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All is not well in the asylum

By Greg Barns - posted Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Philip Ruddock's policies led to some of the grossest abuses of human rights in Australian history.

His intervention last week - courtesy of the fearmongering campaigners at The Australian on the matter of asylum seekers - was a bleak reminder of the shame of the recent past. His unsubstantiated warnings of hordes of people heading for our shores was a grim reminder that this man would still, if only he could, tap into the xenophobic underbelly of this island continent.

Mr Ruddock was, and remains to this day, a Faustian character. Like the figure of legend, Mr Ruddock pursued policies that unashamedly harmed the vulnerable in order to win elections.


He, and his prime minister John Howard, turned this nation's soul into a dark and menacing beast that was the shame of the world. They played on fear, malice and deception. Their political manoeuverings on asylum seekers were as despicable as those executed by the architects of South African apartheid, or of segregation in the southern states of the US.

Have we as a country learnt nothing from what Mr Ruddock and Mr Howard did to our spirit and, more particularly, to the thousands of desperate people whom they demonised, degraded and humiliated, all in the name of winning the votes of a few swinging seats?

It appears not, at least as far as The Australian is concerned. It appears to think that asylum seekers represent some sort of threat to Australia when they clearly do not, never have and never will.

The Rudd Government, only after pressure in opposition from refugee advocates such as Howard Glenn, Ian Chappell and a handful of others, rightly ended what amounted, in anyone's language, to crimes against humanity being committed by the Howard government. I refer here, of course, to the jailing - yes, that's what detention is - of women and children, and temporary protection visas that kept people in limbo and in poverty. The TPVs were designed to break the spirit of people, and they did in many cases.

Let us be clear here. The Howard government policies on asylum seekers resulted in suicide, physical and psychological harm, and serial abuse of individual rights in the hell-holes called detention centres.

We must not do it again. If we allow Mr Ruddock, The Australian and ill-informed and opportunist opposition spokespeople such as the current Liberal migration mouthpiece Sharman Stone to force the Rudd Government to turn the clock back to 2001, then we will have learnt nothing, and we will show yet again that we are a nation capable of racism, xenophobia and irrational fear.


Do not trust the ALP on this issue. Its performance in opposition on this issue could be termed weak, gutless and equally odious as that of the Liberal Party.

I recall speaking on ABC radio in early 2003 when asylum seekers, fed up with being treated as though they were simply political fodder and numbers by immigration bureaucrats, rioted at Villawood in Sydney. I simply said if you treat human beings worse than you treat animals, then what do you expect.

Julia Gillard, she of the vaulting ambition, simply said such conduct should not be tolerated. I asked Duncan Kerr, one of the few ALP members with a dissenting voice on the matter at the time, why Ms Gillard would take such an unsympathetic line. Mr Kerr shook his head. Enough said.

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First published in The Mercury on October 19, 2009.

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About the Author

Greg Barns is National President of the Australian Lawyers Alliance.

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