A Member Since 1947, I Now Stay Quiet About My Connection To Labor


Having lived through the post-war period and Menzies era, it staggers me to see how inhumane Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers has become, writes Labor life-member, Dr Jim Macken.

“Close Nauru,” the protesters chant. The real question is how did the place ever get to open? There is no island prison on earth as hostile to prisoners. Death was the only way out from the Chateau d’if and it looks like it is the only way to leave Manus Island and Nauru.

I have written about and studied Australian history for many years. I know that many thousands of Irishmen who had killed English soldiers in the 1798 rebellion came to Australia. As convicts they became part of the invasion of Australia but also went on to build the very families of the men who are demanding this barbaric practice stay in place.

Enemy soldiers from the First and Second World Wars came to Australia in the thousands and we welcomed them. We have always – eventually – forgiven our enemies. Until recent years we were a nation that celebrated our multicultural country. We were also, until recently, a nation that managed to take over a million people fleeing wars from the mid 1970’s to the 1980’s.

I am old enough to remember the leaders of the ALP and the Liberal parties compete with each other in the noise of their welcomes to the thousands of Vietnamese refugees from the communist occupation of South Vietnam. Indeed, I am old enough to remember that even Menzies boasted of his ability to bring over 80,000 refugees from war-torn Europe.

We have been a nation of resilience and welcome, despite our sometimes chauvinism and bigotry.

After the Invasion everyone who came to Australia was a refugee in one form or another. The Irish fleeing the famine and bound by the English law, European families fleeing war – two world wars – and of course the Vietnamese.

This is who we are, this is our national DNA – this is why our actions are so reprehensible.

Today we are faced with a few thousand refugees fleeing an unholy terror, torture and death. We respond by forcing them for ‘the terms of their natural lives’ to live in barbaric offshore jails.

Men, women and children guilty of nothing but wanting safety and freedom for themselves and their families. Our court system has tried them and tested their stories and we declare them to be innocent victims of foreign oppression – they have overwhelmingly been found to be refugees under the most strict criteria.

Instead of welcoming them we lock them up on a prison island for the rest of their lives. We deprive them of all hope of a future anywhere and we abandon the women to live in tiny huts up in the bush, with not so much as a lock on their door. The numerous stories of the rape, humiliation and assaults against these same refugee women are known to all of us. Even multiple murderers and rapists can see some end to their detention and get some hope but not the refugees on Manus Island and Nauru.

Allow me to confess that I am not only a retired judge; I am also a life member of the Labor Party. Initially, I took refuge in the thought that this brutal policy was a momentary aberration of the extreme right in the Howard government. Then, under Rudd my presumption appeared correct, as the Prime Minister set about shutting these offshore gulags.

So you can imagine my deep disappointment to see Rudd, then Gillard, then Rudd, then Abbott and now Turnbull, re-open the jails and compete with each other to introduce new levels of barbarism. Like the gag laws that ensure doctors and nurses get two-years jail for reporting the rape of children on Nauru. The pushback policy that ensure no boats arrive on the mainland but go to sea and either sink there or get dragged back to country they are fleeing – what do people think happens when they get to those countries?

new matilda, jim macken
Jim Macken, accepting his ALP life membership in 2011.

I don’t only keep a low profile on my life membership to a once great political party. I also keep quiet on the fact that I was Doctor of Law from an Australian university. Jurists from every country in the world now look on Australia as a land that denies the most vulnerable people their basic human rights. We have become the South Africa of the 21st century – that country that tortures people, imprisons children, detains people indefinitely for no crime – we are now that country.

I would trade in my Doctorate, my Order of Australia, my life membership of the ALP and anything else I have of value tomorrow to free these poor buggars incarcerated on these prison islands.

These are innocent men, women and kids who know that burning themselves to death is preferable to living under Australian detention conditions.

How do I stop the Australian Prime Minister rejoicing at the success of a policy of historic and inhuman repression of the innocent? How do we stop the Minister claiming that refugee protesters such as I am undermining the safety of the refugees. This is code for: “Don’t undermine the thugs on Nauru”.

I am old enough to remember my dad’s mates, uncles and neighbours coming back from the war in Europe and PNG. I wonder what they would make of this new, brutal Australia? Minister Dutton thinks we are trying to protect the human rights of the people on Manus Island and Nauru and he is right, we are. But we are also trying to protect our own humanity; because when we remain quiet in the face of such cruelty it is our own humanity that is destroyed in the silence.


Dr Jim Macken O.A. is a former judge of the Industrial Commission, author of numerous Australian history books, legal text books and a number of books on the Australian labour movement.