'Welcome, Stranger!'
01 August 2003

These people—often whole families fleeing oppressive regimes in Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran and elsewhere—risked everything to reach our peaceful and democratic land.

Human nature is an odd and contrary beast. Migrants sometimes resent the newcomer, forgetting perhaps their own difficulties as newcomers—even in Australia, a nation developed by immigration.

This has been sadly apparent during the past three years when waves of asylum-seeking boat people (or security-threatening 'queue-jumpers', as the authorities regard them) have arrived. These people—often whole families fleeing oppressive regimes in Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran and elsewhere—risked everything to reach our peaceful and democratic land.

Rounded up at gun point, they are incarcerated in remote, razor-wire-surrounded camps. They languish for many months while a tedious bureaucratic process judges them eligible for either permanent residence or deportation.

So it was refreshing to read a recent article by former Governor General and third generation Australian Sir Zelman Cowen in The Age of Melbourne. His grandparents on both sides came from Belarus, then part of Tsarist Russia, in 1891 and 1908—'a time of reaction, and of recurring pogroms, which did not ebb until the overthrow of the Romanovs during the First World War', as he put it.

'I appreciate our Government’s need and right to maintain control of the process of deciding who is allowed to settle in this country,' continued Sir Zelman. 'Being as generous as we can be is the most likely way to get the best result.

'Compared with many nations of the world, our circumstances are comfortable, even enviable. We have an obligation, as part of the international community, to behave with magnanimity to those who arrive here carrying little more than their hopes for a better life.'

The first step
Throughout Australia on 1 June, many homes opened their doors to neighbours and strangers in a programme of Open Homes, Open Hearts. It was launched at an international conference in Sydney in April by Initiatives of Change (formerly MRA). Its theme was 'Together we can make a world of difference'. Citizens were urged to welcome to their home someone from another culture.

In Melbourne, a Muslim teacher from Somalia had resented the fact that when he and his family moved into their home some years ago, their neighbours made no approach. In June he decided to invite them to his home for coffee and a snack.

Water, water everywhere
What on earth did we do before someone had the brilliant idea to bottle water? In the train, at the cinema, while stationary at red lights one can see folk—usually elegant and fashion conscious young women—uncapping a bottle of water for a quick, satisfying swig.

Such is the threat to the soft drink industry that one of Australia’s major water bottling companies, Neverfail, is now threatened with a takeover by the local Coca Cola bottling company. What a delicious irony. In the midst of an historic drought in Australia, water threatens Coke.

Statistically speaking
As a letter to the press here apropos the Iraq war says, ‘So now we have lies, damned lies and faulty intelligence.’ Benjamin Disraeli could not have said it better.

Great Barrier grief
Now to the strange case of Queensland’s Chief Magistrate, Di Fingleton.
She was convicted and sentenced to 12 months in prison over an e-mail she sent to another magistrate, asking him to explain why she should not demote him because he had supported the appeal of a fellow magistrate against Fingleton’s judicial decision to transfer her. The fact that the transfer was further up the Queensland coast where hundreds of thousands of tourists pay good money to savour the delights of the Great Barrier Reef seemed irrelevant.

What Chief Magistrate Fingleton and many others saw as an office tiff, the court saw as a retaliatory threat against a fellow magistrate punishable under a new law designed to protect jurors and trial witnesses. Fingleton even declined to request bail lest her appeal be delayed. But she will continue to receive her salary until her appeal is heard and resolved. She is being assessed for protective custody in a situation where some former clients may resent her company.