It was 24 hours after the boat carrying perhaps as many as 100 asylum seekers crashed into Christmas Island that the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, made her official statement. Having cancelled her summer leave, she returned to Canberra for a full briefing and to formulate a response. What was her official response to this tragedy? She announced the formation of a committee. The Prime Minister had a chance to make her mark and change, once and for all, the narrow, fear-mongering, xenophobic policies that are the direct legacy of the Howard-Hanson coalition of the late 1990s.
This is the speech she could have made:
Friends, we have witnessed this week a tragedy on a massive scale. The deaths of at least 30 brave men, women and children in the treacherous seas at Christmas Island will go down in our nation’s history as a maritime and human rights disaster. But it also represents a turning point.
Australia is a nation of immigrants. Most of our forebears came in search of opportunity and the chance to build a new future. There were also refugees who fled persecution, danger and oppression, or who were displaced by war, who came to make a new start in this country. Collectively, we comprise the people of Australia: a people who pride themselves on lending a helping hand, giving a fair go and not shirking our duty. Over the past decade we have turned in on ourselves. We have hidden behind fear dressed up as security and pretended that doing so would make us safe. We have forgotten those values that made us what we are. We have allowed a minority of loud voices to dictate an agenda which has put us in breach of our international human rights obligations, and severed us from our history as a nation of immigrants who came in search of a better future.
Friends, this is the point at which we open the curtains on a dark period in our history and let our light shine out, once again, to those in need and those who seek refuge with us.
The people who perished off Christmas Island risked everything they had in order to reach our country where they believed they would get a fair go. Few of us know what that could be like – to have to flee your country, risk your lives and those of your loved ones to obtain freedom; something we here take for granted. But others have come before them in that situation and do know, and have been given refuge, and have built lives and become Australians and contributed to the building of our nation. We welcomed them and have been repaid ten-fold in having a country rich in cultural and social diversity.
I, personally and on behalf of the Australian Government, pay tribute to the people who perished so cruelly and I promise to the survivors that this is a tragedy that will not be allowed to recur. I also extend the thanks of the government, and on behalf of the Australian people, to the extremely brave islanders who risked their own lives to save those of the victims of the stricken boat. Your country stands in admiration and gratitude.
The Australian Government is opening our borders to refugees. Policy details will be drawn up and released over the coming weeks. For now, we acknowledge that the policy of ‘stopping the boats’ has done nothing except place people in increasing danger and has resulted in loss of life and social division. The ‘children overboard’, the SIEV X, and now this. We acknowledge our actions in providing military support in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have contributed to the flood of refugees from those countries, and while we do not resile from our commitment to fight terrorism, with that commitment comes responsibility: responsibility we have been neglecting for over a decade.
A full enquiry will be commissioned into the Christmas Island tragedy. Australians need to know how and why this occurred, but this government takes its share of the responsibility and is, from now, ensuring that our refugee policies reflect our common values and will be implemented in such a way as to minimise the risks to people already risking everything. The people who died will be remembered in appropriate services, but I promise their deaths will not be in vain. We are bigger than the fear that has crippled our values. We are stronger than the forces that have sought to divide us.
Friends, it is time for Australia to stand up in the international community and act on our values. There have been too many empty words about asylum seekers, queue jumpers and people smuggling. Let us never forget that working to get refugees to safety – people smuggling – is what human rights icons such as Oscar Schindler did. Too many empty words, too many policies developed in reaction to the shrillest voices, too many lives destroyed. This is the turning point. We whose forebears arrived from other countries are grateful to those whose forebears walked first on this ancient land and together we will reach out to those who need our friendship now.