Saturday, June 25, 2011

One small step for Australia...

Listening to the discussion around Go Back on SBS this week has given me some heart that we might have moved a fraction of an inch from a hate and fear filled rhetoric towards a clearer view of asylum seekers as people who are in difficult situations and worthy of our support.
The difficulty is the entrenched political positions in Australia. But even there I see an avenue for major change. The change could come with one, small, step. This small step would in one fell swoop drastically lower the cost of asylum seekers to Australia, puncture completely the hate-filled rhetoric, radically improve the lives of asylum seekers and turn this from a major political issue to what it is in truth: Australia's miniature contribution to helping those displaced in an unsettled world.
The one small step is simple: move to a community-based processing system now.
Asylum seekers would simply be held for a duration not exceeding one month whilst they were identified and a security assessment was undertaken. They would then be released into the community with access to Medicare, to education and to transitional support from Centrelink. They would have a right to work and would reside in the community whilst their claim was decided. Those who did not pass initial processing steps would continue to be held in detention centres.
Those asylum seekers released into the community would be free to stay there whilst their claims were assessed and whilst they continued to meet minimal criteria around location and compliance with Australian law. If they were assessed as refugees they would remain in the community whilst waiting permanent residence in Australia or resettlement to a third country.
Whilst we would need to support asylum seekers in the community it would be much cheaper and more humane than the current situation. It would also allow them to receive community support from volunteer organisations and existing compatriot groups whilst waiting.
The only other thing I would ask is for Australia to increase its total refugee intake to something which approaches a recognition of our wealth and resources. A level certainly above what we accept now.
I note that Malcolm Fraser, in a speech last night in Adelaide, also made this point and another point I have previously written about: make ASIO accountable and make it perform in terms of security vetting.
I believe that we should focus our efforts, those of us who are appalled by the current situation, by simply seeking this one vital change. It would be good for us as Australians, good for asylum seekers and good for the Government. Why would it be good for the Government? It would be a positive change to the budget and it would allow the Government of the day to move on and deal with real issues instead of endlessly playing political ping pong.
I think we are increasingly ready for this change as a community.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

The grass is Greener!

An important milestone is coming soon. From July, the Greens will hold the balance of power in the Senate. In addition Adam Bandt is one of the numbers keeping Julia Gillard in power. This makes for interesting times for the Greens and interesting times for Australia.
Before I go any further I want to make one thing clear: I am NOT advocating for intemperate behaviour on the part of the Greens that would lead to continuing instability in the Reps. I think that would be bad for Australia.
Having said that, this is crunch time for the Greens. My premise is that Australian voters did two things, deliberately in 2010. They refused to place their trust in either major party; and they substantially increased their support of the Greens. I'm a great believer that nothing happens without a reason. I believe that the Australian electorate has given a mandate to the Greens - a mandate to show some real leadership in Australia. Whether the Greens choose to accept that mandate will determine the future of their support.
We reposed similar trust in the Democrats once. We believed their "Keeping the Bastards Honest" line and we gave them enough votes in the Senate to deliver on their promise. What did they do? They supported an unpopular GST, they negotiated with the Devil and delivered for the Devil. The electorate never forgave them and we can see the inevitable outcome now.
The same holds true for the Greens. We've given them our votes as a mediating force, as an opportunity for them to show real leadership. We haven't seen such leadership in this country since Paul Keating and Bill Deane - each in their own way - showed us leadership on things that were "right" but unpopular. They convinced us that we needed to accept and support things that were initially unpopular.
Federal politics is currently a moral vacuum. When I use the word "moral", I'm not using it in some trumped up Judaeo-Christian sense. I'm using it in a lower case, low key statement of our obligations, as humans, to ourselves and others. Neither Gillard nor Abbott are offering anything to the population in terms of moral leadership. Instead they have their stethoscopes firmly pressed to the opinion polls seeking for any advantage in their race against each other to the bottom of the cess pit. We are mired in the tip-toe politics of pragmatism and political advantage. Self interest is the order of the day along with short term political gain.
Meanwhile the train wreck that is increasingly Australian society continues.
Most concerning is the use of the politics of fear. In 1788 the First Fleet arrived here, sent from England and full of convicts. Transportation was driven by the disparity between the haves and have nots of English society and the fear, on the part of the haves, that the have nots would somehow hurt or harm them. The response on the part of the haves was a draconian legal regime and the transportation of even minor transgressors to the ends of the earth.
Unfortunate parallels are apparent in our society today. We hear this ongoing whining that society is not safe, tougher laws are needed, more jails...; we hear mining bosses forecasting the end of the world as we know it if tax rises by even a cent; ditto for a carbon tax or any attempt to curb and change our profligate use of hydrocarbon resources; refugees are vilified and cast as the devil incarnate. What is worse these fears are fanned and encouraged by the baying of the politicians from both sides of politics, seeking to harness fear for their own political advantage.
When was the last time a politician stood up and said things like: "Refugees pose no threat to this country and we should welcome them"; or "The community is safer than its ever been, more punitive laws do not contribute to community safety and we're not going to play that game"; or "A sensible mining royalty regime is critical to the future prosperity of this country, the miners are not contributing sufficiently and unless we change that we'll end up as a bankrupt hole in the ground".
On and on it goes. NOBODY at a State or Federal political level is providing leadership, nobody is seeking to help the populace understand real, complex issues. Instead we see politicians of all flavours chasing each other to the bottom.
Do we have the politicians we deserve? Are we increasingly a population of gutless, craven losers, focused only on small-minded self interest? Well the evidence on both counts suggests to me that the answer is yes.
However we are susceptible to listening to our leaders when they have something meaningful to say to us, and we did vote for the Greens and the independents in increasing numbers. That gives me hope.
So here's the challenge for the Greens and it's a tough one! I predict that if the Greens cannot find the skills and the backbone to step right up to the plate and provide vocal, moral leadership to this country, then we will treat them the same as we have treated the Democrats - as a waste of electoral resources. We have lots invested in the major parties, we're not prepared to trash either of them because we sense a need for the necessary electoral tension between them. Our "bet each way" always comes with the minor parties and we are quick to judge the success of our flutter and move on if it isn't working. That means that when we entrust our faith in a group like the Greens the stakes are very high for them. Their demise will take time, if it happens, because of the duration of Senators, but it will be inevitable if they don't step up.
If on the other hand, they step into the massive vacuum in public life in this country. If they start to show real leadership across a range of issues...then they may just have a future.
I hope they do, I really hope they do.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

An open letter to Bob Brown

G'day Bob,
I decided it was time to write to you, because the country is pretty fucked and we need you to act.
At the last election an interesting thing happened. The collective mind of Australia created a hung parliament. We also gave the Greens a bigger vote than we ever have before. In my electorate we elected the first lower house Green in Federal Parliament.
We did all that for a reason. It wasn't a mistake, it wasn't chance: it was Australia's collective consciousness saying we trusted neither Abbott nor Gillard with the reins of the place.
Well we've been proved right. The two of them are chasing each other to the bottom, playing up the fears of the populace and competing to be the most effective dog whistler.
Meanwhile in Victoria Ted Baillieu and the central committee of the Victorian Liberal Party have embarked on their 5 year plan - commonly known as the Great Leap Backwards. Swearing is now a focus for police action (simply another avenue for police harassment of the poor, the young, the homeless and the Aboriginal people); the anti discrimination legislation has seen changes rammed through to allow religious groups to discriminate on the basis of sexuality, gender, marital status...mandatory sentencing has reared its ugly head, new prisons are on the agenda... You get the picture - a race to the bottom, playing on fear and forgetting 50 years of progress as an aware and tolerant society. Greg Barber where are you?
But back to the important subject of Federal Parliament and asylum seekers. Abbott and Gillard and competing to be "toughest" on asylum seekers. Gillard's "Malaysian Solution" even has the Liberals calling foul. As it should. I'm repeating myself, but nevertheless: asylum seekers and refugees are good for this country, arriving by boat is a plus not a minus. Somebody needs to show some leadership here and the only person left standing Bob, is you!
The populace doesn't need to be told that they need to fear these people. Somebody in public office needs to stand up and take a moral stance on asylum seekers. Somebody needs to do the thing that people in public office haven't done since Bill Deane and Paul Keating took leadership stances on what is good for Australia and what is good for humanity.
Nobody is doing that at the moment. Every political figure is...playing politics, playing the polls.
Well Bob, I'm looking at you. Here's your opportunity. It's what we put you and Adam Bandt and the rest of your team there to do. At the moment all we get are minor noises from Sarah Hanson-Young.
Do not mistake this: the reason the Green vote improved so much this time is because we didn't trust Gillard and Abbott and we were right not to. When we need you however we find you wanting. No vocal leadership, no moral leadership. Instead a committee of inquiry. We don't need a committee! We need you and your team to stand up and call the shots.
The refugee policies of Abbott and Gillard are unacceptable, contrary to the best interests of ALL Australians and inhumane.
You've got a choice: do something pretty effective about it or face annihilation at the next election. This is the reason your team were trusted with our vote. At the moment it doesn't look like you are living up to our trust in you. Do you intend to change that?