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The View from Oz

March 2005

The View from Oz:

Snow in Sydney, dare to be a detainee, justice and luggage

by Matt Kemp

see also the Tales of Asia guide to Sydney

April 2005


Summer has finally thrown in the towel out this way, or at least it appeared that way last week as temperatures dipped into the late teens overnight and the fans got packed away for another winter. Myer and David Jones (two of the big department stores here) have optimistically began running ads featuring girls in large fur coats and scarves (well it IS a brutal 14 degrees Celsius here in the depths of winter) and one girl I saw in town had traded her sunnies for a large pair of uvex snowboarding goggles. Yep you never know when a rogue blizzard is going to strike the Pitt Street Mall without warning.

This Month in Immigration

Immigration has long been a contentious issue in Australia. The initial forced settlements of Australia (putting aside the indigenous aboriginal presence) occurred in 1788, some for offences as trivial as stealing bread or chickens. Things, however, have changed somewhat in 200 odd years of colonisation in Australia and a criminal conviction is no longer considered to be advantageous when trying to gain entry to the country.

The Easter holiday (which in Australia is as much about scrumming yourself stupid with chocolate as it is the celebration of anything remotely religious) saw the immigration issue thrust back into the public arena. Australia has a policy of mandatory detention when it comes to immigration (especially if you happen to turn up in a clapped out fishing boat from Indonesia) and in recent years has even gone to the extreme lengths of disenfranchising several islands close to Indonesia (and propping up the bankrupt guano state of Nauru as a detention island) to make it harder for people to claim refugee status on Australian territory. Effectively, if you arrive in Australia without an appropriate visa and request refuge you are imprisoned, often for a period of years, whilst the government decides what to do with you.

There is more than just a slight irony at work when the Government of a people who originally arrived in sailing ships hoping to escape oppression in the “old world” label their modern day equivalents “boat people” and throw them in the prison for extended periods.

Anyway, while a good percentage of Australians are fairly uncomfortable with current Government policy towards refugees, actual public dissent is not terribly common (possibly because of the ‘out of sight out of mind’ policy of sticking a number of detention centres out in the desert or on offshore islands). The Easter holiday weekend saw several protests around the country, most notably outside the Baxter Detention Centre in South Australia. Several hundred protesters (who admittedly did little to help their cause by looking exactly like the dreadlocked, weed smoking ‘lazy good-for-nothings’ the Federal Government routinely portrays them as) were charged on several occasions by heavily armoured police on Easter Sunday for attempting, after repeated warnings, not to launch balloons and fly kites outside the gates of the detention centre.

To be fair to the cops, the guy who dropped his pants and proceeded to serenade them (badly and at length) on his guitar would have got on my nerves as well. Australia may purport to be a fair and tolerant society, but images of riot police tackling women for flying kites (even the dangerous ones with the rainbow coloured tails that some aptly malnourished refugee might consider making an escape on) outside what is effectively a prison in the desert, does little to reinforce this claim.

Despite a significant amount of bleating from the appropriate refugee advocacy groups it seemed that little progress was going to be made on the immigration issue, especially when the immigration minister Amanda Vanstone returned fire by releasing details of a new refugee visa designed apparently to get refugees out of detention centres (and the country) more rapidly. The cheerily named “removal pending” visa will be issued to detainees (that’s aussie for a refugee) that sign away all their rights to make further appeals to stay in Australia. On release they will be able to work, collect benefits and access health care……until the immigration boys get around to bundling them into the back of a van and taking them to the airport.

Things may about to get tougher for those that do wish to continue to contest their right to reside in Australia. Attorney General Philip Ruddock (who conducts press “audiences” in a manner disquietingly similar to that of Emperor Palpatine) announced late last month that under proposed legislation, all those no good, trouble causing immigration lawyers were going to have to prove the merits of their cases before they got to take them to court, which one would think, defeats the purpose of having a judiciary in the first place. Never one for doing things by half, the Attorney General also announced that should the lawyers in question not be able to prove the merits of their case they would have to pony up the cash for the legal costs associated with their application.

The Government’s general approach is reasonably obvious here, with one hand make it harder to challenge a removal order and at the same time hold out a means of getting out of detention centres nice and quickly (at least until you are deported). Still at least we are seeing a little cooperation between Government Departments for once.

However the news isn’t all bad for wannabe Australian migrants. Australia’s economy (especially in New South Wales) has been ticking along quite nicely for some time now. Acute labour shortages are starting to be felt in a number of trades, resulting in some astute builders now earning as much, if not more than lawyers and doctors. Now while the religious persecution of, say, a handful of Pakistani or Chinese nationals might not be enough (seemingly) to precipitate a change of heart in the Federal Government’s immigration policy, you can bet that growing concerns about labour shortages retarding the growth of the economy have got John Howard and Co. considering a range of potential solutions.

It appears then, that although said Pakistanis or Chinese may not be welcome just because they are having a rough time of things at home, if they can build a half decent wall or know how to drive a digger then its ‘welcome to Australia mate’ time. Under the new immigration policy released last week, an extra 20,000 skilled migrants will be accepted into Australia in 2006. Good news also for those on working holidays in Australia who wish to stay longer. Proposed changes will mean that you can apply for an extra year (doubling the length of the visa) as long as you have spent a minimum of three months doing some sort of harvest related work.

Anyone who saw the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000 should have picked up that Australians are a fairly competitive group of people. In fact if you can compete at it (and all the better if you can make a few wagers on the side) then Aussies will have a crack at it. Which is pretty much the reason Keliti Vaingalo is still in the country. Keliti is apparently a promising young athlete on a scholarship at a private Sydney school. Keliti’s parents, who met and married in Australia and have resided here for the past 16 years, are apparently not such good medal prospects and have been deported, along with two of their children, back to Tonga after exhausting their legal battle to attain Australian citizenship. The Federal Government was kind enough to point out, however, that if Mr and Mrs Vaingalo could come up with seventy odd thousand dollars they could apply for contributing parenting visa’s and come back to Australia. In the words of everyone’s favourite incompetent public servant Police Chief Clancy Wiggum, “That’s some good work, boys”.

Hey Hey We’re the Junkies?!

Anyone keeping reasonably well abreast of international news recently could be forgiven for thinking that Australia was challenging Columbia for some sort of ‘narco trade world championship title’.

Along with Australian citizens that are currently facing the death penalty in Vietnam and Singapore, three men were arrested last week in Hong Kong for planning to import heroin into Australia. Just yesterday it was announced that 9 Australians were arrested in Bali, a number of them at Denpasar Airport with large quantities of heroin strapped to their bodies.

Most of these cases have come to the attention of the public due to the unfortunate case of Gold Coast beauty therapist Schapelle Corby. Corby, having arrived at Denpasar airport for holiday with a few of her mates, was apparently more than just a little surprised to find a bit over four kilo’s of marijuana stashed in her body board bag.

The Indonesian police, it seems (if you subscribe to the Australian media’s point of view) have been more interested in parading their captive and her alleged stash in front of the media, than following the proper rules of evidence and investigation. The media has come down heavily on the Indonesian judiciary, and has pressured the Australian Government to intervene on Corby’s behalf. The Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, has been unusually diplomatic on the subject (possibly due to the recent visit of the Indonesian President) and stated that he is confident the Indonesians will do a good job.

Following the Bali bombing trials (and the lack of death penalties imposed), a significant number of Australians have little or no faith in the Indonesian justice system. The trial has had repercussions closer to home as well, with accusations of lax baggage security at Australian airports and an inmate being flown to the trial in Denpasar claiming he overheard a prison conversation stating Corby was the unwitting victim of traffickers using unlocked bags to shift drugs about the country.

A recent incident where a Qantas baggage handler was fired for removing a large mascot’s uniform from a checked, unlocked bag at Sydney airport and running around the tarmac wearing it has, understandably, done little to bolster public confidence in airport security.

Although like most people I have only been privy to the information that comes out through the media, it seems to me that unless she is amazingly ignorant of conditions in Indonesia (which is unlikely considering her sister resides in Bali), yet smart enough to run a quality hydroponics setup, there can be no way that Corby willingly or knowingly took those drugs to Indonesia. To my mind, it comes down to a simple matter of economics and that surely is what drug trafficking is all about. Anyone who has been to Asia (well other than Singapore) knows that picking up a reasonably good quality bag of weed is about as difficult (and as costly) as ordering a Laksa in Penang. Drugs in Australia expensive, drugs in Asia cheap, it’s really very simple.

Moreover, Corby is a beauty therapist, not exactly the most highly paid job about the place. Her job certainly wouldn’t pay well enough to pick up 4 plus kilos of weed. Clearly, she didn’t buy them herself and no ‘Pablo Escobar’ is going to pay her to mule the drugs from a profitable market to a less profitable one. Especially when you run the risk of losing the drugs in the process.

Prosecutors have indicated that they will not be seeking the death penalty, but this will be of little comfort to Corby whose fate very much hangs in the balance in Denpasar in the next couple of weeks. I’m definitely going to be locking my pack when I head up to Indo later in the year.

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