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Asylum seeker protest models 'habits of the heart'


Protestors marchOn Sunday, tens of thousands of people across Australia took to the streets of our capital cities to protest the Federal Government's cruel treatment of people seeking asylum in our country.

Although linked with church services in various denominations, the Palm Sunday marches included people from diverse faiths and no faith. Those on the streets ranged from young children to the elderly. The march itself was conducted in a peaceful, suitably solemn mood. This wasn't a group of radicals trying to overthrow the government — it was Grandma and Grandpa, Mum and Dad and the kids, wanting to make a statement to a callous political elite.

Yet the protests drew barely a mention in our mainstream press. The Guardian published a report estimating a crowd size of around 6000 in Melbourne, while the headline on The Age website said, 'Hundreds rally for refugees'. I watched and took pictures as the crowd marched past me down Swanston Street in Melbourne for an hour, and if someone counted only 6000 people they were counting three heads for every person.

Sitting in the background to these protests is the survey earlier this year that found around 60 per cent of people in Australia believe we don't treat asylum seekers harshly enough. That same proportion of people, it seems, are completely unaware of the torturously inhumane process we already put asylum seekers through.

The biggest issue we face with asylum seekers is that we have a minority — albeit a larger minority than our politicians and mainstream press seem to want to admit — that are informed and aware of the issues, and are committed to finding a more humane response to the issue. And we have a majority that is uninformed, and uninterested, and is committed to whichever solution best removes asylum seekers from their line of sight so they can go back to enjoying the latest episode of Masterchef.

We can blame the media for the poor coverage of this issue, and for failing to inform people about the terrible conditions asylum seekers face. Yet they know better than us that those stories, even when printed, aren't being read. We can put the blame on asylum seeker advocates for not finding more creative and eye-catching ways to inform people and change their minds. But plenty have been tried and failed, and catchy campaigns on similarly divisive issues such as climate change have also done little to change mainstream opinions.

I was struck recently by a line from a review of a recent book called Countrymen, which explores why Denmark, of all the countries invaded by the Nazis, managed to save so many of its Jewish population. The reviewer points to the complex web of forces that allowed the Danish people to resist attempts to exterminate a group of people they considered their fellow countrymen:

It is a story that reinforces an old truth: solidarity and decency depend on a dense tissue of connection among people, on long-formed habits of the heart, on resilient cultures of common citizenship, and on leaders who marshal these virtues by their example.

Rather than asking how we can become more decent towards asylum seekers, it's time to ask some bigger questions: What reserves do we, as a country, have to resist inhumane forces that besiege us? What is the 'tissue of connection' between people in a society in which, more and more, people don't even know the names of their neighbours, let alone spend time with people in a different socio-economic class to themselves?

What are the 'habits of the heart' in a society which seems to blithely accept that anyone on government assistance is a leech on the taxes of other 'hardworking' people? How can we have 'resilient cultures of common citizenship' when non-white Australians continue to be largely absent from our conversations and media, and when so many seem not to even think there's a problem with the way these people are treated?

And what hope do we have of having 'leaders who marshall these virtues by example' when there are people in our Parliament who champion the rights of Australians to be bigots and a Government which swept to power after a sustained misogynistic campaign against the previous prime minister?

Last weekend tens of thousands of people were modelling a greater set of virtues on the streets, and many more thousands continue to uphold them in their own lives, giving generously of their time and energy to support those in need in our community.

But as a society we'll be doomed to become less and less humane, and perpetuate more and more of the mistakes of the past, unless we can find a way to make these virtues mainstream once again.


Michael McVeighMichael McVeigh is senior editor at Jesuit Communications.

Protest image by Michael McVeigh

Topic tags: Michael McVeigh, Palm Sunday, asylum seekers, protest



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Existing comments

Popular opinion is a slippery creature and the general public is easily swayed by shock jocks and car park gossip. On the positive side it's interesting to note that 89% of respondents in a recent survey do not support the proposed changes to laws regarding bigotry and racial vilification. They believe we owe respect to people of all races and creeds. One wonders how well many of these people have considered the asylum seeker question. Perhaps it is a case of lack of understanding, or lack of interest. One also wonders again and again where our politicians hide their hearts. After seeing the numbers on the streets on Sunday let's feel hopeful that change is possible and continue to support those who come from across the sea. After all we all agree, don't we, that we have boundless wealth to share.

Anne | 14 April 2014  

I received a picture from my sister of their beautiful Palm Sunday altar at Mass. I texted back that I had been to the church service at the Melbourne Cathedral for refugees then we marched to join the other protesters in Swanson street. Her response was: Protesting about what?

Margaret McDonald | 15 April 2014  

Hi Michael, Wonderful article - well done. Is the 'old truth' you recount above your words? Would like to use it in something, that's all. Hope all is well with you. Cheers, Joe

Joe McCarthy | 15 April 2014  

Powerful observations, Michael, drawing us as a nation into examining the habits of our personal and national hearts. Yes, Sunday's rally was hugely representative of our diverse people. The conversations on the way also covered some ground- from not believing it would make a speck of difference to a passionate claiming of our belief in a truly civil society. The media did not represent us well. You draw us into the change of heart which Holy Week invites. Thank you.

Vivien | 15 April 2014  

Anne writes "After all we all agree, don't we, that we have boundless wealth to share." I think that's part of the problem. Many Australians, including more than 50% of our Federal Parliament do not believe we have any wealth to share. Whether we focus on asylum seekers, registered refugees, indigenous Australians, people in rural areas far distant from metropolitan services, or unemployed people, the challenge to any positive program is always "We can't afford it. We have to reduce the deficit."

Ian Fraser | 15 April 2014  

"What reserves do we, as a country, have to resist inhumane forces that besiege us?"................ Some of the most effective remedies to the inhumane mind-set of 'white' Americans towards 'African' Americans came from TV shows such as The Cosby Show and Diff'rent Strokes, in which 'African' Americans were portrayed as loving caring people. These shows' as well as tempering the mind-set of many Americans, became popular and successful commercial successes. If authors could be encouraged to create similar presentations about asylum seekers, not only would they uplift the mind-set of many Australians, but perhaps they could also further their own creative careers.

Robert Liddy | 15 April 2014  

Don't let the press off the hook entirely: In Melbourne, the AGE on Monday did carry a prominent photograph of the march in Swanston St, plus appropriate quotes from speakers, while greatly underestimating the crowd size in my opinion. By contrast, the Herald Sun carried no news of it at all, but could include a full double page spread on attendance at a family fun run! Among other things, I do not see our senior Catholic Church representatives publicly active in this way, while other churches were certainly obvious in their presence. The Australian Catholic Refugee & Migration Office seems content to preach indoors to its own adherents in lieu of giving more public witness. But overall this was in my view the most diverse gathering of this nature I have seen in Melbourne -young, old, male female, locally born and otherwise, plus a significant number who identified publicly as refugees. My only qualm was the use of placards by very small children who could not possibly understand the issues. Of course, there are issues of children in detention, but in my view this is not an ethical way to engage children.

Dennis Green | 15 April 2014  

Thank you for a thoughtful and inspiring article. I was there and was deeply moved by the diversity that was obvious. In response to the comment from Dennis Green re children holding posters... churches themselves are renowned for taking action on behalf of children who do not understand the actions (e.g. christening). I think we understand that parents mould their children (no surprise there - or we wouldn't agree to church schools). Thanks again.

Jan Tully | 15 April 2014  

Why weren't you protesting last year when the Gillard Labor/Greens policy was drawing asylum seekers to their deaths? Over a thousand asylum seekers drowned under Gillard/Rudd's watch but the left learning refugee lobby seemed to tolerate the government policy - now with a conservative Liberal government enacting policies which have deterred asylum seekers from paying people smugglers for a ride on a dangerous, leaky boat - the protestors are out in force. There is more than a little politicking at the bottom of this protest. I also object to a political protest being married to a religious event like Palm Sunday - we were told at our Sunday mass by the priest that as we processed into the Church, that we were marching in solidarity with the protestors march today. The Sunday mass was completed hijacked as a political event, not as many of us had come for, a religious event. I care about asylum seekers, that is why I support this government's efforts to take the power out of the hands of people smugglers who do not care less about the people who set out on their boats. I also care about the refugees in countries, where they can only rely on due process to find a way into Australia - with no option of coming by boat.

Cathy | 15 April 2014  

Dear Cathy, I find it impossible to separate religion from politics ,or anything else in life . Surely if my religion does not impact on my daily life then it is irrelevant . Christianity is more than just a religion it is a lifestyle. Its good to see churches bringing all issues , be they political , community or cultural, inside the building on Sunday. WWJD- "what would Jesus do?"

David | 15 April 2014  

I walked with friends in the Palm Sunday march for Justice for Asylum Seekers and refugees . The march gave a strong presence of Faith based and non-Faith and many other groups that want to see a more humane approach by our Government to Asylum seeker issues . We are today in a minority but I have a great faith in the generosity and humaneness of the Australian people . I accept we have a democratically elected Govern ment whose Asylum Seeker policies are currently supported by the majority of people . We all must continue to increase awareness of the hardships , mental and physical , our Government's policies and behaviours have created . Politics aside I believe the current Government came to power because of the dysfunction and incompetency of the previous Government despite the truth of a ' misogynistic campaign ' against one of our former PM . I am confident with continued efforts on all our parts that our representatives in Government will accept that we can do better and alleviate the hardships that the application of our current policies are causing .

Leon Daphne | 15 April 2014  

Thank you Michael.Where are our christian leaders? I am disheartened with government focus on having a surplus,fear of tough times ahead and exclaiming the 'need' to keep promise to subsidise wealthy voters on maternity leave while cutting welfare spending.This adds to Australian fear of all refugees.I heard on radio this morning of Malcolm Fraser's book "Dangerous Allies" and our total disregard of the killing of thousands by US in East Timor < 1975, and as Indonesia also invaded,we again silently watched.Any media coverage was given only after 5 brave,dedicated journalists were murdered.Our neighbours,extremely poor countries of Timor and Papua, protected our soldiers in World War 2 and we alone have become very wealthy, yet are now demanding they carry our refugee settlement. Natural resources are also plundered and contested in Papua the Timor Sea. Joe Hockey knows the rich continue to be "entitled" to wealth and colonial rule is alive and well.

catherine | 15 April 2014  

Dear Ian Fraser, we do have to live within our means as a nation. Sure, we also need to re-balance how we spend the 23% of GDP collected in taxes ( which perhaps should be back at 24-25%). But in order to spend more on the poor and disadvantaged we need to take back from relatively over-paid pensioners, from home owners, from richer superannuents, from negative gearers, from those making excess profits from community resources, and from public servants with strong self-serving union power. As long as Hockey is broad, fair and well-targetted in his cuts...and funding...then fine! In terms of blame for immoral asylum seeker policy, there is enough blame to share around our pollies! But the main culprits it seems to me are the Liberals who deliberately stirred up and manipulated negative public sentiments, and the Greens who killed the Labor "Malaysia" solution i.e. processing and accepting desperate people BEFORE they have to get on boats.

Eugene | 15 April 2014  

I agree wholeheartedly with Michael McVeigh's article but his solution is, unfortunately, a 'motherhood' statement, unless strategies can be thought of and can be put in place to achieve the sort of society he envisages. With the government we have we certainly cant look to its leadership for an example. Likewise Labor, unless there is a drastic change of heart in that Party. Both parties care only about votes but I do wonder whether Labor might actually get more votes if it were to appeal to our better nature. Malcolm Fraser managed to achieve that. I went to the Sydney Palm Sunday march and in spite of the fact that it was raining quite heavily most of the time there was a very big crowd. One young woman, not in the march, ran to me from the pavement to offer me her umbrella.

Anna | 15 April 2014  

Thank you for that thoughtful article, Michael. I appreciate your point that we need to reform as a society before we can be coherent enough to care as a community. But it does seem that the media is scared to tell the truth in this situation. May we find the grace to change in both areas.

Jean Sietzema-Dickson | 15 April 2014  

Thank you for Michael for highlighting the the hopeful message in the book Countrymen. Sunday's march was a magnificnet display of solidarity and decency. It gave me renewed sense of hope that more people are realising we are all connected to one another. "Not in our Name" was an oft seen sign among the many thousands marching. Perhaps more people are beginning to realise the depth of the cruel treatment and will not tolerate it being done in their names. Let's hope so!

Sharon Casey, msc | 15 April 2014  

This is a but hypocritical. The boats have stopped. No one is dying at sea as happened under Labor

Frank | 17 April 2014  

Thank you for this article which so closely reflects my very thoughts! I see even my Christian friends (I am an atheist) consistently distracted by various forms of frippery and dross - glued to the TV watching utter nonsense. Meanwhile the social fabric unwinds, the natural environment degrades...Thankfully not all my friends are white, but those who are seem to me be the worst offenders. They're like zombies... By the way, do you have a twitter account?

Marc Bowden | 17 April 2014  

To those saying the Church needs to be more present, I'd point to Bishop Vincent Long's great homily at the prayer service before the Melbourne rally (http://australiancatholics.com.au/article.aspx?aeid=39286#.U09k8-aSyRI). Bishop Long was there along with many other Catholics at the march on Sunday, and is a great advocate on asylum seekers as a former refugee himself. However, I agree that we need a 'Lampedusa moment' in Australia from the Catholic Church. I would love to see the new Archbishop of Sydney (whoever that ends up being) make a visit to Villawood in their first days in office. Marc - My twitter handle is @mjmcv. Just be prepared for a few Richmond Football Club rants if you follow me.

Michael McVeigh | 17 April 2014  

Great piece, thank you. I am often caught wondering lately if Australia - as a community - has an empathy deficit, is outright racist, suffers from a plague of indifference, or includes an overly large number of people gullible enough to believe "dog whistle" politics and the media that fuels it. I haven't reached a conclusion, but it does alarm. And to those who think this is somehow an anti-Liberal protest movement, there is - as has been said - plenty of blame to go around all political parties. And Cathy, whenever there have been brutal policies to asylum seekers, indigenous peoples and the less powerful in our society, there have always been those who try to 'bear witness' by protesting. That you haven't noticed says much, and not just about you.

Susan | 17 April 2014  

Michael a great big thank you from the heart. Lou Dingle Refugee therapist/advocate

Lou Dingle | 18 April 2014  

no, FRANK, they;re not dying at sea anyone - they're probably just dying somewhere else - s that's great - someone else's problem now?

AURELIUS | 20 April 2014  

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