Lindsay Tanner is Shadow Minister for Communications and the Labor Member for Melbourne.
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Project SafeCom NOTE: we have serious reservations about the ALP's current asylum seeker policy as launched last year by Hon Simon Crean and Ms Julia Gillard, and in this criticism we join with Labor4Refugees. You can access some of their remarks about the Labor Policy through our web page "The struggle for Labor, the trouble with Labor". We look forward to the January 2004 National Conference, where the ALP will hopefully finally listen to what has been strongly endorsed by the ALP members in most State Conventions around Australia: to abandon the policy of mandatory detention.
"Labor's support for the Howard Government's brutal approach to asylum seekers in the 2001 election was the most traumatic experience of my political career. Labor's capitulation to the tactics of group vilification and racial discrimination in 2001 may be forgiven, but should not be forgotten. That battle can't be fought again, but Labor can learn from this terrible episode. Labor must never again allow itself to be forced to jettison fundamental values in pursuit of political survival."
Arthur Calwell Memorial Address delivered in Melbourne on 19 September, 2003.
By Lindsay Tanner
Friday, September 26, 2003
From Online Opinion
Few Australian political leaders have influenced the shape of our modern society more than Labor's Arthur Calwell.
History has unfairly portrayed him as a symbol of the White Australia Policy. He should be remembered as the very person who made the end of White Australia possible.
Arthur Calwell's immigration program made modern Australia. Calwell pushed the boundaries of racial inclusion at a time when it was extremely politically risky to do so. He had the heart and imagination to see the part this nation could play in relieving the suffering of millions of European refugees.
Through passionate advocacy and dogged determination, Arthur Calwell won community acceptance for an enormous influx of people he dubbed "New Australians" - and he was so successful that the term itself later came to be seen as condescending.
Our generation of political leaders now faces the challenge of achieving community acceptance of Asian, African and Middle Eastern immigration. As we continue the struggle for racial tolerance and understanding, we should never forget Arthur Calwell's contribution.
The agonizing process of changing Australia into a truly multicultural society began with Calwell. Subsequent leaders from both sides of politics made important contributions to this process of transforming Australian society. Menzies, Holt, Whitlam, Fraser, Hawke and Keating advanced the cause.
All that progress came to a shuddering halt under John Howard in 2001.
For over thirty years Australian leaders from both sides of politics have chosen not to exploit latent racism in the Australian community for political gain, conscious of the longer term damage it could do to our country. John Howard had no such scruples. Under serious political pressure he responded with the cunning and morality of a cornered rat.
Right now helpless children are incarcerated in Australia because their parents sought a better life by trying to come to our country.
Labor's support for the Howard Government's brutal approach to asylum seekers in the 2001 election was the most traumatic experience of my political career. Labor's capitulation to the tactics of group vilification and racial discrimination in 2001 may be forgiven, but should not be forgotten. That battle can't be fought again, but Labor can learn from this terrible episode.
Labor must never again allow itself to be forced to jettison fundamental values in pursuit of political survival.
Values are not a dispensable item for a political party. Without coherent values a party has no identity, no recognizable brand. In the wake of the asylum seekers debate, Labor stands on the brink of losing its identity.
The Labor Party I joined thrived on a heady mixture of idealism and justice. Although compromise was common and perhaps even inevitable, the crackly flame of idealism somehow always stayed bright.
Pragmatists and idealists have always fought great battles inside the Labor Party. Labor needs both in order to succeed. Pragmatism without idealism is pointless, and idealism without pragmatism is hopeless. Idealism is at a low ebb in modern Labor: the task now is to revive it and restore definition to Labor's identity.
Courageous and compassionate stands have always defined Labor. Is it any wonder that since 2001 many Australians are asking what Labor stands for?
Yes, I'm angry about the 2001 election but I cannot allow this anger to consume me. Nor must it be allowed to consume the Labor Party.
The great battles of principle of the past have never been as simple as they might seem from afar. Enormous internal convulsions were usually involved. Labor has always sought to marry principle with majority community support and sometimes that challenge overwhelms the party.
There is no purpose in any hand-wringing over the 2001 position on asylum seekers. The answer to this challenge is not to re-fight battles of the recent past. It is to imagine the future.
Labor's great mistake since 1996 has been to focus too much on what is wrong with the Howard Government and not enough on what is right for Australia. For many Australians, substantive differences between the major parties have diminished, while the intensity of political conflict has increased.
Violent language and macho posturing are no substitute for vision. Brutality in politics might entertain but it will never persuade. For Labor to recapture the spirit of idealism and vision we have to rise above Punch and Judy politics. Courage and compassion require content, not calumny.
I want an Australia where compassion is an honoured ingredient in public life and respect for rules and institutions is ingrained. An Australia made up of open markets and inclusive community institutions. An Australia where taxes are judged by the value they deliver, and not just the cost they entail. An Australia based on the principle of opportunity for all. An Australia that offers a better life and a larger future for our children.
Compassion for those who are struggling requires genuine courage. Reviving Labor idealism does not mean hunting about for symbolic issues on which to knock up a manufactured emotional crusade. It is about connecting with the core realities of people's lives.
I want to outline three opportunities for Labor. Each theme is ultimately about our children. About their life opportunities, their health, the support their parents are able to give them.
Protecting low paid and casual workers
The Australian economy is sustained by an invisible army of struggling, low paid and casual workers. The rest of us benefit from cheap clothes, restaurants, cleaning services, financial services, laundry, transport and entertainment. Labor market deregulation has allowed some workers to increase the rewards for their skills but many others are pushed into the margins of our society. For many children this means inadequate family income and insufficient parental involvement.
The statistics tell their story. Only 61 per cent of workers have permanent full time jobs. Since 1984 the percentage of casuals in the workforce has increased from 16 per cent to 27 per cent. Roughly half have no sick leave and no paid holidays.
These workers suffer insecure employment, low hourly rates, inadequate training and hours that can almost destroy family life. Some told their stories recently at the Senate Poverty Inquiry. A common theme was bosses reducing working hours to counteract wage increases, while still expecting the same work to be done.
Outsourcing and Australia Workplace Agreements have created even more low-paid workers trapped in a cycle of faster work, longer hours and shrinking pay. Australia is gradually creating a working underclass. These workers are almost always overlooked in public debate. To the Howard Government they are merely an economic input, a cost to business. But for the Labor Party, protecting vulnerable workers is core business.
Labor should use the power of Article 7 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, ratified by Australia in 1975, to legislate for leave entitlements for casuals, permanent employment options and better minimum rates of pay.
The award system can no longer carry the entire load of protecting vulnerable workers. Improving the living standards of low-paid workers will not harm our international competitiveness but it will strengthen social cohesion and opportunity.
Bringing Dental Services into Medicare
Labor is committed to defending Medicare. It should also aim to extend it.
After the Keating Government introduced the Commonwealth Dental Scheme in 1993, community health centres in my electorate told me they were seeing dental patients in their 50s who had never been to a dentist before. The Howard Government axed this program in 1996. It has done nothing since to deal with this gaping hole in our health system.
For many Australians, proper dental care is an unaffordable luxury. From 1989 to 1999 dental fees rose by 50 per cent while the overall cost of health services rose by only 22 per cent. Too many individuals and families suffer prolonged pain and misery because they cannot afford dentists' fees.
Labor is reviewing the future of the Howard Government's wasteful and regressive private health insurance rebate. Basic dental services could be included in Medicare for little more than a third of the cost of the rebate. The Government already pays for at least $264 million in dental services - but only for those with private health insurance! Ensuring basic dental cover for all Australians would relieve the pressure on thousands of Australian families. Including dental care in Medicare should be the objective.
Putting Public Education First
Families these days are paying twice for education - once through their taxes and again through user pays arrangements. Two thirds of the Howard Government's school funding goes immediately to private schools and the Government spends more on private schools than it does on public universities! The families who benefit are mostly well off.
The Howard Government is now creating a two-tier education system: a private system overflowing with public funds, and a public system starved of adequate funding.
It is Labor's task to ensure that our children are not denied their right to life opportunities because of the gradual erosion of public education.
To guarantee opportunity for all, our commitment to public education must always be paramount. That means committing more resources for schools and universities, and vigorously opposing the ever mounting flow of largesse to wealthy private schools. If ever there is to be a line in the sand for Labor, this is it.
Caring for Carers
The parents of children with disabilities or chronic illness make heroic sacrifices. They suffer loss of sleep, loss of income, loss of well being and loss of enjoyment of life. The current Carer's Allowance is a very modest acknowledgment of these sacrifices. Yet even that is under threat.
When the Government's coffers are overflowing with record tax revenues, the sheer viciousness of this crackdown on carers is almost beyond description. If ever there was a genuine need for compassion from government this is it.
Our society has to take greater responsibility for helping these parents by extending assistance to carers and boosting resources for integration aids and special assistance in schools.
In his book, Labor's Role in Modern Society, Calwell described Labor as both a party and a movement. In defining Labor's fundamental objective as "prosperity and justice" he set out the core belief which has driven generations of Labor idealists.
It is time to reignite the courage and compassion of Arthur Calwell and so many other great Labor leaders of the past. It is time to fight for vulnerable workers, to help families under pressure, to support public education, to relieve the burden on carers. It is time to revive Labor idealism and connect with the realities of people's lives.
In a world where compassion is almost a dirty word and pragmatism has become an end unto itself, it is time to unite in shared idealism, honour the courage and conviction of Arthur Calwell, and harness the optimism and generosity of young Australians.
From The Age
22 May 2002
Lindsay Tanner - Federal Member for Melbourne
Richard Wynne - State Member for Richmond
Recently we visited the Government s immigration detention centre at Maribyrnong. As MPs deeply concerned about the Howard Government s approach towards asylum seekers we were keen to see for ourselves the circumstances in which many asylum seekers are incarcerated.
The Maribyrnong detention centre is acknowledged by refugee advocates to be relatively tolerable compared with the stark conditions at Woomera. Yet even in these supposedly more humane surroundings it is easy to see how inmates are psychologically traumatised. Even to a lay observer it is clear that the detention centre is a prison. Its sole purpose is to maintain people in secure custody while legal processes are dealt with. In our system of justice prison is used as a last resort, to punish the offender, make reparation to the community, deter future offending, and hopefully rehabilitate. None of these policy objectives is relevant in the case of detention centres. Non-citizens who have committed no crime are incarcerated for extended periods, while citizens charged with quite serious offences are often released on bail.
Detainees sleep in bunk beds in small rooms, between two and four to a room. There are several small common areas with books, televisions, and some recreational equipment. The main exercise area is an internal but open-air asphalt-covered space smaller than a basketball court.
As we were shown around by centre management we saw most of the fifty or so detainees in the common areas. The sense of listlessness, hopelessness and despair was overwhelming. They appeared drained of energy, even drained of any interest in life. Many avoided eye contact. As most have no idea how long they will be detained for, and have to deal with the experience of imprisonment when they have committed no crime, it is easy to see how disorientation and psychological trauma would set in. It is understandable why some asylum seekers locked up in the isolated and alienating environment in the desert at Woomera resort to extreme actions such as self-harm. They are most likely motivated by deep despair, not the supposed strategy of crude blackmail alleged by the Howard Government.
We talked with four detainees for about an hour, with no guards in the immediate vicinity. Their sense of despair was palpable. During the discussion it became clear that the notion of deterrence as a means of stemming the flow of asylum seekers is totally absurd. Their prior knowledge of Australia was limited to a general awareness that we are a wealthy country with a tradition of respecting human rights and democracy. They had no knowledge of the realities of Australia s approach to asylum seekers.
Next to one of the main common areas in the centre is a small internal open area with grass and some playground equipment. Beautifully painted murals of Bananas in Pyjamas look down from underneath huge rolls of razor wire.
Not only are there children incarcerated in the detention centre, they are even born there. One young female detainee has three children under five all living with her in one small room. The youngest is only eight months old, and was born in detention.
Occasionally they are taken for walks outside the centre by guards, but their mother is not allowed to join them. The older children have just started kindergarten.
When you witness such things at first hand, it is impossible to come to any conclusion but this. Any system which enables this to happen is wrong. Absolutely wrong. The incarceration of children is not an adjunct to the Howard Government s mandatory detention policy, it is at the heart of it. The notion that this single mother and her three small children would present some kind of threat to Australian society if released into the community pending determination of their case is simply ridiculous. They would clearly be totally dependent on access to community services delivered by governments and charities.
These toddlers are imprisoned because the Howard Government says all asylum seekers are a threat to our society. They are all stigmatised as bad people who disable ships, harm themselves, and throw their children into the sea. The Liberal Party, supposedly the party of individual rights and individual responsibility, condemns large numbers of people including very young children to imprisonment, and tries to justify this by citing the behavior of a small minority. Even these claims are sometimes later shown to be false.
Our approach to the use of mandatory detention must change. It is unavoidable that people arriving unlawfully be held initially to determine their identity, health and security status. Under the present system they are then presumed guilty of being a threat to Australian society, and imprisoned for an indefinite period pending completion of legal processes. A humane nation would reverse this onus, and treat each individual according to his or her merits. A humane nation would seek appropriate community release arrangements for those who do not constitute any threat to our society. A humane nation would acknowledge that indefinite imprisonment of people who have committed no crime is cruel. A humane nation would not lock up small children.