Do Melbourne Ports Residents Still Welcome Refugees?
By Ann Birrell
In the 1970s, Australians welcomed nearly 100,000 Vietnamese refugees.
In the 1980s, I was in one of my first jobs as a lawyer, as a Federal Court Judge’s Associate to Sir Reginald Smithers. When hearing immigration appeals, Smithers was a leader. Often reviewing the decisions of hostile immigration ministers, he articulated the big picture vision of Australia and our interests, one of his legacies, often quoted is:
[An immigration Minister should take a broad view of ‘interests’] by reference to a liberal and even compassionate outlook appropriate to a free and confident nation and conscious of its reputation as such.
In 2013, many are now asking what happened to that fair Australia, to that free and confident nation?
Last week, in a new low, Labor and the Liberals voted together to pass a Migration Amendment Bill to effectively excise the Australian mainland to avoid the application of the 1951 Refugee Convention; asylum seekers and their children, arriving by boat can be sent off shore to mandatory indefinite detention without rights to review. The old parties voted against Greens amendments of human rights oversight, no children on Manus Island and access for the media. As the Asylum Seekers Resource Centre noted, no other country has ever done this and 94% of these people are found to be refugees.
Julian Burnside QC, barrister and past President of Liberty Victoria (who over the years, has opened his own home to many Hazara asylum seekers) questioned the basis of the Government “no advantage” policy bluntly:
It will not save lives at sea unless it makes coming to Australia look less attractive than facing down the Taliban … Do we, as a country, want to present ourselves as so hostile – so heartless, so ungenerous – that it’s better to stay put and take your chances with the Taliban or whatever tyrannical regime is trying to kill you?
Senator Christine Milne, the leader of the Australian Greens, took a similar view, highlighting that the reason we are getting more asylum seekers is because of persecution as in Sri Lanka, where we have recent reports of impeachment of the Chief Justice and the abduction of academics. Christine Milne, addressed the Senate last week, saying:
[Labor and Liberal have chosen] base domestic politics of fear and mean spiritedness above decency and compassion … ahead of an election so that [they] can brag out there in the community … The hypocrisy here is extreme … In 2006 Labor was up in arms … now Labor in Government has done what John Howard was not able to do.
Asylum seekers and refugees are part of a world where war and oppression exist. In such a global environment, there are no quick answers, only effective and ineffective, humane and inhumane methods of managing what is an ongoing problem. After having been militarily involved in Afghanistan for over 10 years, Australia has an obligation beyond funding war, to invest in peace and stability to remove the need for people to flee.
So what has happened? Has Australia changed? Has our community in Melbourne Ports changed?
Parties that mislead the community and whip up the politics of “fear of others and mean spiritedness ” generally do not poll well in Melbourne Ports. In 1998 the vote in Melbourne Ports for One Nation was the lowest in Australia. The vote for parties like the CEC is also among the lowest in Australia. In 2010, the Melbourne Ports Greens Senate vote was the highest in Victoria, after the Melbourne electorate.
Melbourne Ports is a tolerant and inclusive electorate with strong humanitarian values. Many of our residents are active in campaigns to support and advocate for asylum seeker and refugee rights, with many of these human rights activists coming from families who themselves suffered as refugees.
Almost 33% of our residents were born overseas—around 10% more than the national average. We are proud to provide a home to refugees from many continents. Melbourne Ports has a high number of Jewish Australians, who would understand more deeply than most, the humanitarian crisis of asylum seekers arriving by boat. Many have drawn parallels to the tragedies of the St Louis refugees and the Struma in WWII – those who were turned away and faced the holocaust or drowned, being refused asylum.
In 2013 residents continue to support the Refugee Convention and continue to welcome vulnerable and friendless people fleeing persecution and violence.
In supporting the decision to excise all of Australia from the migration zone, my Labor and Liberal opponents are not representing the values of the people of Melbourne Ports.
As your representative, I will stand up for the humanitarian and legal obligations to asylum seekers and refugees called for by the Refugee Convention 1951 and its Protocol: time limits on detention, improved welfare protections, and access to rights and assistance to those who arrive at our shores seeking protection.
I will stand up for our refugee communities, and work for safe pathways, and a compassionate and fair refugee policy. That’s my vision for how to advance Australia fair.
Ann Birrell is the Greens candidate for Melbourne Ports.