“The way a government treats refugees is very instructive because it shows you how they would treat the rest of us if they thought they could get away with it.”
– Tony Benn
In Australia, we have a plethora of examples of “what they thought they could get away with”. From the founding of the colony on the genocide of Aboriginal people, to the wealth of the ruling class built on convict labour and the stolen wages of Aboriginal people, through to the White Australia policy, the Northern Territory intervention and beyond.
This racist history permeates immigration policy today; the Australian government continues to “get away with it”.
So far, successive Australian governments have got away with imprisoning people who sought asylum – as is their right under the UN Refugee Convention – in the detention camps of Manus Is and Nauru, in Christmas Island, and in on-shore “detention centres” around the country.
The current government continues to use our tax dollars to fund lucrative contracts for private corporations to run these prisons in which refugees suffer abuse, ill health, and preventable deaths as in the cases of Reza Berati and Hamid Kehazaei. It gets away with turning back to danger boats carrying people seeking asylum, and it has refouled people to regimes that met them with torture and murder.
When it is challenged in law, it simply passes new legislation to allow it to bypass judicial censure, usually with bi-partisan support. It has become a world leader in cruelty, admired by the far right globally.
Our government has turned refugees into political hostages in a cynical race for votes predicated on xenophobia and anti-Muslim sentiment. This divide and conquer strategy not only damages the lives of refugees, it obscures what else they are getting away with – the undermining of workers’ wages and conditions, including the casualisation of the workforce, which normalises insecure employment, the privatisation of public services, cuts to welfare and publicly-funded services, environmental devastation, and the facilitation of corporate tax evasion.
Our government serves profit over people.
Why did we take the protest to Parliament House, the so-called house of democracy? Because our government is failing us all. The reactions of the prime minister and the leader of the opposition during the Question Time protest in late November are instructive: Malcolm Turnbull smirked and walked out with his party to “protect the dignity of the parliament” (which includes George Christensen who tweeted that he would like to introduce us to his whip). Bill Shorten said “This is the exact opposite of democracy”.
Neither understood the irony of their proclamations, the House of Representatives rarely being a place of dignity or true democracy. Both falsely blamed The Greens. Surely the common people of the Whistleblowers, Activists & Citizens Alliance couldn’t have organised such a well-planned operation of their own volition?
They, and the majority of their fellow politicians, are far removed from the people they are meant to be serving. In the final two parliamentary sitting days of the year, during which we protested, the government passed anti-worker, anti-environment and anti-human rights legislation. Through the usual horse trading wheeling and dealing that has come to represent what we are told is democracy in this country, the union-busting Australian Building and Construction Commission was re-instated.
The High Risk Terrorist Offenders Bill was passed, which permits those convicted to be detained indefinitely, effectively creating a life sentence in a maximum security jail. The Indian Civil Nuclear Transfers Act was passed in a late night sitting of the Senate. It’s a new law that circumvents our international non-proliferation obligations, bypasses safeguards applied by the International Atomic Energy Agency, and protects uranium mining companies in Australia from domestic legal action.
The proposed life time visa ban for refugees who arrived by boat since 2013 was fortunately rejected by Labor – but it demonstrates the government’s willingness to create further inequality and division. In this time, we also heard about the legally-questionable and unethical actions of attorney-general George Brandis, the highest legal officer in Australia.
When our government finds a law that gets in the way of business as usual, it simply changes it, usually with Labor’s support. When the Manus Island detention centre was ruled to be operating illegally, the government just made new laws. When it finds international law that Australia is signatory to bothersome, such as The UN Convention on Refugees, it simply ignores its obligations. In a smoke and mirrors move, it has negotiated a potential people swap deal with USA, a non-solution for the majority of the people affected.
When there is no justice, there is just us – the people. That is why we acted, why we must continue to act and why we urge others to act for all of us.
The only thing that can close the camps now is the power of the people in direct action. We stand with the courageous political prisoners of Manus Island, Nauru, Christmas Island and on-shore immigration prisons. They must be evacuated to safety and offered resettlement with full rights.
When we protest, we can walk away, they cannot. Until they are free, the rest of us are not free. Until they are free, we will not stop.