Thank you to Anne Moon and to this organisation for the wonderful opportunity to have heard her. What we heard about the plight of some off shore refugees was gut wrenching to say the least. But I must agree with a comment Liesl Tesch made. Australia is, and has been, a very racist country, and it is up to us all to speak to our neighbours and acquaintances about this. Sadly we cannot expect, in this country, that our population would elect a government on an anti racism platform. And there are more refugees world wide. I have had a little professional experience of cases of damage from other refugee camps, not nearly as cruel as Manus and Naru. Even some of our on shore centres have also been psychologically damaging.
I first discovered the racist nature of Australia when I was 12 years old, 65 years ago. I moved to a school in Cooma as my Dad was an engineer on the Snowy. In our school population 78% of children had English as a second language. Some came as children of overseas consultants enabling the Scheme to develop. Some came as children of World War II refugees.
Those children were treated to particularly harsh unwarrented discipline from a senior teacher. We were all silent, adults always knew what was right. But I eventually spoke to my father. I am still ashamed at the two whole months it took me. He made waves and the school community was rid of this senior person. But the question remained, how did we let this racist abuse of children happen? We just refused to admit its existence and looked for other excuses.
When I was at Cooma I was privliged to come to know well, as a family friend, one of the post war refugees. He was German and had been a soldier during the war. He had spent some time in an allied prisoner of war camp. My father spotted his talents when he was working as a refugee labourer, his extensive German engineering qualifications were eventually recognised and he made a great contribution to the work of the Snowy Scheme.
His wife and daughter had been killed in the allied bombing of Berlin and I later realised that my age being so much the same as his daughter’s would have been, was probably why he was interested in sharing some thoughts and experiences with me as well as with my parents. Of course my intense questioning may have been another!
He was dismayed that the German people did not fully know what was going on pre war and during the war. He was saddened at reports of what went on in German prisoner of war camps. On my insistent questioning, though he spoke very carefully, I am convinced his allied prisoner of war camp, and possibly others, were also very difficult places. What we do and do not not know is sometimes the victor’s history.
He, however, still looked at life with hope and at humanity positively.
At university I met a fellow Law student who fell in love with a Malaysian Colombo Plan student. He was not allowed to settle in Australia, even if they married. She had no future in Malaysia – she went there and tried – but there was no space for Australian lawyers there. It was somewhat of blight on both their lives but they have kept in touch.
Here, on the beautiful Central Coast at my old ladies’ exercise class a short time ago, I overheard quite a racist discussion with one very sweet and kind lady complaining, “I had a whole lot of those Muslim people coming towards me jabbering away in their Muslim language”. I had to intervene. I said mildly, “There is no Muslim language, they could have been from Indonesia, Pakistan or the Middle East, for example.” She demurred so I went on explaining, “It is just like Christianity, you can have French speaking Christians, German or Spanish speaking Christians and so on. She replied with a finality I did not dare answer, “But our Bible was written in English.”
She is not at all unkind but merely fearful and very ignorant in this particular matter.
If we can try our individual hardest to mend the ignorance and get rid of this fear of difference in the population we may be able then to elect a government that has community permission to act for humanity as a whole in an Australian context.