Cultivating a culture of intolerance

In the wake of the murder of nine African-American’s by a white supremacist in Charleston, South Carolina this week, Australians reacted the same way we always do when a “newsworthy” gun-related killing takes place in the USA.

With disbelief, coupled with a glimmer of smug superiority.

We shake our collective heads at a nation that owns almost half of the world’s civilian-owned guns and wonder when someone will have the courage to take on the seemingly all-powerful NRA.

We wonder how change will come if the deaths of TWENTY five and six year-olds in a mass shooting wasn’t enough to shake America out of its gun-loving ways.

And we gloat about Australia’s lack of mass shootings since laws were tightened following the Port Arthur massacre in 1996.

Many of us have watched with horror as nothing more than sheer racism has seen countless African-American men gunned down at the hands of white police in the US.

Again, we got our smugness on. We’re better than that. We don’t have mass shootings. Our cops aren’t killing black people at a rate three times higher than they’re killing white people.

We tell ourselves that America has big problems. Problems that we don’t have. We tell ourselves that they can learn from us; that we’ve got it right.

Except we’re wrong.

We might not have the same number of gun deaths as the US does (not even close) – among civilian or law enforcement populations.

But it’s not like we’re a shining beacon of peace here in Australia. Least of all if you’re a non-white person.

The racist persecution and killings of people of colour is quieter here, somehow.

We* don’t talk about Aboriginal deaths in custody. We don’t talk about the fact that Aboriginal people make up approximately 30% of the Northern Territory’s general population, but 85% of their prison population. We don’t talk about the fact that Aboriginal women are 45 times more likely than white women to be victims of domestic violence. We don’t talk about the forced closures of Aboriginal communities that are happening simply due to Australia’s ingrained racism.

We don’t talk about the gross abuse of the human rights of predominantly non-white asylum seekers in Manus and Nauru. We don’t talk about the fact that these asylum seekers have become political footballs, real humans used to further political agendas.

The murders that took place in South Carolina this week are no different to the deaths of Australian Aboriginals in custody. They’re no different to the murders of countless people of colour at the hands of white police in America, which in turn, are no different to the appalling manner in which successive Australian governments have demonised asylum seekers.

They’re all things that happen when we allow the cultivation of a culture of racism and intolerance. A culture that, in Australia at least, right now comes from the top; from our so-called leaders. “Leaders” who will allow the passing of laws that will punish those that speak out about the human rights violations taking place in Australia’s offshore detention centres. “Leaders” who refuse to act to end the sexual assaults of children in those centres. “Leaders” who will forcibly remove Aboriginal communities from the lands they have lived on for tens of thousands of years.

While we decry the latest in a long line of mass shootings in the USA, and discuss the blatant white supremacy that led to them, we need to also look at what’s happening in our own country.

Because the only real difference that I can see is the presence, or absence, of guns.

*Obviously, this is a generalisation. But, while there are some amazing people in Australia who are doing all they can to address these issues, there are obviously those who either don’t care, or support the things being done in our names.

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Enough is enough.

“Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.” – Benjamin Franklin.

Imagine this.

A regular, Australian woman is in a violent relationship.

Every single day she is subjected to verbal, mental and physical abuse.

She’s threatened with death, beaten, and terrorised by her partner.

One day, fearing for her life, she flees to a nearby house for help.

Upon her arrival, she tells her story, and begs for help.

Instead of helping the woman, the owner of the house declares that she is a law-breaker, trespassing on his land and has her arrested.

Within 48 hours of seeking help, the woman is imprisoned.

She is not provided with adequate health checks, despite her obvious wounds.

She is not provided with adequate access to legal advice.

The conditions in the prison are hot, overcrowded, and there are not enough showers or toilets for the prisoners, with around one toilet for every 40 prisoners.

The woman is forced to share a cell with dozens of other prisoners, with only basic bedding providing. There is no ability for her to enjoy any privacy, with beds lined up next to each other without privacy screens.

The prison is infested with lice and rodents.

And the woman is given no indication as to when she can expect to be released.

All she wanted was help to save her life.

Horrific, right? And certainly not something that we’d consider fair treatment for one of “our own”. I can only imagine the public outcry were such a thing to occur.

For the asylum seekers that are currently being detained in Nauru and Manus Island, due to the draconian laws of successive Australian governments, this isn’t just an arbitrary anecdote. This is real life.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees recently released damning reports about the conditions on Manus Island and Nauru. The UNHCR found that Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers constituted arbitrary and indefinite detention in unsafe and inhumane conditions that did not meet international standards.

Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, seems to disagree with the UNHCR, declaring that the conditions of the camps are better than those at Australian mines – a statement that is truly laughable. (Disclaimer: my mother has worked on two mine sites this year. She is given all the food she can eat, has her own air conditioned room that has cable television, is serviced daily and has its own en-suite bathroom, the workers on site are provided with entertainment, get flown home every two or-so weeks, and get paid a butt-load of money. Hardly mandatory detention, Ms. Bishop.)

This week it was revealed that those detained on Nauru and Manus Island would no longer receive humanitarian assistance from the Salvation Army, who have been providing emotional support to those subjected to the conditions of the detention centres. The team that provided advice about asylum seeker health issues, including psychologists, psychiatrists and GPs, has also been dumped.

A group of doctors who work at the Christmas Island detention centre have written a 92-page letter outlining “numerous unsafe practices and gross departures from generally accepted medical standards which have posed significant risk to patients and caused considerable harm”. They provide examples of inadequate medical care and shortages of facilities, equipment and medications, among other issues.

We look back in horror at the way the world has treated some members of society. From Jews during the Holocaust, to our treatment of Indigenous peoples around the world, to the South African Apartheid, we hang our heads in shame and wonder how. Why didn’t anyone stop it? How did we allow it to happen? Yet here we are again.

Australia, we have and are continuing to allow the demonization and cruel treatment of human beings. Right now. By our government. And history will judge us harshly for it.

The government will not continue this inhumanity in my name. And they shouldn’t do it in yours. Write to your local MP and Senators. Contact the Prime Minister, the Foreign Minister, and the Immigration Minister.

It’s time to stand up.

Speak out.

Do something.

Be brave.

Enough is enough.

Not in my name.

On Saturday, September 7th, 2013, Australia voted to be governed by the Liberal Party, with Tony Abbott at the helm as our nation’s Prime Minister.

I didn’t expect much from a conservative government. At all. What has occurred in the weeks since the new government was sworn in, however, exceeded anything I could have imagined.

In no particular order, here’s some of the disgraceful acts of our current “leaders”:

  • One of the first acts of our new government was to scrap the following ministries: Ministry for Science, Ministry for Climate Change, Ministry for Disabilities, Ministry for Aged Care, Ministry for Higher Education, Ministry for Youth, Ministry for Early Childhood, Ministry for Workplace Relations, Ministry for Mental Health, and the Ministry for Water.
  • The new government’s cabinet has just one woman on the frontbench, down from six under the previous government.
  • On the day following his cabinet announcement, Prime Minister Abbott announced that he would be the “Minister for Women” (because we all need a man to look after those policies and programs that affect us, amirite ladies?).
  • On Friday, September 27th, a boat holding up to 90 asylum seekers sunk between Indonesia and Australia with all on board believed to have drowned. When questioned about the tragic incident the following day, Prime Minister Abbott is alleged to have run away from the media.
  • Cutting funding to the key body that works to minimise the harm caused by drugs and alcohol, forcing it into administration and destroying the progress of decades of research in the area.
  • Slashing 14,000 public sector jobs, including snatching away graduate jobs from those who had already been accepted into programs.
  • Performing a series of backflips on school funding and the Gonski reforms, that seems to have left everyone completely confused about the entire situation.
  • The removal of a large chunk of some of Tony Abbott’s most controversial speeches from his website, including one’s where he denies the man-made impacts on climate change, one where he promised to increase Australia’s foreign aid budget, and one in which he described abortion as “a question of the mother’s convenience”.
  • The entire clusterfuck that has resulted from the silence, inhumane treatment, and sheer mean-spirited treatment of asylum seekers.
  • Prime Minister Abbott’s words of support for Indonesian President Yudhoyono, a man who stands accused of war crimes in West Papua, and supporting crimes against humanity in Timor-Leste.
  • Slashed funding to the Global Fund to fight AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis to just $200 million over three years – well short of the $300 million promised by the previous government.
  • Gifting military hardware to the government of Sri Lanka, despite it being accused of war crimes and of continuing human rights abuses including torture and forced disappearances. When questioned about accusations of torture being levelled at the Sri Lankan government, Prime Minister Abbott said: “we accept that in difficult circumstances difficult things happen”. Because what’s a little torture between friendly nations, right?
  • And, of course, there’s the Timor-Leste spying scandal. You know, that incident where Timor has accused Australia of spying on it during negotiations on the Certain Maritime Arrangements in the Timor Sea (CMAT) treaty and has taken Australia to the Hague for arbitration? And then Australia raided the offices of Timor’s lawyer and cancelled the passport of Timor’s key witness, who just happens to be a former senior Australian Security Intelligence Service who was allegedly involved in the bugging of the Timor cabinet room, a few days before arbitration is due to kick off? Yeah, that one.

They say that you get the government we deserve, but we don’t deserve this. The rest of the world doesn’t deserve this.

This a government that doesn’t care about women, asylum seekers, victims of torture, the sick, the dying, the young, the elderly, the disabled, workers, those with mental health, the environment, international laws, or human rights.

A government is supposed to be representative of the people. Members of Parliament and the Senate are meant to speak for the people. I don’t think they speak for most fair-minded Australians.

They certainly don’t speak for me.

Australia, Timor, and the cycle of fear.

Timor-Leste became a signatory to the United Nations Refugee Convention in December 2002, just seven months after its independence was restored. Despite being a party to the Convention, the process of seeking asylum in Timor is problematic at best, with no system set up for adjudicating asylum claims.

Unlike Australia, Timor-Leste is one of the poorest countries in Asia-Pacific region. Poverty rates are high and even the most basic infrastructure can be lacking in some areas. There are almost no mechanisms in place to support asylum seekers, whether it is via legal assistance or the provision of basic necessities such as food, or shelter. Timor’s small asylum seeker population often struggles to survive on a day-to-day basis.

Earlier this year a group of Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar landed in Timor when their boat ran into difficulties. Timorese authorities, it was claimed, turned the group away.  

In response to the incident, former Timorese President and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, José Ramos-Horta said: “If they have nowhere else to go, if they are unwanted in rich Australia, we share with them our homes, for they are people like us, poor, homeless, persecuted. Timor-Leste must never turn its back on people fleeing hunger and wars. We too were refugees once, we fled our country, we fled poverty and persecution and we were sheltered by kind, caring people, who taught us about solidarity, about humanity”.

The Australian government, both present and past, could learn a thing from Mr. Ramos-Horta.

The creation of fear and anxiety in relation to asylum seekers, particularly those who arrive by boat is something that successive Australian governments have excelled at.

We have become a nation that has allowed our government to create fear among us.

We’ve all heard the slogans, slurs and catchphrases from the media, politicians and people on social media. Things like “stop the boats” or “queue jumpers” or “illegal immigrants”. We’ve been told that we’re being flooded by people from faraway lands who are coming here to change our “culture”, steal our jobs, and essentially destroy our country. Our very own Immigration Minister, Scott Morrison, instructed departmental staff and staff at detention centres to publicly refer to asylum seekers as “illegal”, despite the fact that under the UN Refugee Convention, to which Australia is a signatory, everyone has the right to seek asylum from persecution – regardless of their method of arrival.

Regardless of the way in which they travel, those who are seeking asylum have not done anything illegal, yet Scott Morrison’s new mandate will encourage the perpetuation of outright lies. It will aid the continuing cycle of fear.

I need to believe that a part of our nation has been brainwashed, that we’ve allowed ourselves to become part of a horrendous game of political misinformation designed purely for vote-grabbing. I can’t believe that the wider Australian society would accept our current mistreatment of asylum seekers unless they had been conditioned, by both politicians and media, to do so.

Much like asylum seekers in Australia, it would seem that the best hope those in Timor have is to rely on the compassion and sense of political figureheads, like Mr. Ramos-Horta for long-term solutions. To survive on a daily basis, many of them must rely on the kindness of strangers – strangers who often don’t have much themselves. The challenges for asylum seekers in a poverty-stricken country like Timor are huge – lack of employment or social services to assist them is just the start.

Arun, who is seven years old, and his family are among those facing such challenges. They have been stuck in Dili for two years now, unable to seek asylum and in those two years, Arun has not been able to attend school.

A wonderful friend of mine has been working on ways to help Arun and his family. They would like to send him to an English-speaking school in Dili where he can receive an education and have time to just be an ordinary school kid. He will have the chance to learn, to make friends, and to create dreams. The school term commences in December 2013, however to make this dream a reality, they have to raise funds. The fees (which include two months of summer school) are $3,300. There is a school admin fee of $300, textbooks to purchase at a cost of $175, a graduation fee of $100 and a parents and teachers fee of $10. A total of just $3,885 could change Arun’s life.

If you would like to help Arun go to school, you can make a donation to the following account:

Bank: Commonwealth Bank

Account Name: Sara M Webster

BSB: 063 533       Account Number: 1015 2396

My amazing friend, Sara, has requested that donations are made in this way (with your name and ‘Arun’ as the reference number) as it is difficult to cost-effectively transfer money to Timor-Leste. I can personally vouch for Sara, and promise that all funds will be used to help Arun go to school. Sara has also promised to personally respond to each donor with a confirmation that funds have been received.

Maybe I can’t do anything to change the rhetoric in Australia. Maybe I can’t stop the hatred, the misinformation, or the indoctrination. But knowing that there are people like José Ramos-Horta and Sara in the world gives me hope. Hope that all is not lost, hope that some of the propaganda that is so often spouted about asylum seekers is falling on deaf ears, hope that eventually Australia, Timor-Leste and the world will regain some of the humanity that it has lost.