On a cold, damp April evening this year, the Dandenong Civic Centre in south-eastern Melbourne bristled with grassroots agitation.
More than 100 Australians, mostly of Asian and Eastern European backgrounds, had come together to express their opposition to the Abbott Government’s planned dilution of laws against hate speech.
The star attraction was the Federal shadow attorney-general, Mark Dreyfus, member for the nearby electorate of Isaacs, and heading Labor’s campaign to protect the racial vilification laws from the Coalition’s ideological warriors seeking retribution for their wounded media spear-carrier, Andrew Bolt.
With his parliamentary colleague and former Dandenong mayor, Clare O’Neil, supporting him, Dreyfus carefully explained the legal ramifications of the change, as you’d expect of a QC, and then hammered the government, as you’d expect of a member of the shadow cabinet.
When it came to question time, I ventured down a divergent path, attempting to point out the inherent hypocrisy of his stance.
I asked him: “Do you have any pangs of guilt or shame, or even see a contradiction, about the fact that tonight you cry out for peoples’ fundamental human rights to be observed, yet when you had the opportunity to follow this path, with your hands on the levers of power you chose denial of basic human rights and to continue to inflict suffering on innocent people?”
When Dreyfus occupied the position of Attorney-General in the Rudd and Gillard governments, he had the authority to release the 50 or so refugees who have been detained indefinitely in Australia, most for between four and five years, because of secret ASIO security assessments.
Locked away in a legal black hole, they have never been charged with any crime and are unable even to see the evidence against them, let alone challenge it.
Last August the UN Human Rights Committee ordered his government to release these people, describing their treatment as “cruel, inhumane and degrading”.
Yet it chose to ignore the directive and leave these refugees to continue to rot in prison.
In front of the audience, Dreyfus deflected the question, pleading that it was a matter that should be discussed in another forum.
He then asked me to stay behind after the meeting so he could better explain the situation.
What he had to say to me away from the microphone left me shaking my head in disbelief.
Dreyfus told me that he felt “shame” that he was unable to release these refugees during his eight-month stint last year as the nation’s number one legal officer.
He said he fully understood the injustice of their situation.
He said that one of his children visited these refugees in Melbourne detention centres and that he had considered doing the same thing.
Then he explained why he couldn’t release them. He said it would have been impossible to get their release through cabinet in an election year.
The fear of being branded soft on terrorism by Abbott far outweighed the need to do what he knew was the right thing.
His apparent sincerity in this conversation was striking, leaving me with the impression of a man wrestling with his conscience; a man who wants to correct the errors of the past. I particularly remember the word “shame” – in fact I later wrote it down – because it’s so rare to hear a politician admit such a thing.
Yet, just one month later, when his party voted with the government to amend the Migration Act to prevent refugees with negative ASIO assessments from applying for protection visas, I knew I had been conned.
Without so much as an objection, he and his party had given Abbott the go-ahead to turn the screws one more notch on these people who are slowly being destroyed mentally and physically for political purposes.
Indeed, as I later discovered, Dreyfus had actually personally voted in the lower house for the passage of the bill in February – two months before the Melbourne meeting.
So much for Dreyfus’s “shame”, which clearly had been put back into his bag of tricks, perhaps until the next time he is challenged on this issue and needs to placate restless citizens who can’t understand why people who’ve never been charged with a crime have effectively been given life sentences and treated worse than murderers and rapists.
Now I also understand why the Labor Party has become an object of derision, even among its own supporters, having morphed into a shameless bottom-feeder, plumbing the turgid depths of political convenience in the search for a few cheap points here and there.
Indeed, it’s this pitiful abandonment of principle and supposed Labor values, notably on the issue of asylum seekers and refugees, that should have Dreyfus, and his colleagues, awash with shame.
* Trevor Grant is a former Fairfax and News Ltd journalist of 40 years’ experience and author of a new book, Sri Lanka’s Secrets: How the Rajapaksa Regime Gets Away with Murder (Monash University Publishing) to be released next month.
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