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): http://www.abc.net.au/worldtoday/content/2007/s2098039.htm
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: http://www.abc.net.au/unleashed/stories/s2883927.htm 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.