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Memories of Reluctant Advocacy : Asylum Seekers

It was about fifteen ago I attended a fundraising quiz night for an asylum seeker advocacy group at Trades Hall, following a report on the detention centre in Woomera [1]. The quiz night raised a few hundred dollars from the assorted (mainly) student activists. However a couple of days prior to the event I had been doing some additional work; I was able to announce pledges from state Labor MPs for over two thousand dollars.

The money raised was to assist in the costs for a busload of protesters to the the Woomera Detention Centre in the middle of the South Australian desert [2]. It was a hot and horrible place, and we were kept a few hundred meters from the centre itself for obviously reasons. Detainees came out to express their support for our presence and, after the media left, were attacked with water cannon at close range.

Shortly after that, as the Tampa affair shocked Australia as we boarded as Norwegian merchant vessel with special forces troops, I started the group 'Labor for Refugees' with the policies of ending mandatory detention for those seeking refugee status and the issuing of Temporary Protection Visas [3]. For the better part of four years I was the convener of the organisation, and watched it become the largest multi-state and cross-factional group within the ALP. We were not afraid of showing some unusual bipartisan support, either [4].

I remember speaking on refugees and the war in Iraq in 2005 [5]. By that stage we had successfully argued our case at every State Conference across the country. In 2006 I stepped down as convener of Labor for Refugees at their AGM; after years of lobbying the new Federal opposition spokesperson, Tony Burke announced that an incoming Labor government would end temporary protection visas and mandatory detention. Two years later that became a reality [6]; our policy objectives had been fulfilled.

It was wrong of me to even countenance that this high point in policy would remain. As many sought asylum in Australia our liberal policies resulted in numerous deaths at sea, whilst others simply expressing xenophobia sought to 'stop the boats' by sending asylum seekers "elsewhere" to die. When the parliamentary Labor Party attempted to introduce offshore detention of asylum seekers in 2011, a flagrant attempt to bypass the National Conference, I took the Prime Minister through the party's own disputes process [6]. The following year later I authored the submission of the Isocracy Network to the Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers ("the Houston Report") [7].

At the 2015 Isocracy AGM [8], Professor Damien Kingsbury, outlined a plan for an elaboration from new ALP policy on how to improve the lot of asylum seekers which included regional processing and reducing the cause of asylum seekers in the first place. It is a plan which I made some small contributions to. Over time it is hoped that we can make this part of the ALP platform and eventually achieve bipartisan support. It will make a difference.

I admit that I am a reluctant advocate for asylum seekers. Reluctant in the since that I rather wish that it wasn't an issue that I have to worry about it. I can even understand those who argue against asylum seeker arrivals when, deep-down, they are actually wishing that the problem didn't exist at all (climate change deniers are in a similar category).

But can one really turn a blind eye to the reality of fellow human beings in suffering, danger, and fear? Especially if it is in the power of one to do something about it? The sense of justice overwhelms the reluctance. Even if it takes another fifteen years.


[1] ABC The Inside Story, August 13, 2001

[2] Refugee Action Collective, "Woomera Bus Trip" 21-23 Sept 2001"

[3] Labor for Refugees,

[4] Labor group backs proposed detention changes

[5] Labor for Refugees and the War in Iraq, March 18, 2005

[5] A Proud Day for 'Labor for Refugees', July 31st, 2008

[6] Melbourne man lodges Gillard grievance with ALP

[7] Submission to the Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers, July 20, 2012
See also:

[8] Isocracy Annual General Meeting, October, 2015

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