I met an Australian guy in a hostel in India. “I love politics,” he told me. “Especially American politics. I follow it every day. It’s like a TV show.”
At this point an American sat down and joined us. “Are you feeling the Bern?” he asked. She looked at him somewhat quizzically. “You know, Bernie Sanders. Are you a fan?”
The conversation went on, talking about Democrat primary votes, comparing the virtues of the safety of Clinton versus the hope for change of Sanders. Our friend reiterated his love for the drama and intrigue of American politics.
Meanwhile back in Australia it’s an election year too. If American politics with its mass rallies and larger-than-life personalities can compete for drama with Game Of Thrones though, the Australian equivalent is more like Days Of Our Lives – lower budget, less credibility, grand narratives replaced with petty backstabbing and personal feuds. Like a soap opera, Australian politics endlessly regurgitates storylines that stretch credulity with vengeful acts of sociopathy and characters being resurrected, each time seemingly a desperate grab for ratings. And like any good soapie, you know that watching it is bad for you, but out of morbid fascination you just can’t drag yourself away.
Not long after our conversation in that hostel though, something happened back home that broke the usual nightly soap opera routine. A one year old baby of Nepalese asylum seekers, given the pseudonym “Asha”, was taken from immigration detention on Nauru to Brisbane for treatment of serious burns. The burns healed, but the medical staff at Lady Cilento Children’s Hospital refused to discharge her; saying that with deportation imminent, there was no safe environment for her to return to and releasing Asha would be a breach of their duty of care.
It was a welcome break from the inhumanity of politicians that normally dominates any discussion of asylum seekers in Australia. But it was more than that. In a plot that had grown stagnant; with both parties parroting the same policies of boat turnbacks, mandatory detention and offshore settlement; a new character had been thrown into the mix. And what’s more, it seemed like these doctors and nurses actually had the power to stop a deportation and momentarily turn the tide of cruelty to asylum seekers.
Instantly, something had changed. If these people could disrupt the storyline, surely others could too. Instinctively, people got up from behind their screens and gathered outside the Lady Cilento hospital. What were they doing there? At first, no one seemed to know, but they were doing something, no longer content to be passive spectators.
A 24 hour vigil was maintained in support of Asha’s family and the medical staff. Signs were made to communicate with passing motorists. Food and drinks were brought down. Memorably, one night people from all over the country were phoning in pizza orders and getting them delivered to the hospital. Connections were made at the vigil – students, grandparents, socialists, anarchists, christians, unionists, refugees. All brought together by a desire to do something – to play a part in the story of Australia’s refugee politics.
On the Saturday morning, over a week after the vigil had begun, Border Force officials turned up at the hospital ward where Asha and her mother were. They were told that they were going to be removed back to detention. Their communication with the outside world was shut down. But word filtered to the vigil outside, and a call went out.
Hundreds of people came to the hospital. At first, it was unclear what exactly the group would do. Where we there just as witnesses? To try to stop the deportation? Some of the prominent voices at the vigil warned against doing anything rash. But the paradigm they spoke of was one of “them” – decision makers, media portrayal and consequences. At the vigil something was shifting. People were thinking about the issue in terms of “us”. What can we do?
By mid afternoon, there were groups stationed at every exit to the hospital, keeping watch. People were practicing how to quickly link arms and sit in front of a vehicle. By early evening, a federal police car pulling up at the hospital was literally stopped by the vigil and searched for baby-deporting implements. The power balance had shifted.
After a night camped out watching entrances, the next morning it was announced that Asha and her family would be placed in community detention in Australia, a solution that the family and medical staff were happy with. There would be no blockading the exits after all. But people at the vigil were already talking about what next – which politicians’ offices could we target? What private companies are involved in the detention industry? What public monument could we drop banners off?
In the end, Asha was snuck out of the hospital via an underground entrance at 4am on Monday morning. It was a move designed to disempower the vigil, to stop the group visibly showing their solidarity. Immigration Minister Peter Dutton was still talking tough, saying no asylum seekers could expect to stay in Australia. But the middle of the night sneakiness and community detention compromise betrayed the fact that the sleep-deprived impromptu community clustered around the hospital had made an impact.
The self-congratulatory internet memes claiming “WE WON” were perhaps a bit presumptuous – Asha and her family have no guarantee of staying long-term, let alone any of the others who came after the July 2013 announcement that no asylum seekers would be settled in Australia. The Australian navy is still employed turning around boats of desperate people fleeing their homes. Labor and Liberal show no inclination of letting up their bilateral cruelty.
The victory celebrations will have to wait. The really important development though from the last couple of weeks is that radical new ideas of participation had been planted in people’s heads. No longer content to engage in politics via the remote control, we were getting out of the couch and writing ourselves into the script.