The policy launch Australia has to have
dreaming of a straight-shooting and principled ALP
by Jack H Smit
For five years now I have hoped for a radical change in direction in relation to the ALP's refugee policy. There were some small adjustments since Tampa, and at various points on the road openness and potentials were possible, such at the point where the Parliamentary leadership of Labor changed, to the Hon Crean, and to Mr Mark Latham, and at the ALP Conference at Darling Harbour - but alas, to my great disappointment not enough fundamentals changed sufficiently for the better.
When the Hon Simon Crean assumed the leadership I had good hope for changes that would express an uncompromising expression of rights for refugees in accordance with the Refugee Convention and all other Conventions Australia has signed. I was kept awake for an entire night, dreaming of such a change. The dream resulted in a letter to the Hon Crean. Last week I looked to see whether I could find it, but when failing to find it I re-wrote it, adapting it for the near future.
Now to the ALP press conference Australia has to have. Please imagine a room in Parliament House in Canberra. Imagine the Federal Labor leader, with the Immigration spokesman beside him. They are flanked by Ms Margaret Reynolds, the President of the United Nations Association of Australia (UNAA), and on the other side Mr António Guterres, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The occasion is the launch of Labor's new and definitive Human Rights and Refugee Policy for the 2007 Federal election.
The press statement, read out by the Opposition leader at that widely promoted press conference policy launch, in a room packed with reporters, microphones and TV camera's, reads as follows:
"Ladies and Gentlemen,
"Labor was seriously and disturbingly wedged during and following the MV TAMPA standoff and the subsequent 2001 Federal election by Mr Howard, who manipulatively, even a few days away from the election, used the hyped-up drama of the 400-odd asylum seekers rescued by Captain Arne Rinnan to swing the polls which up till that time had clearly indicated a predicted Labor win of up to eight seats for that election."
"John Howard went on the record with threats against the captain of the Tampa, threatening he may declare him a people smuggler. John Howard, without approval from Parliament, used the Defence Signals Directorate's spy facilities to eavesdrop on communication between the Norwegian government and Mr Rinnan - something that could well have resulted in a war between Norway and Australia, had it happened a few decades ago. A week or so later he spied on lawyers taking him to the Federal Court over the Tampa refugees using the same DSD facility, again without Parliamentary approval."
"Mr Howard brought shame to Australia's commitment to the Sovereign Laws of the Sea, where asylum seekers in distress or in danger of being shipwrecked are assisted without fear or without other than life rescue considerations and brought to a nearest or most convenient port, by acting punitively to a senior and professional sea captain of great repute in Norway."
"John Howard made a mockery of the notion accepted around the world by countries that have signed the UN Convention for the Status of Refugees, the notion of privileged entry of unannounced asylum seekers coming by boat or otherwise to our shores. He and his colleagues in both the Liberal Party and the National Party embarked on an election campaign of manipulation of the status of refugees by calling them "illegal" or "illegal entrants", driving fear into Australians by spreading false and unfounded notions of Australia being overrun by aliens and foreigners who may well be terrorists."
"John Howard manipulated the openness and independence of the NAVY by controlling through his then defence Minister the way it makes its own independent media comments."
"These examples of serious manipulation of the Australian people have created the false notion amongst most people that it is illegal to come and seek asylum here, and that you need to be locked up when you dare to come to Australia with the clear and frank intent to ask Australia to help you to be protected from persecution in the country you flee from."
"Beside me here on my right, you see Ms Margaret Reynolds, the President of the United Nations Association of Australia (UNAA), and on my other side you see Mr António Guterres, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Both of these eminent people are flanking me with very good reason. Under my leadership Labor exclaims clearly and loudly a "no more" to a situation where John Howard has time and again has taken the notion of mandatory detention not just one, but many steps too far, into a realm of extreme cruelty. As a direct result, John Howard has permanently destroyed the sanity, the inner peace and the ability to function relatively normally, in thousands of people who fled to Australia seeking protection under their right to do so under the UN Refugee Convention."
"Under my leadership the Labor Party will embark on a massive information and education campaign about United Nations Conventions Australia has signed and has thus promised to adhere to. We will make clear that Australia under a Labor government will restore its dignity and also leadership once again in the international community, not just a bit, but fully and uncompromisingly - because these Conventions are about the minimum standard set for Universal Human Rights, and it was an Australian Labor Minister who drafted the International Declaration of Human Rights, and who was instrumental in this declaration becoming the Declaration used around the world as the definitive and primary Human Rights base document. This campaign will, and also must, result in all Australians knowing the implications for David Hicks and other so-called accused terrorists, and it will result in them understanding why Jack Thomas recently walked free from jail after the courts restored some semblance of justice for him."
"Under my leadership we will acknowledge the unbelievable cruelty inflicted on a daily basis also to most of those boat arrivals who eventually, often after years in our notorious refugee jails (or worse, in camps in foreign nations so Australia can wash off its responsibilities under Australian law for these poor souls) get acknowledged and declared to be refugees under our mean assessment system, and then receive that acknowledgement for just three or four years under the cruel Temporary Protection Visa (TPV) system.
"Australia breaches the UN Convention by demanding those refugees prove again after the three years that they are still refugees. Australia breaches the Convention by forbidding to apply the UN Convention clauses that demand 'family reunion' once asylum seekers are acknowledged to be bona fide refugees."
"Australia under my leadership will give all refugees permanency once they have been accepted as refugees, and they will all be able to bring over to Australia their loved ones, instead of being tortured on a daily basis with the thought that their wives in desperation may abandon the marriage for life to them, and the horror that their children may forget who this man, their father, is, who went to Australia, the foreign country they know nothing about. Under Labor you will not find a TPV Visa class, and all refugees will qualify for family reunion immediately following their acceptance."
"Australians under my leadership will understand all this through our education and information campaign, brought to the people in leaflets, TV and radio information campaigns, through inclusion of both Australian achievement in the field of human rights, and the history of the United Nations and her Conventions and what these Conventions mean for Australia. "Noblesse Oblige" will be the core value underlying this attitude-building education campaign, and it will be taught on appropriate level in every primary school and at every secondary school or college."
"Australians will also know about the unbelievable cruelty crafted by John Howard, where we locked up those who make the journey by boat against their will for years on end, then suddenly declare that they are indeed refugees, and then send them a bill often for hundreds of thousands of dollars for the cost of their imprisonment."
"Since Tampa, almost not a single day has gone by without horror stories about what Australia does to refugees, in newspapers, in magazines, in newly released books or research reports, on your televisions and on your radio stations. All these horror stories are the direct result of what John Howard has done to one of the most powerless groups in our civilisation, because he despises refugees, and he is willing to employ 'whatever it takes' to stay in power as Australia's prime minister - even if that means that Australia becomes a selfish country in its recognition of the Universality of Human Rights and International Conventions."
"Under my leadership these horror stories created by John Howard will be transformed into success stories, stories of integration, of flourishing careers in their new country, of artistic achievements, academic, professional or employment success by refugees, who so languished under Howard's cruel denial-of-rights regime."
"And, given Labor's long relationship with Australians as workers through the Union movement, we will view asylum seekers also as potential Australian workers who need full language and integration assistance. All refugees will get extra job seeker assistance, opportunities for further training and study at no cost to them, and language classes from basic through intermediary and advanced professional levels. Under my government they will no longer cruelly suffer and become damaged for life, but they will love Australia as true Australians and take part in the making of this our great nation."
"Finally, Labor under my leadership will not just concentrate on refugees and asylum seekers in its education and information campaign where it seeks to prepare and inform Australians to understand human rights and International Conventions in the widest sense. Labor under my leadership will also seek to inform all Australians about the legality and legitimacy of the issues of the Geneva Convention and other conventions as they intersect with incursions into sovereign countries in recent years, more specifically the "war on terror", invasions of countries such as Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine by foreign nations such as Israel and the USA and other countries allied to the USA in its so-called "war on terror", and Labor will include comprehensive education and briefings of Australians about the legality or otherwise of the Guantanamo Bay facility and the holding of people suspected of terrorism in breach of these international conventions, and without giving due regard to legal processes as accepted in Australia's understanding of what is just and fair, and Labor will measure with rigour the anti-terrorism legislation established under the Howard government, and it will resolutely repeal any legislation not conform to International Conventions and those laws which fail to adhere to our legal systems or which may be challenged by Australian courts. In this Labor will seek to undo the many unjust laws which breach Australia's firm commitment to International Conventions and the rule of law."
Australia's great shame on refugees
ALTHOUGH there is wide acceptance in the community of John Howard's lack of integrity, there is much less understanding of his lack of respect for human rights and for the sanctity of human life.
As today is the fifth anniversary of the ill-fated voyage from Indonesia that led to the Tampa incident, it is timely to look critically at the fallout, not just for John Howard, but the Labor party.
It is apparent that Howard, when directing that the Tampa return to Indonesia, failed to consider that his orders could put lives at risk - lives of the crew as well as of the asylum seekers.
Then there was the failure to arrange for civilian doctors and nurses from Christmas Island to visit the Tampa to treat the sick.
Howard's obsession with the control of borders meant that the suffering of the survivors was ignored. Even permission for one of Captain Rinnan's boats to go ashore and get medical supplies and a doctor was denied. The Red Cross was also blocked from the Tampa.
This inhumane policy was continued with later boats. A pregnant woman aboard SIEV 3 was denied permission to be flown to hospital even though the request had been sought by a military officer on grounds of possible delivery complications.
On board Harapindah, a navy doctor requested that a pregnant woman be allowed ashore. This request also was refused and the woman experienced uterine bleeding for one month.
Most tragic of all was the sinking of SIEV X on October 19, 2001, in which 353 mainly Iraqi refugees lost their lives. This boat sank 300 kilometres north of Christmas Island, within Australia's operational zone as announced by John Howard on September 1, 2001.
The nearest Australian warship, HMAS Arunta, was 150 nautical miles south and could have been there in five hours. Australia was the best resourced country to help but did nothing.
And let us not forget that it was the Howard Government's cruel and heartless policy of issuing temporary protection visas that led family members of TPV holders to board SIEV X in the hope of being reunited with their loved ones in Ausralia.
Sadly, federal Labor failed to attack the Government for this appalling abuse of human rights. Hence was born Labor for Refugees, an organisation of ALP members with the goal of changing ALP policy from within.
Labor for Refugees was very active in promoting its more humane agenda at the 2004 ALP national conference and this led to significant improvements compared with the then Government policy in relation to, first, children not being kept in detention centres, and to 90 per cent of refugee claims being determined within 90 days, and an end to the Pacific Solution.
But there were three areas in which the national conference adopted policy contrary to the submissions of Labor for Refugees.
These were the continued excision of Christmas Island, Cocos (Keeling) Islands and Ashmore Reef from Australia's migration zone, with the effect that it would not be possible under Australian migration law to process asylum seekers reaching those places by boat; the continuation of mandatory detention (Labor for Refugees' policy was for a brief detention solely for the purpose of checks on identity, security and health); and the continuation of the system of temporary protection visas for boat arrivals who qualified for refugee status.
The resolution of the national conference to continue with these three policies was made in spite of overwhelming support for changes made at the various ALP state and territory conferences in 2002 and 2003.
Labor's spokesman on immigration, Tony Burke, has adopted a much more humane position than any of his predecessors since Tampa, and was particularly outspoken in opposing the recent Government legislation aimed at processing all boat arrivals offshore. Burke has also shown an interest in reviewing the Labor position on TPVs and the policy towards holders of bridging visa E, many of whom rely solely on charity handouts.
But on the excision of outlying islands from Australia's migration zone Burke continues to support existing policy.
The hard-line and cruel policies of the Howard Government and its sadly wide support among voters have left many of us in the refugee rights movement feeling marginalised from the Australian community.
The Coalition dissidents led by Petro Georgiou have given us hope that all may not be lost for our goal of a caring and just society.
Robin Rothfield is secretary of Labor for Refugees (Victoria). Email: robinro(at)bigpond.net.au