Suffer little children

So the combined machinations and legislative manipulations of the Australian Governments and Oppositions (just a role reversal between the Liberal/National Coalition and the Labor party in recent years, so both equally culpable) have led to today’s High Court decision clearing the way to allow 37 babies and 54 children of asylum seekers to be transported to an offshore detention centre.

A move which is now apparently legal, despite being morally bankrupt.This is such a hollow victory for you.

Hang your heads in shame.

These children are the victims of their parents’ misguided decisions, borne of chaos. And Australian governments’ ruthless policies to exercise control. Many of these children have never even lived in their country of origin. Many were born in Australia or whilst in Australian custody.

This outcome is purportedly justifiable as a manouevre to thwart and halt the criminality of people smugglers, thereby saving the lives of other potential asylum seekers who could drown if they had the audacity to try to seek help from this country by crossing the sea. Desperate they may be, but invited with a welcome? Nah. No way.

A manouevre that is worth it, evidently at any price.

Even if that price results in compassion, humanity and morality being extinguished.

And we are told that the majority of Australians support this hard line.

Well, Liberal/National and Labor politicians, who have supported and orchestrated this situation over the past couple of decades, with the escalations of the past five or six years, I am here to tell you loud and clear –

Not me.  

You do not have my support on this issue.  

You do not speak for me on this issue.

But you do have my contempt.

And if you proceed with moving 91 children to an offshore dentention camp, with a bleak future choice of a) staying there, b) returning to your country of origin (regardless of its current state) or c) being relocated to an impoverished third party country, you will have sunk to a new low of inhumanity.

You are sacrificing this country’s values in order to be seen to be strong, to be hard, to hold the line, to make an example.

So much for “Australian values”. So much for a “fair go”. So much for “a society based on Christian principals”. So much for being a “good Samaritan in the world community”. So much for “demonstrating our commitment to carrying our share” of the international crisis. So much for our commitment to international treaties and human rights.

So much self-validation.  

So little self-awareness.

You are deluding yourselves if you believe that maintaining this cruel hard line at all costs is the right thing to do, however you dress it up and try to spin some positives out of it.

I hope you have the fortitude to live with your decisions, and the peace of mind to sleep well at night.  

To look these children in the eye as they are transported offshore, wiping away their tears and offer platitudes; and tell them that their futures, their wellbeing, are being sacrificed for the greater good.

But, of course, you won’t. Other people will have the unenviable task of bringing life to your policies as these innocent victims are quietly moved out of sight, and out of mind.

You, and this, have become a national disgrace.

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Life on the road with Pauline…

Another tale from our recent trip to Turkey…

Pauline just wanted a cup of tea in our cave hotel room in Ayvali, a small village in Cappadocia.
There was everything there except milk.

The Turks serve their tea black, and Pauline, as everyone who knows her is aware, has her tea very white.

So she went to reception to ask for some milk. They very generously gave her a large jug full of milk – more than they were obliged to provide and way more than she needed!

Upon her return, it was apparent that the jug wouldn’t fit on the fridge shelf. Or the door.

  

(The recalcitrant fridge hides in the cupboard on the right.)

So Pauline had the bright idea of emptying the fridge so that the jug would fit. 

But it didn’t.

“Take the top shelf out”, she said, “then it will fit”.

But the fridge door was restricted by the door of the cupboard containing the fridge, and wouldn’t open quite wide enough…

I couldn’t bring myself to empty the fridge, remove the fridge from its cupboard, take out the top shelf, put the fridge back in the cupboard and then put everything else back in the fridge, including the jug. Call me difficult…

So the shelf remained imprisoned in its slot, and the contents went back in the fridge.

Pauline then had the brighter idea of using an empty water bottle. The milk then lived in that, and it fitted in the fridge.

So then, Pauline was happy and so was I.

I drink black tea.

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Help! Where’s the butter?

On our first night in Istanbul during our recent trip to Turkey, we had to visit the local supermarket to buy a few essential supplies.

The caretaker in the apartment block where we staying had kindly offered to take us there.  This understanding was no mean feat, as he had no English vocabulary, and we had no Turkish.  Not even hello, goodbye, please, thank you.  Such is the complacency of most of the English speaking in the world – pretty well everywhere you go, most people can speak a few words of English.  Well, not here in Kadıköy on the Asian side of Istanbul.

We had managed to reach this understanding thanks to a passing resident from the apartment block who did have a few words of English, and had managed to translate our need to the caretaker.

So off we trotted round the corner to the supermarket, a small but well stocked store that looked much like any supermarket back home in Australia.

  Our local supermarket

We located the bananas (muz in Turkish) easily enough, the muesli (müsli), bread (ekmek) and the milk (süt) (we did not know these Turkish words at the time…).   The last thing on our list was butter.

We couldn’t see any butter in the dairy section of the fridges, despite walking up and down several times.  We gestured to our caretaker friend to indicate what we were looking for, using an air knife to spread air butter on air bread.  Sadly, our mime fell on deaf eyes, despite the added clue of us saying “butter”.  “BUTT-AH”.  Stating it louder and slower, resorting to this well-known tactic to establish understanding with the non-English speaking.

In an attempt to solve the riddle, the caretaker rattled off a couple of sentences in Turkish, and cleverly rang the aforementioned apartment block resident for assistance.  Pauline spoke to her, explaining that we were looking for butter.  Helpfully, I uselessly repeated my spreading butter mime routine – we were not on Skype, after all.

Sadly, we could not break through the comprehension barrier, and the call ended with a sense of failure.

We now targeted the one of the store employees, another local with zero English vocabulary, and went through our charade once again. “Butter”.  “Buttah”.  “Butt-ahh”.  Our growing team wandered up and down the fridge section.  The assistant helpfully offered products that might be the solution.

“No, sorry, that’s yoghurt. Butt-ah.  We want butter.”  More helpful air spreading.  And nodding.  Nodding might help.  With a smile and raised eyebrows.

“No, sorry, that’s cheese.  We want butter.”

I suddenly panicked.  “I hope none of these people have seen Last tango in Paris“, I thought to myself.  “No, relax, they are all way too young…”

A young woman came into view.  “Engleesh? You spik Engleesh?” We were definitely losing the plot by now.

Hallelujah!  She did!

She quickly understood our need, with a little help from our hand movements, and translated for the assistant.  He went straight to the far end of the fridge and picked up a small, square, flat pack of what looked like butter.  Obviously not much demand for this product in Turkey, given the limited choice and very small pile on display.

Our holy grail.

We happily thanked our team of helpers and made our way to the checkout, butter (tereyağı) in hand.

  

Our pat of butter!

It nearly takes a whole suburb to assist a couple of helpless foreigners who haven’t bothered to even learn “thank you” in Turkish.

Teşekkür ederim!

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Tulips in Istanbul

A recent trip to Turkey during April revealed something unexpected – that Turkey has a long association with tulips.  Indeed, tulips were introduced into Holland from Turkey in the 1500s.  The flower has its origins in Central Asia and Persia, now Iran.  The botanical name for tulip, tulipa, is derived from the Turkish word for turban, whose shape the flower resembles.

 

Tulips in Sultanahmet Square

Istanbul in spring is ablaze with tulips.  Since 2006, the city has planted tulip bulbs in garden beds across the city – alongside main roads, on verges and roundabouts; in parks, in front of walls and fences and in garden boxes.  They start to bloom from late March and add a stunning beauty and colour to the landscapes and streetscapes until May.

   
 Tulips beside the wall surrounding Gülhane Park, Alemdar Cadessi 

The Tulip Festival, which is now the result of this investment and hard work, means that a visit to Istanbul at this time of year is well worth it, even beyond the magnificent history, heritage and architecture for which the city is justifiably famous.

  

Tulips in Sultanahmet Square near Aya Sofia

  Tulips in the gardens of Süleymaniye Mosque

The tulip is as much a contemporary symbol of Istanbul as a traditional one.  Tulips are reflected in many aspects of Turkish art and design – tiles, ceramics, fabrics, carpets, paintings, horticulture – both from the past, especially the Ottoman period, and the present.  In Istanbul in the 1700s, there was an decade in the 1720s known as the “Tulip Era”.  Then, as now, residents and visitors to the city enjoyed walks in the parks adorned by these spectacular flowers.
   
           Tulips in the grounds of the Topkapi Palace

Gülhane Park, adjacent to the Topkapi Palace, in April, is one of the jewels in the tulip crown.  Its displays include 86 types of tulip totalling 1,379,000 flowers.  Emirgan Park is home to the largest display – 2,800,000 tulips from 192 different varieties.  Across the city, more than 20 million bulbs have been planted.

   

           Tulips in Gülhane Park

2015 also sees a “tulip carpet”, a world first, established in Sultanahmet Square, made up of 545,000 blooms.
   
 The “tulip carpet”, Sultanhamet Square

The city authorities are to be congratulated for creating this wonderful annual display, adding a dimension to Istanbul which is a delight to behold.

  Tulips in the grounds of Dolmabahçe Palace

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A fine and all-too-rare example of leadership

During the past couple of years, a relative newcomer has appeared more and more frequently in the Australian media landscape – Professor Gillian Triggs, President of the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC).

Professor Triggs was appointed to this role in 2012, bringing with her an impressive legal and academic résumé. You can read more about her background here – https://www.humanrights.gov.au/about/commissioners/president-professor-gillian-triggs .

The AHRC was established in 1986 by an act of the Federal Parliament, and is an independent statutory organisation which reports to the Parliament through the Attorney-General.

The AHRC website ( https://www.humanrights.gov.au/about-commission-0 ) states that the Commission seeks to lead “the promotion and protection of human rights in Australia by:

– making human rights values part of everyday life and language;
– empowering all people to understand and exercise their human rights;
– working with individuals, community, business and government to inspire action; and
keeping government accountable to national and international human rights standards.”

This is done by:

– “listening, learning, communicating and educating;
– being open, expert, committed and impartial;
– fostering a collaborative, diverse, flexible, respectful and innovative workplace.”

It’s statutory responsibilities include:

– “education and public awareness
– discrimination and human rights complaints
– human rights compliance
– policy and legislative development.”

The Commission is lead by the President and a number of commissioners –

– the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner
(Mick Gooda)

– the Age and Disability Discrimination Commissioner (Susan Ryan)

– the Children’s Commissioner (Megan Mitchell)

– the Human Rights Commissioner (Tim Wilson)

– the Race Discrimination Commissioner (Tim Soutphommasane)

– the Sex Discrimination Commissioner (Elizabeth Broderick)

(I must confess, to my shame, that until now, I had not understood that this is how the Australian Federal system of commissioners for various rights actually operated – see https://www.humanrights.gov.au/about/president-commissioners ).

Given the degeneration of successive Australian government attitudes over the past decade to those people who seek asylum and refuge in Australia having arrived here by boat, it is hardly surprising that a body such as the AHRC should be taking an increasingly active interest in the welfare and treatment of those asylum seekers and refugees. Failure to take such an interest would be a dereliction of duty and a breach of it’s legislative duty.

Having said that, anyone who questions or challenges current Government and Opposition policies on asylum seekers and refugees who arrived by boat puts themselves at significant risk of being criticised, critiqued, ridiculed and maligned.

It takes a person of strong principles and well-grounded conviction to run such a risk, and having spoken out, withstand the flow of invective and disparagement that follows.

Gillian Triggs is one such person.

When interviewed (often by hostile interviewers) she remains calm, composed and self-assured as she presents well-researched and well-formulated propositions. I have never heard her ruffled or confused. She is steadfast in her defence of human rights, bravely defiant in the face of withering and entirely unjustified dismissals of the AHRC’s work.

She is an impressive leader of her organisation as she asserts it’s independence of severely misguided governments that are almost certainly in breach of their national and international obligations towards asylum seekers and refugees, squirming as they articulate their weasel words of distortion and opacity.

And now the frenzy of opposition to the AHRC and Gillian Triggs is mounting with the publication of it’s report The forgotten children: national inquiry into children in immigration detention (2014)

https://www.humanrights.gov.au/publications/asylum-seekers-and-refugees

I exhort you to to take the time to read Professor Triggs’ Foreword to the Report at https://www.humanrights.gov.au/publications/forgotten-children-national-inquiry-children-immigration-detention-2014 .

In the face of a sudden, ferocious and intense campaign to demonise and traduce the Commission, the President and the Report, this provides context to how, when and why the Report came to be initiated when it did.

(The timing of it’s release in Parliament last night, is, of course, a totally separate matter of conjecture…)

If you don’t have time to read the whole Foreword, at least read this part (bear in mind that it was written in 2014, so references to “last year” refer to 2013) –

“Asylum seeker policy in context

Australia’s policy of prolonged and indefinite detention of asylum seeker children should be understood in context. Last year saw tumultuous global and regional conflict and persecution, leading to an unprecedented flow of boat arrivals in Australia. The Australian community has been shocked by the tragic deaths of over a thousand asylum seekers taking the perilous voyage by sea, including at least 15 children between 2008 and 2013.

In an attempt to stop illegal people smuggling and drowning at sea, the Labor Government reintroduced offshore transfers to Nauru and Manus Island. As from 13 August 2012, that Government froze the assessment of claims to refugee status under the ‘no advantage’ principle, leaving about 31,000 asylum seeker families and children in a legal black hole in which their rights and dignity have been denied, in some cases for years. The current Government has maintained this policy.

The Commission acknowledges that the surge in asylum seekers arriving in Australia by boat in 2013 placed considerable pressures on the Department of Immigration and its resources, especially on Christmas Island. The Government’s policy, ’Operation Sovereign Borders’, under which Australian authorities use force to intercept and turn back boats, has prevented asylum seekers from reaching our shores. The consequence is that it has become possible to focus on those 5,514 asylum seekers who are currently detained in Australia and on Nauru and Manus Island (as of 30 September 2014).

Commission decision to conduct an Inquiry

By July 2013, the number of children detained reached 1,992.

As the federal election was imminent, I decided to await the outcome of the election, and any government changes in asylum seeker policy, before considering launching an Inquiry. By February this year, it became apparent that there had been a slowing down of the release of children. Over the first six months of the new Coalition Government the numbers of children in detention remained relatively constant. Not only were over 1000 children held in detention by February 2014, but also they were being held for longer periods than in the past, with no pathway to resettlement.

In these circumstances, I decided to exercise the Commission’s powers under the Australian Human Rights Commission Act 1986 (Cth) to hold a National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention.”

My admiration for Gillian Triggs, which is already extremely high, will only increase as she now defends herself, the Report and the Commission’s work.

It is lamentable that so few public officials and politicians display this kind of leadership in public life today.

And those people who feel the need to profess and express their own leadership qualities for the edification of the rest of us, are sadly the ones in whom they are all-too-obviously lacking.

And we are not fooled.

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A Southend childhood

I wrote the piece below following recent visits to Southend-on-sea, the town in England where I grew up. The time I spent there was a time of reflection and reminiscence.

Shoebury, Thorpe Bay, Southchurch, Southend,
Westcliff, Chalkwell, Leigh and Hadleigh.
Beach huts, deckchairs,
Seagulls, sun cream,
Light on water gleaming.

The tide is in, the tide is out,
Mud as far as an eye can see.
Sand and seashells,
Groynes and seaweed,
Shingle at times, sore feet.

Paddle along the water’s edge,
Buckets and spades for making pies,
Sandy castles,
Windmills spinning,
Refilling moats when dry.

Rossi’s ice cream, flake sticking out,
Southend rock pink white, letters red
Fish ‘n’ chips, salt,
Wrapped in paper
Hot to the tongue and touch.

And then the pier, stretching out far,
Half way to Kent across the Thames.
Trains trundle out,
Right to the end,
Lifeboat ready to help.

Peter Pan’s playground draws you in.
Crooked House, Ferris wheel, dodgems,
Helter skelter,
Roller coaster,
Candy floss and hot dogs.

August brings Southend carnival,
Chalkwell Park home to the fun fair,
The seafront sees
The procession.
Floats pass by, one by one.

Darkfall brings bright lights twinkling
In shrubs of Never Never Land.
Cliffs hide grottos
Telling stories,
Brought to life by magic.

And all along the esplanades
Between the lamplit posts and poles
Hang coloured lights,
Spectacular,
Queues of cars and people.

Everywhere the amusements, fun,
On Golden Mile and pier for all.
Taking your coins,
Tempting prizes,
Games, noise, lights and music.

Old Leigh – bridge, pubs. The Peter boat,
The Smack, The Ship. And cockle sheds.
Jellied eels, whelks
Winkles, mussels
Cockle shell mountains climbed.

Great parks abound across the town –
Priory, Southchurch, Chalkwell too.
Swings, roundabouts
Ponds for boating,
Belfairs on longer trips.

Family outings to country spots –
Cherry tree, Plough and sail, The cock.
Drinks in gardens,
Walks on sea walls,
Danbury Common picnics.

St Mary’s school at Prittlewell,
Then King Edmund Comprehensive,
SEEVIC Benfleet
Until uni.
Happy days of learning.

Piano lessons, violin class,
Ridley Studios for speaking.
Readings, poems,
High school acting.
(Tried giving sport a miss).

Vic Circus the start of High Street,
Shops there and along London Road.
Dixons, Garons,
Woolworths, Cotgroves
Argosy – games and toys.

Holiday jobs and weekends too,
BHS kitchen and Waitrose.
Coral’s bookies,
Southend Gen’ral,
Postman deliv’ring mail.

Time on buses, familiar routes,
Numbers 7 and 9 and 1.
Double deckers,
Conductors clip,
Tickets torn off the roll.

Entertainment, films and music.
Odeon, Essoldo, Ritz, TOTS,
The Queen’s Hotel,
Palace Theatre,
Kursaal, Cliffs Pavilion.

Town of childhood, place of memories,
The sense of place in heart means home.
Southend-on-sea.
Thames Estuary.
Times past live on in me.

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Freedom of bigoted speech? I hope not.

The Collins English Dictionary website defines the word “bigot” as “a person who is intolerant of any ideas other than his or her own, especially on religion, politics, or race.”

It defines bigotry as “the attitudes, behaviour, or way of thinking of a bigot; prejudice; intolerance”.

It would appear that proposed legislative changes in Australia will make it easier for someone who is a bigot, whether self-professed or by the judgment of others, to express their opinions on the grounds of freedom of speech. It will be of minor consequence if it causes offence to anyone.

We are all capable of bigotry in varying degrees, although most of us would like to think we are not; and most of us understand, either by instinct, education or training that such sentiments are not at all conducive to the development, evolution and conduct of a healthy and harmonious society. We are all the better, as people and as citizens, from containing the more base elements of the human condition.

This has been reflected in legislation that has been in place for many decades, a shield to protect those who are vulnerable to the prejudices and ill-informed opinions of others. Others who are not necessarily a majority in our community, but often vocal in expressing their views that are frequently based on fear, ignorance and limited experience.

To pretend that weakening these laws is permissible, even desirable, in an espousal of freedom of speech is spurious and, quite frankly, totally misleading. It is a argument and justification that must be countered, and strongly.

We do not have freedom of speech, any more than we have freedom of action. We are all constrained to some degree in what we can do or say by social mores, social conventions and the law.

In terms of action, we have some freedom to act as we will. But we cannot go up to someone and physically assault them just because we don’t like the look of them, or because of their skin colour, or what they are wearing, or what they are saying. Well, we can, but there are repercussions: arrest. Criminal charges. Conviction and penalty. Our freedom to act is restricted by law, it is not unfettered.

Why should anyone expect a verbal assault or a strongly expressed offensive opinion to be treated differently to a physical assault? Harm to wellbeing and self esteem can be as damaging as harm to the body, and often the effects are much more enduring.

We have laws that aim to prevent verbal abuse, bullying and harassment, even offensive language in some jurisdictions. They are all curtailments on free speech that most people would accept as reasonable. None of us has the ability to go around saying anything we like, anywhere we like, to whomever, and disregard the consequences of our words simply because we have the freedom to do so, even less the right.

So we do not have freedom of speech.

We have only the freedom to speak with responsibility. Just as we have the freedom to act responsibly. It is what society expects of us in order for us to live in an orderly community.

Responsibility. Respect. Tolerance. If we cannot live by these tenets, we deserve to be restricted to some degree, either by the application of social pressures, the law or, if necessary, physical containment.

We all have opinions. We can all express them privately. However, in public, whether written or spoken, some opinions are best kept to oneself.

It is critically important that there is no weakening of our laws in order to validate misguidedly a freedom of speech that does not exist, and in so doing encourage the expression of intolerance and vilification. It will result in an Australia that will be very different to the one we have known in recent time, and not one in which I would choose to live.

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