Human Rights and Halloween

Human rights billboard Image provided by Fr Rod Bower of Gosford Anglican Church

You always have to look for the silver lining; like the Queensland Parliament introducing a Human Rights Act on the same day (31st October) that people were walking the streets dressed as ghouls and zombies, reminding us that Christmas is just 55 days away.

Christmas Island is just around the corner too – well, it’s precisely 1,550 kms north-west of Perth. But it is an Australian territory, unlike Nauru and Manus Island.

I mention human rights in the context of offshore processing of asylum seekers to make the point that Australia is one of the few democracies that does not have a so-called Bill of Rights.

Victoria and the ACT have their own Human Rights acts and Queensland’s new act will become law next year. But there is no specific Federal law. In case you did not know, Queensland’s Human Rights Act will replace a hit-and-miss system in which individual liberties are said to be protected under the constitution and by common law. The Federalists have always argued that the latter is sufficient protection to ensure freedom of speech, privacy, equality and such like. The anti-Federalists in Queensland have been quietly pushing for this new act for the last four or five years.

The subject came up more than once when former Human Rights Commissioner Gillian Triggs was in town for Outspoken, a literary event that draws a mixed crowd of avid readers. Triggs, as one would imagine, was well aware that Queensland was considering introducing a Human Rights act and there was a bit of discussion as to what form that might take. As she mentioned at the time, she hoped this new Act would protect indigenous culture (and it does).

Queensland’s act mimics Victoria’s laws in many ways – it protects 23 human rights as basic as the right to freedom from forced work, to equality, the right to life and the right to peaceful assembly and freedom of association (remember Campbell Newman’s bikie laws?).The Australian Government should make a note of this one: ‘protection from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment’, in terms of refugees being kept on Nauru and Manus Island.

If this new Act is set to enhance the protection and privacy of individuals, will this extend to trick and treaters coming down the driveway, uninvited? This did not happen in our street, the Halloween revellers opting to approach only those houses suitably adorned with spooky lights, cobwebs, pumpkins and other faux-accoutrements of a distinctly American tradition.

Protecting the privacy of individuals should surely extend to preventing real estate agents, politicians, Clive Palmer and the NBN from shoving unwanted solicitations in your letterbox?

Should it not also cover the telephone ringing at 6.50pm with the chatter of a call centre in the background and a long pause while someone realises yours is the next cold call they must attend to (by which time you have hung up).

ABC News provided a handy guide to the new Act, which meant that although I downloaded it, I do not necessarily have to wade my way through all 88 pages of the Act. The main objects are to:

  • to protect and promote human rights; and
  • to help build a culture in the Queensland public sector

that respects and promotes human rights; and

  • to help promote a dialogue about the nature, meaning

and scope of human rights.”

Under this new Act, the Anti-Discrimination Commission will be re-named the Queensland Human Rights Commission and as such receive complaints from the public. The specifics of the Act ensure that the Parliament, the government and more importantly, the bureaucracy that administers Queensland’s laws will have to comply with them.

Dan Rogers from Caxton Legal told the ABC the new act would provide a broad spectrum of individual rights. He said Victoria and the ACT had benefited from having similar legislation for over a decade.

“When government departments deliver services, they’re more likely to comply with our fundamental human rights.”

Rogers gave examples of when these rights may be compromised (cameras recording conversations or abuse of search powers by police and government inspectors).

Queensland Council of Civil Liberties president Michael Cope told the ABC that Australian States were some of the last in the world not yet be covered by a human rights act.

“We know from history that democracies can quickly change from being democracies to something else. It only took Hitler six or seven years to transform Germany.”

Predictably, the Queensland Opposition described the new Act as a ‘distraction’ from the real issue (the economy) and harped on about the time and money spent implementing the new Act. (Victoria’s Human Rights Act has been estimated to cost 50c per person, per year).

Most democracies have a bill of rights of some type and 192 member States have become signatories to the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights since it was established in 1948. There are eight notable hold-outs: South Africa, Belorussia, Ukraine, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Saudi Arabia, Yugoslavia and Russia.

Since we mentioned Nauru in the context of Australia’s decision to use the tiny island as a holding depot for asylum seekers and refugees, here’s what we know about its place in the world.

Of the nine core United Nations human rights treaties, Nauru, which has been a member since 1999, has ratified or acceded to four of them. They include the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention against Torture. In response to recommendations from other States and human rights monitoring bodies, Nauru ratified the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees in June 2011. Just so we know.

The UN has gone to a lot of trouble to set up a portal to teach children the basics of human rights. It’s not a bad place for adults to digest a summary of the obvious and not-so obvious things we regard as rights.

Item 19 is of particular interest to me and my 27 readers (and an old blue heeler called Herbie who chases his tail when he hears FOMM go ‘ping’ in the inbox):

We all have the right to make up our own minds, to think what we like, to say what we think, and to share our ideas with other people.

That would be of small comfort to journalists jailed last year by regimes that do not brook public dissent. A record 262 journalists were jailed in 2017, amid an aggressive crackdown by government authorities, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

In this free-ranging discussion about human rights you may have noticed my own bias creeping in about Halloween. I just do not care for the pervasive infiltration of American ‘culture’ into the Australian-way-of-life. Pumpkins were meant to be cooked and eaten, mate, by me or the dog.

And don‘t get me started on those Council workers cluttering up the only roundabout in the village with a truck and crane adorning the Flame Tree with shiny Christmas baubles and fake presents.

“Mate, you’re infringing on my right to freedom of movement,” the grumpy septuagenarian hollered out the car window.

FOMM back pages

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,, (, 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 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 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.

“ 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.


More reading:


A few myths about refugees

Sri Lankan and Tamil refugees
Sri Lankan and Tamil Refugees image by

My conscience would be burdened if anyone went to the polls on July 2 believing some of the persistent myths and misunderstandings about asylum seekers and refugees. First, let’s set out a few facts in the interests of perspective:

  • Asylum seekers are people seeking international protection but whose claims for refugee status have not yet been determined;
  • Australia is the only nation with a policy of indefinite mandatory detention for people it has identified as illegal or irregular arrivals. This policy was introduced by then Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating in 1992 (it had bipartisan support);
  • Refugees receive the same social security benefits as permanent residents, although they are exempt from the standard social security waiting period that applies to migrants;

These facts sit uneasily amidst the seriously heated debate between refugee advocacy groups and supporters of groups like Rise Up Australia, the Australian Liberty Alliance and Pauline Hanson’s One Nation.

Many Australians believe (and resent) the story perpetuated by hoax emails that refugees receive more Social Security payments than permanent residents. You might also hear that refugees are given (free) houses, cars and big screen TVs, the latter one of the first things spotted on A Current Affair’s expose on Nauru. (Gasp. They have microwaves too).

There is also a persistent myth perpetuated by talkback radio jocks and right-wing commentators that our shoreline (all 25,670 kilometres of it), will be over-run if the current border protection policy does not remain in place.

Over-stayers outnumber boat people

In Australia, visa over-stayers greatly outnumber asylum seekers. According to an Immigration Department report, Migration Trends 2012-2013, 44,800 visitors and 10,720 students overstayed their visit, led by people from China (7,690), Malaysia (6,420), the US (5,220) and the UK (3,780).

The Department of Immigration and Border Protection’s statistical report for April 30, 2016 says there were 1,695 people in immigration detention facilities, including 1,509 in immigration detention on the mainland and 186 in immigration detention on Christmas Island. However, the report also states that there were 469 people, including 56 women and 50 children, at the Nauru Regional Processing Centre and 898 men at the Manus Island RPC. So in sum, the total numbers of people in detention (including on and off shore) at the behest of the Federal Government is 3,062.

Of the 1,695 people in detention on the mainland, 60% (1,025) arrived in Australia lawfully but were subsequently taken into immigration detention either for over staying or breaching their visa conditions. 548, or fewer than 40%, were ‘Irregular Maritime Arrivals’ (some terminology refers to these as ‘Illegals’).

On face value, Labor’s asylum seeker and refugee policies are not that far removed from those of the LNP.  Both remain committed to offshore processing, regional settlement and stopping people smuggling by turning boats away. However, Labor has a plan to provide $450 million over three years to support the UN’s refugee agency. Labor will abolish temporary protection visas, re-instate access to the Refugee Review Tribunal and abolish the Independent Assessment Authority.  Labor states it will also reinstate a statutory requirement for the Department of Immigration and Border Protection to report on how many claims were processed within 90 days of a completed application being received. This ‘90 day rule’ was removed by the Abbott Government last year.

Labor also wants to increase Australia’s annual humanitarian intake from the current 13,750 to 27,000 per annum by 2025. The Australian Greens want to ramp this number up to 50,000, while the LNP aims to increase it to 18,000 ‘within a couple of years’.

In September 2015 the Abbott Government responded to the Middle East humanitarian crisis by announcing that Australia would take an additional 12,000 refugees fleeing Syria and Iraq.

In February this year, the Sydney Morning Herald reported on Canada’s exceptional response to Syrian refugees, resettling 20,490 in just three months. Labor called on Immigration Minister Peter Dutton to explain why, as revealed in a Senate Estimates hearing, that Australia had resettled only 26 Syrian refugees since the emergency intake was announced. A spokesman for Mr Dutton said the government was conducting rigorous security and other checks that could not be rushed.

Social Services Minister Christian Porter has since told the ABC (on April 6), that 187 refugees had now been resettled in Australia and an additional 1,600 visas had been issued overseas. Meanwhile, Canada’s intake of refugees from Syria topped 26,000.

The indefatigable Refugee Action Collective is staging one last peak hour vigil next Thursday outside Immigration Minister Peter Dutton’s office on Gympie Road Strathpine. The aim is to bring the Minister to account and remind people of comments made on Sky News when he criticised Labor and Greens’ proposals to lift the intake to 27,000 or 50,000 respectively.

“For many people, they won’t be numerate or literate in their own language let alone English,” he told Sky News.

“These people would be taking Australian jobs, there’s no question about that.”

Greens lead refugees reform agenda

The Australian Greens is the only political party with a truly reformist answer to the asylum seeker/refugee question. The Greens say it is a better (economic) proposition to allow refugees to live in the community. The Parliamentary Budget Office estimates the average cost of allowing someone to live in the general community at $35,000, compared to $225,000 on Manus Island or Nauru.

The Greens’ plan to close down offshore detention on Manus Island and Nauru and to close ‘the worst’ Australian detention centres on the mainland and on Christmas Island. They would establish 30-day time limits on detention in Australia, with ‘periodic judicial review’ of any detention thereafter.

A few of the minor parties are less forgiving: The Rise Up Party says it would implement legislation that will send all illegal asylum seekers back to where they came from’.

Pauline Hanson’s One Nation has a policy of ‘zero net immigration’. By that is meant, if a migrant goes home, you let another one in. Sustainable Australia also has a ‘low immigration’ policy.

The Australian Liberty Alliance is running candidates in the Upper and Lower houses for the first time on a platform which includes stopping the ‘Islamisation of Australia’. You can read about the ALA here and watch their 15-second advertisement which has been banned from television. *

All you need is love (ra-ta-ta-ta-tah)

Sigh. It’s Refugee Week, did you know? I often wonder how this country lost its multicultural way after we welcomed and resettled 57,700 Vietnamese refugees between 1975 and 1982. Of these, only 2,100 or so were unauthorised arrivals by boat, although many more set out by sea and never made it to shore. The 1971 Census revealed there were just 700 Vietnamese in Australia.

Fifteen years later it was 80,000 and at the 2011 Census, the numbers of Vietnamese-born living in Australia rose to 185,039. Despite language barriers and religious differences (the main religion is Mahayana Buddhism), these new migrants were widely accepted.

Imagine an Australia without Luke Nguyen (chef and TV presenter), Anh Do (comedian), Nam Le (author), Caroline Tran (Triple J announcer), Hieu Van Le, (Lieutenant Governor of South Australia) or Vincent Long Van Nguyen (Parramatta’s Catholic Archbishop).

The Beatles were strongly opposed to the Vietnam War, or rather, western involvement in it. At the peak of the conflict, John Lennon wrote a famous song, which in Vietnam is known as Tất cả những gì bạn cần có là tình yêu.

*policy points drawn from the websites of political parties