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Henry Thornton - SMERSH: A discussion of economic, social and political issues ASYLUM SEEKERS : FROM LOSE – LOSE TO WIN - WIN Date 25/02/2002
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Australia must change it policy on Asylum Seekers, as we have before with untenable positions.
By Neville J Roach, AO Email / Print

I acknowledge the Wurundjiri nation, the original owners of the land on which we are gathered. Population is usually discussed in terms of migration, with little said of the enormous and continuing suffering and loss modern migration has had on Australia’s original population. I hope that the outcomes of this summit start with the principle that Population policy and Australian Multiculturalism must have as their moral foundation genuine and lasting Reconciliation.

The debate on Asylum Seekers has degenerated into the adversarial rhetoric that characterises our politics and our sport, where it is always us and them, we win they lose, and vice versa. But this is not Australia versus the Asylum Seekers, as in Coalition versus Labor or Collingwood versus Carlton, where one side must lose for the other to win.

In relation to the Asylum Seekers, both they and we have become losers, with seemingly no way out of the current malaise. And yet, it would not take very much to move from despair to hope, with both Asylum Seekers and Australia emerging as winners. There can be no doubt that current policy is hurting us all. The Asylum Seekers have already lost or given up everything they had in their country of origin, endured enormous trauma and tragedy to get here, and our now suffering even more - either in detention centres, or as the most disadvantaged battlers in the Australian community, where they struggle to survive under their Temporary Protection Visas, which deny them even the most basic settlement services they need to find a job. No winners among them!

But, what about the rest of us, the Australian nation and community ? What are we winning ? Some would say the battle to protect our borders. But can anyone seriously suggest that a few thousand Asylum Seekers a year are a threat comparable to an invading foreign power that the term ‘border protection’ implies ? And this a country that in the past 60 years has accepted millions of migrants and refugees, including huge numbers of boat people from Indo-China and 40,000 overseas Chinese students that we decided to classify as refugees even before they asked for asylum! Moreover, if we were genuinely concerned about border protection, we would be endlessly checking and even body searching the millions of others who stream into Australia, including skilled migrants, business visitors, tourists and students, who come in with approved visas – a much easier and safer, and therefore more likely, method of entry for potential terrorists, criminals and drug smugglers, than risking everything on the mercies of people smugglers, leaky boats and the high seas.

If we are winning anything at all, it is a very minor battle indeed and our ‘victory’ comes at an enormous price, both in Australia and overseas. We now have a community that is more divided than it has been since the Vietnam war or the Dismissal. We have lost our faith in our political leaders, senior public servants and even those at the top of our Defence forces. There is serious disagreement and tension within and between the Public Service and the Defence Establishment – something that poses a very grave risk if our borders are ever genuinely in need of protection. As a community, we do not know who is telling the truth any more. In fact, the majority of Australians now believe that they have been lied to, or, at the very least, that several people at the highest levels of public office, have deliberately avoided discovering or communicating the truth. And prejudice, even overt racism, have reared their ugly heads, seriously threatening the community harmony that underpins Australian Multiculturalism.

We are also losers because the Asylum Seeker issue has become so dominant that it must be reducing the time and focus that other pressing responsibilities are receiving. How could our leaders give anything but cursory attention to such matters of national urgency as education, health, defence, aged care or in digenous affairs., when they are faced with non-stop and relentless questioning and cross-questioning by the Parliament, the media and the wider community ? And the damage goes further. The cost of border protection, detention centres and the Pacific Solution are all soaring to the extent that Tim Costello’s brother’s budget is threatened, and several other portfolios will have to bear the brunt. The Pacific Solution is also making us beholden to some very dubious regimes in our neighbourhood and driving policy change at the cost of significant principle.

And finally, whether we like it or not, our image overseas is taking an enormous battering, severely damaging our reputation as a welcoming multicultural society, hard-won by our non-discriminatory immigration policy, Australian Multiculturalism and the Olympic Games. This is hurting business and making Australia less attractive as a migration destination of choice, allowing our competitors to denigrate us as people who still exhibit racial, ethnic or religious prejudice. How could we ever hope to become insiders in the Asian region, when we are so fearful of people of Middle Eastern appearance or of the Islamic faith ?

Fortunately, it doesn’t have to end this way. We can still cut our losses and set out on the path to recovery. Pursuing a win-win resolution of the Asylum Seeker issue is, in my view, not just the most practical approach, it is the only one with any hope of success. But we must change direction urgently. Otherwise, the fallout of current policy could do irreparable damage to both the Asylum Seekers and the Australian community. The loss of integrity, trust and goodwill could become so ingrained in us as to permanently destroy the faith we have in each other and in our leaders. Intolerance, if allowed to develop for much longer, will become so entrenched that serious racial or ethnic violence could erupt , something we have been mercifully spared from so far.

Internationally, the White Australia tag will once again be applied to us, and shaking it off will become almost impossible. While a change of policy to one that is more accepting and supportive will clearly benefit the Asylum Seekers, how will it make Australia a winner ? The obvious first answer is that we will stop losing. Provided that the change is achieved by political consensus and is accompanied by strong leadership, all the damage we have suffered so far will soon stop and the healing process will begin. The Australian community will respond as positively as it has eventually always done to leadership-driven social policy change – as the widespread acceptance of the abandonment of the White Australia policy, the 1967 referendum recognising our indigenous brothers and sisters, and the settlement of the Indo-Chinese boat people, so conclusively attest.

But there is much more to be gained. Migrants and Refugees, including Asylum Seekers, have helped build modern Australia. The diversity that they bring to our society enriches all of us, making Australia a more vibrant and interesting place than any monocultural country could ever be. Multicultural skills and knowhow help us to access new markets and develop international networks. Our fastest growing service industries, education of overseas students and tourism, are so successful only because we are already comfortable with the diversity of our own population. White Australia may have been awarded the 1956 Olympics. Only Multicultural Australia could have won the 2000 games and only Multicultural Australia could have run them and welcomed the world so brilliantly. Temporary and permanent migrants also alleviate our severe skill shortages and make us collectively a more hard working and entrepreneurial community.

Most importantly, diversity unleashes innovation and creativity, the primary sources of wealth creation and prosperity in the Information Age.

Best of all, refugees provide greater diversity than skilled migrants, for the simple reason that with the latter we choose those most likely to fit in, in other words, most like us. Among refugees, Asylum Seekers provide the maximum diversity precisely because we play even less part in their selection than we do for those we accept from the queues we choose to service. European refugees breached the wall of insular British/Irish Australia after World War Two and I doubt that we were too particular about queues then. And the Indo-Chinese refugees, especially the ‘boat people’, finally laid White Australia to rest.

Australia coped with all these arrivals in the past in numbers that make the present Asylum Seeker so-called flood seem a trickle. In the process, we have been enormously enriched, by their collective and individual contribution. Two outstanding Australians that for me exemplify this, are Frank Lowy AC, head of the Westfield Empire, and Quang Luu, Head of Radio at SBS, a Vietnamese boat person, who was one of only three recognised on Australia Day as an Australian Achiever. So we have nothing to lose and everything to gain by changing our current policy.

Can we do it ? Of course we can. We have made much bigger policy changes before. Whether with the White Australia policy, the Vietnam war, or Native Title, we have learnt to walk away from untenable positions, no matter how deeply entrenched. And Australia has always been the better for it. Of course it will require great magnanimity and statesmanship, not only on the part of the Government, but also of the Opposition, the media and the community. We will all need to desist from any further negative rhetoric and stop adopting a position of righteousness, acknowledging that none of us can be certain how we might have acted if we had been in the other’s shoes, including the Government’s.

All this might seem like an impossible dream, but one we must pursue nonetheless for our sakes and for the sake of our children and grandchildren. In the end, the pragmatism and decency of the Australian people will prevail and we will say of current policy and its tragic consequences, “enough is enough”.

Change will come when our leaders realise that the present approach is no longer politically sustainable. Clearly, this will be more difficult for the Government, whose policy stance was so successful at the polls, to accept. However, if personal experience and anecdotal evidence are any indication, there is growing discomfort in coalition ranks that could eventually prompt a less extreme approach. The Opposition of course has the greater incentive and opportunity to change. Echoing the Government’s policy has been a disaster for them. They cannot expect to seize leadership if they continue to march to the Government’s drum.

Encouragingly, Simon Crean has signalled a few changes already and the Labor Party is engaged in a full-scale debate. A decisive policy shift, offering the community a clear choice, has to be their best option. While our political leaders may take time to accept the inevitability of change, the rest of us must show leadership and demand that change.

This Summit, with its national and non-adversarial style, can be a start. Hopefully, we will commit to a process of ongoing discussion, research and negotiation, encouraging the free expression of all views, including those supportive of current policy. That way, we can develop a proposal that addresses legitimate concerns, one we will have a chance of persuading our political leaders to adopt and the Australian community to accept. We will all be winners then!

[Editor's note: Neville Roach is Chairman, Fujitsu Australia Limited and Former Chairman, Council for Multicultural Australia, and Business (Migration) Advisory Panel. This is the text of his speech at the National Population Summit Melbourne, 25th February 2002.]

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