The reality of justice

It was a regular weekday morning in August last year when Michael found himself charged (again) with doing the kindy run on his way to work. For some reason that day our ute was laden with parcels, as was his parent’s trailer which was hooked up at the back. When an officer on a motorbike pulled him over, he figured it must have had something to do with the car or  trailer (we were having constant difficulties with the wiring in our boat trailer, were the tail lights playing up again?!).

He was genuinely surprised to find the officer accuse him of using his phone while driving.

Now because of how this all panned out, I’ve had the opportunity to watch the officer’s helmet cam footage and listen to the audio of events. There was no evidence Michael was using his phone in the two seconds (no exaggeration) in which he was in the officer’s field of vision. Luckily, the Magistrate agreed.

Yep, this one went ‘all the way’! (to the local Mags court, anyway).

A-magistrates-court-007I won’t relay all the details, but let’s just say Michael spent a decent chunk of time attending court to plead, filing a submission to the Police Prosecutor, and then appearing as a self-represented defendant at a trial that lasted for well over an hour, in which he even had to cross-examine the officer!

The thing that struck me during this whole process (which lasted about 7 months) was how grossly inaccessible the legal system must seem to many people who find themselves in it. Even with several years of law school under my belt, I had to read the summons a few times to work out what on earth was going to happen at that first appearance. Loaded with phrases like “herewith” and “in the forenoon“, it’s hard not to read these archaic documents as structured to bamboozle.

The video footage also shows the power dynamic that exists between police officer and accused. Despite only having a fleeting glimpse of the vehicle from a side street, with the sun causing a reflection on the window that completely blocked visibility, the officer was forceful and adamant about his accusation. Michael – ever polite and restrained, a fact which proved rather important at trial! – attempted to clarify the accusation and discuss the issue. After a few attempts he was told he could “take it to court”. While I’m not suggesting the officer did anything expressly wrong, the power dynamic was clear and the officer used it to his advantage.

Then there’s the time and money. Defending the case took about two full days, and all for a fine worth a few hundred dollars and some demerit points. However if you’re on a really tight income, that’s a horrible choice to have to make – take time off work for multiple court appearances (not always possible and only financially manageable if you get paid leave) or simply cough up the fine. There’s also the vague threat of extra costs should the case be found against you. We definitely contemplated ‘just paying it’, but it really cut deep knowing that it was a completely untrue accusation.  The reality is that there would be many people for whom a fine like this would break the bank.

I know there are vital community services such as Legal Aid available, and this experience makes me wonder how they keep up? Michael and I are both literate, educated and have enough financial stability to make a choice about how we handled this case. He was confident to handle his own defence (and more than a little chuffed to win!). But it’s not hard to imagine how different the experience could have been in different circumstances.

“Justice is open to everyone in the same way as the Ritz Hotel”
– Judge Sturgess

Crying for a stranger

I’m not a crier. I’m not easily moved to actual, physical tears – I rarely cry in movies, or for strangers, no matter how genuinely saddened I may feel. Yet this week, I shed tears for a 23 year old Iranian man I’ve never met.

The tragic last few days of Omid’s life have by now been well documented. He set fire to himself on Wednesday in front of UNHCR representatives on Nauru, and it took nearly 24 hours for him to be transported to Australia. While on Nauru, despite suffering severe burns to significant portions of his body, he was given no intravenous pain relief and medical care was inadequate due to lack of facilities on the poor pacific island. It is reported that he was braindead by the time he arrived in Brisbane.

When I heard on Friday that he had died, I cried for Omid for so many reasons.

I cried because Omid leaves behind a young wife, who had been living with him on Nauru.

I cried because Omid’s claim for asylum had been assessed. He had been found to be a genuine refugee – someone whose experience in their home country invokes our protection obligations – and as a country, we failed him.

I cried because Omid should have been brought to Australia immediately for treatment. It is incomprehensible that it took that long to organise a plane to make the 4.5 hour flight to Nauru, when it was immediately clear that his condition was critical. Reports even suggest a plane was already in Nauru, having transferred asylum seekers to the island that day. The calculated lack of concern from our Government terrifies me.

I cried because Omid should not have been relegated to a life in limbo on Nauru. He should have been able to start a fresh life, away from fear of persecution, but instead he found absolute hopelessness.

I cried because Omid was not crazy. He had succumbed to the physical and emotional trauma he had been subjected to for most of his adult life. Trauma inflicted not by some totalitarian regime, militant dictatorship or failed state – but by a so-called civilised, democratic country. My country.

I cried because Omid was not alone. The previous evening, four people had been taken to the medical unit on Nauru for swallowing washing powder. Others have swallowed razor blades, sewn their lips together, or refused to take food or drink for weeks. People may argue these are just “tactics” to get to Australia, but I cannot think of anything I have ever wanted that badly in my life that I would go to such horrific extents to obtain it. These are not the actions of people trying to blackmail us – these are horribly broken people.

Malcolm Turnbull may not want us getting “misty eyed” about asylum seeker policy, but how can we react in any other way to the tragedies unfolding on Nauru and Manus Island? No amount of semantics or “bureaucratic sleight of hand” can change the fact that we are essentially torturing people who have sought our help. There is no greater good that could possibly justify how we are treating innocent people like Omid (who had committed no crime by seeking asylum in Australia, regardless of his mode of entry, and whose claim for asylum had been found to be valid).

According to witnesses, just before setting himself alight, Omid yelled “This is how tired we are, this action will prove how exhausted we are. I cannot take it anymore.”

Today I learned that omīd is the Persian word for “hope”. My hope and prayer is that Omid’s death was not in vain and that this horrific incident – preventable in so many ways – is a wakeup call to Australia. We cannot continue to implicitly condone a policy that is cruelty and selfishness masquerading as a moral imperative. The hundreds of people just like Omid, trapped on Nauru and Manus Island, cannot take it anymore.

Australia – may we never forget what we did to Omid.

640
Omid. Via The Guardian.

The Politics of Compassion

You know something is wrong when our leaders are focussed on scoring political points, at the expense of showing some decency and compassion.

Now I know there’s nothing particularly new about a politician leveraging a situation, story or set of circumstances in order to bolster their own standing, or discredit their opposition. It’s the bread-and-butter of mainstream political discourse (running the country, anyone?), but sometimes it’s a bridge too far.

In an interview on Insiders yesterday,  Minister Scott Morrison – champion of Australian Border Protection and passionate advocate for militant control of our sovereign borders from all those pesky people in need – was asked:

Three days ago an Indian student took his own life at a detention centre in Melbourne. He was in that centre because he overstayed his visa. Could that have been avoided?”

The Minister paused, tilted his head questioningly and replied:

“Could he have avoided overstaying his visa?”

[You can watch the entire exchange here. Be baffled by the Minister’s lack of heart at 9:05] Screen Shot 2014-02-17 at 3.47.09 pm

If this was a debate about some dry, unemotional topic, then perhaps his attempt at deflection might have been successful,  even a touch witty. “Well played, Minister”.

But no. Just…. no. Interviewer Barrie Cassidy was clearly asking whether this young man’s life could have been saved, whether (as he went on to clarify) people in the student’s position needed to be dealt with so harshly. I understand the Minister was never going to concede that Government policy led to this man’s death (and without knowing the facts of the case, I wouldn’t even say that it did). But that’s not the point.

The point is – someone tells you a young man took his own life. Asks you for a bit of an opinion on that. Do you get all technical and literal and respond to the actual statement with the question mark, or do you respect the fact that we are talking about a tragic event and respond as a normal human being? How about a “Firstly, I was saddened to hear that this event took place and my thoughts are with the family he leaves behind. Unfortunately as the matter is under investigation I’m unable to comment any further….”. You know, stock standard deflection but at least coming from a mildly compassionate place.

I knew when I sat down to watch the interview that I was likely to be annoyed – to find the usual “no comment”, “operational matters” rigamarole frustrating, but I was not expecting to find such a lack of basic decency and understanding. How is it that a politician like Scott Morrison can feel it is ok to belittle a tragic death such as this? At what point do you become a politician, and cease to be a human being capable of even a tiny dose of empathy?

Saddened doesn’t even cut it. I was disgusted.

So on behalf of every Australian who isn’t Minister Point-Scoring – my thoughts are with the family of that young man at this very difficult, tragic time.

The Lottery of Life

Dear Mr Abbott,

I was intrigued to read of your comments at the National Adoption Awareness Week function, where not only did you promise to reform the system for overseas adoption, but you made a very sage (and somewhat startling) revelation:

“To be born in Australia is to win the lottery of life and we would like to see more people winning the lottery of life by becoming Australians”.

Sage, because you are 100% correct. The “lottery of life” is what dictates where we are born, and the circumstances in which we live. How lucky we are to be Australian.

Startling, because I never expected to hear you acknowledge that we who live in this country do so at the mercy of fate, and that many have not been granted such circumstances through no fault of their own.

In fact, I suspect I’m not the only one who finds this statement somewhat ironic. I’m sure the irony is keenly felt by many of the nearly 10,000 asylum seekers in some form of immigration detention in Australia, the 22,873 asylum seekers in the community on Bridging Visas, and the 1,100 asylum seekers on Manus Island. No doubt they would agree wholeheartedly that “to be born in Australia is to win the lottery of life”. I’m sure they would also love to see Australia open its arms to more people to whom “the lottery” has not been so kind.

While we’re talking about children, let us not forget the 2,815 children in some form of immigration detention, and the 1,811 on community bridging visas. The lottery of life has been particularly harsh to them – both before and after their arrival in Australia. As you know, the circumstances into which they were born was beyond their control. They and their families face persecution due to their race, religion, nationality or other factors, such that we – so blessed to be born in peaceful, stable Australia – cannot imagine having to face.

You need not scour foreign countries in search of small children to be swept up and rescued. Many have, quite literally, arrived on our doorstep. Most have been cruelly handled by life up until this point, and they have made perilous journeys to seek our assistance.

The opportunity is there, Mr Abbott. The opportunity to “see more people winning the lottery of life by becoming Australians”.

While you may not control the lottery of life, you’re holding the dice when it comes to the future of thousands of people. Thousands of would-be Australians, who have taken a very difficult journey for a stab at the jackpot. A journey where the odds are against them all the way.

It’s time to see the dice fall in their favour. 

Immigration detention statistics for October 2013, via: http://www.humanrights.gov.au/immigration-detention-statistics

Asylum seekers and the propaganda machine

Ah, the old “illegal boats” trick. It’s a phrase that never seems to get old, no matter how factually inaccurate it may be. Politicians on both sides are guilty of using it, or similar phrases, that suggest that people coming to Australia to seek asylum are doing something illegal.

Let’s start with a very basic fact. Since Australia is a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention, if a person comes to Australia and lodges a claim for asylum, then their actions in coming here are not illegal. That’s regardless of whether they enter with or without valid travel documents, or whether they come by plane or boat. They have a right to come here and seek our protection from persecution. (All the facts available here: http://www.asrc.org.au/media/documents/it-not-illegal-seek-asylum.pdf)

Ok, so that’s settled. So why is it that someone with the amount of (presumably) intelligent policy advisers and media people that Tony Abbott has, can still have his photo taken and blasted around social media in front of this billboard:

abbott-illegal-billboard

It’s a sad reflection on our political environment that politicians like Abbott continue to knowingly, blatantly mislead the public as to such a critical fact – as to whether the actions of a group of people are legal. It’s not just Abbott – both sides of politics have pressed ahead with this kind of language in an attempt to create an environment of fear, anger and resentment towards those who justly come to Australia seeking our protection.

The article ‘Illegals’ and the erosion of empathy gives a telling account of how and why this type of behaviour happens:

“It’s an irresistible temptation for politicians to simplify and distort by constantly being on-message”, said [former political speechwriter] Mr Watson, and its prevalence is a symptom of the pressure on politicians to fill an expanded news cycle.

“[Politicians] fill it with can’t and clichés and often with prejudice, with tendentious phrases that are designed to fill the public’s mind and not leave room for anything else.”

“’Illegal entries’, ‘stop the boats’, ‘jumping the queue’. They are all prejudiced clichés but they remain prominent in the discourse on asylum seekers.

“If the first thing that enters your head is a cliché or some prejudice or some line that has been drummed into you, you can guarantee there’s no room for anything else until you get that cliché out. So if you’re constantly being told that these people are ‘illegals’, then that will do for your thinking about refugees.”

It also helps keep any kind of empathy at bay, so people don’t have to imagine it were their family in the situation of an asylum seeker.

“You don’t want that. You actually want these people to think ‘illegals.’ And then you don’t have to think anything more.”

I recently watched the Four Corners episode on offshore processing and the line I most remember is the Australian doctor, Dr John Vallentine, who said that “For the first time in my life, I felt ashamed to be an Australian”.

Listening to Australian politicians constantly declare that asylum seekers are illegal makes me ashamed of this country. Sending children to far-away detention centres on remote islands makes me ashamed of this country. Holding asylum seekers in limbo for an indefinite period of time – possibly up to five years – makes me incredibly ashamed of our ‘free’ country.

I understand that the rhetoric around asylum seekers makes it hard to understand the true nature of the issue. At least that’s how I excuse the otherwise maddening lack of compassion I see in otherwise ‘nice’ people around me.

But imagine being locked up for 65 days in a cell 1m wide, for no apparent reason. Or having many of your friends and family killed by the radical militant group that controls your country and hates your ethnic group. Imagine feeling that you would rather lose your life attempting the journey from your home country – where you’ve grown up, lived and loved – in a rickety boat at the hands of a people smuggler, than stay any longer in a hopeless and dangerous situation (which is exactly how a friend told me he felt).

These are the realities that many asylum seekers face, and this is why they have come to our country, taking us up on our international obligation to provide them safety, if it is warranted (if it is found that they do have a genuine well-founded fear of persecution). Why is it so hard for many of us to try – just for a moment – to imagine ourselves in such situations, and to express some level of compassion at the plight of these people? That’s right – asylum seekers are just people like you and I, but in most cases the situations they have come from are a world away from anything we will ever experience.

If you’ve found yourself starting to believe the rhetoric – if you catch yourself thinking that asylum seekers are illegal, or criminals, or taking advantage of our country – then do yourself a favour. Get involved with an organisation that works with refugees and asylum seekers. Meet the real human beings that are tossed around in the politically-charged headlines. You may just be surprised at what you learn, and how it makes you feel.

I’m a bit cross with Coles

“I’m a bit cross with Coles at the moment”, my 82 year old grandmother informed me, as we tucked in to the Sunday lunch she had lovingly prepared. “They keep lowering the price of fruit and vegetables!”

As she went on to explain, this means nothing but trouble for farmers and the agricultural industry. While the big supermarkets tussle for Aussie groceries dollars using such cunning tools as the price of milk (because, of course, ‘everybody buys milk’), the impact is felt most keenly by those at the start of the supply chain.

“So I only go the IGA”.

My grandmother Marj is a strong woman with a clear understanding of her values. Despite the obvious challenges an octogenarian may face in changing their shopping habits and seeking out an independent retailer, she was matter-of-fact about the need to make the switch. There was no fuss about it, no ceremony – just the simple truth that the big supermarkets are behaving in a way she finds unethical, and as such she has taken her business elsewhere.

In a matter of 30 seconds, she had managed to outline a powerful, simple formula for ethical living in the modern world.

    1. Know how things work :
      Marj wasn’t just speaking from the gist of a story gleaned from a sensationalist newspaper headline. She explained how she had seen a lot about this particular issue, citing Landline and other sources that had helped her to understand what was going on.

 

    1. Feel the injustice :
      When Marj spoke about the impact that these strategies were having on farmers, her tone revealed her shock and sadness that anyone could act in such a way towards another human being. It was clear that this was an issue that had an impact on her. Perhaps it was her years as a girl in Mullumbimby, or the countless hours she spent with my grandfather enjoying Australia from behind the wheel. Whatever the inspiration, she appreciated the contribution of Australia’s farmers, and was moved by an issue that is threatening their very existence.

 

    1. See where you fit :
      Knowing about it and feeling moved are important – but if you don’t see where you fit within the story, then it’s hard to know what to do next. For Marj, she recognised her role as a consumer, regularly buying fruit and vegetables, and (as is the case for many Australians), finding it quite easy to shop at the local Coles or Woolworths.This is the pivotal point, because if you are well-enough equipped with your knowledge (point 1) and you feel strongly enough about the issue (point 2), then once you see where you fit… that’s the tipping point.
    2. Make your change :
      As a pensioner, you might expect Marj may want to save a few dollars here or there. But not when it comes to the important issues, it seems (like shouting her granddaughter a chai latte – but hey, as she explained, “it’s Julia’s shout”!). Seeking out an IGA, changing her shopping habits (don’t you hate having to figure out the aisle configuration, and placement of your particular grocery items, in an unfamiliar shop?), and in the process spending more on groceries – Marj spoke about it as a joy, rather than a burden. After all, she was moved to action and as she saw it, it was a necessary switch to make. The resultant difficulties were not even on her radar.

 

  1. Talk it up :
    By bringing up the topic of her supermarket boycott, Marj was sharing her action – her contribution towards increased justice in the world. She did so in a manner that was backed by both information, and passion. To me, this was an action worth sharing, because it has the power to start an interesting dialogue and perhaps compel others to consider similar changes in their own lives. Not all actions need be shared, and it depends on the time, place and purpose of the conversation – but as a general rule, I was struck by the idea that if you don’t share the actions you are taking, you stifle the potential impact of those actions.

The path from being “a bit cross” about something, to taking a personal action, is not always straightforward. But I was inspired by the simplicity with which my grandma presented her own personal experience, and it made me wonder whether perhaps we are sometimes inclined to overcomplicate things in our search for the perfect solution.

Instead, should we concentrate on our own little patch of the world – that sphere within which we have some degree of influence. Is it here where we should be ready, willing and able to make positive change for the betterment of others?

Either way, it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on those things that make us cross, and determining that we are going to take an action – however small – to improve the situation!

A covert operation

A few weeks ago, I was in conversation with a lady who volunteers her time for a growing not-for-profit organisation in Australia. In keeping with the theme of this post (read on…!), let’s give her a pseudonym – we’ll call her Anne.

Anne’s role is multifaceted, and among other things she coordinates activities undertaken by other volunteers. She identifies, welcomes and places new volunteers, as well as working closely with existing volunteers to ensure the experience is one that benefits both the volunteer and the organisation.

During our conversation, Anne shared with me details of a growing trend among the volunteers she works with. She has found herself coming into contact with more and more volunteers who are explicitly against any form of recognition of their involvement. At first, I pictured a sort of self-effacing, wave-of-the-hand humility – “oh no, don’t be silly, you don’t need to get up and thank me at the end of the event, I’m just happy to help out” – but the volunteers she was describing went much further.

Introducing: the Covert Volunteer. 

According to Anne, the covert volunteers in her organisation have specifically requested no acknowledgment of their involvement, in the sense of total or near-total anonymity. They have asked that other volunteers and staff not be informed of their involvement.

The profile of these volunteers, as far as I have gathered from Anne, tells an interesting story. They:

  • Are previous volunteers with this same organisation
  • ‘Left’ the organisation at some point in recent years for a variety of reasons. These include burnout, interpersonal clashes, or commitments outside the organisation (personal/work) prohibiting their continued involvement
  • Had (generally) returned to the organisation of their own accord, rather than being contacted by Anne or other members of the organisation
  • Are all women (most likely reflecting the fact that the majority of volunteers for this organisation – covert or not – are women)
  • Are now engaged in specific activities that leverage their previous experience with the organisation, and/or their various skills

I was quickly fascinated that, in contrast to much of the conventional wisdom on volunteering, these people had come in search of a volunteer opportunity where they would not be recognised (in the traditional sense) for their contribution. Anne speculates, and I would be inclined to agree, that these women each feel so powerfully about the cause they are supporting (through their volunteering), that any form of recognition takes a back seat. I would go even further, and wonder whether they may feel that having people know about their involvement diminishes, to a certain extent, the intrinsic value of the personal sacrifice they are making with their time, energy and skills.

It’s important to recognise that their contribution does not go completely unnoticed. At the very least, Anne (and in some cases, a handful of others) know of the presence and impact of the covert volunteer. Anne herself does a wonderful job of conveying personally to these volunteers that their contribution is invaluable – so much so, that she honours their request to remain anonymous.

I was not, however, totally surprised to hear of this phenomenon. I have never heard of it happening in such an unambiguous sense, however it does sit with my own perception that volunteers do not necessarily want to be recognised (in traditional ways) for their contribution. Certificates, events, shout-outs and their name in lights – these are not necessarily what volunteers are about.

In fact, the ability to contribute to making the world a better place, in a way which remains unknown (and largely unnoticed) to the majority, is perhaps one of the most fulfilling ways that an individual can make a difference. It seems not that much different to the ‘anonymous donor’ who makes a monetary contribution to a cause, or to the person who helps a stranger on the street, wishes them well and never sees them again. I see a strong correlation with the latter, in particular. For me, it is those tiny, virtually unrecognised moments and actions that often feel the most powerful. I wonder whether the feeling for a covert volunteer is the same – that beautiful, no-frills, personal sense of impact.

Perhaps covert volunteering signals a simplification of how some people are seeking to make a difference. This is not to say their contributions are simplified – they are often working in a way that is specific and highly-skilled – but rather that they are seeking experiences that are personally, uniquely, and quietly fulfilling.

So, covert volunteers – over to you. I’d love for you to (anonymously!) raise your hands and share your motivations and experiences. Is it just for the love of it? What drives you? And most importantly, what can others learn from your experience?