How is it that in Australia 2013 a pregnant woman who has committed no crime finds herself in detention?
If you are reading this the chances are you know her name is Ranjini, you know she is pregnant and due to give birth any moment, you know that in detention with her are her two young sons, you know that she has been found to be a refugee (yes, a “genuine” one), you know that she is married to Ganesh and you know that one day they picked up the boys from Mill Park Primary School for a meeting that resulted in Ranjini and the Boys being taken to Villawood Detention Centre where they remain. Ganesh was given just five minutes to say goodbye – “We were happy and the kids were even happier … we wanted to start new life with hope. But now we are shocked…We are separated. There has been too much pain before. Are we going to be put through the same pain in Australia as well?”
And today at this very moment a woman 9 months pregnant and her two little boys are kept out of our community because despite her being found to be a refugee, ASIO says she is a threat to our National Security. We do not know why, we can only guess that it is because her now deceased first husband MAY have been a driver for a Tamil separatist. Guilt by association with no right to appeal, no innocence before guilt and no way of knowing the evidence used.
I want you to look at the picture above you, imagine Ranjini 9 months pregnant, expecting to go into labour at any moment. Imagine her two young son both under the age of 10, imagine them behind the wire separated from Ganesh, who cannot comfort his pregnant wife as she is about to give birth. Now ask yourself this, Do I fear Ranjini? Because ASIO says you should, they say she is a threat to our National Security and nobody, not even Ranjini herself can know why! How is it that a nation like ours, with the decades of peace and prosperity we have enjoyed, an economy the envy of the world and a society the melting pot of so many cultures can be afraid of one woman and her little kids?
The common wisdom goes that the most recent history of fear of refugees goes back to the 2001 election and the cynical manipulation of the Tampa and Children Overboard affairs by the then Government of John Howard. But for the fear of refugees to bite hard enough just weeks out from an election John Howard needed people already afraid that could be tipped over the edge into a state of panic that saw facts lost along with lives. Australian federal elections are generally decided by just a few percentage points nationwide and while appealing to the worst aspects of the swing voter may or may not work a group of people already living in irrational fear were a much surer bet.
To find this group of people we only need to go back to 1996 when newly elected MP Pauline Hanson used her maiden speech to state “I and most Australians want our immigration policy radically reviewed and that of multiculturalism abolished. I believe we are in danger of being swamped by Asians”. Race politics and the fear of the refugees was ignited again in Australian politics and the easily afraid, particularly on the conservative side of politics, found a new home in Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party. Hanson of course was so short of knowledge on the issue that when asked on 60 Minutes if she was xenophobic, she famously replied, “please explain?” Here was an individual elected to the Federal Parliament with no understanding of the issue other than she felt afraid, for no good reason, and she was laying the blame at the feet of immigration. It seems she wasn’t the only one afraid, fear of Asian immigration and other ludicrous and ill-informed views gained Hanson and her party 1 million votes in the House of Reps. and Senate at the 1998 election.
The Howard Government had seen it coming and then Minister and now Leader of the Opposition Tony Abbott set out to destroy Hanson. Not for any love of those Hanson vilified, but to destroy a political opponent who had taken away the base of fearful voters so important at tight elections. Abbott set up a slush fund ironically called “Australians for Honest Politics Trust” and set about ripping One Nation apart from the inside. He says it was intended to expose the misuse of election funds but would later concede the political threat of One Nation was “a very big factor”. It worked, One Nation started to unravel and leading into the 2001 election One Nation voters (1 Million strong) were looking for a new home. Full of fear, mistrust of boat people and those who supported their rights, like a bucket set to overflow the fear spilled over with the arrival of MV Tampa and the Children who were not in fact thrown overboard. But fear needs no facts and in an election Howard was set to lose half of One Nation’s million strong voters joined Howard to narrowly defeat the Beazley led ALP. The One Nation voters had been more than enough to make the difference, Tony Abbott’s efforts had been rewarded and a decade later a nation still so ill-informed, with racism at the edges and cowardly politics still at play a woman named Ranjini will give birth to a baby in detention because our nation is still afraid.
In 1933 with the depression ravaging America, a quarter of the population unemployed, confidence stripped from the economy and Hitler recently appointed Chancellor of Germany, newly elected President Franklin D. Roosevelt used his inauguration speech to tell a frightened nation “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” The very next day he called a bank holiday and allowed the nation to exhale, he summoned an emergency sitting of Congress and set about reshaping the American economy and dragging them out of the depression. He would hold “fireside chats” communicating directly to the American people in a calm manner via the radio his message of just how he was going to rescue the country. He came to office with 25% unemployment, a devastated economy, a Germany led by Hitler and the campaign song Happy Days Are Here Again. He died in office having served his nation for 12 years as President, the economy was booming, unemployment was below 2% and Hitler’s Nazi Germany was finished!
When a crisis arrives, even a perceived, one a leader has a choice to make. Exploit it for political gain as Australian political leaders have come to do on the Refugee issue or sit their people down, calm the flames and set about guiding their nation back to Happy Days. From his first day in office FDR chose to be a real leader, for Ranjini to live free with her husband and children we need the same in Australia. We will protest, we will write letters, make telephone calls and we will organise. But whether Ranjini’s baby is born free or destined to a life of uncertainty behind bars requires simply that ours leaders lead. Otherwise they too can only answer are you Xenophobic and we can only answer why an innocent pregnant woman is detained, with please explain!
*edit* Ranjini has now given birth to a baby boy Paartheepan (16/01/2013)