Catherine Deveny seeks attention for asylum seekers

The participants, from left: Comedian Catherine Deveny, shock jock Michael Smith, consumer advocate Allan Asher, model Imogen Ba

Go Back To Where You Came From
Series Two
From Tuesday, August 28, at 8.30pm

Catherine Deveny wasn’t quite sure what she would be in for when she agreed to appear in the second series of SBS’s hit refugee reality TV show, Go Back To Where You Came From.

But it seems everyone on the show, which makes Australians re-trace the steps of asylum seekers fleeing war zones, was equally wary of her.

It was only when the left-wing author, comic and Green Left fundraiser turned up for filming that she found out who her co-stars were.

Among the other participants were former Rose Tattoo singer Angry Anderson, who has ambitions to be a far-right politician; right-wing shock jock Michael Smith; and Deveny’s “nemesis”, Peter Reith.

A Howard government minister from 1996 to 2001, Reith was an architect of the Pacific Solution, a policy which ensured asylum seekers were processed offshore.

Green Left’s Mat Ward spoke to Deveny on August 22, a week before the show was due to go on air. You can download an mp3 of the interview here.

Have you had a chance to see the completed series?


So you’re going to be seeing it at the same time as everyone else?


Oh. So… how did the filming go?

Well, I didn’t know what to expect, because when you don’t know what’s expected of you, where you’re going, who you’re with, there’s all these little things. I’m not a helicopter parent [a parent who pays extremely close attention to their children's experiences] at all. But there were all these things like, what happens if one of my kids has to have their appendix out or breaks a bone or has a head injury? What would happen if the house burnt down? I mean, I’m not someone to incite panic, but when you’re away for three weeks, I mean, I could be contacted, but I didn’t have a mobile. So that was quite unsettling, particularly when you’re packing, you don’t know where you’re going, so I didn’t even know what I needed. The trip itself was amazing, I felt extremely thrilled and privileged to be able to go on it. I was just amazed and felt so lucky to have been given the opportunity. It was confronting and all that kind of stuff, but I’m the single mum of three children and I run a very busy household and my own business. So to go away for three weeks, just, basically, not having to worry about cooking dinners or arranging play dates or making sure the dog’s walked or the bins are out or that the kids aren’t setting themselves alight is a bit of a bludge, to be honest.

I’m guessing you were glued to your screen like most viewers when the first series aired?

Oh, god, yes. When you have an experience like that - and I had the same experience doing it - it’s simultaneously ecstatic and depressing. Because you’re going, this is so amazing - watching a television show like that or being involved with it - but also depressing because you’re going, how will I ever get this experience again? You know it’s going to be a long time before you get the opportunity to watch such a great show or be involved with such a great show again.

The first series went to Villawood detention centre, Malaysia and Iraq. The new series goes to the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia and Christmas Island. Was it also different in format from the first series?

Look, it’s really hard to tell, I mean we did three weeks and it’s cut down to three hours. Because I haven’t seen the show I don’t know. My experience and the show are usually two very different things. [Deveny has appeared in many TV shows, from The 7.30 Report and Q&A to Rove and The Eric Bana Show Live.] So I can see a show and go, god, that just wasn’t how I felt, or I could go, that’s totally representative of my experience. But because I had so many people and issues and logistics to deal with I don’t know how it’s going to look or feel. TV’s not my medium at all, I don’t really like it. The only things I’m interested in doing is anything off-script and out of the studio, so this was perfect for me.

Was it hard to keep your sense of humour?

No. It’s never hard to keep my sense of humour. The thing is I only do one job and that is being me and everything comes along together, my passion, my ability to say what I think and my constant ability to take the piss - nothing gets turned on or turned off. I found it exhilarating.

Did you learn anything about yourself that surprised you?

Erm… Yeah, I think that what really did surprise me was how happy I was. How safe I felt, being so far away and knowing that I’d raised independent children and that they had a great group of people around them looking after them. What I learnt about myself, too, is that, despite the image I may have to some people of being a bit of a loose cannon, I know that I’m not. I’m actually very stable. [In 2010, Deveny was sacked from her nine-year job as an Age columnist for tweeting remarks that her employer deemed offensive]. I’m very optimistic and very friendly. When I got on the show, everybody who knew that I was going to be involved said they were very worried that I was going to be, like, a bitch or kind of crazy or angry. And they were overwhelmed with how, just, friendly and helpful and optimistic I was to work with. And I suppose what I learnt about myself is that I just love being in that environment and that is not anything that I have to fake or put on, that’s my natural default setting.

Didn’t Peter Reith say you need your own personal detention centre built for you, though?

He said something like that. But, I mean, that’s just a boring, right-wing attempt at a joke.

People often assume activists are morose types with the weight of the world on their shoulders. But in my experience they’re generally a happy bunch, because they know they’re lucky just to have a roof over their heads and not live in a war zone. Do you think that’s why you were so positive about the experience, because you knew that you were not actually a refugee and it was all going to be over in three weeks?

No, not at all. I’m very positive and I’m very enthusiastic and optimistic in whatever circumstances. I mean, I’ve had cancer, I’ve gone through a relationship breakdown, I’ve gone through depression, I’ve gone through heartbreak, I’ve gone through a spinal injury and I’ve had that same setting. Nothing shocked or really surprised me, it just deepened my understanding. I’m very aware of where I sit in the world - my privilege, but also my oppression. We’re all privileged or we’re all oppressed in certain ways if we’re living in the First World.

Having gone through this whole experience, how did you feel about parliament passing legislation last week to reinstate offshore processing? Do you think the fact that you’d done the show made you react any differently?

I was thrilled, because my real loyalty lies with the asylum seekers and the people who made this television, Cordell Jigsaw, and I was so thrilled for them because it’s going to be so relevant. So it’s going to be really successful for all these people who have worked incredibly hard on it. So it’s going to be very poignant and it’s hopefully going to save a lot of lives of people who are not even born yet because of the issues that we raised and the way that we raised them.

How out of touch do you think politicians are on this issue?

So sheltered, so out of touch, so in denial. They have no idea about what’s going on, but they also have no idea about what the voters think.

Do you think the main problem is that we just don’t have accountable democracy? Governments get voted in every few years and then do whatever the hell they like. Do you think things would improve if our democratic system was reformed so that politicians were held accountable for each bill that they voted on?

I have never even thought about that - I suppose because accountable democracy is not something I’ve ever experienced. To be honest, the government is a shambles, but we’re still living a pretty nice life in Australia. So I don’t think it’s touched us keenly and deeply enough. I just think it’s extremely shameful form for these political parties to be availing the demonisation of the asylum seekers in concert, it’s absolutely shameful. It just shows a lack of courage, a lack of maturity, a lack of vision and a lack of empathy with the vision of Australia that Australians actually have and want.

Go Back To Where You Came From starts screening on Tuesday, August 28. Catherine Deveny’s seventh book, her first novel, is coming out in November.