Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Show Us Your Conscience

According to major Australian newspapers (including at least one national broadsheet owned by an American), the PM John Howard is furious that some MP’s wish to bring up the issue of mandatory detention.

Bruce Baird, Petro Georgiou and colleagues have even suggested a Private Members Bill which can be put to MP’s on both sides of the House as a conscience vote.

These MP’s have actually taken the step of visiting the detention centres. They have seen with their own eyes the poor morale of detention centre staff and the extreme conditions endured by the detainees. They have spoken to psychologists, nurses and psychiatrists employed by and associated with the detention centres.

I think that, if it is true that the PM is opposed to a conscience vote, perhaps he should consider visiting the detention centres himself. And while he is at it, he should take along some of his media favourites like Dr Janet Albrechtsen, Miranda Devine and Alan Jones.

Perhaps he might also take with him some survivors of the Nazi holocaust and ask them if anything they are seeing looks familiar.

Let the PM see with his own eyes the experiences of those living and working behind the barbed wire. Words are cheap. Seeing is believing.

I have visited Villawood Detention Centre only once in 2003. This is supposed to be a 5-star facility compared to Baxter and other facilities. It was a cross between a zoo and a prison. The prison animals were caged in barbed wire, and visitors had to stand in a long queue just to see these creatures.

It baffles me that a conservative government could treat human beings like this. Whatever happened to our beliefs in the essential dignity and value of the individual? I can understand that we needed this policy in the aftermath of September 11 when there was a fear of Iraqi Ba’athists and Afghan Taliban fighters trying to escape. I can understand that we needed to stem the flow of people smugglers.

But those days are over. The boats of people smugglers are slowly but surely returning to their traditional pursuit of fishing. The Ba’athists and Taliban are on the run or at Guantanamo. The policy is fast becoming as redundant as it is inhumane.

But I think reporters like Louise Dodson from the Sydney Morning Herald have misunderstood the PM. John Howard has been my local member for as long as I can remember. I remember working with Mr Howard when he was the Shadow Minister for Industrial Relations. In 1995, he wanted to start a branch in his State Electorate Conference that had a more multi-ethnic flavour. Sadly, due to the intransigence of some people in the conference, the branch was twice defeated in the SEC.

Mr Howard then attended a dinner in January 1996 on the eve of his becoming Opposition Leader. The dinner was hosted by Liberal branches in Bankstown, and was attended by a huge contingent of Australians from all backgrounds. The cameras showed Mr Howard shaking hands with Australians of Thai, Vietnamese, Lebanese, Palestinian and other backgrounds.

The future PM followed the dinner with a stroll through the Bankstown Sports Club, the heart of Paul Keating territory. And when the members gave him a standing ovation, he must have seen hope in their eyes. And they saw in him a champion for the Aussie battlers, not mere rhetoric for the true believers.

The John Howard we knew is not someone who enjoys placing people behind bars for offences like escaping genocide and avoiding repression. The John Howard we worked with was a man who recognised that the Liberal Party is a broad church.

The Liberal Party is a party of conservatives and liberals. Liberals vote with their conscience. And it would surprise me greatly if John Howard did not allow a conscience vote on the issue of mandatory detention.

© Irfan Yusuf, 2005