Standing up against alienation of Australian community members; terrorism in Europe, and 5 more shameful years of Asylum seeker policies

A few weeks ago, a casually racist joke or slogan that’s been doing the rounds for many years now (dressed up as an apparent epiphany) came out of the mouth of a dearly loved family member of mine: “not all Muslims are terrorists but all terrorists are Muslims”.   More recently, a friend I’m very fond of made a call on social media for all Muslims, who he described as “the enemy”,  to be locked up for the duration of “this war”. Some months ago, yet another very dear friend who I know to be a good-hearted person who has spent years selflessly helping others, shocked me by criticising Muslims and opposing the building of a mosque in her area; she seemed to feel that the Australia her children grew up in was under threat from this development.
People who are publicly showing empathy for Muslims affected by Islamophobia following extremists’ actions are currently risking pariah status and we know it. Because of this, some people who feel such empathy internally are conflicted about speaking up to voice it.
Following an event such as the Paris attacks, it can seem very hard to willingly and openly display a position of support for Australia’s Middle Eastern or Muslim communities. It can feel like we are risking criticism or ostracism from our families and friends if we say that we don’t believe in stereotyping entire groups of people because of the actions of some violent losers from an ostensibly similar background.
But every day, people of Middle Eastern or Muslim background have to live with the burden of criticism and ostracism. At the moment it’s mostly just talk, but there have been some nasty incidents of physical abuse towards them too and a frightening acceptance of the concept that “they” deserve it. So if any of us seriously believe that “they” don’t deserve it, then we have to walk the walk and speak up now. Don’t let any fear of sharing their burden of criticism and ostracism stop you being the decent people that you are. Don’t fall into the trap of complicity by silence that tainted pre-WW2 Europeans who failed to speak up for Jewish communities suffering insults and abuse. And to our friends and relatives who are also good and decent people but do believe that Muslims should be feared or shunned, please have a long think about the difference between religion and extremism.
Nothing can excuse the acts of extremists in Paris, New York, Bali, Thailand, London, Spain, Sydney, Syria, Yemen, Egypt, Sudan, Belfast, or anywhere. Power hungry people who believe they have a God given right to terrorise and kill  (or, more accurately, who disingenuously claim that they believe this, to manipulate others who feel weak and disenfranchised into acting for them) are dangerous, misguided and due the strongest punishment. They also do not represent “Muslims”. They represent “extremists”. Extremists come in many varieties, political, religious, racial, national, and they are the problem. Entire religions, political ideas or races are not the problem.
Nothing also can justify suspicion and blame towards many thousands of Muslim or Middle-Eastern people already living in Australia, who have to deal with constant subtle and not so subtle taunts, negative attention and disadvantage in the press and the community as they go about their daily lives, just because they come from the same general racial or religious background as some extremists who have committed atrocities.
These days, I live in Granville, Western Sydney, a heartland of Australia’s ethnic diversity. I’ve never felt more safe or had better neighbours than I do here. My neighbours are not my enemies or yours. My local community here in Western Sydney is going to face further stereotyping and negativity and feel more marginalised in the wake of the tragic and criminal Paris attacks. Please don’t be among the people who get caught up in this. Take people as they come, as diverse individuals. Like or dislike them for their individual characteristics. Please don’t develop wholesale dislike of people as a group based on racial, religious or any other grounds. Condemn extremists of all varieties; don’t condemn races or religions.
Nothing can excuse, either, the way wholly innocent and genuine asylum seekers of Middle Eastern (or other marginalised) ethnicity are being treated by Australia’s Federal politicians in the name of the Australian people. Leaving people in limbo, in dangerous places without sufficient access to medical, mental health and social support is cruel. There is no other word for it. As a nation we are allowing our government to represent us in a cruel way, without really understanding what is happening. Surely such intentional cruelty to fellow humans is not a stance representative of the majority of Australians.
About five and a half years ago, before the 2010 Federal election, I wrote an article for Australian Visa News called “Where’s our generosity gone? Australian politics, asylum seekers and other immigrants”. In the article, which is reproduced below, I considered my own naivety in thinking that the then Kevin Rudd led Labor Government had benign intentions towards asylum seekers including “boat people” and would not use them as political footballs. I had been put on notice that this view was wrong, by a conversation I’d had with the then Federal Member for Lindsay, David Bradbury.
No one needs to recap what has happened in the years since 2010. Harsh policies by both Labor and Liberal governments and across 4 Prime Ministers in 5 years, have “stopped the boats”. But the financial costs of this to Australia and the human costs of it to genuine refugees stuck in limbo on islands where they will never be welcomed as equal citizens have been horrendous; the legalities of it questioned by international observers.
The exodus in recent months of thousands of Syrian “boat people” fleeing for their lives to Europe have put on display the equal reluctance many countries in the EU have for taking in these displaced and suffering people. Australia has put its hand up to take in some 12,000 Syrian refugees and this is of course a wonderful thing, even in the face of the gesture’s generosity being tainted by suggestions in the press that only Christian Syrians should be brought to Australia. The Paris attacks have been manipulated by some commentators to suggest that Syrians are dangerous. Again, Syrians are not dangerous; extremists are.
Anyway, maybe I am still naive, because I’ve been waiting expectantly for years to see a strong government leader who is prepared to stand up and say straight out that encouraging or tolerating stereotyped and negative commentary about people of Middle Eastern or Muslim background is not to be tolerated in Australia, and who does not want to demonise “boat people” as “illegals”. And so far I’ve been disappointed.
Michele Clayton
MARN 0957773
Legal Practitioner NSW 55486
 As well as running a commercial Australian immigration agency, Diverse Immigration Australia, I operate a free grassroots  support network for migrants and refugees in my local community, offering friendship and support with practical things like finding legal or social information on housing, schools, counseling, etc. The purpose of this network is to help new arrivals in Outer Western Sydney, currently Australia’s fastest growing multi-cultural community of immigrants and refugees from around the world, feel welcomed and to prevent the sense of alienation from their new community that might otherwise blight their first experiences of living in Australia.

I strongly believe that the small actions we make to help people arriving among us is in the broader community’s best interests. By starting out our relationships in a happy way, we will encourage everyone among us to become the best and most productive community members they can be.

Back in early March, I ran a stall in our local High Street at the 2010 Penrith Fair, publicising my business and also the free support network. Around 40,000 people attend the fair each year and it seemed a great opportunity to connect with those people and get the word out on what we do. With all the other stallholders, I enjoyed a day of chatting with potential clients and with others who were just interested to know what we do.

Almost directly opposite my stall, was that of our local Federal Labor MP, David Bradbury. Mr Bradbury is a bright young man with what appears to be a potentially even brighter political future. A past honours graduate of my own law school at the University of Sydney, he was elected mayor of our quite large local government area, Penrith, by the age of 24. He moved into Federal politics shortly after that, and fought an election or two against the former local incumbent Liberal Federal MP Jackie Kelly, a woman who enjoyed the status of a personal favourite of the then Prime Minister John Howard, as well as a huge popular local following. Mrs Kelly held tenaciously to her seat for many years, before deciding to retire to spend more time with her family.

In the lead-up to the 2007 Federal Election, Jackie Kelly was to make way for a new Liberal candidate, Karen Chijoff, but there was some trouble on the horizon as a redistribution of electoral boundaries and the loss of Jackie’s personal following from the mix, appeared to put the Liberals at some risk of losing the seat, Lindsay, to David Bradbury’s party, Labor.

In what was to become a particularly distasteful scandal that ultimately dashed any hopes Mrs Chijoff may have had of winning the seat, the husbands of Mrs Kelly and Mrs Chijoff respectively were involved, among others, in printing and distributing pamphlets purporting to be from a (fake) radical Islamicist group, to letterboxes of homes in the new area of the electorate that had previously been in another electorate. The pamphlets falsely implied that the Labor Party supported leniency towards convicted terrorists who had been involved in the 2002 Bali nightclub bombings which had killed a large number of Australians.

Whilst it was never suggested that either Mrs Kelly or Mrs Chigoff had prior knowledge of their husbands’ actions or the fraudulent materials, the swing against the Liberal party in that election was large and at least some voters identified the scandal as a motivating factor in their switching camps to Labor:  (See eg the following ABC report):

Whether for reasons related to the scandal or because of other factors, Mrs Chigoff lost the campaign for Lindsay in the 2007 election to David Bradbury, which is how he came to be standing across the street from me back in March this year on the day of the Fair.  

The scandal had occurred against a background of a number of prior election campaigns that had been fought by the Howard government at least partly on race issues dressed up as “border security” issues. Since the mid-1990’s Howard’s government had in some instances turned a blind eye to and in others actively encouraged, community divisions over multiculturalism and an increasingly ungenerous attitude to asylum seekers and even recognised refugees. Howard both encouraged and tapped into a community sentiment that embraced racial prejudice, to the cost, I and many others would argue, of community stability and Australia’s long history of national generosity and fair-mindedness.

Following the Liberals’ 2007 loss, Labor came into power on a ticket that promised many new directions for Australia across a broad range of policy areas. One of the promises was for a fairer deal for refugees. Some changes in that direction actually materialised, particularly with measures such as the abolition of “Temporary Protection Visas” (TPV’s), a type of refugee visa that had left large numbers of refugees unsure of their future status and caused immense personal stresses.

More recently, though, the Labor government appears to be capitulating to the sentiments that had been encouraged to develop under the Howard government. A number of policies, including the recent suspension of processing of asylum claims from citizens of Sri Lanka and Afghanistan, display an apparent fear of pushing this issue too hard, particularly in the face of a recently renewed Liberal opposition frontbench stacked with players who benefited during their time in government from the political mileage that was repeatedly gained in elections by playing the race/”border security” card. One notable inclusion to that lineup is Philip Ruddock, a notoriously harsh former Minister for Immigration.

It will be a tragedy for Australia’s future as a harmonious multicultural society in a world community, the boundaries of which are increasingly losing relevance in the face of relationships being built up by everything from social media to globalisation of business, if the lid is not put on this movement back towards the Howard years of ungenerous and ill-informed immigration and refugee policies pandering to election-driven governmental fears of alienating voters. What is so scary to the Federal Government about taking a stand and once and for all properly explaining to the electorate, the ways in which immigration is good for the nation and has in fact built the nation?

 As Jason Pobjoy and Kate Purcell have commented today:  if Australia is to preserve its integrity regarding international law obligations and international reputation, this is an occasion when Australia’s Federal Government should “…educate and lead by example, ensuring that policy options align with our core national values” rather than sacrificing its moral heart to fear of the Liberal party opposition’s admittedly still strong power to manipulate people’s desire to protect a lifestyle and community that they (with active encouragement) may misconceive as under threat from immigrants and refugees.

Which brings me back to the Penrith Fair. During a lull in the crowds, I decided to walk across the street to pass some information to David Bradbury about the free support network and pro bono refugee work that we do. I waited behind another couple who, coincidentally were talking about refugees, although, not exactly sympathetically. When it came to my turn, I explained to Mr Bradbury who I was and that I just wanted to pass him the information in case it might be useful to anyone coming into his office asking about services for newly arrived migrants or refugees.

I did not have an agenda to push; I just wanted to hand over the information on the free network and get back to my stall. He, however, engaged me in conversation about refugee and immigration issues by asking me “how do you think we are doing?”. My response was that I was happy with some of the government’s moves, concerned by others, and hopeful that the false perception of “boat people” as queue jumpers could be overcome. The conversation was initiated and then led by his questions, not mine, and I came away somewhat bemused by the fact that five minutes of talking with someone whose drive and intelligence I’d always admired had left me so disappointed by an apparent lack of capacity to switch off  “politician” mode for a couple of minutes and just talk as a person in response to my own replies to his questions and statements.

No doubt, my disappointment displays my own naivety. I’m not a journalist, just a suburban lawyer and migration agent. In any case, he is a politician, and he was there promoting his party, so why would he not be in “on” mode. But the degree of his defensiveness about any aspect of the government’s migration or refugee policies and a statement he made, that I find it near inconceivable he could actually believe at heart, about Australians’ dislike of “boat people” being inspired by Australian ideals of fair-mindedness regarding giving only UNHCR registered asylum seekers sitting patiently in other countries priority, because they were in the “legitimate queue”, did hit me over the head with just how reluctant he was to give any ground and by implication, just how big a deal immigration, refugees and “border protection” is again likely to be in the next election.

God help us if this is so. Australians are not a naturally mean-spirited people but political manipulation is making them so. As a politician who has at least benefited from, and possibly actually won his electorate because of, the previously incumbent party falling on its own sword when its years of manipulating racial fears finally resulted in actions that even its own supporters could smell for what they were, I hope Mr Bradbury, himself descended (like all Australians other than Aboriginal ones) from immigrants of the past 222 years, will remember to display some generosity towards  all his electorate’s inhabitants, even those who can’t yet vote for him because they’re still working on becoming citizens of their new country.

So I hope Mr Bradbury, and his party, will not take any further steps down a path that will make things harder not only for the people who wish to come to Australia, but for those who are already here. People of every racial and national background will suffer if we cannot get back to supporting generosity of spirit and belief in immigration’s benefits to Australian society, rather than ungenerous, mean-spirited and ultimately misinformed arguments that foster only division and alienation.

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