Courage, Solidarity, Humanity and Leadership.
Or Refugee Torture, Human Rights Abuse, Xenophobia and Climate Inaction.
From Local to Global.
Annual Australian National University Address
National Press Club, Canberra, ACT
Craig Foster AM
I acknowledge this land was never ceded by its traditional owners and that the soul of this country can never be whole until justice is done.
We are failing ourselves, our children, grandchildren and the most vulnerable people both here and around the world and we must accept responsibility to become the leaders and contributors that the world needs us to be.
In advancing today’s discussion of Australia’s position in the world, how the local becomes global, I will argue that our torture of innocent refugees, failures on Indigenous rights and intransigence on global warming has twisted our own humanity, made us profiteers and exporters of suffering, damaged the international compact on displaced people, fed exclusionary and nationalist politics around the world, slowed decarbonisation of the planet and left us, and others fleeing climate disintegration in coming years, at extreme risk.
As an immensely proud Australian, I’m more disheartened and certainly more frequently embarrassed at how the world sees us than ever before. We’re a nation unwilling to accept our responsibility to the world and yet a people so desperate to have pride in who we are.
Perhaps that’s why we cling to our international sporting achievements. We long to excel as a nation.
But while I’ll prosecute our isolationism and selective humanity, this is a profoundly hopeful speech because I believe in the power of everyday people to make change. I’ve seen it, lived it.
Australia is crying out for authentic leaders because there are so few willing to hold true to principle and not deviate from what is best for its people, and the global community.
The system has collapsed under existential challenges.
Pandemics and climatic disasters are the new normal and the response must prioritise this generation and the next but the political horizon has shortened to just days, weeks, months when more than ever we need intergenerational solutions and purposeful courage and commitment.
We are all searching for people to trust that have our best interests at heart and the global community.
In this vacuum, community leaders have found new prominence, many of them brilliant women speaking truth to power and they have greater social trust than many politicians because leadership is about sacrifice for others, not the sacrifice of them.
Putting people first, caring about us, our future, and that would require a wholly new form of Australian politics.
When Covid hit, public figures and media wrestled with the perversity of how many Australians, particularly the elderly and infirm it is permissible to let die so that the economy might live, and the Government cynically turned a health crisis and once-in-a-generation opportunity for a green-led energy and economic revolution into a ‘gas-led recovery,’ literally adding more fuel to the fire.
From a lump of coal to a bottle of gas.
Energy Minister Angus Taylor used the Russian invasion to fast track seven gas projects in Queensland, NSW and Victoria when the urgency for independence should have expedited our transition to clean energy.
Economic and environmental vandalism.
UN Chief, Antonio Guterres yesterday called it ‘mutually assured destruction.’
Mutual, no, because the Australian people have seen through the scam.
Environment Minister, Susan Ley last week celebrated the Federal Court decision that her Ministry and Government don’t have a legal duty of care to future generations of Australians.
On three of the most critical global issues of the 21st century requiring a multilateral approach, human rights, human displacement and climate, Australia is a central contributor to a breakdown of international agreements and global cooperation and this puts millions, in fact billions of people at risk.
That’s our international legacy in the 21st century. So far.
But I believe in a very different Australia.
One where race is no longer a weapon to divide, the aged are not a profit centre, the economy serves the people, we promote the dignity of each person irrespective of where they’re from or how they arrived and Australia is a beacon of integrity, human rights compliance and leadership in the world.
An Australia where we acknowledge that we almost wiped out the oldest living culture on the planet and after the dismantling of the White Australia Policy have resolved never to let xenophobia and racism shape our national identity, public discussion and policy again.
Australia’s first Prime Minister, Edmund Barton:
There is no racial equality.. These races are, in comparison with white races – I think no-one wants convincing of this fact – unequal and inferior.
The lifting of this historical veil of racism fuels a fierce determination to walk with our First Nations and we regard any attempts to vitiate our truth-telling as antithetical to our responsibility to atone.
We take a rainbow armband view of history, you might say, where every colour is equally privileged.
We are resolved to create an Australia hostile not to each other but to racism itself and as a secular country, anti-discrimination regarding gender, sexuality, ability, colour and race trump our wonderfully diverse religious beliefs.
We choose equality as our national faith.
We continually interrogate our institutions and policies to ensure equal access for all because we feel obliged by the contradictions in our own beginnings. Though invaders and immigrants, no one told us to ‘go back to where we came from.’
The world needs a shining model of global citizenry and inclusion as nationalism and racial politics thrive. We can be that model.
It’s clear that our refusal to look back, though is at the heart of so many inequities today.
Racism underpinned colonisation, fuelled Federation and still infests much policy and media coverage, 121 years later. It’s a festering sore on the National psyche that manifests in dehumanisation and mistreatment of innocent people and ongoing Indigenous disadvantage.
Let’s all take a deep breath then, because we must go back to move forward and, yes, we need to talk about boats.
Whether the First Fleet’s arrival on Invasion Day 1788, asylum seekers fleeing persecution or citizen-led flood rescues, it’s a fitting starting point as the east coast of Australia drowns.
And let’s not forget the ‘boat trophy’ that sits proudly in Australia’s Prime Ministerial office.
That boat symbolises suffering, death, racism, xenophobia, deception, lies and propaganda, myopia and the degradation of Australia’s humanity. It encapsulates perfectly who’ve become. That it sits lovingly on Scott Morrison’s desk speaks volumes about him, and us.
Australia has been so bombarded by decades of dog whistling, xenophobic and racist portrayal of ‘other’, that we literally are willing to let innocent people rot and die. The most vulnerable people on earth, refugees.
But I know what Australians are capable of, the force of our goodwill and compassion and the extraordinary capability of this country from the sports field to the bushfires, from the floods to #SaveHakeem.
You must resist attempts to convince you that torture and the breaking of humans is strong, and care and compassion is somehow weak when the exact opposite is evidently true.
It takes strength to lift another person up, a community, to give something of what we have, to another. It takes real courage to speak out for a colleague or community when they’re in need.
I went back to my hometown of Lismore recently to lend a hand amid the despair of catastrophic floods and listened to stories of locals carrying others on their back to safety in the swirling current. People hiring helicopters, commandeering boats to rescue strangers. Extraordinary resilience and courage during immense trauma and loss.
Australia was deeply inspired by their instinctive, unselfish actions, putting others first.
Volunteers giving everything they have, to house, clothe and feed people they’ve never met.
Care is the force that strengthens a Nation, street by street, community by community and builds a better world.
No, I’ll tell you what’s weak.
Beating up on innocent refugees, the family from Biloela, gay kids, the homeless and unemployed. Lying about asylum seekers to justify shameful policy is weak. Legislating so that medical professionals can’t tell the truth about torture is weak. Leveraging asylum seeker lives as political capital is weak.
From the Immigration Restriction Act 1901 to today’s Migration Act the journey from ‘alien’ to ‘illegal’ has always been about keeping so called ‘undesirable,’ non-white people out.
The terrible irony is, First Nations aside, we’re all ‘asylum seekers,’ aren’t we?
Those who came by boat, like the Foster’s in the early 1800’s as convicts and assisted migrants were seeking asylum not from war but hardship, others were refugees from the law. Maybe your ancestors fled lack of opportunity, education, class disadvantage or the second World War.
For those who’ve come across the seas
We’ve boundless plains to share
Having spent a life in the multicultural game of football, I know too well how hostile successive multicultural communities have found these boundless plains.
From the Italians and Greeks considered ‘too swarthy’ during the White Australia years, Vietnamese ‘boat people’ when the term first became weaponised in political and public commentary, Muslim Australians who face greater discrimination than just Pauline Hanson’s racist stunts and Sudanese-Australian ‘gangs.’
Today, we have several hundred asylum seekers and refugees stranded offshore in Papua New Guinea and Nauru and more than fifty ‘Medevac refugees’ onshore, all in their ninth year of incarceration of one form or another.
They’re boat people, as are we, and we destroyed their lives with a singularly vicious, abject cruelty.
It’s rightly said that Australia treats animals with greater care and many Prime Ministers and Ministers would be jailed if they subjected a single animal to like treatment of refugees.
It’s staggering to think of what we have done to innocent humans. A stain that will be with us forever.
The boat people who tortured boat people.
Immigrants who tortured immigrants.
It’s insanity on every level. Financially, humanitarian, global citizenry and reputationally.
The reason we are revisiting history here is because it’s not possible to truly recover our humanity without first understanding this historic cycle that we’re all caught in.
Today’s refugees, Indian-Australians criminalised during Covid, Australians stranded abroad are all just the latest victims.
Exclusion has always been a fundamental part of our political and cultural life. The problem is we are now at the point where we will do literally anything to keep people out, including killing them.
Thirteen refugees caged offshore by Australia are dead. Thousands more broken, their bodies and minds destroyed.
An Iranian refugee imprisoned for three years, 23 year-old Omid Masoumali was so traumatised, hopeless and broken that he burnt himself alive on Nauru in 2016. He sustained horrific burns that were, nevertheless survivable if he was treated adequately, humanely. It took 31 hours for him to receive medical treatment, or painkillers.
He died an agonising death.
A young man. With a mother. Her name is Elham Arouni Hesari:
..the way Australia rejected him and took his life will forever torture me.
We named our baby boy ‘Omid’, which means hope in Farsi, because we had beautiful dreams for him. Now all we have is the cold stone of his grave, where he died, lonely and innocent, in a foreign country.
Australia has taken our hope, our Omid.
Yes, we did and I am so sorry for the destruction of your son, Elham along with the perversion of our own sense of goodness.
This is Australia?
When Omid set himself alight, screaming:
‘This is how tired we are, this action will prove how exhausted we are. I cannot take it anymore.”
Then Minister for Home Affairs, Peter Dutton made clear that in his view, refugees were burning themselves alive in attempts to come to Australia.
I don’t have the words to adequately articulate the depravity of that statement.
The Queensland Coroner would later find that indefinite detention and a total collapse of hope caused his self-immolation but this is how the Australian people are manipulated to justify horrific policies.
Dehumanise first, compensate later.
Border politics, fear-mongering and the triggering of the Australian national psyche by cynical politicians and compliant or complicit media has been a central part of Australia’s cultural life since well before Federation.
Three times Prime Minister, Alfred Deakin in 1901:
That end, put in plain and unequivocal terms … means the prohibition of all alien coloured immigration, and more, it means at the earliest time.. the deportation or reduction of the number of aliens now in our midst. The two things go hand in hand, and are the necessary complement of a single policy.. of securing a ‘white Australia’.
This endless cycle is deeply embedded in cultural concepts of whiteness, worth, identity and fear and all political parties have been involved such as calls by Immigration Minister, Arthur Calwell in 1947 for Australia to ‘populate or perish:’
We have 25 years at most to populate this country before the yellow races are down on us.
We must reflect on the speed of our descent from mandatory detention just three decades ago under the Keating Government to indefinite imprisonment today for an average of 689 days in conditions that are deliberately inhumane and punitive. This is twelve times that of the US. Canada’s average is just 14 days.
Turns out we are leading the world. In the torture of refugees.
Media must stop perpetuating the terminology that euphemises torture and masks obscenities. Terms like ‘illegal’, ‘detention’ not prison, ‘transitory persons’ not vulnerable people, ‘border security’ not immigration.
Word by word, a conceptual infrastructure indefinitely detains the National mind.
Xenophobic language that Australia risks being ‘swamped’, ‘invaded,’ the ‘floodgates opened’ have been repeated endlessly for two hundred years to divide communities, score political victories and scare the population into acquiescing with racist, xenophobic and lethal policies throughout our pre and post-Colonial history.
None of them were real, but they were devastatingly effective and culturally corrosive.
Can’t you see the pattern? Please recognise when and why these terms are being used and Australian media, stop using them.
Since September 11 and Tampa when former Prime Minister, John Howard lied about children being thrown overboard, I know you remember it because that lie has deep, divisive consequences that pervade today, subsequent Governments have either fuelled hatred of refugees for political gain or lacked the willingness or ability to respond.
This inhumanity has bled into all aspects of our social and public life and desensitised us to suffering, death, inhumanity.
Did you know that different sections of Manus Island, made to house innocent refugees had military names? Oscar, Delta, Foxtrot and Mike compounds.
Are we at war with basic principles of human decency?
We erased the names of human beings and gave them numbers, a phenomenon pioneered in Nazi extermination camps. The Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp official record says that ‘prisoner numbers (became) a synonym of dehumanization..’
Is this really us, Australia?
One of those numbers, and my friend, is here today.
COA060 fled Iran as a persecuted Kurd and is a poet, singer, songwriter and artist. On Manus Island for six years he was so damaged from infested food, illness and lack of medical care that he would plead for treatment from a privatised system that banks billions in profit to punish the most vulnerable.
One day, after years of pain he wrote another treatment request, this time in blood. Regurgitated involuntarily from his stomach.
We took eight years of his life, for political gain.
His name is Farhad Bandesh.
Thankyou, Farhad. And, sorry, my brother.
The question for the rest of us, is how many times must we say ‘sorry’?
It’ll happen as we pay hundreds of millions more in compensation to refugees in coming years but entire political careers have been constructed from this pain, and they won’t care.
I travelled to Port Moresby several years ago to find a catastrophe of human suffering by companies that have gorged at the public trough.
The free market of pain.
One Queensland, family-run company, ‘Canstruct’ will make $101 million profit on Nauru this year alone. For just 100 refugees. A company that had no staff, no balance sheet and entered no open tender process has been paid around $1.5 billion of our money in the last five years.
Inhumanity pays handsomely.
That family is now on the rich list as the Australian newspaper trumpeted that they were ‘raking in the cash’ on Nauru.
And this is Australia?
Refugees are so rich a political resource they have not yet even been allowed to resettle in New Zealand for over seven years. They’ll enter Australia through the ‘back door’, it is said. The exact same language used by the UK Home Secretary in attempts to keep out Ukrainians fleeing invasion.
Just one of the litany of politicians and Governments around the world trumpeting Australia’s policy as the new model of Nationalism, nativism, xenophobia and racism.
As Australia erects legal and rhetorical walls and cages humans, from France to Holland, Denmark to Hungary the ‘offshoring’ of innocent, persecuted people and building of physical walls are the new, must-have, racist political accessory.
If you don’t want them to come, you should not treat them all that well, which is what the Australians do.. Do we want them to come here? No, we don’t, so what do we do?
Australian solution. (Netherlands)
Ukrainian refugees have been welcomed everywhere in a way those of Yemen, Iraq and Afghanistan were not and racist rhetoric about the ‘compatability’ of ‘white Ukrainians’ perfectly mirrors that of ‘white South African farmers’ in Australia.
Scott Morrison quickly said that Ukrainians ‘will go to the head of the queue.’ That’s another cynical lie used to shape magical notions of legitimacy. There is no ‘queue.’ Only a human lottery and the media must refuse to propogate concepts that so dangerously cloud the judgement of Australians.
Given our involvement in Afghanistan we have a duty to welcome more than just 15,000 Afghans, a number split over three years and taken from the existing intake of just 13,750.
Do you see now how others who have been waiting for years to be part of that number are arbitrarily left out and can have no certainty whatsoever?
Also in the room today are Marwa Moeen and Farhat Kohistani, two courageous young Afghan women who recently settled in Sydney. Farhat is an incredible women’s rights activist and Marwa assisted 15 of her university friends by hiding them in her family house, in a single room for a week while the Taliban hunted door to door and interrogated her father.
I thank Greens Senator Nick McKim, Independent MP Zali Steggall, Immigration Minister Alex Hawke, Foreign Minister, Marise Payne and all Australian Embassy staff in Islamabad, Pakistan for their outstanding work to help these young women and many more including the Afghan Women’s National Football Team, now settled in Melbourne and recovering their lives and careers with Melbourne Victory with the help of Football Victoria.
Each time the Afghan women play will be a globally significant act of defiance for girl’s and women’s rights everywhere. Incredible courage all of them and they represent the true face of asylum seekers and refugees.
For others, seeking safety means limbo in often deplorable conditions lacking basic medical care, safe housing and sanitation with violence, trauma and death all around.
Try telling me that Australians would not flee for a better life by any means. I’d have my family on a boat in a flash. And I’d pay anyone to do it. So would you. As would every politician up the road at Parliament House. And every single media commentator demonising asylum seekers as somehow improper.
So, it’s long past time we rejected simplistic notions of right and wrong ways to flee, of worth and worthlessness, of queues and queue jumpers that pollutes the issue, sustains false narratives and contributes to policy where over 20,000 refugees are currently on Temporary Visas in Australia, often for very extended periods without certainty, many without education, Medicare or any possibility to reunite with their families.
Let’s fix the system, not kill and maim the victims of it.
We now have our own internal ‘refugees’ after bushfires and floods and spent many months locked down for those of us fortunate enough to have a home. Perhaps for the first time we can glimpse the terror of displacement, if not conflict.
Maybe the curbs on our own mobility during Covid and the mental health concomitants might open a small window into detention. But whereas we spent 60, 90, 120 days, those in the Park Hotel with Nojak Djokovic have been imprisoned for over 3,000.
Less than one per cent of refugees are resettled every year and the international system of displacement is so damaged, in part by us, that refugees are forced to flee across borders and seas from conflict that we often are involved in, or our western allies fund and arm.
The more than $10 billion spent on offshore torture since 2013 could have developed an entire regional infrastructure to support displaced people instead of forcing them back to danger against fundamental principles of international law.
But please understand, there are no votes, no political capital in fixing the system but plenty in further persecuting the persecuted and turning the Australian population against a migrant group.
Government after Government, century after century, decade after decade the same pattern repeats.
The only non-lethal answer is to work multilaterally to enhance international cooperation with our global and regional partners, a process in which Australia can barely participate, let alone lead after what we’ve done.
Similarly, in a world of human rights abuse where:
- China commits genocide against ethnic minorities and seeks to redefine human rights
- oil-rich nations criminalise the LGBTI community and suppress women
- Saudi Arabia attacks Yemen armed by the USA
- the ongoing occupation of Palestine
- Narendra Modi’s anti-Muslim Nationalism and
- Vladimir Putin and Xi Xinping attack press freedom, export the surveillance State, jail dissidents and wage war, our own human rights transgressions undermine our capability to be the force for good we can be.
- stop the torture of refugees
- imprisonment of Indigenous children
- disproportionate incarceration of First Nations
- advocate for deserted Australian Julian Assange
- release whistle-blowers
- stop raiding journalists
- increase public accountability and anti-corruption measures
- leave our charity sector be
- provide greater scrutiny of political donations and State capture and
- reverse the National shame of Indigenous disadvantage our credibility on democratic principles and human rights is severely damaged when we should be a world leader as a multicultural nation.
One day, I hope that the Australian Prime Minister will have not a boat but an outstretched hand on her desk to signify support for all in need, for diversity, multiculturalism and anti-racism and the resolve of Australia to let no one suffer, go hungry or without a roof over their head.
An outstretched hand also to our global family to impart our strong sense of equality, the humane treatment of all and solidarity on existential challenges.
Like saving the planet.
Has there ever been a more embarrassing act and by a country that was proudly a founding member of the United Nations than fossil fuel giant, Santos sponsoring Australia’s booth at COP26?
Scott Morrison unveiled a ‘uniquely Australian plan’ to rely on technologies not yet created, tested or proven.
Unique, too true.
Australian? Not this one.
The most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report makes abundantly and frighteningly evident how far behind the world is in responding to the climate emergency and how vital unity and leadership is.
The reality is that as the world heats up and human displacement is forecast to hit unprecedented levels, Australia is at the forefront of delegitimising international principles of human mobility, placing tens of millions of people at risk.
We remain captured by mining, threatened and gaslit about the risks of transition when the evidence of bushfires and floods is of the incalculable human, environmental and intergenerational cost of doing too little.
The industry’s proxies, media and politicians have misled and scared us so successfully that we’re literally drowning in floods, cars floating by schools, millions of hectares of precious bush and billions of animals having perished and wondering what the long-term costs to our kids will be.
But hang on, our taxpayer funds shouldn’t be paying to remediate a problem the fossil fuel industry was aware of decades ago.
Climate justice demands that the largest polluters pay.
Send the damages bill to AGL, Energy Australia, Origin, Woodside, Santos, Rio Tinto, BHP and the mining magnates.
And Rupert Murdoch who platformed climate denialism and misinformation for decades. The editorial shift to support a net zero economy is welcome and long overdue. But incalculable damage is done.
We can start with the more than $10 billion in annual subsidies that underpin the energy model of the past which can retrain the entire mining workforce and invest in renewables that will underpin our children’s future and position this country as a leading contributor in the world.
Andrew Forrest plans to be a world leader in green hydrogen and calls on fellow mining companies to transition to renewables. It’s fantastic. A great Australian renewable energy success story will be something to celebrate and a powerful demonstration that the largest emitters can lead the change.
But last year alone, Fortescue emitted over 2 million tons of greenhouse gases. More than 178 countries. And more than that again, from Scope 3 emissions by its customers.
Tremendously exciting plan Andrew and your voice will be important in holding your own industry of mining and particularly fossil fuel extractors accountable for the state of the planet today.
Transition is one thing, justice another.
Mega fossil fuel extractor and emitter and fellow promoter of climate denialism alongside Clive Palmer, Gina Rinehart now sponsors the Australian Olympic Committee. Particularly apt, given the world’s oceans were at their hottest for the third consecutive year and the North-East coast of Australia has become a pool.
Ironic, though since sport will be directly affected through extreme weather events, the loss of snow, floods and heatwaves but it’s a time-honored tradition for tobacco companies, human rights-abusing States and now fossil fuel to appropriate the social legitimacy and license of sport for an industry seeking to improve its image and avoid accountability.
Whitewash, greenwash, sportwash, it’s all the same.
I’m delighted that our amazing athletes can be remunerated for their brilliance, of course, but no fossil fuel company should play any role in global sport.
The most severe environmental effects will be felt on this island continent and by our Torres Strait, Pacific and South Asian neighbours and not only are we abandoning them to an unliveable future, but we can hardly call on the rest of the world to help as we flood or burn when we refused to join, let alone lead.
“A growing number of G20 developed economies have announced meaningful emissions reductions by 2030 – with a handful of holdouts, such as Australia” said head of the United Nations yesterday.
Antonio is right.
Meaningful action and leadership on climate action, human rights and refugee pathways and resettlement would be a powerful international legacy in the 21st century for a nation that has always taken pride in punching above our weight on the global stage but has turned our gaze inwards, when the world so very badly needs us to look out.
We invaded by boat, now torture people who come by boat and the way we’re headed, our grandchildren might live in boats by this century or the next.
But I believe in a different Australia with the capability, strength and courage to confront the most difficult challenges faced by woman and man kind and as a leading catalyst to both a liveable and humane world.
It all starts here at home.
What you and I accept, becomes Australia. And the local becomes global.
And we Australians are capable of so much more.
Craig Foster AM
 Attorney-General, Alfred Deakin, September, 1901: ‘That end, put in plain and unequivocal terms … means the prohibition of all alien coloured immigration, and more, it means at the earliest time, by reasonable and just means, the deportation or reduction of the number of aliens now in our midst. The two things go hand in hand, and are the necessary complement of a single policy..of securing a ‘white Australia.’ https://www.nma.gov.au/defining-moments/resources/white-australia-policy.
 https://www.internationalaffairs.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/The-end-of-white-Australia-and-Australia-s-changing-perceptions-of-Asia-1945-1990.pdf p175.
 Frits Bolkestein, the former leader of Holland’s centre-right VVD party: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/oct/12/how-europes-far-right-fell-in-love-with-australias-immigration-policy.
 https://rsf.org/en/news/war-ukraine-putin-delivers-final-blow-russias-independent-media; https://rsf.org/en/china.