A human rights advocate jams the Big Brother Show
It was exactly the boost the refugee movement in Australia needed. The television broadcast was watched by more than 1.8 million people on the Sunday evening.
Image: Off-camera ban: Merlin's 'other' Big Brother protest during an earlier show was quickly kept from audiences
In Narrogin, Western Australia, at Project SafeCom we were blissfully unaware of the event that threw a spanner in the works of the carefully staged Channel Ten Big Brother program.
That was until we received a phone call from a friend at SBS television, who on her weekend off was watching the show.
Immediately we switched the TV to the show, and started drafting our press release.
Merlin Luck has become our hero. He has spoken at rallies in Sydney, he visited the Baxter detention centre together with Democrats' Natasja Stott Despoja, was part of a forum in Sydney with former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser and others, visited Adelaide, and became ChilOut's "best friend" - see their extensive page on Merlin!
Indigenous people protest - Merlin pulled this protest on the final eviction of Big Brother. While the image is a direct camera shot from the show, this protest has not become widely known - Merlin did not want to take the focus from the other contenders at the show.
Below is Merlin's interview with Alex Broun, the coordinator of the Refugee Action Collective in Sydney, for Green Left Weekly. We've added some of the significant photos of the show.
On 25-26 August 2004 Merlin will come over to Perth - see the link to our event below!
"Some of the people I've had the honour of meeting since my eviction... it's quite overwhelming. It puts a smile on my face every time I get an invite from the likes of Bob Brown, Malcolm Fraser or Julian Burnside... just knowing that I'm respected as someone who spoke out for what they believe in, rather than as a reality TV personality." (Merlin, after having lunch with Greens leader Bob Brown)
11 September 2004: MOVIE: Letters to Ali with Merlin Luck, the Big Brother Spoiler! - With Big Brother protester Merlin in Perth for just one day, our movie matinee where we screened Clara Law's Letters to Ali, snapping up Merlin Luck as the keynote speaker, became the only chance for people in WA to meet the refugee advocate who had rapidly become a national human rights defender while it also became the biggest screening of the movie's season for Luna On Essex in Fremantle.
Green Left Weekly
June 23 2004
by Alex Broun
It was an extraordinary moment -- not just for Australian television but for the battle for more humane treatment for abused and neglected refugees in Australia.
It was Sunday night on Channel Ten -- another mundane eviction episode of the reality television show Big Brother. The night's evictee was Merlin Luck.
Then something surprising happened.
As Luck walked down the gangway, through the crowd, he produced something from his jeans. He fumbled trying to open something and then it was up -- a political banner: "Free th refugees." The 'e' fell off the hastily made banner as he was unravelling it.
On prime time, a young Australian was making a political statement. You could hear the sounds of tinnies dropping to the floor across the nation.
But there was more to come. A piece of black gaffer tape was produced and rudely slapped across the mouth.
Then Australia's prime-time protester, to the horror of sardonic host Gretel Killeen, sat stony faced holding the banner in front of him, refusing to speak in a silent show of support for the hundreds of asylum seekers still held against their will in Australian-run detention centres.
The response from the large studio audience was immediate and mostly hostile -- boos and jeers as those who paid for overpriced tickets to hear Luck's eviction interview realised they were not going to get what they paid for.
Despite Killeen's ongoing urging, Luck refused to break his silence and soon he was escorted off the stage by two burly bouncers as the producers quickly tried to re-jig their live-to-air format.
But for many refugees and refugee supporters in Australia, Luck's action had spoken louder than a million words.
The day after his now famous protest, as the controversy raged around him, Luck spoke to Green Left Weekly on the phone from a Brisbane radio studio as he waited for his umpteenth interview of the day.
Still coming to terms with the enormity of what he had pulled off, Luck was surprised that in all but one interview (George Moore on 2UE), his opinions had been listened to respectfully and he had been able to air his views on asylum seekers.
"[2UE] was a mutual hang-up", laughed Luck. "But that's okay. This is an issue I feel passionately about and my major motivation was to get it back on the political agenda. Honestly, it's been the most powerful moment of my life so far.
"I know there were people booing in the audience but there were also little pockets of people who were supporting what I did and I know they represent the millions of other Australians who feel like I do -- that the treatment of refugees in this country is wrong."
Luck was partly inspired to his protest by his own arrival in Australia.
"I came to this country from Germany when I was four years old" he explained, "and then we overstayed our tourist visa -- as so many people do -- so we lived illegally in Australia. I guess this gives me a little insight into how refugees feel.
"Refugees and asylum seekers have risked their basic human right to life to escape, persecution and they are greeted with utter inhumane disrespect when they arrive here. We lock up these people for indefinite periods of time.
"Whatever happened to the notion of caring for others in need? The treatment of refugees in this country is the most blatant undermining of the most basic human rights", said Luck.
One of those touched by the silent protest was Iranian actor, playwright and asylum seeker Shahin Shafaei who lives in Newtown on a temporary protection visa, and was watching Big Brother on the now famous night.
Shafaei, who spent 22 months in Curtin Detention centre, including 10 months in an isolation compound, knows more than most the cruelty of Australia's immigration "policies".
"When I saw what [Luck] was doing I was amazed and very, very happy", said Shafaei, "that he would have the courage to be so brave and make this protest."
"What he did means so much for those of us on temporary protection visas and for others still in detention centres. It will help us a lot in our battle for understanding."
Luck was overjoyed to hear of Shafaei's response and revealed to GLW that, while in the BB house, he had spoken often about the need for more humane treatment for refugees, but the producers had simply chosen to edit his comments out.
Refugees have proven to be a ratings winner, however. It was revealed later in the week that Luck's post-eviction interview dragged in an extra 150,000 viewers and articles about Luck's action had been the highest viewed on the Sydney Morning Herald website.
Luck finished his GLW interview by re-affirming his commitment to the cause and said he would continue using his new found fame to re-ignite discussion on Australia's harsh refugee policies.
"Look I am not an extremist, not a hard-core activist" he said. "I'm a normal dude, talking about sport, hanging out with my mates but I just feel there should be a lot more discussion on this issue. Raising the debate -- that's half the point I was trying to make.
"I was amazed afterwards that Gretel said this was 'reality television' and wasn't the place to make statements like I did. Then when is?
"This is a real issue. It may be a different type of reality but kids going skateboarding also need to be confronted with real issues. To talk about those issues and give them exposure at seven o'clock on live to air prime time.
"And I will continue to talk about this issue in all my interviews, with Gretel on my next interview, on Rove Live. The whole point of Big Brother is seeing all of people's personality. This is my personality."
Luck also addressed the World Refugee Rally in Sydney on June 20.
June 20, 2004
SEVERAL hundred people staged an emotional protest in Sydney's Hyde Park today to mark World Refugee Day.
Big Brother's now infamous evictee Merlin Luck addressed the crowd and said a more realistic TV program would allow the media into Australia's detention centres.
"Or maybe that's just a little bit too real," he told the rally.
Mr Luck was widely criticised after he emerged from the Big Brother house last Sunday with his mouth gaffer-taped shut. He was carrying a sign that read "FREE TH (sic) REFUGEES".
He said today he had been honoured to be given a voice even though he was only one of thousands of people who felt strongly about the issue.
Mr Luck used the opportunity to slam the Government's mandatory detention policy, saying it had been lying to the Australian public about the real situation for years.
"It's a fact you don't put your family on a leaky boat unless you're desperate," he said.
He also quoted the Dalai Lama when he joined hundreds of others in writing messages of support on coloured plastic hearts which surrounded the rally.
"If you sometimes think you're too small to make a difference try sleeping with a mosquito (in the room)," he wrote.
"This is one mosquito saying welcome."
Other speakers included Greens senator Kerry Nettle and Democrats senator Aden Ridgeway, author Thomas Keneally and former young detainees and refugees.
September 1, 2004
You can have a good time with your mates and still care about the suffering of others, writes Merlin Luck.
Politics used to be cool. From what I've heard there was actually a time where it was fashionable to be concerned with human rights issues - back in the days of the anti-Vietnam movement, back when the Live Aid concerts raised millions of dollars for Ethiopia and forced governments to re-evaluate their aid policies.
These days, cool is Australian Idol. Cool is digital television with 56 channels on a 128-centimetre flat-screen TV. Cool is an action blockbuster with Vin Diesel, a $300 million budget and a free "Happy Meal" action figure from the movie.
Meanwhile, 33,000 children die every day because they don't have enough to eat. Imagine 40 million people dying every year because of malnutrition. That's Australia two times over, the equivalent of 300 Boeing 747 jumbo jets crashing every day with no survivors.
In sub-Saharan Africa, there are 11 million children orphaned by AIDS. Landmines are still maiming and killing Cambodian kids. Two million little girls are at risk of female genital mutilation every year. And yet we barely notice - we seem more concerned with who won the football.
Just look at the front page of our biggest-selling papers that so often feature footy. Has the lead story ever once been "33,000 kids died today"?
We, as a society, have become desensitised to a point where information alone is no longer shocking or even newsworthy. These days we need it packaged up in controversy and hype, tied to really shocking images, and even then only delivered in bite-size chunks. Snippets of digestible reality that we can process and put to one side without actually thinking about what it all means, without actually thinking about the human cost, the pain, the suffering.
So why do we put up these barriers to side-step reality? Is it too hard to think about 30 per cent of Australia's Aboriginal people living under the poverty line? Is it easier to watch a reality TV contestant win $1 million?
Of course it's easier. You flick through the channels - trashy game show, American sitcom, home renovations program, SBS documentary on a horrendous regime that tortured and killed thousands - Whoah, quickly back to the trashy game show. I do it all the time! And I consciously have to pull myself up and say, no, I'm not going to sit here and consume this product-placement game show.
There's a perception in my generation that if you care about human rights issues, you're some left-wing hippie extremist.
I'm 24 years old. I have a bachelor of commerce. I go out all the time to see bands and DJs with my friends, without talking once about politics. I love watching the Swannies play over a beer with my mates, or going to the movies with a girl and having a nice evening out. I'm an ambitious and driven person. I'm happy, positive and energetic, but that doesn't mean that I can't have time in my life to think about the broader picture. That doesn't mean that I can't do my part in being an active campaigner and an informed, compassionate person.
John Howard's Government has relentlessly promoted the white middle-class family values of the 1950s to the detriment of any group outside that parameter.
So let us look at some of the consequences of this narrow-mindedness spiralling from the core of our nation.
A person whose application for refugee status is rejected by the Department of Immigration can appeal to the Refugee Review Tribunal. In the last financial year, the average overturn rate for these decisions was 10.8 per cent, but when you look just at applicants from Muslim countries, 32 per cent of the decisions were overturned. That means that if you are a Muslim, you're three times more likely to be wrongly refused refugee status by the Department of Immigration.
Looking at the statistics for the top three Muslim countries whose citizens seek asylum in Australia - Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan - you have a 54 per cent chance of being wrongly refused refugee status by the department.
You might think: "But how can I make a difference?" But it's all about another drop in the ocean. As the Dalai Llama once said: "If you ever doubt the power of one, try sleeping with a mosquito."
You can write letters to people in detention, volunteer with churches and charities working for human rights, organise events to raise awareness and money, write letters to the editor, ring talkback radio stations and challenge misinformation.
Even if you don't get into print or on air, it is a fact that the more people make the effort, the more pressure will build for a shift in the media's angle on these issues.
Inform yourself so you can hold your own in debates and discussions. Raise awareness in your own circle and make an appointment with your federal member of Parliament to raise your concerns.
A Lutheran pastor and survivor of a Nazi concentration camp once said: "First they came and took away the communists and I did nothing because I wasn't a communist. Then they took away the Jews and I did nothing because I wasn't Jewish. Then they took away the unionists and again I did nothing because I wasn't in a union. And then, when they came for me, there was no one there to stop it."
My mother always told me that bad things happen when good people don't speak out. It's too easy to walk away and find a distraction from the things that matter in this world. But take a chance to stand up for what's right, to act with compassion and humanity, and you'll always be amazed at just how many people are right there by your side.
Merlin Luck made a silent protest about Australia's refugee policies when he was evicted from the most recent Big Brother series.