Refugees, gangs and racial punishment

Pluto Press Seminar

University of Sydney


Chris Sidoti

National Spokesperson

Human Rights Council of Australia


27 September 2001





Earlier this year the great story of Australian federation was enjoying its fifteen minutes of fame, many very silly things were said and done - or rather many very serious things were not said or done. We heard speeches and read articles and held celebrations in honour of the great achievement. There was much discussion of the driving influences for federation, most especially the great national project. We were reminded, if we had known previously, or told for the first time , if we did not, about Edmund Barton’s quotable quite, “A nation for a continent and a continent for a nation”. There was virtually no mention of the fact that one of the driving influences was racism, the perceived wish to unite the continent to keep it white. The omission of any mention of this issue was entirely predictable, of course. It would have spoiled the triumphalism. And besides racism in Australia has always been something practised, not something discussed.


The sad truth is that racism was at the heart of federation. The federal constitution excluded Aboriginal people from the national census and denied the federal parliament the power to legislate for their well-being. The enactment of the White Australia Policy was the first policy law passed by the new federal parliament.


Looking back on more than two centuries of Australian history since British colonisation I see two pre-occupations, even obsessions: racism and punishment, especially locking people up. Indeed there were there from the first day, when Arthur Phillip planted the British flag at Sydney Cove. Australia was colonised for the purpose of locking people up. And that colonisation required the dispossession, deprivation and deaths of the original inhabitants of the continent.


These two national obsessions remain evident in today’s Australia. We continue to lock people up at rates far greater than almost any country in the world except the United States. Those locked up are disproportionately indigenous people. We are also unique among democratic countries in imposing mandatory detention on asylum seekers who arrive without an entry visa and almost all of them are from Asia and Africa. Our two obsessions crystallise and are integrated in the treatment of non-Anglo Australian offenders and of boat people.




As I have indicated the effect of racism in the criminal justice system is seen most clearly in the imprisonment rates of indigenous Australians. In spite of the reports and recommendations of important national inquiries including the Royal Commission  into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody and the National Inquiry into the Removal of Indigenous Children, indigenous people continue to be imprisoned at rates that for young people exceed 20 those of other Australians and for adults are still many times the rates for other Australians. Mandatory sentencing laws in Western Australia and, before the recent change of government, the Northern Territory targeted Aboriginal children and young people most of all, exacerbating their disproportionate imprisonment rates. Media and public outrage is especially harsh in dealing with young offenders and young offenders of indigenous or Middle Eastern or Asian background are most harshly treated of all.


We have seen that many times in the public discussion of youth gangs in western Sydney over the last ten years. These gangs are usually described in ethnic terms: Vietnamese or Chinese drug gangs, Lebanese rape gangs. In each instance the ethnicity of the gang members is of little or no relevance whatsoever. Some years ago there were fights in the Bankstown and Marrickville areas between gangs described as Vietnamese and Lebanese gangs. There was public and political uproar that resulted in an intensive investigation of the situation by a number of organisations. The conclusion then was that ethnicity was virtually irrelevant to the gang development and behaviour, that the pattern was classic adolescent male gang behaviour rather than being ethnically or racially motivated. I am convinced that the same is true today of the much publicised Lebanese rape gangs. The gang rape of young women is a crime of the utmost seriousness but it is not necessarily racially or ethnically related. The recently widely reported gang sexual assaults are serious juvenile crimes and should be dealt with as such, not as racial warfare.


Gangs have always been part of life in Bankstown. I should know. Piers Ackerman, Alan Jones, John Laws, Bob Carr and Peter Ryan might live in trendy yuppie suburbs in inner, eastern or northern Sydney but I have lived in Bankstown for almost all of the last 43 years. I remember when we moved there in 1959 from the eastern suburbs, how members of our extended family were concerned for our welfare out in the wild west because of the gangs. And there were gangs in Bankstown then. There were bikies of various varieties and of course the bodgies. There were particular milk bars that, as a seven year old, I was told not to go into or even walk past. A couple of years ago, soon after the furore about Vietnamese and Lebanese gangs, I was talking about this to Bryan Brown, who also grew up in the Bankstown area, in Panania where I now live. He told me of the gang fights he experienced as a boy, including one memorable rumble when he was chased by a knife wielding opponent. Those who say things have never been this bad have very short memories. That by no means justifies crime today but it puts it in a more accurate context and enables a more effective response.


Gangs are problematic. They have always been problematic. They commit crimes, sometimes the gravest crimes involving sexual assault and other forms of violence. But their activities need to be attacked as criminal, not as racial or ethnic. A response based on some racialised analysis misses the point and will prove ineffective in combatting crime, which should be the principal concern of politicians, police and media shock jocks.


While saying this, I am not for a moment suggesting that there are no race based crimes in Australia. There are. In fact over the past couple of weeks I have received many reports from members of my family and friends of Moslem and Arabic people, especially women, being abused, assaulted and in one case pushed over and hospitalised. These crimes are based on race. There was also the torching of a mosque in Brisbane in suspicious circumstances last Friday night. Similar crimes committed during the Gulf War led to an inquiry into racist violence by the Human Rights Commission. Its report recommended, among other things, that federal parliament should introduce a new federal offence of racist violence, applicable to acts of violence and intimidation with a racist intent. That recommendation was rejected by the government of the time and has not been accepted since. It should be. Events of recent weeks demonstrate again the need to address not only violence itself but racially motivated violence. A new offence would attach higher penalties to this kind of violence. And it would also apply to gangs where there is evidence that their criminal activities are racially based.




Although this seminar is examining a number of issues concerning racism in Australia, I am compelled to devote most of my comments to the situation of asylum seekers. The events of the last month concerning boat people seeking to enter Australia have been for me among the most distressing for many years. For the first time in my life I have been deeply ashamed to be an Australian.


These events must be understood in their historical context - both the context of our twin obsessions with racism and locking people up and the context of who we ourselves are and where we come from. Almost all Australians are either boat people or the descendants of boat people, those who came here seeking better lives for themselves and their children.


The first boat people, whom we call the First Fleet, and those who followed them in the first half of the nineteenth century took this country by force from its original peoples. In the second half of the nineteenth century others came seeking treasure during the gold rushes. Then fear set in among those who had come here as boat people. They feared immigration from Asia and so decided to federate their six colonies into one commonwealth in part to prevent that fearsome eventuality by creating an immigration policy for a continent, the White Australia Policy. The fact that this year is the centenary of the White Australia Policy has been conveniently overlooked in all the triumphal celebration of the centenary of federation. December 23 next marks the centenary of White Australia - no longer a Policy but in many ways still the practice.


During the twentieth century a succession of courageous political leaders from both sides of politics led Australia into the wider world. They gradually opened the doors to more people who wanted to make their homes here and gradually abandoned the racial basis of Australia’s immigration policy. They did not wait for public opinion to lead them but led public opinion, convincing Australians that their policies were not only right for Australia but just. Prime Minister Chifley and Immigration Minister Calwell welcomed those from eastern and southern Europe who fled the consequences of holocaust and war, even though many of those who lived here at the time called the new-comers wogs and dagos and refos. Prime Minister Menzies continued and extended their policies. Prime Ministers Gorton and Whitlam challenged and then discarded formally the White Australia Policy. Prime Minister Fraser responded compassionately to the flood of boats after the end of the Indo-China war, even when some racists sought to inflame public opinion against them by spreading false information about boat people being billeted compulsorily with suburban families.


Since 1989, however, the successors of these great men have led the nation down a slippery slope to cold hearted, calculated rejection. Yes, Prime Minister Hawke showed great humanity when he responded to the Tiananmen massacre by accepting tens of thousands of Chinese students and their families. And yes, no Prime Minister has shown more commitment to engagement with our region than Prime Minister Keating. But their administrations began tightening the laws governing unauthorised arrivals, that is, those who come to Australia without documentation seeking to enter and obtain asylum. They introduced mandatory detention of all unauthorised arrivals. They removed entitlement to damages for illegal detention. They restricted access to administrative review of refugee decisions. They built detention centres, little better than work camps, for the long-term imprisonment of asylum seekers in the most remote parts of Australia.


Under Prime Minister Howard these practices have been refined and taken to new heights of inhumanity and absurdity, with the support of his accomplice, Opposition Leader Beazley. Together they have turned their backs on the highest qualities of leadership, vision and humanity shown by their predecessors. Mr Howard has betrayed the legacy of Menzies, Gorton and Fraser and Mr Beazley the legacy of Chifley and Calwell, Whitlam, Hawke and Keating. Mr Howard may refuse to apologise to indigenous people for the sins of the past because he says he was not responsible but there is no way he can escape responsibility now and the judgement of history for what he himself is doing today. Mr Beazley may cry over the tragic stories of the stolen generations but in his attitudes towards asylum seekers he perpetuates the evil that motivated the past policies of removing children.


Contrast their stands with that of the Canadian Prime Minister, Jean Cretien. He said recently, “Let there be no doubt. We will allow no one to force us to sacrifice our values and traditions under the pressure of urgent circumstances. We will continue to welcome people from the whole world. We will continue to offer refuge to the persecuted.”


The response to the boat people is unjustifiable on the grounds of logic even if appeals to humanity fall on deaf ears. It is totally out of proportion to the extent of the problem. Unlike many countries in our region - poor, developing countries like Pakistan, Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia - and unlike other developed countries, those in western Europe and north America, Australia receives only a handful of asylum seekers each year. We are an island nation a great distance from those parts of the world that generate refugee flows. For the ten years after 1989 the average number of arrivals a year was around 600. The average has increased significantly in the past two years. Now around 4000 arrive each year. A significant increase but still not a significant problem. Nonetheless the Howard Government persists in spending inordinately large sums of taxpayers’ money to keep these people locked up for periods that very often run into years. Many hundreds of those who have been locked up, for periods up to five and a half years, have been children.


I am not going to go through all the statistics and all the arguments about these policies. They are already on the public record, in numerous reports of the Human Rights Commission and of parliamentary committees, in addresses, articles and publications of the UN High Commissioner for refugees, in statements by human rights organisations and in many other forums, for anyone who is truly interested to read and consider the issues involved. Unfortunately this is not an argument about facts or ethics or even logic but a matter of prejudice. So let me address the prejudice.


The events of the last month have certainly been extreme even by Australia’s standards. We have seen men, women and children detained on a foreign flagged merchant ship, first in international waters and then in Australian territorial waters. We have seen this foreign vessel stormed by military commandos who seized control of it. We have seen people transferred against their will onto a naval vessel and then taken on a very long sea voyage. We have seen a very poor, virtually bankrupt country bribed to accept them and feed and keep them on a temporary basis. We have seen what amounts to arbitrary detention, kidnapping and people trafficking. People trafficking is ironic: the excuse given for these human rights violations is the need to stop people-smuggling but here we are engaging in it ourselves.


The Prime Minister and his immigration minister accuse these people of queue-jumping. Perhaps they would like to go to Kabul and Bagdad themselves and point out the orderly migration queues. They call the asylum seekers illegals but they have not been charged with or convicted of a violation of any Australian law. They call them economic migrants before there has been any assessment of their claims for refugee protection. They and their media mates on talkback radio vilify and demonise them. Recently the Prime Minister has been reported as saying that these boat people are “intimidating us with our decency”, a very odd grammatical construction. I am unsure what exactly he means but I suspect he means that they are exploiting our decency to secure their admission.


The truth, however, is that for over 10 years our political leaders from both major political groupings have been betraying our compassion. Most Australians are fundamentally decent and compassionate but they respond to the propaganda woven by politicians and media commentators. They have been betrayed by those who say that Australians are hard hearted, unsympathetic, closed and cold. We are not and we do not want to be. Our aspirations are to be people of decency and compassion who reject inequality and discrimination and look for Australia to be a society based on a fair go for all. We have often failed to live up to those aspirations but they are the values we hold dear. We are all betrayed when we are told we are otherwise.


And it’s not that there are no alternatives. There are. During 1996 and 1997 several non-government organisations developed a framework for an alternative detention model. The Human Rights Commission developed that framework further and recommended a complete new model in its report Those who’ve come across the sea tabled in parliament in May 1998. This model permits the detention of those who, on the basis of an individual assessment, need to be detained for public health or public security reasons. But it provides an alternative for those who do not need to be detained, the vast majority of asylum seekers. It offers a model that is consistent with human rights requirements, effective in processing asylum seekers efficiently and properly, humane and far less expensive than the present system. But this recommendation was rejected by the government.


The Human Rights Council of Australia, of which I am now national spokesperson, has decided to give higher priority in its work to these issues. It has engaged a campaign coordinator for this purpose. His role includes further developing alternative policy and program proposals, including costing the current system and proposed alternatives.


I have been asked by many journalists and media commentators whether the actions of recent governments towards asylum seekers have damaged Australia’s international reputation. Clearly they have and I don’t like that. I don’t like Australia’s good name being blackened by our leaders. But I have a far more serious concern. What they are doing is damaging us. It is destroying our hopes and aspirations, our self esteem, our sense of honour, our compassion and our decency. Our leaders, from both major political groupings, are turning us into a nation of thugs. Look what they have done to us and what we are doing ourselves.


In the account of the crucifixion of Jesus in the Christian scriptures, Jesus meets a group of women who “mourned and lamented for him”. He tells them, “Do not weep for me; weep rather for yourselves and for your children”. I do weep for the asylum seekers. But even more I weep for ourselves and for our children.