Last Monday, the 8th of October, I participated in a march and rally in support of the refugees incarcerated on Manus Island and Nauru. A little light rain did not deter the 1500 people who took part.
A couple of interesting things happened and they will stay with me for a long time.
The first was an address by Zaki, a Hazara man from Afghanistan, who had been terrorised by the Taliban. He told stories of friends and relatives killed because of their religion. He said they had no alternative but to flee. He went to Manus Island via Christmas Island (in a leaky boat that was unseaworthy and was scary)
He was told that he couldn’t come to mainland but fortunately he did get to go to Tasmania and was sponsored to go to CIT and become trained. He is now settled here but he told stories of hideous discrimination and desperation of those in the “refugee” camps off-shore. He talked about self-harm and diminution of the human spirit. How lucky was he to be able to stay?
Veronica Wensing talked about the discrimination being dealt out to LGBTIQ folks and likened it to the discrimination of the refugees making the valid point that if you are unlucky enough to be discriminated against because of sexual orientation, at least Australia is a safe place. She told of 13 countries which still have the death penalty. She told that the UN resolution calling for the discrimination to be ended was passed but that the 13 countries opposed it and so did the US!
She also told us of two guys on Manus Island who had not met before going there and who had fallen in love. For them, going home was not an option. To return them to their homeland is to sentence them to death.
If ever I was given a good reason to vote YES in the survey, Veronica gave it to me (even though I already had voted that way).
As an ex Minister for Multicultural Affairs, and being a bit outspoken on refugee issues, I was lucky enough to be asked to share the lead of the march by holding the lead banner in the company of some other ACT luminaries. I felt in exalted company because folks, like Sue Wareham and Sue Packer had been doing great things for years and years.
I was next to the one bloke in Canberra who I hold in the highest esteem. A bloke who is the most selfless, considered and quiet adherent to the notion of the safety of human beings, a bloke who leads by example in a quiet unassuming fashion, whose gentleness and concern are infectious. That bloke is Bishop Pat Power. Are you listening (or reading) God? If you exist, you have to look after Bishop Pat. He is your best ambassador.
Regular attendees at these events are Shane Rattenbury and Caroline Le Couteur. I was next to Carolyn as I have been on a number of other occasions. Their concern is genuine and that they give up their time to support the efforts of others is commendable. The Minister for Multicultural Affairs, Rachel Steven-Smith was there and for a time shared the holding of the banner.
A couple of other Labor MLAs were to be there but one was in hospital at the last minute and the other was at a multicultural event which (inevitably) ran over time.
I tell you this because of a disappointment I have with my political opponents. Not only were they nowhere to be seen, I found out something I didn’t know about – the motion to declare Canberra a welcoming city for refugees, recently passed by the Assembly.
It turns out that the motion has been (and was on the day of the march) described as the first initiative to declare Canberra such a city. Well, the record must be corrected. When I was the Minister for Multicultural Affairs, the then Chief Minister Jon Stanhope declared Canberra a Welcoming City for Refugees. That was over a decade ago and Canberra was the first Capital City to so declare.
Anyway, when the recent motion was debated and put to the Assembly, Labor and the Greens voted in favour but the Liberal Opposition abstained. Abstained!
I just can’t figure this one out. If the local Libs were worried about going contrary to Minister Dutton, I can understand (but not accept) it and would see them voting against the motion. But to abstain is cowardly. Fence sitting on threats to human lives is not an option.
Where was Steve Dozspot whose own journey was as a Hungarian refugee? Where were Elizabeth Kikkert and Elizabeth Lee, both with multicultural backgrounds and who are steeped in the cultures of their ancestries and both enjoy the freedoms from death squads that we enjoy.
Good questions these.
Whilst the march proceeded, a couple of guys who were window washers and who boasted of being indigenous abused the marchers saying that they couldn’t get the benefits that the refugees could and that it was wrong that we should support them. I have cleaned up the actual words used to protect the eyes of the innocent. But they are allowed to dissent in this country, even to the use of abusive language, in a way. Even though the language was indeed abusive, no-one in the march retaliated, but there was not a policeman in sight for all of the rally and the march, that I could see.
Did this experience and two others like it, spoil the march. Nuh! Everyone who came chanted “Refugees are Welcome Here” among other chants. We all felt that we had done something, that the message might get to the poor souls on Manus Island and Nauru – they are not forgotten, we weep for their plight and we fight to free them. Some of us more so than others.
Zaki came to Australia because he had heard that here is a place of freedom, of absence of discrimination on the basis of religion. He is almost right.
Anyway, the march and rally were successful and we all went home to our houses to enjoy the freedoms and love of our families. No such luck for those in the camps.