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A no war protester in front of the United Nations

Carmen and the Issues that matter

As a Member of Parliament, Labor Party veteran Dr Carmen Lawrence was fierce and vocal about democratic accountability

Fremantle's Dr Carmen Lawrence is "our" local member in Western Australia for the Australian Labor Party.

Protester in front of the Vietnam Wall Memorial in Washington, DC. 58,000 names are inscribed on this wall. Image courtesy Diane Green Lent

We would not particularly interested in just any Federal Labor member, were it not that Carmen quit the Labor front bench in December 2002 'in disgust'.

Her 'disgust' (see Carmen's cry from the heart) focused on Labor's asylum seeker policies launched in October 2002 by Labor leader Simon Crean and the then shadow minister for immigration Julia Gillard.

For Carmen, it was a matter of principle vs opportunism:

"In my experience in recent times it's not uncommon in the Shadow Cabinet for issues to be discussed first of all with an eye on what the public reaction is likely to be, rather that whether it's inherently good policy. And I don't believe that we can continue in that direction."

What's on this page

On this page, Carmen Lawrence's Febr 2003 speech 'War, refugees and Labor' at the Labor Club in the Australian Capital Territory.

Related pages:

1 January 2007: The Gifts of Carmen Lawrence - The number of contributions from Carmen to the national debate, also but not only about Australia's treatment of refugees and asylum seekers, has kept growing, also on our website - this was the reason we constructed this page to bring all pages, all gifts from Dr Carmen Lawrence together.

5 December 2002: Carmen's cry from the heart - Everyone knew it at the time, when Dr Carmen Lawrence, ALP member for Fremantle, resigned from the ALP front bench: it was over her dismay with ALP policies on asylum seekers and refugees. This is the text of the December 5 2002 press conference called to announce her resignation from the Labor frontbench.

14 January 2004: Carmen Lawrence: Ideas to save our withering democracy - a manifesto to protect and enhance our democracy: Despite the otherwise general equality in voting power, many are suspicious that not all citizens are equally able to influence their representatives; the health of our democracy requires greater involvement and participation from party members and the community at large.

16 November 2003: The President of the ALP - Carmen Lawrence has just made history in the Labor Party - she's become the first female national president of the ALP and the first person to be elected to that post by the party members. Dr Lawrence talks with Laurie Oakes.

4 August 2003: Dr Carmen Lawrence, Fear and Denial in Public Policy - "Fear always serves the real elites - as opposed to those concocted by the conservative commentators; the privileged who throughout history have claimed to be uniquely positioned to identify the "dangers" from which they must protect us - witches, Jews, blacks, Muslims, communists, terrorists, illegals. Fear sells and it gets people elected."

7 October 2003: Dr Carmen Lawrence, What is social justice? - "The UN ... has added crucial social, economic and cultural rights, including the right to an adequate standard of living; the right to education; the right to work and to equal pay for equal work; and the right of minorities to enjoy their own culture, religion and language. These are all objectives of social justice policies."

1 August 2003: The plight of the Mandaeans: A new Iran contra deal - "The Government wants to test the resistance of Australians to this indecency. I hope they are unpleasantly surprised and that Australians will draw the line at forcing people back to situations where their very lives are at risk." In this piece, which appeared first in Margo Kingston's Web Diary, Carmen Lawrence discusses the Mandaean issue.

War, refugees and Labor

A speech delivered at the ACT Labor Club on February 20, 2003

by Carmen Lawrence

Over the last few years, many Australians have reported that they feel diminished, that Australia has become less than it can be. I can't count the number of conversations I've had in which people have mourned the apparent disappearance of compassion and altruism from Australia's political landscape. Many are particularly disturbed by the wedge political manipulation of the refugee issue and Labor's complicity in the manufactured "security" scare.

The spectre of a dark and uncertain future, initially linked to the "invaders" from a strange culture and now overlaid with the "war on terrorism", is being used by the conservatives to try to stampede Australians into supporting an attack on Iraq. This time I think they'll fail.

In the context of talking about Labor's policy on refugees, I was asked to reflect on my reasons for resigning from the Shadow Cabinet. As I said when I resigned, I was disappointed with the frequency with which contentious issues were discussed at the outset with an eye on what the public reaction was likely to be, rather that whether any policy was inherently good. This was particularly true of various pieces of legislation and policy relevant to asylum seekers.

To develop good polices that are consistent with our claims to be progressive, we have to start with a set of values and yes - even ideals - to which we aspire as political activists. These values shouldn't just be for decoration either; not just a preamble to the policy statements. They should be embedded in it - both in terms of the decisions and the language. And they shouldn't be abandoned at the faintest whiff of grape shot.

Using the example of the asylum seeker policy, I think one of the mistakes we're making is to play on Howard's turf - the language and the analysis are his. Treating desperate people arriving in leaky boats as a threat to our national security is truly bizarre, and should be challenged, not incorporated into our thinking.

We're allowing him to define the territory and the arguments, signing up to the Lilliputian world in which he feels comfortable. It also engages the political contest entirely on his territory and on his terms. As David Malouf pointed out recently,

"Howard is a master of forcing on his opponents the terms in which a contest is to be fought. If he can impose his tone and language on the debate, he will have determined the range- everything practical and down-to-earth, nothing flighty or fancy- to which all arguments will be restricted. Any deviation by his opponent into the inspirational, the lyrical, the rhetorical, into big ideas - into any ideas at all, anything of the mind or the heart or spirit- can be represented then as suspect, as excessive, flaky."

As long as we try to argue the case on his territory, then he's the one who's dictating the terms about the political contest and the way it's played out. We played along, before the last election, with the moral panic surrounding the boat people, instead of getting out there and persuading Australians to a different point of view.

I hated our acquiescence on the Tampa, but a lot of poll driven compromises had been made before the Tampa loomed on our horizon. In a sense, Labor's response was almost inevitable after so much acquiescence, month after month. Each small step was barely noticeable. But the end result was that we were pushed well beyond a position that our own members could endorse.

I thought after 12 months, we had the opportunity to get our asylum seeker policy right. The members of the Party through a series of resolutions and through Labor- for - Refugees had provided the framework for a humane and workable policy, consistent with our values and our international obligations. We had the opportunity to rule a line under the past as we did with East Timor, and successfully.

I concede that the policy is an improvement over the Government's. But opposition is the time to craft the best possible policy, especially after so much debate and experience with the destructive consequences of the current policy. Now is the time to signal that we really want to head in a new direction; that we recognise that underpinning the policy should be a recognition of the equal worth of all human beings and a commitment to their agreed rights in international law.

The language, in my view, of toughness and of security and threat, is not an appropriate language to use in talking about a policy for asylum seekers. These are people who are asking for our help after they've been subject to persecution, a claim which, in the vast majority of cases, is validated. Why conflate the very serious question of our own national security and threats to the lives of Australians, with the issue of how we manage people who come here when they're seeking asylum? They are not the same issue and yet Labor's policy document appears to endorse the view that these are somehow all tied in together.

The policy also retains the linkage of onshore and offshore refugee programs. This is the device the Government has used to divide the migrant community and to create the myth of "queue jumpers." All we need do is separate them to provide for an ongoing humanitarian program, which is managed and predictable, and at times of emergency, which it seems we are about to confront again, the opportunity for a more generous response.

The Labor policy also treats some asylum seekers as more worthy than others - whatever gloss you put on it. The Christmas Island option is a seriously diminished option relative to the onshore option and yet there's no difference in principle between the two groups of people - one gets in a leaky boat that doesn't make it and gets as far as Christmas Island, the others get on a slightly less leaky boat and make it, as they have in the past, to Broome. One gets the offshore processing, one gets onshore processing. One gets legal advice, the other gets none. One gets an independent tribunal - the other gets none. One gets the possibility of review - the other gets none. Although the High Court decision last week may change that.

And where is Christmas Island? It's a very long way from the mainland. Are the media going to be there, watching what's happening on Christmas Island? Will they report when things go wrong, things like the fires that destroyed much of the existing facilities; events like the death a couple of weeks ago of a young Afghani mother of three, Fatima Erfani, had a brain haemorrhage and died after being transferred to a hospital in Perth.

Let me tell you a little of her story, one the government did not make public until the story was leaked by friends of Fatima and Ali Reza. The family were sent to Christmas Island, post Tampa.

Fatima had been treated for high blood pressure for about seven months before her death on Sunday 18 January. The week before her death she suffered terrible headaches and was given Panadol after seeing a nurse in the detention centre who took her blood pressure and recorded a level of 220/120, which is very high. A consistent blood pressure reading of 140/90 mm Hg or higher is considered high blood pressure, which increases the risk for heart disease and stroke. Careful monitoring and management are always recommended. At this time she was also under added stress because she and her husband were being pressured to sign documents agreeing to return to Afghanistan. They eventually did sign them, because they were very worried that they would be sent to Nauru, about which they had heard very bad reports.

When the headaches persisted, Fatima was taken to see a doctor in the hospital who gave her stronger pain medication for her headaches only. Ali Reza, who acted as interpreter (there are none on the Island), said he couldn't make the doctor understand that she was really unwell. Fatima was sent back to the detention centre and the next morning could barely wake and was very groggy. At 11.30 am, she collapsed into unconsciousness and was taken to the hospital. Twelve hours later she was placed on a flight to Perth and was operated on at Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital at 3.30 am after a brain scan revealed severe haemorrhaging.

After such a delay, the operation was not successful and she remained unconscious until her death. While her husband and children had been brought to Perth, they were sent back to Christmas Island the next morning.

After hearing this story, I wrote letter to Ruddock demanding an inquiry and urging that the records be secured, because records have gone missing in other coronial inquires. I have also asked the Minister's office a series of questions about what has happened to Fatima's body. When I last inquired, her husband is still unaware of where his wife's body is and what the Department plans to do.

To return to Labor's policy. I was also very disappointed that even after members of the ALP made it very clear that they wanted an end to mandatory detention it remains, albeit in modified form, in the policy. Members told us firmly - still tell us - that they wanted to see an end to mandatory detention while applications for refugee status are being processed. Everyone understands you need to detain people briefly, no matter how they arrive, for health, security and identity checking.

The majority of our own members, if not the wider community, want an end to endless detention, which is cruel enough in itself, but when enforced in remote and hostile environments where security is at best careless and at worst brutalising, it smashes people's hope and destroys their sanity.

Members told us that they wanted an end to temporary protections visas because they're discriminatory, determined on the basis of how you come here, not on the basis of the merits of your case. The policy document presents a cogent argument against TPVs and then retains them. TPVs cruelly require people who have been found to have genuine refugee claims to make them all over again. You will all be aware of the suicide this week of an Afghani man faced with this prospect.

And of course the fact that TPV holders are denied family reunion, as well as other basic services to help them settle into Australia, is the reason so many women and children found places in leaky boats to try to join their husbands and fathers. Why nearly 300 women and children drowned when the SIEVX sank or was deliberately scuttled. Why two women drowned when another vessel broke apart and provided the photos for the "children overboard" lie.

Many of these people left their homes in Iraq because of the oppression and persecution they experienced and feared at the hands of the regime of Saddam Hussein.

It leads me to ask, what will happen to the Iraqi people if the United States (with the U.K. and Australian forces in tow) attacks Iraq, with or without U.N. sanction?

Recent reports from the U.N., Medact, the U.K. equivalent of the Medical Association for the Prevention of War here in Australia, and a group of health workers based at Cambridge University have systematically documented the past and projected health and environmental costs of war.

Medact estimates that if the threatened attack on Iraq eventuates, between 48,000 and 260,000 people on all sides could be killed. Civil war within Iraq could add another 20,000 deaths. They estimate that later deaths from adverse heath effects could add a further 200,000 to this hideous total.

The leaked U.N. report predicts substantial and wide ranging impacts - as many as 500,000 requiring treatment as a result of injuries in the face of severe shortages of medical facilities and supplies. It also points to the likelihood that there will be food shortages and consequent starvation and malnutrition affecting some 3 million people. The estimates of the toll of death and misery which might result from an attack on Iraq do not include the use of nuclear weapons which the U.S is said to be contemplating.

It is easy to be distracted by the minutiae of the arguments for or against an attack, with or without U.N. approval, but we sometimes forget to ask whether the arguments or the evidence in support of them can justify the killing of tens or even hundreds of thousands of Iraqi people. Or the flow on effects, including greater instability in the region, and the probable generation of a new wave of anti-western extremism.

It is often those who have seen war, who most revile the use of force. A war correspondent who has seen the end result of "orders from far away" describes his experience in Vietnam and anticipates the likely effects of the waves of B52 bombers which will be used in Iraq. He remembers the "children's skin folded back, like parchment, revealing veins and burnt flesh that seeped blood, while the eyes, intact, stared straight ahead."

We desperately need a peaceful resolution to this and conflicts like it. We have to ask, if containment and surveillance have worked until now, why abandon them? Have we really explored all means less terrible than war? Is it really beyond human imagination and intelligence to devise other diplomatic and security solutions such as those proposed in recent days by France and Germany? Is killing Iraqis really the only course of action open to us?

I've heard members of the Government, including the Prime Minister, justify an attack in terms not dissimilar to those of the Bush administration - that because they do not intend to kill children, they are somehow exonerated. Even if Bush and Howard claim not to intend to kill innocent civilians, they are still using military techniques which they know will inevitably result in the loss of innocent lives. As Rediehs so eloquently puts it,

So, although both sides in this Great Cosmic Battle employ similar techniques- violence that includes the killing of innocent civilians - our doing this is justified because we are good; their doing it is unjustified because they are evil.

Like many in the community, I've tried to make sense of what's happening; to read and think and talk, to gain some sense of control over the dark chaos we're confronting. Like many, I cannot help but to return again and again to the images of children dying. The face on the poster advertising the rally this coming weekend is that of a child. And rightly so, because children will be - already are - the most likely victims of an attack on Iraq.

Of the approximately 25 million people living in Iraq, 12 million are children, with four million under the age of 5. Every time a bomb hits, on average, we can expect half of the victims to be children.

Writing in the "Guardian", Jonathan Glover tells how in discussing medical ethics with his medical and nursing students, it is clear that everyone agonises over life and death decisions, for example, when discussing whether to continue life support for a severely disabled child, never rushing the discussion. He is struck by:

"the contrast between these painful deliberations and the hasty way people think about a way in which thousands will be killed ... Decisions for war seem less agonising than the decision to let a girl in hospital die. But only because anonymity and distance numb the moral imagination."

We know that Iraqi children are already suffering as a result of the last Gulf war and the sanctions that have been imposed since 1991. Several meticulous reports, including from the U.N., attest to the already fragile state of Iraqi children.

The most recent, "Our Common Responsibility" from the International Study team, which documented the effects of the last war on the children of Iraq, has assessed the vulnerability of Iraqi children today, forecasting a "grave humanitarian disaster" should war occur. This independent group of academics, researchers and practitioners used data from a wide variety of sources, including the U.N., international and non-government organisations and more than 100 unaccompanied visits and interviews within Iraq, particularly in Baghdad, Karbala and Basra.

They concluded that "Iraqi children are more vulnerable to the adverse effects of war than they were before the Gulf War of 1991", in part, because they are more dependent on food distribution programs which are likely to be disrupted by war. If war breaks out the number of children who are malnourished will almost certainly grow beyond the 500,000 already affected.

These children are particularly vulnerable to infectious diseases that are likely to increase with damage to water supply and sewerage treatment facilities, already operating below capacity because of sanctions. The death rate among children under five is already 2.5 times greater than in 1990, and has improved only slightly as result of the Oil For Food program initiated after adverse publicity on the devastating effects of sanctions.

Furthermore, the health care system, formerly one of the best in the region, is in a run-down state, with severe shortages of health professionals, many of whom have fled, and some of whom are rotting in our own Gulags.

The United Nations itself estimates that an attack on Iraq could force more that 1.4 million people to flee Iraq and another 2 million to within Iraq away from their homes. It is clear that no one is prepared for such an exodus, least of all the Australian government.

The newfound concern by the Government ministers and MPs for the plight of Saddam's victims has not been much in evidence over the last few years - ask the poor bastards who are still being brutalised on Nauru. Ask the more than 1000 Iraqis who are still being held in detention. Ask their children, who are locked up in contravention of every relevant UN Convention to which Australia is signatory.

These are the same people for whom the Government felt such compassion that it systematically denigrated them as greedy, wealthy queue jumpers, as illegals who were prepared to manipulate the Australian people with their hunger strikes and desperate acts of self harm.

These are the people described as unworthy future citizens because they "threw their children overboard," a claim we now know to be a calculated lie of political convenience. The Government so well understood the trauma they had already experienced at Saddam's hands that it refused them aid altogether, marooning them on remote islands, trying to deny any responsibility for their wellbeing. They sent over 600 desperate Iraqi people to rot on Manus and Nauru, where many of them are still being held.

Just yesterday, the Senate was told in the Estimates hearings of seven Iraqi women and their children being detained on Nauru, despite the fact that their husbands have been granted temporary protection visas. The Senate was told that the women could not claim refugee status just because their husbands could. When asked what would happen to them, the official said, in the bloodless language of DIMIA and its minister, "The individuals on Nauru are free to return to their homeland or any other country they may wish to travel to." Alexander Downer had just spent part of question time spelling out what women in Iraq can expect when they fall foul of the regime - rape, torture and murder. Not to mention the bombs that will fall. When challenged about the gross hypocrisy of this position on radio today, Downer said, "We don't send people back who would be at risk. We send people back we think have been rorting the system.

The government felt such pity for their plight that it turned its back on the foundering SIEVX and allowed 353 of people to drown, victims of either indifference or a deliberate strategy of sabotage, or in the chillingly clinical language of this government, a "disruption" program. The majority of these poor souls were Iraqi, 142 women and 146 children trying to join their husbands and fathers here on temporary protection visas which cruelly deny them family reunion.

There are an estimated 4000 Iraqis here on these temporary visas, many now up for review and renewal. Like the Afghani man who committed suicide this week rather than face return, many will now be under enormous strain. They know that some of their compatriots have already been either forcibly returned to the region or coerced into agreeing to their own deportation, although even Syria is now refusing to take them.

Just two weeks ago I helped organise the removal of an Iraqi asylum seeker from a vessel where he'd stowed away. A political refugee, he's now in the Perth Detention Centre. He'd been held in a paint cupboard on board the ship for two months as the vessel pled the coastal trade because the Australian government has made it clear to all ship owners that they allow asylum seekers to land here at their peril. They risk prosecution and the cancellation of their permits. Such sympathy for those feeling the Monster of Baghdad!

To return to the children of Iraq. The most disturbing reports contained in "Our Common Responsibility" were those of the psychologists on the team. They followed up children who were interviewed after the last war and found, unsurprisingly that children "continued to experience sadness and remained afraid of losing their family." The described the increased stress on parents from the effects of the last war and the sanctions - poverty, the death of family members, disrupted sanitation, electricity and water supply and the subsequent difficulty parents have in providing a caring and supportive environment for the children.

We all understand that losing people we love, particularly children, causes long lasting grief and depression. These experiences can be devastating for children. During the early part of the sanctions regime, childhood mortality escalated at an alarming rate to reach 131 per thousand children below the age of five years, meaning, as the report puts it, "that every second family runs the risk of losing a child." Think about it - and that before the planned attack on Iraq. When these deaths are caused by shelling or bombing or shooting, the loss is even more traumatic and will lead to lifelong mental suffering.

Is it really a surprise that the researchers found that the imminent threat of war was adding to this stress and preoccupied many of the children they interviewed. Even the preschoolers were afraid and "possessed concepts of the real physical threats of bombs and guns; destruction of houses, burning homes, killing of people, and in the end referring to their own family: 'we will all die.'" One five year old boy said of the threatened U.S. attack, "They have the guns and bombs and the air will be cold and hot and we will burn very much."

Older children, also fearful, were found to be in a state of fatigue, resignation and sadness, many experiencing sleeping problems and nightmares, severe concentration problems at school and, in some cases, feelings of extreme detachment. Nine year old Hana said, "Often I feel nothing. Nothing at all." This same feeling was starkly revealed in the finding that almost 40% of the teenagers interviewed thought that most of the time life is not worth living.

It seems that Bush and Blair and Howard are about to confirm their fears and grant them their implied wish.