'A Fair Go for Refugees?' Presentations from a Weekend of Ideas
During April 2007 we travelled to Canberra to attend a low-key but friendly conference. Building and grounds at Manning Clark House in Forrest were buzzing with guests and presenters for the Sixth Weekend of Ideas.
A fabulous weekend of catching up with friends and listening to damning evidence.
The conference was well attended; we estimated a count of about two hundred people. It was a fabulous meet where we could catch up with many friends and colleagues. We found SIEV X whistleblower Tony Kevin, ABC reporter Debbie Whitmont, Sydney Morning Herald journalist and author David Marr, Queensland refugee advocate Freddie Steen. The ALP's Carmen Lawrence was there, ANU professor John Warhurst presented and we shared coffee and meals with many dozens of friends and allies from Rural Australians for Refugees and the Refugee Action Collective.
We created several pages about the conference - all of them are listed and linked below. The listing of pages is followed by the Agreed Statement of Principles, issued on the last day of the weekend. Also on this page is the presentation by author and SIEVX Whistleblower Tony Kevin and a reflection on the weekend by John Warhurst.
:::More than 100 PHOTOS::: 17 February 2008: Photos: Manning Clark House Weekend of Ideas - the collection of photos taken by advocate Freddie Steen at the Manning Clark House sixth Weekend of Ideas, "A Fair Go for Refugees?" during the first weekend of April 2007 in Canberra's Manning Clark House in Forrest, ACT.
7 May 2007: Dr Eva Sallis, Australian dream; Australian nightmare: Some thoughts on Multiculturalism and Racism - "...this place is called, with terrible irony, Blackster. It is the other side of town from Baxter, and, although less money is spent here, the echoes are stark, and when I thought about it, almost all generated by the fence." The Dymphna Clark Lecture at the Manning Clark House 6th Weekend of Ideas, "A Fair Go for Refugees?"
:::40 PHOTOS::: 6 May 2007: Kate Durham's SIEVX Art Exhibition goes to Canberra - From 30 March to 15 April 2007, as an art exhibition associated with the Manning Clark House Weekend of Ideas, reknowned Melbourne artist Kate Durham's impressive SIEVX art exhibition visited Canberra at the Theo Notaras Multicultural Centre. Project SafeCom's Jack Smit attended the exhibition's opening.
28 March to 1 April 2007: Canberra in March 07: two significant events in one significant week - Manning Clark House's Sixth Annual Weekend of Ideas: A Fair Go for Refugees?, a Talk and Dinner with Project SafeCom's Jack Smit, and a significant week of Parliament with both Houses sitting for the last week before this year's Easter recess. Make sure you're there!
Agreed Statement of Principles
Sunday April 1, 2007
Manning Clark House
Participants at the 2007 Manning Clark House Weekend of Ideas affirm the need for a just and compassionate refugee policy for Australia. We endorse the Refugee Council of Australia's 2007 recommendations built on Australia's international obligations and traditional Australian values of a fair go, decency, and generosity to those in need:
Giving to those found to be refugees permanent visas, and full access to government migrant and refugee settlement services;
Abolishing the policy of mandatory, indefinite, non-reviewable detention;
Reversing the policy of excised territories, and ensuring all asylum seekers arriving in any Australian territory have the right to seek asylum in Australia and be given full access to Australia's refugee determination process;
Processing asylum seekers on the Australian mainland, where they will have full access to legal representation and other support.
"The Pacific Solution", whereby asylum seekers may be processed in isolation, beyond the reach of the rule of law, legal help and independent review process, is unfair and unsustainable. It subverts Australia's signed commitments to International Conventions: the Refugee Convention, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. It undermines the 2005 reforms accepted by the Australian Government. It threatens a return to the hostile and punitive attitudes and practices of the past.
While we welcome the Australian Government's decision not to detain children, we must continue to pay particular attention to the rights and needs of refugee children who are the responsibility of our government, whether onshore or offshore.
We call on the major political parties progressively to bring their policies into line with these recommendations. We ask our fellow Australians to join us in working individually and collectively for these changes to Australia's refugee regime.
We pay tribute to the Australian volunteers who are working selflessly to help refugees settle in Australia, and to the refugees who are enriching us by their presence.
The Canberra Times
05 April 2007
John Warhurst was born in Adelaide and educated in politics and economics at the Flinders University of South Australia. He has taught political science in various universities for more than 30 years and is now Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University. He is a former president of the Australasian Political Studies Association and now writes a weekly column for The Canberra Times. He is active in public affairs as chair of the Australian Republican Movement.
LAST week I was given a privileged insight into two large lobby groups, what political scientists sometimes call policy communities. I participated in the Politics and Public Policy Review conducted by the Centre for Corporate Public Affairs at the Hyatt Hotel and in the Weekend of Ideas on "A Fair Go for Refugees?" organised by Manning Clark House.
Rarely is a political scientist afforded such entree for participant observation. Each occasion was conducted over two days and each was full of insights. Each brought together an audience central to the relations of their group with government and a list of speakers notable for being very knowledgeable about their topics, often from the inside.
The Politics and Public Policy Review, run each year for many years by the Allen Consulting Group from Melbourne, attracted about 70 government relations and public affairs executives from the biggest Australian and international companies, such as AMP, NAB, ExxonMobil, GM Holden, Rio Tinto, and Nestle.
They were addressed by ministers and shadow ministers, major party directors and top media commentators like Michelle Grattan and Paul Kelly. The rules of discussion were Chatham House.
The annual Weekend of Ideas attracted several hundred advocates for and supporters of refugees and asylum seekers. Included among them were representatives of major migration rights agencies, such as the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (which has 700 volunteers) and the Refugee and Immigration Legal Centre, politicians, academics and campaigners for progressive causes, such as GetUp!
They were addressed by a huge group of qualified speakers including David Marr and John Highfield from the media, Pamela Curr, Marion Le and Julian Burnside, QC. The rules of discussion were open house.
There were obvious as well as not so obvious comparisons between the two gatherings.
There were superficial differences between the Hyatt Hotel and Manning Clark House venues of course. The former was business-like both in the sense of representing the business community and in the sense of the professional business at hand. Suits predominated. The executives present represented one of the specialist interfaces between large corporations and government. Most of those present were men. The tone was one of comfortable seeking of authoritative information.
The refugee rights movement also had its core of professional organisers and managers, but there were also many volunteers. These volunteers often were participants in a myriad of community and political organisations. At least half, probably the majority, were women. The style was personal and more emotion-filled. The tone was always committed, and often angry at the continuing ill-treatment dealt out to refugees. The organisers ran raffles. The gardens of MCH hosted stalls for refugee rights organisations to advertise and to raise money through selling CDs, cards and books.
There was a real sense in which one occasion represented the status and political strength of the business community and the other the frustrations and limitations of the volunteer community sector. No observer of both could miss this difference. But paradoxically the refugee movement, often poverty stricken, includes some people with a high profile and substantial personal wealth too.
There was also a clear sense in which the business corporations are insiders and the community sector outsiders. This was shown by the overwhelming interest at the Hyatt Hotel in the major political parties.
The discussion was detached and professional, with few overt signs of personal interest in the outcome. Yet between the major parties, while some of those present might have been Labor sympathisers, almost certainly the majority leaned to the Coalition, as their corporate bosses generally, if discreetly, will too when the election campaigning gets under way.
The refugee rights advocates, many with extremely practical human concerns, were certainly interested in the election and most would probably want a Labor victory. They desperately want policy change for the better.
But my guess would be that there was a great deal of sympathy for the Greens and the Democrats too. The minor parties, represented on the weekend by senators Kerry Nettle (Greens) and Andrew Bartlett (Democrats), were respected for their efforts on behalf of refugees, and treated warmly. The major parties of government were the subject of considerable implicit and explicit suspicion.
Labor clearly generated a great deal of interest among both policy communities. Both gatherings wanted to know more about Kevin Rudd's policies and prospects. Their interests and concerns demonstrate the task ahead for Labor as it enters the last six months before the federal election.
Both groups were somewhat suspicious of Labor but for different reasons. Business interest focused on the question of labour market reform. This was seen as Kevin Rudd's big challenge and the subject of questioning. How was he going to be able to move further to the centre away from the influence of the union movement? How could he present himself and his party as more attractive to business?
Refugee advocates often see Labor merely as the lesser of two evils. They don't trust the Labor leadership, including Rudd, to take any radical steps to restore refugee rights, although many respect the personal inclinations of the shadow minister, Tony Burke.
They have their fingers crossed about the outcome for refugees of decisions to be taken at the Labor national conference later this month.
Both communities predict Labor will move to the centre, with contrasting outcomes for their interests. A location in the centre might make Labor more acceptable to business, but it makes the refugee rights community fearful that further neglect of refugees and asylum seekers by the Australian government will follow.
John Warhurst is Professor of Political Science in the Faculty of Arts at the Australian National University
Presenter: Tony Kevin
Session time: 9:10am
Chair: David Marr
Co-panelist: Deb Whitmont
I want to offer a personal case study here: to tell what happened to me in the course of my SIEV X research and advocacy since 2002, as an example of citizen dissent.
To foreshadow my main conclusions, I started off as an example of Frank Brennan's useful concept yesterday, as a "credible citizen". I finished up as someone pretty well shut out from the civic conversation because my work had touched too many raw nerves in too many people.
Was it worth it? Yes, it definitely was. Could I do it again? Probably not. I'll also talk about strategies employed to suppress my dissent, which might be the most interesting part of this talk in terms of opportunity for others to compare with their own experiences as refugee activists. I have to focus on my own work because it is what I know most about.
We each believe that our own chosen issues are the ones that matter most I'll return to this in a moment. So why did I focus on the sinking of the refugee boat I called SIEV X, in October 2001? Family history has a lot to do with it. My mother was Viennese Jewish. She fled for her life after the Nazi Anschluss in 1938. She was lucky - we know the history of Jewish refugee boats turned away from what should have been safe havens in democratic countries, pushing the people back to the Nazi death camps.
So long before I knew of this sinking, I identified with the boat people who were being victimised by Australia's harsh border security operations starting in 1999. The deaths of 353 helpless people refugees, mostly women and children, when SIEV X sank in the declared Australian border protection zone, affected me. As the son of an Australian naval officer in WW2 and as a retired former career public servant sworn to uphold Australia's laws and values, this sinking raised moral questions of significance for me.
At first, in early 2002, I hoped that if I set out clearly the contradictions and silences in the public record on SIEV X, a serious matter of 353 deaths in an area of ocean where Australia had a duty of care, any decent Australian government and bureaucracy would care and would act.
Initially I was a newsworthy and therefore effective public dissenter, precisely because I had been part of the official Australian administrative system for 30 years, and at bottom I still believed in the ultimate integrity of that system. That faith gave me a credibility and interest to the media that I no longer have. Andrew Wilkie and Lance Collins have each gone through the same kind of cycle.
Because the questions I raised were so threatening to the Government's standing, Government supporters needed to discredit me as quickly as possible. I was not ready for the fierce personal abuse and intimidation that rained down. But my co-researcher Marg Hutton and I were harder nuts to chew than the Government anticipated. We persisted together for two years, patiently analysing and presenting facts - on Marg's superb website www.sievx.com, in my own speeches and writings, and lobbying sympathetic politicians.
I successfully challenged a gross personal attack on me under Senate privilege by Senators Brandis, Mason and Ferguson, but some mud stuck. By the end of 2003, when some journalists were telling me that I had outworn my welcome with the media and that nobody cared about the SIEV X story any more, I felt pretty low, but I never gave up.
The official deceptions about SIEV X multiplied during 2002 and 2003. As one lie was uncovered, another took its place. I'll give examples of that later. I became more angry at Australian Ministers' and senior public officials' dishonourable refusals to tell the Senate the truth about what they had known about SIEV X, when they knew it, from whom they learned it, and what they did or failed to do with that shared knowledge.
Inevitably in the long campaign of seeking to uncover truths that were deeply unwelcome to government, I crossed a line from detached analysis and reporting of facts. I had become more "passionate", more of an "activist".
The passivity of Australians that David Marr spoke of last night - our capacity as a people to not see disturbing truths that contradict our benign image of ourselves - had become as much the issue now as the official cover-up itself. Before I even knew of SIEV X, in December 2001 I had written an essay in The Canberra Times called 'Good Germans, good Australians'. It was more prescient than I knew. Because the question now had become: "These are the facts that we are uncovering despite the government's lies and evasions, so why won't you the media, the Opposition, Australian society do anything about these facts?"
There were real costs to me. The biggest cost was within myself - my loss of faith in the integrity of my country's governance, and the effect that loss of faith had on me. Confronting the SIEV X cover-up forced me to look down into the abyss that lies beneath our "presumption of regularity" the phrase is Jack Waterford's - a presumption that we rely on in our daily lives in society.
I understand now that my exposure to this abyss was a full grief trauma, comparable in impact to the sudden death of my beloved wife 14 years earlier. In a similar way to then, I again felt deeply alienated from my society. Walking through Manuka, seeing people enjoying themselves in restaurants, I wanted to scream "Wake up to the horrors of what our government is doing to defenceless people in our names! How can you still pretend that we live in a normal decent country"? It is hard to look into that abyss for a long time without damage, without succumbing to depression or self-destructive rage.
The second cost was in my relations with others. I had opened myself up to resentment from a wide range of people whose honour and professionalism I was now implicitly challenging. I had made it easier for pro-government operators to isolate me, to undermine my public credibility as a truth-seeker.
I had actually given them the rods to beat me with, because in Australia, "passionate" and "activist" are dirty words. To become so engaged in an issue means that one is assumed to have lost objectivity, to have lost respect for facts. Coolness, detachment, is the virtue prized above all. At some point on the way, I lost that perceived quality, and I then ceased to be one of Frank's "credible citizens".
I was branded as a Howard-hater and conspiracy theorist. I plead guilty to the former charge I do hate John Howard, for the way he has debauched our country and its traditional values of fair play and decency towards vulnerable people in our care - but I reject the latter charge. I believe everything I have put into the public arena is firmly based in facts and questions arising from those facts.
My SIEV X experience radicalised me. From 2003, I moved into wider public issues like the Iraq War, David Hicks, the sedition laws and the "war on terror". I no longer took on trust any claim made by Howard government ministers or senior officials on any issue.
That made me an uncomfortable person to deal with. The more fundamental my critique became, the less professional media people could use my work. I had pushed the envelope too far, and exhausted my initial public newsworthiness and credibility. There is now a great deal of silence on SIEV X.
* * * * * *
I want to come back now to the question of the dissenting agenda: I used to think that SIEV X was the refugee human rights issue that mattered most, because it had involved mass deaths where Australia had a duty of care. I felt then that refugees suffering in Australian detention camps were at least still alive. I was wrong about that I gave too little weight to the fact that people, children included, have been deliberately driven mad in detention, that people have suicided, that whole families have disappeared after forced return from Australia to their countries of origin, and that large numbers of former detainees will suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder for the rest of their lives. It is, perhaps, more important to help the living who are suffering than to seek justice for the dead.
And there are so many issues besides refugees. We have not talked about them much here, but to some people prominent in the Australian dissenting movement, refugee issues are pretty much off their screens. Their focus is on other issues of civil dissent: David Hicks' rights to a prompt and fair trial and to protection from torture. Sedition laws and civil rights. Landmark public service whistleblower cases like Colonel Lance Collins or Andrew Wilkie. Opposing the Iraq War. Supporting the East Timorese and the West Papuans. The suppression of free speech in the ABC and in universities, or of CSIRO scientists warning us of the coming environmental catastrophes. John Howard's betrayal of the reconciliation project.
Who can rank what are the most important issues of dissent? Who can write a history of Australian dissent in a fair and unbiased way? Who can judge whether dissent has been strong or weak, well or badly directed? Who would have the ability to bring us together in one united force of solidarity?
Clearly, not me. Probably, nobody can. Dissent will always be anarchical, because we are each so passionate about our own causes.
I wrote my book A Certain Maritime Incident in 2004, to try to reclaim the truth of the SIEV X history after all the government's distortions and smokescreens laid down over the previous two years. The limited-edition second printing is on sale here today [at the Paperchain, Manuka bookstall]. It offers my analysis of what is publicly known about the sinking, and the history of the blocked Senate investigation in 2002 and 2003. It has helped keep the SIEV X history alive in the public mind. It lays some groundwork other researchers will I hope lay more - for a future full-powers judicial inquiry into the sinking of SIEV X and the people smuggling disruption program, that was called for four times by the Senate when it was still a free chamber of review. Under a Rudd Labor government, I hope that we will have that independent judicial enquiry, that Senator John Faulkner has repeatedly pledged he will continue to demand.
* * * * * *
I want to conclude with a brief discussion of the dissent suppression strategies I experienced. I am not suggesting a group of conspirators sat down together to agree a Tony Kevin suppression plan! But look at the example of the history wars, how right-wing writers and commentators sang from the same song sheet. Such things do not happen by accident - this is how political activism works in the Internet age, on the right as well as on the left If the right sees a threat as important enough, it will try ruthlessly to suppress it.
These are the refugee dissent suppression strategies I encountered:
Put out claimed facts that are actually untrue, relying on the public's presumption that governments normally do not lie to the public, except in grave national security emergencies.
Force truth-seekers into the roles of advocates or activists. Blur debates about the facts in specific cases of abuse of human rights, by trying to move the debate into unresolvable discussions about values.
Drive wedges to weaken the solidarity of dissent. Use frightener words to marginalize and discredit passionate or influential dissenters, words like "extremist", "fanatic", "conspiracy theorist", "Howard-hater", "disloyal", "un-Australian".
Workplace or NGO-funding sanctions. Implied threats against those in government or government-funded employment, or threats to cut off funding to NGOs that support refugee activism.
Guilt trips. Accuse dissenters of prolonging victims' distress through holding out false hopes, or of undermining national security. Play games with dissenters' minds, aimed at undermining their belief in the justice of their causes. Seek to make them feel more isolated.
Never give credit to dissenters when they succeed. Always pretend that any decisions to soften the system were not taken under pressure.
the SIEV X public history is full of examples of false and shifting stories put out by government:
On where the boat sank. First, that it sank in Indonesian waters. Later, that "we don't know where it sank". Then, an admission that it sank in international waters. But then, a later reversion to "we don't know where it sank".
On what we knew about the voyage. First, that we knew nothing till we saw the TV news of the sinking. Then, that we knew the boat was coming, but we did not know when or from where. We cannot tell you what we knew, because it's intelligence; or, because it is the subject of an ongoing investigation. Or a variant from Mick Keelty: that you will just have to take our word for it that we did not know about the boat until it was too late to save the passengers. Because it's "operational", we cannot offer proof of this claim.
Were we expecting the boat? Yes, we were expecting the boat at Christmas Island on 21 October and that is why we sent a distress message to Indonesian Search and Rescue when it failed to arrive on time. But later - no, we did not put out a distress call to the ADF or to all shipping, because we then assumed that the boat had never left or it had turned back.
Did we ever look for the boat? No, we didn't. Yes, we did and here to prove are the RAAF surveillance maps and records of boat sightings, plastered all over the front page of the Weekend Australian on 29 June 2002, when media concern about SIEV X was at its peak But later - Yes, we did fly over the area, but only as part of routine RAAF surveillance patrols, because our aircrews were never tasked to look for a missing boat. And the flights charts and sightings data we tabled in the Senate and that the Senate accepted as fact were really just approximate flight paths. No, you cannot see our aircrew flight reports or know the names of the crews, because that's all classified information. And according to the Defence Minister in 2005, the evidence the ADF gave in 2002 despite all the conclusively forensic analysis by Marg Hutton of its many inconsistencies was the whole truth.
Do we know the names of the dead? Initially, as reported the UNHCR is preparing and collating lists of the dead and survivors. Later from the AFP - there are no such lists. Later - there are some lists but it is unlikely they will ever be made public.
And so on and on. One phoney smokescreen was put up after another until a frustrated and jaded media abandoned the story, having found no way to distinguish between truth and lies.
forcing truth-seekers into the roles of advocates or activists - there were persistent efforts to blur the central issue of the government's obligation to tell the truth about 353 deaths at the height of an Australian border protection national security operation. I always had to fight against the issue morphing into an unresolvable values debate on whether Australia should have open borders.
driving wedges and using frightener words to weaken the solidarity of dissent and isolate leading activists - Gerard Henderson and Tom Frame in 2004 tried to discredit the book with high-value target audiences. Approvingly quoting Henderson's abusive Sydney Morning Herald commentary, John Howard identified me in Parliament as a person to whose views he would give no credence. It is hard to judge how much effect such frightener words from people thought by some to be authoritative or powerful voices had. They certainly had some effect. For some years now, I have sensed a reluctance by some people in Australian politics and in related professions, to engage with me professionally. I have found it harder, for example, to have written work published, to take part in conferences; to teach. I accept that I helped to generate such impediments myself, by the passion and persistence with which I argued the SIEV X case.
So it is understandable that even among people interested in pursuing aspects of the SIEV X history, there is some discomfort level in publicly engaging with me. For entirely understandable reasons the public questions that have been raised about me could handicap worthy projects.
economic sanctions - my opportunities to earn income outside my superannuation pension have diminished. But I pay specific tribute here to the courage and integrity of my publishers, Scribe Publishing, in giving me opportunities to write books.
guilt trips - I have often been accused of delaying the emotional recovery of SIEV X survivors and. bereaved family members, of exploiting their grief. This is malicious nonsense their grief comes from the tragedy, from the years of uncertainty on their settlement status afterwards, and from the strain of taking part in a highly stressful people smuggling trial in Brisbane. I've also been accused of doing harm to Australia's national security, of slandering decent defence and police personnel, of being a fanatical conspiracy theorist, of being out of touch with what the Australian majority expects on border security.
All of this is as much about trying to demoralise me within myself, as it is about trying to discredit me with others. You either live or die under such pressures: as Nietzsche said, "That which does not kill me makes me stronger".
* * * * * *
To conclude this brief summary of my experience of active dissent on SIEV X and other issues: Was it worth it? Yes. I think my work achieved useful results going beyond SIEV X. It helped more people to see the truth behind the now discredited myth that John Howard is just another Australian politician trying to do his job more or less decently. Australians know the real Howard now. I think my SIEV X research and advocacy helped to expose the ugly truth about this man.
Would I do it again, knowing as I know now how fiercely it would be resisted? That's harder. There were permanent costs. I am not as confident now in my abilities to persuade and motivate others as I was a few years ago. I think more now than I did in those earlier years of active dissent about my obligations to my own family, and my obligation to conserve most of my remaining health and energy for them. I understand now how wearing it is to fight these battles. But I am still glad I did what I did on SIEV X it was a matter of personal honour. I probably could never do it again.
The really good thing is that these days, for the first time in years, I now truly look forward each day to opening my daily newspaper! I know that John Howard is on the way out as Prime Minister, and I pray that he may one day face justice for the crimes he committed during his years in power.
* * * * * *
A question was asked after the talk along the lines of: "Is it a problem for you that you have not yet been able to find any conclusive "smoking gun" evidence, that could prove whatever you think may have happened in the sinking of SIEV X?"
I answered on these lines:
"I have two answers to this.
First, I don't think that even if I had found "smoking gun" conclusive evidence, it would have necessarily helped. Look at the cases of Andrew Wilkie and Lance Collins. No one doubts the truth of their accounts of serious corruption in intelligence and intelligence assessment processes. The facts are not in serious dispute. Yet where are they now? It is a case, I think, of the Australian mainstream political culture not wanting to hear disturbing stories about itself. Such stories and the people who expose them are pushed away.
Second, it's not reasonable to expect any individual to find "smoking gun" evidence of any wrongdoing, when confronted as in the SIEV X case with a united wall of silence and lies from the whole national security system. The official stories may keep changing, but they are rock-solid agreed at any time. Any individuals who broke secrets from within the system would face maximum seven-year jail sentences under the Crimes Act. The only way to get at the truth would be through the independent full-powers judicial inquiry that the Australian Senate has repeatedly called for, with powers that the Senate Committee of Enquiry into a Certain Maritime Incident did not have to compel truthful testimony, on pain of imprisonment for false or refused testimony.
I have done my work on SIEV X - there is no more I can do at this time".
Tony Kevin's presentation was first published on his website at www.tonykevin.com. This site is no longer in existence.