Karl Stefanovic’s repudiation of the Minister was an immediate internet sensation. But in an ambitious response that garnered less attention, one group is trying to do more than the breakfast TV host’s moderate critique ever could. Max Chalmers reports.
When Minister for Immigration Peter Dutton ventures out from behind the press releases and ‘no comments’ that normally encase him, his words travel a long way.
Appearing on Sky News last month, the Minister deadpanned his way through an interview that would come to dominate the grinding election campaign for the next 24 hours, dragging the news cycle back to the issue of ‘border protection’ and eventually provoking a sizeable backlash against Dutton himself.
In conversation with rambling conservative TV host Paul Murray, Dutton accused refugees of simultaneously taking Australian jobs and ‘languishing’ in unemployment queues. He attacked them for not being able to speak English, and accused them of illiteracy and innumeracy.
As the comments rippled across social media, pushed every further by gusts of outrage and incredulity, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull labelled Dutton an outstanding Minister.
Of all the responses, the one that drew the most attention was delivered by a breakfast television host. His appeal was to a competing form of nationalism. He accused the Minister of being “un-Australian”.
— The Today Show (@TheTodayShow) May 18, 2016
But one week later, after the political conversation and the morning entertainment programs moved on, another response to Dutton’s foghorn started to circulate.
The two and a half minute video was produced by a group called Refugees, Survivors, and Ex-detainees – known as RISE – along with Blueprint Studios and comedian Aamer Rahman. It was simple, with a camera slowly panning in on a series of isolated faces as they delivered a shared script.
“We are refugees, some of the most vulnerable people in the world,” one of the participants says.
“But we are also survivors, who have lived through unimaginable suffering,” the next says.
“We know more about determination and survival than any politician,” a third person concludes.
While Karl Stefanovic’s rebuke trod carefully, declining to criticise the Minister for the actual policies his unpalatable statements underscored, RISE’s video went much further, denouncing them as well as the racial politics Dutton was not-so-subtly trying to play.
Launched in 2010, RISE now boasts 2,600 members, which it says are drawn from over 30 ethnic and national communities. Of all the refugee advocacy and support groups that have formed and dissolved since the Tampa and John Howard, it stands out. Some of its members arrived in the 1970s, others have only just been released from detention. The founder and CEO is a former detainee.
Together, RISE organises around an unofficial motto: nothing about us without us.
Excluding a guest appearance by Dr Gary Foley at the end of the clip (in which the historian and activist notes that “the most dangerous boat people to come here were the ones who spoke English”), the stars of the now widely shared response are all RISE members. Filmed across two afternoons, it notched thousands of views within hours of being launched, and had hit 285,000 at the time of publication.
That’s not ‘Karl Stefanovic viral’, but it’s still a lot of people.
Tania Cañas is one of the RISE members who appears in the video. Previously serving as a Director, she now provides advice on art and theatre policy and programs. RISE advocates and delivers some welfare, but it also tries to give its community the chance to do more than just survive. One’s struggle doesn’t end with the granting of citizenship, Cañas observes.
While pro-refugee groups often try to respond to statements like Dutton’s by projecting their own idealised characterisation of The Refugee or The Immigrant – think of Stefanovic’s construction of the battling, hardworking migrant, or this list of successful refugees – RISE does the opposite, emphasising the multiplicity of experiences among those who have come to Australia seeking protection. (The problems with the Stefanovic approach are articulately critiqued here by Somayra Ismailjee, and were also spelled out by RISE: “What about those refugees who are from working class backgrounds who never had the opportunity to study in war torn countries? Are they less than any other refugees?”).
Campaigns like the one Cañas features in do more than challenge the flatly contradictory assertions made by Dutton. Instead, they try to prise open new ways of thinking and talking about their members, in a way that does not assimilate them into the role of subject. This, it is hoped, will also show the superficiality of the broader policy stasis, which rests on the assumption that humanitarian alternatives do not exist.
“Our campaign is our very existence,” Cañas says, when asked if the video is part of a particular campaign.
“This kind of stuff is going to continue whether you fire Peter Dutton or not.”
“Despite it being a response to his comments, the video goes beyond that. This is bigger than Peter Dutton – we are talking about the ongoing systemic violence that neither of the major parties challenge.”
In this way, the brief clip both practices and preaches RISE’s guiding philosophy. Cañas says the reaction to it evidences both the existence of dissent against the bipartisan deadlock on asylum and refugee policies, and the gap that still exists between RISE’s objective of self-determination and the perception of its members more broadly.
Long after Peter Dutton’s government falls, the mission of closing that gap will continue.
“We’re here,” Cañas says. “And we’re not going to be silenced.”