Stand up for those standing up


Last week’s stand on the refugee issue by Petro Georgiou, Judi Moylan and a small group of fellow backbenchers is something of a marvel and something, it is reported, which has angered the Prime Minister. For a government which has achieved unprecedented levels of internal cohesion, this challenge to government policy certainly does not fit in with recent political practice. For example, Australia went to war in Iraq with no apparent dissent, which is remarkable when you compare Australia with Britain, where wholesale public defections occurred in the governing party on this issue. The argument used by the Australian government, ‘disunity is death’, appears vindicated by its repeated electoral successes. An area particularly unlikely to provoke revolt by the backbench is refugees, as tough policies on refugees have been a major contributor to electoral victory..

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas

The character of those expressing dissent adds to the curiousness of what is happening. Before entering parliament Petro Georgiou had served on the staff of a previous Liberal Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser, before his time as General Secretary of the Victorian Liberal Party where he played an important role in the election of the economic reformist government of Jeff Kennett. He is, you would say, a party man. Judi Moylan (my successor in the seat of Pearce), who has been the public face of the challenge to the extended detention policy, came to politics from a real estate business and as leader of the local small business organisation. I would describe her as a humane conservative rather than a small ‘l’ Liberal. The other members commonly mentioned are Bruce Baird and Russell Broadbent. Bruce entered Federal Parliament after a successful career in big business and State politics. Russell came from small business, like Judi, rooted in middle Australia and its concerns. Not a radical or a bomb thrower among them. Rather, as Judi has been at pains to stress, they are Liberals in the core Menzian Liberal tradition.

What has moved such centrist Liberals to throw down the gauntlet to the government at obvious risk to their standing in the party and their political careers? Why has their judgement been to openly challenge a PM who, in the Thatcher tradition, is a lad not for turning?

That question is easy to answer for anyone who has engaged with the individuals and families who have been demonised in the public mind as queue jumpers and illegals (notwithstanding that almost all of them have been found to be genuine refugees fleeing persecution and, in many cases, in justifiable fear for their lives). To watch the deterioration of incarcerated individuals condemned to indefinite detention, to see the effect of continuing uncertainty on the holders of temporary protection visas released into the community, to learn that these people are no different from any of us in their hopes and ambitions is an education in what this is about. It is not in line with our sense of ourselves as Australians that we stand and watch as people who have committed no offence are driven slowly mad by punishments beyond what we mete out to vicious criminals.

The difference between the ‘rebels’ and their colleagues is that they have gone behind the veil of labels and are dealing with the reality that we are cruelly treating fellow human beings. They have been to Baxter and seen what we are doing; just as the Rural Australians for Refugees, who have responded to the real people they have come to know and became their advocates. Just as the conservative Christian women with whom my wife, Angela, works to alleviate refugee distress, themselves deeply distressed by the government sanctioned cruelty they witness. These members, by their challenge, are reflecting their direct experience of what government policy is actually doing to innocent human beings.

The extraordinary tale of the incarceration of Cornelia Rau attracted much public attention. In the process it has helped to expose that the tale is not extraordinary at all. What the public is learning is what those working with refugees have known for years. The imposition of harsh and personally destructive practices in detention centres is not extraordinary but commonplace. It is hard to get one’s mind around the accounts that have been published about Ms Rau’s experience in Baxter Detention Centre. That anyone could watch such distress and see it as a reason for punishment rather than treatment is, on its face, unbelievable in sunny, civilised Australia. It is similarly hard to imagine how the deportation of Vivian Alvarez could be possible, as well as the failure by our officials (and they are our officials, they act for us) to follow up the drastic error that was made when it was discovered. But what is bleedingly obvious from all experience is that when you put people in a position where they have power over the lives of others, the risk of abuse is huge. Fears about the culture of the Department of Immigration are not new and to my own knowledge have been drawn to the attention of government at high levels. Last week in the Estimates Committee the Minister acknowledged the need for cultural change. Why has this not been attended to long since?

In a sense these are desperate times. The Federal Opposition, as the father of the detention system, is currently showing no sign of alternative leadership and the politics of the day seem to dominate the Government’s and the Opposition’s responses to substantial humanitarian concerns. Having created a monstrous fear of refugees in the Australian community they are each imprisoned by their creation. The Liberal rebels exhausted the internal processes open to them. They faced a stark choice between career and conscience. That they have chosen conscience is a matter for celebration. That they needed to make such a choice is a continuing tragedy.

It may be that the exposure of departmental inefficiencies and resulting injustices which can impact on our own citizens as well as foreigners – will lead to more rational policies to meet the national interest in border control. It is important to note that the changes being sought by the dissenters retain the tool of detention where it is needed to protect our national interest. The government can meet the requests for change being made, not only by a handful of Liberal backbenchers, but by most of the churches and many people of Liberal persuasion, without any loss of control of our borders.

Principled stands are a lonely business in Canberra. Petro, Judi, Bruce and Russell and any others in any party who take a stand for common decency need more than our silent thanks. Australians of goodwill need to be vocal. Directly encourage them in what they are doing. Ask your local member to remember these forgotten people rotting in cells. Our collective silence has made these abuses and errors possible. We need to make clear that what is being done in our name by our government is not acceptable.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.