Kevin Rudd and Australia's 'No Advantage' refugee shame

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Although not the only ones to use the plight of vulnerable refugees for political point scoring, Kevin Rudd and the ALP can now choose compassion and set the tone for change, writes Lyn Bender.

KEVIN RUDD is not solely responsible for Australia’s terrible offshore refugee policy.

He is not the first or the only politician to use and abuse the plight of vulnerable refugees.

But his recent attempts to rewrite his role in the shameful saga of Manus and Nauru is a spectacular attempt to fool any with a scintilla of memory regarding his desperate comeback as short-lived PM Mark II, in 2013. 

Kevin Rudd swept to a spectacular victory over John Howard in the 2007 elections on the promise of strong climate change action and the dismantling of the Howard Government's "Pacific Solution" for refugees.

This first coming had him born aloft upon moral declarations and promises.

Climate change, he declared, was "the great moral challenge of our generation" and refugees deserved compassion. I was not alone in being stunned and excited by his ethical pronouncements. Furthermore, he struck me as sincere, erudite and articulate.

Then came the fall. Amid fear and party turmoil, Rudd was deposed by Julia Gillard and he began plotting to regain the prime ministerial crown he believed to be rightfully his. He was a "prime minister interrupted" and he wished to resume his role.

I was relieved when he regained the lost crown, defeating Julia Gillard. Many were asking was he a spoiler or a saviour? In my hopeful mind, he was a saviour.

Julia Gillard had achieved some remarkable policy shifts. These included the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS)carbon pricing and the Gonski educational reforms. Gillard was brought down by misogyny and class bigotry. Anyone who doubts this should revisit her brilliant Parliamentary misogyny speech.

Her refugee policy, however, was at least in my mind, her ultimate "sin". She had, as Rudd warned, lurched to the right on asylum seeker policy. The ALP, in effect, reinstated the notorious Pacific Solution.

My deluded joy, at Rudd’s re-emergence, was short-lived.

Kevin Rudd Mark II was goaded by his old foe — the climate denying, militant border protectionist Tony "stop the boats" Abbott.

Rudd declared he was a changed man. He succumbed to Abbott’s taunts — that had effectively brought down Gillard. Playing into Abbott’s cruel and manipulative hands, he announced the termination of the carbon tax. Then he set out to show he was no softie on border control. No longer Mr Moral Compassion, he was now a tough hardliner. The rules had changed. No asylum seeker – who came by boat – would ever be permanently settled in Australia. Fairfax declared that Rudd had slammed the door on refugees. Manus and Nauru were again open for business as Rudd signed away the lives of asylum seekers with his agreement with PNG to provide a processing centre that in effect lead nowhere.

Many hearts were broken by these announcements.

Abbott’s wet dream became reality. Rudd had delivered a punitive harsh refugee policy to the Coalition. Accusations from previous workers, human rights organisations and Amnesty International were met with a blank visaged spiel.

It was a propaganda spin that does not answer the human questions.

In a 2016 interview with Al Jazeera, Minister for Immigration and Border Protection Peter Dutton remained poker-faced. He urged people not to be "emotional". In other words, to abandon humane concerns and compassion.

I am emotional about the suffering of the refugees. My parents were refugees and I have worked as a psychologist at Woomera Detention Centre, under Howard’s Pacific Solution. Woomera was hideous, but Nauru and Manus in 2017 are worse. There are many eyewitness accounts of the horrors despite the banning of media.

Behrouz Boochani, an Iranian Kurdish journalist, writes about his own and fellow detainees anguish as they languish on Manus Island. It is impossible to read his accounts and not be moved — unless you are someone who has accepted the demonisation of  refugees as mere economic migrants, dangerous Muslims or queue jumpers. This is age-old slandering of vulnerable people exercising their human rights under international law. 

Many workers have spoken out on the public record, as I did in 2002. This is not an easy thing to do and yet they are compelled by their conscience as I was.

But these reports have been met with stonehearted and falsely discrediting accusations and intimidation from the government. Save the Children and Human Rights Commissioner Gillian Triggs, for example, have been attacked by the current Coalition Government.

All this leads to my intense disappointment with Kevin Rudd and the Labor Party. The conditions on Manus and Nauru, under Gillard, were well documented on the public record. Rudd added a dimension of certainty to the "No Advantage Principle" — it was encapsulated in the word “never”.

The ALP have essentially slunk and slithered into bipartisan enabling of endless offshore torturing of refugees. The imprisoned refugees are the hostages and sacrificial offerings meant to magically "protect" Australia.

Today, Kevin Rudd claims that offshore asylum seekers would have been resettled under his plan, in PNG or other countries, including Australia, within 12 months. His party disagrees with this account.

Rudd is also on the record as saying in 2013: 

"Asylum seekers who come here by boat without a visa will never be settled in Australia.''

Kevin Rudd says he is “a little tired“ of being held responsible for the four years of detention of asylum seekers – “the poor folks” – on Manus and Nauru.

This is my open letter to Kevin Rudd and the Labor Party:

'Dear Mr Rudd and the Labor Party, the refugees are tired.'

I and many Australians, are very tired of the self-justification, weak opposition and enabling of the punitive immigration policies of the current government.

Through self-immolation, internationally reported hunger strikes, despair and forced deportations you have remained effectively as silent as the detainees with their lips sewn together.

This is what you can and must do, to regain your own integrity and our trust:

  • Apologise for your part in the terrible wrongs that continue to be perpetrated on asylum seekers by Australia. You can do this, Kevin. You know how to say a real sorry.
  • Do not make excuses for your failures, deny intent, or blame others or the victims of your misguided cruel policies.
  • Follow up this apology with genuine plans and actions to heal the wrongs.
  • Give a voice to the pain of those victimised and abused.
  • Incorporate an ethical test to all your policies.
  • This needs to apply to all people — especially our First Peoples.

My plea is for an end to cynical political game playing that is based only on a desire to gain and maintain power. In that process, Australia becomes a lesser nation and humane values are seriously eroded. How many times can Australian politicians sacrifice refugees and human rights in order to win fear-based elections?

If you can abuse and degrade one, you can abuse all.

But first and foremost, do your utmost to genuinely free the refugees. Until you accept your responsibility, you can have no credibility.

Lyn Bender is a professional psychologist. You can follow Lyn on Twitter @Lynestel.


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