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Project SafeCom founder and coordinator Jack Smit

Margo Kingston's Web Diary: Citizen Jack

How a man, a computer and a passion for justice can make a difference in today's Australia

from Margo Kingston's Web Diary
Commentary by Margo Kingston
Original location here
May 16, 2005 12:02 AM

G'day. After the Tampa election I wrote a piece called What will you do?:

"Among my circle, most cried when Howard said in his victory speech that 'Australia is the best country in the world'. The worst moment for me was when he said that 'the things that unite us are more important than the things which divide us'. Not to me, John. The things that divide us are now more important. Many of those whose vision for Australia finally died on Saturday night asked themselves the next day: 'What will I do?'

"To win through, enough people who believe that a multicultural, internationalist Australia will give our nation the best economic, security and social outcomes must stay, and rethink... Some will join a political party, others will join the refugee protest movement. What will you do?"

Webdiarists began answering that question in Searching for answers, Goodbye to the quiet drink, Redrawing my map of home and Dynamic enmeshment. They kept doing so until I wrote Tampa Christmas to finish Webdiary for that transformative year.

Want to know what a Western Australian man of passion did? Webdiarist Jack H Smit began Project SafeCom after Tampa. He is now one of Australia's most respected and effective refugee advocates. Here is his bio, then his story.

"I was conceived in The Netherlands in July 1951, a week or two from the date that the UN Refugee Convention was formally adopted, with the smoke and shell-shock of the Second World War still hanging in the air and everyone becoming hopeful because of the work of the UN and the rebuilding of Europe. Before migrating to Australia, I worked with kids and young people with a disability as a groupworker in residential settings. In Australia I qualified as a social worker and did post-graduate courses in training and development, and studied in Perth and Melbourne in using action methods in group psychotherapy and sociodrama. At the moment I apply many methods in my work for Project SafeCom and see myself as a 'smart' community development worker."

* * * * * *

Citizen Jack: how a man, a computer and a passion for justice can make a difference in today's Australia

by Jack H Smit

In June 2000 I started on a casual teaching contract at a Perth TAFE college with three campuses, and the utterly boring and stayed head of my Department of Community Services - a stranded psychologist - was probably of the belief that "new and casual staff" such as myself should teach the most reviled subjects in the courses, and consequently I found myself lumped with the unenviable task of teaching students to maintain the administration of community organisations, keep the books, do proposals and plans, run meetings and keep minutes. They had to know how to send faxes and run a program of fundraising, be in the community as NGO crows while at the same time submit to the obligatory learning to bend to our standards of decency, political correctness and be multiculturally aware, sensitive and pre-emptive so they would not be sacked in future jobs.

I told my boss I wanted to run all the competencies in tandem, filling an entire day in one classroom with all students, and I made him almost fall of his chair with the request.

And because another boatload of asylum seekers had just arrived, I created a look-alike advert cut-out from a desperate Howard government, placed in The Weekend Australian, issuing a Commonwealth Request for Tenders for the provision of a rural community-based care, shelter and acclimatisation open-door facility of about 200 asylum seekers from Chinese, Afghani, Iraqi and Cambodian origins, asked my students to form three groups from those they really wanted to work with, dumped three arch lever files on their desks, asked them to choose a set of office bearers for their group, and asked them to enter $10,000 each in the books of their just birthed community project as a seed fund.

I also told them I would only give "lectures proper" for a few minutes at the time, and only in response to their request for one, and that their job during the entire day was to develop their organisational plans and submission, formally meet and fight about it, keep the minutes, and record all their proceedings and development on forms - I had created a stockpile of fax cover sheets, memo forms, pro forma's of agenda's, minutes, transcripts of phone conversations and spread sheets for budgets and contact forms.

They fought, and I assisted. They quarrelled and I smiled. The guys played domination games and I exposed them gently but firm enough for the women and girls to feel affirmed. They vilified cultures and I pointed at it. They showed xenophobia and I lectured about the stupidity of my dress code as a European - always and everywhere in socks and sandals - until they started to get it.

And they loved it. They typed a fax for Rose Porteous, requesting a $60,000 donation. They held an Open Day for their community organisation right in the classroom while someone had their birthday, so they could have Coke and cakes - but they sold the cakes for dummy money as a fundraiser. They wrote about culturally appropriate meals and wrote a job description for the chef. They designed layouts of the living quarters, took note of the sexual mores of the various cultures, and whether kids, male and female, should be separate, whether the couples should sleep together, how big the distance needed to be between the Iraqis and the Afghanis, and they stuffed up, fought, someone resigned from the course and submitted a formal complaint against me about the fact that I did not lecture. Their cultural limits were sometimes sufficiently shocked so as to take responsibility and actually start some thinking. I ran the project for a year with several student groups, until my boss reverted back to the safety of his conservative shelter so he regained control, and my work requirements at the college "had ceased".

Then Tampa happened and it was my turn to fight.

* * * * * *

Tampa began an entirely new period in Australian history. I was in shock for about eight months. I cried. I screamed at the television, facing a bloodless coup d'etat on the chief ingredients of Australia's refugee treatment, humanness and generosity led by a similarly bloodless Ruddock responding with mechanical precision to His Master's Voice. (Margo: To remind yourselves of the shock many other Australians also felt at the time, see Webdiary's 2001 archive from August 28, begining with my piece Moral panic.)

Lie after lie, manipulation after manipulation, invaded my little cottage in a Wheatbelt town about 200km from Perth. There was not enough time to come to terms with one scandal before the next one was crafted. I was able to read Margo's Webdiary in spurts and bursts, but the radio wa tuned to the ABC for 18 hours a day and I watched ABC television current affairs programs throughout the evenings.

Every time I thought the band of refugee advocates, supporters and activists started to get their minds around the latest Amendment to the Migration Act, the latest courtcase and the latest manipulative coup by Ruddock would shift the dangerous sands in the quagmire of political stand-over tactics against the world's most vulnerable population group.

And consequently, every time I had a fresh reason to scream at the television and rant, curse, cry and yell into the vacuumized space of a country where politicians undermined and vilified lawyers and the courts and condemned concerned reporters, documentary-makers, the ABC, SBS, and legal eagles attempting to hang on to the ever-narrowing pieces of driftwood in their court cases.

Howard's Tampa election-driven spin machinery was to be the beginning of a now well-established instrument of media control and information manipulation. Democratic openness, political honesty and electoral accountability were replaced by tghtly controlled bulletins and sooth-sayings of the 'party machine', via staffers, media units of the NAVY, DIMIA, the Minister for Immigration, other Ministers and indeed any parts of the public service, which lied, covered up or said nothing as required.

My mind started clearing as I began to acknowledge, and then accept, that Tampa was not about refugees, but about the undermining of democracy by a man prepared to use con-man methods to entrench his power.

Even now, nearly four years later, my memory of September 2001 to July 2002 is one of pains in my stomach, lust to throw a brick at my television set and a semi-conscious sense that 'not enough screams' were heard about the travesty of justice committed in this, my country.

Recently, sitting in Fremantle's town library just behind the Town Hall, I started a conversation with a man frantically writing something. Graham Nowland was a reporter with Lloyd's List during the Tampa standoff. He told me about a vanished press release on the website of the Australian Maritime Safety Authority about the fact that Arne Rinnan would sail the asylum seekers to Christmas Island, and a disappeared ABC news report stating the same thing. Within an hour both records of what took place had vanished from the air and from the Internet by order from the War office in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.

Tampa was a war zone, and the war office was in Canberra. For the rest of my life I will remember that this gross and scandalous misuse of power and privilege took place in my country, at the hands of a Prime Minister elected to serve his people who stooped to the vilest of con-man methods to get himself elected at a great cost to Australia's name and standing in the international community.

"Over my dead body" I yelled during Tampa, and implementing my pledge and formulating it into action saved me from desolate nothingness in those last months of 2001. Frantically I created page after page after page for a website, incorporated Project SafeCom as a community organisation, and started operating the voice that demands to be heard. One of my most treasured pages on the website from those days, The Australian People's Refugee Visa, was my attempt to embody the 'fair-go'. Writing this page kept my sanity during the first couple of months, and put in front of me, on paper, my own promise and commitment.

Project SafeCom now hosts more than 300 pages about Tampa and the ensuing Australian drama over refugee issues: articles, quotes from dignitaries, reports and research projects, speeches and opinion pieces.

Between TAMPA and Vanstone many things happened, and if I elaborate on them I would just repeat material that's strewn all over our website, with more than 40,000 page views per month - from the leaked NAVY photographs of the Children Overboard incident we brought to the public to the just released Royal Commission petition. There are major events for us in the local community and in cities around Australia.

And on the micro-level there are milestones such as a policy briefing requested by Family First, getting on like friends with the Democrats and the Greens and some ALP backbenchers, and having Petro Georgiou's staffer exclaim, "Hi, it's so great you're on the phone, we've heard so much about you" when I finally spoke to a Liberal after his landmark speech in Parliament. I also proudly state our initiative and central role in "catching the illegals" amongst Australian journalists, resulting in adjudications by the Australian Press Council here, here and here.

There are massive implications - most not related to refugees - of what took place during the Tampa stand-off. When I wrote a briefing paper for my steering committee recently, I listed them in four categories: implications for Australian politics, for the Australian public service, for the Australian media and for the Australian courts and International Conventions. My brief extends to action in all these areas.

Somewhere in me is a vow that I don't want to decay, give up or die before I can bear witness that Australia is a happy country again, where honesty and openness, inclusion and generosity extends to all indigenous people, to members of the Muslim religion, and to refugees - and where this happiness exudes from Australia's government without fear or favour as well.

Somehow this vow has created a relentless drive in me. I don't stop at 5pm, but at midnight. I don't start at 10am but at 6am. There's a feverish thing, and it obsesses me. Human rights are not an add-on in welfare societies, they're about the heartbeat of humanness, they're about the smile on the train to work to someone you've never seen before, of a quiet greeting between two strangers, and between folks who dress so different that it could create a barrier, but doesn't.

They're about the community around Australia, and within a few hours you know who's a member and who's not yet a member and who's compromised about it.

It's about those who give it their all to be guardians of democracy, guardians of accountability and guardians of how Australia is governed.

The refugee movement is a section of the new movement that will shape how Australia is going to be governed in this new century.

It's not about refugees, but about the bigger issues and the bigger picture. John Howard is a passing aberration. Neo-conservatism is a passing shadow, and an extremely nasty one at that - but the bigger picture remains.

I do not work for a salary from the income we receive through donations and other proceeds, as I am ethically committed to only receive project management fees when a distinct project is occasionally funded by foundation grants or other funding. But our work always needs a steady flow of funds: Project SafeCom exists by the grace of its supporters and donors. And because Margo invited me to include a call for donations, I feel free to conclude by issuing this invitation to the readers of Webdiary. As always, the call is urgent and ongoing.

From Margo Kingston's Web Diary, May 16 2005