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Human Rights spokesperson accuses the Prime Minister and the Opposition Leader of turning Australia into a nation of thugs.

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VIVIAN SCHENKER: Former Human Rights Commissioner, Chris Sidoti, has accused both John Howard and Kim Beazley of turning us into a nation of thugs via our treatment of the Manoora asylum seekers. Now the national spokesman for the Human Rights Council of Australia, Chris Sidoti has told a forum organised by the Pluto Institute in Sydney last night that our leaders were betraying our innate compassion and destroying the country's aspirations, self-esteem and sense of honour.


He said both leaders had also betrayed the legacies of their respective party's great prime ministers of the past, and history would judge them for it harshly. In fact, he claimed both politicians had perpetrated the very crimes they claim to abhor—those of arbitrary detention, kidnapping and people trafficking. Tough words indeed, but Chris Sidoti isn't backing away from them this morning. He joins us now from his home in Sydney.


Chris, welcome to Radio national breakfast.


CHRIS SIDOTI: Thanks, Vivian. How are you?


VIVIAN SCHENKER: I'm good. But 'a nation of thugs'—they're pretty strong words. Let's make sure we know what you mean by it.


CHRIS SIDOTI: They are pretty strong words, but when we are in a situation of arbitrarily detaining people, of having our SES storming onto merchant ships of other countries, forcibly transferring people to naval vessels and then carrying them from one side of the continent to the other and beyond, a nation of thugs is precisely the way in which our political leaders want us to move. They are betraying Australians by doing this.


VIVIAN SCHENKER: They're certainly behaving in a tough manner. They would presumably argue about the thug epithet, and they certainly would argue about offences like arbitrary detention, kidnapping and people smuggling. How do they fit in to that?


CHRIS SIDOTI: They can argue till they're blue in the face. That's simply the case. These people came in the direction of Australia. At the request of Australia they were picked up by a Norwegian vessel, so a foreign vessel, not a warship or anything else, picked them up at the request of Australia and then the boat people were refused permission to leave that ship. They were kept there until such time as they were transferred to a naval ship where, again, they have been kept.


So they have been detained. They have not been allowed to exercise their rights under Australian law, having entered Australian territorial waters, to apply for refugee status and have that status considered on its merits. That's what our law says, have the status considered on its merits, on the basis of a proper claim for refugee status. There's no argument that those who are not genuine refugees should go elsewhere. The argument is that they were denied their right to apply and to have their claim considered.


VIVIAN SCHENKER: You've also accused Nauru of being bribed to take them.


CHRIS SIDOTI: Poor Nauru. Nauru is virtually bankrupt. We saw some incredible stories in the media earlier this week about senior ministers in the Nauruan government carrying millions of dollars in cash on international flights to try and bail out the government because it couldn't even pay its salaries for the public service this week. Nauru is one of the poorest countries in our region, if not the poorest country in our region, and they have done what Australia was not prepared to do on the basis of bribes from Australia. There's no other way of putting it.


Now, that puts Australia fair square into the category of people trafficking, making financial arrangements for the forcible movement of people from one part of the world to another. There's no other way of putting it.


VIVIAN SCHENKER: Whether or not you're accurate when you use those terms, one thing that strikes me as inaccurate is accusing our current leaders of betraying our compassion and trampling on our dearly held beliefs. I mean, the bottom line is the polls show that Mr Howard took a huge boost from the way he handled it. They're not trampling on anything, are they?


CHRIS SIDOTI: The attitudes of Australians have been very carefully propagandised for the last 12 years on this subject. Since 1989 successive governments, Labor and Liberal, have fed the Australian public with propaganda about demons and queue jumpers where queues don't exist, illegal entrants where there has been no crime committed, made these people out to be completely unacceptable, and perhaps worst of all the comments made by the Defence Minister and the Liberal backbencher Mr Slipper recently, that there could be terrorists amongst these boat people and that's the reason why we're keeping them away. These are absolutely outrageous comments to make about people who are fleeing what is now acknowledged to be one of the worst regimes on earth.


As I say, there is no dispute that if they are not refugees we don't have to give them asylum. What the dispute is that it is not even being determined, that they came to Australia and we have denied them the capacity to have their claims determined under Australian law.


VIVIAN SCHENKER: Chris, the government would say the bottom line is that the number of asylum seekers arriving by boat has jumped from around 600 to 4,000 a year. The government's talking about possibly 9,000 by the end of this year. Surely a government is justified in being concerned about that and taking measures to protect its borders?


CHRIS SIDOTI: The first thing that needs to be said is that the numbers coming to Australia are still relatively small, even though there has been, as you say, this jump over the last couple of years. I think, though, that most Australians, because of the hysteria whipped up by both political parties are under the false impression that there have been huge numbers of people coming here.


In fact, since 1989 when boats started arriving, that is in the last 12 years, we have had around 15,000 to 16,000 people in total over 12 years come to Australia. We do not have a problem of any magnitude, no matter how you look at it. We receive far fewer onshore asylum seekers than any Western European or North American country, and yet their response is far more humane than ours. None of these countries, no European or North American country imposes compulsory detention on asylum seekers, certainly not as we do for periods up to five or five and a half years, including on children. No country is turning people away at its borders as we are now doing. No other country is bribing poor countries to accept them in our place.


On the contrary, in recent weeks the Prime Minister of Canada has made it quite clear that he would not sacrifice the values and traditions of Canada. He said: we will continue to welcome people from the whole world, we will continue to offer refuge to the persecuted.


VIVIAN SCHENKER: Given the attacks in the US and the fact that there's an election coming up, do you hold any real hope that there will be any change in government policy?


CHRIS SIDOTI: I think the latter is more significant than the former. There's an election coming up and this is a good issue to beat the nationalist drum with. That's why I suspect the Opposition has proved itself so weak and so utterly useless on this particular issue. There is a competition on not to be outdone by the other in harshness towards refugees, simply because there's this perception, having whipped up this kind of hysteria now over 12 years, that people won't tolerate it.


I have a far more positive, a far better view of my fellow Australians than our political leaders do.


VIVIAN SCHENKER: Chris Sidoti, thank you.


CHRIS SIDOTI: Thanks, Vivian.


VIVIAN SCHENKER: Chris Sidoti, national spokesman for the Human Rights Council of Australia.