Dark times

This is to let you know that I have arrived safely in Australia and am being detained in immigration detention. I am currently unable to telephone or write a letter to you but as soon as I can I will be in touch. I am in good health and being looked after. Return faxes will not be accepted.

– Standard fax and only communication allowed to asylum seekers on arriving in detention.


ONE OF THE pluses of living through dark times is that people get angry; they are stirred to put pen to paper, begin email campaigns, to get out on the streets. They write books. They try to make change. Thankfully we live in a country in which those forms of protest are possible and the punishments and sanctions for citizens who rebel are relatively subtle.

But when the dark times seem to be over – when, as now, the Rudd Government has ameliorated or abolished the worst features of the asylum seeker system initiated in 1991 by the Keating government and made more terrible by the Howard government – there is a tendency to forget, to say ‘oh well, that's all over, back to the beach'. Unaccustomed to oppression, Australians tend to lose vigilance very quickly. We prefer to think that Tampa and its aftermath were mere glitches in our generally sunny democracy.

Let's not fool ourselves. Australia's refugee regime was a very dark time indeed and there are lessons to learn. One is that resistance and protest can work. When the Tampa sailed into Australian waters, over 85 per cent of Australians agreed with the government's refusal to allow the asylum seekers it rescued to land. Seven years later, there has been no magical turnaround, no heartfelt embrace of the men and women who made it onto these shores and threw themselves on our mercy. But the size of the opposition increased dramatically and it was well organised, varied, vocal – and hugely influential for change.

It's hard to pinpoint exactly what brought about change. Was it the few brave journalists, writers and musicians urging us to feel, to think differently? The activists and demonstrators? The far left pushing a middle-class agenda? Or was it really the rebel rump of the Liberal Party which eventually forced the prime minister's hand? They all combined in a mysterious alchemic way to alter the national consciousness.

A recent spate of books explains some of the mystery and the key players and factors. These books will be excellent material for future academics and historians, and stand up in their own right as well. The books are very different, their variety a sign of how complex this subject has become, touching as it does on law and jurisprudence, bureaucracy, and ideas about ourselves and who counts in this society. They are the ‘second wave' of recent refugee literature. During the first wave, David Marr and Marian Wilkinson wrote their brilliant Dark Victory (Allen & Unwin, 2004) and former diplomat Tony Kevin tried to bring the tragedy of theSIEV X to attention with A Certain Maritime Incident (Scribe, 2004). Books by Peter Mares, Julian Burnside, Eva Sallis, Mary Crock and Linda Jaivin, a couple of terrific plays and some pretty awful CDs all added to the debate.


IN THIS POST-HOWARD wave, four good books have emerged – two on the individual stories of asylum seekers, one on the various activist groups who formed the ‘resistance', and one on the testimonies of the survivors of the detention system. Together, they illustrate a complex and terrifying picture; they begin to join the dots

Margot O'Neill's Blind Conscience (UNSW Press, 2008) traces the trajectory of the very different but interconnecting groups in the asylum seeker movement. After a gripping account of how the rebel Liberals first decided that ‘enough was enough', she follows some key figures in the movement – from psychiatrist Louise Newman to long-time street campaigner Ian Rintoul.

O'Neill also talks about Rural Australians for Refugees (RAR). I was one of the women who began RAR. We named it out of wild hope; at the time there were only three of us. We lived outside a capital city – where all the bleeding heart activists were supposed to live. We acted on a hunch – that this issue went beyond city/country divides and the usual party politics. The first proper planning meeting of seven or eight people in someone's home included Labor and Green supporters, and a woman from the National Party. That's when I thought we were on to something. I knew we were when five hundred people turned up to the first public meeting in conservative Bowral just before the 2001 election.

And the next day I was certain. We had made sure we had good publicity and that morning emails started flooding in from towns all over the country: ‘Thank God you're here'; ‘How can I join?'; ‘I thought I was the only one in my town who felt this way – how can I find others?; ‘What can I do out here in Girilambone?'

For the next couple of years there were more than ninety active RAR groups throughout the country. The city activists loved us. We were living proof that the pro-asylum seeker movement could reach beyond a tiny minority.

O'Neill was one of many journalists who were initially sceptical of the activists. Surely their claims were mostly exaggeration and hysteria. The shocking stories told by advocates made emotional by what they had heard and witnessed were simply not believed. Kate Durham, artist and wife of Julian Burnside, told O'Neill that a newspaper editor later admitted that he'd torn up her letters as they came in. He thought she was a nuisance, a nutter.

The media was so mute, so tame for a couple of years partly because of the unhappy alignment with September 11, and the pervasive shock and hysteria in its aftermath. The government's media management – including the initial success of the ‘children overboard' lie and the sensational reports of riots and lip sewing – combined to create a virtually impassable barrier against good journalism.

For O'Neill, the sheer amount and patent truthfulness of what she was seeing and hearing caused a reassessment. For the editor of The Daily Telegraph, David Penberthy, it was the gentle and genteel Ngareta Rossel who, instead of immediately denouncing his sneering article describing detention centres as luxury hotels, waited four months for tempers to cool and then persuaded him to come with her to visit Villawood Detention Centre in Sydney's west. Penberthy, to his credit, then wrote a series of very different articles. It was a real turning point. Middle Australia was beginning to think again.

I remember talking to Linda Briskman in a small room at Melbourne's RMIT University about a project she had started with her social work students. She took us to another small room where we met a few shy young students eager to find out more about RAR. The idea was to initiate a People's Inquiry into Detention along the lines of the Truth and Justice Commission in South Africa. It seemed a hopelessly ambitious idea, and yet ...

Briskman needed money for translators and transcripts, and we found it for her. She cobbled together some other funding and from that tiny beginning grew Human Rights Overboard (Scribe, 2008), one of the most ambitious and important books of recent years. Briskman and her co-authors, Susie Latham and Chris Goddard, have not been content just to publish the testimonies they collected from the People's Inquiry; they draw on other material for background and context. They document the whole saga: the journey to detention, the processing of the claims, detention itself, life after release, the impact of the Cornelia Rau scandal, and finally, the Rudd government's reforms and their limitations.

But the heart of the book is the People's Inquiry, which created non-government spaces into which ex-detainees and others could bring their stories. The ‘others' who participated were the guards, nurses, administrators, doctors, psychiatrists and visitors caught up in the detention regime. There was an inquiry in every capital city and some towns, and many, many testimonies were gathered.

An extract, almost at random, gives the flavour: an asylum seeker who had spent years in Baxter described the ‘management unit' to the People's Inquiry: ‘Almost soundproof, there is no window, twenty-four hours there is a light, there is a video camera, there is no privacy. If you go for toilet or shower they will see. There is female officer there watching everything and this is called humiliation. I been [there] only a couple of times. But I have seen people there twenty, thirty times, so because of that treatment I believe people become mentally insane or abnormal.'

Human Rights Overboard is confronting reading – I have not read anything as painful since I made myself read a sample of Holocaust literature some years ago. And while neither the scale nor the consequences can be compared, the litany of cruelty, ignorance, mismanagement and duplicity was such that I couldn't read more than thirty pages at a time. But it's worth the effort and emotional cost.


WHAT STRIKES ME now about the pro-refugee movement was its great diversity. Many of the activists were, of course, the usual suspects: RAC (Refugee Action Collective, now Committee) with its Trotskyist roots, the Greens, the rebel Labor Party types, the social-justice Catholics. Then there were the middle-class groups with very particular and intensely felt agendas – the ‘doctor's wives' phenomenon as the media objectionably called it. There was Chilout, dedicated to getting kids out of detention. Chilout was begun by a Singapore-Australian woman, Junie Ong, who lay awake at night thinking about bringing up her young son in a country that could lock up kids. Chilout attracted Trish Highfield, early childhood worker and wife of broadcaster John Highfield, who had never had radical inclinations. She became one of the fiercest and most tenacious advocates for children in detention, willing to ring ministers and bureaucrats any time of day and night, shaming and berating them into action. Another was lawyer and journalist Jacquie Everitt, who began visiting Villawood and met the Badraie family and their nine-year-old son Shayan, who had been rendered comatose and mute by what he had witnessed inside the razor wire. She became an advocate for the family, and put herself in danger by smuggling a video camera into Villawood to film Shayan. So began an epic legal and propaganda struggle. One result has been her moving, illuminating book of the Badraies' life before they came to Australia, their experiences in detention, their long fight for permanent residence and compensation for their damaged child.

I spoke to Jacquie Everitt about her book The Bitter Shore (Pan McMillan, 2008) before its publication. She bewailed the mountain of material she had to deal with – the letters to and from departments, press releases, court cases – literally thousands of pages of documentation. This was the experience of many advocates – interminable, frustrating encounters with bureaucracy. The Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs was gripped by a culture that sat ill with some staff, a culture in constant crisis-control mode, rife with double-speak.

A visitor to Baxter told the People's Inquiry: ‘When I first got involved I used to say, "We'll do it the right way, we'll contact the right channels." I think the time I really learnt was when they had some people in isolation. They left them for weeks, no phone, newspapers, TV and I knew they were going to hurt themselves. I rang DIMIA in Canberra, DIMIA Baxter, ACM Canberra, ACM Baxter, HREOC, Amnesty, the Ombudsman, the minister's office, the opposition's office, telling them all to do something. No one did anything. Then the people cut themselves and a few days later they were out of there – it's just honestly the only way you achieve anything in Baxter.'

It was hard to deal with the information coming from the detention centres. Even though I was involved, I often could not bear to read the constant flow of emails detailing specific cases of mistreatment and injustice. A visitor to Maribyrnong Detention Centre told the People's Inquiry: ‘I remember one man telling me that the thing he liked that they got for food was a boiled egg, and every now and again they would get boiled eggs and he would take an extra one. An officer took this boiled egg and held it above the rubbish bin and said, "You beg me for this." He wouldn't and the officer threw the boiled egg into the bin.'

At times I wondered if some advocates were going a little crazy; they had become so obsessed with the cause. Yet they were just attempting to humanise the detainees, to publicly give them names, histories, personalities – the guards used only numbers at roll calls – and counter the negative image-making fostered by the government. What Human Rights Overboard and the other books do, is put these stories into a context, enabling us to trace a narrative and begin an analysis.

It was, admittedly, very difficult to give the crisis a human face, far less analyse it, at first. Access was restricted and public interest limited. The Rugmaker of Mazar-e-Sharif (Insight, 2008) is a splendidly readable example of redemptive humanising. It should now gain the wide audience it could not have had a few years ago. Najaf Mazari, an Afghan Hazara, is a delightful man, lacking all pretension, full of wisdom and resourcefulness. In Robert Hillman he found a skilled and empathetic writer to help him tell his story. Hillman retains Najaf's voice, but imposes discipline and a cunning structure.

Najaf's deeply humane take on his religion pervades the narrative, revealing more about a moderate interpretation of Islam than a dozen more learned texts. He does not dwell on the misfortunes that befell him, nor talk with bitterness of his life in detention. His dream, which sustains him throughout, is that one day he will be reunited with his wife and child and that he will open a successful rug shop. And this came to pass, with the help of some good Australian friends.


MANY AUSTRALIANS TRIED to help. Some used polemic and lobbying, some visited detention centres, others concentrated on freeing the kids, the ‘Pacific Solution' in general or Nauru in particular. Some hounded the minister, Phillip Ruddock, some hid escaped detainees or helped those on temporary protection visas. Some joined movements, others worked alone.

This movement broke down the usual barriers of political, religious and class alignment in a way that hadn't happened since the Vietnam marches. Women like Ngareta Rossell and Trish Highfield found themselves working with far-left activist Ian Rintoul. Members of his inner-city RAC and our rural-based RAR found themselves in a room together, planning tactics. Chilout members, mostly middle class and apolitical, got on the clapped-out buses organised by young radicals to the desert where they tried to penetrate the razor wire surrounding remote Woomera and Baxter. A Just Australia linked people like Phillip Adams, Malcolm Fraser and the cricketer Ian Chappell. The Liberal rebels – Petro Georgiou, Judy Moylan, Bruce Baird, Judith Troeth – were overwhelmed by grateful emails and phone calls from refugee supporters who would previously never have been seen dead with a Liberal. National Party MP John Forrest, the Federal Member for Mallee, had a change of heart at a RAR regional conference in Victoria. In Bowral and many other country towns, RAR members stood on street corners and saw former friends cross to the other side or throw their leaflets to the ground. They were still on the streets two years later, when the tide began to turn and people began to take their leaflets eagerly and sign the petitions. Sometimes they were the same people.

Email was a huge factor in getting RAR off the ground so quickly. Distance suddenly meant nothing – and in a country as vast as Australia the change this made to campaigning and lobbying was stupendous. RAR had none of the sophisticated apparatus and techniques now used by organisations like GetUp! But it rode the email wave. Every email was answered, every fledging advocate encouraged. We urged members to adopt the older techniques – arrange a meeting, go out on the streets and talk to people, lobby your local member, write to your local paper, visit the detention centres, raise money. Don't let up.

The effect this had on ordinary lives was often galvanising. The pro-asylum seeker movement was, as O'Neill and others have pointed out, a movement of middle-aged, middle-class women. Most had never been interested in party politics or political issues. I remember the first rally RAR organised in front of Parliament House in Canberra. A group of grey-haired women, all past fifty, mostly grandmothers, all wearing their RAR tee-shirts, almost ran towards me, beaming and excited. ‘We've never been to a demonstration before! This is wonderful!' These women worked hard. They had the time or made the time, their passion fuelled by a simple anger with injustice and inhumanity.

The movement required, and won, an unusual degree of flexibility. Ian Rintoul, O'Neill reports, was not only willing to work with organisations like RAR, but he broke from his founding organisation because of his view that the asylum seeker campaign was more important than the spread of international socialism. That rift has since been healed, but it was a sign of how this campaign demanded new ways of doing things.


WE SHOULD KNOW that, even with the Rudd Government's saner and more compassionate approach, the dark times could return very easily and quickly. A sudden sharp increase in boat arrivals, this latest economic downturn, unexpected global events, a political crisis or opportunity ... What politician would not be tempted to blame the weakest and most defenceless? The detention centre at Christmas Island has not been dismantled, nor has the legislative framework. The majority of Australians have not ceased to 
think of asylum seekers as alien, and inferior – and impudent in attempting an unorthodox arrival to this 
promised land.

So the watchwords for successful campaigns in the twenty-first century are flexibility, informality, sophisticated use of email and the internet, constant contact to keep people motivated and aware, and issues that break down old barriers.

There is also a new emphasis on pragmatism. There is little comfort left in ideology. We seem to be entering an era where political and social theories may still form the backdrop of ideas and actions but they are no longer the bedrock. People will work together if the issue and the times demand it. Surely that is no bad thing.

Get the latest essay, memoir, reportage, fiction, poetry and more.

Subscribe to Griffith Review or purchase single editions here.

Griffith Review