“Sure, why not? I’ll go too”, I thought to myself, when I saw my friend Kate invite me on Facebook to an event organised on by the Anglican Church at Gosford. Located about only eighty minutes by train from Sydney’s Central Station, the church has become an active national voice in the area of human rights, particularly refugees, thanks to the leadership of their priest, Father Rod, through clever, pithy and profound posts on social media. Father Rod also spoke at the recent refugee vigil in Sydney.
Today’s event was a talk by Julian Burnside QC AO (barrister and human rights advocate) and former Australian Of The Year, Professor Patrick McGorry AO (psychiatrist, researcher and mental health advocate). Though there was nothing either said which I hadn’t heard before – though Julian Burnside read out a letter about something which had occurred on Nauru only two days ago – it was really great to hear them speak. They’re both smart men who spoke with honesty and passion.
Despite what you often read in the press (or in the comments columns of various blogs), those attending today’s meeting weren’t a bunch of inner-city lefties. Looking around the crowd, almost everyone was at least fifty years old. Overhearing conversations, almost everyone was a local. And judging by the moments of applause, I’d say more than half the audience was Christian. The common theme to the addresses, and to the questions was that Australia was once a leader in supporting refugees, but somehow we have “lost our way”.
And the world has noticed, too. Not just the United Nations. There was a stupid story in the paper the other day about an Australian woman refused backpacker accommodation in Scotland because “Australians were drunks and racists”. Total beat-up of a story, of course, and a really bad example of “cut and paste journalism”. But on a personal level I remember being in Stockholm a few years ago and got to talking with a guy from Norway.
“We go to Stockholm, Copenhagen and Helsinki Pride”, a young Norwegian bloke called Kristian told me. He was maybe mid-20s, with an interest in politics, and so we chatted for quite some time about politics in Scandinavia and Australia. “You treat refugees very badly”, he told me. “They travel thousands of kilometres on boats and then you put them on islands”, he added, demonstrating more of an awareness of the Australian political scene than I thought may have existed in this part of the world.
Also on a personal level, at today’s talk, Father Rod introduced us to Salar Hs, a refugee from Iran. A young guy, he works hard as an Uber driver, and plays violin. A local orchestra played a work he composed in collaboration with Caitlin Yeo which was very moving and gained a standing ovation.
Today’s event was filmed for the television documentary “The Shadowland”, an independent production that has been commissioned by the ABC as a “Compass” special for 2016, so keep an eye out, you might see me in the background.
After the talk, Kate and I wandered around Gosford, before finally settling at restaurant/bar on the waterfront. Compared with so many people who come to Australia in such difficult circumstances, we both agreed we feel truly lucky and privileged.