Friday, 28 December 2007


This was a great editorial:

"A Visa that lowers the bridge on asylum seekers" in The Age
IT IS not much of a choice: return to the country where you may have a genuine fear of persecution or stay in Australia where you will be prevented from living with anything resembling dignity. While your application for refugee status is being processed you will be allowed to live in the community but prohibited from earning a living and supporting your family. Access to Medicare or income and housing support will be denied. You will either have to work illegally and risk being detained or rely entirely on charity. The fear of destitution, family breakdown and physical and mental illness will hang over you like the terror from which you may have fled.This is the cruel reality for the nearly 3000 people who are living on bridging visa E, which provides them with legal status while their applications to remain in the country are being determined or reviewed, a process that can take several years in some cases. For some, their crime is that they have failed to apply for protection within 45 days of what is usually their lawful arrival in Australia. This punitive and draconian provision was introduced to encourage genuine claims for refugee status to be made quickly and to deter those that are not. What this fails to take into account is that applicants affected by trauma, who fear authority, do not speak English or lack the proper documentation may be unable to meet this requirement. The result is that they have few rights, except, perhaps, an abject day-to-day subsistence.The Rudd Labor Government has moved quickly to introduce a more compassionate system for those seeking asylum in Australia. It has pledged to dismantle the "Pacific Solution" and has already ended the nightmare of the seven Burmese asylum seekers held for more than a year on Nauru and given them refugee status. It is also re-examining the cases of the 74 Sri Lankans deemed by former immigration minister Kevin Andrews to be refugees, then told they would not be allowed into the country. Now, and with equal haste, it needs to resolve the many problems inherent in the country's overly complex, and in the case of E visas, inherently unfair bridging visa program that not only condemns many of those seeking protection to poverty and homelessness, but denies them basic human rights.The first step should be to abolish the 45-day rule and entrench the right to work and have access to medical and social security benefits in the E visa. Mindful of an immigration system that needs to, and should, protect Australia, the Government could then consider introducing an appealable process whereby work rights may be revoked if there is reason to believe an application has not been made in good faith. Such changes are necessary in a society interested in treating all people humanely. Practically, they would also lift the considerable burden of ensuring these asylum seekers' welfare from the shoulders of charitable community and religious groups who have assumed what is rightly the government's responsibility and who are, not surprisingly, buckling under the pressure. The benefits to the economy of these people being allowed to work are obvious.It is not in Australia's best interests to deprive people of their dignity and the right to earn a living. This can only reduce them to a state of fragility that would leave them ill-equipped to make sensible decisions about their future, and, should their applications to remain here be successful, seriously undermine their integration into society as strong, independent and resourceful citizens with existing and beneficial links to the community. Similarly, this country has a fundamental responsibility to ensure that those who are finally compelled to leave these shores do so not as broken people, but as people who have been given every opportunity to gather the financial resources and emotional strength needed to embark on a fruitful life elsewhere.

Friday, 14 December 2007

Think about Indigenous culture this Christmas

No Room At The Inn

An Open Letter to the Australian Nation from the National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Ecumenical Commission of the National Council of Churches in Australia

At this time of the year, as we turn our minds to Christmas and reflect on the year that was (and what a year it was) and look forward to the year to come, I cannot help but think of many of my Indigenous brothers and sisters. This season of peace, hope and joy leads me to ask, ‘what peace, hope and joy will be given unto us with the coming of the Christ Child into the world?’ Over the last 237 years since Lt. James Cook arrived, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have been denied a proper place within our own country. Just like Jesus’ family on returning to their home country we also have not been able to find a proper place for ourselves in our own land.

Too many other interests seem to distract the country where we once roamed freely. We have been turned away at the door and given scant attention and meagre generosity by the new Innkeepers. It is interesting that we, Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, were not part of Federation, were forgotten about as the new wave of Immigrants came from the Mediterranean during the post war years and were not on the radar until the 1967 referendum. Except, of course, when we were allowed to lose our lives fighting for this country, or when we were seen as strange curiosities of a bygone era. Mostly, we were labelled as a troublesome few dissidents who should not expect the same rights as everyone else. Children were removed from their families because it was perceived that they were not being cared for to acceptable western standards. Or they were taken away simply so they could be given the ‘western makeover’ to fit better into western society. The only problem was that they still had a different colour than those holding up the bar of mainstream society.

This brings me to the question of an apology. The former Howard Government was against any apology as it was seen that the mainstream should not be held accountable for the past, and such an apology could hold the State open to litigation. It’s an interesting irony that in this corporate world we live in, mainstream Australia will hold accountable corporations for their past organisational failings, and yet the nation cannot live up to its own corporate responsibilities. As for the apology itself, the Nation is either Sorry or it’s not. Putting provisos on it (we regret etc.) is not an apology. If we are going to move forward then it is very important that the Nation says Sorry and accepts any consequences that might result. The present Rudd Government must take the lead on this and soon. The continual denial of the rights of Indigenous peoples, as Australian Citizens, has gone on for too long.

We have a right to education, health and the many opportunities that most Australians take for granted. Governments need to act now to correct these situations, which occur around the country not just the Northern Territory, and close the gap between us and the mainstream. As I’ve often said in other Forums, how can Australia set out to save the world when there is so much to be done at home? What credibility does Australia have if it is not working to correct the situations in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities? There needs to be a plan, not knee jerk reactions, to address these situations. The Millennium Development Goals help us in this area. These eight time bound and measurable goals discourage empty rhetoric. They encourage us to formulate concrete plans to build a better future for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The first step to any action is recognition of what is currently happening. We have no real voice or say or control in what is happening to us. Outsiders are dictating our future. There is no national representative voice to carry our hopes, dreams and desires forward into the future. Hand picked advisors are not a representative voice. A process needs to be put into place where a representative voice can be heard and acted upon. National conventions need to be held so that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people can contribute to the process of forming this new voice and eventually own the outcomes.

People say that there is not one voice in Indigenous Australia, but surely that can also be said of mainstream Australia. Our Federal Parliament, with different parties and different factions, continues to exist. The one voice comes when these groups are allowed a forum like Parliament to reach compromise and consensus for the good of all. This forum will help lead us into a better tomorrow for our children and children’s children. The issue of whether we should be included in the preamble to the constitution of Australia can also be debated in these forums and a proposition then put forward to the Australian people in a future referendum.

These issues cannot be put off until tomorrow for tomorrow may never come. Many of our great Indigenous leaders are already passing on and we need their valuable input into these forums. As I reflect this Christmas time, I wonder if Australia will place their Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians again in the stable, as Jesus was over 2,000 years ago, or will we be invited in to share fully in the Australia which is so gifted, diverse and forward looking. Will we begin to “Make Indigenous Poverty History” this Christmas? May the peace, hope and Joy of Christmas fill all Australians with the hope of a new tomorrow!

Graeme MundineExecutive SecretaryNational Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Ecumenical CommissionNational Council of Churches in Australia