A few years ago, my close friend (the lion-hearted theatre artist and burlesque darling Frankie Vandellous) decided to move to Australia. This has generally sucked for me, because she’s great and I miss her. There are, however, two ways in which Frankie’s move has been beneficial:
- Frankie has done some really cool things down under, and that’s awesome.
- Through the power of Facebook, and Frankie’s involvement and activism, I have become more aware of the political situation in Australia (and Queensland) and though it’s not altogether pleasant, I suppose I’m glad I no longer cling to an old romantic illusion that Australia is some laid-back, kangaroo-filled utopia where the biggest problems are hot weather, too many rabbits, and massive spiders. The more you know.
So what is going down in Australia? A lot of things.
Most worrying to me, the human rights of various groups are currently being ignored or otherwise abused at various levels of Australian government. If you are an immigrant to Australia currently being held in one of Australia’s (or “third country processing”) immigration detention centres, for example, you can expect the following:
- If you are a woman who has a miscarriage, you can expect to be told to “not to expect a lot” in the way of medical treatment.
- If you are an infant born to a woman who is in a detention centre, you can expect to be assigned a number based on the boat you arrived in, rather than receive any official documentation acknowledging your birth (according to a breaking post on the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre Facebook page).
- If you are an innocent child unlucky enough to have arrived in Australia as an asylum-seeker, you can expect to be indefinitely detained with your family in cramped quarters vulnerable to extreme temperatures (it’s really hot in Australia) lacking adequate sanitation and access to education and medical care. Or, if you’re one of the really unlucky kids whose parents sent you to Australia on your own, you might be held in a detention centre by yourself with no parents or guardians whatsoever. How many kids are being held in closed immigration detention centres? 1,045, according to the Australian Human Rights Commission.
It’s hard to find concrete information on the conditions in the detention centres (so it’s hard to know for sure what’s going on), but there are certainly a lot of unsavoury reports circulating: children playing in the heat and dirt with little access to toys, books, or education; inmates spending the majority of their days crowding together under awnings because it’s too hot to be indoors (no A/C presumably) and there’s barely any shade elsewhere; menstruating women being forced to ask guards for tampons and pads and receiving only one or two at a time (the Australian Government denies this one but the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre says it has been receiving “reports of this nature for some time” so I’m not really sure what is true); asylum seekers becoming addicted to painkillers and sleeping pills while in detention, etc. All in all it doesn’t paint a pretty picture.
And it’s not just immigrants and asylum seekers finding their rights trampled these days. If you’re an Australian citizen who also happens to be gay, you were probably pretty disappointed when Australia’s High Court overturned recent legislation passed by the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) allowing same sex couples to marry after an appeal by the Australian federal government (for their part, the court passes no moral judgement on whether or not same sex couples should be allowed to marry but says that marriage law in Australia can only be changed by the federal government, and the feds don’t seem too keen on making any changes).
In some parts of Australia, lack of marriage equality may only be the tip of the homophobic iceberg–if you’re a gay person in South Australia, New South Wales, or Queensland, you’ll need to be careful who you hit on. “Gay panic” defense laws in these Australian states allow the receiver of your flirtations to murder you in “self-defense” (apparently because the terror caused by being hit on by a gay person could send your murderer into such a panic he/she forgets that murdering people is an extremely inappropriate response).
Immigrants and the queer community aside, Australia is still a good place for the average hetero-normative citizen to hang out and kick back with their buds, right? Well….not if you live in Queensland, like riding motorcycles, and like hanging out with other people who like riding motorcycles. The state’s new “anti-bikie” laws can now prosecute citizens for “association” with groups considered to be criminal (whether you personally have done anything illegal or not). Suspected “associates” arrested under these new laws will be held in solitary confinement in a specially-built prison (so they can’t “associate” I guess). You can read about the laws on the Queensland Government website if you like (particularly bewildering is the new act banning gang members and “associates” from owning or working in tattoo parlours). On the surface, trying to target biker gangs might seem like a good idea, but the laws are far too broad. How would you feel if your Elks Club was disbanded because a few top-ranking members were involved in criminal activity? Or if you were arrested for being an “associate” on the basis of your membership in the aforementioned criminal Elks Club?
I’m not trying to hate on Australia. I’ve always loved the idea of Australia and I’ve always wanted to go there. Nearly every Australian I’ve met has been friendly and lovely. Which makes these kinds of news stories incredibly disappointing, and makes me wonder if my tourism dollars might be better spent elsewhere (now I know how people in other countries must be feeling about Canada nowadays).
All this is to say that we should never rest on our laurels and assume we in the English-speaking world have our shit together when it comes to human rights. We don’t. And we shouldn’t assume the United States is the only “western” country where homophobic or xenophobic laws trample on rights. It isn’t. And we shouldn’t assume that we in Canada could never stoop to these lows. Unfortunately, we can, and will, if we don’t stay informed and stay active in our democracy.
On that note, I should give Australia its due and mention that the only reason I even know about these issues is because in addition to bigoted governments, Australia also seems to have a lot of citizens willing to stand against these unjust laws and policies through social media, petitions, and other traditional and/or creative protests. So there’s a lot of bad shit going down in Australia, it’s true, but there’s a lot of good shit too.