Tag Archives: Howard government

On the politics of criminalising the persecuted

11 Apr

Both the ALP and LNP have, since the Howard government adopted Pauline Hanson’s racist rhetoric and made it politically mainstream again, steadily escalated the implementation of cruel and inhuman policies towards asylum seekers who arrive here by boat.

Hanson gave voice to a dark side of  Australian culture. Howard saw the votes in it, and legitimised its claims to entitlement. I don’t know if the voters who support the illegal punishment of those seeking asylum in great enough numbers for both major parties to capitulate to their demands, ever actually think about the human beings in whose mental destruction they are callously colluding. I doubt it.

Our politicians despicably wilful refusal to uphold our responsibilities to those seeking asylum, as we agreed to do when we signed and later ratified the UN Convention, makes a mockery of that Convention and our obligations to honour it. If we had any guts at all, we would withdraw. As it stands, by continuing to offer asylum to those fleeing persecution we issue an open invitation. We proclaim ourselves to the world as a site of sanctuary. When we are most definitely not, as it is defined by the Convention.

There has been no political leader in this country willing or able to contest the obscene politicisation of a global human tragedy. Even a prime minister with a vagina won’t do it, indeed, under her government things have become increasingly worse. Despite vagina, Prime Minister Gillard has fully embraced the discourse of the importunate other, taking every opportunity to reassure Australians that she will not permit “foreigners” to take our jobs. Despite vagina and anti misogynist rhetoric, Ms Gillard has presided over the vile and ongoing detention of women and children fleeing persecution.

Is it possible to be a feminist  today in Australia and lock up women and children fleeing persecution? There’s a question for Tony Jones and his all-girl Qanda. There’s a question for “All About Women.”

Every day some public figure in parliament or the media, refers to”illegals” and variations thereof, in their deliberate positioning of boat arrivals as criminals who must be dealt with far more severely than any other criminal. Even murderers know how long they are to be incarcerated. Boat arrivals do not.

Billions of tax payer dollars have been channelled towards these indefinite incarcerations, despite the irrefutable fact that the majority of boat arrivals are found to be refugees, and entitled to stay in this country. Those who are not are quite rightly sent back to where they came from. Unfortunately, some are wrongly sent back to where they came from, and when they arrive they are subjected to torture and death.

As long as there are votes in criminalising and dehumanising asylum seekers who arrive by boat, politicians will continue with these practices. This is one example of the evils of democracy. When the majority demand the torment of others in order that they may persuade themselves they are safe from threat, then the majority will have its way.

There is something fundamentally flawed, not to mention abhorrent, in the belief that the worse we treat those who arrive by boat, the more likely we are to discourage people from attempting the journey. We do not have the right to treat badly those who are only responding to our open invitation, and yet we continue to claim that right and to act on it.

I don’t know where this will end. Asylum seekers are not going away. Boats aren’t going to stop. I don’t know how much more cruelly we can treat boat arrivals, in the vain hope that desperate people will lose their desperation and stay where they are. The rich world must find decent ways to deal with the increasing encroachment of the persecuted on its privilege. We cannot continue to incarcerate them. We cannot continue to drive them out of their minds. We cannot continue to waste the resourcefulness and courage boat arrivals offer our society. We cannot continue to pour billions of dollars into brutalising women and children. We cannot continue capitulating to the ignorant fears of Australians who can’t be bothered thinking this through, and who just want someone to make it all go way and promise them they’ll be forever safe from difference.

We can’t, and we must not.

“Go Back” Series Two: human misery on prime time television with ads

2 Sep

I just watched two episodes of “Go Back to Where You Came From.” As with the first series, I again feel conflicted about the dire circumstances of refugees and asylum seekers being turned into spectacle for comfortable Westerners such as myself to gape at, and indulge in an emotional reaction of one kind or another from the safety of my couch.

It also offers an opportunity to camp on the high moral ground along with Allen Asher, Imogen Birley and Catherine Deveney.  Because even though I think Asher, Deveney and Birley’s positions are right and good and honest, and echo many of my own, we do get to occupy the morally superior position, a nice warm place to be, and that does give us the chance to look down on the likes of Peter Reith, Angry Anderson and Michael Smith who, initially at least, act like total crap.

I have to say I’m a bit bloody sick of this good and evil dichotomy. It’s all getting a bit George W Bush.

A justification for the co-opting of human misery to prime time television (complete with advertisements, I’ll get back to that) would be if three male participants whose minds were changed by their up close and personal encounters with fear, terror, hunger, thirst, illness and misery endured by millions every day were to become a voice for asylum seekers for longer than the interest in the television series lasts. Then much may be achieved, as they change the opinions of their bigoted followers and deprive the rabid xenophobes of a voice and leaders.

I’m mindful that since the first series of Go Back, things have got so much worse for boat arrivals. Clearly, whatever the personal epiphanies experienced by those participants, they’ve stayed personal, because our politicians have only got worse.

The first series hasn’t changed a thing for the better. And here we are again, gasping with outrage and emotion in between our dinner and the bedtime Milo.

Peter Reith, Angry Anderson and Michael Smith all have public platforms they could use to undo some of the damage they’ve already done to the public perception of asylum seekers who arrive here by boat. In particular, Reith was John Howard’s architect of the infamous Children Overboard affair. During that time,  asylum seekers were demonized as never before, and the mud the Howard government slung at them has stuck. It seems to me that the least Reith could do to compensate for what he now describes as a “stuff up,” is apologise for his part in that deadly “stuff up” and admit they were terribly, wickedly wrong about the children, women and men they exploited to stay in power.

The intrusion of advertising in Go Back revealed the show for what it really is: entertainment. Just when we got really involved with someone’s suffering and the whole damn disgraceful fucking situation, there’s an ad for a new car, food, furniture, whatever the hell they’re selling now, to remind us that it’s only television! It’s not our real life! Our real life is cars, food, furniture, whatever the hell else and this documentary is merely a distraction from what actually matters. An intense emotional experience brought to you by Toyota, and a bunch of people who’ll never ever own one.

I would love to believe that these series will bring about change. I would love to believe that enough minds will be changed as a consequence of viewing them. But I don’t. Which leads me to wonder what is this series really about? What is its purpose?

And what are its ethics?

A brief history of the Coalition’s hostile encounters with the UN

17 Jul

March 28, 2005 – “Australia was facing a United Nations committee’s scrutiny for the first time in five years. The event went unreported back home and the verdict – handed down on March 12 – was the subject of only a few, scattered reports in the press.”

“Australia was rebuked for its treatment of migrants, Muslims, asylum seekers, refugees and Aborigines. In the eyes of the Geneva committee, the list of this country’s failures on the human rights front has only grown longer since the Howard Government came to office.”

The Coalition’s recent insistence that asylum seekers can only be sent to states that have signed the Refugee Convention is startling, given its history with the UN throughout the Howard government years. This history can be fairly described as hostile and bordering on the pugilistic, with then Foreign Minister Alexander Downer reacting to negative UN committee reports with this outburst:

  “We won’t cop it any longer. We are a democratically elected government in one of the most liberal and democratic countries you will find on Earth. And if a United Nations committee wants to play domestic politics here in Australia, then it will end up with a bloody nose.”

On Howard’s watch in 1998, Australia became the first Western nation to be issued with an “urgent action” notice following what the UN committee identified as a risk of “acute impairment” to native title rights. We were then found in breach of our obligations to the Committee on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD) and again earned the dubious distinction of being the first Western nation to incur a breach finding.

John Howard reacted to UN criticisms thus: “Australian laws are made by Australian parliaments elected by the Australian people, not by UN committees.” Amnesty International confirmed his attitude with this observation, after a 2004 High Court ruling sanctioned mandatory detention:  “These findings show the limited impact that international human rights law has had to date on Australian law-making.”

As an indication of the Coalition attitude in 2001, Liberal Senator Ross Lightfoot referred to boat arrivals as “uninvited and repulsive peoples whose sordid list of behaviours included scuttling their own boats.” (Human Rights Watch Report, 2003).

In 2002, at the request of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mrs Mary Robinson, the Howard government agreed to allow Special Envoy Justice P.N. Bhagwati to assess the conditions of asylum seekers held in indefinite mandatory detention, with specific regard to the question of their human rights.

Justice Bhagwati’s report, which can be read in full at the above link, contains this observation:

As noted above, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Article 7) and the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, explicitly prohibit torture and all cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and punishment. The human rights situation which Justice Bhagwati found in Woomera IRPC could, in many ways, be considered inhuman and degrading.

Australia signed the CAT treaty in 1985, and ratified in 1989.

Justice Bhagwati’s report was described by Howard government ministers as “fundamentally flawed,” “emotive” and lacking objectivity. The government received an advanced copy of the report, and had the opportunity to correct any “flaws” prior to its release. The Special Envoy was also accused of interfering in domestic policies.

A personal observation: I visited Woomera Detention Centre in 2002, just before Justice Bhagwati undertook his visit to Australian detention centres. It was entirely appropriate to react with emotion to the conditions in that place, and to the suffering of the children, women and men behind its razor wire. Indeed, the inability to feel disturbed by those conditions and the resultant human suffering, indicates the presence of sociopathic tendencies, an inability to accept those imprisoned there as human.

For a much more thorough analysis of the Coalition’s relations with the UN than I’ve provided, I strongly recommend “The Howard Government’s Record of Engagement with the International Human Rights System” by Sarah Joseph.

The series of events over the last decade and more rather gives lie to this extravagant claim: “The Opposition’s immigration spokesman Scott Morrison says the Coalition has always supported the UN Refugee Convention, and will continue to do so.”

The Opposition’s recent decision to refuse to allow asylum seekers to be sent to any country that hasn’t signed the Refugee Convention is wildly inconsistent with its attitude to the United Nations for the last fourteen years. When in government, the Coalition regarded the UN as toothless, and our obligations to the treaties we signed as irrelevant. These include the Convention on the Rights of the Child, as children were and still are kept in mandatory detention, with and without their parents.

These attitudes are not peculiar to the Opposition. The current government does not observe our obligations either.

Now Scott Morrison seems to be getting himself in something of a twist, having declared the Refugee Convention to be out of date and needing an overhaul, while simultaneously demanding the government observe the fundamental protections it offers in ensuring asylum seekers are sent to a signatory country.

Neither major party have anything to boast about when it comes to Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers. Both pander to the prejudice and xenophobia of voters they believe will give them government. Both claim they wish to avoid deaths at sea, but they apparently have little or no concern about asylum seekers dying anywhere else, as long as it’s out of our sight and mind.

This is a drastic failure of leadership on both parts. It’s been shown time and time again, that if people are given the opportunity to meet and know asylum seekers, even the most hardened attitudes can change dramatically. Leaders worth the title would grasp this, and take the opportunity to extend our hearts and minds rather than encourage their shrinkage for political gain. There are many things that can be described as despicable in politics, but surely up there at the top must be the demonisation of human beings, and exploitation of their suffering for domestic political gain.

A pox on both their houses.


Annabel Crabb and Peter Reith

19 Jun

Yesterday I read a tweet from Annabel Crabb to a tweep who’d complained that Peter Reith was on The Drum AGAIN. Anyone on my Twitter feed will know that we are constantly complaining about the regular presence of Mr Reith, both on the televised and the online version of The Drum. Regulars like David Horton of the Watermelon Blog ask several times a week that the ABC reveal Reith’s contract with the public broadcaster, to no avail.

Many tweeps repeatedly point out the role Reith played in the Howard government, particularly in regard to the so-called “Children Overboard” scandal, in which the government made unsubstantiated (and later discredited) claims that seafaring asylum seekers had thrown children overboard in a presumed ploy to secure rescue and passage to Australia.

A Senate Select committee later found that no children were thrown overboard from SIEV 4, and that several Howard government ministers including Peter Reith had deliberately misled the public by “cynically exploiting voters’ fears of a wave of illegal immigrants by demonising asylum seekers.”

It was also found that on no less than fourteen occasions, Reith and/or his office were informed that children had not been thrown overboard, and that photos Reith claimed proved the allegations were in reality images of asylum seekers and children struggling in the water after their boat had sunk.

Add to that charges of the improper use of a phone card, and Reith’s much criticised handling of the waterfront dispute when he was Industrial Relations Minister, and you have a politician with a very fraught history. His close relationship with the ABC is regularly and rightly questioned. The public broadcaster usually makes no comment, but yesterday Ms Crabb broke with tradition and tweeted:

@annabelcrabb: @preciouspress I’m always pleased when Peter Reith’s on. I think he’s a great panel member.”

While I acknowledge that the ABC’s responsibility to attempt a balance of perspectives in its opinion and analysis means there will inevitably be guests with whom somebody disagrees, I do wonder why a politician with a record such as Reith’s is their choice as a regular participant.

Now I wonder why Ms Crabb decided to so wholeheartedly endorse him, and in such a personal fashion. I thought we’d just established through the shaming of Stephen Long, that it is not the job of ABC journalists to express displeasure or favour  towards any public figure.

The ABC presumably offers Peter Reith as a credible, honest commentator on current affairs. Now endorsed by Annabel Crabb, it seems confirmed that as we have long suspected, Mr Reith’s history is irrelevant to the ABC because he’s “a great panel member.”  The ABC legitimises Mr Reith by offering him a regular platform, and now by Ms Crabb’s personal seal of approval as well.

There are many far more credible alternatives to Peter Reith, whom the ABC might invite to express a right-wing point of view. Personally, I am unable to dismiss Mr Reith’s role in the Children Overboard affair, and I am saddened that the ABC and Annabel Crabb apparently find it so easy to erase that shameful chapter of our history, and to redeem and grant legitimacy to someone who was a central participant in that disgrace.

 

 

Coalition moral high horse is nothing but a braying donkey

22 Apr

Before Opposition Leader Tony Abbott and his braying band of born to rule big mouths get too comfortable up on their freshly saddled moral high horses, they might do well to consider this: Speaker of the House of Representatives Peter Slipper has a history. The LNP is aware that this history includes, according to this account, alleged sexual harassment and sexual behaviour that some of their number found unacceptable enough to complain about:

According to the court documents, the Howard government was aware of Mr Slipper’s sexual relationship with another young male adviser – and other allegations of sexual harassment – as early as 2003.

Megan Hobson, a former adviser to Mr Slipper, approached John Howard’s then senior adviser Tony Nutt after she – and two other women – had viewed a video featuring the Speaker and the young male adviser.

According to the court documents, the video included footage of Mr Slipper lying on a bed with the male adviser and hugging him in “an intimate fashion”.

After hearing her concerns about the video, Mr Nutt allegedly told Ms Hobson to “forget all about it”.

The Coalition has overnight moved from “forget all about it” to “he must step down these are serious allegations.”

While the staffers Slipper allegedly harassed are adults, the Howard government’s attitude reminds me of the church officials who, when informed of the sexual predilections of some of their priests, simply shuffled them around from parish to parish, rather than call them to account and deal with the damage done to children in their care.

Sexually harassing an adult in your employ is an abuse of power. It’s against the law. It can cause a great deal of distress, sometimes long-term, for the unwilling recipient. It’s not a situation anyone should have to deal with when they arrive at their workplace every day. What the Howard government did, and what the Coalition has continued to do ever since, is cover-up serious allegations made against Slipper because it was expedient for them to do so, in spite of these alleged actions being against the law.

It’s a given that sexual abuse of all kinds perpetrated on  both adults and children can only continue to the extent that it does with the collusion of others. Institutions look the other way, or actively cover up  and repress allegations. It’s a given that we aren’t going to make big inroads into sexually abusive behaviours until institutions cease to enable the alleged perpetrators by protecting them from scrutiny. This is everyone’s problem. Politicians need to be leaders in this. They need to take action and be seen to take action when allegations of this kind are made against one of their number.

The Coalition doesn’t have a leg to stand on in the Slipper scandal. The way the situation was initially handled by them is disgraceful. They covered up allegations of a crime. They told complainants to “forget all about it.”  They showed utter disregard for staffers who had allegedly suffered sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment in the workplace is sickening. No less sickening are those who hold positions of power that permit them to do something about it, and instead choose to cover it up for their own gains. Get off your moral high horse Mr Abbott. It’s really just a braying donkey.

Deconstructing Scotty

28 Feb

The refugee is the representative of total otherness…This is the reason why the refugee is seen as such a threat…the terrifying absolute, total other, the symbol of contamination that otherness may bring upon community and identity. Costas Douzinas

Scott Morrison makes this existential fear of contamination by otherness literal in his construction of boat arrivals as “diseased,” and threateningly infectious to healthy Australians who are bound to take responsibility for their care.

He isn’t the first to draw this comparison between the otherness of asylum seekers and disease. The Solicitor General for Australia, David Bennett QC, when he defended the Howard government’s excision and migration laws in the High Court back in the early 2000’s linked the two thus:

Today, invasions don’t have to be military … they can be of diseases, they can be of unwanted migrants….

And then we have this:

Antisemitism is exactly the same as delousing. Getting rid of lice is not a question of ideology. It is a matter of cleanliness. In just the same way, antisemitism, for us, has not been a question of ideology, but a matter of cleanliness, which now will soon have been dealt with. We shall soon be deloused. We have only 20,000 lice left, and then the matter is finished within the whole of Germany.

— Heinrich Himmler, April 1943

So what can we take from Morrison’s tactic of blaming boat arrivals for exposing honest Australian workers and children to disease?  On the most superficial level it’s just another attempt to highlight the government’s failure to adequately manage the boats, although what Morrison would consider adequate management is anybody’s guess. His boss Tony Abbott just wants to turn them round and send them back to anywhere but here.

However, the narrative Morrison uses as a means to attack the government is far more sinister than Abbott’s preferred solution. Morrison, like many before him, is engaging in propaganda to further dehumanise boat arrivals with the goal of whipping up fear and loathing in the community that he can then use to turn voters against the government.

Boat arrivals are already widely perceived as breaking the law by requesting asylum here, a perception that is entirely wrong. Add to that the suggestion that they are dangerous to us because they are diseased, and their dehumanisation is almost complete.

Nothing unites a people like the threat of an external enemy. John Howard knew this well, and won an election by creating an enemy from whom he then offered voters protection. He was assisted by others such as then Senator Ross Lightfoot, who referred to boat arrivals as “uninvited and repulsive people whose sordid list of behaviours included scuttling their own boats.” (Human Rights Watch Report, 2003).

In case it wasn’t clear enough how undesirable boat arrivals are: “These people abuse their children,” Howard informed us. “I don’t want people who abuse their children in our country.” He must have meant he didn’t want anymore people who abuse children in our country, conveniently ignoring the sex abuse scandals raging in the Catholic and Anglican churches at that very time, and the appalling child abuse statistics generated by those already residing here. In using child abuse as an example, Howard unwittingly revealed the level of denial in which he lived his life and practiced his politics.

Howard was supported in his beliefs about boat arrivals by Anglican Dean Philip Jensen, who advised his flock in St Andrew’s Cathedral, Sydney, in 2003 that any beliefs other than Christian are “the monstrous lies and deceits of Satan, devised to destroy the life of the believers.”  Yes, he meant Muslims who fetched up here on boats.

Criminals, harbingers of disease  and bent upon spiritual destruction of Christians.

Howard later revealed Jensen to be his spiritual mentor, to whom he turned for advice on stem cell research, Iraq and “moral issues.”

It hardly needs stating that anyone, refugee or intrepid traveller, can arrive in the country by air or sea, infected with something the rest of us would rather not catch. A friend of mine contracted tuberculous while travelling in India, for example, and unknowingly brought it home. Chlamydia, another disease listed by Morrison, is one of the fastest growing sexually transmitted diseases among young adults in Australia, and it isn’t being transmitted by asylum seekers in detention centres. It’s not hard to demolish Morrison’s stupidity.

But what is harder to demolish is the narrative he’s dedicated to continuing, a narrative that originated with Howard, Jensen, Lightfoot, Ruddock, Reith and the like, and that holds sway over politicians of all persuasions to this day. In this narrative, people who have every right to request asylum here are cast as criminals solely because they accept the invitation we extend through our voluntary commitment to a United Nations Convention.

But casting them as criminals isn’t enough. Through what philosopher Martha Nussbaum describes as “a narcissistic refusal to tolerate the reality of something different from oneself,” boat arrivals are assigned the role of scapegoat for all that apparently threatens a country that has alarming tendencies towards paranoia and neurotic anxieties about sovereignty.

With Philip Ruddock referring to them as “infecting” us,  the boat arrival rapidly became in our mythology what Rénè Girard, in his commentary on the purpose of scapegoating, describes as “…the polluted figure, whose appearance within their boundaries fills the inhabitants with dread.”

We need proper processes for asylum seekers who arrive by boat, including attention to health issues for their protection and ours. But why does this have to be framed as a moral rather than a practical and human rights issue?

Morrison is a Christian, a member of the Assemblies of God Pentecostal churches. Does he share Philip Jensen’s views on the destructive and Satanic intentions of non-Christians?

Morrison’s press release is abhorrent. Is this the kind of Christian politician we want in government? And what the hell would Jesus say? It’s perfectly reasonable to ask that question of any Christian, and to expect a serious answer.

It’s time to refuse the moralistic narrative politicians like Morrison impose on what are questions of practicality and human rights. Let’s deal with them within those frameworks.

When I visited detainees in the Woomera Detention Centre I was overwhelmed by the effort they made to extend hospitality to me. They had nothing, and faced an uncertain future. Yet they managed to offer refreshments and they apologised for their necessarily constrained ability to honour a guest as they would like. The contrast between their notions of hospitality and the attitude of many in this country towards their appeal for sanctuary here, is shocking.

Yes, the detainees I met were absolutely “other” to me. But when encountering Other we have choices as to how we respond. “Other”, in the words of Derrida, “brings me more than I contain…” if only I allow that.

To shelter the other in one’s own land or home, to tolerate the presence of the land-less and homeless on the “ancestral soil” so jealously, so meanly loved – is that the criterion of humanness? Unquestionably so. Emmanual Levinas.


It’s confirmed: Abbot and Gillard have got it wrong

16 Aug

Today’s Nielsen poll revealed some interesting information about Australian attitudes to asylum seekers, and the hard-line off-shore processing policies pushed by both major parties.

According to the poll, 53% of us believe that boat arrivals should be processed  in Australia, not off-shore. This puts Abbott and Gillard out of step with the majority of the electorate as they both pursue their expulsion plans, either to Malaysia or Nauru.

It could be speculated that the responsibility for this unexpected surge of public compassion towards boat arrivals lies with Gillard’s Malaysia solution. While many of us could apparently come at Nauru, Malaysia is a step too far, given the uncertainty asylum seekers will face there. The concept of expelling children to that country is also highly unpalatable, and likely to be contested by the UNHCR.

There’s a nice irony in imagining that Gillard might actually have done herself no favours with her Malaysia deal, when the government’s intention was to win support from an Australian public they perceived as demanding they demonstrate increasing toughness in their treatment of boat arrivals.

Perhaps instead they’ve managed to sicken enough of us with their conservative, bullying rhetoric, and the tide has begun to turn. One can only hope. The sight of federal police armed to the teeth, in training on Christmas Island to push boat arrivals onto planes bound for Malaysia, was not edifying. All this violence and threat against a handful of unarmed people asking for asylum?

Maybe we just didn’t need to see Julia chucking a Tampa. 

At this stage, there’s little the government can do, having committed to the Malaysia solution and facing a court battle next week. This poll, like so many others recently, can’t be encouraging.

60% of us also believe that those found to be refugees should be granted permanent protection in Australia.

With so many big issues facing us, one has to wonder yet again what the government stands to gain with its theatrics over boat arrivals, especially when asylum seekers arriving by plane are treated quite differently. There’s no legal justification for this difference, and there’s no rational necessity for it either. It’s politics.

This latest poll casts concrete doubt on the government’s judgement in this matter. They’ve outdone the Howard government in their ferocity towards boat arrivals, and it just might be starting to backfire, particularly as the boats aren’t stopping.

The answer is so simple. Initial detention for health and identity checks, release into the community while claims are assessed, re-settlement or return if the claims aren’t substantiated. It’s not rocket science. It’s humane, it’s responsible, it’s common sense, it’s legal. Why, then, do Abbott and Gillard have to make it so hard?

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