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Coincidence, visas, ATSIC and Mabo day

Coffee and coincidence

Restaurant strips are shrines to the Goddess of Coincidence. A Jesuit was recently part of a group choosing arbitrarily among the hundreds of nearby cafés for their cup of coffee. The waitress, who turned out to be from Indonesia, asked him if he knew John Dijkstra. To which he could only reply, ‘I did not know him, but when I was visiting Indonesia recently, I attended his funeral.’ It was a significant funeral. John Dijkstra was a Dutch Jesuit who spent his working life in Indonesia. He had a gift for encouragement, and through his friendships he influenced Catholic work for social justice throughout south-east Asia, helping to broaden its focus beyond its earlier narrowly anti-communist preoccupation. This expanded vision could be dangerous in Suharto’s Indonesia, where opposition to communism allowed corruption and structural injustice to be concealed. The waitress had met Dijkstra through her work with street kids, through a group that Dijkstra had begun and animated.


How much applause should we give the Immigration Minister’s decision to give residence to almost all the East Timorese who have so far applied to him? For the East Timorese nothing less than a standing ovation will do. For the government, only polite clapping.

The process discourages an enthusiastic response. A vulnerable group has suffered great and needless anxiety—forced to apply for refugee status, inevitably refused first by immigration officers and then by the Refugee Review Tribunal, then having to appeal to the minister’s discretion. The process has also been financially and spiritually costly for Australians.

A better way was always available. Groups with unique needs and claims can be given a visa available only to them. When the East Timorese arrived in Australia they were refugees beyond any doubt; they failed to be accepted as refugees only because of Australian fears of the Indonesian government reaction. Furthermore, they were traumatised by their experiences in East Timor, have since developed close links with Australia, and it is clear that the new East Timorese nation can only with difficulty afford to settle them if they are repatriated. To make them apply for refugee status on the grounds that they would fear persecution on returning to East Timor now is a cruel charade.

So the audience will applaud the denouement but not the plot. But the play continues, and the audience must demand an encore. The risk with relying on unreviewable ministerial discretion is that hidden quotas which have nothing to do with individual cases can be imposed. In the case of the East Timorese this would be unjust.

For the people?

As the ALP tears itself apart, the Coalition is busy taking the axe to ATSIC. On 1 July, ATSIC will be split in two. ATSIC will retain its representative and policy-making functions, but its assets and the majority of its 1200 staff will be transferred to the new body, ATSIS, which will be responsible for determining individual funding applications.

The decision follows a period of intense scrutiny and criticism by the Coalition of ATSIC’s elected board, particularly of its Chair, Geoff Clark, and his deputy, Sugar Ray Robinson. According to Minister Ruddock, the split is an interim measure designed to promote good governance and accountability by removing the potential for conflicts of interest. But many commentators argue that ATSIC is already overburdened by accountability mechanisms, and question the timing of the decision, which was taken one month before the report of a comprehensive review of ATSIC was due.

Concerns have also been expressed about the process and politics of a Minister for Indigenous Affairs unilaterally stripping ATSIC, an elected body, of its functions. As the Chair of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS), Professor Mick Dodson, pointed out recently:

Regardless of how you feel about the performance of the board, we went through a democratic process of selection. Our people were asked to make choices, and we made our choices. Whether they be right or wrong, we made them. And what have we got? A highly undemocratic, unilateral, outrageous decision [by the minister] about our future that deeply affects us, and that we’ve had absolutely no say in. Nobody in a democratic country ought to be treated like this.

A decision that seems unlikely to repair relations between Indigenous leaders and the federal government …

Mabo day

Something that might, though, is a new national holiday. Marking the eleventh anniversary of the High Court’s decision in the Mabo case, the family of the late Edward ‘Koiki’ Mabo launched a petition (available at www.atsic.gov.au) calling on the Senate to declare 3 June a national holiday in recognition of the decision.

As Eddie Mabo Junior pointed out, there is currently no national holiday that acknowledges Indigenous people and recognises their contribution, achievements and survival in Australia. A public holiday to commemorate the Mabo decision, he said, ‘would be a celebration all Australians can share in with pride—a celebration of truth that unites Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians and a celebration of justice that overturned the legal myth of terra nullius.’ Bonita Mabo, Koiki’s widow, has suggested that the holiday replace the Queen’s birthday holiday in June.



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