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Transcript of Nextus, In Person

Transcript of Nexus in Person, ABC Asia Pacific, Friday 10/10/2003

Source: http://abcasiapacific.com/nexus/stories/s959312.htm

Frank Brennan SJ AO, a Jesuit priest and lawyer, is the Associate Director of Uniya, the Jesuit Social Justice Centre in Sydney. He has written extensively on Aboriginal Land Rights and is the author of a number of books, including The Wik Debate, One Land One Nation, Sharing the Country , and Land Rights Queensland, and is the co-author of Finding Common Ground and Reconciling Our Differences.

His books on civil liberties are Too Much Order With Too Little Law and Legislating Liberty. His latest book Tampering with Asylum will be published in September 2003.

In 1994, he chaired the committee to review the journalists' code of ethics for the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance. In 1996, he completed two years of studies and field trips in the Philippines, Cambodia, Uganda and the United States where he was a Fulbright Scholar at Georgetown University and the first Visiting Fellow at the Australia and New Zealand Studies Center.

His current interests and commitments include Aboriginal rights, refugee rights, the bill of rights and constitutional reform, intercultural and inter-religious perspectives on human rights in East Asia.

In 1995 he was made an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) for services to Aboriginal Australians, particularly as an advocate in the areas of law, social justice and reconciliation. In 1996, he and Pat Dodson shared the inaugural ACFOA Human Rights Award. In 1997, he was Rapporteur at the Australian Reconciliation Convention. During his involvement in the 1998 Wik debate, the National Trust named him a Living National Treasure and Paul Keating christened him a meddling priest. In 1998, the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation appointed him an Ambassador for Reconciliation.

In January 2002, he returned from 18 months in East Timor where he was the Director of the Jesuit Refugee Service. He was awarded the Humanitarian Overseas Service Medal for his work in East Timor.


Transcript: Father Frank Brennan with Ian Henschke

Father Frank Brennan, thanks very much for your time.

Pleasure, good to be with you.

Let's start off by some of the names you've been called.

There are too many of them.

You've been called a National Living Treasure by the National Trust. In the same year Prime Minister Paul Keating, I think an Irish Catholic himself, called you a 'meddling priest'. Which one's true?

I think I'd plead guilty to both. Paul Keating was very worried because at that stage there was a major debate in Australia about the land rights of the Aboriginal people, and there were many political complexities in our Senate, the upper house of the Parliament, and he thought I was a bit too close to the action. And I suppose I was very involved in the action, and at the same the National Trust thought that there were some people out there trying to make a difference, and hopefully both are true.

Paul Keating was Prime Minister ten years ago when he called you a meddling priest. Have you meddled so much since then that the Aboriginal situation is better in Australia?

I think the Aboriginal situation nationally is on hold in terms of big policy change but I think there have definitely been positive developments. For example, I think there are now at least five Aboriginal professors in Australian universities. When I started this sort of work twenty years ago, if you'd said to me that within twenty years there'd be five full professors of indigenous background in Australia, I would have said you were mad.

The other thing of course is there are now very significant land holdings under land rights and there have been very significant attempts at self-determination. So I think overall there have been very positive developments but there is still a long way to go.

One of the things that seems to be of most concern to people is that for a developed country like Australia, we have got a far worse situation for the indigenous people in this country than in New Zealand or in Canada.

One of the major problems we have in Australia is of course remoteness and so where you have Aboriginal communities in very remote places they are really under a triple disadvantage. They've got the geographic isolation. Second, they're very small communities and they don't have, for example, professional health people there on the ground. And third they're indigenous and there is still that cultural gap between the communities and those who are delivering the health service.

Now you compare that say with New Zealand, where you've got a much smaller country, you've got a much higher percentage of people who are indigenous and you've also had a much higher degree of intermarriage. And so what you've had in New Zealand is a situation where you've had people of indigenous background who are represented in all classes of society, whereas I think that's only started to happen in Australia in recent times.

That sounds like you're defending an appalling situation there.

No, I'm not defending it. I'm just saying that I think it is a reality. It's still an appalling situation that there are health statistics where Aboriginal people live in fourth world conditions in a first world country. And yes, Australia has much more to do.

How do we solve that problem? You've devoted a good part of your life to looking at this issue.

There are two key things that are needed. One of course is participation with the local indigenous community but the second is resources and it means very big resources, far greater resources than have ever been committed by an Australian government, in order to deliver meaningful health services to very small, very remote communities.

The other issue that comes up when we talk about the problems of Aboriginal people in Australia is that you are sixteen times more likely, on the latest study, to go to jail.

The statistics are always horrifying in relation to indigenous people in Australia and the criminal justice system. Basically, you've still got to be a moral hero to survive as a young indigenous person in contemporary Australia and, that being the case, they're are people who are far more likely to run into trouble. That then results, even though prison might be said to be a last resort, where you've got young people who feel very alienated from two societies.

This often isn't understood by overseas visitors who look at Australia: that you have Aboriginal people who are feeling very removed from their traditional society because they've been exposed very rapidly to a lot of very new and modern ideas, so there's a very big generation gap but, at the same time, they don't feel part of or accepted within the mainstream society. So they fall between two stools, which then means they're in a social situation where they are very likely to end up in trouble with the law.

Now we go to the Asia Pacific region and often Australia is telling other countries, 'You're not good enough on this or that.' And they can always come back and say, 'Look at the way you deal with your indigenous people there.'

Oh definitely.

Do you think we're hypocrites?

No, I don't think we're hypocrites but I think we become hypocritical if we do not heed what is then being said by those people. For example, when I go to conferences in a place like Jakarta, I will often hear that said, and it will be said, 'How can you preach to us about Irian Jaya, about East Timor, given that your Aboriginal population is so small and given that your resources are so great and given that you've had so long to do something about this?'

How do you answer that?

I say, 'You're dead right.' And it's not that we're being hypocritical. It's that we're admitting that we've got a major problem but the fact that we've got a major problem doesn't mean we shouldn't participate in the region and actually put in what we Australians would call our two bobs' worth.

You've just returned from 18 months in East Timor. What were you trying to do there? What were you trying to achieve?

I was there directing an outfit we have called the Jesuit Refugee Service. It had two very simple roles: one was trying to help refugees return from West Timor to East Timor. That became very critical for us because, with the killing of three United Nation workers in East Timor in September 2000, there was then a gap which could be filled by a church organisation like ours, because on the West Timor side of the border, all our staff were Indonesian. And therefore we could continue to work well together. The second aim was, given the devastation of East Timor, to help provide some basic health and education services, particularly down on the devastated border regions.

And then in addition to that, being in the country during that time, it was possible to make some small contribution to the thinking and the discussion and the debate about issues such as reconciliation and the new constitution.

What's the situation like in East Timor? People were very worried after independence that things might unravel and yet we don't hear much about East Timor. So is it 'no news is good news'?

It's 'no news is good news' in the sense that the East Timorese are an extraordinarily resourceful people who have suffered a hell of a lot. And, having gone through the years of suffering that they have, they are very committed to trying to make it work even though they are very poor society and even though they are a very undertrained society.

Now, the jury is still out and there is the risk of factionalisation arising, particularly with a political process which is very new for the people and, once the oil revenues start to flow, the question will be whether or not there is true equity in what then happens within the society.

The other big change which confronts East Timor is that it was a place that was isolated for a very long time and so it had the effects of modernisation come in on it very quickly and I think that's lead to a lot of uncertainty, particularly If I may say, with the Catholic Church, given that 95 percent of the population is Catholic, and people are adjusting to a new and modern situation.

You mean satellite dishes are popping up everywhere and the people are getting barraged by external culture?

Not only satellite dishes but you had the UN there for 18 months, two years, people from 153 different countries on earth, bringing with them all sorts of different ideas and different cultural aspirations.

And you also had really a dual economy set up for some time, so you had some East Timorese who were being employed by the UN or by international NGOs who were paid very flash salaries. There were then other East Timorese, the majority, who missed out on that, and so overnight really, there was a very strict class differentiation that was set up and that has long term problems I think.

That's gone now though. Is everyone back to normal or is there still a lot of that dualů?

It's gone but there is still a dual salary regime and there is still a perception that the United Nations has its role to play. And it's not until we see the complete withdrawal of the UN that we'll know whether or not East Timor is a sustainable democracy and economy, being such a small country in this part of the world.

Talking about this part of the world, Australia has, over the last few years, taken this tough stance on what is known as the Border Protection Policy. How are we perceived when you travel to Indonesia and to other parts of the world?

We are perceived as a first world country that used to be fairly decent on these matters. We've moved from that status to being a first world country that is fairly indecent. I think, on this issue, we are seen in the region to be quite hypocritical and for very good reason: namely that the argument that the Australian government continues to put is that anyone who turns up here in a leaky boat is not a refugee who is directly fleeing from persecution but rather, even if they be a refugee, our government argues they could always get protection in a country closer to where they fled from and so what they're seeking is a migration outcome in coming to Australia.

And so Australia has attempted to isolate itself from the phenomenon of refugee flows around the world arguing that anyone who turns up in a leaky boat is not to be treated prima facie as a refugee but rather someone who is trying to jump the queue.

This thing about queue-jumping, is there a queue? Can you go to an Australian embassy in Vietnam and say, "I'd like to join the queue to become a refugee'?

When we have a wave of boat people they always come from countries where there's a major implosion, and when you have that, refugee flows are like throwing a stone into a pond, you'll get ripples everywhere, and we Australians have to accept that some of them will turn up on our shores.

Now if you look, for example, at what happened in Afghanistan, yes we had an office that was open in Islamabad, but once things got too tough then the people were told, 'Sorry, we've closed the queue in Islamabad. If you want to present yourself in Bangkok then you can join the queue there but you'll have to understand that business has become a bit more brisk and so you might have to wait a while.'

So the argument about queues is really a delusion and what we have to accept is that of course people who are desperate will use what resources they've got in order to get to first world countries where they hope they might get some permanent protection, particularly when they're looking for protection for their kids.

I'll play devil's advocate just for one moment.

Sure.

There has been some suggestion that some of the people who have been turning up here have been really quite evil, they've been burning down the refugee centres. They may have been people that we didn't want. So how do you deal with that?

How you deal with that is if people do commit serious criminal offences then yes, you don't give them refugee status. But what we have to accept is that if we look at the flow of people who came, for example, the Iraqis who have turned up in leaky boats, 97 percent of them were proved to be refugees, eventually, but meanwhile we kept 100 percent of them, including the children, in detention.

This is the problem. If you keep people in detention, even once you've decided they're not a security threat, they're not a health threat and once you've established their identity, there is no basis for continuing to keep them in detention and they know there's no basis for that, they know it's very unfair and they know in Australia it's very high politics, so of course these detention centres, at times, have blown up. But that's to be expected when you have such an unjust policy.

Well, thank you very much for your time, Father Brennan. I imagine you'll be continuing to work in justice. Where's the next area?

What I'd be hoping to do is much more work in what I call the Australia Indonesia East Timor triangle because I think this triangle throws up every possible conception you could have of intercultural and interreligious perspectives on human rights. I think we, as neighbours, have much we can learn from each other.

I hope we can learn some more from you next time you come on our program. Thanks for your time.

Thank you. Good to be with you.

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