Monday, December 30, 2013

Discussion paper on inequality

Australia21 today released a discussion paper that has been prepared for a high level roundtable being held in late January on "What to do about Inequality in Australia? The paper was prepared for Australia21 by Professor Sharon Friel, Professor of Health Equity, National Centre for
Epidemiology and Population Health at the Australian National University and Dr Richard Denniss, Executive Director of The Australia Institute. It is available for free download here.

Please remember that as a small non-profit research organisation Australia21 is dependent upon donations from the public to fund its work. If you would like to make a donation, you can do so by visiting our website at Donations of $2 and over are tax deductible.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Sir William Deane on asylum seekers

On 17 December 2013, in a Senate Committee Room in Parliament House, Canberra former Governor-General Sir William Deane AC launched a collection of essays entitled Refugees and asylum seekers: Finding a better way. This collection, edited by Bob Douglas and Jo Wodak, marked the completion of the first phase of an Australia21 project designed to contribute to the development of a process for dealing with asylum seekers which is fairer and more humane than the one we have been using in Australia in recent years.

Below is a transcript of Sir William’s remarks at the launch, which is published with his permission.


Paul Barratt’s acknowledgment of the traditional custodians, in which I respectfully join, serves to remind us that, apart from Indigenous Australians, we are all migrants or descended from migrants. And that many of us were asylum seekers or are descended from asylum seekers.

My own Great Grandfather came to Australia, with his wife and young family, including my Grandfather who was 7, from Tipperary in 1851 on a wooden sailing ship called the Harry Lorrequer. They sought asylum on this side of the world from the devastation of the Great Famine. After disembarking in Melbourne and time on the goldfields at Ballarat, my Great Grandfather took his family to Wahring near Nagambie in rural Victoria where he became the legal owner of land taken, without compensation, from the Taungurung people. That land provided the basis of his and his family’s subsequent well being.

The first point which I wish to make through that brief reference to a rather typical Australian family history is that we Australians should have understanding and compassion for the actions of those who subject themselves and their families to serious risk of disaster at sea to escape from violence or terror or unbearable hardship and seek asylum in a new country which they dream of making their homeland. We will never know precisely how many of the wooden sailing ships bearing asylum seekers from Europe to Australia in the Nineteenth Century didn’t make it or how many men, women and children died through the awful sicknesses and conditions on the way. The Harry Lorrequer did make it. But parts of the journey were so stormy that some were washed overboard on the way (see footnote (1)) and the youngest of my Great Grandfather’s children, Martin, died as a result of the sicknesses which threatened all on board. Perhaps some would criticise all those early Australians and present would-be Australians for subjecting themselves and their families to such awful risks. Most of us would, however, see them as bravely seeking a better life for themselves and their families in circumstances where they saw or see no really worthwhile alternative.

The other point is that, from the earliest days of European arrivals and constantly thereafter, our country and its people, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, have faced extraordinary and at times seemingly overwhelming challenges and problems. The challenge which we, as a nation, face in relation to refugees and other asylum seekers who arrive, or attempt to arrive, by boat is a very difficult one. But it is not the most difficult which has confronted our nation. And while it seems to me that there are no obvious complete answers or solutions, I believe that we are, as a nation, capable of dealing with it with both justice and decency. In that regard, it is well to remember that other countries are facing much greater challenges as regards refugees than we are. For example, as the violent crisis in Syria enters its third winter, Lebanon, with a considerably smaller population than ours, is currently engulfed by more than 800,000 refugees.

The book which we are gathered to launch - Refugees and Asylum Seekers: Finding a Better Way - demands the attention and careful consideration of any Australian who is concerned with that challenge. Its contents are of immeasurable national value and importance as a basis of understanding, of discussion, of planning and of hope. The authors of the essays are outstanding Australians with extraordinary expertise and profound practical and theoretical experience in the field. They identify what they see as current problems, difficulties and shortcomings. And suggest what they see as possible lines of investigation, discussion and solution. As the editors explain in their thoughtful Preface, the objective of Australia21 in initiating and publishing the book has been to provide the foundation for the convening of a roundtable of stakeholders and decision-makers next year to examine the feasibility of a fresh new bi-partisan approach.

It is only a couple of weeks since the world’s most respected authority on Refugees, the United Nations High Commission, delivered its assessments of our Detention Camps - officially called “Regional Processing Centres” – on Nauru and Manus Island. There is close correspondence between the published findings in relation to each place. As regards the Nauru Centre, which has been established or re-established for more than a year, the United Nations Refugee Agency found that “the current policies, conditions and operational approaches … do not comply with international standards”, “constitute arbitrary and mandatory detention under international law”, “do not provide a fair, efficient, and expeditious system for assessing refugee claims” and “do not provide safe and humane conditions of treatment in detention”. As regards the children who are in our nation’s care and detained on Nauru, the Agency found “the harsh and unsuitable environment ... is particularly inappropriate for the care and support of child asylum seekers” and that “children do not have access to adequate educational and recreational facilities”. Finally, and relevant to the description of the Nauru Detention Centre as a “Regional Processing Centre”, the Agency found that “only one claim for refugee status [had, at the time of inspection,] been finally determined and handed down in the 14-month period since the transfer of asylum seekers to Nauru commenced in September 2012”.

Hopefully, our government and other relevant authorities will, in due course, properly respond to the UN Refugee Agency’s criticisms. But, pending such a response, one cannot but fear that at least some of the findings, particularly those relating to children held in detention and unsatisfactory processing, are justified. If they are, the United Nations Reports diminish our country’s hard won and long justified international reputation as an upholder of human rights and dignity. More important, they give rise to questions relating to our decency and sense of fairness and justice as a community and as individuals which we cannot properly ignore.

In that context, the publication of this book and Australia21’s call for open discussion and dialogue and a search for national consensus about a new and better way come at a particularly apposite time. I sincerely hope that all concerned, particularly the legislators and the decision makers in government and the administrators in the field, will welcome that call and fully participate in any ensuing discussions and exchanges. And that at every stage of such discussions there will be a conscious awareness of the fact that the lives, the wellbeing and the futures of extraordinarily vulnerable human beings, including children, are involved.

Let me conclude by congratulating and thanking all who have contributed to the initiation, writing and publication of this book – authors, editors, publishers and the members of Australia21. I join you all in wishing it every success.

Refugees and Asylum Seekers: Finding a Better Way is formally launched.

(1) In my oral comments at the launch I said: “45 passengers and 7 sailors were washed overboard”. Those numbers were drawn from an unpublished family history. Since then, I have become aware that a contemporary source (The Melbourne Argus of 15 March 1851) states: “35 deaths occurred during the Passage” (WD).


For more information about this publication and how to obtain a copy see Refugees and asylum seekers: finding a better way.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Refugees and asylum seekers: finding a better way

On 17 December 2013, in a Senate Committee Room in Parliament House, Canberra former Governor-General Sir William Deane launched a collection of essays entitled Refugees and asylum seekers: Finding a better way. This collection, edited by Bob Douglas and Jo Wodak, marked the completion of the first phase of an Australia21 project designed to contribute to the development of a process for dealing with asylum seekers which is fairer and more humane than the one we have been using in Australia in recent years.

The essays in this volume are in response to an invitation by Australia21 to people who have been actively engaged in various aspects of asylum-seeker policy to take a fresh look at the current dilemma in its global, regional as well as national contexts, and suggest ways in which the Australian community might respond more humanely, more sustainably and more responsibly to it.

Contributions were sought from a wide range of Australians – legal experts, ex-public servants and advisers, international and local agency representatives, ethicists, church representatives, academics and researchers, concerned members of the public and refugees.

In soliciting these contributions Australia21 did not prescribe any particular opinion or critique. It is striking, however, that not one of the contributors expresses support for either the Labor or the Coalition Government’s position on and treatment of asylum seekers or their response to and representation of the problem of asylum-seeking boats arrivals. Instead, there is a striking uniformity of view that current policies are inhumane, uneconomic and unjustified in terms of international, national and social obligations, and that core values of fairness and compassion have been sacrificed for political expediency. In the process there has been a demonisation of asylum seekers arriving by boat as opportunistic queue jumpers.

Contributors to this volume are:
-    Ms Widyan Al Ubudy, Iraqi Australian Project Coordinator for the NSW Community Relations Commission, who was born in a refugee camp in Saudi Arabia
-    Professor Jane McAdam, Scientia Professor of Law and Foundation Director of the Andrew & Renata Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law at the University of New South Wales
-    John Menadue AO, former Secretary, Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet and Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs
-    ADM (Retd.) Chris Barrie AC, former Chief of the Defence Force
-    Trevor Boucher AO, former Commissioner of Taxation and Ambassador to the OECD
-    Paul Barratt AO, Chair of Australia21 and former Secretary, Department of Defence
-    Tony Kevin, former Ambassador to Poland and Cambodia, and author of two books addressing Australia’s asylum-seeker safety-of-life-at-sea record
-    Professor Emeritus Gillian Triggs, President of the Australian Human Rights Commission; former Dean of the Faculty of Law and Challis Professor of International Law at the University of Sydney
-    David Maxwell Gray, member of the Board of Social Justice of the Western Australian Uniting Church
-    Erika Feller, former Assistant High Commissioner for Protection with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees
-    Professor Louise Newman AM, Professor of Developmental Psychiatry and Director of the Monash University Centre for Developmental Psychiatry and Psychology
-    Dr Simon Longstaff AO, Executive Director, St James Ethics Centre
-    Julian Burnside AO QC, Melbourne barrister who has acted pro-bono in many human rights cases, in particular concerning the treatment of refugees
-    Mick Palmer AO APM, former career police officer and barrister at law, who served as Commissioner of Police with the Northern Territory Police and the Australian Federal Police
-    Anne Kilcullen, infant wartime evacuee from Cairns, who organised doorknock collectors in a Brisbane suburb for the first World Refugee Year in 1959/60
-    Paul Power, Chief Executive Officer of the Refugee Council of Australia since 2006
-    Frank Brennan AO, Jesuit priest, Professor of law at Australian Catholic University and Adjunct Professor at the Australian National University College of Law and National Centre for Indigenous Studies
-    Professor Desmond Manderson, Future Fellow in the ANU College of Law and the Research School of Humanities and the Arts, Australian National University
-    Arnold Zable, writer, novelist, educator and human rights advocate; author of CafĂ© Scheherazade, Scraps of Heaven and The Sea of Many Returns
-    Professor Kim Rubenstein, Director of the Centre for International and Public Law at the Australian National University, and Jacqueline Field, who has been working with Professor Rubinstein on the Australian Research Council project Small Mercies, Big Futures.
-    David Corlett, writer and researcher who has worked on refugee and asylum seeker issues for about two decades; host of SBS Television’s Go Back to Where You Came From
-    Arja Keski-Nummi PSM, Fellow with the Centre for Policy Development in Sydney; former Head of the Division of Refugee, International and Humanitarian Division, Department of Immigration and Citizenship
-    John Hewson AM, economist and company director and former federal leader of the Liberal Party of Australia
-    Besmellah Rezaee, solicitor with a strong background in humanitarian work; former refugee from Afghanistan.

The complete publication can be downloaded as a PDF file at no charge from the Australia21 website  here.

If you would like to buy a hard copy for $25 including postage you may do so from here.

Please remember that Australia21 is dependent upon public donations to continue its work. If you would like to make a donation you can do so by visiting the Australia21 website at