Australians have a history of sticking up for the underdog and reminding authority of the importance of giving others a fair go. It is a thread woven deeply through our mythic history from the Eureka Stockade, stories of the Kelly gang, world wars, international sporting events, fire and flood. Australians back those held down and written off by hierarchies.
Candlelight vigils, full-page newspaper advertisements and the national March in March protests remind us that this tradition is not dead.
This month almost 400 West Australians put their names to a petition urging the Federal Government to give asylum seekers a fairer hearing.
The full-page advertisement, headlined Not In Our Name, articulated disquiet about the Australian Government’s treatment of asylum seekers, particularly in offshore detention centres. It set off a fiery exchange of views in The West Australian’s letters pages and the organisers say they have been inundated with messages of support.
We are a generous lot. Australians are down-to-earth and believe passionately in equality, in helping each other out when things get grim. We might not be perfect and sometimes we struggle to express ourselves.
But there is growing unease from community leaders, those who have made a significant contribution to public life and the grassroots that our political leaders are reducing complex global issues to three-word slogans crafted to create fear and loathing at the expense of the compassion and courage many believe is an integral part of what it is to be Australian.
Not In Our Name deplored the incarceration of asylum seekers “without proper arrangements for their care assessment and resettlement” and raised the spectre of Reza Barati, the Kurdish Iranian asylum seeker killed “in our custody” at the Manus Island detention centre last month.
“These actions should not have taken place in our nation,” the petition said.
“And though they have been enacted by a democratically elected government, we reject them and declare that they were done not in our name.”
The list of 387 signatories included arts patron and businesswoman Janet Holmes a Court, former Anglican archbishop of Perth Peter Carnley, public health advocate Fiona Stanley, members of the Chaney family, who have a long association with the Liberal Party, and Labor’s Melissa Parke, the Federal member for Fremantle.
The petition objected to the “framing of the refugee issue as primarily relating to Australian sovereignty, rather than as a worldwide tragedy demanding a compassionate and global response”.
The petitioners echoed the bewilderment of Paul Power, chief executive of the Refugee Council of Australia, who has questioned Australia’s lack of international perspective.
Australian leaders of all political persuasions have been fanning fear about 25,000 asylum seeker boat arrivals a year in the context of international disasters such as Syria where millions are displaced — including 1.2 million children — and have fled to neighbouring countries.
Angela Chaney, refugee advocate and wife of former Liberal senator Fred Chaney, says she has had private conversations with former senior conservative politicians who are deeply uncomfortable about the way the Federal Government is enacting its Stop the Boats policy.
One told her that he could see why the Federal Government felt it needed to stop people smugglers but he could not condone the way it was being done.
“He’s an 87-year-old conservative and he hates it, too,” Mrs Chaney says.
“They have stopped the boats. But at what cost? It’s unconscionable. This Government and the previous government are dealing with this in ways that I just can’t stomach. I think it’s wrong.”
University of Western Australia Professor Andrew Whitehouse says he signed the petition because any one of us could be throwing ourselves on the mercy of another country. “We are some of the most fortunate, prosperous people in the world,” Professor Whitehouse says.
“All Australians have to understand that our own great fortune is due to no other reason than the plain, dumb luck of being born in this country. Why would the luckiest people turn their back on some of the unluckiest?”
Arts patron Bridget Faye said Australians who opposed offshore processing had lost their voice.
“We have to stop being silent,” Mrs Faye says. Curtin University academic at the Curtin University Centre for Human Rights Education Lisa Hartley says there is a groundswell of opposition to the Federal Government’s policies and Barati’s death on Manus Island has prompted people to act.
“A couple of months ago I felt quite depressed about the public mood on this but when tragic things happen, like the death of Reza Barati, I think it acts as a catalyst for people in the community, ” Dr Hartley says.
“It made people want to express their opposition because it was so tragic and so avoidable.”
Dr Hartley’s colleague Caroline Fleay says the situation of asylum seekers already living in the community without the right to work is particularly dehumanising.
Former State Labor MP and refugee advocate Judyth Watson says she has never met a refugee who did not want to work.
“They really want to contribute in the best way that they can — not only for themselves and their families — but for Australia,” Dr Watson says.
If, as Mrs Chaney says, the petitioners could easily have collected many more signatures, they may have captured a groundswell of opposition across the political spectrum of those tired of being locked out of the asylum-seeker conversation, or worse, having their silence interpreted as consent.
It may be that events of the past month demonstrate that many Australians have had enough of political masters carelessly dispensing with values that are central to the Australian ethos.