Tagged: asylum seekers

Jimmy Barnes calls for kids to be removed from Nauru

The Australian rock musician Jimmy Barnes had some strong words for the Australian government ahead of a rally on the Parliament House lawn in Canberra to remove children and their families from indefinite detention on Nauru.

Tuesday’s rally saw the delivery of a petition of 170,000 signatures to the government by the newly elected member for Wentworth, independent MP Dr Kerryn Phelps.

Barnes pointed to his own heritage: “I’m an immigrant,” he said. “I came to Australia in a boat. We were running away from poverty and violence in Scotland, and what we fled was nothing compared to what these people have tried to get away from.

“We should be helping them. Taking these people and sticking them on an island, indefinitely, is not the Australian way.”

Since the launch of the Kids off Nauru campaign three months ago by refugee advocacy groups, around 110 of the 119 children and their families had been brought to Australia after five years in detention on the island.

The Asylum Centre Resource Centre estimated only 40 percent of Australians were aware children were being held in detention at the time the campaign was launched. Many had spent their entire lives on the island.

That figure has since been raised to 80 percent, boosted by medical professionals including Phelps and international charity organisations World Vision, Save the Children and Oxfam.

A statement from Save the Children, which was contracted by the Australian government in 2013 to provide education and welfare services to children on Nauru before its workers were removed and its role taken over by Transfield in October 2015, said the organisation had “seen first-hand the distress and hardship endured by children languishing indefinitely on Nauru”.

“One day in effective detention for a child is unacceptable; five years is a disgrace,” the statement said.

Barnes, one of 65 ambassadors for Kids off Nauru, said he had reached a point where he felt he had to stand up.

“You can’t blame governments because we’ve allowed this to happen. The government represents us,” he said.

“I am ashamed that our government has allowed this to happen. And I’m ashamed of myself, because the government represents us, and that’s all of us, and we have to stand up and demand that this be changed … This has to stop.”

Asked how he responded to the view that ending offshore detention risked putting people smugglers back in business, Barnes said: “I think that’s rubbish.”

“There’s got to be better ways to stop that. Let’s tackle that problem on the ground in Indonesia, or wherever. But holding people up as hostages to stop people smugglers, that’s not the way to do things. That’s like two wrongs making a right … This has to stop.

“Politicians have been spreading fear, saying if we’re letting in refugees we’re letting in terrorists. It’s not the truth. We’ve got to recognise the difference between terrorism and people who are refugees; people who are struggling.

“I hate fear politics. And if you look at the Victorian election, that didn’t work and I think the tide is turning, people are changing and they’re not going to fall for that one any more.”

Barnes has become active in humanitarian causes in recent years, especially since the release of his memoirs Working Class Boy and Working Class Man.

“I had enough of my own problems before,” he said. “I can see a lot clearer now, and I just don’t feel comfortable sitting around not speaking out and saying what I want to say. These are kids, these are families, and they’re people who need help … I can’t sit by any more.”

Asked how he would respond to those – hypothetically, home affairs minister Peter Dutton – who might tell him to stick to singing, Barnes said: “I wouldn’t give Peter Dutton any of my time. It’s a waste of time speaking to someone like him, because they just spread lies and propaganda. He doesn’t represent me, he doesn’t care about people, and I wouldn’t give him the time of day, to tell you the truth.”

First published in The Guardian, 27 November 2018

Here are all the great Aussie protest songs

On Tuesday an Australian newspaper of repute published an earnest think-piece asking the question: where are all the great Aussie protest songs? Where oh where – in this, our Age of Unreason – are the new Midnight Oils, Goannas, Redgums and Chisels, the author, Jeff Apter, asks?

“Why do the musos of today … seem more concerned with navel-gazing and their fragile broken hearts than weightier, more universal issues?” he writes. “Why the resistance? It’s not like there’s a shortage of subjects to rail against.”

Indeed there isn’t: asylum seekers, Australia Day, violence against women, Aboriginal deaths in custody, marriage equality. And if you spare a moment to actually listen to the musos of today – particularly women, who don’t rate a mention in the piece, and people of colour – you’ll find each of those subjects feature in some of the best new Australian protest music around.

So, where are all the great Aussie protest songs? Well, a lot of them are on Spotify, where it took us about 10 minutes to make a playlist. Feel free to make your own!

AB Original: January 26 (2016)

mic drop on the nation. If the mark of a good protest song is to start a conversation, this song applied a set of jumper leads to the question of when we should hold our national day of celebration – and got voted to #16 in Triple J’s Hottest 100, before Triple J decided to change that date too. In Briggs’s words, holding Australia Day on the day of the invasion of the first fleet in 1788 is about as offensive as “[doing] it on my nan’s grave”.

Camp Cope: The Opener (2018)

Stella Donnelly: Boys Will Be Boys (2017)

More specifically in this vein, Perth musician Stella Donnelly’s wrenching Boys Will Be Boys (an old phrase, and now also the title of a new book by feminist commentator Clementine Ford) cuts to the bone: “Why was she all alone / Wearing her shirt that low? / They said ‘Boys will be boys’ / Deaf to the word ‘no’.”

Jen Cloher: Analysis Paralysis (2017)

Before last year’s marriage equality postal survey, Jen Cloher wrote this song about our parliament’s inability to resolve a matter entirely within its own purview to legislate. She took no prisoners in this evisceration of both the “feral right” and hashtag activist left: “Devoted to the show, not deeds of compassion / Full of good intentions but never any action.”

Cash Savage & the Last Drinks: Better Than That (2018)

Released only last week on her brilliant new album Good Citizens, Savage artfully documents the emotional and psychological impact of that risible and unnecessary survey on the LGBTIQ community, explaining how it feels for an entire country to have its say on your identity and humanity: “Every day brings another intrusion.”

Courtney Barnett: Nameless, Faceless (2018)

Barnett has sold quite a lot of records in the past five years, and is the darling of the American chat show circuit. She writes brilliant pop songs that often have a snarky edge, like this one about her wish to walk through a park after dark without having to hold her keys between her fingers. The song took on more potency weeks after its release when young Melbourne comedian Eurydice Dixon was murdered walking through a park in Carlton.

Kudzai Chirunga: 4 Deep in the Suburbs (2018)

The feral menace and asylum seekers. No, really.

The story of the Stephens Island Wren is one of the more predictable parables in the annals of extinction. The wren was a tiny flightless songbird that lived on an island measuring just 150 hectares in New Zealand’s Marlborough Sounds, and it was doomed from the moment it was proposed that a lighthouse be erected there in the late 19th century.

The lighthouse was operational by early 1894. The wren was discovered a few months later, in the jaws of the lighthouse keeper’s cat Tibbles; the species was lost forever by the winter of 1895. As the Christchurch newspaper The Press editorialised at the time, “This is probably a record performance in the way of extermination.”

For years, poor Tibbles was held responsible for nibbling his way through the island’s entire population of wrens. In fact, the island was heaving with feral cats after the accidental escape of a pregnant female in early 1894. It took another three years for them to also kill off the Stephens Island Piopio, a type of thrush.

I’m not sure which scientific or historical literature Adrian Franklin reviewed in his defence of the feral cat – he doesn’t say. Franklin claims detestation of introduced animals is linked to our national paranoia about, wait for it, asylum seekers. This seems rather a long bow to draw, but let’s come back to it later.

Franklin claims these (unnamed) scientists agree that there is no evidence linking feral cats to wild extinctions “apart from a few very exceptional island sites” – a rather cavalier dismissal of the fate of the Stephens Island Wren, but then again, it’s only a Kiwi, and I don’t mean that other flightless bird.

So why, Franklin asks, have cats not been reclassified as harmless animals? Why isn’t the innocent moggy naturalised, as in Britain? (I confess I nearly scratched my own eyes out at this point.)

Firstly, cats don’t act in isolation in the threat they pose to our native fauna. Habitat clearance, disease, grazing, changes to fire regimes, pollutants and, of course, other feral animals all play their parts. I look forward to Franklin’s defence of the fox, Cane Toad, carp, rabbit and non-native rats and roaches.

In Europe, cats, foxes and rabbits have all been part of the natural environment for millennia. That’s not the case in the Antipodes, where there are few land-based top-order predators. Introduced ones have filled the breach. In New Zealand especially, native animals have been annihilated by cats, rats, stoats and possums.

The feral problem is so bad in the Land of the Long White Cloud that many native birds – Kokakos, Kakapos, Saddlebacks and others – are now largely confined to or have themselves been introduced (at considerable public expense) to islands where foreign predators and competitors aren’t waiting to devour them.

The picture is no prettier in Australia, where we hold the world record for mammalian extinctions: 22 have been extirpated since European settlement, with over 100 more considered endangered. Cats and foxes have played a determining role in most of these. The proof can be found in Tasmania, which mostly retains its mammalian diversity (aside from the elimination of its biggest top-order predator, the Thylacine).

Until their recent accidental or malicious introduction, foxes have not existed in the island state, and Tasmanian Devils – the largest surviving marsupial predator – have probably kept a lid on feral cat numbers. The Tasmanian government has spent a fortune trying to suppress the foxes; it will need to, especially given the crash of the devil population due to facial tumour disease.

On the mainland, predator-free sanctuaries, such as those at Scotia in western NSW, are reintroducing quaintly-named animals like the Bilby, Boodie, Woylie and Numbat. Such sanctuaries may be their only hope. At Currawinya National Park in south-west Queensland, cats destroyed one of the last remaining wild colonies of Bilbies last year after a protective fence was found to have rusted.

In Arnhem Land, the Australian Wildlife Conservancy recently conducted an experiment with the near-threatened Pale Field Rat. The rats have been regionally extinct in Arnhem Land for years and had to be sourced from – surprise, surprise – predator-free Quoin Island off the Northern Territory coast.

The AWC set up two 10-hectare enclosures. One was secured with an electrified six-metre fence, the “control” enclosure was not. Twenty rats fitted with radio collars were introduced into each. Within a week of two cats finding the unsecured enclosure – captured on film by motion sensor cameras – the rats were gone.

I’m still not sure what all of this has to do with our national xenophobia over immigration. Perhaps, as one wag suggested on the Australian birdwatching forum Birding-Aus, when asylum seekers start eating us, Professor Franklin may have a point.

First published in The Age, January 13 2013

Has Julia got her mojo back?

At the moment, it’s only a whisper, and it may be well past too late. But there’s more than a hint in the last few weeks that Julia Gillard’s government may just have turned the corner.

Yes, there is the continuing political and humanitarian debacle over asylum seekers, but that is a failure of imagination, goodwill and commonsense that besmirches both sides of politics. Otherwise, Gillard’s had the best few weeks of her turbulent Prime Ministership. First she managed to secure the carbon tax’s passage through the Lower House. When Alan Joyce decided to play hardball with the unions by grounding his Qantas fleet, Julia (via Fair Work Australia) sent them post-haste back to the negotiating table, for once looking surefooted in what was, for her, familiar territory.

Then came the carbon tax again as it sailed comfortably through the Senate. Tony Abbott, who had all but pledged to nail himself to a cross to fight its introduction, chose this moment to attend a conservative leader’s forum in London. I wonder whether David Cameron took the opportunity to avail Tony of his views on climate change. The Tory British PM is an ardent supporter of a price on carbon. Just today, by the way, the Chief Economist of the International Energy Agency warned that the world had possibly as little as five years to clean up its act before the tipping point of irreversible and dangerous climate change was reached.

It’s true, of course, that the introduction of a carbon price has done more than anything else to cruel Gillard’s Prime Ministership. This despite it being bipartisan political policy not much more than two years ago. And it’s also true that steps Australia makes to mitigate our carbon emissions won’t do much to stop the rest of the world from hurtling over the edge of that dangerous threshold, other than hopefully set an example for others. But those are arguments for another day. Right now, it’s Julia who’s got the initiative and Abbott who’s starting to look a little shaky as the political ground begins to shift beneath his feet.

Suddenly it’s looking like Julia who’s sniffed the breeze. Labor’s been chasing it’s tail for two years, but lately there are signs it might have rediscovered its sense of purpose. The clearest indication was Julia’s announcement today that her government would be phasing in significant pay increases to low-paid workers in the social and community sectors: up to 20 percent over the next six years. In particular, it’s a move that will reward women, who predominate in the community workforce but are paid abysmally for doing often difficult and demanding jobs.

Might it just be possible that Julia has looked past the headlines of the tabloids (and, of course, The Australian) and realised that the #Occupy/99 percent movement represents a cause that is tailor-made for her party? This is heartland stuff for Labor. At a time when our economy is charging ahead at warp speed thanks to the mining boom, yet the gap between rich and poor is wider than ever – and resentment at that fact is at an all-time high – it’s a good moment to be reaching back to pull those in danger of falling behind (not least with their rent or mortgage repayments) back into the fold.

As for Abbott, he suddenly has some real issues to worry about, and he’s started to come under some genuine scrutiny. As I’ve noted previously, he can’t say no forever. He’s made a series of clumsy public statements: not only his pledge in blood to repeal the carbon tax, but a less certain (non-core) promise to do the same with pokies legislation. On top of those were his muddled statements regarding Qantas, then he got a savaging for blowing the coalition’s economic management credentials regarding the mining tax and IMF.

So far, he’s been pretty mute on the prospect of a pay rise for some of our lowest-paid workers. He’s on dangerous ground now and he knows it. Julia’s finally forcing him to fight on her turf.

Another death in detention

Here’s a curious confluence of ostensibly non-related events.

Yesterday, Prime Minister Julia Gillard met the Sri Lankan president, Mahinda Rajapaksa. Speaking ahead of the meeting, she delivered a sharp message about that nation’s human rights abuses, specifically of the Tamil population, after the defeat of the independence movement in 2009 brought about the end of a 26-year civil war. “We have consistently raised our concerns about human rights questions in the end stages of the [Sri Lankan] conflict,” Gillard said. “These need to be addressed by Sri Lanka, through its Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission.”

Rajapaksa has been accused of war crimes. The Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, has already threatened to boycott the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, to be held in Sri Lanka in two years’ time.

Now let’s take a look in our own backyard.

Yesterday, a refugee being held in mandatory detention committed suicide in Villawood, New South Wales. He was the sixth asylum seeker to commit suicide in detention since September 2009 and the fourth at Villawood. He was a Tamil. He had been incarcerated for two years, although his claims for asylum had been finally approved in August. His release was delayed by ASIO while they conducted seemingly endless security checks.

His name was Jayasaker Jayrathana. He poisoned himself. He was just 27 years old.

Both the immigration minister, Chris Bowen, and opposition leader Tony Abbott have described the death as a tragedy. Well, they would, I suppose. They should be ashamed. Perhaps we should all be ashamed at what our country has become.

Bowen acknowledges that he can “understand people’s frustration”. I’m not quite sure “frustration” adequately covers the normal empathetic human response to an innocent man’s senseless and completely unnecessary death.

Tony Abbott’s response on PM yesterday is that if only we stop the boats, then we won’t have people in detention. That seems a little naive, doesn’t it? Abbott, of course, wants the government to return to its old policy of sending asylum seekers to the benighted hellhole otherwise known as Nauru.

While this might once have slowed the boats down for a while, it certainly didn’t stop them, and of course John Howard’s government was also an enthusiastic proponent of mandatory detention. Ask Cornelia Rau about her experiences at the hands of Amanda Vanstone.

In fact, the frank and fearless advice given by the head of the Immigration Department, Andrew Metcalfe, last week was that detaining people does not, and never has deterred anyone from trying to get to Australia. That was during testimony to a Senate committee, just last week.

Let’s have some figures. Guy Coffey, in The Age today, points out that mandatory detention costs the nation around $1 billion a year. So we might as well ask what public good it is serving. (Coffey has conducted psychological evaluations of people in detention for 14 years.)

The short answer is: not bloody much. In the three months to September this year, there were 248 acts of self-harm committed (and over twice as many declarations of suicidal intent) across a population of around 2500 asylum seekers in three detention centres. These places are not much more than factories of mental illness.

Not only is that a humanitarian disgrace – effectively torturing those who have in many cases already fled torture – the repercussions are felt through our already overburdened health system for years. Why do we persist with this ghastly failure?

We have a credibility problem. We are hardly in any position to lecture other nation on human rights while we allow this barbarity to continue. Really, Australia needs to ask itself what sort of a country it wants to be.