These are the voices of Australia’s conscience. Do we have the courage to listen to them?
In December last year, an inmate on Manus Island penned a letter to the Australian people. ‘Our resistance was an epic of love’, wrote Behrouz Boochani, as forces gathered to evict he and his fellow inmates from the compound that had been their home for so many months.
Refugees on Manus Island had been taking part in a hunger strike, peacefully resisting their eviction from the camp after it was ordered to be shut down. They feared being forgotten, left without resources among a community increasingly hostile to their presence. All they wanted was a safe home.
‘The detention regime wanted to manufacture a particular kind of refugee with a particular kind of response’, he said in his letter, published in The Saturday Paper. ‘However, refugees were able to regain their identity, regain their rights, regain their dignity.’
He continues with a poem (below):
‘The refugees have been resisting with their very lives.?
Against the real politics of the day. ?
With their very bodies.?
With peace as a way of being and as an expression.?
With a rejection of violence. ?
With a kind of political poetics. ?
With a particular style of poetic resistance.?
These features have become one with their existence.?
Refugees pushed back.?
Risking their lives and bodies.?
Just fragile humans risking everything.?
Risking everything that is beautiful.?
Risking the only things of value left to them.?
Risking what nature had bestowed upon them.’
Boochani said that what is happening on Manus Island (and Nauru) should be a wake-up call for Australians’ ‘illusions of moral superiority’.
‘Our resistance is the spirit that haunts Australia’, he said. ‘Our resistance is a new manifesto for humanity and love.
‘It has stolen my childhood’
Also in December, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Abuse released its final report. More than a third of testimonies received by the commission were related to abuse allegations in Catholic institutions – a damning account of the impact and failure of the Church’s response to abuse over many decades.
Victims have been finally able to tell their stories to the commission, and the report included many of their testimonies. It also provided each of the victims a chance to send a ‘message to Australia’.
More than 1000 messages were published on the site. Anger and despair, as well as courage and hope, were on display:
‘Too often those entrusted with the care of children have covered up these crimes through secrecy and intimidation, to protect institutional reputation. Such practices are abhorrent to any who value dignity and compassion.’
‘In 1978 a little boy started CRYING… In 2014, he still is.’
‘I will not let your abuse of power and control take any more from me and my ability to hold on to life, to have hope and to speak out for other survivors.’
‘There is one thing the Catholic Church cannot fix. It has stolen my childhood.’
‘The Royal Commission has given voice to an eight-year-old girl from so long ago… The world needs to know that evil and depravity did exist within religion, and many children were silenced by that religion.’
‘The most important message I want to send to all Australians is, “Love your children; take the time to listen to them; protect their innocence”. If as a nation we were to make our children our top priority, perhaps what happened to me and to countless other children could have been avoided.’
‘This is the torment of our powerlessness’
In May last year, another group came together to craft a message for all Australians. More than 250 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders met on the lands of the Anangu in Central Australia, with a majority putting together the ‘Uluru Statement from the Heart’.
The statement was a call for justice and recognition, for a voice in the nation’s future. More than anything, it was a declaration of sovereignty – for a people who had possessed the land under their own laws and customs for more than 60,000 years.
‘Proportionally, we are the most incarcerated people on the planet’, the statement read. ‘We are not an innately criminal people. Our children are alienated from their families at unprecedented rates. This cannot be because we have no love for them. And our youth languish in detention in obscene numbers. They should be our hope for the future.
‘These dimensions of our crisis tell plainly the structural nature of our problem. This is the torment of our powerlessness.’
The sovereignty of these people ‘has never been ceded or extinguished, and co-exists with the sovereignty of the Crown’, said the statement. It called for a First Nations Voice to be enshrined in Australia’s constitutions, for an agreement to be made between governments and First Nations, and truth-telling about the country’s history.
‘When we have power over our destiny our children will flourish. They will walk in two worlds and their culture will be a gift to their country.’
Stirring Australia’s conscience
These are just a sampling of the voices of those on the margins in Australia. While these have had the opportunity to share their struggles and hopes, many others await that same chance.
It takes courage to be a person of conscience. It can often mean going against the flow, and treading new ground. Being a country or institution of conscience is no different.
Yet to be true to our values, we cannot ignore the voices from the margins. As Boochani says, they are the spirits that haunt Australia.
They are the people who challenge the values that we espouse as a nation, and as institutions like the Catholic Church – values such as compassion, dignity and justice.
Are they just words, or are they something that we are willing to make sacrifices to uphold? These voices continue to pose that question.