We Are A Much Better Country Than This

Where are our community leaders — and not just our political leaders —  when asylum seekers and refugees, the most vulnerable people on earth, are subject to such misinformation, prejudice, vilification and exploitation in an election campaign? We are surely a better country than the present “debate” suggests, writes John Menadue

Our media, and not just our tabloid media, have largely gone missing on this sensitive issue. The ABC television news and current affairs that I watch have been unprofessional in allowing misinformation about asylum seekers to fester. They obviously work on the assumption that if there are no pictures, like asylum seekers coming as ‘tourists’ by air, there is only news if they come by boat. But the facts as reported by the Australian Parliamentary Library show that the large majority of asylum seekers come by air. Apparently many come from China, who then make bogus claims concerning religious persecution. The ABC doesn’t think that issue is worth exploring

Where have our church leaders been — who are so vocal about the rights of the unborn, but careless about the rights of live refugees in desperate situations? What was that story about a family 2000 years ago who fled for protection to Egypt?

Where is the Jewish community — which has suffered more than any other group in history from persecution and have been forced to flee, often forced to pay people smugglers or brokers along the way?

Academics have given us their expertise on the economy and global warming, but scarcely a peep out of them on the denial of human rights to refugees. They allow the lie to persist that asylum seekers are “illegals”.

The business sector supports high migration levels, but is unwilling to face down the exaggerated claims about asylum seekers flooding Australia, and so seriously setting back the case for immigration. Only 1 per cent of our migrant intake are asylum seekers/refugees. We are not being “invaded” by asylum seekers as Tony Abbott wildly and unscrupulously claims.

The overseas development agencies ask us to help people in developing countries, but say little about the enormous burdens that refugees place on poor countries such as Pakistan, Syria and Jordan. When disastrous floods strike the outcast and marginalised have no margin of safety.

Government officials seem incapable of putting out easy to understand, factual, information, eg that asylum seekers to Australia are miniscule compared with asylum seekers seeking entry to the United States, France and the United Kingdom.

With a few notable exceptions, like the AWU, the trade union movement has also been silent.

Letter writers to newspapers trot out again and again the need for refugees to wait in the queue. But there is no queue worthy of the name. There are 42 million forcibly displaced people in the world, including at least 15 million refugees recognised by the UNHCR. If a person claimed refugee status today with the UNHCR, it would take 130 years for that claim to be considered. Some queue!

We are all naturally cautious about newcomers, people who are different, the “other”. It has not all been trouble free, but we have a proud record of settling 700,000 refugees in Australia since 1945. We can look back with pride on our acceptance of refugees and their enormous contribution to Australia. We need more risk takers — and refugees, by definition, are risk takers.

We don’t need charismatic or authoritarian leaders to make the ‘right’ decisions for us. We need adaptive leaders who can help us all support necessary but hard decisions. We need leaders of such quality across our whole community who can appeal to the better angels of our nature.

Surely we are a much better country than the present debate on asylum seekers suggests. We all have a responsibility to right the wrong that we are doing to extremely vulnerable people.

More Than Luck is a collection of ideas for citizens who want real change edited by Mark Davis and CPD Executive Director Miriam Lyons. A to-do list for politicians looking to base public policies on the kind of future Australians really want, More Than Luck shows what’s needed to share this country’s good luck amongst all Australians – now and in the future. Click here to find out more. Like what you’ve read? Donate to help make good ideas matter.

Blog Comments

Thank you. I completely agree.

Sadly 20,000 voters who simply believe the rantings of right wing shock jocks and the Goebbels’s like repetition of slogans will decide our next Government. I know that democracy gives everyone the right to express an opinion but the ramifications are a bit hard to swallow.

Journalists like Miranda Devine and the clique from the Murdoch camp will tell me that it is not for the elites to make all of the choices but there is no way they would take financial advice from an apprentice carpenter or have their teeth filled by a butcher, yet think it is quite OK for voters with quite obviously limited capacity to analyse facts as opposed to jargon to control the future of the Nation.

It is hard to fathom how a Government that has so many success stories has allowed itself to promote the Liberal party from being a disorganized dispirited leaderless and unelectable rabble to a position where they could be the next Government.

As for John Menadue he was CEO of Qantas when I worked there and was the single most respected leader the Airline had in my 24 years there.

The people, who talk about ‘faceless men’ from the NSW right controlling Gillard, should consider this.
After 1945 Nazis poured into this country, protected and used by ASIO to control and monitor the growing migrant groups, with the tacit support of the Menzies and successive Liberal governments.

Lyenko Urbanchich was the most powerful, of the central and eastern European Nazi collaborators and war criminals that infiltrated the Liberal Party from the 1950s.
The peak of Urbanchich’s success was the formation of the Liberal Ethnic Council.

As council president, he automatically had a seat on the state executive of the Liberal Party. David Clarke today leads the “Uglies” faction established by Urbanchich 40 years ago. They Hounded John Brogden out of his leadership position, his despair almost ended in suicide. The Uglies, control up to 30 per cent of the NSW Liberal Party State Council votes and are the power base of Tony Abbot, Bronwyn Bishop and of John Howard and others.

Urbanchich remained unrepentant about his pro-Nazi past. He would, however, have died happy in the knowledge that his long campaign to control the NSW Liberal Party and insinuate his extremist views into its policy agenda has succeeded beyond his wildest dreams.

Tony Abbott learnt a lot from Uglies Old Nazis;

Abbott rule No1

“If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.”

Joseph Goebbels

Their back!!!! Abbott is Australia’s George W Bush.

I agree with every word of the article but would add this thought.

Global over-population has bred a psychology of fear. People dread losing what they have. Even an awareness of guilt won’t prevent many people who know better from pretending not to see what is happening. When they see those desperate humans who have risked everything to escape hopelessness they see their own faces. It is the desperation which people reject.

Global warming, war, the threat of nuclear weapons, all produce a siege mentality. The human animal may be capable of altruism but survival at all costs is the first response. It’s not a matter of being “better than that” when asylum seekers arrive as apparent proof that fear of worse to come is justified.

Australia engages in wars which must have wider consequences. The boomerang does come back.

The distinction between community leadership and political leadership is a very important one.

The distinctive thing about the Australian social tradition is that these two distinct things have been blurred, one of the continuing legacies of our origins (in white settlement) as a penal colony, in which the prison Governor was actually the political Governor. With this legacy behind us, we’ve not been good at rolling back the terrain of political leadership and identifying, and honouring, leadership in civil society.

In a way, my view is the opposite of John Menadue’s. Church leaders, for instance, have discredited themselves by ONLY speaking in the public arena on political issues, and ignoring the issues they should speak about in public, such as the importance of personal character, moral choices, and voluntary association in service of others. Partly because the media ignore them if they talk about such things, they tend to talk about what the government should do about this and that, finding this to be an easier route to public relevance.

The same in environment, families, disability. The only community leaders we know and recognise are those that speak about what governments should do, as distinct from what communities actually do. A leader in getting communities to rehabilitate arid land and save water, is not going to be a prominent environment leader, compared to a person who builds a career telling governments what they should do about arid land and water.

The distinction is critically important.

Vern Hughes

I too have been appalled by the quality of the debate and the lack of rigour by many in the media. Sadly, this includes many within the ABC. (There are notable exceptions, of course.) As one highly-placed and well-regarded commentator suggested to me, many of the ‘self-important’ commentators, and/or interviewers, who do influence opinion, are more concerned with the drama of an individual performance rather than the outcome. And the bias of many of these opinion-makers is there for all to see. I wonder whether they realise that in attempting to destroy the reputation of others they also destroy their own. Or don’t they care? ( It’s the ‘shock-horror’ of the drama that counts, silly!!)
In the ABC of former times such egocentric ‘grand-standing’ would not have been allowed, nor should it be allowed now. The ABC, after all is said and done’ has a responsibility to us, the tax-payer—we are the share-holders. If the opinion-makers crave such self-indulgence they should go to the commercial outlets who might find value in their performances.

Tony Abbott ‘s policy speech included a promise to extend the range of migration offences punishable by mandatory imprisonment. I never saw or heard any comment on this.

Today, I sat with a group of older women who are appalled at the possibility of “all those terrorists coming to our country”!! I think,too that there are a lot of young folk who only see “those bloody Muslims trying to take us over”. Any attempt to argue the point results in suggestions that I don’t really understand !!!

To Julia Gillard, the caucus and the back room boys,

I will vote Labor tomorrow and I voted Labor in 2007 after not voting Labor during the Beazley years. Prior to that I always voted Labor. I have never voted for Howard or the Liberals.
Labor failed to capture my vote, the vote of a rusted on former Labor Party member, for nearly a decade over one simple issue. The inhumane policies of the Labor Party in relation to asylum seekers coming to Australia by boat and the conflation and politicising of the issue in a race to the gutter with the Liberals.
I have written many times to Labor leaders about this and they have consistently ignored me and the Australian people and underestimated the power of the issue as a critical part of brand “Labor”. It will lose them this election, it now appears.
By joining the anti-boat people position, in presenting “The Indian Ocean Solution” as an alternative to Abbott’s (Ruddock’s) “Pacific Solution”, Julia Gillard threw in her ace. She handed over the agenda to the xenophobes, the haters, the racists and the Sydney shock jocks (and the NSW Right). She became the mistress of the dog-whistle. “A big Australia” clearly meant an Australia with too many Muslims, or too many refugees or too many boat people or too many people who are not like us.
She will pay dearly for that and so will the country.
Those many hundreds of thousands, many of them former Liberal supporters, who voted for Kevin Rudd to end the “Pacific Solution” were suddenly stabbed in the back. Ruddock resurfaced immediately as a Liberal player and Labor could do nothing to expose him and his past, because they were now either on his team or else they were traitors opening our borders to who-knows-what. All for a couple of Western Sydney seats and to appease the Arbibs of this world.
Such a terrible betrayal meant Julia Gillard came to the election with her hands soiled and tied behind her back, the easy target of the media and powerless to combat them.
Chris Evans, one of the few moderate and measured voices on asylum seeker and refugee issues, disappeared from sight. The distinction between Howard’s ruthless and regimented detention camps and Labor’s more humane detention treatment could not be mentioned for fear of the accusation of being “soft”. And Tony Burke was back, but without the commitment of the pre 2007 days. Boat people had been thrown overboard in a futile attempt to match the Abbott position.
It would have been more principled and courageous to make a stand and expose it as a fraud from the start. Julian Burnside offered his strong support as would have thousands of others who are well equipped with mountains of evidence to attack the failed Howard policies. But no. In one fell swoop the entire discourse suddenly turned back ten years. Soft=treacherous. Caring=bleeding heart. Tough=protecting our borders. Refugees =illegals or queue jumpers. The language of the past again current and Labor suddenly again relinquishing one of its few bases for support.
When Kevin Rudd said “I will not shift to the right on asylum seekers” it was a warning to his party. They ignored it and now they’re about to be defeated for it AND THEY DESERVE TO BE.
Labor only regained power in 2007 after a massive campaign , the “Your Rights At Work” campaign, over months in which Greg Combet (Who? He’s now a forgotten shadow, outgunned by NSW union leaders) took a leading role. And from there, relegated to the shadows, he landed the job of cleaning up the insulation mess!
What is it that the NSW union leaders have then that is so good? Or are they simply powerful? Why is their state in disarrary? And who wants to see this disarray spread Australia wide under their sway? Rudd at least offered some hope of dislocation from these power brokers. Now all thrown out. The status quo restored, but for what? To hand power back to the Coaliton by seeking to match its policy positions?
If Labor wants to ever regain power in Canberra (and in fact a growing number of states) it will have to reignite the light on the hill. It will have to stop standing for nothing and again stand for humanity, equality and decency. As long as it merely shadows the polls and the Opposition, there is little reason to choose Labor over the Coalition, beyond the past allegiances and nostalgia that its supporters may grimly cling to. These hold no sway on the uncommmitted. They’re looking to be convinced why their votes should be handed over. If there is nothing to convince them, they’ll hand them to others.
Had Labor made a strong stand in the name of humanity, decency and the nation’s international commitments, had it presented a legitimate case for being “soft” meaning “humane” in its treatment of asylum seekers arriving by boat, had it got the truth out, such as that they make up only 1% of all asylum seekers, they at least would have had something to offer. The “Work Choices” scare, true or not, isn’t going to wash again. But the votes going to the Greens are either boat people supporters or those wanting climate change action or both. Both reflect the fundamental failures of current Labor policy.
Labor will be out of office until it can stand up with honour and decency as a party for the underdog, the oppressed, the persecuted, the vilified and demonised. Whether it be the disabled, the mentally ill, boat people, the homeless, the disenfranchised, Labor must again stand strong and proud for them. There was a time when unions represented these interests. But not any more. And Australia knows it.
You will get my vote this time and it will make no difference whatsoever to the outcome. But it may be the last time unless Labor gets back to its roots and away from the self-interested bunch of career politicians fixated on polls. I will vote for a party that has the guts to stand up for change, to restore basic humane values and to end the nation’s neurotic fear of boat people, to scour away this tired stain of racism and fear that has plagued this nation almost since the first boat arrived in the first invasion from the north from Great Britain. Make no mistake, the stain will spread to darken and shame this nation yet again with the reopening of Nauru and it will be happening with Labor’s tacit support. Shameful and utterly appalling.
Labor threw out Rudd. Very clever, but it simply didn’t notice that it also threw out some of the reasons uncommitted or wavering voters chose him. And you handed power back to the very shock-jocks and union leaders who are repugnant to those who would have supported you.
Try to consider some of this in your post mortem examinations.

John, Thank you for this: I agree completely. This Friday afternoon, I feel completely deflated and disgusted by the performance of a Labor Party I have respected for many years. I attended a lecture by Joseph Stiglitz last week in which he praised the economic performance of the Labor Government to the skies: where is the national recognition of this feat? The imminent double dip suggests that the GFC is far from over and the collapse of the US dollar far from impossible to imagine. Who will best respond to the effect of such a crisis on Australia? Would the Coalition listen to Henry?
With regard to foreign affairs, I despair: there is no national dialogue, no media coverage and analysis of events. If the US and/or Israel attack Iran – the buildup is inexorable – what will be our response? Will we introduce conscription to “play our part” in a new world war?. Both parties in Australia give enthusiastic and unconditional support to Israel: have they never read Goldstone?
All we have been given is sterile knocking copy and highly partial media commentary from the ABC and the Murdochracy. I need a drink! Cheers, John MacKean

I completely agree with John Menadue. The conscience of the country is being buried beneath shovelfuls of greed, fear, and pragmatism . As an individual I feel increasingly exhausted and impotent – unable to rise above the mountain of misinformation, red herrings and short term thinking. Where are the visionaries? – the courageous leaders who listen as well as lecture ,who recognise that compassion, humility, honesty and integrity are the bedrock of society. Is there no place any more for even a glimmer of idealism ?

If the last five weeks is anything to go by I feel like leaving the country.

There is a lot of prejudice, fanned by fear generated by unscrupulous politicians and journalists. The introduction of the “other” into our society has made this an issue of “worth” and “significance” when it is not.

It is a lie when any political leader claims “I will stop the boats”, they cannot. It is a lie when any political leader says they can put into place a policy that will “protect” our borders. Protect from whom? Illegal fishermen from Indonesia cost us more annually than boat refugees and our “border protection” is pretty ineffective there.

There is only one way to prevent the refugees arriving – stop them at the source. Stop creating the conditions that make them want to leave their homes and seek a better, safer existence somewhere else it the world. That is the real preventative measure, and the challenge we and everyone else is incapable of meeting, stopping the insurgencies. No-one even wants to talk about that issue, it is just too big.

Colin Fraser

I can’t tell you how much I appreciated your article John Menadue. I saw today, at half past 3 on the day that we vote, abc news 24 showed a pie chart that revealed what a tiny, tiny percentage Asylum Seekers make up in our migrant intake. Never before have I seen that put on the tv, and it’s a bit bloody late to be putting it up today. The liberals campaign add actually called the boats illegal! There is no such thing as an illegal Asylum Seeker.

There are academics and former academics in the refugee supporting organisations. We also make submissions ot parliamentary committees.

You need to remember, however, that a campaign of denigration of academics carried out by the members of the Hawke government and enthusiastically continued by Howard has made it much more difficult for us to get our voices heard.

Some arguments which i have been trying to get heard.

It is not reasonable to expect countries in our region with large impoverished populations to look after asylum seekers. India, for instance, has taken huge numbers–and not only Tamils–but it has millions of very poor people as well. Similarly , it is not reasonable to ask Indonesia to keep them there.

It is not reasonable to ask a refugee to remain in a camp where danger remains from those forces from which they are fleeing, where murder and rape are a constant threat. Not is it reasonable to expect them to stay where cholera and other water-borne diseases are a threat to life.

Martin Bibby

As a former immigration officer (I even worked in DIEA when John Menadue was Secretary) I know how complex and compelling the issues are in the refugee and asylum seekers debate. In the realm of the one-liner, it is not easy to counter a punchy xenophobic argument, and even when we try, newspapers traditionally do not print our letters. It is enormously depressing and demoralising that, after years being recognised as a leader in the field of immigration and refugee policy and services, Australia is now trailing other countries and has some the worst examples of intolerance and unfairness. Given the small number of asylum seekers and undocumented people that arrive in our country, our response is panicky and plainly racist. All political parties need to show more compassion and treat refugees fairly. Similarly, the refugee program should be separated from the migration program, which is becoming controversial because of fears of unmanageable population growth. Our refugee intake has remained at the same low level for years, despite the fact that the world’s refugee population has exploded.

The only ‘down’ side of John Menadue’s CV is that he once worked for News Limited, undoubtedly the most influential right-wing global media outlet. News Limited American sibling is behind the (US) Tea Party led by Fox News most prominent media frontman. The same media outlet, together with the Miners lobby, is still untiringly pushing for the return of a right-wing conservative Coalition in this country. This is the political force whose main mantra is “to stop the boats”!
Menadue’s message is both timely and should be widely read even now, post-election.

[…] Refugee policy Posted on September 10, 2010 by Marty https://cpd.org.au//2010/08/we-are-a-much-better-country-than-this/ […]

[…] Menadue, a former Australian public servant and diplomat, in a paper on refugees for the Centre for Policy Development, says, We don’t need charismatic or […]

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