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Mooted boat ban ignores history and humanity



Ah, my Grannies: how clearly I hear them still. 'Never let the sun set on your anger.' But then I also hear the balancing note of my mother's voice: 'But always remember there is such a thing as righteous indignation.'

Port Adelaide 1869-1889Whether it's righteous indignation or just plain fury, I'm not quite sure, but the sun has been setting for quite some days, and I'm still raging, almost foaming and frothing at the mouth.

The reason for this intemperate outburst involves the proposed legislation that is to be debated this week: the Prime Minister and the Minister for Immigration, among others, are making a strong move to impose a life ban on would-be immigrants who try to arrive on Australian shores by boat and without authorisation.

The reported aim is to stop the iniquitous practice of people smuggling, but how successful such a plan might prove to be is debatable. And what about the people who are truly desperate? What about the 1200 unfortunates who have been detained on Nauru and on Manus? Politicians, it seems to me, are often very good at ignoring the human cost of the measures they implement.

In their previous careers Turnbull and Dutton were involved in the practice and enforcement of the law. It can be safely assumed that they also have some knowledge of Australia's past.

So why are they ignoring precedent (most immigrants in the past arrived by boat, including their own ancestors) and history (many, many immigrants have made an invaluable contribution to Australian society)? For surely it is necessary to live both in the past and in the future.

It would also be interesting to know how many of our forbears were illegal immigrants to Australia. One of my great-great-grandfathers was one such. From County Down in Ulster, he was only 16 when he used his thumb print to sign on as a seaman; the year was the dreadful one of 1847, midway through the Great Famine.

It is not known how many voyages he made, but he was still a young man when he made a decisive voyage to Australia. The story goes that throughout this long journey he was persistently bullied by a petty officer. The critical moment came one morning when something snapped within him, and he clobbered the bully with a deckscrubber.


"Where is the morality, let alone any concept of liberty, in this proposed legislation? And where is there any empathy? Turnbull and Dutton are fathers, and Turnbull is a grandfather: can they not think of suffering children?"


Convinced he had killed the man, my ancestor jumped overboard: how convenient it was that he could swim, and that the port of Adelaide was not far off. Not an easy immigration at all: his hair turned white overnight, so convinced was he that he was a murderer. But he stayed on the straight and narrow, learned to read and write, married and raised a family, and then, very strange to relate, passed the victim in the street 20 years after doing the deed that had so altered his future. I suspect that many long-established white Australian families may have similar stories to tell.

The great Lord Acton famously believed that power tends to corrupt: as well, it seems to produce blind spots in leaders, the people who should be the most clear-sighted of us all. Acton also wrote that 'liberty becomes a question of morals more than of politics.' Where is the morality, let alone any concept of liberty, in this proposed legislation? And where is there any empathy? Turnbull and Dutton are fathers, and Turnbull is a grandfather: can they not think of suffering children? And the parents who have been and will be deprived of hope?

While the egregious One Nation party predictably applauds the scheme, there has been no shortage of negative reactions to it. Opposition leader Bill Shorten has declared the notion ridiculous, and the New York Times editorial of last weekend expressed the view that such a plan is 'cruel, shortsighted, and shameful'. Amnesty International has used the word 'outrageous,' and there is concern that the proposed legislation, if passed, would be in breach of Article 31 of the United Nations 1951 Refugee Convention, which asserts that asylum seekers should not be punished.

The BBC's veteran foreign correspondent, John Simpson, never visited Australia in the course of his 50-year career, 'because nothing very bad happens there'. But there is certainly something very bad happening now.


Gillian BourasGillian Bouras is an expatriate Australian writer who has written several books, stories and articles, many of them dealing with her experiences as an Australian woman in Greece.

Main image: Port Adelaide, 1869-1889

Topic tags: Gillian Bouras, asylum seekers



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Existing comments

Malcolm Turnbull was an extremely successful barrister. Peter Dutton was, I believe, undistinguished in his police career. The current legislation - including the 'ban for life' - is downright daft. The complete illogicality of this life ban makes us the laughing stock of the world. I am surprised Malcolm Turnbull went along with it. I am one who believes in strong borders and extreme care letting some supposed 'refugees' - remember Man Monis - in. However I do not believe in what appear to be quasi prison camps on Manus Island and Nauru. It would be much easier to lodge these people in country Australia: the economic fillip alone might reinvigorate a few places. It would be a rare Australian whose ancestors or who did not arrive by sea or air. My parents brought me here. This is not the solution. This is Zig and Zag politics. We need statesmen: not clowns.

Edward Fido | 08 November 2016  

Like Gillian, I'm still seething. Although this legislation stands a good chance of being defeated in the Senate, the fact remains that the government has no respect for us. They seriously believe that we would accept this piece of rubbish and let it pass, immoral and ineffective and unAustralian as it is. What is happening?

Joan Seymour | 08 November 2016  

Turnbull was only a barrister for a few years in the 1980's, he had more success screwing cash out of people in his merchant bank career. I am so tired of people whining about strong borders when we have no such thing, we have 60,000 km of unguarded coastline which does not include Manus Island or Nauru. As for the mention by Edward of Man Monis, he came as a business man and later applied for refugee protection, he had been a citizen for many years before he committed his crime. Enough with the Man Monis nonsense, he is not an excuse to torture victims of torture.

Marilyn | 08 November 2016  

Interesting article, but we are talking about just a few "illegal immigrants". Most of the asylum seekers on Manus and Nauru who have already been processed have actually been found to be refugees. Please don't refer to them as "illegal immigrants". It is never illegal to seek asylum.

Bernadette Richards | 09 November 2016  

Thank you Gillian for expressing so well what so many of us are feeling.

Jo Mercer | 09 November 2016  

I remember a co worker telling me how her husband came to Australia as a merchant seaman. On his one day leave he went to Geelong to visit a relative. The relative a European was not home but his Aussie neighbour was and took him in for lunch. He advised the young man to stay in Australia- a good country with plenty of work. The seaman took the advice and 8 years later when he wanted to marry, he went to the local police station to fill in a form and regularise his status. Such was arrival in Australia before detention- now he would be locked up for years.

Pamela | 09 November 2016  

Thanks, Gillian. You've put some plain commonsense and compassion into the conversation. The problem is, who is listening? Well, WE are, but we don't wield much power. Dear Lord, send us leaders who are wise, just and can emphathise.

glen avard | 09 November 2016  

A brilliant article by Gillian Bouras. Australia's indigenous people would be viewing this latest inhumane policy of the Australian government with grim irony. The invaders of this country were also boat people. When they first arrived here until the time they had subdued the land, they employed mass murder against the original owners of the land - bullets, poisoned water holes, poisoned flour, starvation etc. The current boat people who have been arriving have not committing such serious crimes and yet they are being treated like criminals. All they did was to escape war and repression - something we would all do if we experienced the same circumstances. They go on and on, ad nauseam, about "people smugglers", but the only people our leaders are really hurting are those who have already suffered greatly. It is unfair and unjust. All Australians who care about humanity, human rights, social justice and compassion must resist this callous move by the current government. If Aboriginal people had had the power, the invaders would have been the boat people who would have been facing the fate of being denied permanent or temporary entry to these shores.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 09 November 2016  

Thank you, Gillian. I don't doubt that you are speaking for a growing number of Australians, as well as for those in detention whose voices are silenced. Why is it that politicians so often choose to ignore what is obvious and just, and even attempt to subvert international laws designed to protect the vulnerable? Shame on those who would drag the rest of down to their ethically bankrupt level!

Jena Woodhouse | 09 November 2016  

Politicians do count the human cost of measures they implement. That cost is how will this measure help them hold on to or increase their grip on power. This or that particular measure may adversely affect refugees or pensioners or backpackers but will it, they ask, give us more support in the polls, or at the next election. Take this current 'ban for life' legislation regarding refugees who arrive by unauthorised entry vessels (boat people). Of course any Christian trying to live like the Good Samaritan will support these refugees. And many have. So the politicians have to weigh up how they can best please those who oppose welcoming refugees and at the same time blunt the arguments for welcoming them. Switch the target to the people smugglers. Spoil their product - an easy way into Australia. Let it be seen far and wide the fate of those asylum seekers who bought the people smugglers' sales pitch. It reminds me of the medieval practice of putting the heads of executed criminals on city/town walls as a warning to all who dared enter. The facts are the refugees on Nauru are not criminals and they are still alive. Shame, Dutton, shame!

Uncle Pat | 09 November 2016  

I'm with Gillian and so so surprised and disappointed in Malcolm.

Cate | 09 November 2016  

I expected a more compassionate government when Mr. Turnbull became PM. Unfortunately, It seems to me that the hard right wing of the Liberal Party are still calling the shots and this inhumane legislation is the result. This is not the kind of Australia I love. Thanks for the great article Gillian.

Stephen | 09 November 2016  

Gillian Bouras has nailed it again. What an enlightened article. Once proud to be Australian, I am so very sorry for the inhumane way we treat desperate people. Thank you, Gillian, for keeping the light on, in a very dark corner of our history.

Anne Kostaras | 09 November 2016  

Thank you Gillian for writing so passionately and forcefully. I, too am seething. I am also so ashamed of how people are being treated. We need mass outrage.

Jorie Ryan | 09 November 2016  

Gillian: Just this past week here in Australia the Canadian writer and social justice/environmentalist Naomi KLEIN has told us we are pariahs on the world scene for our breaking of UN conventions and unholy treatment of asylum-seeker refugees. Why are you not speaking up - she asked. Well, Gillian, Naomi: we are speaking up - tens of thousands of us - individually or on behalf of others - but the bastards - and I use that word with the full force it once carried - the politicians such as Tony Abbott, Scott Morrison, Malcolm Turnbull and Peter Dutton - and their security company contractors (and their dividend-earning shareholders) wilfully refuse to listen or respond or change their ways. All my foreign arrival ancestors came by boat into the early/mid-part of the 20th century. Times were different. People wanted to come here? Welcome, they were. In fact from the early 20th century and in the post WWII era of the latter 1940s our governments actively sought for immigrants - became a kind of agency for "people" to hop onto boats and come here! Those people built and made our 21st century character. But the politicians became heartless and soulless! Sad!

Jim KABLE | 09 November 2016  

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