On making a submission to the Senate Select Committee on the Exposure Draft of the Marriage Amendment (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill

screen-shot-2017-01-07-at-3-30-18-pmOn 30 November 2016, the Senate of the Australian Federal Parliament resolved to establish a Select Committee to inquire into the Commonwealth Government’s exposure draft of the Marriage Amendment (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill. The Committee is due to report on or by 13 February this year.

The Committee is looking into religious views on amending the Marriage Act, and is using Attorney-General George Brandis’ Exposure Draft Bill on Marriage as a reference point. To be clear, the committee is not asking whether the law should change. Rather, it is asking what, assuming a change of law, might be the implications of such a change, including implications for religious bodies and organisations.

The background to this inquiry is in part the suggestion from many religious leaders and religious lobby groups that legalising same-sex marriage threatens to undermine religious freedoms and communities. This concern, almost always poorly expressed, is possibly the highest hurdle still to be passed if there is to be a change in law. Yet it is not at all an argument against same-sex marriage itself. At most, it is merely a claim that amendments to the law should safeguard religious interests, some cultural geography, and the rights of religious communities to mark marriage in ways consistent with their particular ‘doctrines, tenets or beliefs’.

Submissions from a variety of religious perspectives are welcome and vital at this stage. The Committee is receiving submissions by email and online only until next Friday 13 January.

The Committee invites short submissions, written in one’s own words (pro forma submissions, in other words, will be disregarded), from all sections of faith groups. It will also accept submissions from those who wish their names not to be publicly disclosed. This is an important safeguard so that all views can be freely expressed.

The Committee has provided some general advice here on preparing submissions. In addition, a friend of mine has provided a helpful framework for making a submission on this particular inquiry:

Guidelines for Submission

Address to: Committee Secretary, Select Committee on the Exposure Draft of the Marriage Amendment (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill, Department of the Senate, PO Box 6100, Canberra ACT 2600.

Heading: Submission to Select Committee on the Exposure Draft of the Marriage Amendment (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill

Your Name, Title & Contact Details
(+ if you wish: ‘I do not wish my name to be disclosed publicly’.)

Reason for Writing – who you represent
Give the Committee an insight into who you represent. For ordained members of religious bodies, this is mostly self-evident. For others, however, it is suggested that you sketch some background of your involvement in your religious organisation. In particular, mention any leadership roles that you have fulfilled, such as committees, volunteer roles, etc., as well as the length and extent of your involvement. Your age too may be added – young people’s views are typically under-represented. Clergy should include positions held and all titles.

Reason for Writing – your interest in this issue
A personal connection to the issue is relevant. For example, your engagement with or in the LGBTIQ community, your conversations with friends, relatives, and religious communities, and your involvement in public discourses around this matter can be mentioned here. Mention also any previous submissions that you have been involved in, if and where you have written on the topic, and ways that you have been involved in advocacy in any form.

Your Views on the Terms of Reference (*)
Many legal experts will be giving advice on the technicalities of the legislation – you don’t need to do that. More important here is to convey views of people of faith ‘on the ground’. For example:

‘I remember when the Church changed its position on divorce by accepting divorcees for re-marriage. The law didn’t need to be changed during that major change. Some ministers refuse to remarry divorcees and I don’t see the need for any extra powers to refuse same sex couples’. [add a personal anecdote to illustrate]

Or,

‘I have same-sex friends who wish to marry. They would never contemplate “forcing” an unwilling minister to marry them against his/her wishes. What kind of wedding would that be?’

(*) It’s often helpful to highlight the Terms of Reference (ToR) addressed. You can put the ToR as a sub-heading or simply put ‘Term of Reference (a)’ – they’re numbered (a)–(d).

The Committee’s advice here is clear:

Please read the terms of reference carefully before making your submission. The committee has resolved that it will only accept submissions strictly addressing its terms of reference, with a particular focus on the following areas:

  • the proposed exemptions in the Exposure Draft for ministers of religion, marriage celebrants and religious bodies and organisations to refuse to conduct or solemnise marriages, and the extent to which those exemptions prevent encroachment upon religious freedoms; 
  • the nature and effect of the proposed amendment to the Sex Discrimination Act 1984;
  • whether there should be any consequential amendments to this bill, or any other Act, and, if so, the nature and effect of those consequential amendments. 

Substantive submissions that explore the technical aspects of the terms of reference will be published, however the committee does not have the resources or time to consider short statements expressing support either for or against same-sex marriage.  As such, these statements will be treated as correspondence and not published.

As mentioned, claims about the denial of religious freedom are central. Fears being raised include ministers being forced to officiate at same-sex weddings, churches being forced to hold same-sex weddings in their buildings, and religious bodies being forced to provide commercial goods and services to same-sex weddings. The draft Bill aims to address these fears by adding multiple means for faith groups to refuse involvement in same-sex weddings. But many think these new measures go too far. The Bill singles out same-sex couples as the paramount concern of religious people. It also provides brand new, potentially sweeping, powers for refusal by religious groups – and even civil celebrants.

Analysis of the draft Bill by Australians for Equality is here and here. For a different perspective, see the Australian Christian Lobby’s analysis here.

Personal stories have great value. Just keep them clear, concise, and relevant to the Terms of Reference (remembering that this inquiry is not about if the law should change but about what effects would result from the change). Don’t worry about making lots of points. One well-made point serves best.

Closing
Conclude with a statement on the effect of legalising same-sex marriage on your faith community, and a recommendation. A conclusion + recommendation might be:

‘The existing Marriage Act already gives my religious body/ministers sufficient power to refuse to officiate at, or participate in, same sex weddings.

Recommendation: A law that recognises marriage irrespective of gender should retain and not exceed these powers’.

Remember, the closing date is Friday 13 January. You can make a submission by either emailing it or uploading it online.

On our very own banality of evil


During this past week, Robert Manne gave a keynote address to the Integrity 20 Conference at Griffith University in which he tried to explain the purposeless cruelty of so much of Australia’s current asylum seeker system. Manne concluded by comparing the current situation to the ‘banality of evil’ famously described by Hannah Arendt in her reflections on her meetings with Adolf Eichmann published first in The New Yorker and subsequently in her report, Eichmann in Jerusalem:

A detailed moral history of Australia’s asylum-seeker policy since the introduction of mandatory detention in 1992 has not yet been written. What it would reveal is the process whereby the arteries of the nation gradually hardened; how as a nation we gradually lost the capacity to see the horror of what it was that we were willing to do to innocent fellow human beings who had fled in fear and sought our help.

Recently, an inmate on Nauru set himself on fire and died. Peter Dutton argued in response that people self-immolate so they can get to Australia. It took 30 years of brutal behaviour for a remark like this to be possible and for Australians not to notice how truly remarkable was the Minister’s brutality.

Our current uniquely harsh anti-asylum seeker policy is grounded in the absolutist ambitions that can, in my view, best be explained by Australia’s long term migration history and its associated culture of control. It has become entrenched because of the force of bureaucratic inertia that has seen the system grow automatically while any interest in, or understanding of, the relation of means to ends has been lost. And it is presently maintained by an irrational but consensual mindset that has Canberra in its grip: the conviction that even one concession to human kindness will send a message to the people smugglers and bring the whole system crashing down.

Because of these factors, the Prime Minister, the Minister for Immigration and the senior officials of Immigration and Defence are presently allowing the lives of some 2,000 human beings to be destroyed on the basis of faulty but unquestioned speculation, and of another 30,000 in Australia to be rendered acutely insecure and anxious for no purpose.

They are willing to allow this to happen because they no longer possess, in the Arendtian sense, the ability to see what it is that they are doing, and because the majority of the nation has become accustomed to thinking of what we are doing as perfectly normal.

Since this address, we learned today that this country’s heartless government, which has shown so little regard for the rule of law in so many areas, has sunk to a new and ‘necessary’ low, a plan to ‘introduce legislation to ban asylum seekers who arrive by boat from ever being allowed into Australia’.

I despair,

… and I resist despairing.

I think about the ‘new absolutist ambition’ and the ‘reign of automaticity’ described by Manne, and I recall also words spoken by Dag Hammarskjöld at a luncheon with the UN press corps in July 1953. Responding to those offering ‘dark prophecies’ predicting the imminent death of the UN, Hammarskjöld said:

I have in mind all those who react instinctively against international ventures for the very same reason which makes them or their neighbors react unfavorably against people from other places. There are others who may recognize the need for an international approach to the problems of the world of today, but who have never really accepted the risks involved, and for that reason pull back the very moment the international sea gets rough … And I think also of those who have accepted the necessity of an international approach and the risks involved but who, when troubles start piling up, get scared and are reduced to defeatist passivity, despairing about the future as fright makes them blind to existing possibilities to overcome the immediate difficulties. Rereading the other day the French author Paul Valery, I found a phrase that in a very pointed way covers the attitudes to which I have referred. He talks about those who drown rather than swim under the conditions imposed by the water: ‘ceux qui prérent se noyer à nager dans les conditions de l’eau’ … It expresses the simple truth that, when trying to change our world, we have to face it as it is. Those are lost who dare not face the basic facts of international interdependence. Those are lost who permit defeats to scare them back to a starting point of narrow nationalism. Those are lost who are so scared by a defeat as to despair about the future. For all those, the dark prophecies may be justified. But not for those who do not permit themselves to be scared …

And I protest – with hundreds of letters, and dozens of petitions, and tens of thousands of others who march on this nation’s streets, and by breaking bread and wine and sharing it with strangers, and neighbours, and with people I don’t like very much. (I know of no better way of feeding the catholic vision of the only world that has a real future.)

And I confess my duplicity in the entire God damn machinery. And I confess other strange things with ancient words: ‘We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible …’.

And I welcome those who have made it through – regardless of which door they came by – and who desire to start life again. To be welcomed to country is a gift almost unmatched by any other. To be able to participate in and to extend that welcome is a risk I’m prepared to take until those who welcomed me to this their land instruct me otherwise.

And I vote – vote for those committed to walking another way, even if it is for ‘a protest candidate who will not win … [For] there comes a time when thinking people must give some indication for their children and their children’s children that the national conscience was not totally numbed by [government] rhetoric into supporting a policy that is evil, vicious and morally intolerable’ (Robert McAfee Brown).

And I pray: Kyrie Eleison. Bend arc, bend. Maranatha. Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un.

On not singing the national anthem

Anthem 1

A friend in Tweetland (and Zuckerland) is wondering whether his kids, who are Christians and who are about to start school, should be encouraged or discouraged to sing the Australian National Anthem – ‘Advance Australia Fair’. I couldn’t resist a quick reply.

I’ve threatened my kids with homelessness and disinheritance if I ever learn that they’ve sung the Australian national anthem, or encouraged others to do so. Even standing during such, were I to hear about it, would be met with their pocket money being docked. Put simply, you can’t sing the national anthem and celebrate the Eucharist. Not only is the theological disconnect as huge (in a Pythonesque kind of way) as one could imagine, but bread and wine are simply so much more interesting than any anthem, and one should set one’s mind, heart, and voice unreservedly upon the most interesting things. The only reasonable alternative I can think of is to deliberately sing the anthem very badly, as out of tune and as out of time as one can muster, to do with it what Carl Fredrik Reuterswärd once did with a Colt Python .357 Magnum. To do otherwise is to put your salvation in doubt.

There is also the matter of the song being an appalling and anaemic piece of writing. That a school should torment its students with such horrid literature is tantamount to nothing short of abuse (something, to be sure, that the country is getting very good at). That a Christian – a Christian for God’s sake! – would let such a situation pass as if it were neither here nor there is probably best explained by the fact that most churchgoers have been made immune to such heresy though years of being fed a liturgical diet of equally squalid and giddy songs and prayers. Mornings of the Lord’s Day might be much better kept by reading Shakespeare or Robinson or Flanagan while listening to Springsteen on the couch in one’s pyjamas than by enduring such torment; unless of course one believes that such activity might function as a kind of training ground, a kind of school perhaps, for the purgatory that awaits the saints. Indeed, this might be among the best of reasons to go to church. But that an institution set apart to teach literature (as laughable as that sounds in today’s climate) should promote the singing of such vacuity is reason enough to have the entire school’s curriculum reviewed by a state parliamentary committee. Her majesty could not possibly expect anything less of her government.

On another note, I understand that the anthem’s election was the fruit of a plebiscite. Enough said.

‘Human Rights and Human Wrongs’: An Evening with Gillian Triggs

Gillian Triggs flyer September.png

Why the military must not train police

Soldier

A guest post by Andie Hider

We have just seen the rise and fall of a military coup in Turkey. Many of the details have yet to become clear but one thing that is known is during the attempted coup factions of the military leading the uprising targeted Turkish police headquarters and killed 17 police. This pattern of military or insurgent groups targeting police has been seen in many other internal conflicts elsewhere in the world.

An article published in The Age newspaper (Ruby Hamad, ‘The devastating irony of calling UN troops “peacekeepers”’, 12 May 2016) detailed atrocities committed by members of UN peace and stabilisation missions and a systemic failure to address these atrocities. The article included a quote from Maya Goodfellow about UN peacekeepers: ‘… they’re applauded for bravely choosing to bring decency into a country where citizens are too barbaric to look after themselves. It’s this good vs. bad narrative that clears the way for violence’. The article, including quotes like this, suggests that the root of the problem was a simplistic view of UN police as ‘good guys’. It has been my experience from years of working in this field that the real cause of the problem is a much deeper misunderstanding of the role of police, and that of the military.

What might generally be referred to and seen in action in Australia as liberal democratic policing is much rarer than most people understand it to be. Only a small percentage of the richest countries in the world have police that function in this way. Independent and impartial policing is considered a foundation of established rule of law and critical to a civil-led society. Across the rest of the world many ‘police’ do not perform the role we see here in Australia. ‘Policing’ in these countries can be carried out by the military or criminalised police who use their position to brutilise and oppress the civilian population for personal gain, through colonial policing that enables elites (whether political, social, economic, military, or criminal) to extract power and wealth from the population, to policing that looks much like Australia but gives overly preferential treatment to elites.

A police uniform does not make a person a police officer. In some countries in the world a visitor or member of the local community would place themselves in more peril if they were to approach a ‘police officer’ for assistance after a crime. Policing is a values-based profession and no amount of training, provision of equipment, or appropriate remuneration will make someone a police officer if they start out with the wrong values base. The reverse is more often true – we train and equip them to become far more dangerous to the civil population than they were beforehand, a situation we have seen many times across the world.

Nor does a military uniform make a police officer. The military has a role that is, and should remain, very different to that of police. An environment into which it is more appropriate to send soldiers to stabilise is no place for legitimate civil police as they, like any other mechanism of civil government, are nothing more than additional targets for enemy combatants. The military are deployed to these environments because their primary role is to engage enemy combatants and disrupt military or military-like (e.g., insurgency, warlordism, widespread internecine violence, etc.) operations to the point that civil mechanisms of government can again take back control and deliver effective civil governance.

In the case of the UN, there simply are not enough liberal democratic police available to be deployed to post-conflict peace operations. As a result of this, the UN is put in the difficult position where it must often accept contributing ‘police’ from nations that do not uphold the values of the UN. Quite often these nations contribute what are frequently referred to as ‘Formed Police Units’ (FPU). FPU are made up of military or paramilitary personnel ‘rebranded’ as police. If lucky, a country receives contributing FPU members made up of ‘benign’ groups such as postal workers; in a worse case scenario they could be something far more dangerous.

It is a mistake to think of the criminalised or militarised police I mentioned earlier as some sort of ‘rogue’ element in their country of origin; likewise, the FPUs that these same countries use domestically or deploy internationally. They perform the function their government expects of them and employs them to do. This is the reason complaints about their conduct go largely unaddressed. When deployed by the UN they will apply those same values to maintaining ‘order’ in the countries to which they are deployed. The root cause of observations about inappropriate UN peacekeeper behaviour is not that they are seen as ‘good guys’, but that they are seen as police when they are not.

Nowhere is this contrast between the military and liberal democratic police seen more clearly than in situations like the one we recently saw in Turkey. One of the first acts by the leaders of the coup was to target police headquarters because the police are the legitimate civil mechanism for maintaining order. It is therefore in the interest of a military coup to remove independent and impartial police from the picture, thus leaving the military as the only mechanism capable of enforcing any sort of order. It speaks volumes to the desire for the rule of law in Turkey that the civil population rose up in response to this military threat to civil governance. In places like Afghanistan where police are targeted for the same reasons, civil society is unable to exert the same influence. Impartial police are the natural enemy of any group that wants to remove civil governance.

Yesterday the Turnbull coalition announced plans to have the ADF, rather than Australian police, train paramilitary police in Iraq. Mr Turnbull was quoted as saying: ‘At the moment our training mandate is restricted to training the Iraqi army. And as we discussed, one of the most important objectives now in Iraq is to ensure that the Iraqi police forces, their gendarmerie forces, are able to maintain the peace in areas that have been liberated from Daesh or ISIL as the Iraqi security forces and counter-terrorism forces progress’ (David Wroe, ‘Australian troops to train Iraqi paramilitary police in expansion of role’, The Age 19 July 2016).

The ADF are a supremely professional and capable military, and operate internationally with ethical standards equal to the best in the world. They have an excellent reputation for training members of the military from other countries. The ADF are not, however, police. What Mr Turbull is suggesting is that the ADF assist in the building and training of what by any other name would be called FPUs. To put our military in a situation like this is ill advised at best, dangerous at worst. Australia should not be involved in any way in the training of paramilitary police. If the situation in Iraq is seen to require the use of a paramilitary approach to policing, then the situation calls for a military response and not police. In these circumstances it is entirely appropriate to have ADF personnel train the Iraqi military, but it is not yet a situation for the wearer of any uniform that suggests that wearer is ‘police’.

Australia, through the AFPs International Deployment Group, has contributed professional and impartial state and federal police to some of the most difficult and dangerous UN peacekeeping missions across the world. As one of the few countries that can contribute police of such a high standard we should ensure we exemplify the separation between policing and military that is such a critical foundation of the rule of law. IDG deployments are about reinforcing civil governance mechanisms. During one crisis in the Pacific region there was concern expressed by the Howard Government about media footage showing an ADF member, rather than a police officer, handcuffing someone. It is right for our Government to express such a concern when deployments are intended to substitute civil governance for military, not replace one military with another. Conversely it is very disturbing that our current government thinks this is acceptable given other views about security on the domestic front.

Australia must contribute appropriate training in appropriate circumstances. This means ADF members training military staff, and Australian police training other police. This differentiation is non-negotiable. It is not enough to suggest the AFP will advise the ADF in this regard. To quote the character William Adama in the television series Battlestar Galactica: ‘There’s a reason you separate military and the police. One fights the enemies of the state, the other serves and protects the people. When the military becomes both, then the enemies of the state tend to become the people’. The writers hit the nail on the head. Wise words, best heeded by our Government and their advisors.

On ordinary (and extraordinary) Australians

Welcome back Michael Leunig. So
sorry to learn of the serious knock. So
grateful that you – upheaved and altered – that you are
with us still. And for this ‘re-entry’ too
into ‘continuing madness and joy’:

Galarrwuy Yunupingu on leadership

Galarrwuy Yunupingu

Every now and then an essay is written that will probably be read for decades, an essay that risks the invitation to change the way whitefellas view the world and their place in it. This piece by Galarrwuy Yunupingu may be one of those.

One of the recurring themes that emerges throughout the essay is that of leadership. At one point, Dr Yunupingu describes an action of a great ancestor Ganbulapula:

This action was both stunning and brilliant, and it lifted people’s eyes from the mire of disorder, disagreement and bitter division. In that unprecedented throwing of the decorated log coffin, that unexpected shift into a new context, a new network of cultural meaning was created – a new future was believed in. The action generated the possibility of a future different from the past. Bitter division was healed by way of bold, confident leadership.

What a extraordinary description of what good leadership can be about! (Most of us, I suspect, are more familiar with management than we are real leadership.)

On the subject of political leadership, the author offers these timely words:

I live in the total knowledge that politics is a business that runs hot and cold every time a new office holder comes to Canberra (and Darwin), and they have to find some answers to what they can do in their time. Three years is such a short time, and politicians are under pressure to do something instead of biting their fingernails and having no solutions.

Aboriginal people need to understand that the government of the day will always seek to justify itself, protect itself and get its reputation straight. Its members will worry about their jobs and about saying things that will keep them in the good books with their electors, who are mainly white people. And those people will often have little good to say about Aboriginal people; when the voters do talk to their politicians they may want something from us or have some problem with us, because we are not like them. And this adds to the worry of politicians who are most of all concerned about whether they will be re-elected. That’s their first commitment. That’s the real situation. So the only way through it is for a politician to risk prestige with the voters to make the achievement, and to believe that an outcome can be good for all concerned.

This type of sacrifice from strength is the key to leadership. My father had to sacrifice much, too much, to reconcile his life with the ways of the modern world. But he did so. What Aboriginal people ask is that the modern world now makes the sacrifices necessary to give us a real future. To relax its grip on us. To let us breathe, to let us be free of the determined control exerted on us to make us like you. And you should take that a step further and recognise us for who we are, and not who you want us to be. Let us be who we are – Aboriginal people in a modern world – and be proud of us. Acknowledge that we have survived the worst that the past had thrown at us, and we are here with our songs, our ceremonies, our land, our language and our people – our full identity. What a gift this is that we can give you, if you choose to accept us in a meaningful way …

Kevin Rudd, like prime ministers before and after him, acknowledged my leadership and made promises to my people. Tony Abbott made the same promises and came and lived on my land at Gulkula, and from there he ran the government for five or six days. Both were decent and respectful men. All the prime ministers I have known have been friendly to me, but I mark them all hard. None of them has done what I asked, or delivered what they promised. I asked each one to be truthful and to honestly recognise the truth of history, and to reconcile that truth in a way that finds unity in the future. But they are who they are and they were not able or not permitted to complete their task. For a prime minister is beholden to his party and to the parliament, which in turn is held by the Australian people. And the Australian people seem to disapprove of my simple truths, or the idea of proper reconciliation. The Australian people do not wish to recognise me for who I am – with all that this brings – and it is the Australian people whom the politicians fear. The Australian people know that their success is built on the taking of the land, in making the country their own, which they did at the expense of so many languages and ceremonies and songlines – and people – now destroyed. They worry about what has been done for them and on their behalf, and they know that reconciliation requires much more than just words.

So the task remains: to reconcile with the truth, to find the unity and achieve the settlement. A prime minister must lead it and complete it. The leader of the nation should accept his or her commission and simply say what he or she thinks is right, and put that forward for the nation to correct, or to accept, or to reject. Let us have an honest answer from the Australian people to an honest question.

This vision, this challenge, this way of reading the world, does not emerge out of a vacuum. It is in every way non-novel, the fruit of millennia of song cycles which, as Yunupingu describes it, both tell of a person’s life and serve as ‘the universities of our people, where we hone and perfect our knowledge’. This seems to me to speak of not only the ways that our identities are grounded in story – that we are, in fact, storied peoples – but also of the fact that such stories are characterised by both the burdens and liberties of receiving, carrying, and then passing on traditions that are always dynamic and marked with the hope that makes life bearable. Whether or not our futures lay in the direction of our past, it seems that our futures can never be about an escape from the past. The best of our leaders, such as Yunupingu himself, get this. As he writes earlier on in the piece:

As a man reaches the final points in his journey it is then for others to do the singing. Others must take the lead, acknowledge him and guide him. If there is unfinished business it is no longer for that man to carry that business; others who have taken responsibility and who have taken leadership must then bear the burden of creation. The future is theirs, to be taken by them, crafted along the terms set by law as given to us by those that have come before. And failure will be theirs also, to own and bear witness to if they fail.

I have lived my song cycle and I have done what I can to translate the concepts of the Yolngu world into the reality of my life. I have endured much change and seen many different faces – I have watched both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal leaders move in and out. And of course I have mixed feelings when I reflect on my life’s work. I feel a deep sadness at times, yet I know that I have done much that is useful. I know that I have secured my family’s birthright – we will not drift off with the tide; we will stand and endure, and our names will pass down through the decades and the centuries. Yunupingu means “the rock that stands against time”, and so be it. But I think always of what has been lost around me against what endures. It is a form of torture for a Yolngu person to see the loss of our life: every word, every note, every slip in the song is pain; every patch of land taken; every time an outsider takes control from Yolngu; every time we compromise; and every time we lose something or someone. I tell my family to stand strong and endure, stay within the guidelines of our law, stay with the song cycles and be armed with this knowledge so as to secure for our people our lands, our way of life and our place in the world.

These are just some snippets of what really is a remarkable essay, the entirety of which you can read here.

Australia’s offshore detention system and the Journal of Medical Ethics

Offshore detentionJulian Burnside has drawn attention to four recently-published articles on Australia’s offshore detention system. They appeared in the Journal of Medical Ethics, and they contribute to a significant and growing body of academic literature on what is a far cry from being a merely academic subject:

ABSTRACT: Australian immigration detention has been identified as perpetuating ongoing human rights violations. Concern has been heightened by the assessment of clinicians involved and by the United Nations that this treatment may in fact constitute torture. We discuss the allegations of torture within immigration detention, and the reasons why healthcare providers have an ethical duty to report them. Finally, we will discuss the protective power of ratifying the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment as a means of providing transparency and ethical guidance.

ABSTRACT: Australian immigration detention centres are in secluded locations, some on offshore islands, and are subject to extreme secrecy, comparable with ‘black sites’ elsewhere. There are parallels between healthcare professionals working in immigration detention centres and healthcare professionals involved with or complicit in torture. In both cases, healthcare professionals are conflicted between a duty of care to improve the health of patients and the interests of the government. While this duality of interests has been recognised previously, the full implications for healthcare professionals working in immigration detention have not been addressed. The Australian Government maintains that immigration detention is needed for security checks, but the average duration of immigration detention has increased from 10 weeks to 14 months, and detainees are not informed of the progress of their application for refugee status. Long-term immigration detention causes major mental health problems, is illegal in international law and arguably fulfils the recognised definition of torture. It is generally accepted that healthcare professionals should not participate in or condone torture. Australian healthcare professionals thus face a major ethical dilemma: patients in immigration detention have pressing mental and physical health needs, but providing healthcare might support or represent complicity in a practice that is unethical. Individual healthcare professionals need to decide whether or not to work in immigration detention centres. If they do so, they need to decide for how long and to what extent restrictive contracts and gagging laws will constrain them from advocating for closing detention centres.

The compromised nature of healthcare has now been well documented along with the pervasive nature of dual agency (or dual loyalty) obligations, between that of patients, the immigration department and other contractors. This has only served to restrict and distort the nature of healthcare and limit clinicians in their roles with healthcare frequently subverted to other policy goals. Accountability is obscured and oversight is limited with arrangements that attempt to divest responsibility from the immigration department. At best clinicians are required to navigate ethically fraught terrain where they frequently have to compromise what may be ideal or even generally accepted treatment, at worst this promotes conduct that is clearly unethical. Along with the detention environment this all serves to curtail what benefits may usually be gained from treatment. These issues have played out in a more acute form in off-shore detention where there has been a number of examples of the immigration department intervening in medical transfers and treatment recommendations.

Sadly and justifiably, regardless of the final results of this past weekend’s federal election, those illegally detained in Australia’s offshore detention centres can expect nothing to change. We are being governed by xenophobic dragons with little regard either for the rule of law or for human decency.

Steve Biddulph on why Eddie McGuire should resign

Eddie McGuire

Meanwhile, over here in the colonies, there’s a much-welcome statement from Australian-based psychologist Steve Biddulph on why Eddie McGuire should resign:

In case you are in any doubt, I think he should resign too.

The pattern is important to understand if we are to end violence against women.

Caroline Wilson is a serious journalist, she made valid and important – but always reasoned – criticisms of Eddie McGuire’s performance as a manager of Collingwood. That’s her job.

A grown up would have two options – to address her arguments and make a case why she was wrong. Or to concede that she was right.

But instead of engaging as an equal and an adult, Mr McGuire seethed, and in a setting where he felt safe, among mates, and in the hearing of several million people, they joked about – essentially – killing her.

When shamed men can’t deal with the anxiety they feel, they choose to resolve it by imagined, or real, violence, and rally support from other men to make that okay.

This also happened with Alan Jones and our first woman PM Julia Gillard, and the infamous “chaff bag” threats. And as we see in the daily news – from Yorkshire to Orlando, there’s always some nutter willing to carry it out.

Token apology that is forced by circumstance isn’t the same as real change. You have to say – this is a character flaw.

Even if the victim wasn’t a woman, it’s still wrong.

Adults deal with conflict or disagreement with words, respectfully, and safely. Only mature adults should be in positions with this much power …

A few commenters, mostly men, are saying “it was just a joke”. Because they are presumably fathers, I want to explain this, as it makes a difference to your parenting. If you go back to my piece at the top, I am saying I don’t believe this was “just” a joke.

There was a context. He was genuinely threatened and angry at her criticism in her articles. It was on his mind.

It came out quite inappropriately at a charity dunking. It was a slip up, sure, but it showed his underlying anger, and his inability to deal with it in an adult way.

And it showed him appealing for emotional support to his mates. It was anger and threat leaking out through humour.

And as the Age pointed out today, she wasn’t there, so it can’t be banter. Banter is when people are sharing in put downs for fun, by mutual agreement. Humour is used to mask violence every single day. Rapists and abusers often say “get over it”.

It was window into the man’s heart. And that is a huge thing.

[Source]

Imagination, leadership, and the gift of a safe public commons

electionImagine going to an event, as I did last night, where political candidates for the upcoming federal election are asked about what kind of leader they aspire to be, about what kind of leadership might best meet the challenges that are facing our local, regional, and global communities and their moral and physical environments. Imagine imagining that you were expecting to hear names like Oodgeroo Noonuccal, Mary Robinson, Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi (who today celebrates her 71st birthday), Lowitja O’Donoghue, Desmond Tutu, Dag Hammarskjold, Jonathan Sacks, Rowan Williams, Fred Hollows, Eva Burrows, Muhammad Yunus, or Noel Pearson, and instead being told by one of those political aspirants that the best models of leadership today are those championed by Ronald Regan, David Cameron, and John Key. Tea, anyone?

I’m immensely grateful that there were some other – some more sagacious – voices present, a reminder that our parliament also has some good people serving in it and that many who aspire to serve in such a way are also of outstanding ilk, even if I disagree with them on some matters that we both agree are fundamental for the healthy flourishing of life.

I’m also encouraged that the event itself was hosted by two churches who believe that part of their service to the wider community is to create safe spaces where such conversations might occur. There can be no healthy society without a rigorous and safe public commons. It is, above all, the role of the constitution, the courts, and the parliament (including its organisations such as the Human Rights Commission) and not the church to ensure the existence of such spaces. But that need not preclude religious communities also making such space available.

‘Memo to J.C.’

BBQ, Australia Jesus by Reg Mombassa

When you were down here JC and walked this earth,
You were a pretty decent sort of bloke,
Although you never owned nothing, but the clothes on your back,
And you were always walking round, broke.
But you could talk to people, and you didn’t have to judge,
You didn’t mind helping the down and out
But these fellows preaching now in your Holy name,
Just what are they on about?
Didn’t you tell these fellows to do other things,
Besides all that preaching and praying?
Well, listen, JC, there’s things ought to be said,
And I might as well get on with the saying.
Didn’t you tell them ‘don’t judge your fellow man’
And ‘love ye one another’
And ‘not put your faith in worldly goods’.
Well, you should see the goods that they got, brother!
They got great big buildings and works of art,
And millions of dollars in real estate,
They got no time to care about human beings,
They forgot what you told ‘em, mate;
Things like, ‘Whatever ye do to the least of my brothers,
This ye do also unto me’.
Yeah, well these people who are using your good name,
They’re abusing it, JC,
But there’s people still living the way you lived,
And still copping the hypocrisy, racism and hate,
Getting crucified by the fat cats, too,
But they don’t call us religious, mate.
Tho’ we got the same basic values that you lived by,
Sharin’ and carin’ about each other,
And the bread and the wine that you passed around,
Well, we’re still doing that, brother.
Yeah, we share our food and drink and shelter,
Our grief, our happiness, our hopes and plans,
But they don’t call us ‘Followers of Jesus’,
They call us black fellas, man.
But if you’re still offering your hand in forgiveness
To the one who’s done wrong, and is sorry,
I reckon we’ll meet up later on,
And I got no cause to worry.
Just don’t seem right somehow that all the good you did,
That people preach, not practise, what you said,
I wonder, if it all died with you, that day on the cross,
And if it just never got raised from the dead.

– Maureen Watson, ‘Memo to J.C.’, in The Oxford Book of Australian Religious Verse, ed. Kevin Hart (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1994), 223–23.

[Image: Reg Mombassa, ‘BBQ’, from the Australian Jesus series]

Settler Colonialism and the Freedom of Religion

Here’s my brilliant colleague, Mark Brett, talking about settler colonialism, the freedom of religion, and the witness-invitation of Roger Williams:

 

Australia is going to hell

p1_nauruforweb

 

‘It is clear that the Turnbull Government’s policy [on asylum seekers], focused only on deterrence with no feasible pathway to permanent migration in a resettlement country is leaving people desperate and without hope’, said Richard Marles, the same guy who declared that ‘offshore processing has been the single most important policy that any Australian government has made’.

Something about pots and black kettles comes to mind. More significantly, however, such statements mark the tragic reality that it is very difficult to reach any other conclusion than that the moral decadence represented and fed by Australia’s two most supported political parties is a disgrace that can only end in hell, along with all who support such. For what is hell but ‘the suffering of being no longer able to love’ (Father Cosima). Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet?

[Image: The Saturday Paper]

Constitutions and Treaties: a conference and a call for papers

In September this year, Whitley College will be hosting a conference on the very timely and profoundly important theme of Constitutions and Treaties. Further details about speakers and a call for papers is below. For more information, contact Professor Mark Brett or Dr Asmi Wood:

Constitutions and Treaties.jpg

Prayers of a Secular World: a review

Prayers_FC_HR1Prayers of a Secular World. Edited by Jordie Albiston and Kevin Brophy; introduction by David Tacey. Carlton South: Inkerman & Blunt, 2015. 160pp, ISBN: 978-0-9875401-9-5.

Inkerman and Blunt recently published a new anthology of work, a relatively little book by an impressive range of some 80 mostly Antipodean poets, some very well known, others hardly at all. The collection, Prayers for a Secular World, was edited by Melbourne poets Jordie Albiston and Kevin Brophy, and is introduced, fittingly so, with a brief essay by David Tacey on the religious nature of secularism. The latter helps to orient the reader to some of the terrain they are about to enter.

In their call for submissions, the editors said that they were ‘looking for poems of wonder and celebration, poems that mark the cycle of the day – dawn, midday, evening, night – the seasons, the progression of planets, the evolution of weather; poems of becoming – first steps, first words, transitions, epiphanies and inspirations; poems of belief and of doubt, pleas for protection, poems of remembrance and blessing, of forgiveness and redemption, poems of gratitude’. Short of the sternest editorial policing, such an invitation almost guarantees, more than most edited collections I think, the kind of hotchpotch smorgasbord of aptitude evident in the volume’s final form. Still.

The book’s title – which echoes Donna Ward’s claim, in Australian Love Poems, that ‘poems are prayers of the secular world’ – appears, at first glance, to promote the somewhat late-Victorian idea that poets are the new priests. But the pages therein are marked by a welcome avoidance of such presumption, their words occupied with patterns of time and of place, of dying and of encountering the world anew, and with the sounds of landscapes mostly suburban, where the majority of its readers, no doubt, dwell and pass through. In a review published in The Australian, Geoff Page noted of the title: ‘They are certainly not be [sic] “prayers” in the intercessory sense but they are contemplative and very likely to widen and diversify the metaphysical sensibilities of all but the most hardened of fundamentalists ­– who, no doubt, already have their own (more limited) rewards in view’. This is a point worth repeating, especially perhaps for those uncomfortable, in Tacey’s words, with the notion that ‘the transcendent doesn’t happen elsewhere, apart from the world, but is a dimension of the world’. Still, the publisher’s description of the book as ‘a meditation on living in a post-religious world’ strikes me as very odd – odd not only as a sketch of the book’s content, but also odd in terms of its assessment of things. Observers of the cultural landscape of our day might well enquire what world exactly is being spoken of here.

There is, for many, the perennial temptation to will oneself into a kind of authenticity. Such efforts are an expression of a romanticism that either refuses or forgets to weave into the solidest realities a knowledge of its loss. The result is, as the poet Christian Wiman has observed, a ‘soft nostalgia’. There are here, happily, a good number of notable exceptions to what might otherwise be merely another unwelcome example of such, of groping disorientated by a handful of tamed Emersonian ghosts trying to iron out the highs and lows of life apparently naïve to the view that our being of dust does not equate to an uncritical defence of some pathetic form of natural theology. In this volume, poems by Chris Wallace-Crabbe, Andrew Lansdown, Fiona Wright, Robyn Rowland, Debi Hamilton, Ron Pretty, Anne Elvey, Michelle Cahill, and David Brooks, for example, serve this end particularly well. So do, I think, these two contributions:

‘Da Barri Barri Bullet Train’, by The Diwurruwurru Poetry Club with Mista Phillip

we bin get up with mista an habim gooda one feed
we bin jumpin da mudika
an millad bin go lunga bush
mimi an kukudi bin come too
an dey bin singim kujika
dey bin learnim us mob
for sing im kujika
we likim learn for sing us mob kujika
wen us mob bin lyin down in da darkes
darkest night I bin look da barri barri
e bin movin really really like da bullet train
I bin hold ma mimi really tight
da fire us mob bin make next ta millad mob
poking tongue like a big one king brown
an millad mob listen noise one side na water
must e bin da buffalo drinkin water
den us bin listen da croc bin snap da buffalo
da gnabia out there too
an he bin make us mob so frightn
but ma mimi bin sing out
hey you mob stop all da noise
ma mimi bin start to sing
da song na us mob country
sing in da old language
dem old people did sing
an make millad mob so shiny an strong
an I bin lyin da listen na mimi
I bin feel really really safe
den I musta bin go sleep

And

‘Eucalyptus Regnans’, by Meredi Ortega

for Brandi

that was some fiery trajectory you took, moving to Kinglake
to be among giants and clouds
I recall you dying once before
…….. .. run down at the crossing, going home for lunch

but you’re on Yea oval, among the nightied and discalceate
and you’re okay
road posts gone
all delineators and signs, the way forward and way back
…….. ..only black stags, ash deafening

one charred fence post
and your old weatherboard like a kind of gloating, it falls to you
…….. ..to be the lucky one
better to believe in regnans than luck, they have what it takes
martyrdom, lofty sentiments
…….. ..all crown and nimbus and resurrection

up on the mountain, no one knows if lyrebirds
are mimicking silence
…….. ..volunteers go into the wasteland, leave songs out
musk and fern and siltstone tunes

it rains and then some
…….. ..and the green is giddying
stags wash white, their millioned saplings serry
…….. ..knit roots, squeeze out the other then each other
ashes move up the escarpment and up
to the yellow-raddled cockatoo, yellow-eyed currawong, to the sun
and you are in the very dawn of things

Seeking hospitality in Melbourne

There is a Christian missionary family (of 5), including three young children, who are currently serving in Siberia with Pioneers. They will be returning to Melbourne on furlough for six months from 11 January, and they are looking for a place (min 2 bedrooms) to stay, preferably somewhere in either Melbourne’s North, East, or South (including Mornington Peninsula) which is where their main supporter base is. They would prefer to remain in the one place so that their kids could attend the one school.

If you or someone you know may be able to help, then please get in touch with me via the Contact page

If you’re a Facebooker, then please feel free to spread the word too.

‘Then I came by boat’

During Lent 2014, Tri Nguyen, a pastor of the Brunswick Baptist Church and one of my students at Whitley College, made a pilgrimage from his church in Melbourne to Parliament House in Canberra to deliver a gift to the Australian Parliament. The gift was a large model of the boat in which he and his father and sister fled Vietnam in 1982, the year they also arrived in Australia as refugees.

Now, Marleena Forward, a Melbourne-based filmmaker, has produced this short film of Tri’s inspiring, reconciling, and challenging journey – one considerably longer than that undertaken in 2014. The film won the Audience Award in the Australian Shorts section at the Human Rights Arts Film Festival. It’s called ‘Then I came by boat’:

Psalm 23 (Aboriginal Style)

Darby Ross Tjampitjinpa, Ngapa Manu Yankirri Jukurrpa (Water and Emu Dreaming), 1989.

Darby Ross Tjampitjinpa, Ngapa Manu Yankirri Jukurrpa (Water and Emu Dreaming), 1989.

I was delighted today to happen across this rendition of Psalm 23, by the Rev Ron Williams:

My big fella boss up in the sky is like the father emu.
He will always look after me and take me to green grass,
And lead me to where the water holes are full and fresh all the time.

He leads me away from the thick scrub
and helps me keep safe from the hunters, dingoes and eagles.
At night time when I’m very lonely and sad,
I will not be afraid, for my Father covers me with His feathers like a father emu.
His spear and shield will always protect me.

My big fella boss always gives me a good feed in the middle of my enemies.
In hot times he makes me sit down in a cool shade and rest.

He gives me plenty of love and care all of my life through.
Then I will live with my big fella boss like a father emu,
that cares for his chickens in good country full of peace and safety,

Forevermore and evermore.

(It reminded me a bit of the African Creed in Donovan’s Christianity Rediscovered.)

On losing your soul: Tim Winton’s speech at the Palm Sunday Walk

Tim WintonLast Sunday, my daughter and I marched, together with a reported 15,000, in Melbourne’s Palm Sunday Walk for Justice4Refugees. Many thousands of others across the country were doing likewise. For a number of reasons I won’t name here, it was at once emboldening and disheartening.

And over in Perth, Tim Winton offered a great speech. It bears reposting, both in its written and spoken forms:

 

Palm Sunday commemorates the day an itinerant prophet spoke truth to power. Jesus of Nazareth arrived at the gates of Jerusalem in a parody of imperial pomp. But he was a nobody. Instead of a stallion, he rode up on a borrowed donkey. In place of an army, he had a bunch of lily-livered misfits throwing down their cloaks and palm branches as if he was a big shot.  Street theatre, if you like. And a week later he was dead. He was there to challenge the commonsense of the day. Armed with only an idea.

Jesus used to say things like this. If a child asks you for bread, will you give him a stone? Awkward things like that.

His followers called his idea The Way. Many of us are here today because the idea has stuck. We try to follow the Way of Peace and Love. Just another bunch of lily-livered misfits.

For generations, in communities all over the globe, Palm Sunday has been a day when people walk for peace and reconciliation. And not just Christians. People of every faith and of no faith at all come together as we have today in solidarity. To express our communal values and yearnings, the things that bind us rather than those that separate us.

We belong to a prosperous country, a place where prosperity and good fortune have made us powerful. Yes, whether we feel it or not, we are exceptionally powerful as individuals and as a community. We have the power of safety. We’re richer, more mobile, with more choices than most of our fellow citizens worldwide. Not because we’re virtuous, but because we’re lucky. But we don’t come here to gloat. We’re here to reflect. To hold ourselves to account. We didn’t come here today to celebrate power or to hide in its privileged shadow. We’re here to speak for the powerless. We’re not here to praise the conventions of the day, but to examine them and expose them to the truth. We’re not here to reinforce the status quo. We gather to dissent from it. To register our dismay at it. We’re here to call a spade a spade, to declare that what has become political common sense in Australia over the past 15 years is actually nonsense. And not just harmless nonsense; it’s vicious, despicable nonsense. For something foul is festering in the heart of our community, something shameful and rotten.

It’s a secret we don’t want to acknowledge. We hide it from ourselves. At times, it seems we’re content to have others hide it from us and for us. But we hide this dark secret at great cost. To faceless strangers. To innocent people. To powerless children.  We hide this dirty secret at a terrible cost to ourselves as individuals and as a community.

What secret are we hiding? Well, it’s awkward, and kind of embarrassing. You see, we’re afraid. Terrified. This big, brash wealthy country. We have an irrational phobia. We’re afraid of strangers. Not rich strangers. No. The ones who frighten us out of our wits are the poor strangers. People displaced by war and persecution. We’re even scared of their traumatised children. And if they flee their war-torn countries in boats, well, then, they’re twice as threatening. They send us into wild-eyed conniptions. As if they’re armed invaders. But these people arrive with nothing but the sweat on their backs and a crying need for safe refuge. Yet, they terrify us. So great and so wild is our fear, we can no longer see them as people, as fellow humans. First, we criminalised them. Then, we turned them into faceless objects. Cattle. Well, maybe that’s not quite right. You see we’re sentimental about cattle. Especially cattle on boats. We have values, you see, standards of decency. We hate to see suffering. We’re moved to pity.

But for someone seeking asylum, someone arriving by boat, this special species of creature called a “boat person”, the pity isn’t there. Pity is forbidden. All the usual standards are overturned. Their legal right to seek asylum is denied. They’re vilified as “illegals”. And their suffering is denied. As if they’re not our brothers and sisters. Yes, we hate suffering. But apparently their kind of suffering is no longer legitimate. And therefore, it’s no longer our problem. Our moral and legal obligations to help them are null and void.

Since August 2001, Australians have gradually let themselves be convinced that asylum seekers have brought their suffering and persecution and homelessness and poverty on themselves. Our leaders have taught us we need to harden our hearts against them. And how obedient we’ve been, how compliant we are, this free-thinking, high-minded egalitarian people.

We’re afraid. But the government has made them go away. They have stopped the boats. And spirited the victims away. Now, we don’t have to see their suffering. In fact, we’re not allowed to see it. They’re out of sight, and out of mind. And here at home, all is well, all is calm again. For the past few years, as traumatised people have fled towards safety, towards what they believed was a civilised and compassionate haven, our national peace of mind has been built upon the hidden, silent suffering of others.

And that, my friends, is what our elected representatives have done. Using the military, using warships. Using spin and deception in Parliament. Shielding its deeds from media scrutiny.  With the collusion of our poorer neighbours, the client states of Nauru and PNG. The political slogans have ground their way into our hearts and minds. The mantras of fear have been internalised. We can sleep at night because these creatures are gone. It wasn’t enough to turn these people away. We had to make them disappear.

So. All is well. Nothing to be afraid of any more. Until we find other poor people to be afraid of. Folks who are here already. Australians who are poor and powerless and, therefore, somehow troublesome, embarrassing, even dangerous. Because that’s the thing. Once you start the cycle of fear, there’s always someone new and different to be afraid of, some new group to crack down on.

But will we ever sleep easy? I wonder. Because there’ll always be the creeping suspicion that some poor person could be white-anting our prosperity, our privilege, our Australian specialness. Or maybe we won’t sleep because, deep in the back of our heads, somewhere in our spirit, we’ll feel a flicker of shame, a twinge of conscience. Maybe I caught a glimpse of a child’s face behind the wire. For a second, I saw a resemblance. Could have been my kid, my grandkid, the little girl next door. Just a kid. A face behind the wire.

My friends, we weren’t always this scared. We used to be better than this. I remember because I was a young man when we opened our arms and hearts to tens of thousands of Vietnamese. Australians were poorer then, more awkward, less well travelled as a people. And yet, we took pity on suffering humans. No cages, no secret gulags. We had these people in our homes and hostels and halls and community centres. They became our neighbours, our schoolmates, our colleagues at work. I was proud of my country, then, proud of the man who made it happen, Malcolm Fraser, whose greatness shames those who’ve followed him in the job. Those were the days when a leader drew the people up and asked the best of them and despite their misgivings, Australians rose to the challenge. And I want to honour his memory today.

It breaks my heart to say it, but fear has turned us. In the past 15 years, it’s eaten into our public spirit and made a travesty of our most sacred values, the very things we thought we stood for as a society: our sense of decency, fairness, justice, compassion, openness. In our own time, we have seen what is plainly wrong, what is demonstrably immoral, celebrated as not simply pragmatic but right and fair. It’s no accident that both mainstream political parties have pursued asylum seeker policies based on cruelty and secrecy. First, pandering to irrational public fear and then at the mercy of it. Because these policies are popular. I don’t deny it. It hurts me to acknowledge it. But it’s a fact. A hard-hearted response to the suffering of others has calcified and  become the common sense of our day.

We used to be better than this. I still believe we’re better than this.

So what’s happened to this country? I’m confused. I read the news. But as events unfold, I don’t always recognise my own people. This still looks like the country I was brought up in but it doesn’t always feel like it. You think mining royalties have had a dip? Well, spare a thought for the Fair Go. Because that currency has taken a flogging. There’s a punitive spirit abroad, something closer to Victorian England than the modern, secular, egalitarian country I love.

In the days of Charles Dickens, child labour was acceptable, respectable. It was common sense. So was the routine degradation of impoverished women. Charity was punitive. Until Victorian reformers like Dickens exposed the common sense of his era as brutal nonsense, the suffering of children was inconsequential. The poor were human garbage. They were fuel. Victorian England extracted energy and sexual pleasure from the faceless bodies of the poor. When they became a nuisance, they were exported, “offshored”. In chains. Some of these faceless, degraded people were our ancestors. Mine was an unaccompanied minor, a little boy. A boy consigned to oblivion. A boy without a face. I’ve been thinking of him lately. Public events have made it unavoidable.

And yet from this brutish convention, this hellish common sense, we made something new here in this country, something better. Where Jack was as good as his master. We turned away from the callous feudalism of the Old World and made this place a haven for decency. We granted everyone a face. Some, to our shame, later than others.

The face is the window of the soul. It’s the means by which we make ourselves known. To those of us of religious faith, it’s the means by which we recognise the Divine spark in each other, the presence of God. To those who aren’t religious, it’s the way we apprehend the sacred dignity of the individual. We present ourselves to one another face-to-face, as equals. When you rob someone of their face, of their humanity, you render them an object.

In this country, a nation built upon people fleeing brutes and brutality for 200 years, we have a tradition of fairness and decency and openness of which we’re rightly proud. Whether we’re inspired by the Christian parable of the Good Samaritan, the universal dignity of humankind, or the sanctity of the individual, we’ve always thought it low and cowardly to avert our gaze from someone in trouble or need, to turn our face from them as though they did not exist. When I was a kid, there were a few salty names for people like that. You didn’t want to be called out as one of those. That’s where our tradition of mateship comes from. Not from closing ranks against the outsider, but from lifting someone else up, helping them out, resisting the cowardly urge to walk by. It distinguished this country from the feudalism and patronage of the Old World. When the first boat people arrived in the late ’70s, we looked into their traumatised faces on the TV and took pity despite our misgivings.

Now, of course, we don’t see faces. And that’s no accident. The government hides them from us. In case we feel the pity that’s only natural. Asylum seekers are rendered as objects, creatures, cargo, contraband, and criminals. And so, quite deliberately, the old common sense of human decency is supplanted by a new consensus. Built on hidden suffering, maintained by secrecy. Cordoned at every turn by institutional deception. This, my friends, is the new common sense. According to this new dispensation, Australia does not belong to the wider world. We’re nobody’s fool. We have no obligations to our fellow suffering humans. Unless it suits us. Because we are exceptional. And beyond reproach. It seems we are set to distinguish ourselves by our callousness, by our unwavering hardness of heart. We will not be lectured to by outsiders. Or, come to think of it, by insiders, either. Not about human rights, not about torture, not about the incarceration of children. We will bully critics and whistleblowers into silence. We will smear them. We will shirtfront them.

Which is to say that we live now as hostages to our lowest fears. But to assent to this newly manufactured common sense is to surrender things that are sacred: our human decency, our moral right, our self-respect, our inner peace. To passively assent to this is to set out together on a road that leads to horrors, a path from which we must turn back before we lose our way entirely.

To those in power who say they’re exiling and caging children for their own good, I say we’ve heard that nonsense before. So, don’t do it in my name.

To those who say they’re prolonging misery to save life, I say I’ve heard that nonsense before. You don’t speak for me; I don’t recognise your perverse accountancy.

To those in power who say the means will justify the end, I say I’ve heard that nonsense before. It’s the tyrant’s lie. Don’t you dare utter it in my name.

To those who say this matter is resolved, I say no. For pity’s sake, no. For the love of God, no. A settlement built on suffering will never be settled. An economy built on cruelty is a swindle. A sense of comfort built upon the crushed spirits of children is but a delusion that feeds ghosts and unleashes fresh terrors.

If current refugee policy is common sense, then I refuse to accept it. I dissent. And many of my countrymen and women dissent alongside me. I don’t pretend to have a geopolitical answer to the worldwide problem of asylum seekers. Fifty million people are currently displaced by war and famine and persecution. I don’t envy those who make the decisions in these matters, those who’ve sought and gained the power to make decisions in this matter. I’m no expert, no politician. But I know when something’s wrong. And what my country is doing is wrong.

Prime Minister, forget the boats for a moment. Turn back your heart. Turn back from this path to brutality. Turn back from piling trauma upon the traumatised. Because it shames us. It grinds innocent people to despair and self-harm and suicide. It ruins the lives of children. Give these people back their faces, their humanity. Don’t avert your gaze and don’t hide them from us.

Because the secret won’t hold. It’s out already. There are witnesses. There will be testimony. We will remember. In another time, and very soon, I think, our common sense will be nonsense. And you’ll have to ask yourself, was it worth it? This false piece of mind, this stopping of the boats. Was it worth the price paid in human suffering? You’re not alone; the rest of us will have to face it, too.

Jesus said: “What shall it profit a man to gain the whole world only to lose his soul?” And I wonder: What does it profit a people to do likewise, to shun the weak and punish the oppressed, to cage children, and make criminals out of refugees? What about our soul as a people?

We’re losing our way. We have hardened our hearts. I fear we have devalued the currency of mercy. Children have asked for bread and we gave them stones. So turn back. I beg you.  For the children’s sake. For the sake of this nation’s spirit. Raise us back up to our best selves. Turn back while there’s still time.

[Image: Marziya Mohammedali]

Surely there is room …

Van Gogh - The Good Samaritan. After Delacroix 1890

New Zealand songwriter Malcolm Gordon, no stranger to this blog, has been at it again. This time, as he tells it, he has been

churned up by what is happening in Australia with the asylum seekers. Some of the friends we met and made in Adelaide last year have been protesting in MP’s offices and been arrested as a result. It’s a justifiably upsetting situation.

This song is one result of that churning:

In these wide open spaces
This land needs tilling
But there’s rumours of war
There’s whispering of killing
Over mountain and flood and over the plain
This dark cloud reigns.

Put my hand to the plough
There’s no turning home
For this stirring within
Won’t leave me alone
And alone is one thing that you’ll never be
There is no ‘them’, there is only ‘we’.

Surely there is room for one more
Love make a way
How many saviours, unseen and displaced here
Will we leave out in the rain?

The weight of these times
Is measured in tears
The risk of this love
Is death to our fears
Give our voice for the groaning
Of children in chains
Forever there’s hope wherever there’s pain.

Surely there is room for one more
Love make a way
How many saviours, unseen and displaced here
Will we leave out in the rain?

Surely there is room for one more
Love make a way
Picture what we could be
A generous family
Where welcoming arms hold open the door.

In these wide open spaces
The wind blows alone
And the streets are just valleys that wander and roam
There is room for the pilgrim to lay down their load
And build a home.