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Adelaide Launch of Tampering with Asylum

Professor Lowitja O’Donoghue AC CBE
Lauching Tampering With Asylum (ISBN 0702234168), by Frank Brennan

Imprints Bookshop, Adelaide
20 November 2003

This speech can be accessed from the Yunggorendi website at:
www.flinders.edu.au/yunggorendi

It gives me very great pleasure to launch this latest book by Father Frank Brennan.

Not only because I feel passionately about Australia’s response to refugees and asylum seekers and share many of Frank’s views.

But also because Frank and I go back a long way – to the days of the Keating Government and the introduction of the Native Title legislation, and then later the Wik debates during the Howard government.

I have many fond memories of those heady days and late nights of plotting and lobbying. Many memories of success and some of frustration too!

One thing I particularly remember about Frank was Paul Keating calling him the “meddling priest” – the same year in fact that the National Trust named Frank a Living National Treasure.

I suspect they were both compliments – albeit of a very different kind. Paul’s delivered, of course, as only Paul could!

I suspect too that Frank is rather proud of his meddling.

And I say “long may he continue to meddle!”

Keating was of course referring to Frank’s interventions in the Wik debates.

Maybe he saw Frank crossing a few lines drawn in the sands of Lake Burley Griffen, treading on a few sensitive political toes.

But Frank Brennan has never been a priest willing to be confined to the cloisters, or to devote his time to narrow theological issues.

His whole life has been dedicated to matters of social justice and his prolific writings are testimony to this.

He has written several books on civil liberties. He has spoken and published about the Iraq War.

He has written a number of books on Aboriginal issues including The Wik Debate, One Land One Nation, Sharing the Country and Land Rights Queensland style.

He has always been a passionate defender of Aboriginal people and upholder of our rights for fairness and justice.

And he is not just a man of letters – but a man of action, willing to get involved at the grass roots.

For example, he has recently returned from East Timor where he has spent 18 months trying to help refugees return from West Timor to East Timor.

His work there with the Jesuit Refugee Service has involved providing some basic health and education services, particularly in the devastated border regions.

It makes you wonder how he ever gets time to write books such as this, his latest, Tampering with Asylum.

This is an important book, for many reasons.

It engages with one of the most pressing and divisive issues facing Australia today.

That is: How can Australia behave like a humanitarian, decent country in our response to the desperate needs of people fleeing persecution and oppression in their home countries?

How can Australia share the global burden, at the same time as putting in place some workable and reasonable measures of border protection?

I continue to be ashamed that we are not more welcoming of asylum seekers, and that our government is sidestepping its international human rights obligations in this respect.

And when asylum seekers – boat people – are dismissed as ‘queue jumpers’ or ‘illegals’, I want to remind Prime Minister Howard and Minister Ruddock that my people had to deal with boat people over 200 years ago!

Just imagine what would have happened if back then, when we saw those tall ships and those men in funny hats, we had tried to excise Sydney Cove from Australia.

Think about that for a moment!

Tampering with asylum is a scholarly book, firmly based in an analysis of Australia’s migration history and some revealing international comparisons between Australia’s response and those of other signatories to the UN Convention on Refugees.

It is a measured book.

It systematically dismantles the insecurities and fear mongering which have been promoted by the Howard government and spread by the popular media.

What is truly frightening, in my view, is that John Howard rode to his last election victory by whipping up fear in the community – the fear of our borders being violated by hordes of foreigners and potential terrorists.

And then fear of electoral defeat produced a gutless opposition too timid to take a moral, principled position in response.

Fear has been a potent driving force in politics in recent years.

Nonetheless, there is no doubt that the world has become, for many, a scary place.

Since the events of September 11th, the Bali bombing, the Iraq war and its lingering and bloody aftermath, people have understandably become more frightened.

But as Frank Brennan writes:

“If Democracy is about honouring the will of the people and protecting the rights and dignity of all, it is essential that our political leaders respond positively to our fears rather than feeding those fears.”

This book is an example of such a positive response.

It’s packed full of information about border control, conventions and treaties, mandatory detention and international statistics about onshore and offshore refugee policies throughout the world.

And it makes some eminently sensible recommendations for immediate and feasible corrections to current government law and policy. These include:

§ Maintaining our commitment to offshore refugees and humanitarian places each year, regardless of the number of successful onshore applications for refugee status (that is, from unauthorised arrivals)

§ Giving successful applicants for refugee status a visa that entitles them to family reunion and international travel, as specified in Article 28 of the Convention on Refugees (of which we are a signatory)

§ Converting temporary protection visas to permanent after 3 years if our protection obligations are still invoked.

§ Abolishing the so called Pacific “solution” of parking asylum seekers in Nauru or Papua New Guinea (which in my view is no solution at all, but just convenient buck passing)

§ Using Christmas Island just for initial detention for identity, health and security risks, and then re-locating these people to the mainland.

And there are more – all simple, feasible and humane recommendations.

While it is scholarly and well researched book, this is no dry, academic text.

Personal stories from asylum seekers themselves give the issues a human face.

Brilliant cartoons from Australia’s leading newspaper cartoonists provide a consistent critique of government policy and politician-speak.

And throughout it, is the very reasonable voice of Frank Brennan calling for a more humane response, a more rational and decent response.

A more appropriate response than the current use of, as he puts it, a “sledgehammer to crack a walnut”.

As Frank says:”Compared with the European numbers, ours is a small nut to crack.”

While this book was written before the Melville Island incident a few weeks ago, I am confident that Frank would see the excising of this and almost 4000 other islands as another sledgehammer response.

And one which does not in fact release Australia from its international obligations to refugees.

Reminiscent of the Tampa incident, the Government's devious reaction to the threat posed by 14 passengers again plays on domestic fears, encourages racism and continues Australia’s harsh, punitive approach.

Frank illustrates very powerfully that there is no coherent rationale for mandatory detention and that it is often excessively prolonged.

That children should never be seen as a security risk and detained behind razor wire.

And that when compared with other countries such as the UK, Germany and the United States, who receive the largest number of individual asylum applications, we “are failing to pull our weight in the world”.

I commend this book to you all. It deserves to be read by all thinking Australians.

And I hope you buy your copy from Imprints and give a small bookseller a fair go, too.

Let me conclude by reading you part of Frank’s final eloquent paragraph:

We can both secure our borders and honour our international humanitarian obligations without terrorising asylum seekers on the high seas, detaining them in the desert, transporting them to Pacific islands, and putting on hold their reunion with family and their new life among us. ….The Tampa has come and gone, and so has the time for tampering with asylum….Many of us would like to return collectively to being ‘a warm hearted, decent, international citizen’ at home and abroad.

Thank you.

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