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.

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