Tag Archives: refugees

Turnbull, Transfield, The New Democracy Foundation, & the vicious ingratitude of artists

11 Mar

In the last two days Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull, and former Chairman of the Sydney Biennale and Transfield Executive Director, Luca Belgiorno-Nettis, have provided the Australian public with an unusually revealing insight into what the ruling class expect from the artists they support.

Belgiorno-Nettis is an investor in the Transfield company recently awarded a $1.2 billion contract to provide “Garrison and Welfare” services to the Australian government’s detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru, commented on earlier by No Place for Sheep here.  It seems that wherever one goes, from the St James Ethic’s Centre, to the Black Dog Institute, to the Business Council of Australia, to the New Democracy Foundation (see below) to the arts, one encounters a director of Transfield.

Ten artists withdrew their work from the Biennale because the event was heavily sponsored by Transfield, and the ten considered themselves to be benefiting from profits gained from the exploitation of human misery. Transfield was a co-founder of the Biennale some 41 years ago, but has only become problematic since it was awarded the government contracts for Nauru, and most recently Manus.

Turnbull described the artists as being “viciously ungrateful” to their benefactor.

On Radio National’s Books and Arts program today, Belgiorno-Nettis expressed his revulsion at the allegedly personal nature of the attacks on him and his family by “radical protestors” against the Manus and Nauru prisons, and when asked by presenter Michael Cathcart what he thought about the boycotting artists returning to the Biennale now Transfield was no longer involved, stated that as far as he was concerned they weren’t welcome back. They had, he insisted, used “guerilla tactics” against him.

The Transfield Executive Director’s explanation of his position was disappointingly self-indulgent. His outrage at being personally “insulted” is more than a trifle ironic, given the depths of misery and torment suffered by those legally seeking refuge from persecution, who are illegally imprisoned in the tropical hell holes (“garrisons”) overseen by Transfield.

Here is the letter written by the artists explaining their position. I can find nothing insulting to Belgiorno-Nettis or his family, and given Transfield’s withdrawal I see no reason at all why the artists should not now participate.

Neither can I find anything “viciously ungrateful” in the text of this letter.

Turnbull and Belgiorno-Nettis are as one in their contemptuous attitude to artists who disagree with both government policies, and the corporate support of those policies for profit.

Whether you agree or disagree with the stand taken by the ten artists, what the saga has revealed is the attitude of the ruling class to artists it supports. Both the Turnbull & Belgiorno-Nettis outrage at the audacity of artists supported by the establishment who defy that establishment is extraordinary, and the threat, loyally promoted by their middle class emulators, that now corporate sponsorship will become dangerously problematic because of this rebellion, is utterly predictable.

That the establishment’s reaction to robust critique of its policies and actions is outrage at the manner in which the challenge was mounted, and outrage that artists should have the nerve to bite the hand that feeds them, says everything about the lack of spine and imagination in the ruling class. The expectation that artists ought to be “grateful” to the degree that they keep their mouths shut when faced with intolerable and inhuman cruelty  shows a complete lack of understanding of what art is about, though I’m certain both Turnbull & Belgiorno-Nettis have art on their walls, and perceive themselves as cultured.

Belgiorno-Nettis is also the founder of The New Democracy Foundation, whose mission is to forge a new path to democracy through a “better system.” Lucy Turnbull, wife of Malcolm, is also a  member of this Foundation, along with other recognisable names. The Foundation’s mission statement:  The new Democracy Foundation is an independent, non-partisan research organisation aiming to identify improvements to our democratic process. We aim to replace the adversarial with the deliberative, and move out of the “continuous campaign” cycle.

It seems to me that the ten artists were peacefully exercising their democratic right to protest injustice with the most powerful means at their disposal – their work. According to Belgiorno-Nettis’ founder’s message, his New Democracy Foundation supports the right of people to express their opinions, and then for those opinions to be argued, Athenian fashion:  The Athenians called their discussion group The Council: 500 men [sic] selected by lot; 50 from each of the 10 tribes.  In this way the Council was a mirror of the population at large: a mini-public.  No one person, or tribe, could bully any other, because they were all equally represented. The Council’s job was to propose the laws for city, after which another discussion group, called the Assembly, would then meet and vote.  Any man [sic] could attend the Assembly and speak and then after all the arguments for and against, a vote would be taken, and that would become the law. They called this system Demokratia – meaning rule of the people.

Of course, trying to avoid dirty money must be an almost impossible task. However, the direct nature of the link between Transfield and the vile conditions in which those legally seeking asylum in this country are held is impossible to ignore. Australian politicians have singled out a group of people who they have determined are not deserving of decent, humane treatment. The group singled out is one whose members are almost entirely fleeing persecution of the most extreme kind. They are not criminals. They have committed no illegal act. They have requested protection from their persecutors. In response, they have been indefinitely detained, attacked, wounded and in one case, murdered, in extremely hostile and isolated conditions.

The company responsible for these “garrisons” and the “welfare” of those imprisoned, is Transfield. Luca Belgiorno-Nettis, as an investor in the company, makes money from the cruel injustice wrought upon asylum seekers by Australian politicians.

I’m hard-pressed to think of a situation more deserving of protest by artists, and anybody else.

The fundamental reason people seek asylum in Australia: because we tell them they can.

19 Feb

Both the ALP and LNP governments have, for more than a decade now, chosen to ignore the fundamental reason why people seek asylum in this country: we are signatories to the UNHCR Refugee Convention, and as such, we currently offer asylum to anyone who seeks it, no matter what their method of arrival.

Instead of withdrawing from this Convention, the “honest” thing to do as apparently we no longer consider it to have any validity whatsoever,  the current Australian government has issued a comic book, explaining to potential refugees why they should not come to this country in the belief that we will honour our commitment, because, quite simply we will not.

We will not speedily assess their claims for refugee status in Australia. We will, in fact, transport them to hideous off-shore processing centres where they will languish in indefinite detention with no certainty at all about their futures, and if that is not enough, they will be subject to violence resulting in serious injury and death from sources that as yet remain unidentified, because we do not adequately protect them.

This is what we do, instead of honouring the obligations we undertook when we first signed the UNHCR Convention in 1951, then ratified it in 1967.

We are despicable. Our politicians have made us a despicable, lying, obfuscating nation without the courage to withdraw from a commitment we have no intention of honouring. Australia enjoys the kudos of being a civilised signatory to the UNHCR Convention. At the same time, Australia has no intention of honouring our voluntarily undertaken commitments to that Convention.

This is our primary shame. Our hypocrisy. Our disgrace.

And both the ALP and the LNP have brought us to this.

The Ministry of Degradation

23 Jan

Operation Soverereign BordersThe history of treatment of asylum seekers who arrive by boat in Australia is a grim one, and both major parties have employed increasing degradation as a means to control, punish, and “deter” those who seek refuge here.

Even if one accepts the false narrative created by both the LNP and ALP that asylum seekers are “illegals” who are committing a criminal act in arriving by boat, this does still not explain or justify their degradation. If boat arrivals have indeed committed a crime, why aren’t they dealt with by our legal system, as is every other person accused of a crime in this country?

In a recent poll, a majority of Australians apparently feel asylum seekers are not treated harshly enough. Obviously the major parties are responding to the electorate’s need for gratification and reassurance through the degradation of a group who are despised by many voters. This can be seen as a chicken and egg situation: politicians post Pauline Hanson realised the advantages of pleasing xenophobic punters, and have since been at great pains to adjust their policies accordingly.

No matter what views one holds on asylum seekers, demanding their increasing degradation is to take a dangerous trip to the dark side. Any government willing to instigate and maintain those degradations ought to give rise to alarm. Whether it’s boat arrivals or the degrading treatment of bike riders in Queensland, any government that opts for degradation as a means of control is a government that has truly lost its way.

The Ministry of Degradation, currently overseen by Degradation Minister Scott Morrison, has been in existence for over a decade, and both major parties bear responsibility for its increasingly despicable treatment of asylum seekers. Railing against this Ministry achieves nothing. Speeches about every individual’s right to human dignity have achieved nothing. Appeals to compassion have achieved nothing. Still politicians drag us ever further along the dark road of degradation as an acceptable means of protecting our society. It isn’t. It never will be.

The only possible course of action is to persist with the contestation of the Ministry’s narrative, with facts, reason and unrelenting determination. It is not acceptable for our country’s government to treat asylum seekers who arrive by boat in a degrading manner. If the government believes asylum seekers have broken our laws, the government must employ our legal system to seek redress, not impose arbitrary punishment in the form of  deliberately degrading practices.

I don’t expect my government to contribute to the destruction of the civilised society we struggle to create and maintain. I expect my government to lead and assist us in this project. We can do a whole lot better with our asylum seeker policies. But as long as we have a government committed to the degradation and destruction of others as demanded by the vengeful, we can’t flourish. Degradation can’t be contained. It contaminates everyone.

Asylum Seekers not treated harshly enough, say vengeful Australians.

9 Jan

TONY ABBOTT ASYLUM SEEKERS PRESSERAccording to a poll reported in The Age yesterday, 60 per cent of Australians surveyed want asylum seekers arriving by boat treated more harshly.

59 per cent of those surveyed oppose government welfare for refugees.

Although there is a strong perception that boat arrivals are not ‘genuine refugees,’ in fact 99.7 per cent of asylum seekers from Afghanistan held on Christmas Island were assessed as refugees, as were a further 96 – 98 per cent from Iraq, Iran, and Burma.

The efforts of both major parties to reframe asylum seekers as illegal and threats to the country’s sovereignty, appear to have succeeded.

The chilling reality is that the majority of boat arrivals are fleeing conditions so severe that they are willing to undertake such a journey rather than remain in a country where they are at great risk, yet the majority of Australians, if the poll is to be believed, wish to see them further tormented when they arrive here.

Apparently the majority of Australians have a crippling lack of imagination coupled with a complete lack of desire to consider circumstances that drive others to flee their homes and beg for refuge at the other side of the world. Worse, they want asylum seekers treated more harshly than they already are when they arrive, a desire that borders on the psychopathic.

I suppose it is still possible to deal out harsher treatments, but people might die and that would be awkward.

The argument is frequently made that our treatment of asylum seekers is ‘inhumane.’ Asylum seekers are human beings, just like us, and because of that are entitled to as much consideration as we afford ourselves. This argument is obviously falling on deaf ears. According to the poll results, the majority of Australians lack any concept of a common humanity from which notions of equality and rights  spring.

Actually, it’s worse than that. They also want to harshly punish the suffering for bringing their suffering here.

My impulse is to beat such people around the head with a stick until they beg for mercy and flee, seeking refuge from my persecution. Of course that would achieve nothing, but it’s a gratifying fantasy. The minds of those so opposed to decent consideration of refugees’ circumstances are unlikely to be changed by any intervention, kind or unkind. However, the good news is 68 per cent of the 60 percent of Australians hostile to refugees are over 70 years of age, so they’ll hopefully cark, or become too demented to vote, and be replaced by saner minds.

Challenging such entrenched ignorance and lack of imagination is a formidable task, and those who undertake it haven’t made many inroads so far, though not from lack of effort.  Asylum seekers are now treated more harshly than they were nearly two decades ago. It was possible then for anyone who was prepared to jump through bureaucratic hoops to visit detention centres. This is no longer the case, and asylum seekers are almost entirely isolated off-shore, from those who would otherwise give support and assistance. This is still not sufficient for vengeful Australians. That their water is ridiculously rationed is not sufficient. That their medical care is below decent standards is not sufficient. That the children are imprisoned, that the latrines are foul, that many have no shoes, that we force them to suffer in high temperatures while offering no relief, that they live in an emotional and psychological limbo sure to destroy what their original persecutors didn’t manage to destroy, no, none of this is sufficient. Our vengeful Aussie majority want them treated even more harshly, which to my mind can only be putting them to death. Painfully.

I don’t think there’s any point anymore in speeches about our inhumanity to other humans. Frankly, not enough of us give enough of a shit about our common humanity, and the quaint notion that if you cut us we bleed just like you.

What, then,  is to be done?

Immigration Minister Morrison instructs his staff to lie

20 Oct

In this article in The Age today, Immigration Minister Scott Morrison orders his staff to publicly refer to asylum seekers as “illegal” arrivals , “detainees,” and “illegal maritime arrivals.”

As seeking asylum in Australia is not an illegal, criminal act, no matter how potential refugees arrive, Morrison is in effect instructing his staff to lie to the public.

Describing asylum seekers in the above terms criminalises innocent people, and this false criminalisation is then used to justify the Coalition’s treatment of them.

There can be little more offensive in a workplace than a boss ordering his staff to lie to the public. That a government minister should take this action is serious cause for alarm.

That this same minister is also a very public Christian should give even more pause for thought.

“…there are no votes in decency.”

8 Mar

The full quote comes from Federal Liberal MP Russell Broadbent, in reference to fallen Victorian Premier Ted Baillieu, and reads:  “This is a man of great decency but obviously there are no votes in decency.”

I don’t have enough knowledge about Mr Baillieu and his situation to comment on his decency, and it is the observation “there are no votes in decency” that captured my attention.

It seems to me to sum up our current federal politics in relation to asylum seeker policies promoted by both major parties. I understand Pauline Hanson is looking to join them yet again, but as the ALP & LNP have stolen her thunder and more, it’s difficult to see why anybody needs her voice as they did back then, before John Howard plagiarised her instruction manual for xenophobes and racists and she found herself in gaol.

But that’s another story.

There is nothing even approaching decency in the government or the opposition’s asylum seeker policies. There is much chatter about dog whistling, but as far as I can see, they barely bother to dog whistle. The xenophobia is overtly rampant. The asylum seekers and refugees are well scapegoated. The fears of Australians are well-played upon: foreigners are taking our jobs and the government will rescue us from that. Asylum seekers and refugees present such a danger to us that police must be informed when they are housed in our neighbourhoods. It isn’t necessary to go through the dismal litany of false and unnecessary fears aroused solely to give politicians the opportunity to offer to then save us from those fears. It is a masterly manipulation, begun by Howard, honed close to perfection by subsequent politicians of both major parties, who apparently will do anything to win the vote of frightened and aggrieved xenophobes and racists.

Of whom it would seem there are a great many in Australia, otherwise why would anyone bother fighting tooth and nail to gain their approval?

That there are good reasons for some, even many people to be discontent with their lot, is not at issue. That politicians have managed to educate such people to believe that asylum seekers and refugees are responsible for this discontent, and not the decisions of politicians themselves, is evidence of a hugely successful propaganda campaign.

There are no votes in decency in Australia. Decency died in asylum seeker and refugee politics when Pauline Hanson opened the floodgates, and other politicians, witnessing the raging white water of legitimised ignorance and hate roar through, decided that rather than contest the mindset, they’d exploit it for all it’s worth because, votes.

Bereft of decent leaders in this matter, we find ourselves treading water in a cesspool of  racism, and fear and hatred of the foreign. Instead of broadening our minds and hearts, political leaders have promoted a shameful mental and spiritual shrinking of our human possibilities. The few lone voices in federal parliament are drowned out by leaders too inadequate and power-hungry to decently address the plight of asylum seekers and refugees, instead dehumanising them until all that is left is vote fodder.

It is a sickening, heartbreaking state in which we find ourselves and our country. A pox on both their political houses. They have brought us shame, disgrace and dishonour. There are indeed, no votes in decency.

On a personal note, I’m embarking on a road trip to Canberra and surrounds tomorrow for ten days, so the blog may be neglected, on the other hand it may not!

I’ve also decided to fulfil a long-held ambition to do a law degree. Because I already have a few degrees I’m allowed to fast track, and will take only three years full-time to complete. So the blog may be neglected off and on from July this year.

One of the side effects of severe childhood abuse was an inability to learn whilst I was at school. When I started on my road to recovery as an adult, an insatiable hunger for learning emerged from the wreckage, a hunger that inspired me through two and a half degrees and a PhD. Well, it’s surfaced again. I can’t wait to hit the books, and writing 2000 word essays after a 100,000 word doctorate ought to be a breeze.

I still have treatment for my post traumatic stress disorder, and will for the rest of my life. It doesn’t go away, but my ability to manage the symptoms increases all the time. I told my therapist yesterday that I sometimes feel such fury that so much of my life has to be spent managing the aftermath of childhood abuse, and how if I hadn’t needed to do that, I could have done so many other things.

I think of the children in detention who have suffered so much, and how their adult lives will be affected by their trauma. For those who’ve fled life-threatening circumstances, it’s bad enough. But to think that here, in Australia, in 2013, our government incarcerates these children and subjects them to even more stress, makes my blood boil at the cruel and hideous self-interest that causes politicians to act towards asylum seekers in such ways.

Many, if not all of the detained children will be eventually granted refugee status. They will be living their adult lives in this country. Instead of damaging them further, can we not treat them well, and kindly, and help them to be competent, productive and useful citizens?  Surely it’s in our own interests to do this?

Decency. Is it too much to ask? Yes, I fear it is.

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.


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