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Monday, 14 March 2005
Page: 120


Senator TCHEN (9:49 PM) —Twice last week, to my considerable chagrin, I ran out of speaking time on the adjournment. It was of course bad time management on my part. However, as in all things, it is from small setbacks that opportunities to do better come, so instead of having to rush through in two minutes I can now deal with the issue in some comfort. I really should thank Senator Carr for his unexpected show of respect for the standing orders last Wednesday night.

I will recap my topics of those two occasions. On the first one I spoke in commendation of the Australian Arabic Council and its 2004 media award. The AAC, as senators may recall, has its purposes in raising awareness about issues of concerns to the Arabic-Australian community and fostering better recognition of the contributions made by people of Arabic origin to the cultural, economic and social fabric of Australia. One of the vehicles it developed to realise these purposes is an annual media award, drawing attention to the role the media play in shaping public perception and the effects that media stereotyping may have on the forming of a multicultural society.

It is a very proactive and innovative approach—an approach more of our diverse background communities could give consideration to. The award was judged by a panel of distinguished experts in journalism and social sciences. They included the Chair of the Department of Social and Behavioural Sciences at the American University of Beirut, the social affairs editor of the Melbourne Age, a professor of journalism at the University of Technology, Sydney, and Ms Mary Kostakidis, who is not only the public face of SBS’s The World News but a fine professional journalist in her own right.

Nine news reports from the mainstream metropolitan printed media were short-listed. These ranged in content from reports of the Muslim community, in the suburbs of Sydney and elsewhere—and its largely successful efforts to integrate into Australian society and to oppose terrorism—to analyses of Middle East politics and diplomacy affecting Palestinian self-determination, including one by Anthony Loewenstein in the Sydney Morning Herald entitled ‘Defiant Israel blind to what it has become’ and one by Tony Walker in the Financial Review entitled ‘Nice democracy plan, shame about the sponsor’.

Out of this selection, the panel presented the award to Ms Andra Jackson of the Age for an article on Aladdin Sisalem, a Palestinian asylum seeker, then the sole remaining resident of the temporary immigration detention centre on Manus Island. He had landed from a fishing boat on a Torres Strait island more than a year before, after leaving Kuwait two years earlier and travelling through South-East Asia.

I have no issue with Ms Jackson’s ability as a writer and a reporter. She writes well and describes her subject and her story graphically and comprehensively. I have great sympathy for Mr Sisalem, both for his people’s plight—which the world has either forgotten or would prefer to forget—and for his personal plight. I would, as every senator here would, help him to the best of my ability, consistent with Australia’s national interest. I simply find it difficult, and I expect it would be difficult for any open-minded and reasonably unbiased person, to see how an article about a failed asylum seeker—who could be of any cultural or religious background or any ethnicity, not just Arabic—has anything to do with the stated aims of the Australian Arabic Council. I find it difficult to understand how such a subject would better advance the understanding and sharing of the experience of Arabic Australians by their fellow Australians—the understanding that the AAC seeks—when other articles about Arabic and Muslim Australian communities or the perennial disaster of Palestinian displacement could be overlooked.

If the issue that the judging panel thought important and wanted to focus on was that of long-term settlement of refugees, particularly political and civil war displaced refugees, which certainly included the several millions of Palestinian people who had been denied settlement since 1949, then surely they should have considered some articles highlighting lives in refugee camps in Lebanon, Jordan, Kenya or Pakistan. Or perhaps they could have focused on the continuing, though frustratingly slow, international efforts to improve the lives and futures of those refugees. While doing so, they could have acknowledged, perhaps, the excellent contribution Australia has made and continues to make through its offshore humanitarian resettlement program—which, by the way, the mandatory detention policy, introduced with commendable foresight by the Labor government in 1991, is intended to protect and has successfully protected this internationally acknowledged important component of this international effort.

On the second occasion when I ran out of time last week, my topic was the Waverley Softball Association and its Harmony Day program, which gave much needed community support to the Sudanese and Somali communities. These communities make commendable efforts through self-help in their desire for their families, who are still waiting in hope in crowded refugee camps in Africa, to join them.

For the past seven years the humanitarian resettlement program has provided 12,000 places each year for such refugees to come to Australia. This year, the government has increased it to 13,000 places. In the year 2001-02, there were 6,732 new arrivals under this program. A total of 1,598, about 24 per cent, were from Sudan and 552 were from the Horn of Africa countries—the region identified by the UNHCR as most in need of relief. In 2002-03, there were 9,569 arrivals—3,516, or nearly 37 per cent, from Sudan and the Horn of Africa. In 2003-04, there were 10,335 arrivals—5,503, or 53 per cent, from Sudan and the Horn of Africa. Why the increase? Because places in the program previously taken by onshore applicants have been freed up by the government’s careful and steadfast management of problems that the unauthorised arrival of asylum seekers had posed.

Last week 56 refugees from East Africa arrived in Australia, the first contingent of a group of 336 that Australia is taking at the request of the UNHCR, because they are in acute need of resettlement. There are 336 human stories to be told here, and I suspect none would make the grade. Ms Jackson, of course, has gone on to greater scoops in the regrettable story of Cornelia Rau—an important contribution, I acknowledge, to investigative journalism. But, again, it seems to me that she ignored the real issues that underlie the sad commentary of our society: our society’s apathy about and neglect of mental health. I take this chance to commend the member for Gilmore, Mrs Joanna Gash, who moved a private member’s bill in the other chamber today on the need for urgent community action on mental health.

Lest it be thought that I dislike Ms Jackson, nothing could be further from the truth. I had never met her before briefly congratulating her on her win at the AAC function, nor had I been conscious of her writings before. But, as I said previously, I think of her as a fine writer and obviously a very capable reporter. The problem is with the judging panel, which lost sight of the object of the award and the purpose of the organisation which hosted the award, not with Ms Jackson.

In fact, the real problem is not even the panel of judges but our media culture and the values of that culture which our AAC panel of experts presumably believed that they must adhere to. I read a few weeks that Hunter S Thompson—the so-called king of gonzo journalism—had died, his passing treated to some well-moderated lamentation. I understand Thompson’s school of gonzo journalism means commentary reporting that masks character assassination with sarcasm, the lowest form of wit. It seems to me that the media culture that Ms Jackson and the AAC panel of experts pay obeisance to is less harmful than that. It is more akin to the Spike Milligan ‘Never mind the quality, feel the width!’ school of journalism. How else could they have missed the mark of what makes a news story important?