Asylum seekers: where is the leadership?

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Peter Whiting

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Anna Burke at SPC Forum 19 August 2014

According to Anna Burke, Labor MP for Chisholm in Melbourne, most politicians are not leaders but followers in the asylum seeker debate.

An outspoken critic of current Labor and Liberal policies, Anna was speaking on
19 August at the SPC forum on Refugees: What can we do better? The implication of her statement is that MPs remain silent or muted because they do not receive enough support from their constituents in opposing Australia’s terrible treatment of refugees arriving by boat.

The same is clearly not true for Alastair Nicholson, former Chief Justice of the Family Court and currently Chairman of Children’s Rights International. He was unabashed in a Lateline interview on 18 August when he described the government’s policies as ‘offensive’, ‘outrageous’, and ‘indescribably bad’. He lamented government actions shrouded in secrecy, and regards this as dangerous for democracy.

He is certainly not alone. The Australian churches are united in decrying government policies, with the report by the Australian Churches Refugee Taskforce, Protecting the Lonely Children, declaring the indefinite detention of children as cruel, and offshore processing as inflicting lifelong harm. The President of the Human Rights Commission, Gillian Triggs, was also strongly critical of the policy of offshoring refugees, observing that conditions are worsening and many of the children are ill and self-harming.

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Parliament House Canberra

For those refugees arriving by other means, the Refugee Council of Australia, the national umbrella body for refugees and the organisations and individuals who support them, stated that it was appalled by a new level of government obfuscation. It claims that the government was pretending to be magnanimous by suggesting Iraqi Christians and Yazidis could apply for Special Humanitarian Program places, when the irrefutable truth was that the Government had recently cut the Refugee and Humanitarian Program by more than 30 percent.

There seems to be no shortage of critics outside government, but regrettably within the political process, a bi-partisan effort to adopt humane policies is proving elusive. Many of our federal politicians are not willing to risk their reelection by taking a principled position on asylum seekers. There is little political leadership on this issue, with many politicians simply giving in to populist community attitudes.

At the SPC discussion night on 22 August on Pope Francis as a leader for the 21st Century, several ecumenical speakers spoke of his capacity to demonstrate leadership in actions that were symbolic as well as effective. Others spoke of the sense of hope he generates in his messages. In a recent Forbes magazine, a contributor analysing the Pope’s leadership style included several fundamentals. One caught my attention: ‘Power should amplify your good character, not dilute it’.

In this sad debate about the treatment of refugees arriving by boat, seldom have I seen our political leaders carrying a message of hope. Nor have I discerned much evidence of power amplifying good character. Indeed, we are treated to the reverse. Our leaders, who are not ‘bad’ people, nonetheless espouse bad policy because they believe that is what the electorate wants.

So where does this leave the debate? It means that we personally have to show leadership in our own communities. As David Leary commented in his response to Anna Burke’s address, we need not only to support those speaking out, but also to become engaged in the conversation, to be informed and ready to challenge prevailing attitudes.

It means more than writing to your local member, useful as that action is. We need to become leaders and advocates in our own circles, and to set about working on that ‘fear of the other’ that is fuelling negative attitudes towards asylum seekers arriving by boat. I confess I find the conclusion somewhat confronting, but that doesn’t diminish its relevance.

 

 

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