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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Messages from Melanesia

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My first time out of Australia was in 1970 when I went on an amazing adventure to Papua New Guinea. In those three months, I spent six weeks working on the Highlands Highway between Wapenamanda and Wabag, climbed the 3800m high peak of Mount Hagen, went on a 4 day trek through the most spectacular scenery, hitch-hiked the Highlands Highway from Lae to Mount Hagen, watched Birds of Paradise flying across mist-shrouded rainforest valley, and participated in a ten-day National Fitness camp at Mount Hagen with young people who were to become the leaders of the soon-to-be independent nation.

The highlight of this time was the amazing hospitality I experienced from the Papua New Guinea people wherever I went. I enjoyed it so much I was back next year for another three months when, as a newly graduated engineer, I surveyed a road through earthquake prone country to the North of Madang.

My time in Papua New Guinea whetted my appetite for exploring the world and from 1974 to 1978 I worked in Malaysia then Thailand as part of the Australian Volunteers Abroad program.

History has not been so kind to Papua New Guinea since the heady days of self government and independence in the early 1970s. I had always thought that I would end up working back there, but the news coming from Papua New Guinea has not been that positive. Recently Dee, a woman from Manus Island, lived with us in Townsville for three years. Dee spoked glowingly about her village and family back on Manus but also shared her fears about going back to live in Port Moresby – she bore the scars of a machete attack that occurred while returning with her children from a shopping excursion.

I felt ambivalence towards a country that had given me so much. When I thought of Papua New Guinea I remembered the wonderful hospitality of the people I met there 40 years ago but this was tempered more recently by the violence experienced by friends who have worked there, and the negative media reports of PNG that highlight the violence and corruption. The reports from the detention centre on Manus Island did little to improve my perceptions of the current situation in Papua New Guinea.

Several experiences in the past month have got me reconsidering these negative attitudes. The first was a recent Facebook post by Hilda, a student from Papua New Guinea studying at James Cook University where I work. She wrote

“Western Culture is so unbelievably lonely, even the neighbours don’t talk!! Everyone seem to be all caught up in their own little ‘busy’ worlds, there is no sense of community, everyone seem to be detached completely from fellow humans around them, nature, surrounding environment, etc. … I can live here in this house for 2 years and never get to know my neighbours who live just 5 metres from the corner of my room, they are (an) old couple and if they die tomorrow I will never know and no one will remember them.

It’s such a sad lonely life…Compared to back home, everyone is a family, you meet a stranger for the first time and without even knowing your first name, they will treat you as if you were very much a son or a daughter, a brother or a sister. You move into a completely strange neighbourhood or village and the whole community invites you for meals or always bring you a plate or plastics of peanut or buai. On the streets people will pass you by always with a smile and greeting. There’s always that warm feeling of being at home.”

Food for thought. We in Australia certainly have a lifestyle abundant in material possessions but Hilda reminds us of what we might have given up in the process.

Awareness of the need to re-think some of my attitudes was heightened last week as I listened to a presentation by Flora Pondilei, a Cairns resident and JCU graduate who comes from Manus Island. In her talk to the Cairns Institute entitled “Manus Island – Hell-hole – Hell no! Misrepresented – Absolutely”, Flora reminded the audience that the forgotten victims of the Off-shore Processing on Manus Island were the women and children of Manus. Manus Islanders traditionally were famed for their friendliness and the hospitality shown to visitors. This easy-going lifestyle has been changed, probably forever, by what has happened in the past twelve months.

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Flora said that while Transfield were awarded a contract of $1.2billion to run the detention centre for 20 months – both the health and education infrastructure for Manus Islanders remained hopeless. The infamous agreement to establish the Manus Island detention centre, negotiated by former PM Kevin Rudd with Papua New Guinea PM Peter O’Neill, undoubtedly brought great benefits to the Papua New Guinea Government – however few of these rewards have been passed on to the residents of Manus.

The Manus Island detention centre certainly is a scandal – an institution set up by the Australian Government to break the spirit of the asylum seeker inmates, so that they might then agree to return back to where they come from and face persecution and even death.

Flora reminded us that the asylum seekers in the detention centre are not the only victims of this morally bankrupt system.

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Not in our name please Scott Morrison

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

On a recent visit to Sydney I attended a panel discussion on refugees and asylum seekers sponsored by the Pennant Hills AIA group. The first speaker was Graeme McGregor, the refugee campaigner for Amnesty International Australia (AIA).

Graeme visited the Manus Island Detention Centre in late 2013 as part of an AIA delegation. His presentation painted a frightening picture of a place where inmates live in horrific and hopeless conditions. Drinking water is inadequate, there is little shade and people are given no idea of what is going to happen to them.

Graeme says that the only conclusion we can draw is that the aim of this regime is to break the inmates both mentally and physically. The government hopes they will then agree to go back to where they came from.

One group of asylum seekers recently agreed to return to Syria and when the International Office of Migration (IOM) advised it was not safe to go back, the Department of Immigration and Border Control offered to arrange it.

In pursuit of their immoral policy objectives, our government is prepared to send people back to situations where their lives will most definitely be at risk.

Graeme told us that Australia’s detention regime cost  $1 billion last year – all taken from the aid budget. He told us that this works out as $500,000 per person and in that time one (yes only one!) refugee was resettled. Graeme’s full report is featured on the AIA website.

In the comments section directly below the report, a worker on Manus Island disputes some of the claims made in the AIA report. In his response Graeme painstakingly addresses every point made in the Manus worker’s letter and details the evidence for making the claims. This evidence-based approach illustrates clearly why Amnesty International is such a well respected human rights organisation.

The AIA delegation met with Scott Morrison after their visit to Manus.

After they told him about what they had witnessed, Scott Morrison’s response was “Where things are presented that can improve, then of course we will do that”.

In the following three months the amount of shade on Manus has actually reduced and the amount of drinking water provided is still inadequate. And many more people have been diagnosed with severe mental illness. So much for the promises of Scott Morrison.

Graeme’s presentation left me feeling very sad and struggling to accept that an Australian government could be capable of acting in such a cruel and heartless manner. And let’s not pretend we can expect any better from the current Opposition.

After all the Manus Island “solution” is an ALP creation. In an earlier entry in this blog, I shared my amazement and despair at hearing Opposition Immigration Spokesman Richard Marles berate the Government for not being committed to the Manus Island solution.

Now as never before, human rights defenders are mobilising to declare their opposition to the policies of the Abbott government. In February, Townsville activists joined thousands of people round Australia in staging a “Light up the dark vigil” in memory of Reza Berati the young man killed in the recent unrest on Manus Island – a victim of Australia’s border protection policies.

In the next few months pro-refugee activists in Townsville are planning a number of actions aimed at changing the hearts and minds of Townsville residents.

The first is that we will participate in the May Day parade this year with the aim of getting at least 200 marchers under our banner “Protect refugees not borders”.

We have also enlisted local artists to assist us with a major art installation for the Eco Fiesta, a celebration of the earth and the environment to be held on the 1st of June

There will also be three public seminars in the lead-up to World Refugee Day on Friday 20 June. The first will be presented by a representative from the Centre for Refugee Research at the University of New South Wales, the second by Graeme McGregor or another representative from AIA, and the third seminar will give participants the opportunity to hear the views of some of our political representatives.

On World Refugee Day pro-asylum activists will gather outside the office of Federal MP Ewen Jones to condemn the barbaric treatment of refugees and asylum seekers by the Australian Government and to proclaim that these actions are “not in our name”.

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