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Possibly dying to seek asylum in Australia, the land of the 'fair' go

By Scott Phillips - posted Friday, 21 November 2003

It is with great sadness that I read in the press the informed legal view of none less than this country’s Solicitor General that the Australian Government effectively has the power to keep asylum seekers in administrative detention until they (the asylum seekers, not the government) die. The Solicitor General was speaking during a hearing before the High Court of the cases put by asylum seekers to have their detention ruled invalid.

As a citizen of this country who deeply values its traditions of political liberty, I am utterly dismayed to learn that our governmental structures are now so configured that a category of persons can be denied their liberty indefinitely, to the point that they might die in what amounts to political detention.

I could picture a dictatorial government taking such a position, and if I lived in such a country I imagine I would resist and protest against such a manifestly undemocratic and anti-humanitarian regime. In doing so, I would make a stand based on principle – namely, my commitment to ideals such as those enshrined in the institutions of “the rule of law” and, within that, habeas corpus (the idea that I cannot be detained unless a judge or court has made a determination of the legality of such detention). Of course, by engaging in any form of resistance and opposition in a context of rule by dictatorship I would most likely put myself at risk of being persecuted or otherwise harassed by the state authorities. Were this to eventuate and I held fears for my safety, and that of my relatives, I would probably seek asylum in some other country, preferably a democratic country where people’s political and civil freedoms were upheld and the rule of law applied.


Such a country would, in people’s imaginations, be one like Australia. This is a country which, after all, has projected the image of the society of “a fair go for all”. The “fair go” idea is part of our common parlance as well as our industrial and historical folklore. People (including politicians) have been happy to run with the idea of “a fair go” as something that is central to our policies of social welfare and multiculturalism. And it was also appropriated in earlier iterations of this country’s immigration program (for instance, the “Good Neighbour” scheme, whereby Australian citizens welcomed newly arrived migrants and helped them settle into their new lives in a new land). The “fair go” ideal also underscored our Humanitarian Refugee Assistance program.

But if the folklore of this country is built on the rhetoric of “a fair go”, it is important to remember that the reality has often been very different. There has been a much less generous, overtly (and covertly) racist and xenophobic dimension to the story of Australia – for too long and too often brushed under the carpet. But the history of Australia’s settlement and the associated mistreatment of the Indigenous peoples is part of the unfinished business of Reconciliation with which we still wrestle to this day. And if I hear another commentator or politician – the good Prime Minister included – write off this concern as “the black armband view of history” I think I will surely weep.

Indigenous Australians’ very real and tragic experiences of injustice, institutional racism, marginalisation from employment, housing, and other structures of opportunity are palpable for anyone who has traveled into the urban and regional communities where our Indigenous brothers and sisters live. There is little of the “fair go” in Namatjira Lane on the fringes of Dareton or on Palm Island or in Logan or in Redfern. What you find in those parts of Australia are conditions which could hardly be described as fair.

The same must be said for our history of immigration policy. This country’s “White Australia” policy is part of a history of xenophobia – and it was a fear not just of foreigners, but of non-White foreigners, anyone who (to use the terms of earlier times) was not “fair skinned”. This was the meaning of “fair” that was inscribed into the song “Advance Australia Fair” and not the sense of “fair” as in socially just and equal treatment. So, the history of our national anthem is one where we have adopted a song which was written originally as an anthem to a country built on the ideal of racial purity rather than one founded on principles of social and political equality.

But the story is not all bad by any stretch of the imagination. As we know, many of the everyday people who have helped to shape this country have done so by seeking to put into place policies, laws and institutions that promote and protect political freedoms and social equality. We should never forget this: that is why we study our history – not only to learn about those areas where our values and actions were found wanting but also to see the ways in which we sought to create, as Eva Cox would have it, a truly civil society.

It is in this context – of our modern commitment to principles of fair treatment of everybody, and our support for universal human rights – that we should be deeply alarmed by the current government’s continuing “hard line” position on the treatment of asylum seekers. To effectively lock people up and throw away the key, when their only “crime” is to have sought our help in the face of political oppression, is the most enormous contradiction imaginable for a country allegedly committed to “a fair go for all”.


We must, as the citizenry, demand that our government desist at once from its policy of mandatory detention of asylum seekers. If we are to be true to our community standards, it is time for the community to show leadership to the government, so that it is finally brought kicking and screaming along with the community. A good government is one that shows moral leadership to its community of electors, and can bring the community along with principles of justice and fairness. At present we seem not to have such a government.

So the community must exercise this moral leadership. We must do so by means that are wholly reasonable and peaceful. But we must speak out more definitely and decisively in support of a fair go for people – especially those who are seeking safe haven from political imprisonment and injustice. To simply throw them into jail here (or to tow them back out to sea and cast them adrift to the winds of fortune) is morally unacceptable. We should at the very least bring such asylum seekers ashore, feed them and shelter them while we make a determination on their claims to be legitimate refugees. Anything less surely must fall below our community standards of “a fair go”.

It is time for the community to make a stand. Otherwise these people – men, women and children – who are dying to seek asylum may end up dying in detention in the land of the fair go. Could there ever be a greater or crueler irony? Before you attempt to answer this question, I would encourage you to see the newly-released film In This World which depicts all too graphically the trauma which asylum seekers experience in their quest for a better life. If we are a humanitarian nation (as our new Immigration Minister would have it) then the community needs to show the government what we mean by that. As Mahatma Ghandi once said, we must “be the change we wish to see in the world”. If we value freedom and justice, we must campaign – reasonably, peaceably and determinedly – to enable asylum seekers to exercise their human rights. We must let these people be free while we see how, as a national community, we might help them. We must never surrender in advocating the justice of that moral position. Letting asylum seekers die in indefinite detention should not be part of the story of Australia.

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About the Author

Dr Scott Phillips is Director of Kershaw Phillips Consulting a consultancy providing social research, program and policy evaluation and strategic advisory services to health, social sector and educational organisations. He is also an Honorary Fellow of the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation (Deakin University), and holds Non-Executive Directorships with Ermha Ltd (a mental health services company in Melbourne) and the Royal Society for Arts, Manufacturing and Commerce (Australia and New Zealand).

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Department of Immigration
RMIT's Refugee and Asylum Seeker Project
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