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Australia's reaction to the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami: triggered by guilt and pay-off?

A case of tsunamitis?

Five eloquent thinkers and writers share their thoughts about the 2004 Boxing Day disaster and Australia's subsequent appeal and response

What on earth happened after the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami? Was Australia showing its true colours with the tremendous outpouring of compassion when we became the most generous nation on the planet with our fast, immediate and seeming unending response to the relief appeal?

Now, Five eloquent thinkers and writers, within weeks of the disaster and Australia's subsequent response, have put pen to paper and share their thoughts.

Julian Burnside QC, lawyer Waleed Aly, The Age's opinion writer Misha Schubert, political writer Greg Barns, Chief Executive of the AFL Andrew Demetriou and women's issues author Anne Summers all reflect on the event and Australia's response.

Interestingly, for all of them our meanspiritedness towards refugees casts a shadow over our giving following the 2004 Boxing Day disaster.

Julian Burnside: A day of reflection
Wednesday 19 January 2005
Julian Burnside

As I write this, Australia is sharing a day of organised reflection, at the command of the Prime Minister. He has declared 16 January 2005 a National Day of Mourning and Reflection, in the wake of the tsunami disaster in which 160 000 people lost their lives. Rather than the officially prescribed one minute, I spent most of the day reflecting. It did not make me feel better.

Australia's response to the disaster has been creditable in many ways. The government initially offered a modest amount of financial aid. The public responded quickly and generously, in part no doubt because many Australians have holidayed in that part of Asia; in part because of the horrifying images which quickly began to saturate the media; in part because a number of Australians were dead or missing. The government quickly increased its aid package in several steps, to a total of $1 billion. Then Howard declared a day of national reflection.

All this would be to his, and our, credit if it did not stand in such marked contrast to other aspects of our record of compassion.

The tsunami struck on Boxing Day 2004. A couple of days later, while media coverage of the event was overwhelming every other news story, the Australian government deported two adults and six children, under cover of darkness. The Bakhtiyari family had become a cause celebre, having failed in their attempt to gain asylum here. If the family had been an ordinary family of failed asylum seekers, their removal from Australia could properly be seen as the orthodox operation of the Migration Act. However the case was not ordinary because it was notorious that the children had suffered terribly as a consequence of their incarceration by Australia and that, on any view of the facts, the children could not be blamed for their plight.

Opinions are sharply divided about the conduct of the parents: one camp says the parents were reckless opportunists, seeing to exploit Australia's generosity; the other camp says the parents did what any parent would do in order to save their children. There is substantial evidence that the family are genuine refugees; unfortunately, the debate was derailed by journalists onto the largely irrelevant question of whether the family came from Pakistan or Afghanistan. It is not in doubt that the Bakhtiyaris are Hazaras, an ethnic group whose territory runs diagonally across Afghanistan and into Pakistan, near Quetta. The Hazaras have been persecuted in both countries for centuries. Debating which side of the border they come from is as pointless as debating in 1939 whether a Jew came from Poland or Germany.

But whatever view might be taken of the parents' conduct in bringing the children here, it is clear that the children were vulnerable and innocent.

After three years in detention, Muntazar Bakhtiyari said:

I don't want to be in detention any more. Just bring me a gun and shoot me. You Australians you kill us already, you kill us every day. It's better to be dead. I tried to cut myself . ... I don't want to be in detention anymore. Without any crime we are in detention. We've been here three years. They've made us go crazy. Then we have to go back, crazy. Come and kill me. I don't want my life anymore. I'm sick of my life. It's a bad life. Nobody wants life like this.

At around the same time his brother Alamdar said:

We are dead person now. We are dead from our inside. We are eating, sleeping, eating, sleeping ... We are dead. Our life is gone now. No-one can help us. Nothing is there ... There is no justice ... My soul has gone from my inside. I feel dead ... Poor people in this world like rubbish on side of road. If they send us back we'll be like rubbish ...

It is chilling to consider that children can be driven to such sentiments as these. It is a matter of record that both boys tried several times to kill themselves.

The mistreatment of the Bakhtiyari family must be viewed on two levels: first the institutional aspects of mandatory detention set against international human rights norms; second the details of the gratuitous cruelty with which the system was applied in their case.

Like many other countries, Australia is a signatory to various international human rights instruments, in particular the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. In our treatment of the Bakhtiyari family (and many others like them) we have breached the most important of the obligations we undertook in the Convention on the Rights of the Child [1].

In addition to the provisions of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, Australia is in breach of several key provisions of the ICCPR, in particular Article 9 which forbids arbitrary detention and Article 10(1) which provides that 'All persons deprived of their liberty shall be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person.' Test that against the arbitrary and unregulated use of solitary confinement in immigration detention centres; and remember the terrified, crying face of Alamdar Bakhtiyari as he pressed against the silver palisade fence at Woomera: an image which should haunt all Australians.

Unfortunately, Australia does not regard its Convention obligations as having any effect on domestic law, so it is legally irrelevant that the treatment of children in immigration detention breaches so many of our Convention obligations.

Even if we accept mandatory detention as a given, a baseline for our standards, the treatment of the Bakhtiyari family has been marked by conspicuous and pointless cruelty. When Muntazar and Alamdar escaped from Woomera in early 2002 they went to the British High Commission to seek protection from the cruelty Australia was inflicting on them. Their father, Ali, was at that time in Sydney on a Temporary Protection Visa (it was later revoked, in retaliation for the public sympathy provoked by the boys' plight). The boys were taken from the British High Commission to Maribyrnong detention centre in Melbourne. Ali, who had not seen his sons for three years, said publicly that he was coming down to Melbourne to see them. The Department of Immigration chartered a plane to take them from Victoria to South Australia. They got the boys out of Maribyrnong a few hours before Ali could visit them. The whole affair was so public that it is clear the Department acted deliberately to prevent the father seeing his sons.

When Roquia Bakhtiyari was due to be confined with her sixth baby she was held under guard in a hospital in Adelaide, she was not allowed visitors or even flowers; she was not allowed to have a photograph of the baby when it was born.

The final, calculated steps in the Bakhtiyari case were taken at Christmas time: a poor advertisement, it might be thought, for the Christian message of kindness and charity. When all avenues of appeal for the family had been exhausted, the government refused to grant them visas on humanitarian grounds - something it had legal power to do. The family were grabbed in an early morning raid by the department. When the children were woken, the baby had a dirty nappy: Roquia was not allowed to change it. The younger girl wet her pants in fright: she was not allowed to change before the five-hour drive. Eventually the family was placed on a chartered flight in the early hours of the morning. They were sent to Thailand just days after the tsunami devastated the east coast of that country. Later they were transferred to Pakistan. After that, their fate is unknown.

The people smuggling trade has got the message: the boats stopped coming several years ago. Tearing the Bakhtiyari family out of Australia was pointless, heartless and vindictive. It has rid us of six children whose lives we have blighted.

Within a few days, Howard had announced that 16 January 2005 was to be a day of national reflection: a time to remember the victims of the tsunami and our own generous and compassionate response to that tragedy. As a country we fell for it. The Labor opposition, which had been wilfully silent about the Bakhtiyaris, supported the day of national self-congratulation. We saw something similar in the aftermath of the Bali bombing.

Howard's technique is to assess the public mood, then exploit it to the full. Instead of acting as a leader might (by leading, for example) Howard follows the prevailing mood and thereby lends legitimacy to the sentiment of the mob. Unfortunately, public opinion frequently turns on a skewed or incomplete version of the facts. In any event, moral questions are not decided by majority vote.

Howard's approach is good for his government because it guarantees majority support. It is dangerous for human rights, because the groups whose human rights are at risk are always unpopular minorities. Human rights discourse makes no sense at all unless tested against the treatment of unpopular groups. Howard's approach sends an uncomfortable message to all those who might one day be part of an unpopular group - members of 'Úlites', for example; or people whose ideas are regarded as contrary to the public good, or people who criticise the government.

It is here that Howard's fraudulent posturing on compassion becomes most apparent. Howard's government has successfully argued for the right to imprison asylum seekers for life, notwithstanding that they are innocent of any offence. His government has argued for the right to throw asylum seekers into solitary confinement at will. His government has disregarded every international criticism of our system of mandatory detention. He watched without concern as an Australian citizen, Mamdouh Habib, was tortured and imprisoned without charge by our allies, the USA. Now that Mr Habib is to be released without charge, Howard's government says Habib will get no apology and no compensation, but will be placed under surveillance.

Howard's mawkish displays of compassion ring false when set against his record of institutionalised child abuse and his contemptuous unconcern for Australian citizens held prisoner in Guantanamo Bay. His declaration of a National Day of Mourning and Reflection seems rather like the man who would kick a homeless person out of the way on entering a restaurant, but leave a generous tip for the waiter.

As 16 January 2005 dawned, I felt in no mood to celebrate Australia's compassion even though I applaud the help we are giving to the victims of the tsunami. There is something uncomfortable, and deeply embarrassing, about this celebration of our own generosity, so soon after our final act of vengeance against a family of innocent children.

[1] The following obligations (abbreviated for clarity) are imposed on us by the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Taking them in order of seriousness, we have breached all of them.

  1. Article 37(b): No child shall be deprived of his or her liberty unlawfully or arbitrarily. The arrest, detention or imprisonment of a child...shall be used only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time

  2. Article 37(c): Every child deprived of liberty shall be treated with humanity and respect for the inherent dignity of the human person and in a manner which takes into account the needs of persons of his or her age

  3. Article 19(1): take all appropriate legislative, administrative, social and educational measures to protect the child from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect or maltreatment...

  4. Article 22(1): take appropriate measures to ensure that a child who is seeking refugee status...shall receive appropriate protection and humanitarian assistance

  5. Article 6(2): ensure to the maximum extent possible the survival and development of the child

  6. Article 27: recognize the right of every child to a standard of living adequate for the child's physical, mental, spiritual, moral and social development

  7. Article 31(1): recognize the right of the child to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child

About the author: Julian Burnside QC is a Melbourne barrister, specializing in commercial litigation and human rights. This is a copy of an article from

The politicisation of Australian compassion

Political abstractions leave little room for compassion, writes Waleed Aly.

The Age
January 17, 2005

All over the country, restaurants and bars are collecting money for the victims of the Indian Ocean tsunami. The hosts of a dinner party to which I was invited last week collected donations from guests and they would not have been alone in doing so. The response of ordinary Australians to this tragic humanitarian crisis has been spontaneous and overwhelming.

The "waves of destruction" had generated a "wave of compassion" is how World Vision's Tim Costello described it last week. As I write this, Australians have donated somewhere in the order of $170 million to charities. That figure will quickly be outdated.

Costello is right. Ordinary Australians have responded to the call of catastrophe with resounding compassion.

So what would we do as a society if survivors of the tsunami made for our shores in any way they could in search of a better life? What if they did so without papers and without having stood in a queue? How far would our compassion go?

I have little doubt we would embrace them, understanding what they have suffered and what they now need. We would not tolerate our Government turning them away or detaining them indefinitely. That they did not meet an archaic legal definition of "refugee" would count for naught. We would think such legalism distasteful and puerile.

It is therefore tempting to ask what happened to our compassion for the suffering of the asylum seekers we locked up in the desert. Similarly, we might ponder the incongruity in our failure to find unanimous compassion for the Iraqi civilians, perhaps more than 100,000 of them, in whose deaths we have been partly complicit.

The easy way to reconcile this is to snigger that we are not nearly as compassionate as we pretend to be, or at least that our compassion is highly selective and, perhaps ultimately, self-serving. But that is a conclusion as mean-spirited as it is erroneous.

We responded to the tsunami victims because we saw their suffering. Widespread television coverage brought their pain into our living rooms and we found ways of connecting to, and identifying with, their loss. The tragedy was no longer abstract. It was human.

When we ignore the suffering of others it is because we are led to seeing the circumstances surrounding their pain in political, rather than human, terms. The suffering of asylum seekers was only ever marginal to the public conversation. The Government pushed abstract political concepts such as border protection, sovereignty and the integrity of the migration system to centre stage.

Similarly, the invasion of Iraq was not about the lives of ordinary Iraqis until it became politically necessary to invoke that rhetorical justification. Rather, the language was always about political abstractions such as national security and democracy. Thus, the political became concrete, and the people abstract.

The political aspects are undoubtedly important, and should definitely inform our response to these issues. Their presence in the discourse is not the problem. The problem is that the discourse has become so heavily politicised that arguments connecting to the human side seem automatically to inherit a kind of ignominy. Advocates are sure to be dismissed derisively as "bleeding hearts".

That is an insult now. We have reached the point where it is objectionable that hearts should bleed for these people. Indeed, they are not people. They are units of political significance. This clinical view of them precludes compassion.

This is not to say that politicians never speak of compassion. Indeed they do, just as John Howard invoked Australia's compassionate history as we locked up hundreds of people who would turn out to be refugees. After the tsunami, they are not just speaking about compassion, but politicising it. Australia's generous aid contribution is not merely charity, but as John Howard put it, "a historic step in Indonesian-Australian relations". US Secretary of State Colin Powell condescendingly hoped that the United States' relatively meagre aid package would send a message to the Muslim world so it would appreciate the true goodness of the United States.

That is good politics. If it brings good, it is great politics. But it is not unadulterated compassion, for that is not the stuff of government.

But it is the stuff of people, particularly ordinary Australians who can still recognise a human tragedy when it is presented to them. They have not found their compassion - they never lost it. It was simply politicised into irrelevance.

Waleed Aly is a Melbourne lawyer. This article first appeared as an opinion piece in The Age.

PM's arms not all-embracing

The unlikely sight of a buttoned-up politician throwing his arms around beefy bikies and dreadlocked young women can make you double-take.

The Age
By Misha Schubert
January 16, 2005

John Howard has a knack for handling a crisis. We saw it anew once the magnitude of the tsunami began to register. With access to advice from across the region, you would expect the Prime Minister of the day to grasp the extent of the crisis early and react with speed and flair. But Howard's instincts also played a role, guiding a response that was pitch perfect; prominent but not overplayed.

He found words of comfort for the victims, offered the nation a chance to grieve together on a national day of mourning, and authorised immediate specialist deployments on top of the biggest long-term aid package in our history. And he did much of it when he was meant to be on annual leave, recovering from a relentless year in one of the most gruelling jobs on offer.

It is not the first time he has shown us how well he responds in a tragedy. He has done it time and again. Take his response to the massacre at Port Arthur, where he showed us his own shock and, sensing a national mood for action, moved quickly to tighten the nation's gun laws. His speech at the memorial service in Parliament's Great Hall after the Bali bombing was also magnificent. Unscripted, simple, powerful. It hit the mark, articulating both grief and defiance in the face of such horror.

He's done it at other times too: hugging victims of the Canberra bushfires, and letting people cry into his crisply pressed shirt sleeves. It's not slick, of course. The hugs are clumsy, the back pats sometimes jar. The unlikely sight of a buttoned-up politician throwing his arms around beefy bikies and dreadlocked young women can make you double-take. But his gestures are often spot on in times of pain and loss.

Part of his gift lies in restraint. People want their leaders to speak to them, and for them, in difficult times, but we're still wary of politicians making mileage from such events. It's only a short leap from being a highly visible and comforting figure to being accused of using a situation for one's own advantage. Howard tends not to overstep.

And yet, for all his demonstrated talent at rising to the occasion, his compassion extends only so far. While those bereaved by nature's destructive power or acts of terrorism elicit his sympathy, others seem unable to move him. Like those who languish for years in desert detention camps, all the while in terror of a forced return to their homeland, before a belated and begrudging recognition that they are genuinely at risk. Or the raw grief of thousands of Aboriginal people robbed by government policies of that which Howard himself prizes above almost anything else: a warm and close relationship between parent and child.

How is it that a man who can so obviously empathise with the bereaved and the bruised can open his heart to some but seemingly close it to others? Why is it harder to walk a mile in some shoes and understand their need - just as keenly felt - for sympathy, comfort and recognition of what they have suffered? Why the reluctance to extend the same gestures of healing or apology?

Magnanimity is most potent when it comes as a surprise, or when it costs you something. But, in some ways, the big gestures we've seen from Howard in the past nine years have been easy, safe, costless. They fit squarely with the mainstream public sentiment on who deserves our sympathy and who does not. Wouldn't it be nice if our national leader pushed his boundaries - and ours - a little more with the reach of his compassion? As you are bringing the nation together this time, PM, and doing it so well, couldn't you spare a few hugs for others whose grief is less popular but every bit as real? [cropped link]

Our cynical and selective compassion

Online Opinion
By Greg Barns
posted Thursday, January 20, 2005

This article was first published in the Hobart Mercury on 10 January 2005.

While Australians are busy congratulating themselves on their generosity to victims of the Boxing Day tsunami, they might care to reflect on the fact that many of them are prepared to sanction the Howard Government's human rights abuses towards asylum seekers.

And those Australians who take some sort of bizarre comfort from Australia's joined-at-the-hip alliance with the Bush Administration might also care to consider that while the US is busying itself with aid to tsunami victims, it is contemplating locking people away forever without trial.

And perhaps Australian business, particularly those corporations like Qantas, the Commonwealth Bank and Macquarie Bank that have been puffing out their chests in recent days so we can see their bleeding hearts, might also now consider making as much effort to raise millions for the starving and dispossessed of war-ravaged zones such as southern Sudan and the Congo.

Forgive my cynicism, but if the tsunami had hit West Africa, one of the poorest areas of the globe, would Australians be digging as deeply into their pockets?

As The Economist magazine noted in its editorial this week, "the involvement in the disaster of so many resorts favoured by tourists from rich countries in the West and the richer parts of Asia has given it even more prominence in those countries than the sheer horror of the fatalities would have produced".

Is there not something deeply flawed about a society that expresses its horror at the devastation wreaked by tsunamis yet is largely indifferent to the Howard Government's draconian and inhumane eviction of a refugee family from its shores?

I refer here to the Bakhtiyari family, which Senator Vanstone sent packing recently. Is there not something deeply cynical about a society that applauds a government for sending billions of dollars in aid to the tsunami zone, yet shrugs its shoulders when that same government sends a bill for $1 million to the Bakhtiyari family for the cost of their quest for justice and freedom in Australia?

And why are Australians so generous to victims of the tsunami yet happy for government to lock young children behind razor wire in detention centres, split up families and allow mental illness to run rife in those same hell-holes, all in the name of border protection?

And do Australians give a toss about the lives of the desperate people of southern Sudan who have been driven from their homes and slaughtered by a Sudanese government determined to pursue ethnic cleansing? Or do they sleep less easily at night knowing that in the war-ravaged Congo, the government of the young President Joseph Kabila is desperately trying to sow the seeds of peace, in the face of widespread poverty and brutal military incursions by neighbouring Rwanda?

Then of course we have the Bush Administration, the most dangerous abuser of human rights in the democratic world. While Australians and Americans were organising their tsunami relief efforts, President George W. Bush has been outlining plans to lock away for life prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and other prisons - prisoners who have not been charged with any offence, let alone tried in the kangaroo court that passes for justice in the land of the free these days.

Are Australians marching the streets about this fundamentally inhumane and illegal conduct from its close ally? Unfortunately not. But not only is the selective compassion of many Australians and Americans these days disturbing, so is the behaviour of one of the media's favourite darlings, Tim Costello.

Mr Costello is the CEO of World Vision Australia and a prominent social justice campaigner. He has carved out a very favourable media image for himself in the past by being opposed to the high level of gambling in this country.

But Mr Costello has decided to accept a tsunami relief donation from a gambling group, Clubs NSW, because "this crisis is a humanitarian crisis beyond any differences, and even my well-known public stance on gambling".

According to Mr Costello, the level of devastation he saw in Sri Lanka was worse than what he had seen in Sudan and other parts of Africa. So one assumes that if there is ever - one dearly hopes there is not - another crisis that dwarfs the Boxing Day tsunami, Mr Costello will take donations from armaments companies or even tobacco companies.

Because that is the logic of his position.

The reality of the tsunami crisis is this: Humanity is always worth saving. Wherever abuse and suffering occurs, be it meted out by governments, humans or nature, we must not respond selectively. The Bahktiyaris, the prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, the people of southern Sudan and the Congo deserve our passion and commitment in the same way as the victims of the tsunamis.

But they are not getting it, and that is a real tragedy.

Greg Barns is a former state and federal government adviser and a Hobart based author. This article first appeared in Online Opinion.

Relief is for our reputation, too

The tsunami response has partly repaired the damage done by attitudes to asylum seekers, writes Anne Summers.

Sydney Morning Herald
January 13, 2005

When has the world responded so magnanimously to the tsunami disaster? The global outpouring has surpassed any relief effort, with amazing acts of generosity every day serving to spur further giving. There have been inspiring reports of individual big-heartedness, such as Sandra Bullock's $US1 million ($1.3 million) and, in Britain, national giving on such a scale that it exceeded the Government's donation.

Countries such as China, which have rarely got involved in global humanitarian relief, have made large gifts and even the tiny, impoverished nation of East Timor has parted with money, which it can ill-afford to do. From the US there are reports of charity websites crashing from the pressure of so many people trying to donate, while businesses such as the online bookseller rejigged its site to include a donations facility and raised more than $US3 million in one day.

The scale of the death and destruction has been huge but is far from being the worst the world has seen. As the Christian Science Monitor pointed out earlier this week, many more people have died as a result of ethnic violence in the eastern Congo - 3.8 million since 1998 - and millions more are displaced in the Darfur region of the Sudan. But these tragedies have not attracted anything like the same support.

"There are many reasons the Asian tsunami has commanded the world's attention in a manner which the Congo has not," the article commented. "It was sudden. It was dramatic. It happened during the holidays, a time when many in the West may be contemplating more than their own lives. And scenes of devastation were immediately beamed into the living rooms of the developed world."

The world has been swept away (to use one of the more overworked phrases of the past two weeks) on a surge of sympathy and a desire to do something.

The Australian response has been even more overwhelming. As of yesterday, private donations to relief agencies had been more than $170 million, with corporate and business giving more than $27 million, including 15 donations of $1 million or more. When the Australian Shareholders Association suggested that corporate giving be scaled back unless shareholder approval was obtained, it was howled down.

"This [tragedy] is so different from anything we have experienced. It is right on our doorstop and Australia has a very special role to play," said Katie Lahey, the chief executive of the Business Council of Australia. "We are rich ... and we can respond."

There has been a degree of competitiveness - a "my donation is bigger than yours" kind of thing - that has propelled business giving in particular to unprecedented heights. Many people are making more than one donation and there is barely a shop in the country that does not have a Red Cross tin at the counter. We have opened our hearts and our wallets in a way that has surprised us all. Why?

"Because it is Asia and it's a natural disaster," says Suzette Mitchell, executive director of the International Women's Development Agency, a tiny, Melbourne-based aid group that works with grassroots women's organisations in Asia and the Pacific. "Australians find it more difficult to relate to Africa and to disasters caused by civil wars, but Asia is a holiday destination for so many Australians and half the victims in Thailand were Europeans. We can relate to that."

Although we are close to Asia and many of us travel there, we have not always been so big-hearted. We are, after all, the same people who in October 2001 averted our eyes when the SIEV X, a creaky boat overladen with asylum seekers from Indonesia and bound for Australia, sank and 353 people, mostly woman and children, drowned. And we continue to tolerate those who do make it to our shores being locked up in detention centres for indefinite periods. While some are busy collecting for tsunami victims in Sri Lanka we should not overlook the fact that there are Sri Lankans detained at Baxter who cannot even get their visa applications processed.

I am sure we all feel great pride in the fact that our country heads the list of donor nations with our unparalleled billion-dollar rescue package for Indonesia, but in the same week that the Prime Minister, John Howard, announced this aid, the Finance Minister, Nick Minchin, confirmed a 50 per cent blow-out in the cost of the detention centre being constructed at Christmas Island.

We are spending $336 million on an 800-bed centre in this remote outpost even though, Minchin said in a press release, there has not been an unauthorised boat arrival at Christmas Island since December 2001. Why don't we send the money to provide beds for tsunami victims in their own countries? Some nations, such as Canada, are offering rapid-response immigration and family reunion facilities for people from tsunami-ravaged countries. Not us.

Nevertheless, our willingness to give so much should make us feel good about ourselves. Suzette Mitchell is surprised - "positively surprised", she says - at the generosity. "I'm not much of a flag waver," she told me yesterday, "but I've been buoyed by this."

I think we all have. Many who have felt so uncomfortable or even ashamed of our policies on asylum seekers can feel that finally we are doing the right thing. We have not totally closed our hearts to other people's misery and we are doing what we can with what we have - which is plenty. And we keep wanting to do more.

Last week, Mitchell sent out a heart-rending email reporting the appalling news from Sri Lanka that women and girls were being gang-raped in the camps. "After losing families, homes and livelihoods, women victims of the tsunami are facing fresh horrors," Mitchell wrote. She asked for money to "help protect and empower local women in the wake of this disaster". The response has been unprecedented, with many individuals who have already given to relief agencies saying they now want also to particularly help these women.

It is a further sign of the way we have opened our hearts. We may not fully understand why, but we know we have to keep on doing it.

Anne Summers is a best selling Australian author, journalist and speaker on political and social, especially women's, issues. Her website is at This article first appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald on January 13, 2005.

The Australia we should be

Have we lost our way as a compassionate, welcoming, generous nation? We're clearly not the country we were, writes Andrew Demetriou.

The Age
January 25, 2005
by Andrew Demetriou

Relaxed and Comfortable, but imprisoned in country

I am typical of the majority of Australians: the child - or descendant - of immigrants. In my case, my parents came from the ancient land of Cyprus in 1951, to an Australia that had only just reached middle age as a nation.

This was a time when Australia was a place for opportunity for all: despite its isolation, or perhaps because of it, visitors were treated with that quaint Australian form of respect - they allowed newcomers to do their own thing. The European way was, and is, much more about collectives, of working together for a common goal: my parents sensed this difference, and went their own way, no doubt watched curiously by the locals of Coburg. What else could my parents do?

The beauty of the time was that although they weren't overtly embraced, they were allowed to be whatever they wanted to be, without prejudice, without any sense of superiority: the Australians of the '50s wondered aloud about the strange habits of all these newcomers from Europe, but they let them be themselves, and this is a wonderful thing.

This was the start of a period of great diversity and cross-fertilisation and challenge; a period in which new met old. A period that brought enormous change to the way we are, the way we think - a period, through my parents, which has had such an enormous impact on me, and the way I look at the world.

In the '50s it was almost uniquely a European invasion. Today we are a mix of so many cultures, and nationalities, from Europe still, but masses of newcomers from Asia, from the Middle East, and from Africa, still pouring in - despite much tougher, and harder, entry conditions - adding to what we are as a country.

I wonder whether today's newcomers are allowed to be themselves, as were my parents: do we trust them like we did the Europeans of the postwar years? We trusted them in those days because we were sympathetic to their needs, because we had fought their war, and lost so many of our own in those battles. Many newcomers had come from war-ravaged states; most from poverty, or minimal opportunity.

Is that so different from what we see today? It isn't, but I'm afraid we have a more wary approach to newcomers than we did when my parents came. I can't quite work out why this is, but I suspect it's an indication that the whole world is less trusting of the unknown than it has been in its modern history.

Terrorism has played a huge part in this lack of trust, but so too has localised violence and predatory behaviour. All this builds up into a community, regional, state and national mindset. It impacts in strange ways. We have become wary, looking inward rather than looking out. We have closed down, rather than opened up.

How do we change that?

First we have to identify it as a problem, and if we do, find a solution. In that regard, I am glad that we have days like Australia Day, even though so many think of it as just another holiday. It is so important to have days of reflection, of challenge.

Reflection is based on a simple set of principles: where are we now? What brought us here? And where do we want to go? Add to that a few other givens: to get where we want to go, who can help us?

It's fascinating to apply those principles to the Australia we have today. We have just come through a terrible time - the tsunami of December 26. But that disaster has brought out the best of us as a nation. We have been, and continue to be, the most generous of nations, giving so much to support the massive task of rebuilding communities ripped apart by a freak of nature. As that renowned philosopher Ron Barassi said: "We have played well above our weight."

This is the Australia I love: instantly reacting to the needs of others. We asked no questions, we reacted immediately, we provided everything we could.

But does this outpouring represent what we really are as a nation? I'm not sure if it does.

Despite our response to the tsunami, we remain the conservative country we have become in recent years. When we, as a country, reflect on where we come from, we look narrowly, inwardly, rather than considering all the influences that have made us the country we are. Notwithstanding the massive support we have given to the tsunami appeal, we are more inclined to self-interest than sharing; more interested in surpluses than what we do with them, more interested in the stockmarket than the state of education and equality of opportunity.

We seem to have lost our sense of adventure, our sense of backing ourselves, our sense of looking towards tomorrow, preferring to worry about today.

I believe it's time to ask ourselves some key questions, as we reflect on what sort of country we are today. The first flows directly from that: what sort of nation are we building for the future? Can we continue to believe we are a just and sharing and inclusive society? Where to with reconciliation? Why isn't it at the top of our agenda? How does the rest of the world see us? And so on.

So how can Australia again become an adventurous, far-thinking, generous nation - one that always plays beyond its weight? We do it with leadership: not leadership from the prime minister down, but the community up. A groundswell for change.

The next decade is a watershed for us as a country. It will see the transition from the Howard era to another era: what will come after John Howard? Who can know?

All I can do is hope that the next generation of our leaders - whether Liberal or Labor - will think broadly and challenge their values and our values, rather than building barriers between us and a world in need.

One example: if a Tampa suddenly appeared on our borders today, I'd like to think we might ask how we embrace the people on board, rather than how to rid ourselves of the problem. I'd like to think we'd respond as we did when the tsunami struck, rather than how we did when the Tampa arrived, uninvited, on our shores. That's just part of a long list of wants and wishes I have for Australia: all connected to one overriding philosophy: to think beyond the moment, and beyond self-interest.

All this has given me a time to reflect on what I want for my twin daughters, Francesca and Alexandra, just 15 months old, with their whole lives ahead of them.

This is what I want for them, and it comes from the last thing the great Australian writer Morris West wrote before he died. He wrote: "My hope for the future is that we Australians may become a family, reconciled by mutual understanding and forgiveness, respectful of our differences in origin, race and creed, proud of our unity as a free nation, careful of each other and of this vast, dry fragile continent, which we are privileged to inhabit."

Andrew Demetriou is the chief executive of the AFL. This is an edited extract from his speech at the Australia Day lunch at Melbourne's Convention Centre last Friday.

This article first appeared in The Age on 25 January 2005