On Wednesday 16 November, a delegation from local refugee advocacy organisations met with Cathy O’Toole, the member for the Townsville-based Federal electorate of Herbert. The group was made up of Meg Davis from Townsville Multicultural Support Group (TMSG), Dinithi Dissanayake and Nimath Malawaraarachchi from JCU Health Professionals for Refugees and Asylum Seekers, Tamara Townsend from Amnesty International JCU Action group and Jeanie Adams and Peter Hanley from Amnesty International Townsville Action Group.
These four organisations had worked together to organise a number of public events in Townsville in the past three years – the most recent being the 2016 JCU Human Rights lecture given by Kon Karapanagiotidis from the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre(ASRC) and attended by more than 200 people.
The meeting followed Malcolm Turnbull’s announcement in late October that the Federal Government would introduce legislation to ban refugees and asylum seekers on Manus Island and Nauru from ever coming to Australia. The announcement was met with condemnation from refugee advocates around Australia. Lawyer David Manne, from the Refugee and Immigration Legal Centre, said the move would punish refugees. “The majority of these people are refugees, and the policy is rapidly destroying them,” he said.
Refugee supporters in Townsville protested the move at the monthly First Friday Vigil for Refugees and Asylum Seekers held on Friday 4 November outside Cathy O’Toole’s office. We delivered a letter signed by those present at the vigil asking that she oppose this legislation. In our letter we said that the proposed law was unnecessary, cruel and also contrary to international human rights law. We also asked supporters to write to Cathy supporting our call and made the appointment for 16 November to speak with Cathy about refugees and other Human Rights related issues.
After receiving our letter, Cathy contacted us and assured us that she would not support the proposed legislation, and that she had made her position clear to a number of Labor Party colleagues.
We opened our meeting with Cathy by asking her about the level of commitment to Human Rights the current Federal Parliament. We gave as an example the high profile of the Amnesty Parliamentary group in past years. She said that a big change has been the number of advocacy groups now operating in the human rights space. These included disability action groups, development NGOs, mental illness groups, and LGBTI advocacy groups. She said that Amnesty International occasionally brought speakers to the Parliament and that she had heard part of the address given by Anna Neistat on the situation on Nauru.
We went on to talk about the legislation introduced by the government to ban refugees and asylum seekers from entering Australia. Cathy said that she had received a flood of messages asking to oppose the legislation. She referred us to a speech she made in the House of Representatives opposing the legislation and in that speech she read out two of the messages she had received.
Cathy believes that to change public opinion on this issue we need to be constantly challenging people who support punishing of refugees and asylum seekers. We told Cathy about the strong message that came from Kon Karapanagiotisis that we need to change the conversation to focus on values. Cathy agreed with this and also said that there is a strong connection between the way we treat refugees and asylum seekers and the way we treat our First Nations people. She said that in the light of the shameful treatment of our First Nations people, it should be no surprise that those who come to our borders seeking protection and compassion are also harshly treated.
Cathy asked the JCU students present about their experience in advocating for refugees and First Nationals people at the university. Dinithi, Nimath and Tamara agreed that while racism on the campus was not as overt as in the general community, many people they encountered expressed negative sentiments towards people from minority groups such as First Nations people and refugees.
We also discussed the Community is Everything Campaign and the high level of concern in the Townsville community around the issues of crime and violence. Cathy reported on the Town Hall meeting held in Townsville the previous evening with Opposition leader Bill Shorten. Several speakers raised concerns about the level of crime and violence in Townsville. Bill Shorten had pointed the connections between drugs, alcohol, unemployment, disengagement from schooling, and domestic violence and suggested some measures to address these problems. We talked about some initiatives that had been recently announced to address disengagement of young people and we agreed that they need to be community driven and support community justice values.
We left the meeting inspired by Cathy’s strong commitment to human rights and social justice.