The Satchel Review - Saturday 30 June, 2012

The Australian Parliament is not especially known for its decorum, as ideological posturing and pithy potshots so often take precedence over gainful agreement on matters of national importance, but this week we witnessed a change in atmosphere brought forth by the issue of asylum seekers.

Emotions reached boiling point as politicians' humanity was challenged by the proposition of coming to a bipartisan resolution on the Migration Legislation Amendment Bill 2012 tabled by independent MP Rob Oakeshott. It was not to be.

The Bill was supported by the Australian Government, passing in the House of Representatives by a narrow margin of 74 votes for and 72 against, but hit a stalemate in the Senate. It received 29 votes in favour and 39 against after a dynamic seven-hour debate.

The Bill would have granted a refugee-swap deal with Malaysia (which was quashed through the High Court) together with the reopening of a detention centre on Nauru. The Prime Minister had urged the upper house to "examine their conscience" before voting on the Bill.

"I want us to leave parliament today with laws that enable us to process asylum seekers offshore with laws that will send a message of deterrence," she said. 

"I don’t want to see a 13-year-old girl drown at sea in the weeks between now and when this parliament comes back in the spring. We’ve seen too many people lose their lives at sea. We have to act. It's time to put the politicking to one side."

The urgency of reaching a resolution on the Bill came to the fore after two asylum seeker boats capsized in waters near Christmas island, losing almost 100 souls, within a week. 

Four are believed to have perished in the most recent incident involving up to 135 people, following last week's tragedy in which 90 people drowned on a boat en route from Sri Lanka, via Indonesia, carrying up to 204 passengers.

The Australian's front page on Thursday showed us some of the 'haunting faces of an asylum tragedy mired in the politics of blame'. Muhammad Salman was reportedly fleeing Parachinar on the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan where over the past five years 10,000 Shia have been murdered by the Taliban.

In response, one reader, Frederika E. Steen of Chapel Hill, Queensland, wrote to the paper: 

"Your photographs of 13 of the many people lost on a refugee journey to a safe country humanises this latest maritime tragedy. But we see only a tip of the greater tragedy – wives, children and other dependants who remain in danger of religious, ethnic and political persecution and certain abject poverty in the absence of their providers.

In the name of decency, let Australia resettle those from UNHCR Jakarta's growing pool of processed refugees, men, women and children who are assessed to have well-founded fears of persecution. Australia could recover its reputation for compliance with the refugee convention obligations proudly signed in 1954 and continue a proud history of giving new lives to refugees."

The treatment and handling of asylum seekers is one of the most significant moral issues for Australia of the new millennium. Asylum seeking has become conflated with the illegal issue of people smuggling whereby owners of ships charge large amounts of cash to transport their human cargo in a Russian roulette with the seas and international laws. 

"People smuggling is a sad thing to be happening still in the 21st century," said one young viewer, 'EL', of Behind the News' report on people smuggling. "Everyone in the world should not get to the point where their only way out of poverty, political upheaval ect. is to travel and risk their lives on a boat passage to Australia or some place else, safer than their old home." 

There is also a profound fear that points to Australia's historical xenophobia, rendered anew by September 11, around the penetration of our borders by unknown peoples – nay, "queue jumpers". 

Thus the Government and the Opposition want to deter the boats – to make it as uncomfortable as possible to land on our convict shores, while ostensibly shortening their passage, thereby also decreasing risk of losing their lives at sea. Hence, Naru. 

The Opposition will not support the Malaysia Solution to exchange 800 asylum-seekers who arrive off Australia by boat for 4,000 proven refugees awaiting resettlement, but supports the reopening of the Naru facility.

The Greens, who oppose offshore processing, proposed an amendment to the Bill that would increase the intake from 13,750 to 20,000 on Australian shores and raise financial funding to the UN High Commission for Refugees to support claimant applications processed in Indonesia and Malaysia.

"There are many members of my backbench who would have had tears in their eyes voting for a detention centre in Nauru," said Prime Minister Gillard. 

"Many of them time and time again on the public record have said how worried they are about a detention centre in Nauru, how inhumane they think such a centre is. But in order to get a compromise, in order to try and stop people drowning at sea, people who have got that deeply held view have been prepared to say: to get something done I will embrace the central element of the Opposition's plan."

Now an expert Asylum Seeker Panel has been elected to forge a response on behalf of a Parliament that has hung in the balance since Julia Gillard swept to power with a minority supported by the Greens and three independents, including Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor. 

"This is about bringing people of goodwill together," said a hopeful Windsor before the Bill was quashed. "The senate is demonstrating it’s no longer a states' house, it is a political parties' house," said Oakeshott in the aftermath.

The contentious carbon tax, which comes into effect Sunday July 1 and is another sticking point for the Gillard Government, was the other heated political issue of the week with many living in fear that price hikes will see the cost of living go through the roof... unless you've installed solar panels (if so, good for you).

Contemplating one's personal financial status, as we all do come June 30, is never a good context in which to be thinking seriously and generously on the plight of foreigners seeking solace in our country.

Our land of milk and honey – which, we are told, time and time again, is profiting beyond reasonable expectations amidst the global scheme of things – tends to be welcoming so long as we are living comfortably above the poverty line... and at the least addressing economic disparities at home.

People have pointed to the enormous cost of rescuing asylum seekers from the waters – how to be humane, yet economically responsible to tax payers and defend the borders (notably, Defence and Foreign Aid were both reduced in the 2012/13 Budget)?

As the familiar refrain goes, charity starts at home. But to be generous despite one's circumstances – challenging or abundant in fruit – would speak of a nation that cares not only for its own but for the less fortunate elsewhere, too.

This week the Queen of England shook the hand of former IRA leader Martin McGuiness, Ireland's deputy prime minister. The conflict between Britain and the IRA claimed 3,500 lives, including the Queen's cousin Lord Mountbatten, over 14 years.

It was an historic moment. McGuiness wished the Queen "goodbye and God speed". And the same to our Parliament as it takes its spring break, though there is still much business to take care of. 

Girl With a Satchel


Ellamac said...

Thanks for posting this article! It's such a huge issue and you presented the sides very clearly and have helped me understand better where all the political parties stand.