What happened to the boundless plains? What happened to sharing?

This week is celebrated in Australia as Refugee Week. It is a week for us to celebrate the contribution made to our community by those who have come to Australia as refugees.

RW banner

It is also a good time to reflect on our historical response to those who have come to our borders seeking refuge. We have got so used to the heinous deeds of recent Immigration ministers such as Dutton, Morrison and Ruddock that we forget that for most of our history Australia has a good record of welcoming and settling refugees.

Last week I was invited to give a pechakucha presentation in Townsville on Australia’s response to refugees since the end of the Second World War.

While shocking things are common in our world today, it is still difficult to imagine how people must have felt at the end of the Second World War. There was great relief that such a terrible event had finally ended – but there was also great dread that twenty one years after the war to end all wars, another even more destructive war had been allowed to happen. This sense of dread was heightened as photos of the horror of the Nazi death camps began to emerge.

2. Nazi death camp

This strong desire to protect human rights and to ensure that events such as the holocaust would never happen again resulted in the proclamation of the Universal Declarations of Human Rights in 1948. At the time, Australia showed leadership in the area of human rights and there was an Australian on the small drafting committee.

3. universal-declaration-human-rights
(Eleanor Roosevelt displays text of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948)

At the end of World War 2, there were millions of displaced people from Eastern Europe needing resettlement in other countries. It was expected that once these people were resettled then the refugee crisis would be over. Sadly in the years following the end of the war, local conflicts erupted around the globe, resulting in more displaced people and more refugees. To protect these vulnerable people, the International Refugee Convention came into being in 1951 with 145 countries as signatories.

Back in Australia people were still is a state of shock that the country had almost been invaded during the war. The Government was convinced the only way to safeguard against future threat was to drastically increase the population by immigration. From 1947 Australia embarked on an ambitious immigration program aimed at an annual 2% increase in immigration. Populate or Perish was the slogan of post war governments of all political persuasions.

6. postwar migration
(Post war immigrants arriving in Australia)

In 1947 we still had the White Australia policy and the immigrants came from the United Kingdom and from Europe. Increasingly Australia looked to the displaced people from Eastern Europe to provide the people needed to build up our population. In the eight years from 1947 to 1955 more than 170,000 displaced people (refugees) came to settle in Australia. These people formed the majority of the work force on large post-war infrastructure projects such as the Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric scheme. During the 1950s and 1960s the level of immigration remained high.

The final vestiges of the White Australia policy were abolished by the Whitlam government in 1973. Soon after this was the end of the Vietnam War in 1975 and in April 1976 the first Vietnamese refugee boat sailed into Darwin Harbour.

8. Vietnames boat Tu Do Darwin
(Vietnamese boat Tu Do (Freedom) arrives in Darwin Harbour 1976)

Many Australians were horrified by these uninvited visitors from SE Asia but the Fraser Government and the Labor opposition adopted a bipartisan approach and supported a regional solution to this refugee crisis. In the ten years following 1975 more than 150,000 people from Indo China – most of them refugees – settled in Australia.

The Fraser Government showed that Australia could meet its humanitarian obligations to provide refuge to people fleeing political persecution and safeguard national interests at the same time. This banner at Malcolm Fraser’s funeral last year shows the high regard held for Malcolm Fraser in the Vietnamese community.

9. Fraser tribute

For more than forty years since World War 2 there had been a bi-partisan approach from the Coalition and the Labor Party to immigration and settlement of refugees. In 2001 the terrorist attacks of September 11 coinciding with increase numbers of asylum seekers seeking to come to Australia by boat.

In August 2001 the Norwegian tanker MV Tampa picked up more than 400 asylum seekers from a sinking boat. When the vessel’s captain tried to enter Australian waters to unload his passengers, the Howard Government refused permission and ended up sending commandos to take charge of the vessel.


Howard’s actions earned him local electoral support but universal international condemnation. In the 2001 election campaign successfully exploited the concern in the Australian community about immigration to win victory in what previously had seemed to be an unwinnable election. It was at the launch of the 2001 campaign that he came up with his famous line – “we will decide who comes into Australia and the circumstances under which they come”.

16. John Howard

Since the 2001 both the Coalition and the Labor Party have maintained policies that have placed border protection above the human rights of people coming to Australia seeking refuge. In 2013 the Rudd Labor Government re-opened the Manus Island detention centre in 2013 – six years after it had been closed in 2007.

19. refugees welcome
(Photo taken at 2017 Walk for Justice for refugees in Townsville attended by 250 people)

But there are sign of hope. More and more Australians are realising that there are humane alternatives to current policies. In April this year thousands of Australians attended Palm Sunday rallies calling for compassionate and humane treatment of asylum seekers. In time we will come to see the past 15 or so years of inhumane policies towards refugees as an aberration from our country’s proud record of welcoming the stranger.

Follow this link to the pechakucha presentation.


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Pathways to Protection or Persecution

In February this year I attended the Refugee Alternatives Conference held in Sydney and sponsored by the Refugee Council of Australia (RCOA). One of the Highlights of the conference was the keynote address delivered Professor Gillian Triggs, the President of the Australian Human Rights Commission.

Gillian Triggs

She began by stating that the plight of the world’s 65 million refugees was one of the greatest human rights challenges we face. At a number of times during her speech she referred to a report released by the Human Rights Commission in September 2016 entitled “Pathways to Protection: A human rights-based response to the flight of asylum seekers by sea.’

Gillian Triggs shared that as President of the Human Rights Commission she is often asked the alternatives to offshore processing by people who know that what is happening on Manus Island and Nauru is wrong. In early 2016 the Human Rights Commission initiated a research project to canvass possible alternatives to third country processing in Nauru and Manus Island. The aim of the project was to identify options for responding to flight by sea which are consistent with Australia’s international human rights obligations. The project employed a human-rights based approach to policy development.

“Pathways to Protection” is the report of this project and its findings are essential reading for those of us seeking to change public opinion in Australia on this contentious issue. The report is based on a series of consultations with people with expertise in the areas or refugee policy, human rights, international law and protection issues in the Asia-Pacific region.

Pathways to Protection

(Photo: Australian Human Rights Commission)

The summary of findings begins by making clear that the key driver of flight by sea towards Australia is the lack of effective protection for refugees and people seeking asylum in the Asia Pacific region. Once this is accepted then improving access to effective protection is the most effective and sustainable means of preventing flight by sea. This can only be achieved through cooperation and partnership with our regional neighbours.

Two core principles emerged from the research and consultation process which guided the Commission in identifying alternative options were:

  • The top priority of an alternative response should be enhancing protection for people fleeing persecution, in accordance with our international human rights obligations.
  • The focus of Australia’s policy response should shift from deterrence to prevention. Rather than seeking simply to discourage asylum seekers from embarking on dangerous journeys, an alternative response should aim to address the human rights violations which compel people undertake these journeys in the first place.

The report identifies two key obstacles that hamper Australia’s efforts to improve access to protection:

  • There are few effective mechanisms for cooperation on refugee protection issues among states in the Asia-Pacific region
  • There are limited opportunities for safe entry for people wishing to seek safe protection in Australia.

In the report a number of options are proposed that address the key driver of flight by sea through creating and enhancing pathways to protection. They seek to achieve this by facilitating access to safe migration options, improving protection for refugees and people seeking asylum who are living in the region, and building to more effective regional responses to refugee protection issues.

In September 2016 this report was released. Later that month Prime Minster Malcolm Turnbull addressed the United Nations sponsored summit on refugees in New York that was hosted by US President Obama.

Turnbull at UN

In this speech Prime Minister Turnbull committed to maintain Australia’s refugee intake at 18,750 from 2018 onwards, and pledged to provide $130 million over the next three years to support global refugee programs.

Malcolm Turnbull should have stopped while he was ahead because he then went on to declare Australia’s border protection policy to be the “best in the world” and urged the international community to adopt the Australian model.

Professor Gillian Triggs had this to say about Turnbull’s address:
“At no time did the Prime Minister acknowledge the failure of his government to find viable, long-term settlement opportunities for refugees who continue to be held in dangerous and cruel conditions on the isolated islands of Manus and Nauru.
Hundreds of refugees and asylum seekers have now been in limbo for years, with no prospect of durable resettlement in Australia or elsewhere. Denying these men, women and children any certainty about their future continues to result in dire health outcomes.”(Pathways to Protection)

It is a tragic state of affairs that both the Government and ALP opposition are so intent on preserving the status quo that they are ignoring a report that shows us a pathway out of this human rights disaster that is continuing to destroy the lives of people who have come to us for protection.

The government has gone one step further – in November last year Malcolm Turnbull took the extraordinary step of declaring that the Government would not be renewing Gillian Triggs’ contact when it expires in July this year. Such is the cost of speaking the truth to a government who are quite happy to trample on the human rights of vulnerable people.

Post script:
Tell him he's dreamin
“Tell him he’s dreamin'” – the doubtless response if Dale Kerrigan from the Castle had been in Turnbull’s New York audience.

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Images from the twelve days of Christmas 2016-7

First Day of Christmas – Christmas Day


The lead story on the ABC news today was the heart warming story of PM Malcolm Turnbull with wife Lucy volunteering at the community Christmas Dinner at the Wayside Chapel in Kings Cross. We were told that the PM has done this for many years and that the Chapel is in the PM’s electorate of Wentworth. The photo shows the PM enjoying his time with people at the lunch.

A pesky journalist asked the PM for his response to the death the previous day of Manus Island detainee Faysal Ishak Ahmed.  Fellow detainees told the Refugee Action Coalition (RAC) that Faysal had been ill for more than six months with constant headaches and heart problems. He presented to the medical facility at the detention centre and was told that he did not need medical attention. Two days later he was dead.

Malcolm Turnbull assured the people of Australia that Australia’s policy towards refugees is “fair and compassionate”. I wonder what the definition of compassionate is in his dictionary.

Second Day of Christmas – Boxing Day


(Photo – Jacob Choi)
While millions of Australians were out hunting for Boxing Day bargains I came across this fantastic gift idea from Debbie Choi – the “Zero Emissions Car” made for daughter Shiphrah.

Third Day of Christmas – December 27


A photo of Lana on our walk from Nelly Bay across to Picnic Bay.

Fourth Day of Christmas – 28 December


Here are some of the figures from the First Dog Onthemoon Do It Yourself Intra-Denominational Nativity Scene which can be downloaded here. If you start working on it now you should have it ready for Christmas 2017.

Fifth Day of Christmas – 29 December


The image is from a thought provoking video clip from Al Jazeerah that shows the difficulties that Mary and Joseph would have if they tried to walk from Nazareth to Bethlehem today.

Sixth Day of Christmas – 30 December

Worsening Weather Fails To Stem Migrant Flow
(Photo – Etienne De Malglaive via Getty Images)

Another inconvenient reminder from the Middle East. This photo is taken from an article in the Huffington Post that reminds us that Jesus together with his family were refugees.

Seventh Day of Christmas – New Year’s Eve


Perfect for the last day of 2016 –  our friends in Amnesty International in the UK suggest 33 reasons to be positive from this year.


Eighth Day of Christmas – New Year’s Day


A suggestion for 2017.

Ninth Day of Christmas – 2 January


One of my intentions for 2017 is to paddle across to Magnetic Island at least once each month. I got off to a good start on this the second day of the year.

Tenth Day of Christmas – 3 January


In Australia we can be thankful for groups like Mums 4 Justice and their National Justice Project.

Eleventh Day of Christmas – 4 January


When things are getting too serious we all need a little Leunig.

Twelfth Day of Christmas – 5 January


On the first Friday of each month, members of Townsville’s  Amnesty International Action group meet outside the office of Federal MP Cathy O’Toole.

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A life well lived

Last Friday I attended the Celebration of the life of Madge Sceriha. Madge has been an active member of our Amnesty group for more than ten years and active in her support of Human Rights causes for most of her life.


As we entered the venue for the ceremony, we were handed the outline of the ceremony. On the front cover was a photo of Madge and underneath was printed her farewell to us all
“Bye now! I’m off to that big cosmic compost heap at ENERGY CENTRAL!
If I have a choice, I’ll join that energy stream that is the “wind beneath the wings” of Social Justice,
An end to poverty and violence in all its forms – especially to our environment.”

MC and long term of friend of Madge, Betty McLellan welcomed us and acknowledged the traditional owners of the land around Townsville, the Bindal and Wulgurukaba peoples. We then listened to John Lennon’s beautiful song “Imagine”.

Betty explained that the ceremony had been prepared by Madge right down to the details of the flowers on the coffin. These were an arrangement of Madge’s favourite colours and included Red for her socialist upbringing, yellow symbolising Amnesty International and Human Rights, Green for the Environment, Pink for survivors of breast cancer, and red and yellow for the Indigenous people of Australia.

Betty then read to us Madge’s account of the early influences on her life. She came from a singing family – both her mother and father regularly sang the songs of the Workers’ movement. Madge’s grandmother was instrumental in the formation of the Labor Party branch in Mackay and her militancy had a big impact on the rest of the family. One of Madge’s favourite songs was the classic song “I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night” which we then listened to.

Joe Hill had been an organiser for the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and was executed by firing squad after being framed on a murder charge. His final message to his colleagues in the IWW was “don’t agonise – organise”. Betty told us that famous singer and activist Paul Robeson sang this song to workers building the Sydney Opera House during his visit to Australia in 1960.

Marriage and motherhood were an important part of Madge’s life during the 60s and 70s and it was during the 70s she began part-time studies at JCU towards a B.A.. Her studies introduced to her to the feminist movement and activism and during this time the Women’s Electoral Lobby was an important political influence. The song that marked this stage of Madge’s life was “Never turning back”.

Madge went on to study for a Social Work Degree and became active in the work of the Women’s Centre and Independent Advocacy in the Tropics – an advocacy organisation for people with disabilities. The final two decades of Madge’s life were devoted to activism on a whole range of Human Rights issues. It was at this time that Madge became involved in our local Amnesty International Action group. Madge was a regular participant in our First Friday vigil for refugees and asylum seekers. Madge was also a member of our Townsville Human Rights choir and the Amnesty International Kazoo band.


(Photo – Amnesty International Kazoo band at Climate Change Rally 2015 – Madge in red hat at left of picture)

Madge’s final message to us, conveyed by Betty, was that she was handing on the baton to us to keep up the struggle for social justice and human rights. We were invited to scatter petals on Madge’s coffin as we listened to Leonard Cohen singing “Hallelujah”.

This moving ritual was followed by the eulogy given by Madge’s son Michael. Michael said that for much of his life he had been able to bask in his mother’s glory. People on hearing his name would often say – “you must be Madge Sceriha’s son”. Michael shared a conversation he had with Madge in the week before her passing when she told him that she was not scared of dying but was “curious how the process would pan out”. Michael said how fortunate he and his sister Rhonda were to have a mother like Madge. Compassionate, enthusiastic and optimistic were some of the adjectives Michael used to describe Madge.

Long time friend and colleague Ros Thorpe then gave a tribute to Madge and recounted the wonderful contribution that Madge had made to the Family Inclusion Network. Ros told us that Madge had been active on social media promoting the causes she believed in right to the end – her final Facebook post was made only three days before her passing. Ros’s final words summed up what many of us were feeling :”Goodbye Madge we will honour your memory”.


One of Madge’s favourite activities was singing and she was a founding member of the wonderful “Seniors creating change”– a singing group whose mission is to empower older Australians to call for an end to elder abuse. The final musical item was from Seniors Creating Change singing their theme song “We are the Seniors”. We were lead from the church by Seniors Creating Change singing the chorus of another of Madge’s favourite songs “Always look on the bright side of life”.

Following the ceremony people stayed on and continued sharing their memories of Madge. Federal MP Cathy O’Toole told us that Madge had come to see her only three weeks earlier. She presented Cathy with a list of issues that Madge believed she needed to be working on. A friend Jill shared with me her fond memories of her first meeting with Madge more than 30 years ago at the Women’s Centre.


I have my own two special memories of Madge. The first is of Madge making a special effort to join us for a short while at our November First Friday vigil for Refugees and Asylum Seekers. The second is meeting with Madge for one wonderful hour only two weeks before her passing. We talked of many things including her early years, the planning for her memorial service and what it was like to be heading for the “big cosmic compost heap at Energy Central”. I remarked that Leonard Cohen had died only several weeks earlier. Madge said the two of them had been born in the same year and died in the same year. Perhaps they would soon get to meet up!

As we listened to Leonard singing Hallelujah at Madge’s memorial celebration, I imagined Madge and Leonard singing along from Energy Central.

Farewell Madge – we miss you but we will carry that baton proudly.

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Townsville Refugee Advocates meet with Federal MP Cathy O’Toole

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.

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Changing the conversation around Refugees and Asylum Seekers

Last week, Kon Karapanagiotidas presented the 2016 Human Rights lecture at James Cook University on the topic “How to champion human rights from a values based model of action and engagement”. In his address, Kon assured us that all the facts in the world are not going to sway someone who is fearful of asylum seekers. He suggested that we need to go back to values and to engage those of differing opinions in conversations that ask “what are the values of the Australia that we want to live in”.

The Human Rights lecture has been held at JCU for the past three years. Previous lecturers were Refugee Advocate Julian Burnside, National Director of Amnesty International Australia, Claire Mallinson and Refugee Surgeon Dr Munjed Al-Muderis. This year’s lecture was timed to coincide with the celebration of Refugee Week at JCU by the group JCU Health Professionals for Refugees and Asylum Seekers.


Promotion of the lecture was done largely through social media and it was great to see that the majority of the audience of 200 were under the age of 30. The evening opened with an acknowledgement of traditional owners by JCU lecturer Max Lenoy. Following this were short introductions by the groups who had organised the lecture – JCU Health Professionals for Refugees and Asylum Seekers, the Townsville Multicultural Support Group (TMSG) and the Amnesty International Townsville and JCU groups.

Kon began his address by addressing the young people in the audience. He urged them to be fearless in defence of human rights and not to listen to people who might discourage them from following their passion. He drew from his experience of working with a number of marginalised groups before starting the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC) when he was 28 years old. Kon and a group of his students from TAFE commenced their operation from a shopfront giving out donated items to asylum seekers living in the local community. In the intervening 15 years the ASRC has grown into an operation with an annual budget of ten million dollars that has assisted more than 12,000 asylum Seekers in Victoria, and now has more than 3,000 volunteers involved in its work.

Past experience has taught Kon that it is important to lead with compassion and empathy and that given the right circumstances, most people come to understand that the material world is meaningless and that one thing that gives our lives meaning is community.

Kon shared research carried out last year into how we might change the current fear of refugees and asylum seekers in the Australian community. The research revealed that approaches by refugee advocacy groups that concentrated on facts were ineffective and in some cases counterproductive. He summed up these approaches as myth busting – based on the premise that if the general population only knew the real facts then they would support a more compassionate approach to asylum seekers.

The reality is that, in Kon’s words, “Fear trumps Facts” every time. He gave some examples of how this happens – when people who are fearful are told that it is not illegal to seek asylum, the message they get is “oh so they are breaking the law”. When they are told that asylum seekers are not queue jumpers their response is “ah so there is a queue”. Worst of all – when they hear about the terrible conditions in the countries that people have fled, and the suffering that refugees experience in our off-shore detention centres they think “ we don’t want the assort of thing happening here so we better keep these people out”.

So what should we be saying and doing? Kon told us that it is important that we are clear about who we are trying to reach. The research showed that the Australian population could be broken up roughly into three groups – 20% who know our current policies are wrong and need to be changed, 24% who agree with Andrew Bolt and Pauline Hansen and other extremists and are not going to change their viewpoint whatever they hear, and 56% in the middle who are uncomfortable about our current policies but can see no other way of dealing with the issue.

Our task, said Kon, is to be talking to the 56% and convincing them that there is another way. The way to do this is by “values based” conversations. He asked the audience to imagine they were having a conversation with a close relative or friend who was in the 56%. Would the person be swayed by the fact that Australia has spent $9.6 billion on off-shore detention centres since 2012 to detain 2000 people. This amount is much greater the annual budget of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees who is entrusted with the welfare of 65 million people.

This might be compelling evidence of the scandal of our current policies to us in the 20%, but to our friend or relative, these are likely to be seen as meaningless big numbers.

Kon encouraged us to have a different conversation. He suggested that we ask them about their own experience of adversity. Perhaps members of their family came to Australia as refugees or migrants – talk about the struggles they had and the ways they had overcome the challenges of settling into a new homeland. Talk about the contributions that such people made to Australia and the resilience and diversity they brought with them. Ask about the sort of society they wish to live in – do they want a caring compassionate society or one that condones child abuse in off-shore detention centres and that cruelly allows the destruction of people’s lives through hopelessness and boredom.

In our conversations, we need to be talking about saving more lives and helping people with safe passage to safety, not defending our borders and destroying the business model of people smugglers. As an aside, Kon reminded us that the courageous people who assisted thousands of Jewish people to flee Nazi Germany before and during World War 2 were not seen as people smugglers – after the War they were recognised as heroes and many were given official recognition of their bravery.

Kon concluded by encouraging us not to lose hope and to always believe in the preciousness of life. His address received thunderous applause and was followed by more than half an hour of questions. During the questions he told the audience that he would like to return to Townsville early next year to hold training sessions for people who would be empowered to go into the community and engage in the “values based” conversations that he had described.


Photo: Kon with Dinithi and Nimath from JCU Professionals for Refugees and Asylum Seekers.

Several days after the lecture, the Townsville Bulletin(16 September) reported that the Queensland Government had admitted it should not have taken so long to introduce mandatory child abuse reporting laws following a campaign by Townsville grandparents. In June last year the Federal Government passed the infamous Border Force Act which “makes it an offence for an “entrusted person” (an Australian Border Force employee) to make a record of or disclose “protected information”. This is widely defined to include any information obtained by the person in their capacity as an employee. The penalty for the offence is two years’ imprisonment.”

It is important to have mandatory child abuse reporting on the mainland but the opposite situation occurs in the off-shore detention centres – under the Border Force legislation a health worker could go to gaol for reporting child abuse. I thought back to the message from Kon’s lecture. Here was a great opportunity to be engaging with those around and asking “is this situation compatible with the values we want for the society we live in?”

Kon’s address can be viewed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ib4_w9Yv7UQ

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Young people show the way

Last Friday I attended the “Day of Diplomacy” held as part of the Young Diplomats Program (YDP), an annual event sponsored by the College of Arts, Society and Education at James Cook University.

The YDP commenced in 1997 as a partnership between JCU, the Australian Institute of International Affairs (AIIA) and Education Queensland (EQ) and gives young people interested in world affairs a wonderful insight into the world of International Diplomacy.  Teams of Year 10 students from local schools test their research and diplomatic skills in a mock UN style Forum where they are judged by  diplomats from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) and representatives of the University.


(Nick Murphy from DFAT addressing the “Day of Diplomacy”)

This year is the 20th year of the program and the Diplomatic Scenario was based on the Communique released following the Pacific Islands Forum held in September 2015 in Port Moresby. This communique focused on issues of regional significance such as the impact of climate change, gender equality, sustainable economic development, Information and Communications Technologies, health challenges and West Papua.

Delegations from six schools attended Friday’s event representing six Pacific nations – Kirwan State High School representing the Solomon Islands, Malanda Stare High School representing Tonga, Northern Beaches State High School, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, Pimlico State High School representing Palau, St Margaret Mary’s College Samoa, and Townsville State High School, Papua New Guinea.

Chairperson for the day was Professor Nola Alloway , Dean of the College of Arts, Society and Education who welcomed participants to the day. Opening remarks at the event were made by JCU Vice-Chancellor Professor Sandra Harding, newly elected Federal member for Herbert Cathy O’Toole, and Nick Murphy, Pacific Liaison Officer for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Professor Harding spoke about the State of the Tropics report released in 2104 that set out to answer the question “Is life in the Tropics getting better?’. She reminded us that more than 40% of the world’s population now lives in the Tropics and this is likely to be close to 50% by 2050. The region generates around 20% of global economic output and is home to some 80% of the world’s biodiversity.

Cathy O’Toole told us how excited she was to be the newly elected member for Herbert. Her speech at the event was her first public address since becoming our local member. She told those present that she was proud to be the first woman to be elected in the seat of Herbert. Most of the students present were female and she shared from her own experience how important education was in enabling women to take leadership roles in the community. She also reminded us that Port Moresby is closer to Townsville than Brisbane. Nick Murphy continued on this theme and described how important Papua New Guinea was to the Queensland economy. Nick also welcomed the interest in diplomacy of the students attending.

YDP2(JCU Chancellor Bill Tweddell greets the delegates from St Margaret Mary’s College representing Samoa)


The first part of the Day of Diplomacy involved presentations from each delegation on what they saw as the key issues for their country and for the region. They also outlined what they would like to take away from the forum. There was general consensus that climate change, gender equality and economic development were three key issues facing the region. There were poignant moments when delegations shared issues that were having special impact on their country.

The delegation from the Marshall Islands shared the devastating impact of the nuclear tests carried out in the 1950s by the US that are still affecting large areas of their nation today. Papua New Guinea informed the forum of the severe drought that currently affects large areas of the country. The Solomon Islands delegation made reference to the ethnic violence that rocked their nation from 1998 to 2003#. Tonga reminded the forum that they are one of the Pacific nations that will disappear under the waters in less than 100 years if global temperatures continue to rise. They reported that sea level rise is already having an impact on some islands.


(Students from Northern Beaches High School representing the Marshall Islands during the negotiation round)

Following the presentations there was a session of bilateral negotiations between country delegations. In discussions between Solomon Islands and Tonga, a major focus was working together to influence larger polluting nations such as China and the US in global forums such as the United Nations. Delegates welcomed the agreements made at the Paris conference last year but said that strong words need to be matched by strong actions. Delegates also discussed how they might work together to improve the status of women in their respective countries and how they might encourage economic development in their respective nations.

The next round was between Palau (population 20,000) and Samoa (200,000). Both delegations stressed the importance of working together with larger nations in the region to bring about important changes. They were keen to investigate further a proposal to develop tourist cruises that would visit a number of member countries. As in the earlier negotiation, climate change was a keen concern and both these smaller countries said it was essential that Pacific nations work together as a bloc to influence global forums.

I was impressed both by the knowledge displayed by delegates and also the empathy displayed for fellow nations. The Solomon Island delegation opened their negotiation round by reassuring the Tongans that they would favorably consider requests for resettlement should sea level rises necessitate this. The negotiation skills displayed by all delegates were outstanding. Delegates listened intently to each other, identified common interests, and then employed well developed problem solving skills in addressing any outstanding differences. It was refreshing to see a group of young people who clearly understand that co-operation and empathy will be needed if we are to successfully address the major issues now facing our global community.

Follow this link to a report on the day made by Journalism students at JCU.

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