We’ve been learning a protest song for our choir’s Christmas concert. Actually it is a plea for peace, the musical equivalent of a street march – “What do we want? Peace! When do we want it? Now.”
John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Happy Xmas/War is Over starts by asking the universal question so many of us end up asking ourselves: “And so it is Christmas, and what have we done? Another year over, a new one just begun.”
If you can ignore the ‘sounds like’ melody and work through the key changes to the counter-refrain “War is over, if you want it,” this is quite an epic tune. Many critics have pointed out the similarities between Leadbelly’s ‘Stewball’ made popular by Peter Paul and Mary but even then, the tune pre-dates that earnest trio by a few hundred years.
A few people (including me) have written protest songs about Australia’s pitiless refugee policies, particularly its offshore processing strategy. Doctors for Refugees spokesman Paddy McLisky recently told a rally in Brisbane that offshore processing was a ‘health hazard’He repeated it several times to make sure we got the message.
The Australian government’s mixed messages on this touchy issue include asserting that children on Nauru are not ‘in detention’’ and have freedom of movement. They also quote lower numbers of children on Nauru, which according to the fine print means those for whom Australia is directly responsible. When the #kidsoffNauru campaign began, there were between 100 and 127 refugee children on the island, an ex-phosphate mine the size of Melbourne Airport. Over the ensuing months children were brought to Australia for medical attention and their cases taken up by pro bono human rights lawyers. The remaining numbers on Nauru (and PNG) are said to be around 17, although frankly, it’s hard to know who to believe anymore.
This is where the protest song comes into its own – you can do research and make it as factual as possible, but you can also cover your arse, so to speak. In my song the third verse begins ‘you’ll have to forgive the hyperbole, the information’s second hand, you have to trust someone in a place of secrecy, where journalists are banned.’ That’s not quite the case, it’s just that journalists visiting Nauru have to pay $8000 for a visa and, as we saw when a New Zealand journalist was briefly detained for trying to talk to local people, the Nauruan government wants to control the message. The Nauruan government for its part consistently claims to have been misrepresented in the Australian media.
The sad thing about this campaign is that so far it has elicited the direct support of 166,000 Australians (the ones who think about this issue often enough to sign an E-petition). So that leaves millions of Australians who either don’t know, don’t care, don’t want to be involved in a political stoush or, regrettably, agree with this government’s variation on the Pacific Solution. The Australian Refugee Action Network estimates that six out of 10 Australians (still) don’t even know that refugee children are being held in exile on Nauru and Papua New Guinea, at the behest of our own government.
And let’s not forget that asylum seekers are being held in detention within our own borders with no guarantee when they will be released.
Former Human Rights Commissioner Gillian Triggs mentioned an Australian detention centre called Yongah Hill when speaking at a literary event in Maleny. She asked the capacity audience if we knew what she was talking about. No hands went up so Triggs brought us up to speed on Yongah Hill, a maximum security prison 95 kms east of Perth. There are 100 asylum seeker men in detention there and they’ve been there for years, she said.
But what about the kids, mate?
New Zealand songwriters Luke Buda and Don McGlashan recently wrote a song “Children Don’t Belong in Jail” which I found on a refugee advocacy Facebook page. My song, Get the kids off Nauru now, was sitting just below it. Both are available on YouTube and you can also download the songs. Buda and McGlashan’s song has also had exposure on New Zealand radio and TV.
Then there’s my song.
Songwriters often resort to the protest song genre if, like me, their frustration gets to the point where no amount of blogging, tweeting or analysing can overcome the outrage. By channelling your outrage, your hopes and dreams for a better world into a song, you tap into a vulnerable part of the human psyche.
Having said that, there’s been no shortage of anti-war/peace songs over the last 50 years or so, yet the world is still as brutal as it always was.
This was the background to a campaign started in August to pressure the Australian government to get all asylum seeker and refugee children off Nauru and bring them to Australia.
The deadline set by World Vision and the hundreds of humanitarian groups, churches and charities that joined the campaign was Universal Children’s’ Day (November 20)
A highlight of November 20 was a protest by Teachers for Refugees, a one-off strike sanctioned by the teachers’ union. Teachers, nurses, medicos and members of the helping professions are often the ones left counselling damaged children in the wake of such treatment.
Since the campaign was launched, hundreds of organisations added their support to #kidsoffnauru. About 6000 general practitioners signed a letter to the Prime Minister urging the government to evacuate children and parents from Nauru.
There are many places where you can find factual background to this abject story, Here’s a few links for those who want to hear the side of the story the government does and doesn’t want you to hear. For its part, the Australian Government makes public its statistics on refugees in detention and their status. Some refugee advocates dispute the government’s version of numbers held in detention.
You can look up the data here:
You may have read about an offer by the New Zealand government to take up to 150 refugees (thus solving the Australian government’s dilemma overnight). This offer goes back to the days of conservative leader John Key. But will Australia accept this generous trans-Tasman offer? No, of course they won’t, citing the specious argument that doing so would only make New Zealand attractive to people smugglers (who would then sneak dangerous terrorists into Australia ‘across the dutch’).
Commentator Waleed Aly’s analysis of Australia’s fuzzy logic on this topic is really worth reading.
It is worth noting that the #kidsoffnauru campaign was also addressed to Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, as well it might be. I don’t know about you, but I have little confidence that a Labor government would handle this humanitarian crisis any better. Prove me wrong, Bill.