Asylum seeker Abdul Aziz Muhammad asked the ABC’s Q&A panel on December 4 in a video question why the 650 men on Manus Island are being used as political pawns in a life or death game.
Aziz, who has been imprisoned on Manus Island for 4.5 years, said he had seen 6 friends die because of violence and medical negligence.
“We have been attacked by navy and police and we have witnessed abuse by the Australian government paid guard. We are refugees. All we want is freedom in a safe country, not necessarily Australia. For example, somewhere like Canada, New Zealand or the United States. My question to the panel – how long will Australia keep us here in danger?”
His question sent the Labor and Coalition representatives into finger pointing mode — with only the former Human Rights Commissioner Gillian Triggs responding in an honest fashion.
Triggs described Aziz and others’ imprisonment on Manus and the 40 children detained on Nauru as a “tragedy”. She said they must be brought to Australia immediately.
“This is not stopping boats and it’s not saving lives at sea. You don’t need to do one to do the other.”
She added: “We can never, in law, use the lives of others for deterrents, even if that were a real deterrent, and it almost certainly isn’t.”
Labor panellist Lisa Singh MP said if her party was in government, it would take up New Zealand’s offer to take 150 people from Manus.
Singh was full of sound and fury about the treatment of asylum seekers on Nauru — the vast majority of whom the UNHCR has found to be refugees. When reminded that it was her party which started the policy of offshore processing and ask if, in hindsight, it had been a mistake, she skirted the question saying Labor would carry out processing at a quicker pace.
But Labor is the reason that the minister for torture Peter Dutton has, thus far, been able to get away with this level of cruelty. It was Labor governments that set up the Nauru and Manus Island detention centres.
As Aziz had sent in a video question, he could not be asked for his response. However, since then he has used his Twitter account to make his views known.
This was his tweet on December 12: “5 years ago we were illegally sent to Manus by labor govt. Labor has a particular responsibility for the hell on Manus & Nauru. Labor has said they will accept Nz offer to accept150 people. But we need much more than that no one can be left behind. Everyone on Manus must get freedom.”
But when reminded that her party started offshore processing and asked if, in hindsight, it had been a mistake, she skirted the question saying Labor would carry out the processing quickly.
Coalition MP Eric Abez did not directly reply to Aziz, preferring to bag out Singh. He said the “problem” came down to his government having to deal with a “legacy” issue from the previous Labor government. This is a lie, as the government’s own figures attest. The number of people taken to processing centres after trying to reach Australia by boat rose over 2013-2014, after the Coalition got into government.
The finger pointing of the major parties distracts from the critical issue — which is that the bipartisan policy of offshore detention is wrong. It is also cruel. And, as Triggs has pointed out, it does not stop people trying to flee to safety.
The movement for refugee rights has been building, as the ACTU statement supporting the evacuation of the Manus men shows.
The Victorian Trades Hall Council tweeted its disapproval of Labor’s silence saying in November: “Shame on a government that says votes are more important than human rights violations. Shame on an opposition that provides no opposition. Bring them here and let them stay.
Meanwhile, opposition leader Bill Shorten and his deputy Tanya Plibersek are ducking for cover.
What will it take for more people with conscience inside the Labor Party to speak out?
Kristina Keneally made a clear call for a change in policy in 2011. Keneally, a former NSW Labor Premier and now a likely prospect for either filling the Senate vacancy left by Sam Dastyari or winning the seat of Bennelong on December 16, made the following observation on a Q&A program then.
“I think we as a Labor Party have ceded the ground on asylum seekers and this debate to the conservatives for far too long.
“We’ve allowed the debate to be held on the ‘We’ll determine who comes to this country and the manner in which they come’ and ‘We’ll stop the boats’. We’ve bought into that.
“I’m very distressed that we are likely to end up with a solution of onshore processing, which I support, but that we’ve gotten there by the route we’ve gotten there …
“I believe Australia is big enough culturally, economically, socially, geographically, to be able to officially process these people’s applications and to be able to welcome these people into our country.”
Let’s hope for Aziz and the others on Manus and Nauru’s sake that she still believes it, and she convinces others in her party to stop enabling Turnbull and Dutton.