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Exclusive interview with author, Thomas Kenea -

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EMMA ALBERICI, PRESENTER: Over the past 40 years, there's been a seismic shift in the attitudes of Australians towards asylum seekers. Researchers have found that we were much happier to accept Vietnamese boatpeople in the '70s than we are to welcome modern-day arrivals. In a new book called A Country Too Far - Writings on Asylum Seekers, 28 of this country's best writers have come together to tell often personal stories about those who've fled hardship in the hope of a better life in Australia. They want to help change the nature of the debate by humanising the faces of this international crisis.

Tom Keneally is one of the authors of the book and he's also co-editor. He's no stranger to the subject of people trying to flee persecution. He won worldwide acclaim and the Man Booker Prize for Schindler's Ark, which was later made into a Hollywood blockbuster, Schindler's List. Tom Keneally joined me here in the studio.

Tom Keneally, a warm welcome to Lateline.


EMMA ALBERICI: Now you've said you want to bring a different perspective and depth to the public debate around asylum seekers. Different to what?

TOM KENEALLY: Well, different from the polemic and different from objectifying them. That's why we want to get creative writers, because you know the old rhyme, "My mother said you never should play with the gypsies in the wood"? Well all the politicians are telling us not to play with the gypsies in the wood. They're illegals by some means - I didn't know - I didn't know the Immigration Act had been changed to make 'em illegals. So they're the gypsies in the woods and writers are the sort of disobedient children who always try to imagine what it's like to be the people on the margin of the garden, the people looking in. And of course we're very flawed people, writers, but it is our job description to try to imagine what it is to be an outsider, to be turned into an invader instead of a fleer from a catastrophe, to be turned into a criminal when you're not. That's the sort of thing writers always like to write about.

EMMA ALBERICI: Sociologists have studied the changing perceptions of asylum seekers dating back to the '70s, and back then, 60 per cent of Australians wanted to let in at least some refugees arriving by boat. By 2001, the statistics had changed dramatically and 77 per cent were supporting John Howard's push to refuse entry to the Tampa and 71 per cent thought boat arrivals should be detained until processed. What do you think has brought about that change of attitude?

TOM KENEALLY: Well, I think certainly the introduction into the debate of pejorative words, of insults. You know, it is - under the immigration - the Australian immigration law, it's not illegal to seek asylum and yet we have a Immigration minister arguing and ordering his department that boat arrivals should be treated as illegals - should we called illegals, should not be called clients. And similar verbal abuse has been used, and I think most of us can't understand why there has to be such verbal abuse. We know there's a problem and 1,000 people drowned at sea is a terrible tragedy, particularly since many of them are the old, women and children. But we wonder at the same time as trying to work out how to deal with this worldwide crisis why they have to be insulted. The Italians have held memorial services for the largely Eritrean immigrants who were drowned off their shores near Lampedusa a few weeks ago, and it's unimaginable, given the rhetoric, that we should do the same thing here. And, you know, we wish we could because - and we do it - try to do it through this book. It's not an ordinary Australian's fault that they believe in this rhetoric because it's rhetoric that shouldn't have been ever uttered by civilised politicians.

EMMA ALBERICI: The book talks about wanting to dispel lies being perpetuated about asylum seekers. What sorts of lies?

TOM KENEALLY: Oh, the fact that they're illegals, the fact that they're queue jumpers, the fact that boat arrivals irrationally get treated with far more detention, far more severely than plane arrivals. The fact that Australia is being uniquely swamped by these people. In fact in 2011, Italy got more people from North Africa, boat people, in a week than we did in that whole second half of 2011, and we're spending a great fortune in serving our stirred-up feelings that they must be locked away, they're an explosive quantity, they're illegal, etc. So, not only are we indulging an ethnic hysteria fantasy, we're spending part of the inheritance of our children in doing it.

EMMA ALBERICI: You claim categorically in the book that Labor and Coalition government policies to deter asylum seekers, sending them to Manus Island and Nauru and so on, won't work, so how do you explain the fact that there were virtually no boat arrivals in those last few years of the Howard Government?

TOM KENEALLY: Well, that's right because we tipped the pressure back on Indonesia and let them accumulate the asylum seekers.

EMMA ALBERICI: At least they weren't dying at sea.

TOM KENEALLY: They weren't dying at sea. There are two things I think refugees look for. One is safety, and they get that by getting to Malaysia or Indonesia. But beyond safety, you want dignity, you want the chance to work, you want a future and you want to be safe from the depredations of the kind that the Indonesians and the Malaysians impose on them because the Indonesians and Malaysians haven't signed the protocol, the agreement on the status of refugees. And therefore, inevitably, people at least feel in limbo, if not ultimately feel threatened in those places. And, therefore, they will inevitably seek dignity and a resolution beyond that place. So obviously, as after World War I, with the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation agency, which looked after the resettlement of the displaced persons, and did so very promptly, solved the problem in a few years, we need an international effort, not ...

EMMA ALBERICI: In the meantime - you talk about the fact that there are more than 40 million displaced persons right now in the world. I mean, Australia does have a generous humanitarian refugee program. We punch above our weight in terms of the numbers we take. What more are you suggesting the Australian Government should be doing?

TOM KENEALLY: Well, I think that even though - I don't think we argue this in the book, I think that's another myth. We punch below our weight.

EMMA ALBERICI: I think as a proportion of the population, we take our fair share.

TOM KENEALLY: Hang on ...

EMMA ALBERICI: So is that the argument: increasing the humanitarian intake?

TOM KENEALLY: That would be a partial solution on our part, in doing our part in this world problem. That would be a partial solution.

EMMA ALBERICI: So you also point out, particularly in your chapter in the book, that many Vietnamese people arrived by boat in the '70s without inducing the hysteria. What's different now?

TOM KENEALLY: Oh, it is entirely that there's no bipartisan approach, and maybe one of the answers that some people argue in favour of is to produce - put in place an independent agency who deals with this issue. Take it out of the direct political sphere, make it a statutory body and depoliticise, get back to bipartisan support of immigration policy, because if we hadn't had that in the Vietnam era, Fraser could have played the race card and if we - could have depicted the Vietnamese boat people as illegals and he chose not to. Similarly, there were other great gestures of generosity like Hawkey saying in Parliament, "We're going to give residency to any of the 43,000 Chinese students who want it," and all that happened without detention. It's not exactly the same case; I'm not arguing it is, but that was able to happen without detention, without name-calling, without any of the indignities to which people are obviously subjected now.

EMMA ALBERICI: You talk about having a bipartisan approach. Isn't that exactly what we have now? They're outdoing each other in terms of who can be tougher on refugees?

TOM KENEALLY: Well, that's true! We're talking about the good, old days when both parties supported the Government's immigration policy, flaws and all, and did not try to outdo each other in hysteria. If - when I was a kid, polls in the papers, with all due respect to your robust Italian ancestry, were very much against Greek and Italian immigration. And ...

EMMA ALBERICI: My parents were economic migrants.

TOM KENEALLY: Which is a terrible thing to be, obviously, according to some ministers. But, in any case, had we not had bipartisan support for the necessity of immigration, we would not have had that wonderful input of Greek and Italian or Polish or people from the Baltic states or Czech or German or Dutch. And, mind you, we wanted people from Northern Europe more than we wanted people from Southern Europe. And the marriages between Australian servicemen and Japanese brides post-War created a big problem for white Australia and for the Immigration minister, but again, people didn't play politics with it, and if you play politics with it, you end up lying, and sadly, that's the situation we've got now.

EMMA ALBERICI: Of the former Rudd-Gillard governments, you write that Labor sold their souls for no electoral purpose. Just this week Bob Carr urged Labor not to abandon processing on Nauru and Manus, saying, "I thought the Government was too ready to cater to one section of opinion in Australia and dismantle what Howard had left in place." Would you accept that most Australians don't agree with you that Labor sold their soul?

TOM KENEALLY: Oh, I think that they not only sold their soul, but they're spending too much money up there. There's 750 desperate and bewildered and disoriented people up there on whom we're spending $1.9 billion by reliable estimate over the next year. Refugees are just humans like us. Their motives are open to interpretation and discussion, but above all, they are driven by fear of tyranny. You don't make that journey very readily. You don't do it because there's nothing on telly that night. And yet in one of the tales in the book - and this happens to be a true tale, told very well by one of our leading writers - there is a group of Iraqi Kurds about to flee the war in Iraq and get into Iran. One of them finds out that there's no booze in Iran and that drinking is prohibited and so he delays his border crossing until he's had a skinful. Now this is something, dare I say, that an Australian would relate to, and that's all we're trying to do in this book in our flawed way, is to try to invite Australians to imagine themselves in this situation.

EMMA ALBERICI: Tom Keneally, we're out of time. Thank you so much for coming in for us.

TOM KENEALLY: Not at all.

EMMA ALBERICI: Lateline has a standing invitation for Immigration Minister Scott Morrison to join us for an interview. We hope to have the opportunity to speak to him soon.