The year that was...

Posted 7-01-04

"These are the first glasses she's had?" asked the optometrist. "Right, look at the signs across the street," he said. "Now take them off.... They make a difference, don't they?"
Ten year old Sarah nodded and beamed.
"Come down to my desk and we'll adjust the frames."
Sarah followed him along, looking at the carpet, and the ceiling, at the frames on one wall and the posters on the other- smiling a huge smile and trying to look at everything at once. She hopped impatiently on one leg while he fiddled with the frames. As they went back to the main counter she was so busy looking around she walked into her dad, who laughed with delight. 

What a joy being able to see clearly. There is plenty in the world to rejoice at and with!

Seeing clearly is not always a happy thing. I went to the Migration Museum  in Adelaide. It is easy to see how John Howard has persuaded Australians to accept his racist and in-humane policies regarding refugees. We have always been reluctant to accept outsiders unless they are very like us; that is, British. Even then they have been tarred with the label "poms" and often, "bloody poms." 

The current temporary exhibition is about the Jews of Shanghai, many of whom came to Australia after the Japanese occupation of China ended. Their stories of flight from Europe and the loss of their families was bad enough. But the next night my daughter brought home a DVD of The Pianist and I watched him struggle through the ruins of Warsaw. The hatred and inhumanity of the Nazis was horrifying. 

I do not know what would transfer the delight of an optometrist at a little girl to hatred of something less than human. But this is what happened. It must begin with the notion that some people are worth less than others. Perhaps it has begun here in Australia with the merciless policies of our government.

Robin Manne professor of politics at La Trobe University, Melbourne wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald (link live 7-01-2004):

For me, this year has been overshadowed by the continuing, cruel and completely purposeless Howard Government treatment of the 10,000 or so unfortunate human beings who, between 1999 and 2001, sought refuge in Australia from the tyrannies of Saddam Hussein or the Taliban or from the Iranian theocratic state.

A little under 9000 of these people, found to be genuine refugees, are being asked to prove for a second time their protection needs. If they fail, most face deportation to the chaos and the danger of post-invasion Afghanistan or Iraq.

Hundreds of those whose asylum claims, for one reason or another, originally failed, but who are too frightened to return to their homelands, have now been languishing in Australia's detention prisons for several years. A further 300 or so asylum seekers have spent the past two years in hell, imprisoned in the tropical detention camp on Nauru. Among the detainees in Australia and Nauru are more than 200 children, whose lives have slowly been destroyed.

The mercilessness of the Howard Government policy has been revealed by two brutally frank judicial comments in recent weeks. In the High Court, the Solicitor-General, David Bennett QC, pointed out that there was no reason in law why asylum seekers might not be detained "until hell freezes over", that is to say, for the remainder of their lives. In the same court, Justice McHugh pointed out that there was no legal impediment to the repatriation of asylum seekers, even to certain death.

In Australian history the disconnectedness between law and justice has rarely been stated with such little embarrassment.

Of all Western societies, Australia is now almost alone in having no asylum claims from unauthorised arrivals. Since Tampa, there has been, quite simply, no asylum seeker "problem" here. By offering permanent homes to refugees on temporary visas and to those presently indefinitely detained in Australia or on Nauru, absolutely nothing would be lost - but 10,000 lives would be redeemed. Surely for 2004 this is not too extravagant a hope.

If we will not speak out, then we are being silent like those who were silent during the Nazi era and every other era. We will be collaborators by default. When at last we feel driven to speak out, it may be too late, and too much may be lost. Or like Niemoller we may find: First they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak out - because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak for me! -

My friends visit people in Baxter. The best I can conclude from their stories is that the place is badly run. The worst, and the growing suspicion, is that there is deliberate obstruction of any attempt by outsiders to assist inmates. The rules change. There is endless unnecessary red tape. The whole system from the government down is designed to make life as difficult as possible, so that going back will seem better, even if going home means to be killed.

In all of this, the average Australian remains shockingly ignorant and complacent. One of my associates, who told me numerous times that the war had to happen in Iran because "there must be weapons there just too shocking to contemplate and tell us about" seems serenely undisturbed that it was all lie and nothing has been found. My local member told me that those who do not wish to return are "not refugees," a nice technicality to avoid the issue of our inhumanity. We are shocked for a few days by the Iranian earthquake, but ignore the fact that as many people were killed by our invasion of Iraq. The eventual capture of Saddam is supposed to excuse all. 

I worked too hard in 2003, and at the wrong things. It is hard not feel that in industry one works simply to make the rich richer and damn all the rest. Meanwhile, Howard has emerged unscathed while the media screams itself silly over Steve Irwin's baby in the crocodile cage, and is trumpeting the next series of sick "reality"TV programs being foisted upon us from the USA. The country is sick if this is all there is to report. There is another older name for Australian Idol. The Romans called it bread and circuses

A friend came back from Baxter recently so frustrated she said she felt like standing naked on Parliament House steps and shouting at the top of her voice. In like mind in 2004 one could seek to "maintain the rage." A healthy anger will indeed be necessary. But in the end I think the key things will be these:

Seeing the good maintains our hope. Doing good, does good. And feeling compassion ensures our humanity. Without it we are lost with nothing but unfeeling and unsatisfying dollars.


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