The cost of cruelty – Julian Burnside at the Festival of Ideas

By Julian Burnside
Julian Burnside at Right Now's MWF event (photo: Asher Hirsch)

The following is the transcript of Julian Burnside’s speech to the opening night session, ‘Human Rights, Social Equity and Health: An Australasian Pulse Check’, at the University of Melbourne’s Festival of Ideas. The festival runs until Sunday 6 October.

Australia spends about $4 billion a year locking up boat people in remote places, or sending them to Papua New Guinea or Nauru.  This spectacular cost is entirely voluntary.  It does not have to cost that much.

First, because we don’t have to lock them up.  In the past 15 years, 90 per cent of boat people have proved, on assessment, to be refugees legally entitled to our protection.

Second, because we are – or like to think we are – a civilised country.  When people wash up on our shores asking for help, we should offer help not harm.

Third because, contrary to the dishonest rhetoric of the Coalition, boat people have not committed any offence by coming here – they are not “illegals”.

We could, if we chose, deal with the arrival of boat people quite differently.  We could recognise that their numbers are small.  Their arrival rate, until recently, averaged about a thousand a year.

In 2001, the year of Tampa, about 4,000 arrived.

In the 12 months to 30 June this year, 25,000 arrived.  This is roughly the number of Indo-Chinese refugees who were resettled in Australia each year in the late 1970s.

Not even in the years when Aborigines were being hunted down, or counted as part of the fauna, was it politically profitable to promise to be cruel to human beings.

In 2001 the Howard Government conceived the remarkable idea that Nauru – population 10,000, area 21 square kilometres – was better able to cope with refugees than we are.  If Nauru was not bankrupt, it might have thought that the idea of Sovereign Borders did not fit well with the idea that it should warehouse refugees for us.

It would be nice to put the Pacific Solution aside as a passing idea of an unscrupulous government.  But the recent election campaign showed us otherwise.  Both major parties engaged in an undignified race to the bottom, seeking to outdo each other in promises of harsher treatment of boat people.

Asylum seekers who come by air are okay – even though most of them turn out not to be actual refugees.

The political poison is reserved for boat people who, we are persuaded, should be feared, guarded against, hated and mistreated.

Not even in the years when Aborigines were being hunted down, or counted as part of the fauna, was it politically profitable to promise to be cruel to human beings.

But the Stolen Generations must have felt the sting of politics nearly as sharply.  For decade after sorry decade Aboriginal children were removed from their parents and either brought up in white families or farmed out to institutions.

The damage inflicted on children dealt with this way is beyond calculation.  The damage inflicted on their grieving parents is impossible to know.

Let one small story stand for the whole.

On 26 November 1956 a child called Bruce Trevorrow was born at One Mile Camp Meningie.  One Mile Camp was a small settlement of humpies made out of flattened out oil drums and reused sacking.  It was one mile from Meningie, on the Coorong in South Australia.  In 1956, it was illegal for Aborigines to live closer than one mile to a place of white settlement unless they had a permit.

Bruce was taken from his mother dishonestly and returned to his natural family, nine years later, carelessly.

On Christmas Day 1957, when he was 11 months old, Bruce fell ill.  He was taken to the Adelaide Children’s Hospital.  He was diagnosed as having gastroenteritis.  He was treated appropriately and after seven days he was better again.

Seven days after that, in early January 1958, Bruce Trevorrow was given away to a white family who lived in suburban Adelaide.  They had seen an advertisement in the newspaper offering Aboriginal children.  In response to the advertisement, they went to the Children’s Hospital and saw a line-up of Aboriginal babies.  They chose a cute, curly headed little girl and took her home.

When they got her home and changed her nappy, they discovered she was a boy.

When Bruce Trevorrow’s mother managed to find a pen and some paper and an envelope and a stamp and an address, she wrote to the Aborigines Department asking how Bruce was doing and when he was coming home.  They replied – and the letter still survives in the State Records – that “Bruce is making good progress but as yet the Dr. does not consider him fit to go home”.  They had already given him away.

In October 1958 the Aborigines Protection Board wrote a letter to their Victorian counterpart noting, among other things, that the Board does not have the power to remove children from their parents. It also admitted (in confidence) that the Board had for some years been removing children without any authority.

For the next eight years, Bruce’s mother kept asking the Department where Bruce was and the Department continued deflecting her enquiries.

Bruce was eventually allowed to meet his natural mother on his 10th Birthday.  He never met his natural father, who had died six months earlier.

The State Government of South Australia was eventually persuaded to let Bruce spend the following Easter with his natural family.  The welfare people came to his foster parents’ house in suburban Adelaide and put Bruce onto the bus.  After the bus had left, his foster mother (who was having personal problems) told the welfare people that she wouldn’t have Bruce back because he was too much trouble.  The welfare people sent Bruce’s toys and clothes after him.

Bruce was taken from his mother dishonestly and returned to his natural family, nine years later, carelessly.

Things did not go well for Bruce.  He was seen by the Child Guidance Clinic when he was 11 years old.  He was diagnosed as having no sense of who he was or where he belonged.  Later, he was admitted to state care.  In State care he became an alcoholic.  When he was released from state care on turning 18, he found himself in trouble with the law from time to time.  Each time, he was sent for a psychiatric assessment.  Each psychiatric assessment said that he had no sense of who he was or where he belonged.

Bruce ultimately obtained an award of damages from the South Australian Supreme Court, which found that he had been taken unlawfully from his family.  He died less than a year later, aged 51.

His mother never got over the shock of losing him.  His brothers, who were not unfortunate enough to be sent to hospital and were therefore not taken from their parents, became leaders of the Ngarrindjeri community in South Australia.  They lived years longer than Bruce did – but not as long as most white Australians live.

The policy of assimilation began with plausible intentions, but in the bureaucracy compassion soon hardens to vindictiveness.  For decades aboriginal families were subjected to the cruelty of dispossession from their land and from their parents.

… until we recognise that we are part of the cause, we will never find a durable solution to the problem.

Little wonder that they grew up feeling like exiles, outcasts in their own country.

We are responsible.  We must start by recognising that refugees, outcasts and fringe dwellers are all human beings, with ordinary human responses; that their instincts are the same as ours; that their need for care and cure is the same as ours.

And that the damage they suffered was caused by us, or in our name.

And until we recognise that we are part of the cause, we will never find a durable solution to the problem.

And so it is with our mistreatment of refugees.  What we could do – and should do – is allow them to live in the community while their refugee status is being assessed.  During that time, they would hold interim visas which entitle them to work and give them access to Centrelink and Medicare benefits.  But I would add a further condition: that until their refugee status is decided, they must live in a specified country town.  There are plenty of country towns which would be glad of an increase in their population.  If every single asylum seeker stayed on Centrelink benefits, it would cost us about $500 million a year, and all of that would be spent on food, clothing and accommodation in rural Australia.  The local economy of host towns would benefit greatly.

And we would have saved about $3.5 billion a year.

Out of that saving, I would earmark a billion dollars a year for the construction of housing projects, specifically for homeless Australians.  And another billion dollars a year for Indigenous communities to help correct the massive imbalance between Indigenous Australians and the rest of us.

And still we would save more than a billion dollars a year, and we would avoid inflicting untold, but predictable, harm on a generation of refugees.

So: my ideas.

1.  Find a political leader.  This may be the most difficult part.

2.  Stop mistreating asylum seekers.  Let them live in rural Australia until their refugee status is determined.  This will save $3.5 billion a year.

3.  Spend $2 billion of the savings on housing for the homeless and for Indigenous communities.

Latest