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Responses to Frank Devine's article in The Australian

Source: www.theaustralian.com.au

Frank Brennan: Exploiting pain for political gain
The Australian, 8 January 2004

The Howard Government is continuing its experiment in deterring boat people from our shores. The experiment has enjoyed popular support and has delivered political dividends. The Government and many of its supporters are convinced that the experiment is working, as most of the boats have stopped coming. They are also convinced about the decency of the outcomes. We all want a policy that is as workable and decent as possible.

Even conceding the popularity of the present policy, we need to solve three immediate problems.

First, we need a coherent, public rationale for the mandatory detention of children. Philip Ruddock, as immigration minister, always insisted that the detention was not punitive or a deterrent. If it were, it would be unlawful. The High Court decided that a decade ago. When questioned by do-gooders sensitive to the detention of children, Ruddock used to provide them with a copy of his address to the Anglican Synod in which he insisted that detention had only three purposes: it would ensure that people coming without a visa were not a health or a security risk; that they were available for removal when they were proved not to be refugees; and it also helped with the processing of their claims.

The children who have now been in detention for three years are not a health or security risk. Their own health is now at risk. The Government's own figures show that 90 per cent of those who were held in detention since Tampa have been proved to be refugees. We do remove more than 10,000 people a year from Australia but only about 200 of them are boatpeople.

Why hold only boatpeople in detention? In recent years, those held in detention are six times more likely than asylum-seekers living in the community to win their appeal to the Refugee Review Tribunal. Detention does not help in the processing of their claim by the public servants, it probably hinders.

If there is no rationale for the detention of children without a court order, it is institutional child abuse, no matter how popular it might be.

We owe it to ourselves as a community, in the light of the medical evidence about the effects of long-term detention on children, to have a rationale for detention at the processing stage.

I know two children who have spent their fourth Christmas in detention because Ruddock, as immigration minister, chose to appeal their successful full Federal Court ruling all the way to the High Court. Having won their Federal Court case three-nil, these children and their mother should not have to endure another year of detention while Government lawyers seek leave to appeal to the nation's highest court.

While there can be no quarrel with short-term detention of people who arrive without a visa, or detention prior to removal if an individual is a flight risk, long-term detention during processing is irrational and indecent. Those children awaiting final decisions or who cannot decently be expected to go home now should be released.

Second, we need a good reason to force Afghans to go home now. Afghans who three years ago were proved to be refugees are now being reassessed. Their three-year temporary protection visas are expiring.

The Government says it "sees no reason why people no longer in need of Australia's protection should not return to Afghanistan".

Our decision-makers are now admitting that some applicants would face acute risks if they returned to their home villages outside Kabul but they get over that glitch by pressing the word processor entry that says, "On the information available I am satisfied that the applicant would not be at risk of ... harm if he elected to relocate to Kabul". How many people are we expecting to relocate to Kabul so that we can simply clear our books with indecent haste?

Such people should be guaranteed residence in Australia until we can decently decide that it is safe for them to go home.

At the moment, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees says it is most unsafe. These people have been contributing to Australian society for the past three years. Many voters who know them will be troubled by a hard-hearted Government that exploits this suffering for political gain.

Third, we need to end the Pacific Solution because it is no longer a solution to any contemporary problem.

The Pacific Solution was designed on the presumption that refugees could be promptly resettled in countries other than Nauru and the failed asylum-seekers could be returned home quickly. The extended hunger strike on Nauru is proof that Australia cannot simply export its asylum problems.

There is no way that Nauru can force people back to Iraq or Afghanistan at this stage. Some of the 284 detainees on Nauru include family members whose fathers and husbands are living lawfully in Australia.

We cannot avoid responsibility for the 35 hunger strikers whose lives are now at risk. Before the last federal election, our Government transported them to Nauru and paid Nauru to detain them on the understanding that they would be removed from Nauru within six months. Nauru has neither the diplomatic muscle nor the resources to give them appropriate care in their hopeless isolation.

Before the next election, we should close down the Pacific Solution and bring the remaining asylum-seekers to Australia until it is safe and decent for them to be returned home. This would save us money and even lives, permitting Nauru to open its borders to visitors once again. Most citizens share John Howard's hope that Australia be "a warm-hearted, decent international citizen". If we cannot return people decently to Afghanistan, Iraq or Iran, we should treat them decently here.

Father Frank Brennan is associate director of the Sydney-based Uniya Jesuit Social Justice Centre and author of Tampering with Asylum, published by University of Queensland Press.

Lawyer, priest and refugee champion
The Australian, 8 January 2004

Father Frank Brennan - lawyer, Jesuit priest and social justice campaigner - is best known for his outspoken stance on native title laws and his defence of Aboriginal rights to land during the early 1990s.

More recently Father Brennan has stirred the political pot on refugee issues and the Government's handling of asylum-seekers, and in doing so has been nominated by readers of The Australian for this paper's Australian of the Year award.

He was particularly active while the Woomera detention centre was still open and was one of the few people who had regular meetings with the former immigration minister Philip Ruddock.

Father Brennan was controversial even on the day of his first mass, which was given in a Queensland park under the watchful eye of local police.

He also spent 18 months in East Timor as director of the Jesuit refugee program, where among other things he helped to draw up the first constitution.

The director of the Uniya Jesuit Social Justice Centre in Sydney, Father Brennan was awarded the United Nations Media Peace Award in 1989 and the Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) for services to Aboriginal Australians.

Frank Retribution
Letters, The Weekend Australian, December 13-14, 2003

Frank Devine's diatribe of criticism (Features 12/12) against Father Frank Brennan SJ, and those who have anything to say about the utter depravity that is contemporary Australian politics, is just another instance of the Right shoving its fanatical views on the rest of us.

Forget about balance, considered opinion or what makes social democracy. Devine and his ilk are squarely of the opinion that Right is always morally right.

Toby O'Connor
National Director
Catholic Welfare Australia
Curtin, ACT

So Frank Devine thinks Fr Frank Brennan should stay out of "politics". I was reminded of how ideologues like Devine long ago attacked the famous Archbishop Dr Mannix when he dared to speak on "politics".

Sad, but not surprising, that Mr Devine chooses to attack a distinguished and compassionate priest who is merely applying papal social teaching to a vital social issue.

But Mr Devine - why stop at the Jesuits? If you were consistent you should launch an attack on our greatest Catholic priest - Pope John Paul II. The Holy Father's constant "seductive rhetoric" on our responsibilities to refugees and their suffering is clearly worthy of your sarcasm and "polite" rage.

I say, thank God we have Catholic priests like Frank Brennan, who follow papal social teaching on refugees. I prefer them to "Catholic" journalists who publicly dissent from papal social teaching.

M. O'Connor
Fitzroy, Vic

Frank Devine: Do-gooder priests should stay out of the asylum debate
The Australian, December 12, 2003

Father Frank Brennan, SJ, has too many gongs for comfort. "Father" and "SJ" would have done me. They indicate useful steps taken on the road to personal sanctity and good work done in the cure of souls.

But the author's note in his new book, Tampering with Asylum, shows Brennan is also an Officer of the Order of Australia, recipient of the Australian Council for Overseas Aid's Human Rights Award, the Humanitarian Overseas Service Medal and the Australian Centenary Medal. Caesar has rendered him his due.

This is not to denigrate Brennan's intention of improving the lives of Aborigines, for which his AO was awarded, and refugees, especially in East Timor, but it is my intention to speculate, probably ungenerously, about the asymmetry of the communion of priests and politics.

It would be going too far, I suppose, to draw a parallel with actors, who seem as a rule to have surrendered cognitive areas of their brains in return for their glorious gifts and reveal their Faustian bargain whenever they venture into political activism.

However, I think the priest in politics has a good deal in common with the creative writer addressing the issues of the day - as depicted in The Australian last Friday by Frank Moorhouse.

"I sometimes wonder," Moorhouse wrote, "whether storytellers of high profile are, if anything, disqualified from public statement because we are often falsely (but seductively) trusted to have special insights which we do not necessarily have."

Consciously or not, the public priest invokes the prestige and power of his religious office when he involves himself in politics - unless he explicitly discards the biretta, so to speak. When he indulges in political campaigning in full Jesuit regalia, as Brennan does in his homily on the injustice, illegality and immorality of Australia's treatment of boatpeople, I feel ambushed.

Broadly, Brennan's thesis is that Australia should have embraced recent asylum-seekers, including those picked up by the Tampa. "If a return to moral decency means we will be viewed as 'just an easy touch for illegal immigrants' (quoting John Howard), so be it."

Brennan's tone is censorious, his main objective, it often seems, being to castigate Australia and its Government for their lack of decency. Nearly a quarter of Tampering with Asylum is devoted to accusatory, legalistic (Brennan is also a lawyer) analysis of the ways Australia's treatment of boatpeople breaches provisions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and various UN conventions.

Only once while plodding through Tampering with Asylum was I touched by the human plight of the boatpeople, and that was when I read something else, a review by Roger Ebert of a new movie, In America, which is about immigrants. "I am astonished," Ebert wrote, "by the will and the faith of recent immigrants I meet. Think what it takes to leave home, family and even language to try for a better life in another country."

Brennan has apparently had an unusual freedom of access to boatpeople in detention camps. Yet he tells us little about them as human beings. Sparse anecdotes are used to belabour the Government for its harsh treatment of them. We learn next to nothing about their experiences, their values, their aspirations.

Similarly, the word moral is used more than 100 times, often as a qualifier in phrases such as "the moral calculus" and "moral discourse", but largely to highlight the wickedness of Australia's conduct.

I'm not sure Brennan would concede his book is political. Yet he reproduces 17 belligerently political newspaper cartoons, 16 of them antagonistic to the Government and several amounting to muggings of the Prime Minister.

He dabbles recklessly in moral equivalency. In the context of detention centres, he writes: "On a visit to the Changi war prison I realised that the abuses of detention are always more aggravated when the jailers are people of another race." And in a curious, superficially non sequitur anecdote, Brennan inadvertently reveals an overarching political credo.

Meeting them both by chance at Sydney airport, Brennan introduced a Palestinian refugee named Wahid to the suspended chairman of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, Geoff Clark.

"We've got the same minister," Clark tells Wahid. (Philip Ruddock was then the minister for immigration and multicultural and indigenous affairs). Brennan realises "suddenly" that Ruddock was "minister for everyone who is 'other' in contemporary Australia". Clark goes on: "I tell our minister, 'I don't mind you making tough laws for boatpeople providing they are retrospective."' He points to Brennan. "This mob are all boatpeople. But now they think they can run the show."

So there it is. Poisoned by the original sin of stealing the continent from the Aborigines, Australian society is intrinsically corrupt and immoral. It can be redeemed only by radical social and political change.

Well, everybody's entitled to their opinion.

 

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