Spark of celestial fire


Having settled in Australia in early 1995, I thought my new homeland was a fine example of a multi-cultural and tolerant society “ proudly independent, and nobody’s ‘puppet’. I even thought that it could be a beacon for the rest of the world! In ensuing years, upon hearing some of the rhetoric used by the leadership, that early ‘rosy hue’ gradually diminished.

The slide the country was taking reached its nadir on 26 August 2001. In the days that followed, leading up to the election of 10 November, I found it unbelievable that a country I had considered as being self-confident, was apparently not so. A few ramshackle boats and their human cargo exposed ignorance and a lack of human empathy that lay just beneath the surface. Those seeking to win re-election at any cost, aimed their appeals to the baser side of humanity, and predictably triumphed.

Thanks to Scratch

Thanks to Scratch

Meekly following the Super-Power to war, based on false statements, further exposed the independence of the Australian character as a figment of my imagination. Added to the sadness at finding the leadership so ‘politically clever’, was the fact that the majority of people seemed to accept, and even concur with, the direction the country had taken.

With the emergence of a Rural Australians for Refugees (RAR) group in my hometown, I began to see another side of the Australian character. The germination of RAR from a drawing-room conversation between three women in the New South Wales highlands was itself, I realized, an indication of the true national psyche. The way Australians from all walks of life have rallied to assert their shared humanity with people who were falsely vilified, marginalised and oppressed, will no doubt be woven into the folklore of this land. Meeting Australian families complete with kids, who had traveled thousands of kilometres to a desert immigration detention centre, to meet and embrace people from so-called ‘alien’ cultures, was an unforgettable experience.

Although uplifted by exposure to this face of Australia, I was yet puzzled by one phenomenon. The people were obviously not all silent on the issue of how to treat other human beings. How was it that of the two main political parties, having over 130 Members of Parliament and about sixty Senators between them, one could find just one or two expressing dissent? Was the vaunted democratic debating tradition a farce? Did these parties also function like others had “ under supreme leaders Mao, Stalin, Saddam “ where cheers of unanimous agreement applauded decisions made by a few? Did lawmakers not possess minds of their own; did they not have hearts “ or consciences?

‘There is only one way to achieve happiness on this terrestrial ball,
And that is to have either a clear conscience, or none at all’
Ogden Nash

Political utterances in the years since MS Tampa have answered my questions. Professionals such as teachers, policemen, doctors, and even lawyers, would be expected to have a conscience. In spite of tendencies for personal gain, or willful blindness to truth, we would expect people to hear that ‘still, small voice’ which would be an ultimate guide to their beliefs and behaviour. Not so it seems with most politicians. They are expected to follow the party line. No wonder most of the public stay silent “ their elected representatives show the way.

It has always seemed to me that what ultimately defines a person is conscience. It is the ‘moral sense of right and wrong, which affects behaviour’, says the dictionary. Looking at politicians’ behaviour and utterances over the years it becomes apparent that conscience seems to be baggage that many dare not carry, especially those who want to rise to the top.

The Prime Minster boasts of ‘stopping the boats’ “ as if this end justifies all the harm and trauma inflicted on innocent people. The still secret Memorandum of Understanding with Iran and the absolute refusal to help the motherless Al-Sammaki children until an accidental ‘photo-op’ led to an abrupt change in direction, also come to mind. The Christian MPs and Senators stay silent, although they have a lot to say when it comes to other issues where the end justifying the means is not acceptable. Sanctity of life is a big watchword, but it seems there are lives, and ‘other lives’, as became evident on 26 August 2001.

One wonders how conscience disappears when it is a trait that is said to elevate us above animals. Seeing the detention regime that became acceptable in Australia since 2001, one can only ask if those who dream up and implement these policies are ‘people like us’? Do they have kids and families? Would they accept indefinite incarceration of a loved one and deprivation of rights which are granted even to convicted criminals?

The Federal Opposition has largely been a non-entity in the Immigration Policy debate, and is belatedly trying to hang on to the coat tails of the Liberal back-benchers. The emergence and partial success of Georgiou, Baird, Broadbent, Payne, Moylan, Humphries and Toeth after almost four years since Tampa, reminds me of a picture of a waterfall falling on a rock. It had the following caption: ‘In the confrontation between the stream and the rock, the stream always wins, not through strength, but through persistence’. They must have trod the path which led to their ‘rebellion’ for a few years in secret. Their persistence was manifested in the unflinching stand, daring to hold their party’s supreme leader to a nine-hour long detention period before releasing him, apparently contrite, and willing to change direction again. Maybe the still small voice inside the heads of these representatives could no longer assuage their sense of guilt at being party to injustice perpetrated on so many people.

Let us wait and see the implementation of the latest changes to immigration detention policy. Hopefully, the few who had the courage to enable the spark to become a flame, will have lit fires in a few other hearts and minds as well, and we will see a beacon which will never be put out.

‘Labour to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire “ conscience!’ “ Attributed to the copy-book of George Washington when a schoolboy.

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.