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Australia falls for a fistful of fibs


Fist clutching barbed wireIf there's one thing that Bob Carr's recent comments on asylum seekers demonstrated it was that our politicians think they can say anything they want about 'boat people' and not be held to account for the truth. Our long and steady decline into the almost total victimisation of a vulnerable group of people continues. We are now at the point where it seems that the truth of people's lives counts for nothing.

Much has been written lately about the impoverishment of our public conversations and how they have become captive to political spin, endlessly repeated catch phrases and just plain, brazen lying for political and ideological gain. Well, the results are in — as individuals and as a society we have been captured by the lies and easy phrases. Our view of the world around us and our place in it bears too little resemblance to the truth of it; and in this we are doomed to live disconnected, small and impoverished lives.

We can see this at work in the pessimism about the state of our economy, one of the healthiest in the world, and the tendency of those of us with very healthy incomes to regard ourselves as somewhat 'poor'. We see it in the scepticism about human-induced climate change and its devastating effects — better to believe a comfortable lie than an unpalatable scientific truth. But in no other area of public policy have our hearts and minds been duped by this destructive rhetoric more than on issues relating to asylum seekers who arrive by boat.

It seems like truth and integrity have caught a boat and sailed right out of here.

Back in 1996 the Australian Government did what no other country in the world has done. It linked the intake numbers for the offshore humanitarian program (this is about the resettlement of refugees — not an obligation under the Refugee Convention) with those of the onshore protection program (the processing of claims for protection by asylum seekers who arrive on our shores which is the obligation we do have under the Convention).

Overnight the rhetoric of 'queue jumper' was born. By linking these two separate programs, the claim could now be made that for every person who comes 'uninvited' by boat, one long suffering refugee from the camps in Africa and Southeast Asia misses out.

It does not have to be this way, but no-one tells us this. There is bipartisan support for this policy and bipartisan abuse of the truth about this policy setting. If the concern is, as I am often told by politicians from both major parties, that the 'floodgates' would open if the programs were de-linked, then let us have that conversation. Now, all we have is a public mindset held captive to a great lie that gives us permission to treat people badly.

Carr spun a lie we have heard before — that asylum seekers who arrive by boat are not seeking protection from persecution and harm, they are seeking greater economic opportunity. There was no nuance in his statement. There was no evidence behind it. As has often been said in reply to him on this matter, we do have a refugee determination process that is designed to assess people's claims. It is a fact that the majority of people who arrive by boat are granted refugee status and that some are not (those seeking 'economic' outcomes, perhaps).

When Carr, and too many others like him, strip the truth of people's lives from the public debate, we become disconnected from the reality of those lives — the reality of what it might be like to be one of the thousands the Government dumped in limbo when it stopped processing the claims of those who arrived after 13 August 2012; the reality that to be an asylum seeker in Indonesia means you live scared; that people will continue to make perilous journeys to find security for themselves and their families; that our neighbours in Kiribati and Tuvalu are one day going to need to join that imaginary queue because we cannot wean ourselves off fossil fuels.

Along with my colleagues and my church, I am often charged with being a 'bleeding heart', which is code for being 'too soft' on people who don't deserve our compassion, or uninformed about the hard facts of life, like the importance of the economy above all else. I will wear this charge proudly because as a Christian advocate for social justice I have a responsibility to understand how our policies, systems and structures actually affect people. I look forward to the day when we stop buying the lies and start paying more attention to the truth of people's lives.


Elenie Poulos headshotRev. Elenie Poulos is the national director of UnitingJustice Australia (Uniting Church in Australia) and chair of the newly formed Australian Churches Refugee Taskforce.

Fist image from Shutterstock

Topic tags: Elenie Poulos, Bob Carr, asylum seekers



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Existing comments

Bob Carr was one of the most successful players of the NSW political game. Whether, apart from staying in office, he did much is a moot point. Politics, as played here, is a game about winning. He won. Both his party and the Coalition are near their Grand Final. It's about winning. Refugee policy - one political item - is part of the overall game. Whether you and clerics like you are "bleeding hearts" or incredibly perceptive is something I think the average punter is unsure of. Deep in his or her heart I think they believe "The truth is out there" but are unconvinced whether anyone in the public arena is telling them the truth. The cynicism all clerics and churches face these days is something you have to live with. We are a nation of cynics.

Edward F | 17 July 2013  

Thanks for this Elenie....so true, so articulate. As the bleeding heart on my staff, I am about to forward this to all my colleagues.

Lynne Moten | 17 July 2013  

Thank you - a very sensible and informative piece mixed in with a healthy dollop of compassion that is sadly lacking in out country at the moment.

Cate | 17 July 2013  

Thankyou Elenie.

Stephanie Tonkin | 17 July 2013  

Well said, Elenie. The words and acts of those responsible in 1996 can be sheeted home today as both sides of politics & much of the media continue the base campaign against those only some Australians seem to regard as 'neighbours'.

Brian Larsson | 17 July 2013  

"It seems like truth and integrity have caught a boat and sailed right out of here"..... Or that they were detected on a boat and turned back lest some self-interested politicians might put their re-election chances at risk?

Robert Liddy | 17 July 2013  

Powerful and articulate. My prayers for your very important work Elenie. As to being charged with being a 'bleeding heart' - wear that badge proudly as you should.

Pam | 17 July 2013  

Thank you Elenie for this challenging reminder that we are just too comfortable in our insular lifestyle to be able to imagine the debilitating hopelessness that causes people to risk their lives to get here. Not willing to give asylum to political refugees, we create administrative barriers to deter boat landings on the mainland. To reinforce the 'Not welcome here' message, we arbitrarily stop assessing refugee claims. Because these measures don't "stop the boats" we refute the validity of our independent assessment process to argue that 90% of them can't be refugees; they must be coming for economic gain! Before the Tampa incident, I could not understand why my grandparents' and parents' generation locked up Jewish asylum seekers from Nazi Europe as enemy aliens to be interned immediately on arrival. I mistakenly thought that, more aware of international political conditions, our generation would be more willing to share the burden of the widespread movement of people fleeing war and persecution in their homelands. Since the Tampa incident, I have lost a lot of faith in my own people. Not only do Government and Opposition compete to prove who is harshest against these desperate people, but public comment suggests that the majority of Australians support the harshness.

Ian Fraser | 17 July 2013  

Such a compassionate piece and combined with John Stanhope's message on the ABC this morning which called for us to see individual human beings rather than an amorphous group of refugees was heartening. Thank you both for reminding us that compassion should be at the forefront of our doings

GAJ | 17 July 2013  

Finally somebody has the guts to speak the truth on this issue. And this morning John Stanhope, administrator on Christmas Island spoke with compassion about the asylum seekers. Unusual for a public figure! Are the winds changing?

john bartlett | 17 July 2013  

I agree with Ian fraser. I wonder how many people who don't want asylum seekers are migrants who escaped nastiness in their countries of birth.

irena mangone | 17 July 2013  

As a person with a friend working on Christmas island and manus island, your statement that Bob Carr is wrong re economic refugees does not stack up. How is it that 19 iranians can pay 80,000 euro each just to get a boat to Australia because they want a better job. I wish I had 80,000 euros once, let alone 19 times. There is only so many a country can take. How about you let us all know how many people you think we should take every year and who is to pay for their upkeep. Get off your high horse and do the sums.. It is a shame some of these people miss out but when u have so many queue jumpers that is going to happen. Alternatively let them all in and put them in central australia, start up new towns and provide them with work re building austyralia. You cant have it both ways- it all or it is only a few. make up your mind

Phil | 17 July 2013  

Elenie Poulos alleges that Bob Carr said all boat people are "seeking greater economic. There was nuance in his statement". I don't believe her statement. Can she substantiate it?

frank hetherton | 17 July 2013  

Thank you so much for raising issues of truth - being held accountable for truth lies with us all and particularly positions of responsibility. We are too easily 'captured by lies and easy phrases' and our inaction allows others to sink to this. Our created intellect and humanity demand much more. A great person once said: 'The truth shall make you free'. Freedom is stifled by laying truth on the altar. Thanks for the challenge. Let's speak out.

Marion Weymouth | 17 July 2013  

maybe it's an atavistic instinct to jailing people that goes back to the First Fleet, but surely a more mature and compassionate approach would be to accept the facts of the matter, that most refugees are genuine, and treat them humanely, allow them to earn their daily bread, and send their kids to school. Compassion marks a civilized society, incarceration a lost, insecure and frightened one.

walter p komarnicki | 17 July 2013  

The reality is that the people who arrive by boat are desperate enough to put their own and their families' lives at risk - at significant risk - rather than stay where they are. One has to wonder how many lives are lost at sea that we never hear about because they don't make it into waters where Australia hears about them.

Judy Redman | 17 July 2013  

It's the parable of the Good Samaritan in modern guise. But where can we find the Good Samaritan amongst our political luminaries.

Alan Cook | 17 July 2013  

Edward F. I agree with your analogy of politics as a game. It fits with the general Australian ethos. As long as the Herald Sun gives most of its coverage to sport and AFL in particular most Melburnians/Victorians will make the segue to politics with the same gormless attitude. Our political commentators are as one-eyed as Collingwood supporters (Carn the Pies!).

Name | 17 July 2013  

Very well argued and very well written, Elenie! You hit the nail on the head in a clear and concise way. I agree with you totally about the refugees. I'm also glad that my assessment of Carr is true and exact. I arrived at it last year and told him so personally. He should go elsewhere; he doesn't belong in the Labor party. Well done Elenie.

Nathalie | 17 July 2013  

Hi Elenie, thanks for this, keep plugging on. Hearted watching the community cabinet meeting last night, held in Rockhampton Central Queensland. A question supporting better treatment for asylum seekers received considerable applause. Winds changing, who knows....Dear Frank, please listen to media recordings of FM Carr's statement for substantiation. He also mentioned middle class Iranians, the implication being they were also coming for only economic reasons.

Jan Forrester | 17 July 2013  

Thank you for your brave words, and your courage in addressing the truths and challenging the untruths that some may find more palatable. I hope we as a people will have that conversation you refer to, about the politically expedient linking of separate programs and the implications of delinking them, and the sooner this happens, the better. It is disappointing to think that respected leaders might be tempted to compromise their own integrity for the sake of inhumane and expedient solutions to a 'problem' that is ongoing, and cannot be resolved through political 'quick-fixes', but only through broader-based, far-sighted, humane responses that require courage, respect for others and a coordinated effort on the part of government and non-government agencies, together with good will on the part of the Australian populace, who should not take their own relative good fortune for granted.

Jena Woodhouse | 17 July 2013  

Thanks Elenie - a word in season. Carr and his leader have flown a big kite on the matter of who is and is not an economic migrant. And too many Australians who should know better are finding it difficult to speak truth to power. Go boldly!

Wayne Sanderson | 17 July 2013  

Thanks Elenie, wonderful piece. Today's news also; Stanhope's plea and the PM's sacking of an ad agency illustrate your points. You make a general point about truth and then an application to Refugees. Where have some ES readers been living? Politicians lying? 'Twas ever so. It is surprising that people are aghast. So what do we do? Naturally individuals will seek news sources which reinforce their prejudices, so they listen to Alan Jones or read Bolt. Politicians now appeal to some of the basest human drives, their bile conveyed by media with vested interests. But folks, if you go into a pub or a Mens Shed or bowling club how do you deal with the majority who now hold dear these prejudices? Labels like bleeding heart are just labels, but you have to wear them. They advance no argument. But is this all a lot of words from and to the comfortable, the very few who read the press? How else do we enact our electoral rights? Democracy is not a spectator sport.

Michael D. Breen | 17 July 2013  

Oh and by the way, how come we let Government get away with the silence about the huge numbers of people arriving and staying who swan in at airports?

Michael D. Breen | 17 July 2013  

Let's hear more from Phil. What sort of evidence does he have that these people paid 80000 euros each? How representative are they of boat arrivals in general? It all seems unbelievable to me.

Gavan | 17 July 2013  

Thank you for this well written and perceptive article. Australia has dropped the ball on refugees and asylum seekers and we need to re-engage with the realities of life in the countries that these people flee from. Australia is a rich country and can afford to take desperate people and make their shattered lives better! I, for one, am ashamed that we have hardened our hearts against people who are really struggling against forces that would do them harm.

Anthony Scott | 17 July 2013  

Australian has committed so many horrors it should bow its head in shame. Australia is a spoiled brat of a country, hedonistic, egocentric and self-indulgent. That many with bourgeoisie lives , are declaring to have bleeding hearts, while others congratulate them, is just a joke! It's like congratulating a medical team for their Harvard attained qualifications, rather than comforting the sick experiencing atrocious agony. I am disgusted with these unless articles that just go on and on and on and on about how 'terribly sad it all is'. How about something real for a change? Articles written by refugees - who have arrived here by boat - or who have had family members, tragically died at sea, expressing their deep anguish, disbelief and disgust with the horrifyingly wicked Australian government - for a change and to help make a change. It's THEIR TIME to speak not ours. Furthermore: IT'S TIME TO STOP THE PEOPLE WHO SAY : STOP THE BOATS, BY STOPPING THEM. By not giving them our votes, this coming election.

Monica | 17 July 2013  

Refugees are human beings with human rights and legal rights. The continual belief that we can do less and less in the face of more and more crises throughout the world drives me to derangement. The media are not help, they fuel the flames by never separating out the law from our ridiculous law breaking policies. The law is and has been for 60 years the right to seek asylum. Policy is illegally trafficking, trading and jailing people.

Marilyn | 17 July 2013  

Thank you for being so forthright. Marie

Marie O'Connor sgs | 17 July 2013  

Keeping it real. Well said, Monica, well said.

Bernstein | 17 July 2013  

In reply to Frank Hetherton, Elenie's words were: "There was NO nuance in his statement." (my emphasis). From memory, I thought it was quite clear what Carr meant.

Peter Horan | 17 July 2013  

An excellent article Elenie,thank you! We are certainly far from being a "Christian" nation. We are even far from being a "Caring" nation. This makes me very sad.

Wendy Ridge | 17 July 2013  

Elenie, Thank you so much for your courageous comments and Christian compassion. In a supposedly Christian Country like ours whatever happened to the "good Samaritan" ? Whatever happened to one of important pillars of our Christian faith - Christ's emphasis on Charity ? We are a bunch of hypocrites if we are being selective about what we believe in and how we live our lives.

Vernon | 17 July 2013  

Carr has not changed. I recall him almost running from a crowded room when questions were asked about serious migration rights issues when he was Premier of NSW. His comments are shocking in their dishonesty. In the 1960s the UNHCR, assisted by bodies such as the World Council of Churches created mounting awareness of the growing number of both asylym seekers and refugees awaiting settlement and the rights of both groups to not live in misery. The world seemed to be awakening to the crises for millions throughout the world fleeing war and persecution. In my idealistic twenties at the time, I never would have believed it possible that Australian governments, politicians, media and so many of us would be acting and pontificating in such cruel, self-indulgent and selfish ways. Thank you Elenie for your articulate, clear and courageous article. When will the worm turn in our community? How many of us really feel outraged by the way asylum seekers, in particular, are being treated? Anne

Anne Gotsis | 17 July 2013  

I am all for compassion. It is the virtue that finds expression in those great directives, "Do unto others…." or "…and love your neighbour as yourself…" However, if we do not combine or compassion with our reason, we risk becoming self-righteously sentimental. This can have dangerous consequences. The only poster who has put some hard questions so far is Phil. I wholly endorse his challenge to put a number, and therefore a limit, on how many asylum-seekers we resettle. It's fine to have endless compassion but asylum-seekers require goods and services. Apart from the fine work some volunteers do, most people will not supply these goods and services for compassion. They expect to be paid. Just how much money are we willing to spend to resettle how many people? Yes, some people will miss out. We cannot, either as individuals or as a country, eradicate all suffering from this world. This may be a bitter pill for some to swallow. Surprise, surprise, you are not omnipotent. Evil and suffering still exist despite your compassion. We can alleviate them as best as we can, but we cannot banish them. If we let in unrestricted numbers, we risk burdening our society with more people than we can assist to assimilate.

MJ | 18 July 2013  

Thankyou Rev. Elenie you are spot on. Thank you for revealing the unpalatable truth we do not lie to hear about ourselves.

Laurie Gordon Bissett | 18 July 2013  

MJ, resettlement is not protection, it is if you like taxpayer funded double dipping queue jumping because under the convention they have zero right to resettlement. Resettlement is not a binding obligation, our obligation is to those who arrive here and only those people. We simply pretend otherwise. We cannot though set a cap on how many can seek protection, and we don't.

Marilyn | 18 July 2013  

Reading some of the comments on this article I am not sure it has either clarified the situation nor enhanced the quality of public discourse on the subject. This is a very messy multi-faceted problem and not one easily reduced to black and white terms. I think some commenters see it as such. That sort of polarisation means that it an intelligent national debate on the matter with the possibility of a reasoned compromise being achieved in the political sphere becomes increasingly remote.

Edward F | 18 July 2013  

Thank you Elenie.. as someone who has actually experienced a couple of nasty little wars and some pretty unbelievable situations, I am almost distraught at the nastiness of the whole "stop the boats" debate. I consider it a great privilege to have actually saved some refugees in the past and an honour. For the obsequious Abbott to claim to be a Catholic, on the one hand, and so unchristian and totally lacking any compassion frankly beggars belief. As for Bob Carr, I think his history and "ethics" speak for themselves. Thank you for this ray of light!

Jonathan Wallis | 18 July 2013  

Elenie! Brava! How fortunate I was to grow up all those years ago in Tamworth - neighbours Italian and Chinese and German - Scottish and English - and an Indigenous family too! And at university (latter 1960s) among my class-mates those from China ("White" not "Red" Russians) and of other ethnicities. And then my students in latter 1970s Sydney - from south-east Asia - Boat People (welcomed -thanks to Malcolm FRASER) arriving by means just like my First Fleet ancestors! I am distressed beyond measure - like you - with the callousness revealed by those of our current politicians who are demonising the asylum-seeking people - such as from both sides of the political divide: CARR/ABBOTT/MORRISON! And distracting us from our brothers and sisters fleeing unimaginable regimes and dangers by carrying on about the Oskar SCHINDLERS helping them cross the short distance to Christmas Island - spittle flying as they speak of those 21st century devil incarnates - the "people-smugglers"! Shame on you all! Senator HANSEN-YOUNG however - she shows all is not lost! The consolation is that History will write the truth and damn the cold-hearted. The ultimate question is always: "What would Jesus do?" No?

Jim KABLE | 19 July 2013  

Elenie, I wish more of our church leaders (especially mine from the Anglican Church) would adopt exactly the stand you take. I would be interested to know more about the new taskforce you are chairing.

Susan Emeleus | 19 July 2013  

Twenty thousand people who have been living in refugee camps in Asia and Africa for 10 to 20 years have been unable to be given the chance of life in Australia under our humanitarian intake because others able to raise the money themselves have taken their place. That is the reality - is it because they are out of sight, out of mind, that most of you appear to disregard them? If the people smugglers had been kept more or less stopped the billions that have been spent on detention could have been allocated in part to establishing integration/assimilation centres - intensive English, schooling for children, temporary housing, not too far from major cities to enable retired or semi-retired teachers, psychologists, tradespeople to spend time at the centres. I have worked for aid organisations and spent time in the Pacific on voluntary assignments. I do care deeply about the pain of the refugees and I would probably try to do the same if I had the money to escape but that does not make it right or fair that those without are left without a life because they have none. So the boats have to be stopped.

Mary Hoban | 19 July 2013  

Mary did you even bother to read the article or just jerk your knee. Resettlement is not a legal obligation.

Marilyn | 19 July 2013  

Thank-you, Elenie. Keep up the good work!

Anne | 19 July 2013  

Thank you for this light in a very moment in this country. Keep it up.

cecile yazbek | 20 July 2013  

Wonderful to see this article - thank you for writing. We wanted to invite everyone to our 'Five Facts You Didn't Know About 'Boat People' campaign, which focuses on the messages that asylum seekers arriving by boat are legal, genuine and innocent, that few arrive, and that there is no orderly queue. Please join us on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/fivefacts and sign our petition asking both major political parties to honour the Refugee Convention http://www.communityrun.org/p/fivefacts Thank you all so much! We believe that together, we can raise awareness and we can change the policies for the better!

Five Facts Campaign | 21 July 2013  

@ Marylin. By distinguishing between protection and resettlement, are you saying that we only have to have the asylum-seekers here for as long as there is danger in their homelands? Would it not then follow that we could send them back at some point in the future, just as the Howard government did with the Temporary Protection Visas? And how many of the asylum-seekers are willing to be here temporarily rather than permanently? Would you be in favour of sending them back to their country of origin forcibly once it was judged that the danger they fled no longer existed?

MJ | 22 July 2013  

Elenie, Great article with which I agree but.... what is your solution to the refugee "problem" taking account of the balance between compassion and Australia "living within its means" and therefore not able to take every refugee. In addition, how do we stop people from drowning at sea. Whilst I am appalled at our politicians' lack of compassion, I am realistic enough to understand that we do not have a bottomless pit of funds. I am genuinely interested to hear someone provide an "answer" which does not appear lacking in compassion.

Barry Jardine | 23 July 2013  

Barry Jardine, it will be cold day in hell when the editors of this magazine worry about such matters. They are too busy being compassionate to have to worry about such vulgar matters as balancing budget, or trying to prioritise umpteen other competing demands on the nation's finances. Just pretend we live in a world with unlimited resources and you are free to preen your moral superiority to your heart's content.

Joyce Ruth | 24 July 2013  

Elenie, Our immoral political landscape is on display for all to see. But, as my mate Jim observes, the red-necks such as his two brothers, are racing each other to fascism/eugenics/fortress Australia and are totally disconnected from reality. How do we now begin to welcome the stranger at the gate???

Michael Nelson | 25 July 2013  

Michael Nelson, by placing the Royal Australian Navy at the service of All refugees desiring to make themselves a new life in Australia. This is the very best Australia can do, and must do, to guarantee their SAFE arrival from whatever shore they're departing from. Why have the Royal Australian Navy, if it's not put it to good humanitarian use?

Monica | 25 July 2013  

On the issue of compassion, Theodore Dalrymple has written what I regard to be an excellent article. It deals with a speech the pope gave recently at Lampedusa. For me the highlight was the following. "By elevating feeling over thought, by making compassion the measure of all things, the Pope was able to evade the complexities of the situation, in effect indulging in one of the characteristic vices of our time, moral exhibitionism, which is the espousal of generous sentiment without the pain of having to think of the costs to other people of the implied (but unstated) morally-appropriate policy. This imprecision allowed him to evade the vexed question as to exactly how many of the suffering of Africa, and elsewhere, Europe was supposed to admit and subsidize (and by Europe I mean, of course, the European taxpayer, who might have problems of his own)." The full article can be found here. http://www.libertylawsite.org/2013/07/22/pope-francis-should-seek-clarity-on-moral-responsibility/ In my opinion it precisely expresses the reservations that a number of posters have voiced about the content Ms Poulos's article

Robert Edgar | 25 July 2013  

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