When an informed public has had enough: Public protests and policy persuasion

The Power to Persuade blog tackles policy change from many angles. In today’s post, Ina Mullin, Communications Specialist with Good Shepherd Australia New Zealand, tracks the change in public perception on the government’s asylum seeker policies which has culminated in the high-profile #LetThemStay campaign.


What have we learned from the Royal Commissions into Stolen Generations and Institutional Abuse? It seems that in Australia, the more our government is faced with our past disregard for justice, the more we learn to conceal our current failures. But it is heartening to see the public outcry over the past two weeks as the high court has upheld the legality of indefinite detention for asylum seekers, which has put nearly 300 people at risk of deportation to Nauru and Manus, including 37 Australian-born children.

The Australian government is throwing the full weight of the law behind its policy of offshore detention. Journalists are denied visasdoctors and teachers are threatened with jail time, and charity care providers who speak out on appalling conditions are removed. And yet news of the injustices manage to reach the public – including the death of Reza Berati on Manus; refugee children sexually assaulted on Nauru while on Australian Temporary Protection Visas with no legal repercussions or even removal of their perpetrators; women who have been granted refugee status and living ‘freely’ on Nauru who are vulnerable to harassment, physical and sexual abuse.

The accumulation of these revelations, culminating in the high court ruling, is sparking questions about the official narrative around detention centres.  Australians are beginning to question the moral acceptance of indefinite detention over its legal approval. How can we comprehend what it is like to live in detention indefinitely after committing no crime? Worse still, to flee atrocities and end up being thrown into the nightmare of Australia’s detention centres? And what must it be like to know your child has no future, witnessing only human suffering forced upon them by their protectors with no end point in sight?

Abyan’s horrific story of rape and the inhumane bureaucratic response helped to turn the tide as the cruelty of the situation became apparentHer story is corroborated by the voices of doctors who are undeterred by threats of incarceration and High Court rulings, and the courageous children on Nauru who go to extraordinary lengths to communicate with the world, despite the obstacles forced upon them.

These past two weeks of protests and demonstrations of compassion by Australians have shown that the relentless calls by humanitarians such as Julian Burnside AO QC and Professor Gilian Triggs, along with reports from the Australian Human Rights Commission and the UN, do not go unheeded. The nation is calling for leadership on this issue, but the two major parties with an uncharacteristically unified voice remain reluctant to change.

Australians are ready for our politicians to take responsibility for our actions, to acknowledge the humanity of those seeking our protection and to end mandatory detention. We should strive to achieve accountability in processing with enhanced systems for speedy processing. Genuine refugees must be offered compassion and a place in our community. They must be provided education, employment and shelter. They must be offered the right we all deserve, to live freely and with full legal rights. Tax payer-funded blow-outs on private detention contracts would be better directed towards creating positive outcomes and opportunities for refugees through not-for-profit organisations who are already equipped and experienced to assist.

The #LetThemStay protests are adding critical momentum to the policy debate. Appealing to Australians’ humanity and moral obligation may prove to be the critical leverage point in ensuring asylum seekers receive justice.