ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr has joined premiers of Victoria, NSW, Queensland and South Australia in pledging support for refugee children and their families threatened with return to Nauru after last week’s High Court decision.
Mr Barr wrote on Facebook yesterday:
My friend [Victorian Premier] Daniel Andrews, has written to the Prime Minister about the future of the children and families who were brought to Australia from Nauru.
I am pleased to endorse Premier Andrews’ letter. I commend his compassionate leadership and that of other state and territory first ministers.
The Australian Capital Territory is a Refugee Welcome Zone.
The city of Canberra stands ready to provide a safe, secure and welcoming environment for these children and their families.
There are children among this group who were born in Australia and these are, indeed, exceptional circumstances.
We can, and should, show compassion.
After all, for those who’ve come across the seas, we’ve boundless plains to share.
On Sunday morning Barr tweeted “Yes and yes” in response to questions from the Canberra Refugee Action Committee as to whether he had seen Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews’ pledge to look after the families, and whether he would do likewise.
Premier Andrews’ letter to the Prime Minister offered to assist and care for the children and their families. Victoria would, he said, “…accept full responsibility for all of these children and their families including the provision of housing, health, education and welfare services. I want these children and their families to call Victoria home.”
New South Wales Premier Mike Baird followed suit saying NSW was “prepared to help” should the Prime Minister ask, with the Queensland and South Australian premiers subsequently adding their commitments.
On Sunday, a spokesperson for Mr. Barr indicated that the Chief Minister did not have a longer statement to make immediately: “The Chief Minister has indicated on his social media that he supports the stance taken by Mr. Andrews, but this is ultimately a Federal issue. Last year, the ACT was declared a refugee welcome zone by our Minister for Multicultural Affairs Yvette Berry.”
On Sunday more than 250 asylum seekers in Australia including 37 Australian born babies, were facing an uncertain fate following the High Court’s majority decision on Wednesday that there was nothing illegal in Australia’s off-shore detention regime. Disturbingly, the court ruling was only made possible as the result of retrospective legislation passed by both the Government and Opposition while the case was in train. It is a decision that gives the government carte blanche to return these asylum seekers – brought to Australia from Nauru for medical reasons – to the tiny Pacific Island at any time.
But there is no compulsion on the government to send them back.
As Daniel Webb the Human Rights Law Centre lawyer leading the case stressed, it just takes one stroke of the pen for Prime Minister Turnbull to allow these asylum seekers to remain in Australia.
This doesn’t seem to be a pen stroke that the Prime Minister or the Minister for Immigration were thinking of immediately after the judgement was brought down however. Indeed with no thought of the potential damage to already traumatised people they opted to set another agenda reverting to Abbott-era phrases, of preventing people smugglers from prevailing over “our sovereignty” stopping deaths at sea and protecting our borders. The Opposition for its part resorted to urging the government to find suitable third countries for re-settlement.
Defying this approach there has been an upsurge of public protest against returning these asylum seekers to Nauru. Last week thousands of Australians hit the streets, including in Canberra, demanding “Let Them Stay”. Churches have come out citing the old practice of sanctuary and the Greens and human rights groups have urged the government to allow the asylum seekers to remain in Australia.
And now we have Premiers and Chief Ministers of both political persuasions declaring they stand ready to support the asylum seekers.
Could it be that this represents the beginning of a shift to some kind of honest political acknowledgement of how Australia’s refugee policy is damaging other humans? Could it give the Opposition the face-saving lever it apparently needs to shift out of craven lock step with the government; and maybe even provide voters with a humane alternative policy that abides by our international obligations?
In the meantime the public protest continues with further rallies around the country organised for Monday including one at St John’s Church in Reid at 6pm tonight.
And at 6.30pm on Tuesday, February 16, the Canberra Refugee Action Committee is holding a forum looking at how the media deals with the refugee issue. It will feature First Dog on the Moon, Ben Doherty from the Guardian, Paul Bongiorno from the Saturday Paper and Michelle Dunne Breen from Canberra University discussing Spin and Secrecy; Refugees and the Media.
Some five weeks later at Palm Sunday rallies around the country the public will continue to demand justice for all refugees.
Noel Pratt is a freelance journalist and member of the steering committee of the Canberra Refugee Action Committee.