Compassion - as it should be 

One Man's Web > Politics and Ethics > Australia and the refugees > Compassion as it should be
Posted June 1 2003

 On these pages the charge is frequently made that the government lacks compassion.  Below are two statements by Senator Bob Brown, which indicate that not all politicians are without compassion.  They also condemn the government by their very existence.  They show what compassion is.  

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MATTERS OF URGENCY: Refugees: Norwegian Ship Date: 28 August 2001 Senate Hansard

Senator BROWN (Tasmania) (5.04 p.m.) —At the moment, there are over 400 men, women and children just like us, with warm hearts and hope for the future of their lives, being tossed on very rough seas and in extraordinary circumstances. They have come from frightful circumstances and are seeking asylum in this country, but they are being turned away. They are being turned away under the glare of international publicity which will do nothing but bring discredit to this wonderful nation of ours. The Prime Minister and Mr Beazley, who stood at his side, washed their hands of their responsibilities and said, `This is a matter for Indonesia or Norway, not us,' even though the boat is moored nearest to our territorial waters at the moment and it was our authorities who asked the Norwegian ship to go to the assistance of these people.

Senator McKiernan has just spoken about piracy. I thought that pirates were people who made others walk the gangplank. Here we have desperate people who felt like jumping overboard if they were not able to proceed to Australia—and they are being labelled pirates. What an extraordinary vilification of good-hearted people who would become good citizens of this great country of ours if given a go. We are in a country which has a very tiny number of asylum seekers compared with comparable countries in Europe and North America, but by the big parties fuelling the fear and the vilification of these human beings, who are no different from us, a great deal of unnecessary fear in the community has arisen. I think that Australia has turned its back on a whole suite of good values for which we have in the past been rightly famous.

[Excerpt from Senator McKiernan's speech :We have an urgent situation on our hands at the moment. It is a situation that I do not believe is of Australia's making. I am only going on news reports because I have no entree into either the minister's office or the offices of the UNHCR or of the two other governments that are involved in the issue we are dealing with at the moment. As I understand it, there was a boat making its way to Australia which got into trouble. There was a ship in the vicinity, the master of which exercised his responsibilities under the international Law of the Sea and went and rescued those 400-odd people. He rescued them; he took them from the water and gave them temporary sanctuary on board his vessel. Then what happened? As the ship's master—as I understood what he said on radio yesterday—steamed to a safe port, his ship was diverted. Who was it diverted by? By the very people he had rescued, whose lives he had just saved, who determined, `Uh, oh, we don't want to go where you want to take us or where the international Law of the Sea directs us to. We want to go where we want to go.' I am not saying that that is an act of piracy, but I do know that when a ship is apprehended on the high seas and control is taken away from its master it does verge on piracy. The master, as he was reported on radio yesterday and today, was fearful for his vessel and for members of his crew. I think, as is in the amendment to this motion moved by the Australian Labor Party, he is indeed to be commended for his humanitarian act.]



Senator BROWN  (Tasmania) (6.28 p.m.) —We in Australia are seeing 438 people in a boat off our shores at the moment, which brings this piece of legislation into very great focus. The latest news to hand is that, according to the Indonesian Ambassador, those people will not be given the ability to go ashore in Indonesia. The Australian government, backed by the opposition, has said that the people on the Tampa, the Norwegian ship, should not be allowed to land on Christmas Island or on Australia proper. The Prime Minister has washed his hands of the fate of these people, with Mr Beazley standing at his side, by saying that it is a matter for Norway or Indonesia. So the numbers are now reduced, if what the Indonesian Ambassador has said is correct, down to Norway being the one noncommittal country. Without expecting that the people will be shipped to the other side of the planet to escape this callous rejection of them from the shores of Australia or of our northern neighbour, we have to have a good look at what this particular incident is doing to us. I will come back to the people on the ship in a moment.

What is it doing to this country which has such a proud reputation for being multicultural and for going to the aid of people who are in difficulty? This country recently took an extraordinary risk in putting in a huge amount of human effort and resources into assisting our near neighbour East Timor in its moment of tragedy. This country has a reputation, in which it glorifies—and I like to be an Australian who thinks this way—for being a country of a fair go and a country, therefore, that respects all human beings as deserving of a fair go. That reputation is now being tested. You cannot have that sort of philosophy ending at a border drawn somewhere against people on the other side.

The world is looking at this ship with these poor people aboard, and it is wondering where the humanity is that is going to give them succour. It is seeing that Australia, the country these people wished to get to, has turned them down and said that it is up to Indonesia, a much poorer country with great recent internal difficulties and without the clear line of authority and ability to move on behalf of the national interest, I would submit, that the incumbent government here in Canberra has. But the Howard government, in the wake of five years of increasing harshness and implied vilification in many cases of people coming to our shores, has turned its back on these people and said that Indonesia might be a country with greater humanitarian reception for them. Indonesia, for the time being, has said no, and Norway is left, in the Prime Minister's estimation, as the next country which should take these people. The reality is that he is wrong. Yesterday, he met rapidly with his cabinet when the news broke of the rescue taking place between Christmas Island and Indonesia—and let us not forget in a situation of quite considerable domestic political embarrassment—

Senator Patterson —Talk about the people smugglers who got them into this situation.

Senator BROWN —and decided that the ship should turn around. Having asked the captain of the ship to take the people on board, he then said `But you can't come here,' when those people said, `We want to land in Australia.' Australia now stands indicted because of the action of the Prime Minister and his cabinet, which action was highly motivated not by the interests of the asylum seekers but by domestic political expediency in the run-up to the election. In doing so, the nation's reputation is going down in the eyes of the whole world. In the coming days this incident, which has now become an international incident and which is playing on the television screens of people right around the planet, will do this nation enormous harm.

On this occasion the asylum seekers are no different from those taken ashore in recent months and recent years, except for one fact: we have a government going to an election badly needing a distraction. In doing so, it is prepared to play to the basest motive of fear in the people. That fear is being played up, and the interjection which came just a moment ago from the government member opposite shows how easily words are used—quite improperly—to impugn those people on the boat and to make us fearful that there is some sort of immediate threat to our own wellbeing from their presence on that ship. That is patently not so. When you get a political situation like this and a government that has decided that, for reasons of its own, it can use these people as pawns in the run-up to an election, all manner of principle and fair dealing goes out the window, and that is what is happening in this situation. The Prime Minister is even prepared to allow Australia's reputation as a fair, honest, welcoming and humane country to be shoved down for an immediate base political purpose. It is disgusting that the Prime Minister and the cabinet made that decision yesterday. As the people on the Tampa, including the captain and his crew, get used as hostages for the Prime Minister's political advancement, as he sees it, the rest of the world will count us down as a nation. I object to that. Neither I nor the Greens will be part of it.

My office—like everybody else's office, I have no doubt—has had a huge reaction to what is going on off Christmas Island at the moment. We have had angry calls, and we have had some calls during which the phone should have been put down much faster. But, fortunately, I have got tolerant staff who try to give people a hearing. But, in my case at least, the preponderant calls are coming from good-hearted Australians who say, `We don't want to be party to this increasing incarceration of people seeking asylum in our country,' or their being turned back in their tracks almost as an echo of the policy performance put forward by One Nation's Pauline Hanson just a couple of years ago and seen then as so despicable. That is what our government is doing now and, very sadly, that is what our opposition is endorsing in this case. I thank the people who are of a different thinking out there in the electorate. I thank those people from all walks of life, religions and philosophies who are saying: `We will not be part of this. This is not the Australia we want. This is not the set of principles we want to see when it comes to dealing with people, including women, children and men, in distress on the high seas just off our coastline.'

Let me talk about these people for a moment. There are, as we comfortably sit or stand here tonight, 1.2 million Afghani refugees—our mind is concentrated on some 400 at the moment but there are 1.2 million of them—in refugee camps in Pakistan in deplorable conditions that none of us would want to see our families in. If we were able to alleviate their suffering, then the diaspora that is coming from that huge body of people might not be occurring. But in a country which is rich by any standards less than $1 million has gone from this government to help those 1.2 million people suffering in despicable circumstances in the last year. In that same time, $120 million has been spent in detention centres very little different from jails here in Australia for people like them who have managed to make it to our shores without appropriate papers.

Instead of going and trying to turn the tap off, the government—and the opposition—is putting a finger on the nozzle at the other end. It has got its priorities wrong. Its meanness of spirit in denying its obligation to help people like those Afghani refugees in despicable circumstances is part of the problem. The body politic in this country must share some of the blame. We are not an isolated country. We are not an island to ourselves anymore. We have a government that, above all, promotes globalisation, because it wants to make money out of being in the global community. But when it comes to the movement of people, rather than money, it draws the line, because in these circumstances money is more important than people. That is what it is about. That is where we are at.

I have heard from the opposition today about how these people, the refugees, including Afghanis, are displacing other people who want to come to this country. One thing is being overlooked here. It is very easy to say: `They are queue jumpers. They are getting in in front of other people who could come here on humanitarian grounds'—`taint so. Let me read a letter dated yesterday from Mr Bert Gray from Beacon Hill to the Sydney Morning Herald. He says:

In defending his punitive treatment of asylum seekers, Mr Ruddock claims that he is giving priority to the millions of refugees in camps in countries of first asylum. Yet Herald correspondent Christopher Kremmer (Herald, June 16) reported that of the 1.2 million refugees in Pakistan, only 450 had been referred by the UNHCR to Australia last year, and the number this year is likely to be 600.

Given the often desperate conditions in these camps, can Mr Ruddock explain why the number of off-shore humanitarian places for refugees was slashed from 15,000 in 1995-96 to 5,700 in 2001-01?

We have cut the number of humanitarian refugee places, and I will tell you how we have balanced that: by increasing the number of so-called skilled and wealthy people able to buy their way into this country. It is not other humanitarian refugees whose places these asylum seekers coming in boats to this country are competing with; it is wealthy migrants being afforded entry into Australia in greater proportions than ever before in recent history. I do not wish for them not to come here, but I do believe that the government should stop this quite false argument and vilification that the people being denied here are queue jumpers. The government itself, through its own policy, has closed the door on thousands of humanitarian refugees coming to this country.

When I turn to the specific bill in hand, what we have here is a piece of legislation to allow strip searching—

Senator Patterson interjecting—

Senator BROWN —I am sorry? The member opposite, Senator Patterson, does not want to repeat that interjection. That is for her. But this legislation does allow for strip searching of asylum seekers from the age of 10 upwards who find themselves in detention centres in this country. My first point on this matter is that those detention centres ought not be working in the way that they are. They are essentially jails. Countries taking a far greater burden of asylum seekers—comparable countries in Europe and North America—have not found them necessary. But that is the reaction of this government and this opposition. Because of this mentality that people coming to this country—women, children and men—fleeing desperate circumstances are criminals until proven otherwise, we have created a system where we receive them into jails. The treatment in those detention centres then leads to a cycle of violence and psychological despair. We are going in the direction of the American prison system which, as reported yesterday, contains two million people. I am very familiar with the lockdown situation in the United States, which defies all human dignity, including that of those who have created it. It is very similar to the Port Arthur asylum treatment of over 150 years ago.

What I warn against here is the increasing repression within these detention centres of people who are already distressed coming to our shores. Here we have strip-searching, with provisions—and we will go into those in the committee stage. I have been in jail as a result of peaceful protest in Tasmania and I faced repeated strip searches in jail. That is okay for me, because I knew where I was, I knew that I was close to home and I knew that there were people around and that it would not be long before I got out of jail. But this indignity, without the required specification—I will get to that in the committee stage—is another step towards making these prisons places of inhumanity which Australia in future will look back on with the most deep and dire regret. I will not be part of this increasing criminalisation of asylum seekers and the harshness with which they are received on to the shores of this great nation. I oppose this piece of legislation.


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