Tagged: asylum seekers

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.