Transcript of Nextus, In Person
Transcript of Nexus in Person, ABC Asia Pacific, Friday
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
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
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.'
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
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
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.
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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