Asylum Seeker Policy and Christian Nonviolent Civil Disobedience

Yesterday (Friday, March 21, 2014), a couple of my good friends were arrested in (Minister for Immigration and Border Protection) Scott Morrison’s electoral office.

As people of deep Christian faith, they held a prayer vigil in Mr Morrison’s office (as an act of nonviolent civil disobedience), praying for asylum seekers (and asylum seeker policy), and for Scott Morrison personally. When asked to leave, a number of them (peacefully and politely) refused and were subsequently removed by police officers. You can read about the action in this SBS article, or in this article from the Bible Society. Greg Lake (former Australian Immigration Officer and whistleblower) wrote an excellent blog post about the action that you can find here.

I wonder how you feel about it all.

I make no claim to speak on behalf of the group—I was not involved in the action on the day, and have not been appointed as spokesperson—but I wanted to offer a couple of reflections on what happened on Friday.

Firstly, I’ve noticed a little bit of commentary emerging asking the question as to why these protesters popped up now and not while Labor was in government.

The truth is that they didn’t just ‘pop up out of nowhere’; they’ve just not gained as much attention until now.

I know a number of people in the group very well, and I know for certain both that they opposed Labor’s harsh policy measures towards asylum seekers while Labor was in government, and that the plans for nonviolent direct action began well before the 2013 federal election. In regards to the first point, these people have been perfectly consistent in opposing bad asylum seeker policy from both major parties. They do not have a chip on their shoulder against the Coalition specifically (or Mr Abbott or Mr Morrison personally), but have consistently opposed dehumanising policy no matter from where it emerges. In regards to the second point, I know that planning for nonviolent direct action on this issue was in process well before the election because I was personally present at meetings where it was discussed. (As just one example, a group of us ran an information evening [‘From Despair to Action’] at Paddington Uniting Church in April, 2013, discussing many possible responses to attempt to fight against the ever-growing despair about asylum seeker policy, including a discussion of NVDA possibilities.) Though it could very well be argued that asylum seeker policy has hit its lowest point ever as a result of the 2013 election, it has been suggested that nonviolent direct action on this issue has been justifiable for quite some time now.

The line being run here (that they must be partisan hacks who fail all measures of consistency) is simply not true.

Secondly, I wanted to note that the action, at its core, was intended to be redemptive.

The action, from the outset, was specifically (and stringently) nonviolent , and the pray-ers/protesters were not only praying for vulnerable people caught in these harsh policy measures, but they also prayed for Scott Morrison himself. This was not done in a condemning or judgmental way, but as Christians praying for one of their elected leaders as well as praying for the redemption of their brother. Scott Morrison has consistently spoken of his Christian faith (including in an extraordinary maiden speech in parliament), and these pray-ers were praying for him too. The dehumanisation of others has the effect of dehumanising us all, and Scott Morrison is directly responsible for the dehumanising policy on this issue. As I have previously suggested, nonviolent action in this area must include a redemptive focus on Scott Morrison himself, and this action certainly included that idea as a central element.

Thirdly (and finally), I wanted to speak about the ‘success’ (or otherwise) of the action.

It is too early to tell how ‘successful’ the action has been. There has already been a few predictably negative reactions, but I have been pleasantly surprised at some of the favourable endorsement/soft endorsement of the action.

In regards to any action regarding asylum seeker policy, I guess the true measure of ‘success’ is as to whether or not it changes things for the better for the people caught up in the harsh, dehumanising measures. (This must be the goal, rather than media attention for the sake of media attention—or, worse, for nothing more than the self-seeking promotion of people involved.)

This could either be direct change (as in, making life better for asylum seekers through direct contact and/or direct measures), or indirect change (through ‘changing the conversation’ or helping move attitudes towards a more compassionate place, which ultimately leads to better treatment of asylum seekers in a ‘direct’ sense).

Obviously, the aim of Friday’s action is the latter.

As I noted above, it’s too early to tell what the outcomes will be, but there are some good early indicators that it has been reasonably well received in many quarters. This was the first act of civil disobedience on asylum seeker policy in Australia in a long time, and it has made its point in a firm but gentle way. There was no violence. There were no angry people yelling and screaming. There was no personal condemnation of Scott Morrison. In addition to this, the people involved have been consistently seeking to keep attention very much on the issue, rather than themselves.

It’s also important to note that the strategy of nonviolent action is not to convince everyone of the position. The aim is to shine a light on an unjust situation (allowing people to see the crisis for what it is, perhaps for the first time) and, hopefully, to move people from where they are to being a little bit closer to a more just position. Some people will never be convinced but, again hopefully, the majority of people of good will can recognise injustice when it is in front of them and adjust their own position, perhaps only slightly, to a more compassionate one.

Single actions on their own cannot really do this is full, but many small actions might, over time, work towards achieving this goal.

The action may have ‘succeeded’, then, at one level, simply by making space for many conversations this week about how best to resist the evil that is our current asylum seeker policy while not dehumanising those responsible for the (dehumanising) policy. There are moral and strategic questions that need to be discussed in order for change to happen, and at least some space for those conversations to happen has been created due to the action of those on Friday. Interestingly, there have been at least a few reasonably positive affirmations from people who have not previously been in the ‘NVDA camp’.

Finally, in regards to the issue of the ‘success’ of the action, I’m reminded by one of my mentors in the spirituality and practice of nonviolence that

We are called upon not to be successful, but to be faithful.*

This in no way undercuts the fact that strategy and outcomes need to be very carefully considered, but it is good to hold the two in firm tension.

Perhaps this action has opened up (even in a small way) the possibility for more people to see that something must be done, that ‘regular’ people can do something, and that Christians (I believe) have a significant responsibility to stand alongside the vulnerable in our world. Perhaps it will ignite many more small movements towards shining a light on the current dehumanising policy and inspire creative acts of justice and human kindness towards vulnerable people. Perhaps these small movements, over time, can see policy change for the better.

This, at least, is my prayer.

If you have been inspired by this action and are wondering how you might get involved, I list just two of many opportunities here:

1) If you are interested in Christian nonviolent direct action, there is an opportunity on Easter Saturday (2014) to join with other Christians and people of goodwill for a peaceful prayer vigil outside Villawood Detention Centre (in Sydney), which will include an ‘act of prophetic witness’ which may include civil disobedience (though you certainly don’t need to be involved in the civil disobedience part to nevertheless join with the peaceful prayer vigil). You can find the details here. ***Update: Due to developments concerning the Villawood Detention Centre, it has been decided that this action will not go ahead as planned. Please see the link for more information.***

2) If you are interested in getting involved ‘directly’ with making life better for asylum seekers and refugees in Australia, see the wonderful work of Welcome to Australia. For churches, see the Welcome to My Place for Dinner website for how this might look for a church or for individual Christians during Refugee Week 2014.

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* Often attributed to Mother Teresa.

How to Vote at the Federal Election(???)

We Aussies are now in the midst of a federal election campaign. The date has been set, the arrangements are being made, and pretty much all hell is breaking loose as our politicians seek to overwhelm us  with trite slogans, empty promises, and the nauseating machinations of party politics.

vote

I’ve been wanting to write about what’s been going on in Australian politics for a while now but, to be perfectly honest, it’s all been doing my head in a little bit.

The extraordinary last three-and-a-bit years of Australian politics has been (extraordinarily!) capped off by the events of Ruddivivus (that is, former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd becoming, well, plain old ‘Prime Minister Rudd’ once again), and what was looking like a landslide victory for the Coalition has become a proper contest once more. Somehow, the incumbent Prime Minister has been able to position himself as the underdog challenger(!), while the Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, has had to reframe his own position (due to the fact that Kevin Rudd basically took many of Mr Abbott’s key policy positions swiftly out from underneath him) as the guy who can do what the Prime Minister says he is going to do, only better (all without giving those pesky details about how he is going to pay for it).

It’s all a bit bizarre!

It’s also very disheartening.

This has not been good news in a number of policy areas, perhaps most significantly in the area of asylum seeker policy. The last dozen-or-so years has been really nasty when it comes to asylum seeker policy, and both major parties are now seemingly vying for the most soul-destroying ‘solutions’ their twisted minds can conceive. It’s truly horrible.

I know many people who are totally disillusioned by it all, and who are having a very hard time trying to work out if they will vote, let alone how to vote.

While I am not going to try to tell people who to vote for here (and don’t recommend listening to anyone who does tell you who to vote for), I do want to offer a couple of thoughts that might be helpful to keep in mind as we move forward in this election campaign and edge towards voting day.

1) As a Christian, I must remember that none—not one!—of the parties or candidates on offer represents the fulness of my belief system and the hope to which I hold.

It’s so easy for us Christians to divide ourselves along the familiar lines of ‘right’ and ‘left’, ‘conservative’ and ‘progressive/liberal, and forget that the Christian message of hope stands quite distinct from any particular party platform. As someone who more naturally identifies with the [libertarian-]left of politics, it’s quite easy for me, in the face of what looks like a win for the ‘right’ of politics either way(…), to become wrapped up in the ridiculous notion all the problems in the world would fade away if only a true left–of-centre party was elected. For my friends who more naturally identify with ‘economic-rationalist’ approaches to fiscal policy (and the parties that embody such ideas), it’s easy for them to be convinced that, if only we had a Government that could essentially get out of the way and ‘free’ companies from all that pesky regulation (and responsibility), ‘the economy’ would be transformed and wealth (and therefore happiness) would trickle down to all and create a rising tide of prosperity and rainbows and unicorns and…

Ok, that’s a cheap shot, but you get the idea!

And, of course, it’s all nonsense.

No party is going to magically fix everything that’s wrong with our beautiful-yet-corrupted nation (let alone the world). No merely political movement is going to heal human hearts and end the greed and fear and hate that divides us. No politician is able to ‘save us’ from…ourselves.

As such, when (or, indeed, if) I vote, I need to remember that I am taking part in something that allows me to have my voice heard in the way I think the country could best be run, which is great and all, but it’s not everything. Most of all, no matter what happens on election day, I need to remember that I, as a Christian, am called to embody the hope to which I hold, demonstrating an alternative way of being human through transformative love and grace. To read more on this idea, see my friend Matt’s excellent post here.

And this leads me to my second point (which needs to keep this first point in mind as a kind of context for what I will say next).

2) Taking part in the political process is, nevertheless, an important responsibility.

The first part of this point, as I see it, is that we Australians are privileged to live in a nation where we get to vote, and indeed where our elected representatives are required to meet with their constituents. I have been very fortunate to be able to meet with the federal member for the electorate I live in numerous times over the past five years and, though he and I certainly don’t see eye to eye on certain (well, perhaps ‘most’) issues, he nevertheless takes the time to meet with me and groups that I’m a part of and does actually listen (to some degree) to what we have to say. Compared with so many places around the world, we in Australia are privileged to live in a country where we have such direct access to the political system. As much as the system can still be very frustrating sometimes (and, as I noted in the first point, certainly isn’t the answer to all life’s problems), it is still a relatively good one. It’s certainly not perfect, but it’s not bad by world standards.

As such, I’m of the opinion that we, as Australians, should not take it all for granted. We should at least have some idea of how it all works, as well as some idea of which party stands for what. So many people I speak to simply don’t understand how our political system works, and vote for a given party for reasons that have little to do with the party’s actual policy platform. We should know where parties stand on the big issues that effect us as a nation (and, of course, the rest of the world…), and we should take the time to work out which parties best reflect (in the limited way they can) the things that we each consider to be important. We should seek to understand the parties as a whole (not just the individuals who represent them), and we should also look into how each party distributes preferences in elections.

‘Vote Compass’ is a tool recently developed to help people figure out where they most naturally ‘fit’ in the Australian political landscape, and can be found on the ABC website. It’s not a perfect tool, to be sure, and it’s not designed to tell you who you should vote for, but it does use your own answers to important questions to help you figure out just how closely you stand to each of the major parties. I would recommend at least giving it a go.

The second part of this point, as I see it, is the question of whether or not to vote in the first place. There has been a lot of discussion lately from people I interact with on social media suggesting that they are considering not voting at all, or are going to sabotage their own vote by either casting a ‘donkey’ vote on election day or, more likely, leaving the ballot paper completely empty. Of course, in Australia, those who do refuse to vote face the prospect of a fine, because voting is compulsory for all Australians over 18 (and I know my North American friends find this amazing!).

In the light of recent policy decisions, I have actually considered refraining from voting at all, and accepting the fine that necessarily follows, as an act of civil disobedience. The trends in asylum seeker policy, for example, have so disgusted me that I have felt, at times, that I am not able to take part in the system that is used to legitimate the ‘mandate’ those elected feel to pursue such dehumanising policy.

I am a fan of nonviolent action, and I am a fan of (well thought-out) civil disobedience, to make a clear point. Though a couple of people not voting is not likely to have much of an impact, I don’t underestimate the point that could be made if enough people were to refuse to enter polling places and instead came together in peaceful demonstrations against such policy, or even, perhaps, holding open events of welcome for all who make up this wonderfully diverse bunch we call ‘Australians’.

From my comments here, I can see at least a couple of responses.

Someone might suggest to me that I have here completely contradicted myself in the space of one blog post. Earlier in the post I described how we shouldn’t take for granted the ability to be part of the political process in our country, and thus suggesting the possibility that I might refrain from voting altogether would be ridiculous. To this, I would suggest that, though I am reasonable ‘happy’ with the political system I find myself in (at least comparatively), I am under no illusions that it is perfect. There are times when the system itself needs to be challenged, because there are times when taking part in the system as it is amounts to complicity in what I consider to be ‘evil’. With both major parties (that is, the only parties who will actually form Government after the election) pursuing horrific, dehumanising policies in regards to asylum seekers, I have entertained the possibility that it would be better, on this occasion, to break the law, in order to highlight what I consider to be unjust, inhumane policy. If I were to take this course of action, I would be happy to accept responsibility for my action and face the consequences. For me, it may actually be worthwhile, on this occasion, to stand outside the system in order to highlight the brokenness of the system as it is. It would, however, need to be done in the right way, and this brings me to the second point.

Someone (else?) might suggest that my apparent idealism here is totally outweighed by my pragmatism. Will I only take part in the dissident action of deliberately refraining from voting if enough people do it with me, rather than just doing it because it’s the right thing to do? In some senses, the answer is, quite simply, yes. I despise ‘stupid’ protest, which is why I think the idea of casting a ‘donkey’ vote is ridiculous. Going through all the effort of looking like you are voting, only to waste that vote on technical details, is, I think, pretty dumb. It doesn’t actually do much. Likewise, leaving the ballot paper empty is, to my mind, a way of seeking to make a protest without having to face up to the consequences. I am of the opinion that I always need to be able to take responsibility for my actions, so the thought of this kind of anonymous protest, for me, seems like a bit of a cop-out.

In addition to this, if only a handful of people were to refuse altogether to enter polling places and, rather, stood outside with placards (or whatever) protesting asylum seeker policy, I can’t see how the message would cut through. Instead, I think the more likely outcome would simply be that those who care about asylum seekers would be the only ones to refrain from voting (leaving their important voice relatively unheard), and the major parties would still consider their victory to be a ‘mandate’ for such cruel policy. For me, it would be far better, in this instance, to use my vote to place a minor party first on the ballot paper, and then allocate my preferences according to the major party that is least worst over a range of policy issues. At least this option could see the minor parties’ vote increase (which the major parties take more seriously than they let on), at the same time as recognising the fact that parties represent more than just this one issue (no matter how important I consider it to be). At this point in time, this is my default option, unless someone can show me how we would be able to rally enough people together who had chosen to refrain from voting as a form of protest.* I’m guessing we’d need to have somewhere over 100,000 people take part in such action for it to be taken seriously. If you have any ideas, please let me know : )

Anyway, these are just a couple of my thoughts as we head into the election. I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments on the matter.

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* I need to make it clear here that I am not (at least at this stage) encouraging anyone to either completely refrain from voting in the federal election, or to lodge an ‘informal’ vote (of whatever kind). It has been said that to do so is an offence, though I cannot (at this point) find information relating to such action in the Commonwealth Electoral Act.