About Nauru your petitioner humbly prays

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report after report of children who are in such despair, for whom life in detention is so miserable, that they have withdrawn socially, stopped eating and even attempted suicide,” Plan International said.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.


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Our Australian day of shame

Convict Road
Devine’s Hill convict road sculpture photo by Laurel Wilson

We were on the road somewhere outside Sydney when a hotted-up Mazda zoomed up next to us at the lights, twin cams throbbing. From each rear window protruded an Australian flag, fluttering like when you accidently shut your frock in the door. We sat there, waiting for the green, making cynical old fart, iconoclastic noises about faux patriotism, Bogans and drivers who just cannot sit behind a caravan.

Meanwhile, Australia Day has come and gone; Shane Howard got a gong and used the occasion to highlight the iniquities and injustices of this colonised land. As an accidental Australian (twice emigrated) I hesitate to write anything acerbic about this country, my adopted home. I did not go to school here, so even though I studied Australian history at university and watch Better Homes and Gardens, there are gaps in my education through which you could drive a Holden Ute laden with slabs of beer. But I seize every opportunity to learn more, to lift the rug and look under it for First Nation stories. As chance would have it, we stumbled across two relics of our colonial past while on a circuitous road trip to the Illawarra Folk Festival and back via Tamworth. The first was the remains of a convict-built, 43-kilometre road near Wisemans Crossing in New South Wales.

Working on the chain, gang

The Great North Road was built by convict labour between 1826 and 1834 to provide a freight route from Sydney to the Hunter Valley. From Wisemans Crossing (free ferry service, thanks to the NSW government), you can drive up the road a piece, park and walk your way up Devine’s Hill. It was a hot day, but we persevered, marvelling at the 19th century engineering ingenuity and the harsh life lived by convicts. As we read about the convicts who were sentenced to serve time on ‘Iron Gangs’ to build roads, our aching calf muscles seemed a mere trifle. British convicts who had committed offences in Australia would often be sentenced to work in chain gangs, their legs in shackles. Once they had served their sentences, the shackles were removed and they were transferred to a Road Party.

Easier to work without shackles, but the work was still hard yacker, chiselling 250kg blocks out of the sandstone hills and building buttresses and retaining walls.

The chain gangs used hammer and chisels to make blocks or they bored holes in the sandstone using jumper bars and sledgehammers. The engineers then placed explosives in the holes and sliced large blocks from the hills above. There are tributes to the convicts along the 1.8 km Devine’s Hill walk which tell of the harsh terms of crime and punishment in those times, often being incarcerated for lengthy periods for what we would see as trivial offences.

Stumbling across the First Fleet

Later, we were heading for Nundle, a small town 60 kms from Tamworth, around which something of a fringe country music festival has developed. On the way, we stopped at Wallabadah, which hosts Australia’s only memorial to the First Fleet, which arrived in Port Jackson on January 26, 1788.

The personal mission of stonemason Ray Collins, the First Fleet Memorial is a small park festooned with stone tablets, listing the names of every person who travelled on the 11 ships sailing from Britain. Collins, whose interest in the project was driven by discovering his own convict heritage, has since included a tribute to the second fleet.

First Fleet Memorial
First Fleet Memorial at Wallabadah photo by Bob Wilson

This is more of a pilgrimage site than a tourist attraction. Most travellers find it by accident, stopping at the public facilities which adjoin the memorial. It was strangely moving though, walking around the gardens reading the names of this country’s first European ancestors, who thought Australia was unpopulated (Terra Nullius).

Terra Incognito might have been a more apt term, meaning unknown lands which had not yet been explored. The original inhabitants were there, though seldom seen. Early explorers made ship’s log entries about seeing plumes of smoke, from fires deliberately lit by Aborigines as a means of caring for and regenerating an arid land.

What we were not taught

As most Australians are now aware, even if they were not taught the history at school, the original inhabitants pre-dated the first fleet by at least 40,000 years. Australia Day as we celebrate it now, with thong-throwing competitions, colonial re-enactments and cockroach racing, is grossly insulting to the First Nations people, the Aborigines. I could go on, but you all know the stories of land-grabbing, exploitation, the spread of (European) diseases, genocide and our often misguided removal of children from their families.

There was the grand gesture, the Stolen Generation apology in 2008 by former PM Kevin Rudd. Apology aside, nothing can make that right. All we Anglo-Saxon Australians can do is to make symbolic gestures, like outspoken songwriter Paddy McHugh did at The Dag (a sheep station converted into a wedding reception and conference centre and alt-country music venue).

He began his set by acknowledging the original owners of the land and then, the current owner. We could all do this when the occasion arises, but so few of us do.

Meanwhile on Tuesday

On Australia Day we went on a vintage train excursion from Warwick to Nobby, along with 90 other people, many of them sporting Australia Day paraphernalia and greeting friends with “Happy Australia Day”. Excuse me, but this country’s blood-soaked history is nothing to be happy about. As indigenous journalist Stan Grant said, in a stirring speech which has been seen around the world, Aborigines were “marooned on the tides of history to the fringes of Australian society”.

Still, is there really any harm in tourists using a public holiday to spend some money keeping the smoky smell of our colonial days alive? The Nobby craft shop, run by local volunteers, did solid trade, as did Rudd’s Pub, named not for a twice-ex Prime Minister, but the author Steele Rudd, of the Dad and Dave stories about sheep shearing and dances down the hall on a Saturday night, damper and billy tea.

It is a long way removed from Carnarvon Gorge and its ancient painted rock walls. Songwriter Garry Koehler’s song The Gallery was inspired, he tells me, by the painted hands, which to him appeared to be reaching out; imploring, “Help – can you fix this mess?” Koehler told his audience in Tamworth last week that the rock carvings at Carnarvon date back 30,000 years.

“And we’ve been here only 200 years and stuffed it up.”

Well, 228 years if you want to be picky, but there has not been much to write home about for Australia’s aborigines since 1988. Indigenous musicians and kindred spirits had plenty to say though, notably Kev Carmody and Archie Roach, Yothu Yindi, also Shane Howard and Neil Murray, to name a few.

You’ll have your own views on Australia Day, as do my 298 Facebook ‘friends’, and some of them have far more strident things to say.

She Who Is Finally Mentioned favours calling January 26 “Survival Day”. It’s less negative than Invasion Day and many of this country’s 669,900 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people already call it just that.

They have survived, despite everything.