Australian Policies

Has the change to Senator Vandstone as Minister for Immigration led to a modification of Australia’s policies or attitudes towards refugees?

That depends on whether you look at what she does or what she says. Officially, the government hasn’t changed it policy. In practice, she is doing a number of things that I applaud. She is granting discretionary visas in circumstances where I think they ought to be granted, but where they might not have been granted in the past. Now, there is a degree of cynicism about it. I don’t think they’re doing it out of goodness. They’re doing it out of electoral cynicism. But, it’s still a good outcome, so to that extent I think it’s terrific.

Just as people wrote to Aladdin during his detention, Kate Durham and yourself have organised a campaign of writing letters to detainees. In what ways would the publication of these powerful pieces of writing influences public opinion?

I think the book of letters had quite an impact, because when you read what people in detention write, you suddenly are forced to accept that they are human beings. It’s a very strange thing. The first few letters you read from detainees, it’s like a punch between the eyes – you are suddenly caught up with the irresistible truth that they are human beings. And the government had for a long time done everything it possible could to prevent Australians from understanding that these people were human beings – hide them away, don’t let them be seen, minimize the possibility of contact between Australian citizens and refugees, and that way you can rub them off the human map. Humanising them, I think, makes all the difference.

In one of the letters, it says that “in the zoo, humans look after animals, but here, animals look after humans.”

I know the person who wrote that, and that same man sent me a note with a video tape, and the note said, “This is what I fear, please help me.” The videotape shows the sort of punishment in Iran he will face if he is sent back. It’s a devastating video I can tell you.

Would you consider becoming a politician in order to add to the impact you are currently having on this debate concerning refugees?


I will never enter politics.

A number of journalists including Robert Manne and Pamela Bone have commented on Australia’s overseas aid budget being at a record low. Would you comment on Australia’s role in overseas aid?

I think if we were serious about of concerns for refugees, we’d greatly increase our overseas aid. The way to reduce the flow of refugees worldwide, and in the case of Australia in particular, is to help change the circumstances the circumstances which cause them to flee, and overseas aid is the obvious way to do that. Right at the moment, Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq, are in terrible trouble. If we can do something constructive to help those places rebuild, rather than destructive, then we could help resolve the international problem of refugees and international terrorism. You know, people don’t become terrorists as a career choice, they do it because often they are in a position where they got nothing left to lose. It’s very dangerous living in a world where there are people with nothing left to loose. The smartest way to run any country is to make sure everyone has got something they value, which they don’t want to put at risk, so that they will act more cautiously.

How do you think history will judge the Australian response to the plight of refugees?

Very harshly, because on any view, we’ve behaved disgracefully. We’ve used jack-boot tactics against a tiny group of desperate powerless people. They came asking for help, and we brutalised them even more. I think it’s been quite wicked. And if history doesn’t judge us harshly, then it will be because the world has become more brutal, and I don’t like to think that the world will go that way. I think we have just lost our senses.

Is there anything else you would like to add regarding yourself or your work with refugees.

Yes. I think I’ve been lucky to have stumbled into the area. I can think of few things