Morrison and Nile – it’s just a lurch to the right

March 1, 2013

Some days, it doesn’t pay to log on and read the news.

It started when a 24 year old asylum seeker on a bridging visa was charged with sexual assault. It’s a serious offence, and not to be belittled or dismissed. Nor is it a situation where the facts are known, or a verdict obtained. Apparently the Opposition’s Shadow Immigration spokesperson, Scott Morrison, doesn’t care about that.

On the basis of this one arrest, Morrison launched into a speech full of deafening dogwhistles and rife with racism. Asylum seekers should have to conform to ‘behaviour protocols’ before being released into the community, he argued. Moreover, residents in the area should be informed before asylum seekers or refugees are settled there. While they were at it, there should be regular reports to police.

All on the basis of one arrest. No confession. No verdict.

It wasn’t long before Senators Eric Abetz and Cory Bernardi (infamous for his ‘halal by stealth’ comments) jumped in to support their colleague. Abetz thought it was all quite reasonable – after all, residents would find it hard to live next to someone who didn’t speak English well. In fact, he was prepared to go even further. We should make sure that police and health authorities be notified of an asylum seeker’s arrival into the community, just in case their ‘traumatised’ state led them to need intervention.

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott thought it was fair enough, and quickly pointed the finger at the government, using his patented ‘look-over-there-at-what-Julia’s-doing’ tactic. The media went along obediently. Even Malcolm Turnbull, who usually represents a voice of moderation in the Coalition, was silent.

Mind you, the government weren’t exactly quick to jump on the subject, either – not the Prime Minister, nor the Immigration Minister, nor even Kevin ‘someday-he’ll-challenge-again-you-betcha’ Rudd.

Of the major parties, only Opposition backbencher Russell Broadbent and Senator Doug Cameron spoke out against these sentiments, and they were voices crying in the wilderness.

Unable to contain her fury, Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young let fly at Morrison and those who supported his comments. Whether in the media (particularly when she held her own against some extremely provocative questions from Tony Jones on ABC1’s Lateline), or in the Parliament itself, she made it clear just how disgusting she found their ideas. She announced that she would be lodging complaints with ACMA, the broadcast regulator, and attempted to move a motion in the Senate condemning the vilification of asylum seekers.

Senator Sarah-Hanson Young

Senator Sarah-Hanson Young

Now, you might think that a motion like this would be a godsend for the government. Here’s a chance for them to get stuck into the Opposition, to paint them as completely heartless, and make even their own inhumane treatment of asylum seekers look better by comparison. Best of all, they didn’t have to bring it to the chamber. But no.

The major parties once more showed that – all evidence to the contrary – they are capable of bipartisanship – when it comes to silencing the Greens. The government joined the Opposition, and refused to allow standing orders to be suspended so that Hanson-Young could move her motion. They didn’t even allow the motion a full debate.

Later, one Coalition Senator in an Estimates Committee commented to Greens Senator Richard di Natale, ‘I suppose your colleague feels better now she’s had her say’. It was a blatant pat on the head to Hanson-Young, who frequently attracts criticism for being an outspoken, young woman.

So we’re left with this; a call for asylum seekers, who’ve committed no crime and are not even under suspicion of unlawful activity, to be treated worse than convicted sex offenders. Yes, worse.

You see, under Australian law, you can’t tell people if you know someone is on the Sex Offenders Register. Not even if that person is being asked to babysit your friend’s children. You can’t go door-to-door in a neighbourhood and tell everyone that a sex offender is moving in down the street. There’s no Megan’s Law here. But if Morrison had his way, innocent people would be subject to far harsher reporting conditions and invasion of privacy than those who commit sexual offences. Men, women, and even children.

All on the basis of one arrest. No confession. No verdict.

* * * * *

As if that’s not bad enough, New South Wales state politics took a sharp lurch to the far right of the Tea Party when Christian Democrat MP Fred Nile introduced a private member’s bill that would allow charges to manslaughter to be brought if the actions of another person caused a baby to die in utero, or be stillborn. It’s called ‘Zoe’s Law’ (Zoe was the name given to a NSW woman’s unborn baby who was stillborn after a car accident), and Nile claims it’s purely about protecting a baby from a third party – say, an abusive partner or a mugger. It’s not about abortion, he says: ‘This bill provides an exemption for medical procedures, which is the terminology for a termination or abortion’.

There’s just one problem with Nile’s claims. There’s nothing in the bill to prevent the pregnant woman from being charged. Nor is there any specification in the bill to say when a foetus becomes a ‘baby’. A woman who goes horse-riding and miscarries at 8 weeks could be charged. A drug-addicted woman who is in rehab, but even sober, cannot carry the child to term. A woman who falls asleep at the wheel. A woman on antidepressants or other medications that are necessary for survival, but which can pose a danger to a foetus. A woman on chemotherapy.

All of these women could be charged under the proposed ‘Zoe’s Law’. For all Nile dresses it up as some kind of compassionate protection for the vulnerable, this is no different to the tactics used by anti-abortion, anti-contraception, anti-choice groups in the US. There, a woman can be locked up in some states until she has her baby, and refused medication. It’s not a big step from charging a woman with manslaughter after the death of a foetus and deciding that preventative action is a ‘better’ option. It’s all hearts and flowers and cuddly babies.

And let’s just ignore the fact that this law would see women’s rights are abrogated to a completely unacceptable extent.

So, friends and neighbours, this is the double barrel we’re looking down. A Federal Coalition that – let’s face it – has a damned good chance of forming the next government. A notoriously conservative State government that, all too often, gratefully accepts Nile’s vote.

And a desire to criminalise the innocent in the name of ‘protecting’ Australians.

We’re supposed to be a society that enshrines the presumption of innocence. We’re supposed to protect the right to privacy and the right to live our lives. And we shouldn’t let flowery words and protestations of ‘compassion’ distract us from what’s at the heart of these proposals – racism, fear, and social control.

Marriage equality bills to hit Parliament today

February 13, 2012

Today ALP backbencher Stephen Jones will introduce a bill into the House of Representatives calling for marriage equality. Greens MP Adam Bandt and Independent Andrew Wilkie will introduce a similar co-sponsored bill, containing a specific provision that will exempt religious ministers from solemnising marriages between a same-sex couple.

I’d like to be optimistic, even enthusiastic, about this. But I’m afraid I really, really can’t.

Because unless Opposition Leader Tony Abbott loosens his stranglehold on the Coalition’s consciences, the bills will fail.

We’ve already seen what happens when Bandt or Wilkie tries to introduce ‘controversial’ legislation. The major parties fall into lockstep against them. Granted, the ALP passed the resolution at its last conference to make marriage equality a matter of conscience, so perhaps there might be a few more bums on seats sitting with the two minority MPs this time around. But there are enough Labor members determinedly opposed to same-sex marriage to ensure the bills suffer a resounding defeat.

Jones’ bill may fare more kindly. After all, he’s a Labor man, and even those who won’t support Bandt and Wilkie on principle might vote for one of their own. Again, though, the bill runs up against the Coalition’s refusal to allow its members a conscience vote.

Senator Sarah Hanson-Young has already signalled her intention to introduce a marriage equality bill later in the year. This is as clear a signal as she could send that she expects today’s bills to fail – and probably her own as well. At this point, the strategy appears to be one of simply flooding the Parliament with similar bills in the hope that it will wear down MPs’ resolve – and that in the end, they might vote for it just to get the issue out of the way.

That this strategy should even have to be considered, let alone employed, is shameful. It’s a matter of civil rights – human rights – that are denied to Australian citizens. Worse, it’s a matter of a privileged majority not wanting to have that privilege ‘sullied’ by having to share it.

Now, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the numbers will be there. Maybe some Coalition members will defy Abbott’s decree and cross the floor to support marriage equality – or at least inform him privately that they intend to do so, at which point I predict a swift reversal of the ‘no conscience vote’ stance. Maybe the rest of the ALP will realise that clinging to privilege and discrimination flies in the face of everything that party supposedly stands for, and support a bill.

It’s possible.

It’s also possible politicians will stop lying in Parliament, abandon mindless party loyalty in favour of the good of the people, and remember that they are our servants, not our masters.

Yeah, yeah, I know. Tell her she’s dreaming.

Let’s have a real conversation about asylum seekers

September 13, 2011

There was an opportunity. The government was given a real chance by the High Court to regain some of its lost ground against the Coalition. More to the point, it had the chance to regain some shred of humanity and compassion. It could have used the High Court decision to jettison the whole idea of offshore processing once and for all. Certainly, that’s what the Left of the ALP – and increasing numbers of the Australian public – wanted.

The government isn’t interested. It’s wedded to the idea that sending 800 asylum seekers to Malaysia – a country with a terrible human rights record, who won’t sign any agreement that forces them to comply with human rights considerations – is the only possible way to ‘break the people smuggler’s business model’. Accordingly, it’s decided that the best thing it can do is change the Migration Act so that no pesky High Court can get in its way next time.

Ah, the convenience of legislation. Want to do something reprehensible that’s condemned by international organisations and banned by the judiciary? Just change the law. Then you can do what you want. Never mind that it’s ultimately a useless gesture, since it’s capped at 800. Never mind that it contravenes long-standing Labor policy. Never mind that in doing so, Australia will undermine its position as a signatory of the Refugee Conventions. Never mind that this is a gross abuse of power. If it means the government can get those 800 people packed onto planes and out of sight, they’ll do it.

And that’s exactly what they took to Caucus yesterday. Despite an attempt by Left faction leader Senator Doug Cameron to win a vote calling for onshore processing, ‘over half’ of the Caucus voted to change the Migration Act instead. The government plans to make sure that there cannot be any legal impediment to sending asylum seekers offshore. Additionally, it wants to change the Immigration (Guardianship of Children) Act, so it can shirk its responsibilities under the Refugee Conventions by doing the same to unaccompanied minors.

This is the equivalent of a child throwing a tantrum when the rules say he’s out of the game. Anyone with kids has probably seen it – first there’s an attempt to bluster, then negotiate, then bully, and finally the child is left with two options. He can take his bat and ball and go home, or he can decide that the game has new rules.

‘Bang bang! I shot you, you’re dead!’
‘Did not, missed me!’
‘Did too, you’re dead!’
‘It’s my game and I say I’m not dead, so ner!’

Et cetera.

Behold … your elected representatives in their full glory.

The Greens won’t support any change to the Migration Act. They were out in front of the media so quickly that the initial stories on the government’s plan had barely been filed. Senator Sarah Hanson-Young was particularly scathing; as far as the Greens are concerned, the government would be breaching its UN obligations.

To get the amendments passed, then, the government needs the support of the Coalition. To that end, they offered Opposition Leader Tony Abbott a briefing on the legal implications of the High Court judgment – a briefing advising him that both Nauru and Manus Island as alternative offshore destinations were also ruled out by the High Court decision. The idea was to convince him to support the amendments when they come before the Parliament, on the grounds that if Abbott ever became Prime Minister, it would benefit him just as much as the current governments.

But there’s a sticking point for Abbott, apparently. The government has no intention of using an amended Act for anything but the resurrection of its Malaysian deal. And Abbott has no intention of letting the government off the hook on the subject of re-opening the Nauru processing centre. The consistent message coming out of the Opposition is that Nauru is the only possible solution.

Gillard’s having none of that, though. When asked this morning, she said, ‘Going to Nauru is the equivalent of getting a ticket to Australia’, and quoted figures showing how many Nauru detainees ended up settling in Australia when their refugee claims were approved.

And there you have it. Despite constant avowals of how ‘humanitarian’ the government is, despite claims of being ‘compassionate’, the Prime Minister let the truth slip out. The government’s declared intent is to keep refugees away from Australia at all costs. (Oh, unless someone else has already done the hard work of processing asylum seeker claims, of course.) And why? Because if they’re here in Australia, they’re entitled to the protection of law – again, thanks to the High Court.

You’d think the Coalition would be on board with that, given the kind of responses given by Abbott and his front-benchers in interviews on the subject. Judging by the speeches they made in the House today, however, Abbott wants no part of any bipartisan effort to entrench executive power in this particular area. It’s a curious stance – surely it would benefit them?

Perhaps Abbott’s holding out in the hope that Gillard will finally cave in and re-open Nauru. Perhaps he’s trying to wring as many concessions as possible out of the government, including an admission that the government needs the Coalition to get them out of a gigantic mess. Or perhaps Abbott’s decided that he can always change the Act later, and he can get a far better result by watching the government fail to get amendments through the Parliament.

With any luck, pride will undo both major parties. The longer each refuses to budge on exactly which country it wants to use as a ‘dump and forget’ centre for our asylum seekers, the harder it will be to reach any kind of deal.

In the meantime, the Coalition is merrily pushing the line that with the Malaysia deal scuttled, Australia has ‘no border protection policy’. Yes, that’s right, folks – any moment now the boats will pull up on St Kilda Beach or surf into Bondi, and we’ll be invaded by thousands of asylum seekers who will force us to eat halal meat and wear burqas. Quick, circle the wagons, hide the women and the silver!

It’s ludicrous. Of course Australia has an asylum seeker policy (and no, I won’t play into the scare-mongering by calling it ‘border protection’). We have a policy of intercepting boats. We have a policy of mandatory detention. We have a processing centre on Christmas Island – which, let’s not forget, is excised from our Migration Zone anyway. We have processing centres onshore. We have an entire bureaucracy that works with the UN to process refugees then re-settle or deport them according to the outcome of their cases.

But it’s much better for the Coalition if it can create the impression that there is a complete policy void in this area. It plays right into the hands of the panic-mongers who seem to think that people in boats somehow threaten our very way of life. And it allows the Coalition to continue pushing Nauru as the tried-and-true ‘solution’ which is the only way to save us from a terrible fate.

And the media is utterly complicit in this.

Think about it. How often, lately, have you heard a commentator or reporter say that there’s ‘no border protection policy’?

And while we’re at it – when was the last time you heard someone in the media flat-out ask a politician exactly why we can’t have onshore processing? Given that it’s been in place for decades and – political rhetoric notwithstanding – has never been shown to encourage either people smuggling or people seeking asylum, why isn’t anyone nailing politicians in place and forcing them to answer this? Not often, I’ll bet.

Here are a few questions they could ask:

What evidence do you have that Australia’s long history of onshore refugee processing directly increased the number of asylum seeker boats?

Why are you prepared to spend millions of dollars in a third country, and risk Australia’s international reputation, rather than convert a few abandoned military bases onshore?

Exactly what is so frightening about asylum seekers that they must be kept away from Australia at all costs?

Why do you persist in referring to asylum seekers as a ‘product’ peddled by people smugglers, instead of calling them what they are – human beings?

Why do you persist in employing punitive measures against desperate people, and calling it ‘compassionate’?

If you really want to ‘break the people smugglers’ business model’, why don’t you simply fly asylum seekers to processing centres? You could save millions currently spent on keeping up the Coast Guard and Navy presence and detaining and prosecuting people smugglers – and the people smugglers wouldn’t be able to make any profit from the misery of others.

You see, it doesn’t matter what you believe on this issue – these questions should be asked. Politicians should be held to account for what they say, and required to show evidence to justify their policy decisions. This is what news media are for – asking uncomfortable questions and demanding real answers, investigating all sides of a question and providing that information to the public.

At the moment, this just isn’t happening. As long as media continue to unquestioningly accept politicians’ talking points, it never will.

We can see it happening right in front of us with the asylum seeker issue. So how about it, media – think you might want to stop letting politicians control the message and start subjecting them all to unwavering close scrutiny? There’s still time. The opportunity’s been missed, but not lost. If we’re going to have this conversation, then let’s talk about all the options.

If you do, then maybe – just maybe – the people who risk their lives to flee to a country where they can be safe and free, might actually find that country.

I’m sure it’s buried here somewhere under all the politics …

Malaysian deal a test for us, not for the government

August 1, 2011

The government deal with Malaysia to swap asylum-seekers for refugees is all but finalised. We’re going to intercept 800 people on boats, do some quick-and-dirty health checks, put them on planes and send them to Malaysia within 72 hours. In return, we’ll get 4000 confirmed refugees from them. Of course, we’re not guaranteeing the safety and supervision of unaccompanied minors, Malaysia gets to have the final say as to who they’ll accept and who they’ll toss our way, and oh yes, we don’t even know if there’s decent accommodation for the people we send – but pffft, details. The deal’s in the bag. All we need now are some asylum seekers.

And who are our lucky first contestants? Well, it looks like the 54 poor bastards who hoved into view on our horizon Sunday morning might get that honour. They were intercepted and brought to Christmas Island – which, you’ll remember, is an Australian territory, but no longer part of Australia’s official migration zone. They’ve been offloaded and placed in temporary detention while the cursory checks are done. It might take a little longer than 72 hours, apparently – there’s still that nagging problem of them possibly not having any accommodation in Australia – but Prime Minister Julia Gillard assured us this was little more than a hiccup.

“When the system is up and in full operation those returns will happen in 72 hours,” she said.

Isn’t that good to know? We won’t have time to worry about this, because the bureaucratic machine will be so well-oiled that they’ll be gone before we know it. Even better, the Prime Minister confirmed that the Australian Federal Police are authorised to use force to shove any reluctant asylum seekers onto Malaysia-bound planes. Out of sight, out of mind.

There’s a lot of comment out there this morning about how this is a ‘test’ for the Malaysian deal, and – by extension – for Gillard’s government. It needs to go off without a hitch. It needs to have an immediate effect in deterring further people from trying to get to Australia (in the revolting words of Immigration Minister Chris Bowen, ‘to break the people smugglers’ business model). The Coalition are out there with their faux concern and the oft-repeated line that Nauru would be a better place to send these troublesome ‘boat people’. Government voices chant the ‘regional solution’ mantra. Commentators debate the relative merits of Nauru vs Malaysia, and how illustrative this whole situation is of Gillard’s need to follow through with decisive action.

What we’re not hearing (apart from Senator Sarah Hanson-Young’s lone voice on Sky News) is that is the MV Tampa all over again. This is the government bending rules and perverting its responsibility towards human beings in peril who seek nothing but a new start free from persecution. This is whisking away the ‘problem’ and talking tough while using human lives to win polls. (You know, the polls to which no one in politics apparently listens.)

What’s worse is the government’s blithe assurance that if those pesky asylum seekers actually have the temerity to object to their deportation to a country that is not a signatory to UN refugee conventions, then the AFP can ‘use force’. What does that mean? The government hasn’t bothered to elaborate, and that raises a lot of alarming questions. Can they yell at them? Shove them? Force them into handcuffs and shackles and carry them? Use pepper spray? Nightsticks? Tasers?

Any or all of these? On men, women, children and victims of torture? (Because let’s not forget that the government has already categorically stated that everyone will get the same treatment with this deal.)

Oh but wait, that would never happen, would it? Sure, we might lock up innocent people in remote locations in conditions guaranteed to produce lasting psychological damage. Sure, we might offload people to a country where they can disappear into a system that refuses to guarantee their safety and health and which regularly administers corporal punishment for the most trivial of offences. Sure, we might even consider letting boats sink before we decide to finally save people in danger. But surely there’s a line. We’re not inhumane, after all.

Except we are. We’re willing to let this happen. Even if we’re not actually out there applauding this kind of behaviour, we’re not preventing it. We acknowledge that something has to be done about asylum seekers, while wilfully closing our minds to the facts that there are so few of them, and that these are people in need that we not only can, but must help. We signed up for this – and we’ve been trying to weasel our way out of our obligations since August 2001.

And for no good reason. There’s no ‘Islamist’ conspiracy to flood Australia with militants who will rise up and institute Sharia law. There’s no ‘erosion of our values’ or ‘threat to our way of life’. No one’s being forced to eat halal meat, wear a burqa or attend a mosque. Our kids aren’t required to learn Arabic in schools so they can be compelled to read the Koran. Despite relentless fear-mongering to the contrary, what we’ve seen is that refugees are – shockingly – just like everyone else.

And yet we treat these people as though they are so dangerous that the mere pressure of their feet upon our soil will destroy our world.

Perhaps that’s because we’re afraid that what the sight of them will destroy are our illusions that no one is ‘really’ getting hurt, and there’s nothing we can do.

Yes, it’s difficult to get out to Christmas Island, and any whiff that someone might be going there to protest will see them turned around before they get out of the airport, but there is more we can do.

There’s talk of a court action to prevent the government from carrying out their plan to forcibly deport asylum seekers. We can support that.

We can find out who our local MP or Senator is, and contact them. A Just Australia has useful tips on keeping emails short and direct.

We can do the same for Immigration Minister Chris Bowen.

Prime Minister Gillard has a handy-dandy contact form on her website.

Then there’s Twitter. Many politicians now maintain Twitter accounts, and this is a good place to start looking Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd is particularly responsive to tweets – and is known to be openly critical of the Gillard government’s ‘lurch to the right’ on asylum seekers (to use his own words).

Don’t wait until the next election to send the message. It’s not a test for the government – it’s a test for us.

I’ve said all this before. In fact, looking back over this blog, I’ve said it over and over. Meanwhile the Coalition gets shriller, the government lurches further and further to the right, those who advocate for human rights are ridiculed or bullied – and the people caught in the middle of it all just continue to suffer.

So what’s the point? Why bother?

Because it’s the right thing to do. Because we need to put compassion before poll results, and human decency before pandering to fear. Because every person who doesn’t speak or act is one less voice that might make even a tiny bit of difference.

It’s a truism to say that those who have voices must speak up for those who don’t. Asylum seekers are locked up on remote islands, denied access to Australian society, and – now – about to disappear from our scrutiny altogether.

How much voice do they have?

And what are we doing with ours?

Anti-Greens ratf*ckers come out for Mardi Gras

March 6, 2011

Last night was the annual Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras parade. This year, 135 floats made their way through Sydney street, celebrating queerness in all its wonderful and outrageous manifestations. Highlights of the night for me were: the giant sequined whale from Taronga Zoo (because queer penguins need love too, apparently); the ’78ers (those amazing people who started out marching in protest and founded a tradition that has become part of Sydney life); the Rainbow Babies (celebrating the New South Wales Parliament finally passing laws to allow same-sex adoption); and a couple of mystery guests.

A surprise appearance from our fearless leader and her Opposition counterpart - or their stand-ins, at least.

It was a night for making statements, the strongest of which forcefully made the case for marriage equality. Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, who has repeatedly introduced bills calling for the Marriage Act to be amended to allow same-sex couples to marry, marched in the thick of the throng. Given such an atmosphere, it was probably inevitable that some slightly less positive sentiments would make an appearance.

So was anyone really surprised to see a slew of badly-printed anti-Greens posters suddenly appearing taped to telephone poles around Oxford Street? The Conscience Vote’s ‘fabulous informant’ snapped some pictures:


First, the scream sheet, following a time-honoured tabloid tradition. “DO THE NSW GREENS OPPOSE GAY RIGHTS?” Now that it’s got your attention, it gives you just a little more information: ‘By boycotting Israel, the NSW Greens are boycotting the only country in the Middle East where homosexuality is not a capital offence, or even a crime’. Finally, the admonition: ‘Choose freedom. Don’t vote Green on March 26’.

Cunning, eh? It’s even printed on green paper. That’ll get the message across to those ‘gays’.

For those who were more detail-oriented (or who perhaps just had a little more time to kill while waiting for a taxi), some considerate souls also posted the full text version:

Note the scattergun approach.

The cutaway quote from the scream sheet heads up the litany of Terrible Truths, but it doesn’t stop there. The Greens, it charges, also oppose democracy – because they’ve called for a boycott of Israel, and Israel is the ‘only’ democratic country in the Middle East. And they support ‘terror’ – because Hezbollah and Iran want to attack Israel, and by boycotting Israel, the Greens are on their side.

Seeing a theme here? And I don’t just mean the breathingtakingly, mindbogglingly hamfisted excuse for logic. It’s all about Israel. The Greens hate Israel – therefore the Greens must hate homosexuals and democracy. And support Evil Dictators and Terrorist Organisations. We must stop these terrible people gaining any sort of representation in ‘our’ government. The fate of Israel depends on it!

It’s barely worth ripping down the arguments used here – they are transparently spurious. Whoever wrote this piece of nonsense deliberately misstated facts and massacred logical thinking. Mind you, they also credit the Greens with an astonishing amount of influence – if they call for a boycott of Israel, gay people will be killed, Hezbollah and Iran will attack and the Last Bastion of Democracy (TM) in the region will fall.

So, it’s all about Israel. But who could be the Concerned Citizens behind this poster campaign? Who are these brave souls, who subjected themselves to driving rain, loud music and an onslaught of glitter and leather to bring their message of Imminent Disaster to the unsuspecting people of Oxford Street?

The crucial point is revealed in the last paragraph: “DO THE GREENS HATE CHRISTIANS?” The authors of this poster were already drawing a very long bow, but this is the point where the string snaps violently: ‘By boycotting Israel, the Greens are boycotting the only country in the Middle East with a growing Christian population’. Adopting a somewhat pleading tone, the authors cry plaintively, ‘Christians are people too’.

I smell a ratf*ck.

Remember the One Vote videos during the 2010 Federal campaign? Similar anti-Greens message, similar mixture of fabrication and a similar amount of scare-mongering mangled arguments. Similar production values, too – although in the ‘One Vote’ case, it was a failure of web design.

The Conscience Vote and The Notion Factory traced those ‘concerned citizens’ back to the Christian Democratic Party. This latest effort, however, is likely to prove much harder to track down. Not only is it (thus far) confined to photocopied posters on cheap paper, it’s devoid of any information as to who might be responsible.

But really, that’s the point. We’re supposed to think this doesn’t originate with a political party, or even a lobby group. We’re encouraged to believe that this really is some kind of grass-roots, spontaneous uprising of The People, forced to take to the streets because their voices are not heard in the corridors of power. It’s heartwarming, really.

And of course, it’s complete rubbish.

I’m not about to point the finger at anyone. It might not be the CDP behind this latest offering. After all, there’s a fine tradition of ratf*cking in Australian politics.

But it is very interesting how the same language, the same sentiments and the anonymity just keep turning up – all directed at one political party.

This time, however, it looks like the minds behind this strategy badly misread their target demographic – my fabulous informant tells me he witnessed people reading the posters and laughing.

We don’t need your permission, Your Holiness

November 22, 2010

Although this post doesn’t directly bear on Australian politics, it does relate to some of the issues surrounding the imminent Victorian state election. Parties are positioning themselves on issues relating to human sexuality. The most obvious, of course, is same-sex marriage. Saturday’s Equal Love rally in Melbourne saw State Education Minister Bronwyn Pike break ranks with her party to speak out. She was joined by Fiona Patten from the Australian Sex Party and Senator Sarah Hanson-Young from the Greens. In contrast, the Democratic Labor Party went on Sky News to strongly oppose same-sex marriage on religious and (increasingly spurious) cultural grounds, and Ted Baillieu, speaking for the Coalition, simply issued a blunt ‘no, I don’t support it’.

Same-sex marriage isn’t the only such issue, however. In the seat of Richmond, Greens candidate Kathleen Maltzahn has taken aim at sex workers, and the Sex Party in particular for putting forward policies targeted at securing rights and protections for them.

Adoption by same-sex couples is also on the table. Premier John Brumby has already flagged his intention to review the laws surrounding this issue, and both the Sex Party and the Greens have policies calling for same-sex couples to be treated as equal under the law.

And that’s without going into abortion policy, access to reproductive technology, sex education and surrogacy!

Sexuality, it seems, is a bigger issue than it might appear in the Victorian election. It probably pales in comparison to people’s preoccupation with an efficient and comprehensive public transport system, but it’s there. People are thinking and talking about it.

With all that in the air, recent statements by the Pope deserve a closer look. There are a lot of Catholic voters in Victoria, and at least one political party – the DLP – with its roots firmly in the Catholic Church and its doctrines. And while, at first glance, the Pope’s words might not seem at all related to any of the above, take a closer look.

The Pope now thinks it’s okay ‘in some circumstances’ to use condoms. How nice of him. But wait, just what are those circumstances?

“In certain cases, where the intention is to reduce the risk of infection, it can nevertheless be a first step on the way to another, more humane sexuality,” said the head of the world’s 1.1 billion Catholics …

“There may be justified individual cases, for example when a male prostitute uses a condom, where this can be … a first bit of responsibility, to re-develop the understanding that not everything is permitted and that one may not do everything one wishes.”

And this ‘softening’ of a hard-line anti-condom stance is being ‘cautiously welcomed’ by HIV activists and health experts. The AMA even likes it.

I don’t think so.

This isn’t any kind of softening. This is the Pope saying, ‘what you’re doing is wrong, and you get one chance to avoid the wages of sin. I’m being generous here – I’m letting you use a condom but you’d better come to your senses.’

Gosh, whatever can he be talking about? Oh wait, of course, he’s talking about anal sex between men. Which is, of course, wrong. His one example is a little homily about a rentboy – who, implicitly, is infected with HIV – who might be ‘allowed’ to wear a condom so he doesn’t spread the disease to any of his clients. Of course, the Pope’s not condoning it, oh no. He wants said rentboy and his clients to realise that, by generously granting permission to protect themselves, they are expected to – what was the phrase – develop a ‘more humane’ sexuality. In other words, stop what you’re doing and be heterosexual or celibate.

And make no mistake, the Pope’s not saying the client gets to use the condom. No, no, it’s the filthy whore who needs to protect the client – who, after all, can be redeemed. Never mind that sexually-transmitted HIV has to come from somewhere, usually the client – in Pope World, just making yourself available for paid sex appears to automatically ensure you’re infected.

Of course, female prostitutes don’t get a look in. They don’t get the special dispensation. And why should they? After all, this whole sorry mess came about because of a woman, didn’t it? It’s one thing to give men the chance to get on the straight and narrow, but a ‘fallen woman’ doesn’t get the same chance. They reap what they sow.

Oh, and forget about using condoms as contraception. The Church is rock-solid on that one. No special dispensations, either. You don’t want kids? You can’t have kids because it would endanger your life/pass on genetic abnormalities/send you to the poorhouse? You have one option – don’t have sex. Because we all know that sex only has one purpose, right?

There’s a lot of talk about how it might be a small thing, but at least people will be protected.

No, they won’t.

Contrary to Papal belief, most prostitutes are extremely careful about the use of condoms. Many will actually refuse a client who won’t wear a condom. (Oh but wait, the clients don’t have to, do they?)

Yes, there are exceptions – people who are victims of sexual trafficking, who don’t get that kind of choice, and people who are either too stupid or too uncaring to take precautions so that they don’t pass on the infection. Now, I’m going to give the Pope some credit for brains here. I’m going to assume that he doesn’t really think some trafficker of underage boys in Thailand will now sit up and say, ‘Hey, the Pope said it’s kind of okay to give my kids condoms, better go do that’.

So what’s the Pope’s real point?

This little pronouncement of the Pope’s – which the Church are already rushing to say isn’t ‘magisterial’ (i.e. insert disclaimer here) – isn’t some indicator that maybe his religion is finally waking up to a few realities of life. It’s not a ‘compassionate’ acknowledgment that there are terrible diseases out there that can destroy the lives of innocent people. (Remember, this is the same guy who said condoms didn’t protect anyone against AIDS, and banned his African followers from using them.)

This is about some kind of horrible pseudo-redemptive ‘lesson’. Some things aren’t permitted, and you’d just better consider yourself lucky that he’s giving you the chance to wake up and toe the line. After all, unless sexuality is ‘humanised’ – i.e., stop with the buttsex you filthy men – not even a condom will save you. If AIDS doesn’t get you, Hell will. And that goes double for sex workers.

And just to spell it out in really blunt language: this is not really about protecting anyone. Although the Pope – when asked – admitted that using condoms might ‘reduce infection’, he was very clear that the real purpose of this ‘permission’ is purely to give people enough time to repent. It’d be a good thing if people (see: men who have anal sex) didn’t infect others, but condoms are not a ‘moral solution’.

This is entirely in keeping with the Church’s historical aversion to the free exercise of sexuality between consenting adults. That the Pope is dressing it up with grudging little concessions doesn’t alter that one bit. It’s still about dictating what expressions of sexuality are permissible. To paraphrase a certain former Prime Minister: he will decide who gets to have sex, and under what circumstances they can have it.

Now I don’t know about you, but I find that just a tad offensive – particularly when it comes at a time when we are at last talking and acting on issues that have for too long been branded as ‘immoral’ or banished to the too-hard basket by politicians with both eyes on the numbers and none on the people.

So, Your Holiness? Take your oh-so-gracious, lesser-of-two-evils concession and shove it. We don’t need your permission to love each other. We don’t need your permission to protect ourselves from infections that have nothing to do with God and everything to do with blind shitty luck And we don’t need you to tell us we can’t have sex unless we’re prepared to risk pregnancy. We will care for each other without your ‘help’.

We live in the 21st Century, and you have no power over us.

Myth-busting: New detention centres

October 25, 2010

It was only a matter of time before the lies – I’m sorry, the myths – got so thick on the ground that another one of these posts was going to be needed.

This time it’s about asylum seekers. Last week, Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced a series of new initiatives, including releasing children and ‘at-risk’ families into community detention rather than keeping them in detention centres. She also announced that two new centres would be developed, at Northam in Western Australia and Inverbrackie in South Australia. These centres would enable the dismantling of the temporary accommodation on Christmas Island, and mean that motels did not have to be used when numbers were too great.

The respective communities erupted. They held public meetings, in which they vented their spleen at the government, and at asylum seekers in general. They were ‘betrayed’, they shouted. Having ‘illegals’ in their towns (or even within 20 km of them) would be disastrous. Services would be under unacceptable strain. The Adelaide Hills are a known tourist spot – the tourism economy would suffer, because no one would want to come there. For that matter, where’s the benefit to us? They should have asked us. None of this would have happened if the government wasn’t so ‘soft’ on these people. Worst of all, what if their kids came to our schools?

All of this, of course, is based on a few simple, but utterly toxic myths.

Myth No. 1: Our detention centres are overcrowded because the government ‘softened’ its border protection policies. That’s why it has to build new centres now.

The Coalition likes to say that those who engage in the despicable trade of exploiting desperate people have ‘a good product to sell’, because refugees are no longer processed in Nauru or subject to Temporary Protection Visas. This is an outrageous piece of outright fabrication.

People smugglers do not sell an outcome. They are not in the business of making sure their ‘clients’ are safely delivered to the destination of their choice. They are in the business of making money – of taking advantage of those whose circumstances are so dire that they will be willing to sell everything they own, and sometimes sell themselves into hock for years to come. And they know there will always be a market. Whether they get intercepted in the Indian Ocean or make it all the way to Christmas Island makes no difference to them. The money has already changed hands, somewhere back in the home countries or in Indonesia.

Understand, we’re not talking about some kind of cut-price cruise line, here. Someone fleeing to another country for asylum doesn’t get to shop around. Usually, they’re stuck with doing an under-the-table deal which is more like a gamble – because people smugglers don’t guarantee safe delivery. They take the money, shove the refugees on a boat which is, more often than not – barely seaworthy, hire a crew from off the docks, and then wash their hands of the whole affair. If the boat sinks in the Indian Ocean and the crew are taken into custody, it’s an acceptable loss, because the important thing is the tens of thousands of dollars in the hands of those who bear no sense of accountability for whatever happens after the cash hits the palm.

People smugglers don’t care.

So there is no ‘good product to sell’. This isn’t taking advantage of a clearance sale, or shopping on Amazon because the dollar is near parity. People who need to flee will do so if they possibly can, even if it means taking the chance that they will be detained indefinitely – because at least on Christmas Island, their chances of being tortured and executed are minimal.

Myth No. 2: People have a ‘right’ to feel anxious about the idea of having a detention centre nearby.

This is the kind of statement that prompted Julian Burnside’s accusation that Australians are racists – and I can certainly understand his frustration. It’s okay to worry about the idea of refugees near you? Why?

Detention centres have existed in the suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne for years. There is no appreciable rise in the crime rate that could be attributed to the presence of people held behind security fences. Services to the community have not become stretched. (Sydney’s road bottlenecks can hardly be blamed on people who are not even allowed out to walk to the shops.) There is no evidence that refugees, detained in Villawood and Broadmeadows, take away anything from the permanent residents. What’s more, the government have promised that there will be no danger of that happening in Northam and Inverbrackie. If there is a possibility that services might be compromised, Immigration Minister Chris Bowen further committed to bolster those services wherever necessary.

But wait, cried the residents of Woodside (near Inverbrackie) – then they’ll get better services than we do, and that’s not fair. There’s no basis for this at all. The government promised no negative effect on services to the community. That’s everyone – and even if they decide to pay for a few on-site doctors in the detention centres, that hardly constitutes favouritism. At worst, it preserves the status quo.

The anxiety appears to go further, though. Listening to the people in Woodside and Northam, it seems that there is a fundamental objection to the presence of asylum seekers anywhere on Australian soil. If they’re housed in the middle of the desert, that’s marginally acceptable – although it’s clear that many people think even that is too ‘soft’. Suggest putting them in – or even near – a community, however, and the hysteria ramps up to an incredible degree.

Myth No. 3: The tourism economy in the Adelaide Hills would be under threat, and there’d be no economic benefit to local businesses.

This is just plain wrong. Detention centres usually source their supplies from local businesses wherever possible – if anything, boosting the economy. This was pointed out to some of the Woodside protesters. Their response? That won’t happen with us – the government will just go to Adelaide. There’s no basis for this assertion whatsoever. It flies in the face of existing practice – a practice the government has committed to continue.

As for the tourism question – well, where to start? The detention centre is located at the existing disused army base at Inverbrackie. Like most army bases, it’s difficult to distinguish the housing from what might be found in any suburb (with the exception of high-end areas, of course). The houses look like all the others. Sure, there’ll be a fence, and guards, but there were guards when the base was in use.

The people making this objection seem to think that the existing base will be razed, and a giant edifice of ugly concrete with coils of barbed wire, observation towers, spotlights and slavering German Shepherds will take its place. That simply isn’t going to happen. In addition, Inverbrackie is only one small part of the Adelaide Hills. To suggest that tourists will shy away from the entire region because there are refugees living on an old army base is – not to put too fine a point on it – ludicrous.

Myth No. 4: The government betrayed us by not consulting us prior to making the decision.

The answer to this one is – no, they didn’t. The government is under no obligation to ask people if they want a detention centre within easy driving distance. In fact, the government doesn’t have to ask to do a lot of things – build offices, grant land for prisons, or acquire people’s homes for infrastructure projects. You may not agree with it, but it’s how the country is set up. So, no, the government was never required to go cap in hand to people within 100km of Northam and ask if it was okay with them to have a detention centre an hour’s drive away. They weren’t even required to announce it.

Myth No. 5: Having ‘their’ kids in ‘our’ schools is dangerous.

I’m sorry, but this is racist.

It’s completely unfounded. There is little difference between a refugee and a newly-arrived immigrant child. Both may have language difficulties. Both may take time to build social bonds with other children (although that’s true of any kid in a new school). The kid who had to endure a long and potentially dangerous sea voyage, followed by detention, may have emotional and psychological issues – who wouldn’t?

The people who made this objection couldn’t say exactly what was wrong with the idea of refugee kids going to school in their communities. For the most part, they fell back on the old ‘but they came here illegally’ argument. Leaving aside for the moment that it’s completely incorrect to refer to asyum seekers as illegal, how can that possibly indicate danger to other children? Are these people afraid that the kid from Sri Lanka might suddenly leap up in the middle of story time and rip open his parka to reveal a suicide bomb vest? Turn on his fellow kids and attempt to stab them with safety scissors?


Maybe it’s about overcrowding. Maybe the people of Woodside are worried about potentially increasing class sizes. But wait – didn’t the government already say that if there was any possibility of strain to community services, that they would address that problem?

So what lies at the bottom of this objection to asylum seeker children in schools? Whenever politicians are asked about this, they always give the same answer: it’s understandable that people would feel anxious.

See Myth No. 2 above.

Of course, no amount of mythbusting done here is going to matter in this debate – because the politicians aren’t interested in the real situation.

The Coalition sees nothing wrong with xenophobia, apparently. Jamie Briggs, Member for Mayo, was highly visible at Woodside, nodding sympathetically whenever someone told them they were afraid or angry or betrayed. Scott Morrison, Shadow Immigration Minister, chastised the government for not taking ‘community concerns’ into account. Senator Mitch Fifield tutted about the ‘failure’ of the government’s asylum seeker policies putting unfair strain on the people of Woodside and Northam.

The Labor government is no better. Chris Bowen says he ‘understands there are concerns’. That’s ‘reasonable’.

And not one of these people actually stand up and say, ‘No, you’re wrong. You have a completely incorrect idea of the real situation. You’ve listened to scare-mongering and lies, and you’re letting xenophobia control you. I believe you’re better than this. I believe you really are a compassionate person, and wouldn’t want to see anyone suffer. Sit down with me and let me show you the facts, come and meet some asylum seekers, maybe then you can see this fear for what it is – a shameful political tactic that considers ruining people’s lives and well-being a good way for scoring points in some obscure game.’

Maybe it wouldn’t change die-hard xenophobes. But wouldn’t it be an amazing and wonderful thing if someone other than Senator Sarah Hanson-Young actually got out there and tried??

Imagine if your local member (mine is Martin Ferguson, Minister for Resources, Energy and Tourism) stood up in front othe media and said, ‘You have nothing to fear. We were wrong to let you think you did.’

Yeah, never going to happen. But sometimes, you have to dream.

It’s either that or weep.

Kids out of detention – it’s a start

October 18, 2010

Just when you’re ready to give up hope on all politicians forever, some of them go and do something worthwhile. Those fighting for the humane treatment of asylum seekers got a win today.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Immigration Minister Chris Bowen announced that the government would expand the use of existing resident determination powers to move unaccompanied minors and ‘at-risk’ families out of isolated detention facilities, and into community detention instead.

What’s community detention? Simply put, it’s housing these particular asylum seekers in existing facilities (Bowen suggested disused aged care residences or church properties, as well as some private housing) and allowing them to become part of the community. They will most likely be required to undertake some sort of reporting regime, and children would be subject to a curfew. In addition, if their housing was the kind of hostel where there are on-site personnel, those personnel would report regularly to the Department of Immigration.

Children will attend school – in fact, will be required to do so unless there are extenuating circumstances. In addition, Bowen announced greater access to mental health care for all asylum seekers.

Bowen expects the majority of children, and a ‘substantial portion’ of at-risk families, to be in community detention by June 2011. That means nearly 700 children will be out of detention centres, long identified as extremely damaging to mental and emotional health.

Now, if all that sounds just a bit familiar, it might be due to this story that appeared in The Age yesterday. Senator Sarah-Hanson Young of the Greens confirmed that the details as put to her by media were ‘in keeping’ with discussions she had with Bowen in the last week.

The Opposition leapt on that. Here was proof, they said, that ‘Labor might be in government, but the Greens are in power’. That slogan, trotted out ad nauseam over the next twenty-four hours, presumably was intended to be a killing thrust in the Opposition’s campaign to scare the country into running back into the Conservative fold. It’s really just a variation on a theme; the Greens are a dangerous risk to the economy/jobs/Our Way of Life, and now the government is in debt to them and has to do whatever they say.

Clearly, that was on Gillard’s mind today. After delivering the good news on getting kids out of detention, she stressed that this was entirely the government’s idea. There was no deal with ‘any other party’. There were no discussions with ‘any other party or parliamentarian’. None. And in case she wasn’t fully understood, she went on to repeat it later.

Bowen acknowledged that he had spoken with Senator Hanson-Young ‘at the beginning of the new term’, but not lately, and not with regard to this plan. There was clearly an element of selective reporting there; it’s hard to believe that any discussion with the Senator would not involve the issue of children in detention, given how passionately she has championed the cause of asylum seekers. Equally, though, it’s likely they did not talk about any specific plan.

So the government was playing it a bit tricky there, but the aim was clear – to strongly refute any claim that Labor was in any way beholden to the Greens. It’s an understandable goal, but one that is disappointing. The Opposition have succeeded in panicking Labor, and in doing so, Labor runs the risk of alienating a strong potential alley. The Greens will hold the balance of power in the Senate from July next year – their support may be the only way Labor can implement its agenda.

And for what gain? To reassure us? The public and most welfare organisations have repeatedly called for detention of children to end. Today’s announcement shows that the government is capable of compassion, rather than simply dogwhistling. Would it really have damaged the government to show that it had been in discussion with the Greens – indeed, with anyone?

It wasn’t all good news today – though on balance, the tone was positive. Gillard went on to announce that temporary tent facilities at Christmas Island would be decommissioned, and that motels would no longer be used to house an overflow of asylum seekers. This is partly because of community detention, and partly because two new facilities will be developed. One is the Northam Defence Training Camp, located around 80km north-east of Perth, which will house up to 1500 single men. The other is the Inverbrackie Defence Housing Facility, 37km north of Adelaide, for up to 400 family members.

To guard against potential overflow of asylum seekers in the future, two contingency detention accommodation sites will be developed. The 11 Mile Antenna Farm in Darwin will house single men. The existing Transit Immigration Facility at Broadmeadows in Melbourne will also be expanded.

Bowen was quick to point out that all asylum seekers will still be initially detained for health and security checks, before decisions can be made about moving some people into community detention. He also said it would be ‘irresponsible’ to simply throw open the gates and release all families and children at once, without making sure there was an infrastructure in place to support them.

On the face of it, that’s a perfectly reasonable statement. It remains to be seen what delays may arise, but in principle, the idea that there should be a good support structure for people coming suddenly into the community is a sensible one. This is especially true given these people may well be traumatised from the situation they fled, the risky voyage they undertook or their experiences in detention centres. It’s particularly heartening to see that the mental health of asylum seekers is at last being addressed.

Bowen said one surprising thing today; he acknowledged that Australia had the ‘toughest mandatory detention system in the world’. That’s not news to anyone, of course – but Bowen didn’t then attempt to excuse it. Previously the government has been at great pains to put up all sorts of justifications – most appallingly, the idea that they are responding to ‘understandable’ community concern (read: xenophobia encouraged by scare-mongering politicians and talk radio hosts). Not this time.

Is this the sign of an overall move towards more compassionate treatment of asylum seekers? I’d like to think so, but I think we will still see men in detention centres, possibly going on hunger strikes or climbing up on the roof to call attention to their situation.

Getting rid of the tents on Christmas Island? Updating facilities? Providing mental health care? And getting kids out of a toxic, damaging detention situation? It’s a start.

But that’s all it is. And the government shouldn’t think it can now rest on its compassionate laurels.

Australia still has a long way to go. And there will be people questioning and calling the government to account. It won’t be the Opposition – if anything, Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison will lead the fear-frenzy with cries of ‘soft on border protection’ and ‘armada of boats’.

It will be the Greens, Andrew Wilkie, and people like you and me who continue to speak up and challenge the idea that Australia is under attack from desperate people fleeing persecution. It’s the small voices that start the groundswell. That the government has finally agreed to release children is a sign that – even in this one way – that groundswell is starting to become hard to ignore.

At least, that’s what I hope.

Asylum seekers – what are we afraid of?

July 15, 2010

In all the kerfuffle and mud-slinging about exactly which tiny developing nation should host a detention centre for processing asylum seekers who come by boat, quite a few issues are being effectively obscured. Now, I’m not going to suggest that this is deliberate. Despite the vicious rhetoric that flies back and forth between the major parties, I don’t really believe that there is an active, evil conspiracy at work here. As the saying goes, ‘never ascribe to conspiracy what can be effectively explained by incompetence’ – or in this case, simple blindness. It may be wilful blindness, but nonetheless, it really seems as though there is an actual inability to consider some things.

Think about the assumptions that are at work here.

1. Asylum seekers who try to reach Australia by boat must be prevented from reaching our migration zone.

2. Any who do manage to survive the dangerous trip from Indonesia need to be detained in an offshore facility until their claims are processed.

These assumptions go largely unchallenged (although, to their credit, the Greens have consistently attempted to bring them into question). Even as Prime Minister Gillard acknowledges how few people attempt to seek asylum in Australia via boat, she reaffirms that detention is necessary, and offshore detention is actually desirable. Opposition Leader Tony Abbott goes even further, seeking to effectively remove any hope of asylum and resettlement with the new Coalition policy announced last week. There are few questions coming from the media, either. Most reports never even raise the issue. The argument is not about whether these things should be implemented, but about the details of how they will happen.

What’s worse is that no good reasons are ever given to justify these stances. Most commonly, the ‘queue-jumper’ argument is used as a catch-all rationalisation. Those who come by boat are taking the places that should go to ‘genuine’ refugees, and so they need to be punished. That will deter others from trying the same approach. Asylum seekers are effectively branded as cheats, selfishly spending huge amounts of money rather than wait their turn. Going even further, some argue that this shows that they are not ‘real’ refugees at all, but so-called ‘economic’ refugees who are just trying to migrate to a country with more opportunities to make money. And look at how much money it takes to get here – if they’ve got so much money, why can’t they just do the ‘right’ thing?

In reality, the majority of people who attempt to come by boat are fleeing countries without an embassy or consulate. In some cases, these countries have strict penalties for those who attempt to leave – including capital punishment. People are forced to undertake dangerous journeys to get to a country that has such facilities. The argument has been made that perhaps they should just seek to enter Pakistan or another nearby country, and join the ‘queue’ there. Such statements betray a lack of knowledge about geographical and political issues. Paradoxically, it can actually be safer to reach Indonesia and strike out for Australia, than to attempt to get to a closer country.

The idea that asylum seekers are wealthy completely ignores an appalling fact. People fleeing for their lives will do anything to keep themselves and their families safe. They will sell every possession they have. They will borrow money from anyone who will lend it to them – and given their situation, this often means placing themselves in debt to organised crime groups. Finally, some people smugglers will offer to take people for a lesser fee – provided they enter into an agreement to pay their debt once resettled. Again, this usually has criminal ties, and people may effectively find themselves bound into indentured servitude.

Occasionally one or both sides will play the ‘humanitarian’ card, arguing that everything possible should be done to deter people from making the risky voyage. This usually goes hand-in-hand with the idea of taking a ‘strong stance’ against people smuggling. By making it harder to reach Australia by boat, people will be less attracted to the ‘product’ that people smugglers are selling, driving them out of business.

Apart from the hideously comic idea of attempting to solve an ongoing human crisis by appeal to market forces, this argument is frankly ridiculous. Asylum seekers are desperate people who need to escape, and they will take whatever means are available to them to do so. They will sell themselves into hock, risk their lives on unseaworthy boats, and suffer through detention and processing. There is no deterrence factor at work here – and even if there is, all that these punitive measures actually achieve is to place asylum seekers in an untenable position; stay, and risk imprisonment, persecution or death, or go and risk debt, imprisonment or death. There is nothing humanitarian about turning back boats, detention or Temporary Protection Visas. The only people being punished are the very ones who are seeking help.

Neither of these arguments answer the basic question: why must asylum seekers be prevented from reaching Australia? The Opposition’s rhetoric has been almost hysterical – there is an ‘armada’ of boats, a ‘tsunami’ of asylum seekers, or a ‘peaceful invasion’. All their language is designed to portray an imminent threat to Australia. Their most recent television ads showed huge red arrows barrelling towards the country, evoking those animations beloved of old war movies that show the inexorable march of the dreaded enemy forces. Recently, these ads have disappeared, but they left their mark on the Australian psyche.

But what might actually happen if asylum seekers did get here? To answer that question all we really have to do is look at our own history. Have we unwittingly let terrorists into the country, who have wreaked havoc? No. Have we seen Australians robbed of their jobs? No. Have asylum seekers become a huge drain on the welfare system, plunging the country into debt. No. What we see, over and over, are asylum seekers being granted refugee status, taking their place in Australian society, working hard and building strong ties with their local communities.

If they are not dangerous, why are both major parties so keen to have them processed offshore? The short ugly answer is ‘out of sight, out of mind’. Geographical isolation is very effective in removing the issue from public scrutiny. Media would need to make international trips to report on the situation, or liaise with local organisations – and we saw during the Pacific Solution how difficult this proved to be, once the government agreed to restrict access. Most of us learn about asylum seekers through the media – once that channel is narrowed, or even closed, we will have only politicians to tell us what is actually going on.

But maybe I’m seeing too much conscious thought at work here. Maybe it’s even simpler than that. Maybe what is at work here is simple xenophobia. Circle the wagons, protect the women and children, the boat people are coming! They might be terrorists! They can’t be trusted! They’re not like us! Up and down the country, the language of fear and hatred is pervasive.

What are we all so afraid of?

The Greens have been arguing for years for a compassionate view of the asylum seeker issue. Over and over again they have said there is nothing to fear from people who come by boats. We take very few refugees compared with other countries – we rank 47th in the world based on numbers, 68th per capita and 77th based on wealth – yet we are implementing ever more punitive policies against them. Senator Sarah Hanson-Young has said that Australia, as a nation committed to the idea of ‘a fair go and justice’, should be doing more, not less, to help. We have the resources to do so, she said.

It’s a strong, consistent position, argued with solid figures and a great deal of passion. But is it reaching anyone but their own supporters? Looking around, you’d have to say it’s not. And until people – and politicians – can be forced to declare just why they are so afraid of desperate people in boats, I’m afraid it will stay that way. As long as the xenophobia is buried under vagueness, and allowed to escape rigorous examination, there is little possibility that it can be effectively refuted.

We Australians don’t want to think of ourselves as racist, or unfair, or anything but decent people. We should confront our own fears unflinchingly, drag them out into the light of rational argument and start looking at the real situation. Most importantly, and most urgently, we should start seeing asylum seekers as fellow human beings who need our help.

Voting down same-sex marriage: violating human rights

February 25, 2010

Senator Sarah Hanson-Young introduced the Marriage Equality Bill 2010 into the Senate today. The aim of the bill was to amend the Marriage Act 1951 to remove the definition of marriage as between a man and woman only, with a view to facilitating same sex marriage. In effect, it was a re-run of a defeated bill introduced by the Democrats in 2006.

In their great generosity, the Government allowed thirty minutes for debate. Yes, you read that right. This was a bill with profound implications for Australian society. You’d think that a reasonable amount of time would be set aside to talk about it in Parliament, wouldn’t you? Oh, but maybe there are just so many bills that there isn’t that kind of time.

Not so. Since Parliament recommenced for 2010, amendments to finer points of income tax law were debated for over an hour. Changes to Youth Allowance took up nearly three hours only yesterday – and let’s not forget the hours and hours and hours that have been spent so far debating the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme legislation over the past two sessions.

No, the simple truth – the ugly truth – is that the debate was deliberately gagged.

It isn’t hard to see why, really. Of the people in the chamber, only a few would have stood up and spoken in support of the bill. Perhaps the Government felt it wasn’t worth taking up the time for all of them to have a say. After all, it was fairly obvious that the bill was going to be defeated, so really, what was the point?

The point is that the decision was made before that bill even made it to the Chamber. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that it was made before it was even drafted. Those thirty minutes were nothing but lip service – and patronising lip service, at that. Effectively, the major parties patted Senator Hanson-Young on the head, smiled tolerantly while she gave an impassioned speech in favour of human rights, and then sent her to bed without any dinner. They stood up first, though, and smacked down the bill with the kind of pathetic reasoning that would get you booted from any high school debating team.

Let’s take a few samples.

Senator Steve Fielding – no one ever expected him to support the bill. His party’s stated platform is in lockstep with the Assemblies of God churches that back him, and there was no way he was going to deviate from the dogma. ‘Marriage is between a man and a woman, to the exclusion of all others, for life,’ he proclaimed.

Apparently Senator Fielding has not seen any divorce statistics, and is absolutely against second or subsequent marriages. I’m sure that millions of unhappy, abused spouses will be comforted to know that.

Note, however, that he was not quoting any religious text here. He was actually quoting the Marriage Act itself, from the Interpretation section: ‘”marriage” means the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life’. If one were to strictly interpret that definition, there could be no re-marriages – or divorces, for that matter. Nonetheless, over 47,000 people identified themselves as divorced on the 2007 Census, and over one-third of marriages solemnised were second or subsequent unions.

Guess the definition isn’t so strict, after all. Selective interpretation? You decide.

Then there was Senator George Brandis, from the misnamed Liberal Party. ‘Marriage has never ever in any society in history been regarded as anything but between a man and a woman,’ he intoned solemnly.

Senator? Step right this way, please. We have some information for you. We’ll put it in chronological order, so you can see just how wrong you are.

There’s evidence from ancient Greece of male-male unions – cited by Aristotle (c. 500 BCE), for example – which were not the more well-known teacher-pupil type. These relationships were considered identical to heterosexual marriage, even to the point where the men in question could adopt children and arrange for them to inherit.

Rabbinic Jewish midrashic texts on Leviticus refer to same sex marriage contracts taking place in Canaan (which puts it around 200-1500 BCE). In fact, it’s one of the Canaanite practices that made the rabbinic writers foam at the mouth on several occasions – so well-attested, in fact, that it appears in at least four different treatises.

The Emperor Nero married one of his male slaves in the 1st century CE. Later, in the 2nd century CE, the Emperor Elagabulus followed suit. In fact, it was pretty common in Rome right up until Constantine specifically outlawed it in 342CE.

France, in the late medieval period (before around 1400) had a kind of contract that was considered legally equivalent, but there was no religious component. It was symbolised by the sharing of bread and drink in a ceremony.

There’s also a rather curious, if disputed, tradition among medieval Christian monks in France, where they were bound together in a religious ceremony whose text reads exactly like a marriage ceremony, including the exhortations to faithfulness. It was postulated by the historian Boswell, but is generally not accepted – you can imagine why.

From Ming Dynasty China (c.1300-1644) there is evidence of binding contracts between women, and between men.

More recently, among certain Native American tribes, there was the phenomenon of ‘Two-Spirit’ marriage, where one male partner was considered a ‘wife’ and took on a female social role. This marriage was recognised as identical to a heterosexual union.

‘It’s not a discrimination issue,’ stated Brandis. Oh, we rather think it is.

And Senator Brandis? This information is not hard to find, nor (unless otherwise noted) disputed. Five minutes in a library would have told you that.

By far the most shameful performance of that thirty minutes, however, came from the government, led by Senator Nick Sherry. ‘The Government is committed to removing all forms of discrimination,’ he vowed, and went on to list a raft of tax and social security issues that had historically discriminated against same sex couples, and which the Government was going to abolish. Good start.

But then there was this: ‘equally, we are committed to preserving the Marriage Act’. Specifically, the Government stated that it was committed to the ‘man and woman’ definition of marriage. Now, we’ve already seen that Australian society and law plays fast-and-loose with that definition when it comes to divorce and re-marriage. In fact, you could say that it’s not so much selectively interpreted as ignored altogether. Why not, then, ignore the ‘man and woman’ description?

Apparently, it simply cannot be done. To borrow a phrase from Prime Minister Rudd, ‘for reasons passing understanding’ it must not be done.

No explanation is given that holds up under even the most cursory scrutiny. The appeal to history fails miserably. Holding to the strict definition of ‘marriage’ from the Act is completely flawed, and in fact could be said to make a case for allowing same sex marriage, given its ‘more honoured in the breach than the observance’ status. Claiming that prohibiting same sex marriage is not discriminatory is, frankly, ludicrous.

I’ll give Senators Brandis and Fielding this: they stated matters of principle in their objections. Yes, they were patently wrong, but at least they tried. Fielding has even said that it is a form of discrimination, one that he supports. Points for honesty, there.

Senator Sherry, however, weaselled around the issue, pathetically offering up a few sops that – in effect – only further ensure that same sex couples are treated as second-class citizens. Same sex couples will be subject to the same income testing for purposes of tax, superannuation and social security as heterosexual couples. On the face of it, that’s pretty egalitarian, right? No. A heterosexual couple can walk into any Government office in the country and have their marriage instantly recognised, and gain the benefits of that. A same sex couple cannot. They are, when it comes down to it, gaining most of the disadvantages of being married – yet Senator Sherry, speaking for the Government, would have us believe that this is removing discrimination.

It is hypocrisy, plain and simple. The Government does not have the excuse of faulty reasoning, or a lack of knowledge of history. They are flat-out stating that what they are doing is not discriminatory, merely holding to the law. Even as Government MPs and Senators say that, though, their eye shift and they rush to fill up their answers with convoluted reasoning that twists in and around on itself, and goes nowhere. They know.

So what is behind it?

One could speculate that Mr Rudd and his fellow politicians have learned their definition of marriage not from the Marriage Act, but from their churches. Homophobia and discrimination against same sex relationships is well-enshrined in all but the most progressive of Christian religious institutions.

There is also the unpleasant truth that Australia has, socially, a history of discrimination and hatred towards same sex relationships that goes hand-in-hand with ‘mateship’ and ‘true blue Aussie bloke’ mythology. Perhaps the Labor Party learned it there.

Whatever the reasoning behind the statements, the bill was voted down. The Government, Opposition and Senator Fielding united to preserve a shameful violation of human rights. Even Senator Nick Xenophon, who had supported the removal of some forms of discrimination in his home state of South Australia, lived up to earlier statements that he was a ‘bit more reluctant to support gay marriage’. And all after barely thirty minutes’ discussion, most of which was taken up by speeches like those from which I’ve quoted.

There is no excusing this. It was incredibly disrespectful – not only to Senator Hanson-Young, but to all those who believe that everyone is entitled to equal treatment under the law of Australia. It was blatantly gagged, ensuring that only a single speech supporting same sex marriage made it into Hansard. It was a demonstration of how faulty reasoning and lack of knowledge determine who has rights, and who does not.

And it was an exercise in hypocrisy for the Government,resulting in a devastating loss of whatever credibility it still retained. The Labor Party, under Prime Minister Rudd, stands condemned in the eyes of Australia.

It is my devout hope that this inequality, this meaningless discrimination, will be struck down soon, and that Australian law finally lives up to its ideals of equality and fairness. Until that time, our elected representatives should be constantly aware of one thing:

We are watching you. We see how you act, and we will call you to account for it.

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