Why we have Tony Abbot to thank for the US – China deal on climate change

Obama-Xi-v2The secret is now out. The historical US China announcement was not the plan of bureaucrats but an impromptu decision that came out of an informal chat between Xi and Obama held before their official meeting in Beijing.

This is what happened:

The two Presidents were chatting cheerfully about the upcoming APEC and G20 meetings and the health of their fellow world leaders.

“Angela is looking great” said Obama “Nothing like that party for 25th anniversary of the coming down of the Berlin Wall to give her a boost”.

“Yes,” agreed Xi,” and David is a lot chirpier. Must be the jump in his approval rating in the opinion polls. I am glad we don’t have to worry about such things in China.”

“Poor old Vlad is a bit down”, said Obama.”14 years at the helm of Russia would wear anyone down”.

Xi continued, “He has 80% approval in the opinion polls … but there’s all that messy business about Ukraine”.

“And to cap it all off, to have the budgie smuggler from down-under threaten to shirtfront you…” Obama rolled his eyes.

Abbott in BS

“Ah that’s what I meant to check, shirtfront … I looked up budgie smuggler this morning.” Xi motions to an aide who passes him the KRudd Chinese Dictionary of Aussie slang which Xi reads and then looks up surprised. “That’s a bit rich”.

Obama went on “We might have to do something to put him in his place. Remember how he kept pestering us all the first six months of this year to take climate change off the G20 agenda. And he did not want to do anything about Ebola”.

“Yes I couldn’t understand that. Even we in China are pretty worried about climate change. We can manage the economy but managing the climate is proving a bit trickier.”

Obama responded “Back home those extreme weather events and record temperatures have even got the Tea party a bit worried. In the end I went along with what Tony Abbott wanted. After all, there is a lot of talk and photo opportunities at talk fests like G20 – but no-one really expects anything productive to come out of them.”

Xi thought for a moment then said “Maybe this one could be different, I think it is time we started to take Climate Change a bit seriously. Maybe your country and mine could something together on Climate Change.”

“Hmm…” Obama responded, “US and China –could have electoral appeal – and it would certainly tip a bit of rain on Tony Abbott’s party.”

And so just two hours later President Xi and President Obama made their historic announcement.

Post script: The evening after his meeting with Obama, President Xi was leafing through his KRudd Dictionary. He called out to one of his advisers “What does fair suck of the tomato sauce bottle mean to you?”


And so now you know, and sometimes in the real world, truth is stranger than fiction.

If you don’t believe this read:



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Australia’s shameful response to the Ebola crisis

I am ashamed of the response of the Australian Government to the current Ebola epidemic. The World Health Organisation(WHO) declared a Global Health Emergency on 8 August. Their predictions were frightening – if Ebola was not contained immediately there would be more than 500,000 cases by January 2015 and it would soon spiral out of control. WHO says there are two very good reasons for making a sustained global response to the current Ebola epidemic – the first is a humanitarian response to the current and prospective suffering of thousands of individuals in West Africa – the second is to make sure it does not spread to other countries who are not equipped to manage an Ebola outbreak.

WHO appealed to nations around the world to respond and in most cases the response was immediate. Barack Obama was quick to pledge more than 3000 health personnel to the effort, David Cameron pledged over 1000 and other countries followed suit. Tiny Cuba with a population on 11 million and national wealth per capita far less than that of Australia, made an immediate commitment of 165 health professionals and have almost completed training a further 296 for deployment to West Africa.

The response of the Australian Government was similar to what we have seen to other threats to the future of our planet. In the beginning they made a few concerned noises and then seemed to ignore it – perhaps hoping it would go away.
climate change salute(Photo thanks to  crankycurlew.com.au: Townsville residents demonstrate the “ostrich” approach to threats to the planet as perfected by the Abbott Government.)

Finally the British Government in late September, perhaps embarrassed by the lack of response from its Commonwealth “little brother”, invited Australia to provide medical staff to a treatment facility that was being built in Sierra Leone.

Messrs Abbott and Dutton gave all sorts of reasons why they could not immediately accept this invitation. Meanwhile the AMA announced that there were more than 350 Australian health personnel who had indicated they would be available to take part in an Australian health mission to West Africa.

To their credit the AMA kept chipping away at the Government intransigence. Some in the media supported them. They were joined by a number of NGOs such as Oxfam and Doctors Without Borders. Finally the Government were shamed into action. This is how Oxfam’s Conor Costello described this apparent change of heart in a letter to supporters: “The Australian Government finally seems to be heeding the calls to adequately respond to the devastating Ebola outbreak in West Africa — and it’s thanks to the efforts of health professionals and concerned citizens like you.”

But as Oxfam warns, there is a still a long way to go. Sustained pressure from us all is needed to ensure that the announcement rapidly leads to real action on the ground.

While we have been slow to provide humanitarian aid – Australia has the dubious distinction of being the first country in the world to place a blanket visa ban on citizens of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. In doing this we are ignoring the advice of the experts and taking steps which are sabotaging the efforts of others to fight the disease.

Here is what UN officials and regional leaders say about the Australian visa ban:

Anything that will dissuade foreign trained personnel from coming here to West Africa and joining us on the frontline to fight the fight would be very, very unfortunate,” Anthony Banbury, head of the U.N. Ebola Emergency Response Mission (UNMEER), told Reuters in the Ghanaian capital Accra.

Liberia’s President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf urged Australia to reconsider its travel ban. “Anytime there’s stigmatization, there’s quarantine, there’s exclusion of people, many of whom are just normal, then those of us who are fighting this epidemic, when we face that, we get very sad,” she told a news conference.

Neighboring Sierra Leone called the Australian move draconian. “It is discriminatory in that … it is not (going) after Ebola but rather it is … against the 24 million citizens of Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea,” Information Minister Alpha Kanu told Reuters. “Certainly, it is not the right way to go.”

In a letter to a number of Federal MPs, Townsville resident David Andersen explained why the ban is both unnecessary and counter-productive.

“According to the latest figures from WHO, there were 13567 reported Ebola cases in the three affected countries as of October 31, 2014. This amounts to 0.06% of the total population. Imagine if 0.06% of the people of France or of Korea were suffering from a deadly infectious disease, do you think we would impose a blanket visa ban on the other 99.94%. What effect would that have on all the business people, university students, conference participants, whose plans to visit Australia were suddenly interrupted? Would France and Korea feel that Australia was treating them like a friend or an enemy? Why are we treating the business people, university students and conference participants from Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia as if they were from an enemy country who should be penalized?

David Andersen continues “This policy is intended to protect Australia from the risk that an Ebola outbreak would occur here. How big is that risk? Obviously there is zero risk from the 99.94% of the population who would be healthy travellers. And if someone already had an advanced stage of the disease, they would not travel. What people worry about is that someone without obvious symptoms might travel here and then come down with the disease in Australia. What do the experts say about this risk?

With regard to health workers returning from West Africa the AMA website states, “The risk to the Australian public was essentially zero. Health care workers returning from West Africa go into quarantine for 21 days. People are not contagious unless they show physical symptoms such as fever, vomiting, or diarrhoea. Every appropriate precaution is taken. (https://ama.com.au/ausmed/ebola-crisis-affects-us-all). David Andersen asks why we are taking draconian measures to guard against a risk that the experts regard as being extremely low. David Andersen concludes “That sounds like panic to me, rather than the courageous and sensible response that Australians usually give in the face of crises”.

 Ebola treatmentThere are a number of things we can do to put pressure on our government and other governments to prioritise the global response to Ebola. Like David Andersen we can share our concerns about the inadequate Australian response by writing directly to our Federal MPs. Both Amnesty International Australia and Oxfam Australia have current online campaigns addressing this issue.

We can directly support action on Ebola by donating to one of the NGOs supporting the WHO lead initiative in West Africa – MSF (Doctors without Borders), Oxfam, Red Cross, Caritas International to name just a few.

The last word belongs to Monsignor Robert Vitillo, the special Adviser on Health and HIV to Caritas International whose report on a recent visit to Liberia was published in Eureka Street.

Robert Vitillo wrote”On my recent visit to Liberia, I found a ‘different Africa.’ From the moment that our plane touched down at the Monrovia airport, we were confronted with buckets of bleach water with which to wash our hands and people armed with ‘gun thermometers’ to take our temperatures.

Perhaps the most striking difference from my other visits was found in the ‘no touch’ policy. Africans usually are warm and physical in expressing welcome – they offer hearty handshakes. Now, in the Ebola-affected countries, everyone seems uncomfortable as a result of the need to avoid physical contact in order to prevent further spread of Ebola.”

Robert Vitillo continued “The Ebola situation in the country is grave and continues to disrupt everyday life for most of the population.

Many hospitals and clinics are closed, so it is very difficult to get medical treatment for other diseases. Some people die in the streets looking for medical treatment for infection or for a whole host of other diseases. Schools and many government offices are closed.”

Reports like this from West Africa illustrate the gravity of the situation – but they also describe the resilience and strength of local people in responding to the situation. What they need now is the whole-hearted support of the rest of the world.

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My memories of Gough

It's time

As for many others, the death of Gough Whitlam has sparked a great deal of reminiscing and nostalgia for me. Those heady years of Gough assuming leadership of the ALP then winning the 1972 election were the time of my own political awakening.

I grew up in a Labor voting household in the northern Brisbane suburb of Boondall. My knowledge of things political came mainly from the Courier Mail, which I read every morning before heading off to school then later to university. My first idea that the world was not as portrayed in the Courier Mail came strangely from my first tutorial in a 3rd Year Engineering subject at University of Queensland (UQ).

The tutor brought with him to class a book that he suggested that we all should read. To our surprise the title was not “Design of Structures” but “Vietnam and Australia” – the report of a fact finding mission to Vietnam by a Australian student delegation. Six of the class of 60 bought the book and this book had a profound impact on me.

I began attending the daily lunchtime meetings outside the Relaxation block at UQ and heard speakers give a very different view on current events in Vietnam to the mainstream media. A number of the speakers were Vietnamese and they spoke at great personal risk – their criticism of the corruption and failings of the South Vietnamese Government would no doubt cause them problems on their return to that country.

I joined the Vietnam Moratorium Movement and marched in both the Moratoriums held in 1970 and in the 1971 Moratorium. It was in 1970 that I first became aware of Gough Whitlam who was then leader of the ALP opposition in Federal Parliament and was on record as opposing Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War.

It was through involvement in the Moratoriums that I became aware of the world outside Australia. The same tutor who sold me the book on Vietnam gave a talk about his recent vacation experience in Papua New Guinea on a project sponsored by the Australian Union of students (AUS). I went to Papua New Guinea on my long vacation at the end of 1970 to be part of a leadership camp for Papua New Guinean High School students, held in Mount Hagen and sponsored by the AUS.

It was during that visit that I first met Gough Whitlam when, as Leader of the Opposition, Gough was touring Papua New Guinea and attended a public meeting in Mount Hagen to listen to people’s views on the topic of self-government. My next encounter was in 1972 when I went with my father to listen to Gough speak at the Homestead Hotel in Brisbane.

With thousands of others at that meeting, we were inspired by Gough’s vision of Australia that was outward looking and independent of the dictates of the US or the UK. From that meeting I had taken an “Its Time” bumper sticker which, not having a car, I proudly stuck on my briefcase.

Several days later I had an interesting brush with another political luminary of the time. As a newly graduated Civil Engineer I was working for the Queensland Government and my office was on the 10th floor of the Executive Building in George Street. On the 15th floor of the same building was the office of Premier Joh Bjelke-Peterson.

Coming to work that day, I got into the lift to go up to my office and who should follow me into the lift but Premier Joh. Though I had been working in the building for eight months that was the first time I had actually seen him. I remember raising my briefcase to chest height so that the sticker would be clearly visible. I am not sure if Joh saw it or not – he made brief eye contact then followed the usual lift protocol of turning to face the door. I exited at the tenth floor wondering if my action had been a wise career move.

In the lead up to the 1972 Federal election, I spent afternoons and weekends letterboxing for ALP candidate Frank Doyle in my North Brisbane electorate of Lilley. On December 2 1972 I was camped with friends on the banks of the Noosa River and I still remember our celebrations as news of the ALP victory came over the transistor radio. Lilley was one of the seats held previously by the Liberals that was won by the ALP in that election.

My next personal encounter with Gough was in Malaysia in early 1975. I was working as a lecturer at Universiti Pertanian (University of Agriculture) as part of the Australian Volunteers Abroad program. Gough was visiting Malaysia and Australian residents in Kuala Lumpur were invited to a reception at the Australian Embassy. My lasting memory is the sight of Gough and Margaret Whitlam standing alongside Malaysian PM Tun Razak and his wife – both of whom were quite short and of slight stature. I was amused to see a number of Malaysian people at the reception craning their necks to see if the Whitlams were standing on a raised platform.

Gough and Margaret

I keenly remember that fateful day 11 November when news reached us of the Dismissal. I shared a small flat on the university campus with Greg, another Australian volunteer. A colleague Graham roared into our front yard on his motor cycle and yelled out to us “The bastards have sacked Gough”. The three of us encouraged all the Australians we knew to vote in the ensuing election. Needless to say we were devastated at the result.

So much has been said in the past week about Gough’s legacy. A ironic sign of his greatness is that currently we have a government apparently dedicated to dismantling the advances made by his government. We have a PM and Foreign Minister prepared to do whatever it takes to keep the US happy, an Education Minister hell bent on removing all traces of equal opportunity in our higher education system, a Treasurer committed to increasing inequality in our society, an Environment Minister who is quite happy to have the Barrier Reef destroyed on his watch, a health minister keen to bring back user-pays health care … need I continue?

Gough for all his perceived arrogance never lost his sense of humour or the ability to laugh at himself. Our current leaders –Labor leaders included – take themselves oh so seriously. This for me is perhaps the scariest thing of all.

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What a difference an “A” makes

What a difference an "A" makes

Recently I saw this brilliant typo in a publication from a refugee advocacy organisation. The unintended addition of an “a” had changed Scott Morrison’s department to the Department of Immigration and Boarder Protection.

Oh if only! Imagine if the brief was to protect the “boarders” inside Australia’s infamous offshore detention centres instead of Australia’s precious borders.

The first thing that would happen would be to release the 600 plus children still held on Manus Island, Christmas Island and Nauru. Unaccompanied children would immediately be allocated a guardian entrusted with protecting their rights in place of their gaoler Scott Morrison. The next thing would be to phase out offshore detention and replace it with a regime of swift onshore processing. As a model we could take the system used by European countries such as Sweden. Sweden allows asylum seekers to reside in the community, gives them an allowance and a state lawyer and guarantees their processing within four months.

Sweden has already taken thousands of refugees from the Syrian war and is gearing up for a lot more. Director of operations at the Swedish Migration Board, Mikael Ribbenvik, told New Matilda in April that “We’ve received around 30,000 Syrians and stateless Palestinians from Syria in the three years since the conflict began. We are expecting more and more to come. We now have about 600 in total each week,” he said.

Mr Ribbenvik said there is nothing complicated about the Swedish approach to asylum seekers.

“What we are doing is following international law, European law and the national law,” Ribbenvik told me by phone last week. “The law is very clear on this. You should give protection to people in need of protection.”

The decision to grant permanent residency to all Syrians came after a Swedish government re-assessment of the Syrian war.

“We had temporary permits to a great extent in the past in short conflicts but we are assessing this to be a very long conflict. We are talking about 10 years. Living in those (temporary) conditions for a long time would be very difficult,” said Ribbenvik.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Australian authorities talked like this. Instead Scott Morrison plans to re-introduce three year Temporary Permanent Protection Visas that can be extended under no circumstances. It is only in the fantasy world of Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison that all the current conflicts will go away in three years, and these people will be able to go home and take up where they left off.

Sadly the real world does not follow the same script. Remember that other believer in fantasy worlds, George W Bush, ten years ago claiming victory in Iraq after one year of hostilities.

And now the cruellest joke of all – asylum seekers from Nauru and Manus Island will be given the opportunity of permanent settlement in Cambodia! Cambodia is one of the poorest countries in the world with a government that is one of the most corrupt. Much of the aid that has poured into Cambodia over the past 25 years has found its way into the coffers of people associated with the Hun Sen regime that has ruled that country all that time with an iron fist.

Scoot and Hun Sen

It is only nine months ago that Australia condemned Cambodia’s human rights record at the United Nations. How quickly things change. Writing in last Wednesday’s edition of the Phnom Penh Post, Chak Sopheap, Executive Director of the Cambodia Centre for Human Rights, rightly described Australia’ refugee plans as “an affront to human rights”.

Former Chief Justice of the Family Court, the Hon. Alastair Nicholson, last month spoke out against the Cambodia refugee deal on behalf of an alliance consisting of UNICEF Australia, Save the Children, Plan International Australia, World Vision, Amnesty International, Refugee Council of Australia, International Detention Coalition and Children’s Rights International. Mr Nicholson said that the planned deal was “inappropriate, immoral and likely illegal”.

Sadly such criticism is not likely to sway Scott Morrison.

Perhaps wherever we can we should insert the ‘A’ into border. And wouldn’t it be wonderful if, thanks to a gremlin in the Government printery, that future department letterhead proudly announced “Department of Immigration and Boarder Protection”.


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No place for a “fair go” in Abbott’s Australia

March AustraliaAugust

There were many powerful speeches at the March Australia event held in Townsville on Sunday 31 August and one particularly stood out for me.

‘J’ was introduced by the MC as “as ordinary citizen”. He told us he was a former officer in the Australian Defence Force (ADF) but stressed that his views were his own.

J had been brought up in a family and in the ADF to value and support a ‘fair go.’ The ‘fair go’ he said was about being fair to all and giving a lending hand to those that need help.

He could no longer accept how the vulnerable in our society were being treated by the Abbott Government – including, disabled veterans, young unemployed, elderly pensioners and asylum seekers.

J also said he could not support the position that the Abbott Government was putting young Navy personnel in – in relation to ‘turning back’ asylum seekers.

The crunch came for him when he heard that young seamen, acting through their chain of command, on the direction from Minister Scott Morrison, are required at times to tow back terrified asylum seekers including women and children, and put them into lifeboats and send them back over the horizon to an unknown fate.

For many sailors this would be a harrowing duty knowing that the people they were sending away from safety, including children, were just ordinary people like themselves. J said that a number of former ADF personnel including Naval Captains – were appalled at the direction that the Abbott Government was providing in relation to turn back, tow back and the misuse of ‘life craft.’ (1)

He remarked that this practice is a perverse twist to the usual function of a lifeboat – lifeboats are intended to take people from situations of danger and deliver them to safety. As part of Operation Sovereign Borders, people are taken from the safety of a naval vessel, forced into lifeboats and then put into a more dangerous situation.

I have thought a lot about what J said since listening to his words that day. I found a photo of one of the lifeboats – it might be called a lifeboat, but to me it looks like a giant orange coffin.

Disposable lifeboat

In one incident in February this year reported by the ABC, 34 people were forced into one of these vessels which were then cast adrift to hopefully reach the coast of Indonesia.

I can only imagine what it must have been like. These 34 people had already spent some days at sea in a crowded fishing boat. Indonesian sources told the ABC those on board came from Iran, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal and that the youngest aboard was 18 months old.

For some of them it might have been the first time they had ever been on a boat, so it was already a terrifying experience. They would have been relieved to have been “rescued” by an Australian naval vessel – but some rescue this turns out to be.

Rather than being taken to safety they are taken back towards the Indonesian Coast – the same coast that they had left several days previously. They are then forced to go into what looks like a giant orange coffin to what end heaven only knows.

It was also reported that two people refused to board the lifeboat. Would you blame them?

These actions are not those of a country that respects human rights. It is no wonder that the new UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Zeid al-Hussein, has criticised Australia’s offshore processing of asylum-seekers and turning back of boats. He said it was leading to “a chain of human rights violations, including arbitrary detention and possible torture following return to home countries”.

It is a sad indictment on our government that they rejected these claims using the defence that abuses in Iraq and Syria are worse. What a tragic response from a country that was once recognised around the world as one of the champions of human rights, and was one of the key participants in the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The Abbott Government is clearly not providing a ‘Fair Go’ for all, and certainly not for asylum seekers. For J and many of us, that is no longer acceptable.

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An outbreak of common sense

“Dear resident,
Politicians don’t often say they got it wrong, but here it is:
I got it wrong.”

These were the opening words of an open letter from Federal MP George Christensen to Whitsunday residents regarding the proposed expansion of the Abbott Point coal facility and featured in a recent article in the Townsville Bulletin.

In his letter George says that he did not foresee the angst the dumping of dredge soil in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park would cause tourism operators and residents of the Whitsundays.

Abbott Point
(Abbott Point currently – photo from Townsville Bulletin)

The current plan is for North Queensland Bulk Ports (NQBP) to dump 3 million cubic metres of dredge spoil in the GBR Marine Park off Abbot Point as part of a proposal to turn Abbot Point into the world’s biggest coal export facility.

George’s letter goes on to say that he has started talks with NQBP about land based options for the disposal of dredge material and that NQBP have agreed to re-examine all land based options before proceeding with any work. George promises that if a viable option emerges then he will ensure that the soil is dumped on land and not at sea.

George finishes his letter with the words “You’ve spoken – I’ve listened”.

Sadly some of the comments following the article are personal attacks on George Christensen and suggestions of reasons for his change of heart. I think a better strategy would be “soft on the person, hard on the problem”.

Let’s welcome George’s apology – something very rare from the current Federal government – and work with him to make sure that a better option for disposing of the dredge spoil is found.

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A blight on our collective soul – the treatment of unaccompanied children who seek asylum and refuge in Australia

refugee child
(Image credit : UNHCR)

“Protecting the Lonely Children” is the title of the Final Report of the Australian Churches Refugee Task Force released in July. The report contains recommendations to the Australian Government and the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child with respect to unaccompanied children who seek asylum and refuge in Australia.

The Chair of the Task Force is the Very Rev. Peter Catt, Dean of St. John’s Anglican Cathedral in Brisbane. In the opening words of the report, Dr Catt states “Unaccompanied children are some of the most vulnerable in our society and throughout the world; they have been forced, separated or orphaned from their families through reasons of violence, fear and persecution.”

Dr Catt goes on to say that many Australians would not be aware of their predicament because as they have no-one to advocate for their needs, their stories are rarely heard. The report paints a sad picture of the plight of these children. In the worst case some children have been forced back to the homelands from where they have fled persecution, before they had the chance to tell their story and have their claim for asylum justly processed.

Some of these children have been sent to detention centres on Nauru and Christmas Island where they live in limbo – an existence that threatens “great and lifelong harm to their physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing”. These children have been given only temporary respite and safety. Yet they are not accepted here and returning them home could possible mean torture and death.

Dr Catt quotes the Australian Catholic Bishops who stated recently that current asylum seeker policy “…has about it a cruelty that does no honour to our nation”. The Australian Anglican Primate, Dr Phillip Aspinall said “Putting children behind razor wire is never a loving response to people in need. That breaks people’s hearts… There has got to be a better way for us to deal with these issues”.

The recommendations contained in the report seek to show that “better way”. The Task force has synthesized the issues into six problem areas and suggests solutions for each of these. Dr Catt is quick to agree that the Taskforce is not the first to express these concerns and to make such recommendations. The Task Force have joined a long line of academic institutions, Australian medical colleges, law societies, child welfare groups and others who have called repeatedly for such changes – sadly with little or no response from our Federal Government.

The first problem identified in the report in the untenable position of the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection who is both the legal guardian for unaccompanied children and also their judge and jailor. The report calls for the immediate replacement of the Minister as legal guardian and the appointment of an independent guardian who is not beholden to the Minister or his Department.

The second problem identified is that the Australian Government has failed to provide institutional child protection and welfare which has caused individual and generational damage. The Taskforce demands that the Government stop treating unaccompanied children like unwanted cargo and instead uphold the children’s best interests.

The full report makes compelling reading and needs to be read widely. Sadly so far our Government have given little indication that they are taking the report and its recommendations seriously. I will leave the last word to Rev. Prof Andrew Dutney, the President of the Uniting Church in Australia who, when reflecting on our treatment of these children stated:

“Somehow it has come to suit us to treat this particular group of vulnerable ‘others’ as we would never want to be treated ourselves. That’s what the opinion polls seem to say. And that is deeply disturbing. Measured against the Golden Rule, it points to a neglected, enfeebled, imperilled Australian soul”.

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