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The politics of heart to heart

By Trish Reid - posted Monday, 15 April 2002

The Flower Project was a specific and visceral response to a letter published in the Sydney Morning Herald on the 22 Jan 2002. In this letter Drs Dudley, Mares and Gale reported some of the things they saw and heard in the Woomera detention centre: the way detainees were addressed, the "evidence of violence and despair", the deliberately dehumanising surroundings and conditions. Some of the children asked them "Aren’t there any flowers in Australia?"

This question can be read as literally pointing to the actual and terrible conditions that both children and adult detainees are being kept in. It can also be read as a question about the humanity or the ‘heart’ of a nation that would incarcerate people in such conditions for long periods of time.

In response I initiated the Flower Project. A small group of us in Brisbane then carried it through. We appealed to ordinary Australians to send flowers and cards to these centres on 21st March, particularly focussing on the three most isolated.


The Flower Project is an expression of "heart politics". It was designed to allow people who may not agree with the immediate closure of detention centres, or the removal of border protection mechanisms, along with those who do support these positions, to find common ground on the issue of the treatment of asylum seekers. It was intended to allow them to express their compassionate concern for the detained people directly.

Why the 21st March? This was a day nominated by Philip Ruddock, the Minister for Immigration and Indigenous Affairs as Harmony Day. It is also the UN Day for the Elimination of Racism. Ordinary Australians responded in their thousands; sending flowers and flower cards into all the centres.

According to a Department of Immigration Multicultural & Indigenous Affairs (DIMIA) spokeswoman, "flowers were pouring in to all detention centres" on the day. (Courier Mail, 25 March 2002). Those who responded included inspiring numbers of schoolchildren as well as public servants, pensioners, health workers, church workers, small business people, academics and students.

DIMIA’s policy of deterrence played out on the bodies and lives of the detainees, which leads to the kind of actions and conditions witnessed by the visiting doctors, is being highlighted by the hard work of the many thousands of Australians, high profile and of no particular public profile.

These are the people who are actively involved in trying to change the treatment of asylum seekers and of TPV holders released into the community. Thankfully, it is also being reported in some sections of the media.

This policy has been promoted by this Coalition government, and a complicit Labor opposition, as a reasonable way to discourage asylum seekers from making their desperate attempts to reach Australia.


Somehow this present government has sold this policy to the Australian public as yet another example of Australian’s commitment to the ‘fair go’. But as the history of this quintessential Australian quality shows, only certain kinds of people deserved and were given a ‘fair go’.

Like Aboriginal people and ‘Asians’, people of a ‘Middle Eastern Appearance’ who might be Muslim are understood by Howard’s "we" who "decide who comes in to this country" not to be part of this constituency.

But the heart to heart action has a broader context. During the prime of Pauline Hanson many older white working class people, mainly men, were given a renewed sense of mattering.

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About the Author

Trish Reid initiated the Woomera Detention Centre ‘Flowers Project.’ This provided Australian people with a means to express compassion and hope towards the detainees – whilst protesting the conditions under which they are kept.

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Department of Immigration, Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs
Refugee Council of Australia
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