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Australian Human Rights: The Ugly Truth

We all would prefer to see Australia as the “fair go” country – that we are hospitable and respectful to all walks of life – but, we are not. 

It is an ugly truth, unfortunately. It’s happening right under our noses and most of us are just letting it happen. Indeed, I believe the Australian people offer respect in every sense of the word to people who deserve it, but that does not justify the actions of our government. Recently, we have turned a blind eye to atrocities happening in our neighbour’s backyard which was the consequence of a policy our government created. We have seen a national opinion poll on same-sex marriage flung upon the Australian public, affording a stage to people to voice their vitriol and slippery slope arguments to the detriment of the few. And even the first people of this land, who are not recognised as such in our constitution, lead lives that are less privileged than the rest of us. This is my case to call for a fairer Australia.

Earlier in the decade, Australia faced a flood of immigrants fleeing their own country as people smugglers loaded them up on boats and sent them here. Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott stopped that by sending these people to Manus Island or Nauru for indefinite detention via Operation Sovereign Borders. And while it did stop the boats and save a lot of money, the prevailing question is at what cost? Of course, ending the policy will likely see a surge in new arrivals, which could threaten the security of this great nation. But, with all the arising consequences has it really been viable? Inmates at Nauru are regularly receiving threats and violent outbursts from the surrounding local community. Self-harm and suicide are prevalent among the inmates. According to The Guardian, two inmates in May 2016 burned themselves alive as a sacrifice to gain attention to the oppressive nature of locking up people whose only crime was fleeing their country for a better life.

Inasmuch, one of the main issues of asylum seekers travelling by boat is drowning at sea, which appeared to be the main factor for implementing the policy. So the ultimate question here is whether it is justifiable to lock people up indefinitely as a tactic to deter people smugglers and save lives? What makes this question more pertinent is when you consider that these are real people, and a good portion of them are truly seeking a better life. Sure, as seen in the recent spate of attacks in Britain, there will be some bad eggs. However, the crux of the matter falls on the people smugglers, who are the ultimate culprit with which the federal government wants to stop. The asylum seekers and refugees in detention are simply just the pawns.

So are there more viable options out there, options that could save asylum seekers and refugees indefinite time in detention and stop the boats? Well, according to Peter Mares through an ABC article, there is:

“A more humane and ultimately more effective way of addressing forced and irregular migration is to adopt long-term strategies that will reduce the number of asylum seekers wishing to get on boats in Indonesia or elsewhere. This approach requires us to engage with the issue of why people feel compelled to leave their home countries.”

This makes sense. But on the practical level, it’s a lot more diplomatic and long term, something which our government is not entirely experienced in. I mean, look at the NBN for example. Look at the constant barrage of comments about privatising Medicare. Look at the fate of the same-sex marriage bill, where conservatives want to add crazy amendments to the proposed same-sex marriage bill so it fails to pass. In the end, all I know for certain is that locking people up indefinitely because they are fleeing their own unstable country is not a nice thing to do.

Speaking of same-sex marriage, are you sick of it yet? I am. Everyone is! Instead of going through another conscience vote, instead of writing up their own amendments, instead of dealing with the social justice issue like any other social justice issue, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has decided to lengthen the political process and call the whole of Australia to fill out a one-question survey – as if they’re all going to get gay married.

Brisbane: Crowds making love heart sign at Marriage Equality Rally. Image: paintings / Shutterstock.com

To put this into perspective, imagine if we were voting on whether interracial couples could marry, or whether people with disabilities could marry, or whether everyone named John could marry. You wouldn’t want to. And yet, the whole of Australia gets to whine about what less than 10 percent of the population can do. As if two guys getting married will change the school curriculum (it doesn’t, the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority do that). Or whether two women getting married will destroy gender identity (it won’t, you will still be able to label yourself as a man with an innate penis or a woman with an innate vagina – if you so wish to). Or whether your child will turn gay because he heard Sean and William got married (would you turn gay, just for a day? No? It’s not your cup of tea? Well, now you know how Sean and William feel about women).

And lastly, we have an issue that has transcended our list of past governments: Indigenous affairs. For over 200 years we have a barbaric history of treating the first people of this nation like chattel. But, we’ve moved past that. Indigenous people are treated like normal citizens today. They can work, they can learn, they can become politicians if they please. On the flip side, however, Indigenous peoples are overrepresented in the criminal justice system, Indigenous peoples have a lower health expectancy than the national average, Indigenous peoples are more likely to experience homelessness, and Indigenous people are more likely to be unemployed. And if you think that is their own responsibility, please watch this video below

According to Human Rights Australia, the onus is on the federal government, with the first step being to amend the Australian Constitution “to recognise Indigenous peoples in the preamble and to require that all laws do not discriminate on the basis of race.” But will changing a 116-year-old document really achieve anything?

“Piecemeal constitutional modernisation is not a solution,” said Helen Irving in the Sydney Morning Herald, a professor of law at the University of Sydney. “A provision acknowledging Australia’s first people will sit awkwardly, like a new wing on an unrenovated building. If Australia is to rethink its heritage and core commitments, the whole constitution – including its placement in a British act – should be re-examined.”

One must remember that the constitution was written over 116 years ago, a couple of months before the Immigration Restriction Act came into law – the catalyst for the White Australia Policy. And since it’s conception, only eight amendments were ever made: One on Senate elections, two on state debts, one on social services, one on the retirement of judges, one on the referendum process, one on Senate casual vacancies, and, of course, the 1967 referendum on Indigenous people. All of these passed. But it’s rhetoric remains the same. The Australian constitution’s preamble (or introduction) reads like an evangelical pastor giving a sermon, with the words “Almighty God” screeching across the page. Which is ironic, considering the biggest religion in Australia today is atheism, a change from the high proportion of Christians back in 1901. But, the ‘evangelicalness’ of the constitution’s preamble is reflective of the White Australia Policy which followed Australia’s federation.

“The creators of the constitution were men of their time, and they delivered to the new federation a document reflective of the political and social imperatives of their day,” said Patrick Dodson in the Sydney Morning Herald, Aboriginal elder and senator for Western Australia. “But the writers of the founding document of the nation always imagined and incorporated a capacity for the nation to adapt to new times and changed circumstances.”

And when we consider the current political discourse surrounding Australia day, we can only wonder about the social change for the future. For this matter, though, I’ll leave it to Australia’s first Aboriginal federal MP, Linda Burney:

Speaking with the Project on truth telling in our history 22/8/17

This week, I spoke to The Project about the importance of truth telling in our history; to acknowledge past injustices; and to embrace the history of First Australians. We've come a long way in our schools and how we teach our children. But we've still got a long way to go. 26 January means many things to many people, but for many First Australians, it remains a painful day. That's why I propose an additional national public holiday that celebrates First Australians and to promote reconciliation. A day that everyone can get behind and enjoy.

Posted by Linda Burney on Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Australia is a great country – always has and always will be. Our multicultural attitudes have paved way for a population that embraces cultures and ethnicities. We are a fair country in that sense. But we’ve got to let go of history. We’ve got to decommission it and put it up in a museum somewhere so we can look at it and remember what not to do. We also need a government that can deal with issues head-on, a government that doesn’t sweep it off to the side or gets the whole population involved when it gets too hard to deal with. As if homosexual rights, aboriginal rights and refugee rights are the mother-in-laws of social justice issues. But most of all we need a government with which we can happily and certainly call “fair go”.

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