I was late getting to the party. I had arranged to meet my daughters for dinner on Saturday evening when it became obvious 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 an Australian offshore internment gulag on Nauru. The baby recovered but now doctors were taking a strong stance refusing to release her back to Nauru due to health concerns. There was a small public vigil at the hospital for days under the banner of “Let them Stay”. Suddenly on Saturday evening word was out 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 resist any move to take her to an “unsafe environment”.
This was a 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 in direct opposition. 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 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 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. A major stand-off was in progress and it was peaceful, at least for now.
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 but Lady Cilento was ground central in a grassroots campaign I agreed with and I wanted to show solidarity. I also wanted to go as a journalist and record what I saw.
When my daughters dropped me home after dinner, I went back to Twitter for an update. There was good news. Authorities had agreed not to move the baby tonight. There was a strong feeling community action had foiled the plans of the government just as a Melbourne protest did last year when rumours the ABF were on the street 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 continued. I got the train into town and walked across to Southbank. The first thing I saw police talking together. But they weren’t many there and no sign of ABF personnel. There remained 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, a union organiser, told me the baby and her mother remained with 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 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 scattered groups sitting around the steps near a display of candles. Most were young but I approached a group closer my own age for a chat. One 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 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 people power might have an effect on public policy. Brisbane can take 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.