3000 words – about a 15 minute read

On 30 August 2019, a media firestorm ignited over the Murugappans, the Sri Lankan Tamil family who’d been placed in immigration detention (from March of 2018) and were set for imminent deportation.  It was a Friday and that day, like those that followed, were marked by incendiary commentary from across the ideological spectrum that shed light on markedly different points of view but united in a collective outrage in the classical fourth estate and every other modern media iteration.  It was also, quite presciently, the same date I submitted a 13,000-word letter of some 21 pages to the Prime Minister, to please spare my own wife and children from the segregation they’ve had to endure within Australia.  The open letter, available at www.methinketh.com, could never have been more painfully – not perfectly -timed.

The date, Friday, 30 August 2019, now seared in the historical record and penultimate irony – forever – about a lesser known family – my family – who are very much dying mentally, physically and spiritually before our legislatively enshrined segregation within Australia.  My substantial, though singular letter, arrived upon that day of days that surely saw thousands of communications flood the PM’s office in reaction to the media furore engulfing the  Murugappans, as the days to follow surely marked  similar volume, both for and against the public verdict on this one family, seeking to know Australia as their home.  Our house was already a raindrop amidst an ember storm, that night we felt more like a raindrop lost within an inferno.

A perfectly legal segregation has been imposed upon my own family that finds no resolution seven years onward and shall see my children ultimately deported; my daughter somewhere betwixt age 18, or thereabouts, depending on vagaries of circumstance that may more grotesquely extend to 23 where she is of a final capital benefit to the Commonwealth – paying inflated tertiary fees upfront, in service to the federal treasury, indexed as a “foreign student” and having known no other nation as home since age 1 in the Australian nation she is descendant by eight generations over two centuries because, well, that’s how the law works in her case.  Sometimes I like to remind Government that, slang intended for effect, “just because it’s legal don’t make it right”.  The White Australia Policy was once law too – sometimes the invocation that, “No one is above the law” can be cited far more for benefit of distraction and imputation than reasonable or fair justification in service of vindication.

I received an auto-reply, within seconds, from Prime Minister Morrison’s office, thanking me for contacting the PM – and then silence. We have known much silence in seven years.

The Murugappans do not benefit from this media firestorm – a bit of a burn, as in a publicly endorsed petition may have helped their cause – but where the fire became an inferno the collective outrage from all sides has moved Government to an entrenched position it shan’t likely be decamping from – if the base concurs (and Newspoll shows they do) the numbers are safe – having their asylum claim found no protection at law they affect easy intonment as “lawbreakers”. Life may be  a complex proposition but for too many things easily reduceible to a numbers game.  Besides, as the narrative goes, the family have been found to be owed no such refugee protection and are thus moved from a grey area of legal position to a black zone of unlawful, “they broke the law” is always a clean narrative, even where it tells half a story.  As a species we are increasingly inclined to skim or omit deeper consideration, just as we skim detail in search of headlines and groups that “speak to us.”  A world of bubbles and echo chambers, of which Canberra is but one sud in a rather large tub.

The Murugappans are found to be wanting by a collective regime of government and courts and thus indexable as “law breakers” – had their asylum claim been successful they’d have been comported to the bright lights of “lawful” but I digress.  Let us, for a moment, set aside that oft intoned ideal that is the rule of law and let us consider a family who’ve sought the life of Australia – a nation of problems to be certain but indexed against the other 198 odd nations in our global family a mighty desirable destination.  The family, because they’ve been deemed to be technically non-refugee become branded as plain old fashioned trespassers.  They have been comported to the sin bin, if you will, by the finding of the courts but I argue that where a person or family are present in Australia for five years or more – working, paying taxes, contributing to society and fulfilling every expectation of civic participation and lawful comportment with the community then they are permanent and they are home.  Full stop.

Cue collective hue and cry.  “They perpetuated tactics to stall!” comes the outrage of the right.  “They are human beings, comes the outrage of the left.”  You are both right – and left (lest I be found exclusive by the inclusive).  Everyone is, to be serious, quite right but everyone is missing the unifying issue here that puts out the fires of outrage as it could force government to affect a return to a visa system that is fair, rational, and dare I say it – capable of being understood by the average Australian punter.  Time – as a statute of limitations that see’s a person of good character cross the line to [legal] permanent residency when five years have elapsed. The visa system in Australia is broken and corrupted and time will compel the visa to be effectuated in rationale course whilst conveying those left in limbo far too long to a place of certainty.  Time, affirmed by character, becomes the metric of final arbitrator or adjudicator in all claims, applications and even existential presentment in service to a moral dignity before the value of human life under law.  Full stop.

The once pedestrian travel document began its metamorphosis with that quiet allocation of “work rights” for “backpackers” in the end of the 20th century – a quiet policy to fuel farm hands in the agricultural sector and then the too, the mining sector; win-win, right? The trouble with trouble is it always starts out sounding so good.

We saw the visa further metastasised by John Howard 1.0, whose first ministry came up with the “guest worker” program that was the 457-visa and a most dubious verdict stands upon that oft rorted instrument that was finally, mercifully terminated by Malcolm Turnbull – abolished from 18 March 2018.

New Zealand citizens were quietly comported from a place of Anzac equality and mateship by the same John Howard under Howard 2.0 in 2001 (there were 4 Howard Ministries, if your counting) when the centuries deep union of the Down Under became less Anzac free movement and more A and NZ – no AC, no mateship and definitely no permanent residency for Kiwis, although they maintained such for Aussies in New Zealand.  Under Howard 2.0 a Kiwi could permanently live in Australia and pay taxes while spending all of their earnings into the economy, just don’t ask to be included and don’t ask how a cohort now approaching 1 million can fairly be seen as equal whilst having no representation and few of the benefits of place – not even a right of vote – the Yanks raised a revolt over lesser indignities against the Crown.  The simple fact is that where people are not personally affected and where the cohort excluded is not sizeable enough to muster public sentiment the cohort is exploitable.  “Who cares, its not me” becomes the quiet cry of the unconcerned and our moral probity takes one more step towards the civilised abyss.

Amidst this Howard Government was the explosion of the sickly sweet proposition that was the ramped up lure of Australia to the foreign student, long spruiked as the obvious intrinsic value of Australian education warranting inflated fee payments up-front because surely their was no other driver in this sickly-sweet proposition.  There are 1.1 million students in Australia – over 600,000 of them are international students (Australia’s third largest “export”).  Where this use of Australia as a quiet dubiously held carrot became adroitly marketed in the end of the 20th century the strong stick of high fees lured millions and led to a 2,000% growth in international student – yes, that’s two thousand percent – not a typo. One could be forgiven for raising an eyebrow to the illustrious notion so often signalled and slogan heavy of “education-for-educations-sake”.  Is it just possible that unspeakably high fees were a stick endured where the carrot of permanent residency cum citizenship was the greater lure?  Today “international education”, which is classed as an export for economic and budgetary considerations is worth over $32 billion – with a “B” to the Commonwealth treasury – any eyebrows raised? Please, feel free to disagree with the characterisation within that comment, figures to the contrary notwithstanding.  A numbers game is rarely fair… or equitable; even to participants with rose coloured glasses who sense they may benefit from more than profoundly expensive costings in a foreign land they don’t understand and many do not even fluently speak the language.  As reported by Parliament House, under John Howard’s First Ministry foreign student visa awards totalled just over 100,000.  The industrialisation of the visa, in service to morally dubious monetary benefit to state, has created a chaos and complexity that generates significant wealth but is not in the significant interest of many of the affected cohort. “Take my money,” may be a catchy phrase on a national media campaign for KFC this advertising season but I reckon such authenticity and honesty would not bode well for the national image in the third greatest driver of national “export” that is the “education” of foreign students.

We clearly have a visa system in Australian that has been industrialised in the past few decades and one would similarly be forgiven for calling it what it is: weaponised.  The Muraappan’s in their complete naiveté have cast a case whose wake creates a bright light now shone upon this visa system – to anyone who cares to open their eyes – and while I suspect the family will be deported they may yet have succeeded in shedding desperately needed light on this nasty malignancy let to so long metastasise in Australia, where more people now work as registered migration agents overseeing more than 100 visas, than the entire public sector cohort of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT).   How do you fix a broken system?  I doubt one can where so much money is made from it but monetary benefit should not be sufficient to dispatch integrity, fairness and reason – all of which could be restored where time became the primary metric of permanent distinction of a persons entitlement to legally recognised permanence of place.  Where character was clear and time was served one was home in Australia. Full stop.

Cue, second round of hue and cry.

The Murugappans clear and incontrovertible intent was to make Australia home; seven years was far too long for anyone of otherwise good character to be marginalised; the thin wedge of their asylum claim, used to buoy as it cast them unlawful (easily minced to be heard as illegal by the majority) notwithstanding.  The Australian visa system should never have been left in such shoddy structure that any visa was let to run a seven year period of review under any cohort of government or legal process; because even where critics claim the family invoked effort to perpetuate delays it is beyond dispute that they undertook procedure and protocol the visa system lawfully endorsed and created: Where “you broke it, you bought it” is a declaration intoned by cross shop keepers intent on minimising damage to that within their domain.  Let us consider Australia, as a rational state actor, whose structured acts should never have so broken people, over so long a period of time, now face the consequences and be driven by the metric mandate of time to now “buy the goods it has damaged”.

Most Australians do not and cannot begin to unpick the profound changes to the visa system since the tectonic shifts, largely initiated with Liberal orthodoxy on “economic management” under John Howard, quietly created a second class of quite technically non-classed citizens.  Much money was generated and this is good but where we define a nation only by it’s capacity to genearte wealth on the backs of an exploitable cohort we may indeed be also surrendering our democratic liberal (small “l”) credentials as a leader in this most troubled world.  A time moratorium of not more than five years, upon a person who satisfies character expectations, makes their genuine home in Australia, and affects every rational definition of belonging should see an opportunity for inclusion after five years.  Such a legislative mandate will not bode well for Government’s rather cynical economic modeling but it would compel the visa system to act more humanely, effective, dare I say – timely – and thus affect a return to some sense of balance, integrity and process.  The Murugappans are a quite unintended but no less glaring example of a spark left too long only to find themsevles engulfed by a system that few even comprehend.  Where we have changed little the next firestorm is inevitable.  Let us be wiser.

To quote Mark Twain, on this 130th anniversary of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court; “You see, he knew his own laws just as other people so often know the laws: by words, not by effects. They take a meaning, and get to be very vivid, when you come to apply them to yourself.”  The standard we tolerate is rarely the standard we, ourselves, would endure.  We, as a society, do unspeakable things to one another and we excuse such outcomes, even where we know such dubious doctrine is often but a fleeting historical expression that grants, nonetheless, the inequality finding “perfectly allowable affect at law”; an outcome that says as much about the vagaries and transitory nature of explicit law as it does our own implicit morality.

I have contemplated such sentiment during many a sleepless night in my never-ending advocacy of our own family’s fate within our Australia; and so I find it perfectly rational that the Murugappans, irrespective of what procedural outcomes sought to determine, should have been found to warrant the protections of Australia as home, where such outcome was let to run a procedural process that exceeds reasonable expectation of time before legitimate application.  Permanently. Legally.  Let us bear the burden of our very real decisions and not engage in notions that, “there but for the grace of god go I.”  God may or may not be sitting in on the executive and broader parliament but he definitely has no assigned vote.  We must own our very human legislative verdicts on our fellow human beings.  The group think of the current Government clearly eschews a belief that the family is trying to “get away with something.”  They are – they have lived in Australia for seven years and they’d like to call it home.  Their motives, like their ambitions are decidedly clear, honest, pedestrian and markedly free of confected complexity – and that’s a lot more than I could say about many of the very forces that look to flick them away, like some binary proposition that is on or off, in or out.

The Australian nation is an anomaly in the global family.  We are a rare case of a nation witnessing, as it defines, its own transformative modern multicultural identity upon the global stage during a time of unprecedented world migration; a movement of people unlike anything we’ve seen in human history and quite clearly fueled by  social, political and economic unrest and disruption across every continent made fuller still by the instantaneous capacity to communicate via technology.

We can cast dispersion or empathy on the motives of the Murugappans but it is an irrefutable fact that they’ve been in Australia seven years, had two children born to country, wished to know this land as home and did not comport themselves in any way that could be defined as unlawful or criminal.  Had their asylum claim been deemed valid this issue may never have found form in my mind, and they similarly would not have been made to wear the easy branding of “law breakers” which – clearly is a far less binary proposition than many critics would like the public to believe.  A five year moratorium on adjudicating identity of place in Australia is mighty fair, quite reasonable and long overdue.  This is the conversation Government does not want you having Australia – a simple law and order narrative around safe borders is a far more self-serving distraction from this most profound and at least equally compelling problem of a nation deigning to be fair as it creates millions of people with no voice, no vote and no equality of place.  Five years and quality of character.  Full stop.  No more.  No less.

My argument will have all the likely success of being legislated as another “Modest Proposal” made by Jonathan Swift had before the halls of the Irish Parliament nearly 300 years ago, but like Mr. Swift it is my hope that such a proposal as mine will make people consider the gapping inequality and deprivation this Australian Commonwealth visits upon people – a deprivation whose origin comes in a craven opportunity to benefit the federal treasury, despite the personal destruction wrought upon affected families that languish and linger in immigration limbo until they’re either dispatched or manage to get across the line to legal permanence – that later group a far small numerical minority that service the narrative we are a multicultural society – which we are, but we are also a profoundly unfair and unequal arbiter of that access to permanence of place and this conversation will ultimately have to be tabled.   Yes, of course, mechanisms would have to be in place to safeguard abuse of such process – but a good government can attend good watchdogs, if it really wants to do so for it can be a good watchdog where such strength of will exists today.  We are a nation of regulators when we choose to care about certain concerns being enforced.

A strict time moratorium restores, as it protects, both the integrity of law and the vulnerable class of people seeking the very protection of law.  Such outcome will not bode well for the federal treasury but perhaps that honest conversation is a conversation this nation is far too long and urgently in need of having.  The fires won’t go away, nor will the easily exploited made fuel, who fall to the flames to be consumed by an indifferent parliament.





One commenton OUTRAGE.
  1. Mary Kerr | | Reply

    I think this issue, more than any other in the past few decades, has affected so many people across Australia in the most horrendous way. I followed the strongest opposition and protest of govt policy towards asylum seekers for years, and I think many people became drained, and psychologically traumatised by feelings of hopelessness. I have watched on in horror as people were mistreated, detained, tortured, marginalised, criminalised and abandoned. I myself have been sick due to the trauma of witnessing such cruelty, I find the proposition of experiencing the events in person more shocking than I can bear to contemplate. I’m really glad there are others out there who care, and who are still fighting to change this cruel policy. To me it is out and out fascism, no more, no less. Thank you for sharing your essay.


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