Wednesday, 11 March 2015

There is a row going on because Julian Burnside

claims letters of support he arranged for people to write to refugees on Nauru have not been passed on to them.
Now, as I understand it - and I may be wrong, Mr Burnside asked people to write letters and send them to him. He was going to forward those letters to people on Nauru. The people who wrote the letters had no idea who they would be writing to. Only Mr Burnside knew that.
There was an article in the Guardian. There were many comments as well as claims that the government had broken the law in not passing the letters on.
I think it may be a little more complicated than that. 
Mr Burnside is a QC. He is also an activist. He has made a name for himself in more than one area but one of those areas has been "advocating" for refugees. One can be cynical here and say it has done his career no harm. 
Mr Burnside first tried the "letters of support" to refugees during the Tampa affair - when John Howard was Prime Minister in a Coalition government. He then remained remarkably silent for some time. He does not appear to have become fully active on the "letters" issue until the Labor government was out of office and the Coalition was back in. Is there something political in all this? I don't know. Perhaps he was just busy. Perhaps he felt the situation had changed in other ways.
The problem however is that he was asking people to write letters and send them to him. He was then sending them on to people in detention in Nauru.
I have no doubt that many people were writing those letters with the best of intentions but they were not writing a letter to an asylum seeker - although they no doubt believed they were. They were writing a letter for Mr Burnside to use. He was the one with the list of names, numbers and boats. He could, if he chose, pick and choose who received letters. He might claim to do it on any number of grounds - "this person speaks English" or "this person needs particular support" or "this person has just arrived" or "this person has been there for a longer time". 
I have no idea what the letters said. It may well be that most of them would be innocuous. "I''m sorry you are there and I hope you are soon here with us in Australia" might well be typical. They would be well intentioned. 
The problem is that they might also be seen as offering false hope and false information. Detainees on Nauru have been told they will not be resettled in Australia. Whether we like it or not this was the policy people voted in when they voted in the present government.  Offering false hope might also mean stirring up trouble. Things have changed since the Tampa affair. People were resettled here at that time. 
Has the Australian government broken the law by not seeing that the letters were passed on? There are certainly laws which make it an offence to interfere with mail. In this case however there may be an argument that the letters were written to Mr Burnside. He has received them. It is Mr Burnside's intentions in passing them on that then need to be questioned. He can argue that he is passing them on in order to support asylum seekers on Nauru but what is he actually passing on - and what is his purpose in doing so?
I would like to see people in detention getting support and care packages but I don't want anyone put at physical risk because a letter stirs up emotions that lead to violence. I don't want to offer people false hope. 
Mr Burnside can say what he likes but he is surely too well educated to believe that the "letters of support" are nothing more than that. They are being used as political statements. They are being used to place political pressure on government and they are using vulnerable people rather than supporting them.
If Mr Burnside wants to put political pressure on the government he should be asking people to write letters to the government. He should have been doing it all along - not when it is politically convenient for him.
Personally I hate the way he is using the very people he says he supports for his own political ends. 

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