About Nauru your petitioner humbly prays

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report after report of children who are in such despair, for whom life in detention is so miserable, that they have withdrawn socially, stopped eating and even attempted suicide,” Plan International said.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

More reading:

 

Six Prime Ministers and a potato class action

Prime-Ministers
Prime Ministers- ScoMo feeds the fire (meme by twitter.com@GeorgeBludger)

As the dry winter fades away, ushering in a hot and bushfire-prone spring and summer, here’s some sober reflections on ‘Single-use Prime Ministers’.

I borrowed the single-use mention from a clever meme doing the rounds on social media, where, I might say in defence of the humble Kipfler, Sebago and Desiree, potatoes continue to be openly defamed. It might not be long before we see headlines where Tryhard & Associates, no win-no fee, mount a class action on behalf of Mr and Mrs Sebago and 15 other tuber families.

As we now see from former Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton’s attempted coup, while it worked in principle, the betrayal left Mr Dutton out on a limb, with a centre-right politician seizing the leadership.

At the outset, Australia’s new Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, decided the people needed to know that “we’re on your side”.

“That’s what matters. We are on your side. And we are on your side because we share beliefs and values in common, as you go about everything you do each day.”

Keep playing that one, Scott. Stay away from the line that brings down Westminster democracies; when a leader (be it Whitlam, Hawke, Keating, Howard, Rudd, Gillard, Abbott or Turnbull), have all been caught referring to ‘my government’.

I had a couple of messages from FOMM stalwarts last week in aggregate saying “Get a grip, Bob. The nation’s imploding and you’re talking about stamp collecting?”

I defend last week’s meandering missive as making the case that Australian governments have been lurching hard-right for a very long time now, arguably since John Howard’s 1988 stance on multiculturalism and refusing to make a treaty with the Aborigines. Hence my writing about the stamp-collecting Philip Ruddock, a hard-line Immigration minister in control of our border policies from 1996-2003.

Now here’s the thing – party factions, backroom machinations and political knifings are not what does in a sitting PM – it is narcissism.

As economist and author George Megalogenis wrote in an opinion piece for the New York Times: “The prime minister is not even mentioned in the Australian Constitution, yet the office has evolved into a paradoxical position of supreme authority and permanent vulnerability.”

Megalogenis also wrote: “They have borrowed the worst of United States presidential politics, with its obsessive focus on the leader, and grafted it onto a Westminster system of parliamentary government that was designed for collaboration and compromise.”

Australia has had six Prime Ministers since 2008, the number arguably including a bit of double counting when first Julia Gillard toppled Kevin Rudd, then Rudd came back and promptly lost the next election in a landslide. Then there was Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull and now Scott Morrison. This era was characterised by frantic passing of new legislation in the incumbent’s first year. Fairfax Media research tallied new acts of Parliament passed in the first year for Prime Ministers Kevin Rudd (133), Julia Gillard (132), Tony Abbott (116) and Malcolm Turnbull (104). These are mediocre numbers compared to Paul Keating (212) and Gough Whitlam (161). Surprisingly (well, I was surprised), John Howard’s first year numbers (86), are only marginally better than Ben Chifley (74).

What appears to have brought undone Prime Ministers of the past 10 years is the polarisation caused by climate change policy. It seems nigh on impossible to achieve political consensus on this most serious of issues, even if over 97% of climate scientists active in that field of research say it is a reality, aggravated and accelerated by human activities. (There are, of course, nay-sayers. Just Google ‘what percentage of scientists believe in global warming, if you have a few hours to spare.)

All six of our Prime Ministers thus far have failed or been thwarted in terms of seriously countering climate change. Some even challenging the notion that fossil fuels have had their day. I refer of course to (a) Tony Abbott’s infamous ‘coal is good for humanity’ quote, and incumbent PM Scott Morrison’s stunt, brandishing a lump of coal in Parliament.

But let’s go back 117 years, to an era when coal really did rule – when steam trains, for example, burned through eighty pounds of coal for every mile travelled (a useful factoid from Michael Portillo’s fascinating series, Great British Railway Journeys).

Australia’s leadership changed seven times in the first ten years of Federation (and 11 times between 1901 and 1922). Again, leadership changes involved ambitious men having a second (and even a third) attempt. Andrew Fisher (1909-1909, 1910-1913 and 1914-1915) proved the most persistent, governing during the early years of WWI. Fisher, I’d like to point out, introduced Australia’s first postage stamp. On January 2, 1913, the Fisher-led government issued the Commonwealth penny stamp.

It featured a controversial design – a kangaroo on a white map of Australia. Although later stamps reintroduced the King’s head, the kangaroo design remained in use for some forty years. An example of this rare stamp sold at auction in 2012 for $142,563.

But we were talking about men (and women- Ed.) and their egos and how the Prime Ministership has evolved as the Office of Omniscience. Towards the last days of Kevin Rudd’s Prime Ministership, there were reports of policy on the run, along with statements made with no consultation, and there have been similar reports about other short-term Prime Ministers. To be fair, in the first year of the Whitlam administration, the late Gough Whitlam rammed through a colossal amount of social reform legislation in a fortnight with the help of a two-man Cabinet (the duumvirate) – just Gough and his deputy, Lance Barnard.

Megalogenis observed that post-Rudd, the Labor party has made it harder to remove future Prime Ministers. Changes to internal rules now require the party leader be elected by a combined vote of the parliamentary party and grass-roots members. From this side of the fence, it is hard to see the Liberals coming up with a similar safeguard.

In no time at all, it seems, Australians will be thrust into another Federal election, with a new Prime Minister who will not have had enough time to show his mettle. On the other side, we have Labor leader Bill Shorten, and deputy leader Tanya Plibersek. Mr Shorten’s tactics thus far, apart from keeping his head down and letting the Liberal Party stew in its own juices, has been to divide and conquer, emphasising the class gulf between the left and right.

Tucked away behind the cannot-be-seen hedge, Labor’s Anthony Albanese, passed over for the Opposition leadership in 2013, declared his colours in June, in the Whitlam Oration.

Mr Albanese called upon his party to emulate the Hawke and Keating approach and “collaborate with unions, the business sector and civil society to achieve positive outcomes in the national interest”.

The Labor frontbencher also delivered a warning about the need to find common ground with voters outside the union movement.

“This is not 1950, when most Australians were members of trade unions,” Mr Albanese said. “Indeed many people from working class backgrounds are not members of unions because they were beneficiaries of Gough Whitlam’s education reforms. We cannot afford to ignore this demographic.”

Sigh, it makes my brain burn, like the feeling I got when I saw that clever meme (above) with Scott Morrison feeding a lump of coal into a (red and orange) map of Australia.

Good for humanity my arse.