Rudd and Readings for World Refugee Day 2010
Are Kevin Rudd's human rights troubles irretrievable?
It may have started with the Australian version of Yes We Can with Kevin07, but not much seems to have survived the onslaught of the nasty monster of Parliamentary politics.
In what could be called "Kevin's Swan Song web page", this page of readings for 2010 World Refugee Day brings you some media items that marked the state of affairs during one of the last weeks of Australia's Labor government led by Kevin Rudd PM. By the end of Refugee Week Julia Gillard challenged the leadership and Kevin was gone.
Click the links below to jump down to the articles and items on this page with the same title.
16 June 2008: 2008 World Refugee Day: Who'll keep the bastards honest now? - This page contains media reportage surrounding Project SafeCom's 2008 World Refugee Day movie event at the Fremantle Film and TV Institute, and it begins with an Opinion Editorial by Queensland Democrats Senator Andrew Bartlett.
17 July 2007: Project SafeCom's 2007 World Refugee Day readings - This week's Fremantle Herald, a major Project SafeCom sponsor, features major coverage of Project SafeCom's World Refugee Day event as part of its wraparound for World Refugee Day. This page reproduces the entire section, including articles by our speakers for the event who came from The Greens, the ALP, and from Melbourne. Perth Community Television (CTV) filmed the event, and the 15-minute documentary is included on this page.
20 June 2006: - Did the Cornelia Rau saga change refugee treatment? - For our event at Kulcha Multicultural Arts WA, Melbourne advocate Pamela Curr, the person who "found" her in the Baxter detention centre, asks whether the light which the Cornelia Rau case shone into the detention regime will make a difference to the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers in Australia.
16 October 2005: Photos of our Fremantle World Refugee Day 2005 - During World Refugee Day weekend in 2005, we again had our stall and the Cage in a Daybreak in Detention event with Amnesty outside the Fremantle Markets in Fremantle. Here are the photos.
19 June 2004: World Refugee Day: Forcing the Deportation Issue - A short introduction to the movie documentary at the Fremantle Film and TV Institute by Project SafeCom's Jack H Smit on the World Refugee Day 2004 weekend.
20 June 2003: Project SafeCom's 2003 World Refugee Day Aussie Tourist Quiz - On the occasion of 2003 World Refugee Day we developed The Aussie Tourist Quiz, a quiz designed for Australian politicians as well as overseas tourists. We designed this on-line Quiz for both Aussie tourists and Aussie politicians who could win prizes with the Quiz ... See the answers and the Quiz here!
Riz Wakil: Surfing with Mr Abbott
Riz Wakil is a refugee from Afghanistan's Hazara group, and as the winner of the 2010 Parliamentary Ball's Charity sell-off he has been chosen to have breakfast and "a surfing lesson" with Liberal leader Tony Abbott
My name is Riz Wakil. I'm a proud Australian citizen, a husband, a father and a small business owner. I'm also a former refugee.
My father sent me away from Afghanistan when I was 18. He feared for my safety after my brother was kidnapped and my cousins killed. Members of my family were involved in politics. Because they argued for freedom, and because we are members of the Hazara ethnic minority, we were in constant danger.
When I left, I wasn't trying to come to Australia. I just wanted to find freedom and safety.
I risked my life on a dangerous journey. Then when I finally arrived in Australia, I was locked in Curtin Detention Centre for nine months. What I saw there shocked and scarred me. I saw children behind barbed wire and families on hunger strikes. It's nine months of my life I will never forget, and never get back.
Yesterday my friends at GetUp called me and asked if I wanted to have a personal surfing lesson with Tony Abbott, so I could have the opportunity to talk to him. Mr Abbott and Mr Rudd were auctioning off time with them for charity.
The surfing lesson auctioned for $16,100, and because thousands of GetUp members donated in just a few hours yesterday, GetUp was able to win the bid on behalf of myself and other refugees.
I've never surfed before, but I'm looking forward to the chance to tell Mr Abbott my story, and the story of other refugees. Mr Abbott was part of the Howard Government while I was in detention, so I know first hand that their policy doesn't work.
Mr Abbott believes we have to punish people who seek refuge in Australia, so that fewer people will come. But I know first hand that most people who come here as refugees have no idea what the Government's policy is - and if they did, they wouldn't care. Compared to persecution in countries like Afghanistan, torn apart by war and plagued by terror, nothing Tony Abbott can do or say will stop refugees coming.
In fact, Tony Abbott's policy will mean more women and children on boats and in detention centres. Currently, people who are found to be legitimate refugees are able to sponsor their families to join them. Tony Abbott wants to end that - which means whole families will come together on boats. And when they get here, they will be locked up.
My wife and I have a three-year-old daughter, and another due in August. I think back to my own journey to Australia. I would never want a child to go through that.
When Kevin Rudd was elected, many of us thought we would see a more humane, more sensible refugee policy - but recently Mr Rudd's Government suspended the processing of applications from Sri Lanka and Afghanistan. They said Afghanistan is safer now, but if only Mr Rudd had seen what I have seen.
It seems that, with an election coming, Mr Rudd and Mr Abbott are both using refugees to scare people into voting for them. But I believe that Australians are a good people and a compassionate people and that if they hear our stories, they will demand a more humane policy.
I also believe that Tony Abbott is a human being before he is a politician - that his heart beats like everyone else. I look forward to sharing my story with him and the stories of other refugees, and seeing them reflected in his future policies.
Bill Maley: Abbott's policy has little to do with border control
Dr William Maley is an Associate Professor of Politics at the University of NSW's Defence Force campus and he was the Chair of the Refugee Council of Australia during some of the Howard years.
With the release of the Opposition's new policy statement on border control, both Malcolm Fraser and Pauline Hanson must feel pleased.
For Mr Fraser, it vindicates his decision to walk away from a party that now bears very little resemblance to the one which he led for nearly eight years.
For Ms Hanson, it points to the revival of her nasty ideas about how to deal with Asian refugees who dare to think that we have boundless plains to share.
Whether it is in Australia's wider political and diplomatic interests is another question entirely.
No one can seriously believe that any such policy would have been advanced if those recently arriving by boat had been white Anglo-Saxons, and Tony Abbott's `Fortress Australia' approach risks reviving memories of earlier Australian policies of exclusion that might better be left dormant.
The most obnoxious element of the new policy is undoubtedly the proposed return of the notorious Temporary Protection Visa regime. There is nothing of the Good Samaritan in the hearts of those who would bring this monster back to life.
TPVs were introduced first in 1999, and did nothing to stem the flow of boats, for then as now, `push' factors played the dominant role in driving refugee outflows.
All the TPV regime did was psychologically scar people fleeing persecution, by enforcing their separation from close family members, and leaving them in an agonising limbo. Oddly enough, this was something that senior Coalition politicians recognised when Pauline Hanson first proposed it.
The Commonwealth Minister for Health and Family Services, Dr Michael Wooldridge, denounced the "spurious claim" that Australia "should only be a temporary haven for refugees before they are sent back again when things get better", and described these views as "deeply flawed and dangerous".
He went on that "creating insecurity and uncertainty as these views undoubtedly do is one of the most dangerous ways to add to the harm that torturers do".
I concluded that we "mast not and will not turn our backs on those who come here for refuge. To do so would be to betray our moral obligation as a community and to betray that great Australian tradition of helping out those in need".
His arguments were compelling then and they are just as compelling now. What has driven the Liberal Party down this dark alley?
The answer is to be found in a little-noted story in a biography of John Howard published in 2007 by Peter Van Onselen and Wayne Errington.
The authors tape a fascinating interview with a former Howard minister, Jackie Kelly, who discussed the day on which Mr Howard announced that the MV Tampa would not be allowed to land on Australian territory: "One Nation is just chewing it's tip," Kelly told Howard.
"I've lost two branches to them; one of them is my best fundraising branch. We need to do something or I'm a goner." Howard waved his speaking notes at her. "Don't worry, Jackie," he responded.
"That's all about to change."
To put it bluntly, Coalition border control policy has very little to do with border control, and everything to do with securing the votes of those who supported Pauline Hanson at the end of the 1990s.
It is hardly surprising that the policy is barely distinguishable from what she was saying at that time.
There is nonetheless one element of Opposition policy that makes sense, and that is to abandon the freeze on processing of asylum claims from Afghans and Sri Lankans that the Rudd Government, seemingly spooked by Opposition rhetoric, introduced in April.
Others can comment on the Sri Lankan situation, but to anyone familiar with Afghanistan, the Government's claim that "The Taliban's fall, durable security in parts of the country, and constitutional and legal reform to protect minorities' rights have improved the circumstances of Afghanistan's minorities, including Afghan Hazaras" is frankly bizarre.
The rule of law is so weak in Afghanistan that "constitutional and legal reform to protect minorities' rights" is virtually meaningless, and the Taliban, of course, are back with a vengeance, emboldened by the fraud that marred the August 2009 presidential election.
Indeed, very recent reports in the Dari-language press in Kabul and from the respected Afghan Analysts Network raise credible suspicions of Taliban involvement in vicious attacks on Hazaras in Wardak province.
Most seriously of all, the reference to "durable security in parts of the country" is flatly contradicted by the travel warning for Afghanistan issued by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in Canberra, which states that "The security situation throughout Afghanistan ... retrains extremely dangerous."
The comparable warning from the US State Department states that "No part of Afghanistan should be considered immune from violence... The security environment retrains volatile and unpredictable".
Furthermore, the UN Secretary-General in March 2010 reported to the Security Council that the "deterioration of Afghanistan's security situation has continued, with 2009 being the most volatile year since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, averaging 960 security incidents per month, as compared with 741 in 2008.
The situation worsened in January 2010, with the number of security incidents 40 per cent higher than in January 2009.
Overall, the intensification of the armed conflict in the south, and its expansion into areas previously considered stable, made 2009 the worst year for civilian fatalities since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001".
It is time for the competitive trashing of refugees to cease.
Australia simply does not have a boat problem. At the current rate of boat arrivals, it would take more than 25 years before we had enough applicants to fill a decent-sized football stadium. Can we for once stop using vulnerable people as the football?
Andrew Bartlett: Happy Refugee Week
This Sunday 20 June marks World Refugee Day, and the start of Refugee Week which seeks to highlight and celebrate the many positive contributions refugees continue to make to Australian society. Given the pending election, it might be tougher than usual for this message to get through amongst the din of fear-mongering about asylum seekers.
In Brisbane, the Liberal National Party are marking the lead up to Refugee Week in their own special way, distributing a leaflet in Wayne Swan's electorate accusing him of putting a "secret detention centre for illegal immigrants in our suburbs".
As has been reported in the Courier-Mail, this so-called 'secret' detention centre which Mr Swan has purportedly "allowed to open" is actually the long established Virginia Palms Motel, which sits in Swan's electorate of Lilley. The LNP's desire to do a bit of good old fashioned grassroots hate-mongering is such that their leaflet kindly relabels this well known local business as the "Virginia Palms Detention Centre", which I'm sure the motel's owners and employees are very thrilled about.
The Liberals have made it very obvious in recent months that they have clearly decided to label asylum seekers and refugees as "illegal immigrants" at every possible opportunity, despite undoubtedly knowing this is a false description. I suppose there's no point letting a minor thing like accuracy get in the way when there may be an extra vote or two to be won by inciting some hatred.
The leaflet clearly isn't just some off the cuff thing whipped together by an over-enthusiastic campaign volunteer, or even one of those fake race-baiting election leaflets that Jackie Kelly liked to think of as just a "Chaser style prank". It repeats the same phrases used by the LNP's local Lilley candidate, Rod McGarvie, when he spoke to the Northern Chronicle, the suburban paper which covers the area.
That story makes it crystal that asylum seekers and refugees are people who should be feared, emphasising that the "boat people hideout" was "in the middle of a residential area and across the road from a school."
The school in question is actually Nudgee College, one of Brisbane's two most prestigious Catholic schools. Knowing how much support many Catholic institutions have given to refugees in Brisbane over the years, I wouldn't be surprised if the main thing that annoys them about having the asylum seekers over the road is that aren't given the chance to properly welcome them, as the federal government is not making it overly easy for people to visit.
Funnily enough, the LNP seem to be completely silent about the fact that asylum seeker families were kept in motels and the like at various times under the Howard government. And about the fact that the only reason this occurred then or now is because both Labor and Liberal are so bloody minded about maintaining a policy of mandatory detention.
What makes this sort of local level fear-mongering even more unfortunate is that the immediately surrounding suburbs contain quite a number of recently arrived refugee families who are in the process of trying to acclimatise and settle into Australian society as permanent residents. Some of them arrived through Australia's off-shore resettlement program and some have come from Christmas Island after their refugee claims were assessed and recognised. Rather obviously, the process that was followed in their being granted Australian residency has no impact on their appearance.
Regardless of your views on what our laws and policies relating to asylum seekers should be, it should be blindingly obvious that whipping up fear and antagonism about asylum seekers at local level can seriously impair the ability of refugees to settle smoothly and start contributing to and become part of our community.
It increases anxiety and insecurity amongst recent arrivals (and many not so recent arrivals), and increases the prospect that they will be met with hostility and antagonism rather than welcome.
It is a fairly sure bet that during this Refugee Week, there will be some LNP politicians participating in public functions celebrating the wonderful contributions refugees have made and continue to make to Australian society, culture and economy. It is a good thing that they do this.
It would be an even better thing if they could then get those in their party who think it is acceptable to whip up fear and hatred against asylum seekers to realise that their actions are directly undermining and impeding the ability of refugees to make that contribution, and that is far too big a price for Australia to pay just because there might be a few votes in it.
Hanifa Deen: Ghosts of apartheid
Sydney Morning Herald
Hanifa Deen is a Melbourne-based, award-winning author. Her latest book The Jihad Seminar (UWA Press) was shortlisted for the 2008 Australian Human Rights Literary Award. www.hanifadeen.com
I grew up in an Australia whose psyche was shaped by its brutality and total disrespect towards Australian and Torres Strait Islanders flanked by an Immigration Restriction Act known as the White Australia Policy, which persisted from 1901 until 1973. Anyone wanting to migrate to Australia soon discovered that only certain people were accepted. My family was an aberration because my grandparents had arrived from pre-partition India (now Pakistan) in the 1890s, before the doors closed.
"Mateship" in those days meant more than loyalty to your cobber/digger/mate; it also signified conformity in outlook, behaviour and how you looked -- namely the colour of your skin. Somewhere along the way our real history became lost and in its place a highly ethnocentric and masculine mythology of how we saw ourselves took hold.
Closing the door on the past is not a simple matter. The cultural effects of racist policies drag on long after they've been rescinded. In America, slavery was abolished in 1865 but segregated schools in the south continued until the civil rights movement of the 1960s; black Americans and Hispanics still face prejudice. South Africa is still recovering from apartheid. And Australia's multicultural and indigenous policies are a work in progress.
The ghost of the WAP and our treatment of indigenous communities continue to bedevil our reputation as a democratic nation. We protest that racism doesn't define us -- it's not who we are today. But when we start preaching to our neighbours on human rights, India, Malaysia and Indonesia quickly find evidence (conveniently ignoring their own backyards) that racism still exists today in Australia in spite of our anti-discrimination laws.
Over the decades I've observed the ebb and flow of racism at an individual and systemic level in different parts of Australia. I've witnessed the good years when we took pride in our diversity and the bad years when we put asylum seekers behind wire in detention hell-holes. As a former public servant, I've helped shape policies that broke new ground years before the term "politically correct" was used to deride decency and social justice.
I felt proud to belong to a country where researchers from overseas visited the Victorian Ethnic Affairs Commission, where I worked, to survey our English-on-the-job programs or cross-cultural courses. The Bureau of Immigration Research in Melbourne was internationally famous -- so much was happening here -- the '80s and early '90s were a great time to be working in ethnic affairs. Prime ministers such as Malcolm Fraser (with lieutenant Petro Georgiou by his side), Bob Hawke and Paul Keating put cultural diversity high on the agenda. Governments, state and federal, did not fan our old fears over border protection to win elections, an old fear that is being cynically manipulated even now.
Six years ago, my partner and I decided to leave Perth and resettle elsewhere. Since then Melbourne has been our home for a second time and the city I remember has changed after a decade of John Howard's conservatism.
A popular racism has crept out of hiding and people feel free to say in public what they've previously confined to their living rooms. Although Melbourne is now emerging as the inter-faith capital of Australia, the old anti-racist secular alliances have been slow to reconfigure themselves, and the new players -- the ubiquitous bloggers -- sweep everything before them, often in grandiose flows of hate speech.
Today racism has its own pecking order of targets: Aborigines; the Vietnamese; young troubled men from Somalia and Sudan. Islamophobia is rife.
Australian Muslims live in the shadow of hostility, attitudes have hardened against them as they've graduated into a perceived problem with potential enemy status. The dreary monologue about Muslim women is ongoing; the annual hijab debate has become a fixture on the calendar only recently replaced by calls to ban the burqa.
When the Cronulla riots happened in 2008, my Muslim friends and I told one another: "Oh, Cronulla couldn't possibly happen in Melbourne, it's a Sydney disease." I observed that Sydney Muslims behaved like typical Sydneysiders: brash, outspoken, ready to march on Parliament.
In Melbourne, Muslims were more likely to organise a workshop, act collectively and avoid the spotlight -- just like typical Melburnians.
But today in Melbourne racism wears a new face. With the attacks on Indian students we've morphed into a city of denial where politicians and senior police blame the victim: "Talk quietly," (meaning speak more English); "hide your iPods, don't draw attention to yourselves". The word "assimilation" is trotted out regularly. We can no longer point the finger at Sydney and Cronulla. Nasty racist things are happening in Melbourne and our pride's been dented.
For a decade we have drifted away from the acceptance of racial and cultural diversity as an integral part of Australian society. There is a strong belief that some people are more Australian than others, that your loyalty as a citizen and your attachment to Australia is measured by how long you have lived here. Drunken adolescents who drape themselves in the Australian flag believe that their behaviour transforms them into an Australian Ubermensch defending their homeland.
The cycle of abuse can only be broken if politicians and police stop denying there is a problem, take a strong public stand and allocate money for community education campaigns. Tensions arising from differences in race and ethnicity need to be resolved -- not swept under the carpet. Funding symbolic "harmony" days once a year doesn't bring results -- what happens on the other 364 days?
I want the old pre-Howard Melbourne back again. As Nicky Winmar and Michael Long demonstrated years ago, racism can be confronted and revealed for what it is: mean-spirited, cruel and destructive. The AFL footballers confronted the racists in the footy crowds, shaming the redneck elements by declaring pride in their identity -- and we stood and cheered. Racism had been publicly outed and was not to be ignored or tolerated any more.
Surely it's time that we stop burying our heads in the sand and become the people that we think we are.
Mike Steketee: Hanson's ghost still haunts our refugee policy
Courage is a thing of the past as both sides of politics callously pander to xenophobia
Petro Georgiou, the Liberal backbencher who has led the fight in the Coalition for a more humane policy towards refugees, told parliament in his farewell speech last week that he remained optimistic that politicians would "elevate hope above fear and tolerance above prejudice".
However, that requires courage of the kind shown by Malcolm Fraser, Georgiou's former boss, who accepted 70,000 refugees from South Vietnam when the corpse of the White Australia policy was still warm.
It needs the leadership of Ben Chifley, who opened the doors to Jewish refugees after World War II, and of Robert Menzies, who was prime minister when Australia became the sixth country to sign the UN refugee convention.
Today the leadership on refugee policy comes from beyond the political grave in the form of Pauline Hanson. She came up with the idea in 1998 of temporary visas for refugees, a proposal considered so offensive that then immigration minister Philip Ruddock called it "highly unconscionable in a way that most thinking people would clearly reject".
A few years later he implemented it. It left people's lives in a fearful limbo; even after they had been assessed as refugees, it prevented them travelling overseas and it stopped families joining them, meaning more women and children came by boat.
But Tony Abbott has returned to it anyway, together with the Pacific Solution of offshore processing that Oxfam estimated cost taxpayers $500,000 for each person processed and resulted in most of them eventually coming to Australia as refugees anyway. Georgiou rightly characterises these policies as cruel.
It is the politics of fear over hope and it comes complete with a Liberal advertisement showing a map with red arrows reaching from Asia to Australia, redolent of the yellow peril and Hanson's warning about being swamped by Asians.
The fear is irrational, as there is no threat from the 2000 to 5000 asylum-seekers who come by boat each year, particularly when more arrive by air; our annual quota of refugees, including fluctuating numbers of boatpeople, has remained basically unchanged at about 13,000 for years and, depending on how we count them, we took 200,000 to 300,000 immigrants in the past year.
That is not to say we should not look for ways to discourage people making dangerous voyages across the open sea, especially if we can provide them with alternatives. John Menadue, a former head of the departments of Immigration and Prime Minister and Cabinet, gives one example: Australia could offer to take 3000 to 5000 Tamils from resettlement camps in Sri Lanka.
"Such an approach of processing and accepting people 'in country' would send a message to would-be asylum-seekers that the Australian government intends to treat the problem at source and not on the Australian coast," he says. That, too, would require leadership.
By coincidence, Kevin Rudd took up the same theme as Georgiou last week. "Hope triumphing over fear" was part of the continuing purpose of the Labor Party, he said in a speech to mark the 100th anniversary of the election of Andrew Fisher as head of the first majority Labor government in the world.
He committed to leading a government grounded in this enduring Labor value and drew a contrast with his opponents, "who just want to slither into office on a string of fear campaigns", including the fear of genuine refugees.
Rudd told the Labor caucus last week that he would not engage in a race to the bottom with the Coalition on refugee policy. But by then he already had succumbed to the politics of fear, his actions abdicating the very leadership that his rhetoric was pretending to offer.
The government may have broken the odd promise or 10, but there is one that it has implemented even quicker than it said it would. In April, Immigration Minister Chris Evans announced he was suspending the processing of asylum claims from Sri Lanka for three months and from Afghanistan for six months.
Foreign Minister Stephen Smith said on the same day these periods were chosen in the hope that they would allow the circumstances in these countries to be clarified. He emphasised that the UN High Commissioner for Refugees was reviewing the situation in both.
Evans added: "There's an increasing expectation from the Australian government that the number of people found to be refugees from Sri Lanka and Afghanistan will decrease."
But the government has waited neither for the end of the suspensions nor for the UNHCR reports to turn its expectation into reality. For most of the period of the Rudd government, 90 per cent to 95 per cent of the claims by asylum-seekers -- the vast majority from Sri Lanka and Afghanistan -- have been accepted. Now refugee groups are hearing reports that up to 50 per cent of Afghan claims are being rejected.
Questions to Evans's office received the response that 480 claims from all nationalities had been rejected in the past 18 months and more than 220 of these had been in recent months.
Remarkably, it was unable to provide the figures for total claims during this period or the proportions rejected.
The government's actions are a dead giveaway: the April announcement never was primarily about reassessing the situation in Sri Lanka and Afghanistan. If it had been, the government would have waited for the end of the suspension period and for the fresh UNHCR assessments.
Instead, its priority has been to send a message to Australian voters and to asylum-seekers that the government was toughening up. The suspensions were nothing more than a part of that political strategy.
Otherwise, why would the government continue to assess the claims of those who arrived a day before the announcement of the suspension, but freeze the applications of those who came a day later?
Perhaps the situation in Sri Lanka and Afghanistan has improved sufficiently for some of those claiming asylum to return. The civil war in Sri Lanka is over and elections have been held.
However, a state of emergency is still in force and there are continuing reports of harassment of Tamils and worse.
In Afghanistan the situation is complex and variable, with conflict raging in some areas while others are relatively peaceful.
According to the Australian National University's William Maley, Australia's leading expert on Afghanistan and a regular visitor to the country, it is "frankly bizarre" for the Rudd government to claim that the fall of the Taliban and constitutional and legal reform have improved the circumstances of minorities such as the Hazara, the ethnic group to which nearly all of the Afghans who seek asylum in Australia belong.
"The rule of law is so weak in Afghanistan that 'constitutional and legal reform to protect minorities' rights' is virtually meaningless and the Taliban, of course, are back with a vengeance, emboldened by the fraud that marred the August 2009 presidential election," he wrote in The Canberra Times this week.
He added that there were credible reports of vicious attacks on Hazaras in one province. He also quoted the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade's travel warning that "the security situation throughout Afghanistan remains extremely dangerous" and the UN estimate that 2009 was the worst year for civilian fatalities since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001.
Unlike the Rudd government, the UNHCR attaches no particular significance to its country reviews of Sri Lanka and Afghanistan. They are part of its regular cycle of updated assessments.
Though they will take into account changing circumstances, particularly in Sri Lanka, "if the government thinks they will provide chapter and verse on how to screen everyone out, they are not going to get that", according to one person familiar with the process. That may be why the government has not waited for the reports.
Robert Manne: Have we escaped our past?
Robert Manne is professor of politics at La Trobe University and author and editor of many books, most recently 'Goodbye to All That' with David McKnight.
Two forms of racism were located at the heart of the Australian experience of nation-building. Across the continent, as justification for the occupation of their land, the settlers mounted a prolonged attack on the barbarity of the indigenous ''savages''. Racism also provided the basis for strict border control. The White Australia Policy was founded on the fear that, unless repelled, Australia would be swamped by the Asian millions.
If I had been asked 15 years ago to answer the question - has Australia escaped this racist past? - I would have been inclined to answer yes.
The situation in the mid 1990s can be summarised like this: the Australian government was committed to the process of reconciliation with the Aboriginal people. There was no political tendency or school of history that denied that, in the destruction of Aboriginal society, a terrible wrong had been done. Great hopes were held for the revival of traditional Aboriginal communities through ''self-determination''. Arguments for slowing the rate of Asian immigration had been successfully resisted. There was no asylum seeker issue and therefore no talk about ''border control''.
It is now clear that the belief that Australia had successfully transcended its racist past was at least in part an illusion. In mid-1990s Australia anti-racist values predominated only among the well-educated and the well-heeled.
In 1996, a populist backlash against anti-racism, by now re-described as ''political correctness'', exploded. The One Nation Party of Pauline Hanson argued that Aborigines were being accorded privileges at the expense of ordinary Australians. It maintained that Australia was being swamped, first, by Asian immigrants and, later, by Muslim asylum seekers. These views were popular. At its height One Nation was able to gain nearly one-quarter of the votes in Queensland and 10 per cent of the votes in Australia as a whole.
The Howard government watched the emergence of One Nation attentively. In regard to the issues raised in the backlash, the government began to pick and choose.
Concerning indigenous Australians, the government abandoned the movement towards reconciliation. It refused to apologise to the stolen generations. When a revisionist school of history emerged, denying the depth of the injustice of the dispossession, it sympathised. In rightly recognising the failure of the movement towards self-determination, the government provided sanction for the revived public expression of apparently banished feelings of anti-Aboriginal contempt.
The Howard government did not share One Nation's nostalgia for White Australia. But it did share its hostility to mainly Muslim asylum seekers. Even though Australia had a smaller asylum seeker ''problem'' than any major Western nation, Australian politics became obsessed with the question of border control. In the government's grotesquely disproportionate response to the arrival of asylum seeker boats - first incarceration and then military repulsion - the shadow still cast by the legacy of White Australia could unmistakably be seen.
By this time the Howard government had not merely abandoned all talk of multiculturalism. Following September 11, it began to incite popular anti-Muslim feeling for political gain. Gratuitously, it questioned the loyalty of Muslim citizens some of whom had been successfully settled in Australia as long as 40 years ago.
The one-off Anti-Muslim riots at Cronulla in 2005, led not by hoons but by young people of ''middle Australian appearance'', provided a warning about the rise of racism and its near-cousin, Islamophobia. For many people, an even uglier warning was provided by the recent sequence of vicious attacks on Indian students in Melbourne.
The Rudd government has not been able to undo the profound cultural movement towards the normalisation of racism and Islamophobia that took place during the Howard years.
Although it offered an apology to the stolen generations, it has shown little interest since then in the process of reconciliation. Although it has abandoned its predecessor's anti-Muslim rhetoric, it has not restored the earlier multicultural rhetoric or aspiration. Although it sought to detoxify the Howard legacy on asylum seekers, as boats began arriving its rhetoric and its actions began to change.
The Rudd government now faces a Liberal Party that has returned with popular support to the most punitive brand of asylum seeker policies. It now governs in a society where racism and Islamophobia, provided by talkback radio and the columns and blogs of the right-wing commentariat, form part of many citizens' daily diet.
The meaning of all this seems clear. from the 1960s many Australians finally recognised the common humanity they shared with indigenous Australians. Mass Asian migration proved a remarkable success. Because of this, in the mid 1990s it was possible to believe that Australia had emancipated itself from the darker aspects of its history.
Fifteen years after the arrival of the backlash against anti-racism, it has become obvious that self-congratulation on having escaped from the shadow of its racist past is delusional.
Hardline policy on asylum seekers won't work
Sydney Morning Herald
Abdul Karim Hekmat is a human rights advocate and a youth worker.
As a former detainee of Curtin detention centre and a refugee from Afghanistan I found it hard watching the Insight program "Stopping the Boats" on SBS last week. It was a frightening reminder of my time in detention and under a Temporary Protection Visa when former immigration minister Philip Ruddock denied that suspension had happened during his time and that his inhuman policy did not cause harm to former detainees and children.
I spent five months in the Curtin centre, a remote, ill-equipped, under-resourced camp in Western Australia. I saw the process for 60 asylum seekers, mostly from Afghanistan, suspended for six months in 2001 without any reason. They were simply told by the immigration officials that their applications did not meet the UN High Commissioner For Refugees criteria. The rejection was in fact announced before they were even interviewed.
The suspended asylum seekers were cut off from the world; in complete despair and frustration, they went on hunger strike and cut themselves. The detainees were asking why the Australian government applied this double standard. Out of 700-800 detainees in Curtin, only 60 were told that their applications were no longer to be processed. I had friends coming on the same boat whose applications were suspended without reason. However, immigration officials spelt out to detainees that this was to deter others from coming.
I find both main parties' positions towards refugees disturbing. The Labour government suspended the processing of asylum seekers' applications from Afghanistan and Sri Lanka. But Opposition Leader Tony Abbott's hardline policy is even more upsetting. He has announced that a Coalition government would reintroduce TPVs and a "Pacific-style" solution. Long-time Liberal MP Petro Georgiou, in a speech in Parliament to mark his departure from politics, condemned both sides for a "regression" on asylum seeker policy.
The policy to reintroduce TPVs, in particular, is morally repugnant. It is also cruel, arbitrary, carries a huge economic and social cost and is ineffective as a deterrent to those seeking asylum.
It must be stated again that under refugee conventions it is not illegal to cross borders and seek asylum. Unfortunately, most future asylum seekers don't know what TPV entails and what it is like to live under uncertain conditions. Their immediate concern is to get themselves and their families somewhere safe. The possibility of receiving a TPV does not affect them. I learned about the TPV before I arrived, however, nothing prepared me for what it would be like living under such a visa -- not being able to get an education, to join your family or learn the English language through government-funded programs usually provided to other refugees.
It is devastating for the already traumatised refugees to live under TPV and in an indefinite detention centre either in or outside Australia. The pernicious impact of the detention centre and rehabilitation cost have been well-documented. Ruddock has remained unapologetic, even in the face of the known disastrous consequences of this policy on people in detention centres and on TPV holders, particularly on children living behind razor wire.
It goes against the spirit and the kind of society that Australia aspires to be -- one that gives everyone a "fair go". Eventually, refugees with a valid claim for asylum will become part of our society, just as I have after several years in a state of limbo.
In essence, our politicians risk punishing the vulnerable people for the sake of political gain. There must be another way to deal with the surge of asylum seekers without punishing them. The experience has shown that almost all of the about 9000 TPV holders that had arrived 1999-2002 are our fellow citizens now.
Refugees in the past have contributed to the Australian economy and have filled the skill and labour shortages. A recognition of this, particularly in rural areas, was the Liberal government's softening of TPV policies in 2004.
As for the deterrent argument, even if one accepts that TPVs have this effect, there are moral questions that need to be answered. Is it ethical to punish one group of asylum seekers to deter others? Is it morally justified to keep people away from their families, children for three to five years, not allowing them to get an education or have access to social services just to discourage others from coming?
In another 50 years what will Australia think about the treatment of refugees? For the stolen children of indigenous people, it took more than 50 years for the government to realise and then apologise for that practice. I wonder how long it will take to realise that the mistreatment of asylum seekers for political purpose is wrong.
I believe Australia can stand for something larger than politics. My experience as a refugee, despite some odds has overwhelmingly been enriching. Let's not panic and de-humanise others who come to our shores.
Ben Saul: How labor came a cropper on human rights
Associate professor Ben Saul is co-director of the Sydney Centre for International Law at Sydney University and a barrister acting for Sheikh Mansour Leghaei.
A signature of the Kevin 07 campaign, and one reason for its success, was a pledge to remake Australia into a good global citizen after human-rights problems under John Howard.
Despite starting well, in recent months the Rudd government's leadership credentials on human rights have begun to fall apart.
Labor is bleeding votes to the Greens, and some to the opposition, because it is now seen to stand for nothing: it is neither as tough on easy targets as the opposition, nor as decent as the Greens.
Lurching a bit to the right, but not far enough, is an odd political strategy that wins few votes and alienates many.
One of the lessons of the 2007 election is that Australians respond well to strong leadership on human rights and warm to prime ministers who fight for principles.
From its early days in office, the Rudd government did (almost) everything human-rights advocates could have dreamed of, despite a few wobbles over the death penalty in Asia.
Globally, it signed new treaties on disability and women's rights and against torture, as well as (eventually) supporting the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
It got Australians elected as chair of the new UN disabilities committee and on to a key UN body for indigenous peoples; it sought a seat on the Security Council, pursuing global governance over unilateralism; it invited specialised UN human-rights bodies to visit Australia at any time; it increased foreign aid; and it gave more money to the Khmer Rouge tribunal in Cambodia.
Domestically, the government moved swiftly.
It made refugee and asylum policy less punitive and detention more humane, including the abolition of the Pacific Solution and temporary protection; its same-sex entitlements laws reduced discrimination; it apologised to the stolen generations; it inched towards paid parental leave in a difficult economic climate; and it gave legal aid a much needed boost.
New torture offences were introduced, the death penalty prohibited, reform of anti-discrimination law has been flagged and some of the hard edges were even knocked off the anti-terrorism laws.
All of this was impressive, particularly against the low bar set by the Howard government.
But if it all started well, it didn't take long for things to slip.
No compensation followed the apology to the stolen generations, despite money being the litmus test of genuine concern, and the Northern Territory intervention continues to inflict racial discrimination and humiliation.
Some of the most controversial aspects of the terrorism laws, such as control orders, preventive detention and ASIO powers, remain untouched; legal aid remains grossly underfunded by at least $170 million a year; attention to war-crimes prosecutions is negligible (not a single war criminal has been prosecuted in Australia in 60 years, and not for lack of suspects); and after 35 years, a decision still hasn't been made about Indonesia's execution of five journalists at Balibo, let alone crimes against the East Timorese.
By mid 2010, the landslips on human rights turned into an avalanche and, faced with a resurgent and rabid opposition, Rudd's strategy has been to toughen up on "soft" human-rights issues.
Despite denying a "race to the bottom", Rudd has attempted to outflank the opposition on border protection: processing Afghans and Sri Lankans has been suspended, despite being discriminatory and leading inevitably to arbitrary detention; remote new detention centres are being opened despite the acute mental health risks to detainees; and new people-smuggling laws potentially criminalise supporters of asylum seekers and even innocent rescues at sea.
The language of border security has again replaced the language of freedom.
Of course, the government was never going to succeed in being tougher than the opposition on refugees, so it is no surprise Abbott has dusted off Howard's policies.
No one should then expect the Rudd government to fix other areas of migration law that violate rights, such as the denial of social security to new migrants or the health screening out of migrants with disabilities or AIDS.
Despite signing up to every human-rights treaty under the sun, it is in individual cases that the rubber hits the road.
The government is determined to deport moderate Iranian religious sheikh Mansour Leghaei despite a UN Human Rights Committee order not to do so.
ASIO claims Sheikh Leghaei is a security risk, but he has never been told why.
In the Kafkaesque manner of communist and fascist countries, a family will be torn apart based on secret evidence and faceless accusers. No civilised country in Europe does that, because those countries take human rights seriously.
They balance the right to a fair hearing against security concerns, despite facing more acute dangers than does Australia.
Australia is yet to respond to another UN finding that the post-sentence detention of sex offenders is arbitrary, unlawful detention, but no one, particularly paedophiles, should hold their breath in a country like ours.
One reason for Australian exceptionalism is the absence of a bill of rights, for which the current government bears a heavy responsibility.
Despite the fanfare around Frank Brennan's human-rights consultation and its recommendation for a human-rights act, the government's response was one of the greatest fizzers in human-rights history: funding will be provided to educate Australians about rights they cannot enforce by law; a parliamentary committee will examine the impacts of bills on rights, which happens already through Senate committees that governments routinely ignore; the government will meet non-government organisations more often and send a human-rights plan to Geneva.
One could faint at the ambition of it all.
When elected in 2007, the government had political capital in spades and could have adopted the same rights protections every other civilised democracy enjoys.
But Rudd's cabinet appeared spooked that parliamentary sovereignty would be infringed, which is precisely the point when parliaments repeatedly violate or ignore human rights.
True democracy requires politicians to accept constraints rather than coveting unbridled power over the vulnerable -- a point lost on Australian governments.
In foreign policy, the government's record is underwhelming.
Australia protested that Israel tinkered with our passports but said little about Israel's assassinations or its devastating blockade of Gaza; we remain one of the world's largest importers of phosphate fertiliser from occupied Western Sahara, assisting Morocco in its illegal plunder of resources; and we still expect Arab and African countries to vote us on to the Security Council.
It is time our political leaders broke from the debilitating conventional wisdom in Australian politics: the view that most Australians are red-neck mugs whose compassion extends only to themselves and their mortgages.