Former ACT Labor chief minister Jon Stanhope was the keynote speaker at a Canberra Refugee Action Committee rally in Civic Square today. The full text of his speech is below.
Read our news story on the rally here: Stanhope to ALP MPs: Take a stand on offshore detention.
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On 30 October of 2016, there is no politician in Australia who can possibly pretend that they don’t know what’s happening to asylum seekers under our care and under our control on Nauru and Manus.
Every politician also knows that everyone in Australia knows that they know what is happening to asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus.
Every organisation which has investigated the situations in the Nauru and Manus Island detention centres has come to the same conclusion. Whether it’s Amnesty International, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the Australian Human Rights Commission, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, the Moss Review, Four Corners, The Guardian newspaper or the more than 100 whistleblowers who’ve worked there, they all say the same thing.
The doctors, the psychiatrists and other mental health professionals who’ve been there, all say the same thing.
They tell us, that people who came to us seeking protection are being damaged by our policies, and that for many of them, the harm is serious, and permanent.
They tell us that we’re traumatising further those who have already been traumatised by persecution and war.
They tell us that children, some of whom are facing their fourth Christmas in detention, are presenting with deep depression, have attempted self harm up to and including attempted suicide.
It will not be difficult for the historians of the future as it is now not difficult for the politicians of the present to know the truth.
The Nauru Files, published by The Guardian but written not by advocates like us but mostly by Australian employees in the camps and meant for the eyes of other employees, are a huge documentary source which backs up what all the others have said, that the treatment to which we’re subjecting these people amounts to a form of torture, is cruel and inhumane.
It was always only going to be a matter of time before graphic video footage would begin to emerge of the reality of the harm which Australia is knowingly inflicting on asylum seekers.
Four Corners has in the last weeks exposed, through heart-breaking interviews with refugee children on Nauru and terrible vision of an asylum seeker setting himself on fire, revealed the reality of their lives and the depravity of Australia’s policy of indefinite offshore detention.
You will have noted the muted or for the most part the lack of any response from the Federal Parliament to the substance of the Four Corners [program] or The Guardian’s publication of the Nauru Files.
The silence of our parliaments and of our elected representatives will not save or absolve them from their personal responsibility for the shameful things we’ve done to asylum seekers and refugees. It’s too late for that.
It should be now and certainly will be in the future a source of deep national shame.
The evidence that the indefinite detention of asylum seekers on Manus and Nauru is cruel and inhumane is overwhelming.
Only those leaders and politicians with an intention to deceive can deny it.
And why do we do this?
Is it good for the budget? No. The people seeking asylum are a tiny part of the total of those who come here each year to settle, in fact it makes it poorer. As a result of the recent Save the Children/Unicef reports, we now know that a staggering $3.2 billion has been spent each of the last three years, around half a million dollars per person, and that’s not much more than the $3.8 million that we spend each year on foreign aid.
Does it make us more secure? No. The clear evidence is that it does not. More than 90% of those who sought asylum by boat were families found by Australia’s own processes to be genuine refugees. Surely, if a terrorist organisation were intent on doing us harm, wouldn’t they come on a plane with a tourist or a business visa rather than on a leaky boat?
Are we doing it to save lives at sea? No. We might think that our leaders have the interests of the asylum seekers in mind if we had ever heard them ask just one simple question: What has happened to the people who they have successfully deterred from taking to boats, or indeed those in boats who have been turned back?
Did they return to the places they fled in fear? Did they attempt some other dangerous journey? Have some of them indeed drowned in the Mediterranean? Are they still waiting in limbo, or in squalor, for a life which cannot progress?
They never ask that question, and we know that they can accept asylum seekers by providing more of them with safe pathways, as we once did in the ’70s and ’80s when we took over 100,000 Indochinese refugees, when we had no mandatory detention, no offshore detention, no deliberate mistreatment.
If we processed applications in such places as Malaysia and Thailand, and if they were to be resettled if we flew them here safely.
Why can’t we do the same again? Instead the Australian Government refuses to process any applications at all from Indonesia, and has failed to engage seriously with or to collaborate with Indonesia on regional processing arrangements.
So, why do we do it? Why does the Australian Government make life so difficult for these people?
This is not an unintended consequence of an otherwise sound policy. The truth is that the pain and suffering and the frustration that these people suffer is not a coincidence. It’s not a marginal result, an unintended consequence of a well-meaning policy. It is done knowingly and deliberately. The aim is to punish refugees. To make their lives even more miserable, and so to deter others who might have the temerity to think that Australia is a country where they will be treated according to international law, and with fairness, and with compassion.
These policies began, as we all know, as a grubby political exercise to appeal to the basest sentiments of a section of Australia. Then it became a competition, a race to the bottom, between Labor and the Coalition, to show who could be tougher. The ethical and moral dimension of subjecting a group of individuals to exemplary punishment in order to discourage other people from acting in a certain way, were never considered during the development of the policy. That is never the basis for good or decent public policy. The policies have been justified by lies, and their effects hidden from us as much as possible by secrecy.
We were told that the asylum seekers had done something illegal, they’d broken the law. If that is true, then why haven’t they been arrested, charged, brought before a court and had evidence presented, and if guilty, sentenced?
Not one person has been charged for a simple reason, that there is no law that they have broken.
If indeed the government’s constant refrain that they are illegal is true, then the AFP must have avoided its duty on a massive scale.
Indeed the major proven illegality relevant to asylum seekers is the very existence of the Manus Island detention centre, found as such by the Supreme Court of New Guinea earlier this year.
I am, as I’m sure you can imagine, particularly concerned with my own party. I am indeed a life member of the Australian Labor Party. The policy of indefinite offshore detention was implemented by the Rudd-Albanese Labor government. By my party. It came into effect on 19 July 2013. The young teenaged girls interviewed last week by Four Corners were sent to Nauru by the Rudd-Albanese government. The Minister for Immigration at the time was Tony Bourke. And that decision, of course, was taken as a result of the support of the then Labor cabinet and caucus. The decision was, coincidentally, in clear breach of the ALP’s national platform.
The platform was, however, amended at last year’s national conference, to include the already adopted policy of indefinite offshore detention. The ALP’s policy is the stand shoulder to shoulder, not with the asylum seekers, but with the Liberals and the Nationals.
The truth, the very uncomfortable truth for me and a large number of Labor Party members, is that it is Labor’s stand which enables the Government to maintain these policies with impunity. With no opposition from a major party, a Government confident that it can depend on the opposition’s continued, unwavering support, for these draconian policies.
There is no better example of Labor’s subservience to the current Government’s asylum seeker agenda than the full, unquestioning, unanimous support which Labor provided to ensure the passage of the Border Force Act, an Act designed to cover up our treatment of asylum seekers with the threat of imprisonment, of doctors nurses, childcare workers and teachers who had the courage and integrity to take a stand on the ill-treatment or lack of appropriate care of asylum seekers.
The challenge for members of the Labor Party, most particularly its elected representatives, is to do exactly what the doctors, the nurses, the childcare workers and school teachers who were working on Nauru and Manus have done. Despite facing prosecution and imprisonment. Take a stand.
Labor politicians could start by acknowledging some simple truths. That they have engaged in a corrosive race to the bottom, the consequences of which have physically and mentally hurt and injured many innocent people. That they have done enormous repetitional damage to the ALP, not to mention to Australia, and themselves as individuals.
They must surely recognise that this policy cannot be applied to the asylum seekers on Manus and Nauru as its accepted description suggests, indefinitely. Indefinite, of course, means without end. The point has been reached, in fact long ago, when even the most hard-hearted and callous members of the Government or Opposition have no option but to get off the fence and face the awful reality of what they have done, and to now commit to bringing the asylum seekers on Manus and Nauru to Australia.
It’s simply not good enough to do what the ALP is trying to do, to disguise its complicity in the shameful things that we are doing to asylum seekers by only condemning the manner in which the Liberal government is implementing Labor’s policy of indefinite detention, but refusing to condemn the policy itself.
You either support the policy or you don’t.
And the silence of Labor Party members in the face of the overwhelming evidence of the devastating impact of indefinite offshore detention can only be interpreted in one way. As support for the policy. There are ALP politicians very anxious that we understand that they do not really support the policy. You will have seen some of them confronted by journalists about the policy and their attitude to it. They dissemble, shuffle, look uncomfortable, avert their eyes, attempt desperately to convey the message that of course, they don’t personally support the policy. They say things like, “Well, it’s part of our platform and I have to support it.” You will all have heard the weak justifications and excuses they make, time and time again. I say, the time has come for all of us to demand of our elected representatives that they stop turning their faces away from the cruel and inhumane treatment of refugees which they are enabling in our names.
I am increasingly of the view that those of us who are members of the ALP, or of the Liberal Party, and who oppose these policies, need to do more to ensure that the candidates that we pre-select will also not support these policies.
If there ever was a reason to join a political party, there is currently none more pressing than in order to work from within the parties to have these unconscionable policies dropped.
At the end of the day, if the current members of the Government and the Opposition, in lockstep as they are in support of indefinite offshore detention will not change the policy, then perhaps the only option is to change the members.
The sad reality for all those members of the Federal Parliament who do not publicly and overtly oppose indefinite offshore detention of asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus, and that is of course, the entire membership of the Labor and Liberal parties, then the point has been reached where they must be assumed to support it.
I read recently, from the United State of America, an opinion piece by David Brooks about members of the Republican Party horrified by Donald Trump and everything that he represents but who, as with our Federal politicians here, refused to disown him, his behaviour, his policies. That article concluded by declaring, “There comes a time when neutrality and laying low becomes dishonourable. If you’re not in revolt, you’re in cahoots. When this period and your name are mentioned decades hence, your grandkids will look away in shame.
That is the epitaph which applies equally to all current members of the Federal Parliament.
It is an epitaph that can only be amended if the asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Island are brought to Australia.