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The Asylum Seekers One Year On
Not Gone, yet Forgotten!

An Opinion piece written by Neville J Roach

Neville Roach is:

Chairman, Fujitsu Australia Limited
Former Chairman, Council for Multicultural Australia*
Former Chairman, Business (migration) Advisory Panel*

* This paper was written to mark Neville Roach’s resignation from these positions a year ago

The detention centre fires have clearly eroded public sympathy for the asylum seekers further, but it would be wrong to use this to retrospectively justify the way they have been treated. It is grossly unfair to blame the hundreds in detention for the acts of a few, but, more importantly, we should remind ourselves that the asylum seeker issue is not so much about them as about us, our values, our respect for their humanity, our commitment to human rights.

But for the fires, the epitaph ‘not gone, yet forgotten’ would best reflect the waning interest of the media and public in the plight of the asylum seekers. They have certainly not gone. Thousands remain in Australia on their ‘permanent’ temporary protection visas’ (TPV’s), continually at risk of repatriation at the Government’s whim. Hundreds languish in the limbo of the Pacific Solution. And hundreds more, including children, are still imprisoned in Australia.

The media and public also seem to have excused the Government’s dishonesty over the ‘children overboard’ affair. The Senate inquiry confirmed that the Government had lied, released false evidence and gone to extraordinary lengths to avoid learning the truth. But few Australians have maintained their rage, apparently endorsing the new standard that the buck stops well before it reaches Ministers or the Prime Minister.

Full credit for this remarkable state of affairs must go to John Howard and Philip Ruddock. In the course of 2002, their propaganda became far more brazen and smart. They increasingly boasted of our wonderful generosity, while progressively becoming more mean-spirited. They continued to use prejudice to boost their stocks, but far more astutely. Having successfully demonised the largely Muslim asylum seekers, they repeatedly called for tolerance towards Muslims. Sadly, the PM showed his true colours with his immediate, “I like Fred Nile” response to the latter’s disgraceful suggestion that the ‘chador’ could be used to conceal bombs. Shrewdly, he later criticised Fred, but his tacit encouragement had once again given licence to intolerance.

Ruddock fine-tuned his ‘zero tolerance’ policy into one of ‘infinite intolerance’, finding new ways to add to the asylum seekers’ misery. A good example is the proposal to require those on temporary protection visas to keep dole diaries in English and contact up to 10 employers a fortnight to qualify for welfare under proposed laws. So, after denying them access to DIMIA-funded English classes and Job Network Intensive Assistance programs, both designed to help the most disadvantaged to participate, the Minister now wants to penalise them financially for not participating.

While the ongoing ‘war on terrorism’, Bali, and Bush’s Iraq crusade have understandably overtaken the asylum seeker issue in the public mind, the real danger for Australia is that, if the Government gets away with its unprincipled approach to asylum seekers, it will be emboldened to compromise fundamental principles on other issues as well. In fact, this is already happening. Having denied the asylum seekers’ human rights, it can hardly object to the similar treatment of two Australians at Guantanamo Bay and, as its recent ASIO bill made clear, the fundamental rights of all Australians, even children, are expendable too. The success it has enjoyed exploiting the community’s underlying fear of ‘the other’ by emulating Chicken Little with the cry, ‘ our borders are threatened’, has encouraged it to keep us in a constant state of paranoia with its ‘dob in a suspected terrorist’ campaign. The probable devastating impact on the harmony of multicultural Australia does not seem to matter, because the PM’s stocks rise as public anxiety increases. Finally, having totally wrong-footed Beazley over ‘border protection’, Howard is now pressuring Crean by challenging him to match his abject support of Bush on Iraq and his threat of pre-emptive strikes against our neighbours.

What we are really witnessing is a crucial battle over the values that will define the Australian nation in the 21st century. Not since 1966, when the Vietnam war, conscription and ‘all the way with LBJ’ gave Holt a landslide victory, has Australia been so divided. The Government’s priority is clear. Do whatever it takes to stay in power - tolerate and even encourage prejudice, foster paranoia, everywhere, compromise human rights, weaken Australian independence by following the USA on every issue from Kyoto to Iraq.

Fortunately, we remain a democracy and the electorate can change its mind as it did between 1966 and 1972. I am optimistic this can happen again, despite the seeming invincibility of John Howard. The Greens and Democrats have not wavered from their highly principled stance on asylum seekers, Kyoto, Iraq and ASIO. And, in the most significant and courageous show of leadership in 2002, Simon Crean and Julia Gillard successfully abandoned Kim Beazley’s me-too non-leadership, adopting an asylum seeker policy that differs clearly and substantially from the Government’s. While Carmen Lawrence, as a senior ALP figure, was entirely entitled and justified in demanding an even greater policy shift, it would be a big mistake for the rest of us not to recognise Labor’s giant leap towards a policy based on recognition of our common humanity and respect for human rights.

The combined opposition will need to keep its nerve and continue to block bad legislation, even if this risks a double dissolution. Simon Crean should stop merely proclaiming he is as strong on ‘border protection’ and the ‘war on terrorism’ as Howard, otherwise he will finish second, just as Beazley did. Of course, he must demonstrate his strength, but on issues of his choosing. He should provide a vision based on Australian values, identity and independence, arguing that he is strong on integrity, accountability, peace, human rights, respect for diversity, reconciliation, the environment and constructive engagement with Asia. Giving Australians a clear choice between such leadership and one that is taking us in the opposite direction is Crean’s best opportunity for success. It is also Australia’s only hope out of the morass we find ourselves in at the start of 2003.

Sydney, January 2, 2003