Refugee advocate tells Jesuit seminar that democracy requires honesty
Democracy demands a degree of honesty and compassion in politicians and the courage of the media to report the truth, refugee barrister Julian Burnside argued last night at Uniya's Lenten Seminar 2005 in Melbourne.
"The essence of democracy is that the elected representatives are chosen because their constituents think this candidate or that will best represent their views in parliament. If a candidate lies about his or her beliefs and values, the democratic process is compromised. The greater the lie, the greater the damage to the true course of democracy", he said.
Mr Burnside said that the Government's treatment of the Bakhtiyari family, who were deported at Christmas time in controversial circumstances, is an example of the inconsistencies between truth and the spins that come from some elected representatives.
"Showing compassion to the Bakhtiyari family would have been consistent with family values, Christian charity, fairness and decency - the values Mr Howard claims to hold", he said.
"Mr Howard, Mr Ruddock and Mrs Vanstone are personally responsible for the shocking damage suffered by the [Bakhtiyari] children. They hold themselves out as Christians; they embrace 'family values'. But at Christmas time in 2004 they denied kindness or compassion to 6 children whose lives they have blighted.
"Unfortunately, the government seems concerned that mercy and compassion set a bad precedent. Given that the government had a discretion to allow the family to stay, it is difficult to understand why it insisted on removing a family it had damaged so badly, unless its purpose was to send a message: not to people smugglers, but to us. Its message to us is this: 'We hold absolute power; we do not have to acknowledge public sentiment; we can crush anyone who messes with us.'
Mr Burnside asked the audience to imagine what it would be like if the Government was honest about its conduct and the media had the courage to report the truth.
"Imagine if, in 2001, he [Howard] had said: 'I know the asylum seekers did not throw their children overboard - they were just doing what any decent parent would do - they were trying to save them from the Taliban, or Saddam Hussein.'
"Imagine if he had said at the 2004 election: 'My government locks up innocent people. We treat them cruelly, because we don't want to encourage their type. We have power to gaol innocent people for life. I will not help the Bakhtiyari children at Christmas time because I don't have to. I will only show compassion for popular victims.'
Comparing the media coverage of Cornelia Rau's case, an Australian resident with mental illness held in immigration detention for nearly a year, to the many stories of torture and ill-treatment of non-Australian residents in detention centres, Mr Burnside argued that in presenting an unbalanced view of Australia's conduct, the press engages in its own form of dishonesty.
Mr Burnside concluded with a warning: "When the process is complete, when we have been stripped of our liberties for our own protection, when the values which once held this nation high have been terminally debased, then we will realise that honesty matters."
The Jesuit Lenten Seminars will continue in other cities over the next few weeks, including Canberra, Western Sydney, Sydney, Brisbane and Wollongong. Details are on the Uniya website.
Democracy depends on honesty: refugee barrister (Uniya Jesuit Social Justice Centre)
Uniya Jesuit Social Justice Centre
Australian Jesuits | Honesty Matters Lenten Seminars | Flyer
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24 Feb 2005