About Nauru your petitioner humbly prays

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Refugee child ‘Roze’ on Nauru, provided by World Vision Australia

I could count on the toes of my feet the number of petitions I have signed in this life, but I could not refuse the Kids off Nauru campaign. More than 100 human rights groups, churches, charities and organisations, including World Vision, Amnesty International and the Australian Lawyers Alliance are behind Kids off Nauru.

The e-petition to Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten leaves no room for negotiation. Children in detention on Nauru, about 40 of who were born on the island, have witnessed lip stitching, self-immolation and other suicide attempts. Many have developed traumatic withdrawal syndrome, characterised by resigning from all activities that support a normal life. The Australian Medical Association has called for immediate action to assure the health and wellbeing of those on Nauru.

As one of the NGOs involved in the campaign, Plan International says, “This can’t continue, not on our watch”.

“We’ve seen report after report of children who are in such despair, for whom life in detention is so miserable, that they have withdrawn socially, stopped eating and even attempted suicide,” Plan International said. “In August a 12-year-old girl tried to set herself on fire.”

The petitioners want all 120* children and their families off Nauru by November 20, 2018. The date is not random – it is Universal Children’s Day.

You all know this shameful story, where the Australian Government re-invented an offshore processing solution for people who’d mostly arrived without permission by boat, seeking refuge in the big open country they had heard was egalitarian and tolerant.

Nauru, a small island north-east of PNG and the Solomon Islands, was once known for extracting and selling phosphate for fertiliser. The resource is exhausted, so the Nauruan government could hardly refuse the lucrative offer from the Australian Government.

It’s difficult to get an accurate count* of children on Nauru, quoted variously as between 106 and 126. Meanwhile the official number from the Australian Government is 22. But wait, the fine print refers only to children in the Nauru Regional Processing Centre (Australia’s responsibility). Other refugee children are accommodated in centres run by the Nauruan Government. The latter is not at all transparent about the welfare of refugee children and their parents. A New Zealand TV reporter was detained briefly when reporting from the Pacific Forum because she went ‘off reservation’ to talk to refugees “without going through proper channels”.

I’d go and see for myself but they want $8,000 for a journalist visa.

Anglican Bishop Phillip Huggins wrote to then Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton seeking clarification of numbers published on the department’s website.

The (eventual) reply from Mr Dutton and Huggins’s interpretation of the answers is worth reading to get a perspective.

Bishop Huggins concluded that the harsh reality is that there were (in August 2018), 120 refugee children in Nauru (some have been resettled in the last month). Some are being assessed for resettlement in America; some may eventually be resettled in New Zealand.

Let’s ask the obvious question: New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern and her coalition partner Winston Peters have offered to take up to 150 refugees from Nauru. Former Australian PM Malcolm Turnbull rejected the offer to resettle the Nauru refugees, making the woolly argument that this would only make New Zealand attractive to people smugglers. It may surprise readers to know that the New Zealand offer to resettle refugees goes back to the administration of former PM John Key (2008-2016).

The transfer of asylum seekers to offshore processing centres in the Pacific was first introduced by the Howard (Coalition) Government in 2001.Here’s an edited summary of what followed.

Seven months after Kevin Rudd was sworn in as Prime Minister in 2008, the last remaining asylum seekers on Nauru were transferred to Australia, ending the Howard Government’s controversial ‘Pacific Solution’.

In July 2010, then Prime Minister, Julia Gillard revealed that the Government had begun having discussions about establishing a regional processing centre for the purpose of receiving and processing irregular entrants to the region. Importantly, only 25 asylum seekers had travelled by boat to Australia to seek asylum in the 2007–08 financial year. By the time Gillard made her announcement in July 2010, more than 5,000 people had come by boat to Australia to seek asylum.

Gillard acknowledged that the number of asylum seekers arriving by boat to Australia was ‘very, very minor’ but she identified a number of reasons why the processing of asylum seekers in other countries was considered necessary, including:

  • to remove the financial incentive for the people smugglers to send boats to Australia;
  • to ensure that those arriving by boat do not get an unfair advantage over others;
  • to prevent people embarking on a voyage across dangerous seas with the ever present risk of death;
  • to prevent overcrowding in detention facilities in Australia.

Though it took another two years to secure arrangements, people began to be transferred to Nauru and PNG in the last quarter of 2012.

Two months before the 2013 federal election amidst growing support for the Opposition’s tougher border protection policies, newly appointed Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced that Australia had entered into a Regional Resettlement Arrangement with PNG. Under the arrangement, all (not just some) asylum seekers who arrived by boat would be transferred to PNG for processing and settlement in PNG and in any other participating regional State. Mr Rudd subsequently made a similar arrangement with Nauru.

Mr Rudd now says this was meant to be a temporary arrangement.

So he we are with a humanitarian crisis on our back door and as per usual, those clinging to slender majorities do not want to make brave, decent decisions which might cost them their seat at the next election.

Petitions are a form of protest known to exert moral authority; that is, they have no legal force. But the sheer weight of numbers can force social change. One example was the millions of signatures on a petition calling for the release of Nelson Mandela.

Before e-petitions and ‘clicktivism’ became the norm, government clerks charged with the receipt and storage of paper petitions had a job for life.

The Australian government receives on average 120 petitions a year, a large proportion of which are e-petitions. Activist group, change.org, (https://www.change.org), the biggest generator of e-petitions, has 50 million subscribers world-wide.

Nigel Gladstone, writing in the Sydney Morning Herald, says 32,728 Australian petitions were started on the change.org website since 2014. More than 3.5 million people signed their name to support campaigns such as reduced parking fees at NSW hospitals and marriage equality.

Professor of Political Sociology at the University of Sydney, Ariadne Vromen and Professor Darren Halpin of ANU collected data from change.org to study online petitions over a four-year period.

“This form of political engagement is both mainstream and important,” Professor Vromen told the SMH. “In Australia Get-up were really the pioneers of using online petitions and that was a bit of a shock to the system, but politicians quickly became cynical.

“Change.org is different because citizens can start their own thing, so it is different to an advocacy group starting something.”

So will the advocacy groups behind Kids off Nauru succeed in their mission to force the government to act by November 20? Let’s revisit this in a couple of months’ time.

#kidsoffnauru

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Multiculturalism under siege

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Monument to Multiculturalism in Toronto, a sculpture by Francesco Perilli. Photo by Shaun Merritt https://flic.kr/p/5d7sTp

My plan to write something cuddly and wholesome about Multiculturalism Month in Queensland was derailed somewhat by the egregious maiden speech of crossbench Senator Fraser Anning.

One of our newest politicians, he chose his maiden speech to call for a return to the White Australia policy, suggesting that a plebiscite be held to ask Australians if they want ‘wholesale non-English speaking immigrants from the Third World and, in particular, whether they want any Muslims’.

Politicians who make incendiary speeches are often misquoted, so this is exactly what Senator Anning had to say about Muslims.

“A majority of Muslims in Australia of working age do not work and live on welfare. Muslims in New South Wales and Victoria are three times more likely than other groups to be convicted of crimes. We have black African Muslim gangs terrorising Melbourne. We have ISIS-sympathising Muslims trying to go overseas to fight for ISIS and, while all Muslims are not terrorists, certainly all terrorists these days are Muslims. So why would anyone want to bring more of them here?”

He said a lot of other things too; about countering the growing threat of China both outside and within Australia; about building coal-fired power stations to return us to the cheapest power in the world, and about (ahem) restoring personal freedoms and free speech.

The thing that outraged many, however, was his use of the words, ‘the final solution’, made infamous by the Nazis in WWII. Senator Anning seems unrepentant, amid claims the speech was deliberately structured to be controversial and raise his profile. He claims the use of the term “final solution” (the Nazi regime’s euphemism for exterminating Jewish people), was “inadvertent”. But he has not backed down, saying the outrage is coming solely from political opponents.

The counterpoint to Senator Anning’s divisive speech was a plea for consensus by the Member for Chifley, Hon Ed Husic. His response in Parliament described the experiences of his Bosnian parents, who came to Australia in the 1960s.

“My old man worked on the Snowy Mountains scheme. Dad worked with his hands and Mum stayed home to make sure we had a family that could take advantage of all the great things in this country.

“Like many kids of migrants, I carry a debt – a debt of gratitude to this country that we were able to achieve this. I went to university. I could count on one hand the numbers of folks in my family or from my Dad’s generation that got to do that. Now I get to serve in this place (Parliament) and regardless of my faith, my commitment to the community is what I’m judged on.”

Opposition leader Bill Shorten weighed in, saying  “…As leaders, as representatives of the Australian people, as servants of diverse communities in a great multicultural nation, we cannot stay silent in the face of racism.”

Even former MP John Howard condemned the tone of Anning’s speech, which is a bit rich coming from the bloke who introduced the One Australia policy in 1988, which called for an end to multiculturalism (and opposed a treaty with Aboriginal Australians).

Anning might not have read the spray in the Tweed Daily News from Australian-born journalist Charis Chong, who said that although she drinks all kinds of Australian beer and has a Weber in her backyard, “I’ll never be Australian enough”.

She talks of her negative experiences as an Asian Australia, but also her true friendships with people who don’t talk about assimilation – “they are just nice, decent people who appreciate each individual person for who they are.

“The problem with Senator Anning’s comments is that they seek to exclude people from ever being good enough to be ‘Australian’ simply because they don’t look ‘white’ or want to practice a certain religion.”

Katharine Murphy writing for The Guardian warned that the Anning speech was a sign that Australia was being caught up in global nationalist debates.

What we are witnessing in national politics is the latest manifestation of Australia’s cultural cringe. Far right political operatives, and the media voices prepared to give them succour, are importing the nationalist debates that have sprung up in the shadow of the global financial crisis.”

Murphy is correct in saying that debates about race, multiculturalism, sovereignty and immigration have flared up elsewhere because of deep resentments felt by the losers of globalisation. While Australia was not as deeply affected by the GFC, the ‘outrage consciousness’ that exists elsewhere is being imported, validated and projected here, she said.

The 2016 Census revealed a lot about the ethnic makeup of Australia. Nearly half (49%) of Australians had either been born overseas (first generation Australian) or one or both of their parents had been born overseas (second generation Australians). Of the 6.16 million overseas-born persons, nearly one in five (18%) had arrived since the start of 2012. While England and New Zealand were still the next most common countries of birth, the proportion of those born overseas who were born in China and India has increased to 8.3% and 7.4% respectively. Malaysia now appears in the top 10 countries of birth (replacing Scotland) and represents 0.6% of the Australian population. While 52.1% of Australians identify as Christians, those who listed Islam as their religion numbered 620,200 or 2.6% of the population.

One might imagine that immigrants and refugees settling in regional and rural Australia would receive a chilly reception from the stereotypical ‘rednecks’ of the bush. But Prof. Collins wrote in The Conversation that a research project on immigrants living in regional Australia a decade ago dispelled this myth, with 80% of respondents reporting a warm welcome.

“Our new research confirmed this finding, with 68% of the refugees surveyed in Queensland overall – and 81% in Toowoomba – reporting it was ‘very easy’ or ‘easy’ to make friends in Australia.”

Meanwhile, people who believe in embracing multiculturalism continue to celebrate its existence, which in Queensland is the month of August.

If you live in regional Queensland and support cultural diversity, you could look out for BEMAC’s Culture Train. (BEMAC is Queensland’s leading multicultural arts producer, presenter and artistic development organisation).The train will be making 15 whistle stops on a tour that starts today. A group of five culturally diverse musicians will present free concerts and workshops starting at Dunwich (Stradbroke Island), then on to Dalby, Chinchilla, Roma, Charleville, Longreach, Barcaldine, Emerald, Rockhampton, Gladstone, Childers, Cherbourg, Toowoomba, Ipswich and finishing at the Brisbane Multicultural Centre on August 31. The Culture Train 2018 ensemble is: Sarah Calderwood: Celtic singer-songwriter, flute & whistle player, Chong Ali: Vietnamese rapper and emcee, Marcelo Rosciano: Brazilian percussionist, Ben Kashi: Persian dulcimer and percussionist and Gertrude Benjamin: Torres-Strait Islander folk and soul singer.

Sarah, who is also musical director, said the group would be performing shows which combine songs from the group’s vastly different cultures backgrounds, with individuals performing solo work as well.

“The five of us are thrilled to not only celebrate this diversity through music and storytelling,” she told FOMM, “but to promote inclusion and bring communities together to collectively celebrate multiculturalism in regional, rural and remote communities.”

 

 

 

Take me to your leader – the quest continues

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(Leader image, old man in park taking time out from politics and spin), Bob Wilson circa 1978

Imagine a flying saucer lands in your back yard and an alien (drooling or not) alights.

“Take me to your leader,” it telepathically commands, as it is from an advanced civilisation, intent upon savings ours.

“Aw yeah, mate.” (pointing). “That’s our leader over there, the one in the striped designer shirt, mingling with the homeless folk.”

If you dig around on the Internet long enough you’ll find lists of world leaders people would rather not introduce to their granny, never mind to an alien. The lists are usually described as ‘the 10 or 20 worst world leaders’ and include despots like North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir.

Alas Malcolm Turnbull, PM of Australia; the only list I found him on was the ‘hottest heads of state’ leader ladder, languishing in 12th place behind total spunks like Canada’s Justin Trudeau, New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern, France’s Emmanuel Macron or Haiti’s Jovenal Moise.

One ought not to touch on politics when striking up conversations at Christmas parties. At one such event, I ventured that the Australian Federal Government was having an ‘Annus Horribilis’ and seemed incapable of making firm and sensible decisions.

I had voiced what I thought was a commonly-held theory, but soon found out what I should have known; on average, at least one-third of people voted for that motley group of indecisive dual citizens who went to work on just 64 days in 2017.

“So what do you think about Turnbull’s piss-weak energy policy?” I began at another Xmas do, when I probably should have said, “Strange weather for this time of year, don’t you think?”

That person moved away, but left me a clean run at the cheese platter.

From my point of view, the LNP in Canberra blundered from one disaster to another in 2017, momentarily making itself look good by introducing marriage equality laws, which in truth should have been enshrined in 1980-something. The poll was estimated to cost the taxpayer $122 million and then we endured weeks of angst while the same-sex marriage law was debated, after 61.6% of the 79.5% of people who voted had told them that’s what they wanted in the first place.

The great shame, or should I say sham, is that the Turnbull government, deliberately or not, distracted the people from more serious issues (climate change, the Adani coal mine, Manus Island), by turning the same-sex marriage debate into an expensive, non-binding referendum-style exercise. They could have used one of those 64 sitting days to have a free vote. We’d have achieved the same result and deployed the $122 million to more laudable outcomes (like finding emergency accommodation for the 6,000 or so Australians who sleep rough each night).

We’ve seen from recent State elections and Federal by-elections that the people are not happy with the mainstream parties. The drift towards the Greens on one side and One Nation on the other mimics the rise of populism the world over.

Political commentator Michelle Grattan, speaking at the launch of The Conversation Yearbook in Brisbane, said so many people in Australia are disgusted with politics they are ‘‘tuning out”

“People think (politicians) are behaving badly, because they are behaving badly. They (politicians) alienate the public – they are aware of it, but it’s beyond them to regain the people’s trust.”

Grattan said focus groups in north Queensland, ahead of the State elections, saw through Malcolm Turnbull’s ploy to cancel a week’s parliamentary sittings. This was ostensibly to allow the House and the Senate to resolve the citizenship issue and to work through the same sex marriage debate.

But here’s the thing: the NQ focus groups didn’t much like Malcolm Turnbull, but neither did they warm to Bill Shorten as an alternative leader.

The Queensland election continued a national, if not international trend: voters are fed up with mainstream parties and are casting their votes elsewhere.

In Queensland, 30.9% of first preference votes went to minority parties, while the informal vote was higher than average, at 4.58%. In the Bennelong Federal by-election, 10 minor parties grabbed 19.15% of the first preference primary vote, although that did not stop the LNP’s John Alexander (45.05%) taking the seat.

So what else happened in 2017?

While it wasn’t a party political issue, the rise of the social media hashtag #MeToo movement had its high point when Time Magazine chose #MeToo as its influential “Person of the Year”.

If you had been living under a rock, #MeToo is a movement where women who have been harassed, assaulted, bullied and otherwise vilified (primarily by men), came out and stood with their sisters.

The movement started with casting-couch revelations about Hollywood movie producer Harvey Weinstein and flushed out similarly bad behaviour all over the world. The Australia media chimed in, outing former TV gardening host Don Burke for a series of alleged indiscretions. Sydney’s Telegraph made an allegation about Australian actor Geoffrey Rush, who responded with a writ for defamation.

On a more positive note, 2017 turned up an unlikely winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. The prize went to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN). The organization received the award for drawing attention to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons.

There were other examples of positive news in 2017, amid the political scandals, terrorist attacks, humanitarian crises and natural disasters.

A December 19 report by Katrina Sichlau, News Corp Australia Network, found that renewable energy employed 10 million people worldwide.

(Aside – that makes the Queensland Premier’s contested claim that the proposed Adani coal mine would employ 10,000 people look rather sad).

The same article said France and Britain had launched a Clean Air Plan which will make sense to people who have visited either country this year or last. In a year when Queensland’s land-clearing reached Brazil-like proportions, Pakistan planted one billion trees.

If I may add to this optimistic list, New Zealand elected a woman in her 30s as Prime Minister (Jacinda Ardern), largely at the whim of (Queen)-maker Winston Peters, a veteran politician who saw sense in forming an alliance with the savvy young Labour leader.

Probably the less we say about Donald Trump the better, as he seems to thrive on publicity, be it good or bad. Trump continues to use Twitter like a flame-thrower, this year setting diplomatic fires in North Korea, Israel, and Germany and within the US itself.

Trump reportedly plans to go ahead with a visit to the UK in 2018, despite the recent twitter row with UK PM Theresa May. If you’ll recall, Trump retweeted videos posted by radical right group Britain First, inaccurately blaming Muslims in the UK for terrorist attacks.

There has been much misreporting about Trump’s ‘working’ visit to the UK. The White House at one point thanked the Queen for her “gracious invitation” to meet with President Trump at Buckingham Palace. The Guardian Weekly reported on December 15 that a formal state visit was not envisaged. “The Queen is likely to be preoccupied with preparations for a Commonwealth summit.”

As myth-buster Snopes points out, there is a long standing tradition that the Queen does not intervene in political disputes.

We wish you all an ‘annus mirabilis’ in 2018.

 

Journalists facing deadly risks

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Photojournalist wearing a gas mask covers civil unrest in Cairo.  Image Alisdare Hickson

Not for the first time, I’m ruminating about the deadly risks facing journalists working in conflict zones or countries like North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, Egypt or even India.

It’s 1am and I’m reading the Guardian Weekly, starting with its world roundup, where my eye is drawn to a headline: “Indian journalist beaten to death.” In just 100 words we are told that Shantanu Bhowmick’s death at the hands of a stick-wielding mob brings the tally of reporters killed in India since the 1990s to 29.

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) outlines the risks facing individuals in India who have made Right to Information (RTI) requests. Since the law came into force in 2005, at least 69 people have been murdered after they filed RTI requests. Another 130 journalists have been victims of assault and 170 reported being harassed.

The Committee to Protect Journalists says that 1,746 journalists and 104 media workers have been killed world-wide since 1992.

What makes these statistics more compelling is that the majority of deaths were not random: a motive was confirmed in 1,253 cases.

The Committee to Protect Journalists maintains a list of the riskiest countries in which to work as a journalist. The list is based on the use of tactics ranging from imprisonment and repressive laws to harassment of journalists and restrictions on Internet access.

Eritrea is No 1 on the list of regimes which censor the press and the Internet, followed by North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, Azerbaijan. Vietnam, Iran, China, Myanmar and Cuba.

There are 23 journalists behind bars in Eritrea. None has been tried in court or even charged with a crime. The Internet is available, but only 1% of the population goes online, using slow, dial-up connections. Only 5.6% of Eritreans own a cell phone. In North Korea, 9.7% of the population have (official) cell phones but an unknown number have phones smuggled in from China. A few individuals have Internet access, but schools and institutions are limited to a tightly controlled Intranet.

The CPJ says tactics used by Eritrea and North Korea are mirrored to varying degrees in other heavily censored countries.

“To keep their grip on power, repressive regimes use a combination of media monopoly, harassment, spying, threats of journalist imprisonment, and restriction of journalists’ entry into or movements within their countries.”

This was not helping my insomnia. I turned to page nine, to reporter Joshua Robertson’s full-page coverage of Australia’s same-sex marriage debate. The story includes interviews with residents of Warwick (Queensland), apparently the last bastion of the ‘No’ vote.

Robertson went to an un-named club in Warwick, a town of 15,000 on the Southern Downs, to interview un-named people about the town’s apparent reputation as a ‘No’ Vote stronghold.

“The bible says it’s wrong, and that’s all there is to it,” one woman in the club said, chiding her husband, who was yet to make up his mind.

The reporter also travelled to Roma, an oil and gas town in western Queensland. He interviewed a public servant who said he felt more comfortable being “out” in Roma that in Sydney or Melbourne.

Meanwhile in Queensland

As news assignments go, Joshua Robertson’s Queensland Diary would not fall into the category of risk that faced Shantanu Bhowmick or the other 44 foreign journalists and media workers killed so far in 2017.

These global statistics make the life of a working journalist in Australia look comparatively benign. But not so if you accept an assignment to file news reports, video or images from conflict zones. In 2015, Australian journalist Peter Greste laid a wreath at a new memorial in Canberra recognising the contribution of war correspondents. It was fitting that Greste was chosen for this honour as he’d not long returned to Australia after being imprisoned in Egypt, along with Al Jazeera comrades.

The memorial in a sculpture garden at the Australian War Memorial honours 26 war correspondents killed in combat zones. They range from William Lambie (Boer War 1899-1902) to cameraman Paul Moran, killed during a suicide bombing in Iraq, 2003. Also named is sound recordist Paul Little, who died in a German hospital in 2003 after being caught up in an ambush in Iraq. Also laying a wreath in September 2015 was Shirley Shackleton, widow of Balibo Five reporter Greg Shackleton, one of five Australian journalists killed in East Timor in 1975.

And Australians might want to think about these crucial issues of press freedom and the right to information. On Monday, the ABC’s Four Corners, still the best in the business, sent a reporter and producer to India to dig into the background of conglomerate Adani. It was a good example of journalists taking risks in risky territory. The Four Corners team were grilled for five hours by ‘crime branch’ police after filming at a controversial Adani-owned site. Four Corners investigated Adani’s environmental record and business probity because the Indian company wants the Australian Government to provide a $1 billion loan to underwrite the world’s biggest coal mine in western Queensland and associated rail and port infrastructure.

Joshua Robertson’s Queensland Diary, meanwhile, reminds us that not so very long ago, the State lived under a repressive regime. In 1989 the last criminal charges were brought (in Roma) under Queensland’s homosexuality laws. These were the last days of the Joh Bjelke-Petersen regime (1967-1987), an era when news gathering or protesting was riskier than they are today.

As one of the thousands of bearded, long-haired men who joined their saffron-robed women, wafting about King George Square in a cloud of patchouli essence and acrid cigarette smoke, championing anything that was anti-Joh, I suspect my photo is in a dusty Special Branch file somewhere.

Journalists working in Queensland through the Joh-era needed a Press Pass, which had to be shown whenever entering government buildings. I still have my pass, signed by the former Commissioner of Police, Terry Lewis.

Wonder how much that would be worth on eBay?