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Sydney's Palm Sunday march
Today is Palm Sunday, and in the Christian tradition that provided me with my early values, it was a day where we bore witness to our beliefs in the days leading to Easter.
That is why it is so appropriate that on Palm Sunday we join with other Australians, especially our friends who may choose different beliefs, to publicly declare our opposition to and our abhorrence with the inhuman manner in which refugee seekers are being treated in our country. I am delighted that so many of you share that concern.
I do not question the government's right to determine who shall stay in Australia, but I cannot condone the systematic destruction of the hope and spirit of people who have suffered hardship and pain to reach our shores. They are people who believe that they have been or are at risk of being persecuted in their own country. They are not illegal until their refugee status has been tested.
My primary concern is for the fair and humane treatment of children and young people. There is no justification in having children in detention, in having children behind barbed wire and bars. It is inconceivable that some of these children are there without their families, totally dependant on the good will and generosity of other adult detainees. These children live in fear, feeling unwanted and driven to despair. Is it any wonder that they do desperate things?
What we are ensuring is that these children and youngsters will grow up to be scarred adults whether that be in Australia or elsewhere. This is not the caring, fair go country that we know and love. Edmund Burke, in 18th century England said: "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing". Let Palm Sunday 2002 be the beginning of some hope for those children because we just by being here, are doing something.
"We live in dangerous times."
The human family
I give my respect and honour the Gadigal and their ancestors on whose lands I speak.
Australia has been a land of migration since 1788. It is one of the most culturally diverse nations in the world today. It is a country where peace and justice prevail, through the commitment of many people who believe that the rights and freedoms of human beings should be upheld. Today is testimony to the strength and will of that commitment. Just as we as citizens of Australia expect our rights to be observed, and for government to protect, promote and respect those obligations on our behalf, we also expect that our government acts with integrity and principle and political morality.
To date, it has not done so and that deceit causes us to register, in a very public domain, our disapproval, our dissent and our objection to the manner by which racism has been employed to marginalise and diminish those refugees who are seeking freedom from persecution.
Australia assumed an obligation to uphold the rights standards contained within the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, upon the signing of that Declaration in 1948. Effectively espousing the "inherent dignity of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family...[as] the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world ... without distinction of any kind such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status'. (Preamble UDHR: Article 2).
We have witnessed vilification and a deliberate, protracted campaign against refugees upon the basis of race and national origin. Detained, ridiculed, demonised and dismissed, each and every man, woman and child. We may well ask where is our compassion, where is justice, and, more so, where is our humanity?
It is not good enough to espouse propaganda, such as people 'queue-jumping', for the sake of some political hacks obsessed with their pursuit of power at any cost. Not when that cost is the dignity and right of members of the human family who have an inalienable right to seek asylum in another country from their place of origin. That is a basic human right. They are not apart from us; not one Australian since 1788 can claim a moral superiority that asserts to reject those other world members who may wish to also make Australia their home.
We as citizens need to debate, dissent and disagree on the directions of government if they threaten our civil liberties and, accordingly, our rights and freedoms - which it is supposed to uphold - as well as the rights and freedoms of those of the rest of humanity. The disturbing aspect of most recent events is that, if we are being conditioned by government propaganda not to trust any institution or each other, then what is the society we are being asked to live in, and whose society is it?
This is not participative democracy; this is a case of citizens being subjects. We live in dangerous times. Now more than ever, we need to demand that issues concerning our development as a nation or a community need to be publicly debated and rigourously examined, to ensure that our leaders are not diminishing our rights and freedoms and ability to participate.
The participation of everyone is fundamental to evoke change in the Australian society, so that we can enjoy a civil society that is cohesive, co-operative and recognises the "inherent dignity of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family...[as] the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world." The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.
The underprivileged of our planet
I am honoured and proud to be with you today. The last time I spoke at a Palm Sunday Rally was in 1991, following the conflict in Iraq. I fully endorse the ideals of this gathering - Compassion for Refugees, Peace and Justice - and the principles to achieve those ideals, as set out in the pamphlet:
We all have the human right to live in peace, with justice and equality, AND THAT INCLUDES ALL ASYLUM SEEKERS;
Close detention centres, on shore and off shore;
House asylum seekers in the community;
Global programs to help people fleeing war and persecution;
We condemn terrorism, by any person, group or government; war is not a solution; many of us believe we should reject all forms of violence;
Resolve international conflicts through the United Nations;
Use national and international courts to bring terrorists to justice;
No new nuclear arms race; end Australia's role in the nuclear cycle;
Oppose the threat to civil liberties in proposed anti-terrorism legislation;
Address poverty, racism, environmental destruction and inequality.
I particularly want to endorse the closing of detention centres, both onshore and offshore. We should end the 'Pacific solution' and stop wasting our money - $500 million has already been expended this financial year.
Let me express my abhorrence of the Howard government's treatment of the asylum seekers during the recent federal election and the negativity of the Labor Party's approach to this matter. It is an understatement to say I was ashamed of the 'me-too-ism' position taken by the ALP on this issue. The only federal leader who took a moral and compassionate position on the asylum seekers during the election campaign was Senator Bob Brown. For the first time in my 50 years as a member of the Labor Party, I publicly worked and supported a non-Labor candidate in a federal election. I am proud that the Tasmanian electors responded to Bob Brown's leadership and elected him overwhelmingly, even though both major political parties isolated him in the distribution of their preferences. Bob Brown is a person with Nelson Mandela qualities. Australia needs people with Bob's values in public life. I am proud that progressive people in the Labor Party are beginning to speak publicly on the asylum seekers - Tanya Plibersek and Carmen Lawrence are providing that leadership.
I was elected to the Commonwealth Parliament in 1958. Both the Menzies government and the federal Labor Party has a 'White Australia' policy. Due to the struggle of progressive forces within our party we were able to discard this policy platform at our federal conference in 1965. In 1966, the Holt government took the first step to abolish it in the Australian Parliament. During 1972-1975, we in the Whitlam government helped to refine it.
From 1975 the leadership of the major political parties worked to an objective of trying to break down prejudice on race, religion and creed. It was not until 1967 that Australia recognised that our Aboriginal people existed in this country. Their struggle for justice is a continuing one. The 'White Australia' policy was first introduced in the new federal Parliament in 1901. After 1966 there were people in the community who were sceptics of the policy change. After all, our people were fed for generations on the fear of the Asians to our north. But no political leader played up to those sceptics or insecure people. From 1975 until the Tampa, our immigration policy was non-partisan on race, colour and creed. What deeply disturbs me is that John Howard knowingly pandered to a sector of our community who are racially prejudiced or who are religiously opposed to Muslim refugees. Howard knew the 'Hansonites' he was pandering to.
Howard may have achieved a short-term victory, but he will carry the scar of his role in the divisiveness of our nation the rest of his political days. He inflamed the election debate by introducing false allegations of children being thrown overboard by asylum seekers, and of parents of refugees sewing their children's lips together. We are all familiar with his inflammatory words, "we will decide who comes into our country".
We don't have to dig too far back in our own history to find bigotry and sectarianism. In the 1920s and 30s, if you were a Catholic and you were seeking employment in the private sector, you had to identify your religion on an employment application. Except in rare cases, Catholics were not employed in the private sector, they were employed in the State and Commonwealth public services. Luckily those days are over, but we must put those years in perspective.
We must overcome prejudice and hate and oppose the dividing of our society. Martin Luther King put it clearly when he said that "Hate is always tragic, it distorts the personality and scars the soul. It is more injurious to the hater than it is to the hated." Ever since my army days, I have contended that there is no progress in hate. Our movement must ensure that in this country people of Muslim faith or of Asian background are treated with tolerance, understanding and respect.
Let me now turn to the peace and justice aspect of our commitment. If we examine what is occurring on our planet, it is obvious that we are in very troubled times. I have not been more worried and disturbed with world events since the Cuban crisis of October 1960 and when the United States forces were in Viet Nam during the mid-1960s and early 70s. My deep concern occurred even before the events of September 11, which all sane human beings condemn as a crime against humanity. President George W Bush's Administration is a worrying one. This is not an anti-American statement. The facts speak for themselves. President Bush, his Vice President, Dick Cheney, the Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld, his Deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, and the Attorney General, John Ashcroft, are all zealot christian fundamentalists. President Bush's statement that America's mission is a "crusade" is very true - he is on a Christian crusade. Secretary of State, Colin Powell, is the only rational member of the Bush Administration.
Our concern should not only be about the Christian fundamentalists but also the Muslim fundamentalists, Jewish fundamentalists and Hindu fundamentalists. But it is the power, influence and purity of the Bush Administration that worries me the most. They have taken so many dogmatic approaches and decisions: they have walked away from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with Russia; they will not consider Kyoto's global warming protocol; and they reject the International Court for crimes against humanity.
There are so many individual decisions and positions of isolation that they have taken. The Bush Administration have identified a number of nations where there can be a nuclear strike. These include Russia, China, Iran and Iraq. Elements within the administration seek to resume nuclear testing, stating that there are "new contigencies" when nuclear weapons might be necessary. History has now revealed that President Nixon wanted to use neclear weapons in Vietnam in 1972. President Bush recently announced details of his war time defence budget for 2003. The President proposes a total expenditure of US$379 billion: that is $A730 billion. It amounts to a US$48 billion (or $A92 billion) increase in US defence spending over the previous year and more than $A440 billion from the amount spent five years ago. The magnitude of this expenditure is greater than the total defence expenditure of the next nine leading economies, which include countries such as Russia, China, Japan, Britain, France and Germany. In a statement on 4 February 2002, he said that it is necessary "to protect our nation and invest tax dollars wisely".
Our Movement is united in the opinion that force of arms is not the solution to world events. We need national and international courts to bring terrorists to justice. Violence and war only creates more violence. World leaders need to examine other alternatives. When George W Bush was elected President of the United States, former Soviet Union President Mikhail Gorbachev wrote a letter to him saying, in part, that "It is time for America's electorate to be told the blunt truth: that the present situation in the US, by which a part of its population is able to enjoy a life of extraordinary comfort and privilege, is not tenable over the long run as long as an enormous portion of the world lives in abject poverty, degradation and backwardness."
We in Australia need to examine our role of serving our people who are less privileged, including our indigenous people, but we also have a commitment to the underprivileged of our planet. Above all, we should work for a more tolerant, equitable and just society.
Jesus had a bleeding heart
There are those who say that we mustn't burden people with too many images and facts about injustice in the world; that people can become paralysed when presented with the horrors that others suffer. There are those who say that work for justice must not be 'strident' and that a more gentle approach is warranted. Your presence here in such numbers today is evidence that we can all deal with the unpalatable facts of injustice quite well; and that using our anger together, using our imagination and creativity together, directing our thirst for truth and justice together, we can reverse injustices and the great harm to human beings which they cause.
I rather like the fairly strident approach which Jesus took on this day so many years ago. He went in to the very halls of the treasury and knocked the machinery of exploitation and insult to God to the floor. The image of gentle Jesus, meek and mild, which is the foremost caricature of him in today's world, is way off the mark. His indictment of the power-brokers of his day makes riveting reading. He attacked hypocrisy and blindness with startling vehemence(Matt 23:1-39). He knew when to be silent and he knew when to speak; and he says to us today that it is high time we spoke, and that our voice must become louder and louder in defence of the poor, and those who have no voice.
Let us not be afraid of being 'bleeding hearts', if only because bleeding hearts can see the bleedin' obvious, which is that human beings have hearts of flesh, not stone, and that the only true humanity is that which weeps at cruelty and injustice, and puts itself on the line to reverse the inhumanity which constantly dogs us.
Leadership is a service; that's why both Church and Government leaders are called 'ministers' The service leadership renders is to authorise initiatives and actions which promote the good of all of us. We are here to call upon those who have been entrusted with the privilege of leading us to start leading. We want leaders in government, church and media who can tap in to the true heart of the people; who could encourage us to face the huge human problems of the world as though it was the people who mattered, all of the people. We want leaders who can distil from our magnificent traditions the best and fairest ways of dealing with all people. "Advance Australia Fair" has little to do with complexion or landscape. "Fair" if it is to be at all useful, is about being fair, being just.
We want leaders who would never again stoop to humiliating our defence forces by setting them upon unarmed families, and who would not pass slick, furtive bills in parliament which say that parts of Australia are not parts of Australia for certain purposes. Leaders who would honour the international conventions that we have signed, and who would take the Declaration of Human Rights seriously. Leaders who would not lie or mislead; who would not shore up their electoral prospects by appealing to the worst in us. Leaders who would not accuse nameless, faceless, voiceless and traumatised people of being murderous parents. Leaders who would recognise that, when they accuse people of manipulation, it could well be that it is just their breath blowing back in their faces.
We want Leaders who recognise the internationally accepted legal position that a person is presumed innocent until proven guilty, and that this must apply to everyone, including asylum seekers. It is simply wrong to lock up people who have done no wrong and are charged with no crime. We want Leaders who would never be guilty of locking up the children of asylum seekers for months and even years on end, in places unfit for our home-grown rapists and murderers. We need Leaders who would not use incorrect terminology when it suits them, like saying "illegal immigrant" instead of "asylum seeker", a distinction any primary school child could understand, if taught.
Leaders who are not afraid of the facts; who make them known; who take responsibility for the attitudes and actions they take in regard to those facts. Leaders who don't say, "I didn't know..." Leaders who would take the risk of trusting that the Australian people are not quite the stupid, selfish or superficial sheep portrayed by talk-back radio and tabloid press.
Let us remember, though, that our leaders are very much like ourselves. They are all fairly ordinary, just like us. In fact, we are all frighteningly ordinary, with the same ordinariness which allowed the mob to put Jesus to death, which allowed the Nazi mass murderers to operate, the same ordinariness which today in Australia allows and rationalises the existence camps like Woomera.
We need a bit of inspiration. But we are not totally dependent on our leaders for this, because they are only a reflection of ourselves. We can, and do, inspire and support each other at all levels of society, and when we find out the facts - as Rural Australians for Refugees have so beautifully reminded us - our hearts change. We will not be numbed into paralysis by the facts. No, indeed. We will be spurred to do good, to reverse the trends, to get the information, to tell our friends, to visit those detained behind razor wire, to talk turkey to our political representatives. We will keep demanding that indiscriminate and open-ended detention of asylum seekers, as is carried out in Australia, is inhuman and unnecessary.
Of course there is a cost in all this. Jesus had a bleeding heart, and at the end it was because they stuck a spear in it. The prize for telling the truth may indeed be a crown of thorns. So as we march off in silence, let us think about the cost, and also the alternative.
Dr John Yu, AC, is the Chancellor of the University of New South Wales and a former Australian of the Year. Lydia Miller is an Indigenous Australian author. The Hon Tom Uren, AO, was a minister in the Whitlam Labor government and is a former President of the Evatt Foundation. Sister Susan Connelly is a Sister of St Joseph, a religious congregation founded by Mary MacKillop.
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