When both major sides of Australian politics race to the bottom to demonise the most vulnerable within our borders (and the ones without a megaphone to tell us what they’re thinking and feeling), it takes brave voices to lead the debate:
The Greens and one of Australia’s most prominent human rights lawyers have urged new Prime Minister Julia Gillard to be honest about asylum seekers and have the courage to be compassionate on the issue.
“I challenge her to tell the truth,” Julian Burnside QC told journalists in Adelaide on Sunday.
“I challenge her to depart from what Tony Abbott has been doing – Tony Abbott has been lying to the public, creating an utterly false impression about the number of people who come by boat seeking asylum and the reasons that they come seeking asylum.
“I challenge Julia Gillard to point out to the public that at the current rate of arrivals it would take about 20 years to fill the MCG with boat people.”
Mr Burnside is in Adelaide to address a public forum on asylum seekers, being hosted by South Australian Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young.
“Julia Gillard is sending all the signals clearer than ever that she’s prepared to chase Tony Abbott down that low road of Howard-style politics and continue to beat up on asylum seekers and refugees for political gain,” Senator Hanson-Young told journalists.
She says she’s “dreading” Ms Gillard’s announcement this week on the future of the current suspension on processing of Sri Lankan asylum seekers.
Senator Hanson-Young says instead of having the “courage” to explain to people the truth about asylum seekers, Ms Gillard seems intent on maintaining the current state of hysteria.
“The only problem we have is that we are not treating people humanely and that’s the issue that Julia Gillard needs to address,” she said.
“We are not being flooded by people – we take less than one per cent of the world’s total refugee population and yet we are taking hundreds of thousands of migrants each year for economic reasons.
“We are not necessarily prioritising those who are in desperate need.”
Mr Burnside also challenged Ms Gillard to point out to the public that Australian troops are in Afghanistan fighting the Taliban, and that most of the Afghani asylum seekers arriving in Australia are fleeing the Taliban.
“If they are fleeing our enemies surely we have an obligation to process their claims for protection properly and treat them decently,” he said.
“… We’ve got people fleeing a fate almost as bad as faced Jewish refugees during the 1930s and yet just as we turned our backs on them back then, we are apparently willing to turn our backs on the Hazaras (from Afghanistan) and the Tamils (from Sri Lanka) now.
“It’s quite outrageous and future ages will say ‘what did you think you were doing?’.”