Category Archives: Politics and Human Rights

WHAT MAKES SOMEONE AN AUSTRALIAN? (and what makes it possible for an Australian to be deported?)

Stefan Nystrom was born while his mother—a permanent Australian resident—was on holidays in Sweden in 1973.  Stefan spent just 25 days in Sweden before his mother returned to Australia where he then stayed without ever leaving the country.  His childhood had its difficulties and he became a ward of the state at age 16.  While a minor, and in the state’s care, he committed a number of violent offences. Later, as an adult he reoffended, though in less violent ways.  When he was 33 years old and at a time when his family says he had been free of crime for almost seven years, Senator Amanda Vanstone, the then Minister for Immigration decided that he should be deported to Sweden.

His “visa” (which Stefan knew nothing about) was cancelled due to a judgment that he was of bad character and he was sent to Sweden—a country where Stefan has no family ties and he doesn’t speak the language. Not surprisingly he has become extremely depressed and has slipped back into petty crime. He spends his time on the streets or in prison and describes his present life as “pretty shit”.

Stefan always believed that he was nothing other than thoroughly Australian and it is plainly obvious that whatever difficulties he had in life were part and parcel of life here. The Federal Court supported this view by ruling that, despite any technicalities concerning his birth, Stefan was an “absorbed member of the Australian community”.  The Supreme Court ruled though that the Minister did have the power (though not the necessity) to deport him. The Minister subsequently claimed that she was “obliged” to act in deporting him.

More recently the United Nations Human Rights Committee has ruled that his expulsion breached the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. But the Minister for Immigration at the time of that ruling, Chris Bowen, was prepared to forego an opportunity to differentiate Labor from Liberal policy and advised that the government would ignore the Committee’s findings and would not allow Stefan to return to Australia.[i]

An abuse of human rights

Unfortunately, Stefan is not alone in this situation. It is difficult to know how many other people in similar situations have been treated as badly as this and despite my request for information, the government will not say how many people are potentially liable to deportation as a second punishment on top of any court sentence they receive if they misbehave in any way. But people such as myself who came to Australia as child migrants can be at risk. I believe there are tens of thousands. Later I will tell you about another case, that of Clifford Tucker.

The situation that people like Stefan Nystrom and Clifford Tucker find themselves in is nothing other than an abuse of members of the Australian community by governmental action and a scandalous and completely unnecessary breach of human rights.

The current political scene

On top of the scandal of the deportation is the problem of the bipartisan silence from Federal parliamentary representatives when the matter is raised. Silence in the face of injustice is always wrong but I think that the present silence is a small part of the much larger malaise that has overcome Australian political discourse at the present time. One result of this decline in standards is that there are now even more disincentives to back-benchers actually thinking about issues for themselves or taking on causes that will put them in opposition to their own party.

Many people today are feeling the frustration of an extremely hierarchical political structure and the way in which political debate focuses on the party leaders and a few others. This narrowing down of the debate to a few personalities has led to a loss of ideas in favor of personal denigration. Labor Party statesman Barry Jones has argued that there has been a serious decline in the quality of parliamentary debate, “Currently, we are by far the best educated cohort in our history—on paper, anyway—but it is not reflected in the quality of our political discourse. We appear to be lacking in courage, judgment, capacity to analyse or even simple curiosity, except about immediate personal needs.”[ii]

Similarly, the Liberal Party’s Malcolm Turnbull has bemoaned the standard of political discourse, ”If you love your country, have an interest in politics or policy, and care deeply about our nation’s future, there’s nothing more certain to arouse your fury and invite your contempt than listening to an entire House of Representatives question time.”[iii] Former MP, Lindsay Tanner, says there is a loss of coherent purpose in all the major parties. Politics essential battle of ideas, he says, has been replaced by empty rhetoric and “the outcome of this charade is the steady erosion of intellectual integrity in our national political discourse.”[iv] Again and again, in political debate insults have been traded instead of ideas being debated.

The problem is serious, but while considerable media attention has been paid to this loss of moral direction in parliamentary debate and in the increasingly bitter dialogue between party leaders, little attention has been paid to the situation of moral debate and political discourse by back-benchers who are pressured into moral silence. The party system is dominated by the perceived political need for all views on any significant topic to be expressed by one or other of a very select handful of party leaders rather than parliamentary members. The latter are to express support for the party view or remain silent. Consequently, decisions about people like Stefan Nystrom and Clifford Tucker are made at the highest levels and further debate is stifled.

British child migrants

Clifford Tucker came to Australia from the UK as the child of migrants when he was six years old. He has lived here all of his subsequent life and he is now 49 years old and the father of three children. Tucker spent 12 years in jail in the 1980s and 1990s but since that series of crimes he has committed only one further offence and his family describe him as a reformed person who suffers a severe mental illness. He has a personality disorder, has suffered from depression and has tried to commit suicide. In 2009 he took a holiday in Bali and this, somewhat bizarrely, became the point at which the immigration department took an interest in him and decided that his history demonstrated that he was unfit to remain as a member of the Australian community. He was thus punished a second time for his not-so-recent crimes by being separated from family and friends—indeed from the whole of his life—and deported to the United Kingdom (with costs to be paid by Tucker who now owes the government $20,000).[v] Incidentally, human rights laws would prevent Britain deporting to Australia someone in similar circumstances.

I am not suggesting that either Nystrom or Tucker are well-behaved, model citizens. Indeed, they may be described in much less flattering ways (although, to be fair, one has to take mental illness into account), but whether criminal, misfit, or mentally unstable they are part of our community and we owe them the same care as any other.

Since this happened I have written a number of letters and emails to my parliamentary representatives and to the Minister for Immigration, and I am afraid that I have to report that the only replies I have received have involved what I would describe as ducking, weaving, stonewalling and silence. My rather modest aim in writing was not been to get an immediate reversal of the situation (though that would be good) but to get a moral justification for the action. Every government action should be defensible in some way. I am interested in the way people think.

The publicity around the Tucker case particularly interested me because, like Tucker, I came to Australia from the UK as a child migrant—dad, mum and four kids in the early 1960s.  At that time British immigrants like us were welcomed and treated in every way as Australians. That is what was implicitly and explicitly said by both government and society. The situation of British migrants was quite distinct from that of other migrants and trivial problems (such as whether “pommy” was meant affectionately or not) cannot detract from the special place they held in public thought. In fact, the very common term “New Australians” did not even really apply to British migrants so much as to the Italians, Greeks and others who had to cross more cultural and language barriers and who had never been subjects of the Queen or part of the Commonwealth. British migrants were equal to Aussies because Australia was, well, fundamentally British!

And when we migrant kids turned eighteen we were required to vote and we were certainly taxed. No one ever spoke the language of “citizenship” or “becoming a citizen” in those days, for two reasons. Firstly, it was simply not the language of the day (which was that of “naturalization”) and, secondly, it was understood that you were Australian.  There was the possibility of being naturalized but for British people it was not seen as essential. Indeed, to many it seemed strange, as it involved the process of renouncing allegiance to Her Majesty the Queen in order to swear allegiance to Her Majesty the Queen! This was something superfluous to many and simply never considered at all by many migrant children!  Why on earth would they think they had to do anything! The social situation was that one grew up with all the other Aussie kids and one’s legal status was demonstrated by the significant fact that we were eligible to receive an Australian—rather than a British passport.

On top of this we were subject to Australian conscription laws. I was called up for the Vietnam war but as an opponent to Australia’s involvement I had to be prepared to go to court to demonstrate that I was a genuine conscientious objector. Of all the various defences that were proposed and discussed no one ever thought that it would be possible to say, “Oh, I am not involved in this war because I am not Australian!” The idea would have been absurd and laughed out of court.  Child-migrants like us were now responsible, vote-casting, Australian adults able to be sent to die for their country.


The situation with British migrants changed however, as a result of legislation passed in the 1980s which removed rights that people like myself and Clifford Tucker had. Have you ever heard parliamentarians speak about the evil of retrospective taxation legislation? The idea is repugnant to everyone, but retrospectively removing citizenship rights that people have, and then deporting them to boot, is, apparently, morally OK.

But lawyers and legalism reign. What the law says is, apparently, right, even when it completely mis-interprets Australia’s social history.  In fact, I believe it is simply callous when politicians like the Minister for Immigration or any member of parliament happily accept the votes cast by people like Clifford Tucker that put them into office, only to then turn around and declare that such people—their own electors!—are not really Australian. In every electorate there are long-term members of the Australian community who are voting for parliament who could be deported if they commit a crime.

As a consequence of a legalistic interpretation of what has happened the Department of Immigration has described the situation with Clifford Tucker as simply one of “cancelling his visa” as though he was a visiting back-packer who had been here for six weeks and broken one of our labour laws. In actual fact, this is a view of the situation that makes me very angry. The notion that British (or indeed other) child migrants existed here for decades on a visa that could be cancelled at any time is a disgraceful mis-interpretation of Australian history. The visa is a fantasy created to justify an abomination! There were no visas, no bits of paper specifying conditions or length of residence! No newly arrived child from the UK, whether a month or two years or ten years old was ever given any such thing and no child migrant, after twenty, thirty or forty years residence, after voting, conscription, marriage and three children ever believed they resided in Australia on a visa! We need less lawyers and more historians to understand the truth about the nature of the society in which we live.

After that legislation in the 1980s Clifford Tucker could have taken action to affirm his citizenship (as I and others did) but I believe there are many, many thousands of people in exactly the same situation who did not do anything because they did not believe they needed to do so, or simply did not know (and were never told) of the potentially serious implications of what was happening. Most people in this situation I speak to find this truth so shocking that they find it hard to believe.  They are convinced that something must be wrong…

Political indifference

In fact, a number of things are wrong in this situation and one if them appears to be the indifference of current parliamentarians to the well-being of members of the Australian community. They appear to be taking a very different view to those who implemented the legislation. It can be argued that the changes were not intended to have the effect that they have subsequently had. Indeed, it is hard to imagine that politicians at the time of the changes would have dared to openly disenfranchise such a significant part of the electorate. The intent of the original changes was to protect the residency of persons who had been in Australia for more than ten years on the basis that Australia now had a responsibility to care for them, but after two sets of changes the length of residence no longer mattered if a person was reckoned to be of bad character.

Michelle Foster from Melbourne University Law School argues that the Migration Act was meant to keep undesirable people out, not exclude those already here for most of their lives. “There was never any discussion or any intention for that provision to apply to the plight of long-term residents. And indeed many committees that have studied the history of these provisions since that time have identified this problem, have said, ‘Look, 501 was never designed to be used in the context of persons who’ve been here a long time, particularly more than 10 years.’”[vi] But the wording of the law now allows the minister, at his or her discretion, to exercise the power of banishment for life over members of the Australian community as though they were visiting tourists. And, unfortunately this power is being exercised—inevitably on some of the community’s most vulnerable people.

However, I am reluctant to blame parliamentarians generally because I actually believe that most of them are good, honest people trying to do their best for the country. Perhaps I am being overly optimistic when I say that, were it not for party pressures, I believe that most parliamentarians would actually find these situations as being wrong and inappropriate for a civilised country. I would like to give them the benefit of the doubt but the problem with this is that my attempts to engage in a real discussion about this have been rebuffed or ignored.

At the time I began to contact parliamentarians about this matter my neighbourhood was in the process of being transferred from one electorate to another and so I took the opportunity to write to “both” of my local Federal members, new and old because, very conveniently they represented the two major parties. They are Mike Symon (Labor, Deakin) and Kevin Andrews (Liberal, Menzies).

I want to emphasis that I was specifically asking for their position on the matter. I wanted to know what my local member thought so I could allow this to influence my vote. I also wrote to the Minister for Immigration, Chris Bowen. But the responses were not helpful and I have categorised them as “Ducking”, “Weaving”, Stonewalling” and “Silence”.

Ducking: To begin with both local members initially ducked the issue. They made no real comment in their acknowledgement of my letters and referred the matter on to the minister and the shadow minister. Some time later I received a reply from Mike Symon in which he enclosed a letter from the minister. This letter said that the minister felt he had a responsibility to protect the Australian community from Clifford Tucker and so had chosen to deport him. But there was no moral justification or even a discussion of the rightness or otherwise of deporting someone who was an integrated member of the Australian community. Nor was there any comment from Mike Symon.

Weaving: However, because this wasn’t really an answer I followed it up with his office making it clear that I would like to know Mr Symon’s own position. Subsequently, I received a response that Mr Symon “respected” the minster’s decision.

Well, this did not really help. What did that mean? I thought that if he agreed with the minister he would be able to say that, and so I wondered whether “respect” was political code for “Well, he’s the minister and I’m just going to leave it to him even though I personally disagree?” But, not being certain I decided to follow that letter up as well and asked to speak to Mr Symon. But I could only get a staffer who could not elucidate on the meaning of “respecting the minister’s decision” but he agreed that I should meet with Mr Symon. But Mr Symon was too busy at that time and so he (the staffer) said he would definitely get back to me after the current parliamentary session and make an appointment with me. End of story. I waited for many months but nothing ever happened.

Silence: This ultimate silence from Mike Symon was matched by a bipartisan silence from Kevin Andrews who promised a reply after the shadow minister had pronounced on the matter. Which was interesting because I thought that Mr Andrews might actually have an independent view of his very own, given that he had previously been Minister for Immigration while some of this had been happening! But it seems that public moral discourse is not appropriate for back-benchers and as no response was ever forthcoming from the shadow minister that was the end of the matter. A deafening silence from both parties. Perhaps I should turn to some independents for action?

Stonewalling: When I wrote to my local members I also wrote directly to the minister. I wrote once a month for four months (looking for a reply) and only after the fourth letter did the penny drop with his staff that I was not merely expressing support for Clifford Tucker but that I was actually interested in hearing the moral arguments used and so then I received a response.

It was this experience that made me wonder whether the act of contacting and discussing issues with one’s local member had deteriorated along with the more generally observed decline in intelligent public discourse between party leaders. It seems that it was simply assumed that all correspondents are only interested in telling politicians what they want done and that no-one is actually interested in listening to a well articulated moral argument as the basis for a political action.

Eventually I was assured that my previous letters had been “noted” and my request for an explanation for a moral argument was forwarded to someone in the Department of Immigration who wrote a very nice letter of a couple of pages that basically told me what I had told them in my letter to the minister! That is they told me in more detailed terms the legal (but not the social) history of what has happened since 1949. They thus concluded that all was well because it was all done legally. Well, I knew it was legal (providing you are happy to ignore Australia’s responsibilities under UN Human Rights Charters!), but the point is that sometimes the law is an ass and I wanted to know why the law should remain as it is! But to no avail. Good luck to anyone else who tries to find out.


Can it change?

But the good news is that as of February 4, 2013 we have a new Minister for Immigration and so I think it is time for me to try and find out whether Brendon O’Conner will depart from the bipartisan line followed by Amanda Vanstone, Kevin Andrews, Chris Evans and Chris Bowen that has seen members of the Australian community from childhood, even babyhood, cruelly and unexpectedly punished by deportation.  While I have respect for many parliamentarians it seems clear that the system is faulty and the will to stand up for the oppressed is not strong. The party system militates against members of parliament being seen as advocates for those suffering injustice when this has the potential to embarrass the party that they serve.  Local members are discouraged from publicly challenging party policy even when it is unjust, and they are reluctant to openly express opinions on important matters and consequently they use a variety of techniques to sidestep embarrassing moral questions posed by people in their electorate.

The political dangers of disagreeing with the party line are paralleled by the advantages of being compliant that were expressed many years ago in the Gilbert and Sullivan song from the opera HMS Pinafore in which Sir Joseph Porter explains how someone so obviously incompetent as himself could actually become a government minister:

I always voted at my party’s call

And I never thought of thinking for myself at all

I thought so little, they rewarded me

By making me the Ruler of the Queen’s Navy

While I don’t believe this comic caricature represents the entire truth it nonetheless has a point. I certainly think that members of parliament are generally hard-working, committed people seeking to do good and this actually helps me understand the reluctance to discuss the matter fully (because it is hard to defend the indefensible). But it also makes it hard to understand why it is allowed to persist (unless one assumes that party pressures outweigh personal conviction).  The only other alternative seems to be to assume that most parliamentarians believe it is a good thing to deport long-standing, vulnerable members of the Australian community as well as punishing them with fines or imprisonment. I am reluctant to believe this.

A cruel punishment

The final point to make is that the present regime of deportation of members of the Australian community is particularly perverse because it involves a double punishment through deportation after imprisonment. It is also unusually cruel in that it involves banishment to another continent away from life-long family and friends. At this point there is a most unfortunate connection with the early days of white settlement when convicts were punished by deportation. But at least when people were deported and sent to Australia there was usually a specific time for the sentence, after which those punished could return home. But in our present, supposedly enlightened age, the situation the punishment is far more cruel because it is a permanent separation from family and friends.

I desperately want to believe, given an absence of constraining party rules, that all our parliamentarians would express the view that every Australian, including those who become so through decades of participation in the community, ought to be protected from this kind of cruel and unusual punishment.

If you are able to, please contact your Federal parliamentary representative about this. I would suggest that it is useful to not only express an opinion of your own but also to seek out the moral reasoning of those who argue that Nystrom and Tucker (and others) ought to be deported. The current Minister for Immigration, Brendan O’Connor MP, can be contacted at

[i] Daniel Flitton, “‘No’ to UN over deportee”, The Age,  April 26, 2012; Michael Gordon, “Deportation breached rights: UN” The Age, September 11, 2011.

[ii] Barry Jones, “Stupidity is on the rise in our age of enlightenment” The Sydney Morning Herald, August 9, 2012

[iii] Chris Johnson, “Turnbull’s honesty call sparks debate” The Canberra Times, September 7, 2012.

[iv] Stuart Rintoul, “Lindsay Tanner slams battle of ids”, The Australian, Nov. 23, 2102.

[v] Peter Lloyd, “Australia deports British-born man” ABC Lateline, April 18, 2011.

[vi] Michelle Foster in “Australia deports British-born man” ABC Lateline, April 18, 2011.

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Human rights and wrongs

By Brian Edgar

In recent times the concept of human rights has become increasingly important. It is now very common for people to seek to resolve everything from the most serious to the most trivial via human rights. The first ‘dilemma’ is deciding what is meant by ‘human rights’.  Issues include: religious liberty; torture; the use of landmines; the right to self-determination; corporal punishment; dowries; the Northern Territory intervention; gay marriage; vilification laws; single sex private clubs; construction industry unionists; bikie gangs; Read More »

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Don’t mention politics! politics and the pulpit.

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The trouble is that the gospel affects the whole of life. Read More »

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Industrial relations and the Free Market

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Christians and Australian politics 2004-2007

By Brian Edgar

The 2007 Australian Federal election was a watershed in terms of there being an open discussion of the relationship of faith and politics. In this article I discuss the changes which took place from the 2004 election through to the 2007 election. At that time I was Director of Public Theology for the Australian Evangelical Alliance. Read More »

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Christianity and politics – Clark

By BrianEdgar

The book Tales of Two Cities comprises seven contributions on aspects of the relationship of Christian faith with contemporary, secular, pluralist politics. The papers were originally presented at a conference organised by Affinity, a network of approximately 1,200 churches throughout Great Britain and Ireland.

The papers vary considerably in length and style. Field’s discussion of Rutherford is particularly lengthy. There is a strong historical leaning with the writers generally seeking to find wisdom for the present from writers of the past. Read More »

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Why politics needs religion – Sweetman

By Brian Edgar

It has long been argued that most secularist attempts to remove or restrict religious dialogue from the public arena are based on a misunderstanding of the true nature of a ‘secular’ society.   But in Why Politics Needs Religion Brendan Sweetman, Professor of Philosophy at Rockhurst University in Kansas City, Missouri, argues that these anti-religious sentiments are not so much a misunderstanding of the concept of secularism as an essential dimension of it. Read More »

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