census of this country, when this government did not have any power to make laws for Aboriginal people because it was excluded by the crafters of our Constitution in 1901. The whole battle for recognition—for freedom to enjoy the basics of being a citizen—in this nation had to be fought for by black and white Australians: Jessie Street, Faith Bandler and many others”.

The “freedom to enjoy the basics of being a citizen” would not be a call unfamiliar to those on the goldfields 162 years ago.

Indigenous painting. At the bottom of the painting a layer representing Indigenous Australia before colonisation, but the boats are sailing towards the shore. The upper part of the painting depicts two figures on either side of a yellow circle with Uluru in the centre. On the left an Indigenous man plays a digeridoo on the right a white woman.
This artwork titled ‘Crossing Bridges’ by Victorian secondary school student, Lucia Roohizadegan was a Major Award Winner and recipient of the Vincentian Award as part of the 2017 Just Art competition conducted by the St Vincent de Paul Society Victoria. The competition promotes advocacy through art and this year called for a creative exploration, contemplation and celebration of the culture of the first people of Australia.

This notion of the citizen is one we have to defend, especially in these days where it often seems we all live together in an economy rather than a society. This is significant because the people who live in a society are citizens, and they have rights and they have responsibilities. However, those who reside in an economy are customers or consumers, with choices – dependent on how much wealth they have access to.

This paradigm shift from a society to an economy has been accompanied by a shift in language: people who travel in planes are no longer referred to as passengers, now they are customers (listen to the boarding announcement next time you are at an airport).

Banks no longer provide services, they sell products (I remember recently renegotiating my mortgage, and was told by the bank manager how ‘we have some great new products for you’, i.e. how much further into debt he would like me to be!) And those who reside in the care of a psychiatric institution in NSW are no longer patients or residents, everyone is a client (what are they purchasing?)

Moreover, those who live in a society are valued inherently for who they are, as human beings with inalienable rights; in an economy we value people for what they can do, for their utility or production value. And once we base our relationships and interactions on economics primarily rather than humanity, it becomes easier to treat people in inhuman ways. Welcome to Don Dale and its torture of Aboriginal youth.  Welcome to Nauru and Manus Island.

There is a need for us to reclaim the language, and fundamentally put humanity and the planet back in the picture. The language we use matters, because when we strip back the language we reveal the assumptions underpinning decisions, and when we strip back the assumptions underpinning decisions we reveal the values decisions are based on.

If we are not attentive to the words we use and the assumptions and values they represent, as Senator Dodson said last week, this enables and emboldens “an ideological creep back to bigotry and to racism”.  He explained, “It is fine if you sit in some leafy suburb and never rub shoulders with people who are battling to interpret and navigate their way through modernity in this land of Australia, with its highly-sophisticated culture and its complexities of protocols and procedures and social ethos. We have to understand that today is not the day to be changing this section (18c) of the Racial Discrimination Act. It is not the day. We see every night on the news the bigotry, the racism, the hatred and the killings that take place in the Middle East, borne out by different interpretations that people extract from words”.

David Ervine, a Northern Irish Unionist politician who became great mates with Patrick, the former Aboriginal Catholic priest with Indigenous and Irish ancestry, summed this up when he visited Australia in 2004 to speak at the Treaty Conference, reflecting on the state of race relations in Australia:

“I can smell racism. It doesn’t grow wild in a field. It is tended in a window box”. The point here is simple: words count. Language matters.

The Indigenous people gathered at Standing Rock in the United States do not see themselves as “resisters”; they call themselves “protectors”.

In his speech in the Senate calling for section 18c of the Racial Discrimination Act not to be watered down, Patrick Dodson said: “If this nation cannot stand up for the weakest, the poorest and those who are most vulnerable because of their race, their ethnicity or their beliefs, then we have become a very sad replication of what democracy is about”

This is one of the strongest defences of the principles of equality and justice for all that the Australian Parliament has heard in recent times. I recommend it to all Australians.

The success of the struggle to achieve freedom and democracy is best witnessed by a society’s treatment of its poorest people. Today in Australia that is best witnessed in our treatment of our First Peoples but also in the brutality meted out to the ‘last to arrive’ in this land of boundless plains to share with those who come across the sea.

That is, of course, with regard to Refugees and Asylum Seekers.

In the 17th century Emmanuel Kant proposed his Kantian injunction that ‘Human beings are never a means to an end. They are an end in themselves’.

His words loudly and baldly echo down the centuries in stark contrast to Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers and refugees on Nauru and Manus Island. The Four Corners program,
The Forgotten Children gave Australians an all too rare opportunity to hear from the refugee children of Nauru themselves, and to see for ourselves what is being done in our name. It was very disturbing television.

One day last year here in Sydney, a young asylum seeker rose early, turned on his computer and read that the Government was preparing to ban all post-July 2013 boat arrivals from ever entering Australia under any circumstances. He went straight to his bathroom and swallowed a bottle of sleeping pills. He is one of the 30,000 asylum seekers in the community without rights or resolution to his case.

He has now been released from hospital. He survived but the hope that sustained him for so long from his escape from the Taliban to the dangerous journey to Australia has been extinguished.

The devastating impact of these policies of incarceration and punishment on innocent people simply has to stop.

Since 1946 Australia has resettled more than 850,000 refugees. They have made a remarkable contribution to our country. Despite this, the current Government’s proposal to ban boat arrivals from ever entering Australia would mean great Australians like Anh Do, Bishop Vincent Long of Parramatta and South Australian Governor, Hieu Van Le, would never be permitted into the country if they arrived today.

Refugees like Gus Nossal, Victor Chang, Frank Lowy, Dr Karl Kruzelnizki, the 2017 NSW Australian of the Year Deng Adut, and hundreds of thousands of hard working refugees have been nothing but a positive for Australia.

And yet, we have a Minister for Immigration who  declared former Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser had made a mistake 40 years ago in bringing in Lebanese Muslims from the civil war in the 1970’s, because 22 of the 33 Australians charged with terror related offences were the children or grandchildren of Lebanese Muslim immigrants.

In any other time, this statement would be staggering. To invalidate the existence of hundreds of thousands of Australian citizens because a sum total of 22 of them were charged – charged mind you, not convicted – with serious criminal offences is beyond any reasonable argument. This is not so much a dog whistle as a dog trombone! It is throwing red meat to One Nation supporters, and is more about polling in the northern suburbs of Brisbane, than anything to do with the humanitarian intake. The Minister’s words should be condemned in the strongest possible terms.

Malcolm Fraser’s record on support for refugees, particularly after the Vietnam War, is in stark contrast to the actions of Governments led by both parties since 2001. Fraser and then Opposition Leader Bill Hayden demonstrated what the country now lacks, leadership. Australia led the world in helping 2.1 million people re-settle around the world between1976-1983. It was no mistake. It was born of bi-partisan leadership, something we do not have now.

Simply, today we treat asylum seekers and refugees who have arrived by boat as if we were at war with them.

Amnesty International reports that Australia’s system discriminates and punishes, and in some cases, ‘tortures’ people who came to us seeking safety and protection. There are around 1200 people on Nauru (including 128 children), a further 920 on Manus, and the 30,000 in the Australian community denied access to legal assistance, medical care and education. They are all trapped in an interminable limbo.

The Nauru Files, released by the Guardian, reported over 2000 cases of physical abuse, psychological abuse, sexual abuse, rape, and 59 incidents of child abuse, including child sexual abuse. For many refugees on Nauru, this sorry story means that life is characterised by fear and uncertainty.

This is certainly the case for Mahomood (name changed), and her 8 year old daughter (who has now spent almost half her life on Nauru). Although recognised as a refugee Mahomood lives on a 3 year visa, a Nauruan passport lists her identity as ‘refugee’.

Mahomood and her daughter live in a remote camp. She is too scared to go out for food following an attack by two men on motorbikes as she walked to town to collect groceries. Her life is a two by four metre, plywood walled, tin roofed shack. She spends most of the day crying – she says she has lost all hope.

The tragic irony of this is that Mahomood came on the same boat as her brother. Today he lives in Sydney’s south, married to an Australian woman and they are expecting their first baby. Equal laws? Equal rights? I don’t think so.

These centres are established by the Australian Government, they are funded by the taxes we pay. They operate under extreme secrecy. There is no transparency, no accountability, no independent monitoring. But the cruelty is plain to see.  It is writ large on the faces of the forgotten children all of Australia saw on Four Corners.

This whole sorry episode in our history has to be brought to an end.

The priority right now must be to get people off Nauru and Manus.

The policy of turning around boats at sea is deeply problematic, most likely illegal, and dangerous, especially with its potential risk to life and the very real possibility of refoulement.

However, the current political reality is that despite the dangers of the turn-back policy and the need to one day replace it with something ethical and consistent with our international obligations, both major parties currently support the policy. It is not something that will change in the short-term.

But what can be done in the short-term, and what is achievable, is for the suffering and cruelty on Nauru and Manus to end, and for the 30,000 asylum seekers in limbo in Australia to be given a permanent solution. Boats are not arriving in Australia, they are being deflected away.

There is absolutely no need to prolong the suffering of those on Nauru and Manus for one day longer. They should be brought to Australia.

However, the Government and Opposition are committed to third country options, like the recent announcement of re-settling people in the United States.  If this is to happen then firstly, they need to be credible options – nations that are experienced at resettling refugees and with a long-established capacity to do so – countries like the United States, or Canada, Sweden and of course, New Zealand.

Secondly, there needs to be a time limit. If the Government is unable to settle people in nations in a timely manner, then they must be brought to Australia. The Opposition should support the Government so that we can return to a bi-partisan commitment to protect rather than punish.

With Nauru and Manus empty, the next step will be to pivot to a realistic regional processing framework in cooperation with Indonesia, Malaysia, UNHCR and other relevant organisations.

With the offshore processing camps empty, Australia would have ample resources available to re-allocate to the region and help people seeking asylum before they are forced into a boat.

Such measures would include: assistance for access to work, education and health rights whilst claims are processed in the region; increase the annual refugee intake to at least 30,000 and moving to 40,000; increase support for the UNHCR for assessing claims in the region in a timely manner; and, for  more resources and diplomatic efforts to be put into the two other ‘durable solutions’ the UNHCR speaks of – a peaceful return to country of origin when it is safe to do so, and integration into the countries closer to the conflict zone.

Also, when the cruelty has ended and with a comprehensive regional processing framework in place, Australia’s military could be used for the positive purpose of search and rescue, rather than forcing boats back out to sea.

The current policy of punishment and deterrence has moved Australia further away from engaging in the real global challenge of assisting the 65 million people who are displaced. Last year there were 24 million people recognised as refugees – just 107,000 of these people were resettled: that is less than one percent of the global population of refugees.

Our fixation with securing our borders renders us unable to engage meaningfully in working with the international community to tackle the root causes of displacement and ensure the people that do flee their country can live with dignity in the places they flee to. That the parents can work legally, the children can access school and health care is freely available.

Also, all research indicates that when refugees receive permanent protection they make a sustained positive contribution to the life of their new nation. Any notion of banning former refugees from Australia for all time, even if they are Canadian, New Zealand or US citizens, is a ludicrous proposition and indicative of the sorry state Australia has been reduced to.

These 24 million refugees, the population of Australia – are not just numbers. They are human beings. They are brothers, fathers, sisters, mothers, friends, they are children. More than half are children. They include Mahomood and her daughter. They include a young asylum seeker just released from a Sydney hospital.

Emmanuel Kant was right. None of these people were, or are, a means to an end. All of them are an end in themselves. The wrong done to them must be righted, the cruelty must stop and this sorry chapter in Australian history must be closed.

This generation has a challenge on its hands. All of us, unless you are an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Island person, are descended from someone who came from somewhere else – usually over the course of our history, by boat.

In wrapping up I would like to share with you a poem penned by a young Iranian asylum seeker who spent a number of years in mandatory detention, after arriving in Australia by boat:

I do not know
what will happen after I die
I do not want to know.
But I would like the Potter
to make a whistle
From the clay of my throat.
May this whistle fall into the hands
Of a naughty child
and the child to blow hard on the whistle continuously
with all the suppressed and silent air of his lungs
and disrupt the sleep
of those who seem dead to my cries

Phil Glendenning is the Director of the Edmund Rice Centre.This is an edited excerpt from a speech he gave to the Eureka Commemoration Dinner in December last year. To read the speech in full visit


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