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Issue #1651      August 13, 2014

“A Letter to the Thing I Wish I Had Written”

A Letter to Australia’s history, 20 years from now

Once I was proud of my country.

In 1948, Australia played a leading role in creating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We had a history of being a proud, decent, largely egalitarian country.

Some of the 438 asylum seekers onboard the Norwegian cargo ship MS Tampa anchored off Christmas Island on August 27, 2001.

In 1998, something important and fundamental started to change. You need to see where this can lead.

Patrick was one of the two big stevedoring operations in Australia. They were caught out training an alternative, non-union workforce in Dubai and never offered a convincing explanation. Peter Reith tried to help them, but with friends like that ...

Then in April, on the Tuesday before Good Friday, a bunch of goons stormed the docks and kicked out all the workers who were members of the union. They had attack dogs to give them an advantage, and large gents with balaclavas and no necks who put up chain-mesh fences to keep the unionists out.

At the same time as the docks were being stormed, Patrick took steps to sack the entire unionised workforce and put the company into administration.

It turned out that the company had moved all its assets sideways into a new company without telling anyone, and the government had secretly helped it implement the plan.

It was a shock to learn that a Liberal government would conspire to break its own laws in an attempt to break the union movement: it’s not how patrician blue-bloods are meant to behave. But the Coalition argued all the way to the High Court that it was OK. They lost.

Then things got worse.

Since the Russians had left Afghanistan, the Taliban had escalated their attacks on the Hazara minority. Millions of Hazara fled Afghanistan. A few thousand reached Australia.

In August 2001, the Palapa was carrying 438 Hazaras towards Australia.

It began to sink. Australia asked the Norwegian cargo ship, the Tampa, to rescue them. But when it tried to put them ashore at Christmas Island, Australia sent the SAS to take command of the Tampa at gunpoint.

John Howard said the people rescued by Tampa would never set foot in Australia. He said any asylum seeker trying to get protection in Australia would be sent to Nauru: a tiny Pacific Republic with a population of 10,000 people and an area of just 21 square kilometres.

Then September 11 happened. And the Coalition government headed into the 2001 election on the indecent idea that “We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come”. Coalition propagandists called asylum seekers “illegals” and “queue-jumpers” and said that asylum seekers had thrown their children into the sea. 

It was untrue, and they knew it.

The Labor Party said nothing to contradict the lies. The Liberals, it seemed, had turned into a party which was prepared to lie to the electorate and gain popularity by mistreating the most helpless people in the world.

For the next few years the cruelty and dishonesty continued. Asylum seekers, innocent of any offence, were held in detention for years until they collapsed into hopelessness and despair.

A little boy, eight years old, held in detention in South Australia, slashed his arms with razor wire.

A young man who had been in detention for five years cut himself so often he had ten metres of scarring on his body, but the government insisted that the only treatment he needed was Panadol.

A little girl, ten years old, held in detention in Melbourne, hung herself.

The Coalition government argued all the way to the High Court that a man who had not committed any offence and was not seen as a risk to anyone, who had been refused a visa but could not be removed from Australia because he was stateless, that this man could remain in detention for the rest of his life.

What was shocking was not only that the government won, but that a government was prepared to make the argument in the first place.

Then Kevin Rudd became leader of the Labor Party and won government in late 2007. He promised a better, more humane, policy concerning refugees. And he delivered it.

But then Tony Abbott became leader of the party which still called itself Liberal.

He re-started the anti-refugee rhetoric. Rudd responded by attacking people smugglers. He seems to have forgotten that his moral hero, Dietrich Bonnhoeffer, was a people smuggler.

For a couple more elections and a couple more fractured administrations, things kept sliding to the right.

The Pacific Solution, begun by Howard’s Coalition government, abolished by Rudd’s Labor government, was re-started by Gillard’s Labor government.

Then in 2013 we had an awful election campaign in which Rudd and Abbott competed with each other in their promises to mistreat asylum seekers. “Cruel but necessary” they said.

It’s tempting to think that if Pauline Hanson had been asked to help Rudd, she might have been concerned that he was too far to the right for her taste.

In October 2013 the Pope gave a speech about the tragedy of asylum seekers drowning off Lampedusa. He spoke about the globalisation of indifference and said:

“How many of us, myself included, have lost our bearings; we are no longer attentive to the world in which we live; we don’t care; we don’t protect what God created for everyone, and we end up unable even to care for one another! And when humanity as a whole loses its bearings, it results in tragedies like the one we have witnessed.”

Jesuit-trained Tony Abbott and Pentecostal hypocrite Scott Morrison were unmoved.

The Coalition won the election. Australia lost.

Labor lost a lot of talent when half its front bench followed Gillard out the door.

The Coalition quickly showed their true colours when we learned that senior members of the new government had been rorting their parliamentary expenses. That was no surprise: but it was interesting to see that the new Attorney-General was involved. Haughty, supercilious, self-righteous George Brandis had elbowed his way to the trough with the best of them.

After all wasn’t Brandis the one who had ferociously attacked Peter Slipper for visiting a winery and charging the taxi ride to the Commonwealth? Brandis went to a friend’s wedding and billed the Commonwealth. When he was found out two years later, Brandis repaid the $1,600 and said he had done nothing wrong.

Peter Slipper is still facing criminal charges for much less.

And Tony Abbott has billed the Commonwealth for every fun-run and lycra cycle-fest, not to mention his Tamworth photo opportunity which apparently cost us about ten grand. Over the last couple of years he has had his hands in our pockets for about $3 million.

So here’s the problem.

We have a corrupt, hard right-wing Coalition government, led by self-seeking hypocrites.

We have a weakened, right-wing Labor opposition unable, it seems, to restore decency.

And we have a country, once great, now seen as selfish, greedy and cruel and we have no political leadership at all.

We are redefining the character of our country. Most of us have not noticed because, for most of us, life is good.

The sight of the major parties competing to promise greater cruelty to boat people is new in Australian politics. We have never been perfect, but this was an obscenity without precedent.

It is painful to recognise that we are now a country which would brutalise one group with the intention that other people in distress will choose not to ask us for help.

But some of us remember how things once were; some of us see how things could be.

We will grieve until we find our way.

Recent History of Australia: when you are being written, please remember these things.

A contribution from the People of Letters at Ubud Readers’ and Writers’ Festival

The Beacon

Next article – Culture & Life – Toxic water and remembering Tolpuddle

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