Let them stay: Baby Asha and the Lady Cilento Hospital protest

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I was late getting to the party. I had arranged to meet my daughters for dinner on Saturday evening when it became obvious that something big was happening at Lady Cilento children’s hospital. A few days ago a young baby known as Asha (not the real name) had been transferred there due to injury at one of the Australian offshore internment gulags on Nauru. The baby had recovered but now doctors were taking a strong stance refusing to release her back to Nauru due to health concerns. There had a small public vigil at the hospital for days under the banner of “Let them Stay”. Suddenly on Saturday evening the word was out that the quasi paramilitary Australian Border Force would move tonight to remove the baby and parents back to Nauru. There was a call to arms to support the doctors who would resist any move to take her to an “unsafe environment”.

This was an incredibly brave move by medical staff paid by the government enforcing Australia’s brutal immigration policy. The Liberal hard line on refugees succeeds with the tacit support of a weak Labor Party desperate to avoid being wedged on an emotional issue. Here were doctors taking a human approach in direct opposition. However they were supported yesterday by Australian Medical Association president Brian Owler who tweeted that any attempt to forcibly move the baby was “a dangerous act for which there is no return”. He copied in PM Malcolm Turnbull on the tweet.

Others too were active on Twitter. Writer Andrew Stafford called it Brisbane’s most important protest since the Springbok tour of 1971. He urged people to come down and many people heeded his and others’ call for action. The swelling crowd at the hospital managed to cover off all three exits to the hospital searching all vehicles including police cars for signs of the baby. Well wishers overwhelmed protestors with the delivery of free pizzas. It was clear that a major stand-off was in progress and it was peaceful, at least for now. It was stirring stuff.

I switched off my mobile for an hour or so while I had dinner with my daughters but at the back of my mind was a plan to head to the hospital as soon as I could. Things would likely have moved on by then but Lady Cilento was becoming ground central in a grassroots campaign I agreed with and it was important to show solidarity. I also wanted to go as a journalist and record what I saw, in the role of first responder of history.

When my daughters dropped me home after dinner, I quickly went back to Twitter for an update. There was good news. Apparently authorities had agreed not to move the baby tonight. There was a strong feeling community action had foiled the crass plans of the government just as a Melbourne protest did last year when rumours the ABF were on the street doing racial profiling in a sinister move to track down illegal immigrants.

But nothing I read was final and while presumably the large crowd of protesters would disperse happily, the vigil would continue. With that in mind I got the train into town and walked across to the Southbank site of the hospital. The first thing I could see was a bunch of police talking together. But they were the only police there and there was no sign of any ABF personnel. There remained about two to three hundred protesters on site talking quietly among themselves. There was a sense of satisfaction of a job well done.

I walked over to a group of four and asked them what they knew. One man who was a union organiser told me that the baby and her mother remained in the care of Queensland Health and immigration officials would need to give 72 hours notice before moving them. The father was at a detention centre in Pinkenba near Brisbane port. I asked them did they believe QH assurances and they said they did. Asha’s ball was now in state government Health Minister Cameron Dick’s court and his leader Annastacia Paluszczuk had said she would welcome refugees. The protesters were happy enough with that. Most were now heading home but the vigil would continue. Most were cognisant this was a children’s hospital environment so it wasn’t raucous and there were as many signs asking cars not to beep their horns as those asking them to do it.

There were still plenty of scattered group sitting around the steps and the display of candles. Most people there were young but I approached a group closer to my own age for a chat. One of them was seated next to a sign which read “We’re better than this” and I began by asking what “this” was. The lady replied it wasn’t her sign, it was just where she was sitting and we had a laugh about it. Nonetheless she tried to answer my question. “This” was a shameful action by the government against a defenceless baby – one actually born in Australia. I mentioned that our immigration policies were supported by the two major parties. That didn’t make it right, they said, and the move for change would have to come from the people. If enough people protested, the major parties would take notice, they said.

It would be nice to think that people power might have an effect on public policy. Brisbane can take great credit from its activists who know the value of street protest. And it was extraordinary how a well behaved mob took control of the situation (including from a media perspective overcoming QH’s earlier concerns about “what about the children”). Certainly it might make the ALP question its wisdom of constantly playing Tweedle Dee on immigration that dates back to 9/11 and the Tampa. They need to have a strategy to overcome the easy scare campaign from the government and its shills in the Murdochocracy.

As for Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, he is less doctrinaire on the matter than his predecessor Tony Abbott but can’t afford to alienate his own right wing by appearing “soft”. He appeals to the easy enemy of people smugglers without a discussion of the push factors from the Middle East or the hideous conditions in Nauru and Manus Island. So Australia’s expensive solution continues to hold sway without an exit policy. It is out of mind and out of its mind. Let us hope Baby Asha is a beginning of the end of this collective madness.

The Courier Mail and Manning Clark: 20 years on

It is 20 years this year since one of the most notorious and incorrect hatchet jobs in Australian newspaper history. On August 24, 1996 then Courier Mail editor Chris Mitchell splashed a ludicrous story on eight over-heated pages about esteemed Australian historian Manning Clark being awarded the Order of Lenin by the former Soviet government. It didn’t take long for the story to unravel though the Courier Mail held to its line and never apologised for its lies. Clark died in 1991 so they were protected from defamation. But the Brisbane paper’s already shoddy reputation took a massive hit it has never really recovered from.

Fellow historian Humphrey McQueen (who had worked with Clark) does an excellent job of deconstructing the affair in his book Suspect History: Manning Clark and the Future of Australia’s Past. McQueen noted that by 1996 the Courier Mail was already a mere “suburban throwaway” that cosseted Queenslanders from the outside world (little has changed in the last two decades other than it has descended to ever more tabloid titilation).

But McQueen’s bigger point was that the Clark affair was part of a cultural war that came with John Howard’s election win that year and how interpretations of the past help set an ideological agenda for the future. The Clark story itself was derisory. The paper relied on one person’s memory, could produce no photographic evidence and did not contact the Clark family until the night before publication. Editor Mitchell’s excuse for that was Clark’s son Andrew was an editor for a rival Fairfax publication and he didn’t want to give warning about the story (as if Clark’s son would somehow scoop them with the accusation his father was a traitor).

Journalist Wayne Smith wrote the series of stories which relied on the recollections of retired journalist Peter Kelly who knew Mitchell’s father. Kelly told Mitchell that Geoffrey Fairbairn, who worked with Clark at the Australian National University, had seen Clark at the Soviet embassy wearing the Order of Lenin medal. But Fairbairn had died in 1980 without writing about the incident. In 1991 Kelly spoke to poet Les Murray who also claimed to have seen Clark wearing the medals at the home of David Campbell (also deceased).

The paper misrepresented Fairnbairn’s wife Anne and never interviewed Campbell’s wife Judy. The story “By Order of Lenin” conjured up artwork of Clark in a Russified blouse next to a photo of the medal with a snippet from his ASIO file about his “communist beliefs”. Using smear and innuendo, the paper worked on the belief that whatever they said three times must be true, McQueen wrote. At the very end Smith admitted there was no smoking gun.

Yet Smith and Mitchell were convinced their story was “as big as world war three”. The editor probably believed he had a Walkley award sown up but the story was only greeted with widespread derision, with even his own News Ltd stable treating it with caution. The Australian gave more weight to the denials than the story forcing a defensive Mitchell to publish a list of “Questions the Courier Mail would ask its critics”.

There was further embarrassment when a Russian-speaking academic checked the archives and found no Order of Lenin given to CMH Clark during the years 1969 to 1971 when it supposedly happened. A Polish activist also dismissed the likelihood of communist beliefs saying Clark addressed several Solidarity meetings in the early 1980s.

Faced with mounting evidence, the Courier Mail changed tack saying the medal was irrelevant and claimed incorrectly the Soviet archives had mentioned his award. The Press Council eventually found the Courier Mail published the story with “too little evidence” and called for a retraction. The paper buried its retraction on page 15 while devoting its first two pages to a rebuttal.

McQueen said the paper’s case rested on a circularity. Clark got the Order of Lenin, therefore he must be an agent: he was an agent therefore he deserved the medal. McQueen went on to systematically destroy the Courier Mail’s evidence brick by painful brick including answering every question Mitchell “would ask his critics”.

This included the unreliability of Murray’s memory, the paranoia of ASIO’s activities and the McCarthyite ravings of one of the paper’s chief witnesses, the post war right wing Victorian MLA Frederick Lewis Edmunds. The paper made much of Clark’s frequent visits to the Soviet Union but didn’t mention the historian travelled everywhere frequently. His book Meeting Soviet Man was reviled by the right but was equally loathed by the left for his refusal to see the USSR as a workers’ paradise.

The true purpose of Clark being “innocent as charged” by the Courier Mail was that some of the mud would stick. There were three reasons for enmity against him: resentment by academics, unease with his personality and antagonism towards his politics. Clark was a voracious writer who looked under the bonnet of human behaviour. The biggest criticism today is that he didn’t give enough credit to the indigenous experience but otherwise he was an excellent historian who took Australia seriously and dared to think beyond traditional boundaries. But it was too easy for the Courier Mail to dismiss his writings as an endless how to vote card for the Labor party.

The paper was fitting in with the tenor of the times which as new prime minister John Howard said, would suit him. Fed up with Paul Keating’s “hectoring on history” Howard wanted to “set the record straight” and make people feel “relaxed and comfortable” again about their history. What Howard’s chirpier view of the past was really about was leverage over the future. This is why it was so important to downplay Clark’s achievements. As McQueen concluded, the courage and courtesy to admit wrongdoing provide reason for optimism about how the majority will handle the future. It is an aspect of the culture wars that has not gone away 20 years later.