Category Archives: Feature

BULL Magazine – Issue One

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I am one of six student editors of the University of Sydney Union’s monthly BULL Magazine, which explores the intersection of pop culture, politics and identity through features and columns.

This issue (full pdf here), we covered small penis body acceptance, cultural divides in Sydney’s football scene and westernised Chinese cuisine. I also wrote a feature on varying experiences of virginity, below.

The Virginity Taboo

A bowl of condoms is handed to first year students at law camp. “If you’re going to have sex, be safe,” they’re told. Everyone giggles and makes a dirty sex joke. Yet no one has sex that night. And many never have.

Virginity: more taboo than anal sex, pornography or masturbation. For some, virginity is a flower to be treasured. For others, it’s something to get rid of.

From the USU’s Radical Sex and Consent Day to the family planning booklets that pop up on campus, sex is commonly on the agenda at university. Hollywood movies like American Pie and The 40 Year-Old Virgin tell us it’s unusual to still be a virgin by the time you finish high school. 

One quarter of Australian Year 10 students have had sex, according to a national survey by the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society1. That figure jumps to a third of Year 11 students, and half of Year 12 students. The report finds around 70 per cent of people aged 16-29 years are sexually active and that people are now having sex at a younger age and with more partners than their parents did.

Jess* is a 21 year-old heterosexual virgin. To her, having sex for the first time will be a big deal. Jess is not religious, instead describing herself as a romantic idealist who sees sex as an emotional and intimate act that you only share with someone you’re in a committed relationship with. 

But coming to university has challenged her idealism. “I literally thought that people wait ‘til marriage to have sex until maybe a few years ago when I started to hit year 12 and uni and realised that actually, people sleep with the person after meeting them for one night,” she says.

“So more and more I’m realising my vision of love and sex and all of that is probably a little bit out-dated, or it’s a very idealistic version that isn’t quite realistic or true to modern society.”

Jess says there is a dichotomous pressure on women to keep their virginity but also to lose it. Women are expected to remain “pure” virgins or risk being deemed a slut, but popular culture also enforces expectations that women be “sexy,  desirable, available and not prudish, and ready to have sex with someone.”

“For women to feel desirable, they increasingly need to be intimate with men because it’s all about men and what men find attractive. It can’t just be about women being attractive in their own right,” Jess says.

Sometimes, Jess’ lack of sexual experience affects her approach to dating. “If you really believe that most guys our age have already slept with someone then you can’t help but feel at the back of your mind: well what’s going to happen when he finds out that I’m a virgin? Maybe he won’t want that kind of baggage.”

Ultimately, a woman should be able to choose how she treats her virginity without being confined by societal expectations to lose or keep it, she says.

Jess admits though that she feels like a “dying breed.” Bisexual media student Claire Jewell, 22, leans more towards having casual sex. “Once you get into the adult world or university life, virginity is a little less spoken about. It’s sort of assumed that you’re not a virgin,” she says.

Jewell first had sex at the age of 18 with a man she was not in a committed relationship with. “To be honest, the actual act was kind of forgettable. It didn’t hurt. I didn’t feel sad afterwards,” she says.

However, having sex with a woman for the first time when she was 22 felt more significant even though she’d already slept with several men. “It was the quintessential experience of virginity that I didn’t have with a boy. Like you start becoming super attracted to them and start getting some sort of attachment emotionally,” she says.

For the queer community, heteronormative definitions of virginity and sex are rife with problems.

The Oxford Dictionary defines sexual intercourse as “sexual contact between individuals involving penetration, especially the insertion of a man’s erect penis into a woman’s vagina, typically culminating in orgasm and the ejaculation of semen.”

But lesbian sex, for example, does not fit within this definition. Under the heteronormative definition then, sexually active lesbians would still be classified as virgins.

Jewell believes the dictionary’s emphasis on penetration and male ejaculation is a social construct that does not apply universally. “Men just think lesbian sex is girls wearing strap-ons. It’s still a very male dominated idea of penetration.”

Despite growing up in a Christian household that advocated saving sex for marriage, Jewell disagrees with expectations that women remain pure. “This whole purity bullshit around [virginity], I think is ridiculous,” she says. “No one really gives a fuck about a boy losing his virginity.”

It’s uncertain why a female’s virginity has historically been held with higher regard than a man’s. Historian Hanne Blank suggested on SBS Insight the disproportionate emphasis on female purity may stem from the need to identify the father of a child. “If you’ve prohibited sexual access to that woman by anybody else but one man, then you know who the father of that child is.”

Nowadays, women who retain their virginity do so for a variety of cultural, religious and personal reasons. Author Kate Monro draws on hundreds of interviews with people about their first time having sex in her book The First Time: True Tales of Virginity. She writes, “The loss of a woman’s virginity can still cost her at best her reputation and at the very worst her life. Even now, women are being brutalised for ‘losing’ something that is almost impossible to quantify or define.”

For men, while the pressure to remain pure is significantly lower than it is for women, the pressure to lose their virginity seems much higher.

“At a certain age of being a man, you can feel fairly worthless as a virgin,” music student Oliver*, 21, says. “It relates back to that whole perception of the ‘basement dwelling virgin creep’.”

Though he’s bisexual, Oliver says he feels the strongest pressure to be sexually active with a woman. Friends played a big role fostering this attitude by engaging in sexualised talk in the playground. The immense pressure Oliver believes many men feel to lose their virginity and have sex “causes me to be dishonest in the way I talk about myself sexually,” he says. “Friends made many rude jokes and innuendos and I didn’t really see the value in it or get it; I guess [this is] somewhat because of my sexuality.”

Oliver classifies himself as a virgin because he’s never had penetrative sex – even though he has had some sexual experiences with both men and women. His relationship with virginity is complicated. “I feel that heteronormative penis-in-vagina sex doesn’t define me,” he says. Yet he feels many people consider him to be a virgin because he has yet to engage in this act.

Many of Oliver’s beliefs regarding virginity were formed during childhood, in which there was little informed discussion surrounding sex and sexuality. Oliver grew up in a religious household and didn’t learn about sex from parents or teachers, instead turning to films and television for sexual education. “I was only really exposed to [sex] in movies,” he says. “I didn’t really understand and thought sex was a man and a woman being naked together and doing something.”

Differing to the other male students BULL interviewed, the desire to lose his virginity does not exist for James*.  The 21 year-old psychology student identifies as an aromantic asexual, meaning he does not experience romantic or sexual attraction.

Despite being aware of the sex culture at university, James chooses not to partake in it. “It’s not because I’m afraid to or because I’ve commanded myself to be celibate,” he says. “It’s almost like an innate distaste [towards sex], almost the same as just not liking a particular flavour of something.”

To James, a person’s attractiveness is purely a theoretical assessment based on Western constructed standards and sex is an entirely biological act. “I can only look at it from afar, from a distance as a whole and all I see is the physical act,” he says.

As a result, “virginity is not relevant to me”, he says. “It’s not [a big deal] because I treat having sex virtually as any other kind of behaviour that I haven’t done. It’s pretty much the same as ‘oh I haven’t been to America’.”

However, this can sometimes be a barrier in conversations with friends who talk about their sexual experiences. He, too, fleetingly feels the pressure to lose his virginity in order to belong. “I understand what they’re talking about but I just can’t relate to it. It’s very frustrating at times,” James says. “And sometimes, I just think: wouldn’t it be nice if I could just get it over and done with? But then I think, no that would be detrimental…possibly damaging because I’d be forcing myself to do something that I don’t want to do.”

No one should feel ashamed for where they sit on the spectrum of sexual experiences – yet some admittedly do.

“I see it as a personal thing,” Jess says. “And if people say, ‘well I should be able to have sex and people not judge me for it’ then I would say, ‘well I should be able to not have sex and people not judge me for it’. I don’t have to be incredibly religious to want to be a virgin or I don’t have to be really old-fashioned or elitist.”

Jess believes men and women shouldn’t feel the need to compare sexual milestones based on social expectations. “Why is sleeping with someone seen as a measure of who you are or your value?”

*Names have been changed

* Face the Facts Briefing, 2014. Young Australians and Sexual Health. Vol 1, No. 5.

Also featured on our website here. 

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The Hires and Lows: The aspiring actor

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It’s a familiar story: the young actor leaves his small town for the big smoke, with hopes of making it big. But instead of Hollywood, Declan Burgess moved to Sydney. The small town he left behind was Perth.

Now 21 years old, the recent graduate is a self-confessed shy guy – but underlying his quiet demeanour is an undeniable passion that emerges whenever our conversation moves towards the arts. He seems rather idealistic, but perhaps that’s a quality that every artist needs. “I think it’s so important to do what you love,” he says. “There’s a lot of people in the world who are depressed. They work in these stuffy offices that have no windows, and it’s such a clinical environment. Humans weren’t conditioned to be numb and manufactured like in factories.”

Declan also comes off as incredibly driven: he has no ‘drama teacher’ backup plan, and says that being financially unstable is a risk that will only motivate him further. At the same time, he doesn’t hide away from recognising the competitiveness of his industry, and he is not without fears. “The concern is getting to 40 not having done anything in your career or not being at a place where you can make your living off your profession,” he says.

After completing his acting degree at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA) in October last year, Declan confronted the looming question faced by all university graduates: “What do I do?” Many of his peers had resolved to ditch performance and study something else, or to stay in Perth for another year to save up money. But armed with a little bit of saved-up cash, Declan decided to “hit the ground running” and move to Sydney.

“OK I’m here – what do I do now?” he said to himself upon arrival. Armed with few contacts, Declan could only really rely on himself. “I’ve just got to make it happen and get myself out there,” he reflects. “It’s a scary feeling knowing that my support network is much greater back in Western Australia than it is here.”

Employment opportunities were the main reason behind Declan’s move. “The work prospects in WA for an actor and a singer were completely miniscule,” he says. Now in Sydney, Declan’s week consists of working at a Dan Murphy’s call centre to pay the bills, attending auditions and recording his music in a studio. Back in Perth, he would sometimes struggle to get four auditions a year; since moving almost two months ago, he’s already had seven or eight auditions with two callbacks.

At a recent audition, the judges were optimistic about his future career – but they wanted him to have more practical experience. Declan has both unpaid and paid theatre and film experience from school, university and other projects in Perth. But in an industry that demands practical work there’s always more to be done.

Of course, when starting out with mostly unpaid or low-paid work experience, it can be tough to find time to make money for life’s basic necessities. Living out of home, Declan is forced to juggle paying for rent and food with work and auditions. But he’s set on avoiding government payments like Youth Allowance and Newstart. “Personally, I would hate to have to depend on the government to give me money,” he says. “I think everyone deep down always wants to be able to earn their own.”

Life for performing arts students may soon become more difficult. Following government plans to deregulate university fees and decrease funding by 2016, expert analysis shows the minimum annual cost of a visual and performing arts degree is likely to rise from $6000 to $9000. Declan is concerned about the impact on an arts industry that already lacks funding. This is especially important, he says, because art – whether it be through music or film – impacts so many people.

Declan is aware that the entertainment industry is a tough nut to crack. “Because there are so many people vying for that one spot, it’s quite hard,” he admits. Yet rejection only motivates him to push harder: “With my mindset and how I have my life planned out, failure is not an option.”

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The dark side of political life: Sandwiches, name-calling and “assault”

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Being a politician is not for the faint hearted. Whether we’re talking about student politics or an Australian federal election, those in public life are often subject to ridicule, insults and angry protests. This reality was made clear this month, when several current and former Liberal politicians were confronted and even allegedly assaulted by angry university students while visiting several uni campuses in Sydney and Melbourne.

Early last week, student protesters disrupted a lecture by former Liberal MP Sophie Mirabella at the University of Melbourne. This was predated by students yelling at Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop when she visited two Sydney universities this month. Education Minister Christopher Pyne has also seen his fair share of student activism – first on a now famous episode of Q&A and then again last Thursday night, when he attended the Howard Debating Cup at the University of Sydney.

Pyne was quick to label students’ approach to Bishop as “assault”, though many dispute this. Disagreement and dissent are healthy to democracy, but as shown in the latest series of student protests against the Liberal government’s cuts to higher education, the level of acceptable dissent against politicians and other authority figures can polarise opinion across Australia.

Defending the Q&A protest

When you make promises to the public – when you are elected on those promises and when you wield enormous power over the nation’s future – your actions and your policies are justifiably scrutinised. “That politicians would become the focus of intense public scrutiny and intense emotions is to be anticipated to some extent”, said Dr Peter Chen, a politics lecturer at the University of Sydney, to Hijacked.

Dr Chen said we should recognise that politicians are people with human emotions, but that the power and responsibility they hold is exceptional. Dr Chen defended the chanting Q&A protesters and pointed to the power imbalance between students and politicians. “On the one hand, it would be good to engage in civil policy-oriented debate, and I think in general people do agree to that, but that position assumes we are in an environment where all people can participate in civil debate [equally] and I’m not sure that’s necessarily the case,” he said.

Throwing shoes and sandwiches

When your voice is ignored, when your letters are answered only with regurgitated statistics, and when forums like Q&A become more and more scripted, how far should you push to be heard? Some people draw the line further along the spectrum than others, and throughout the years, politicians have been subject to some pretty humiliating and threatening demonstrations.

During his reign as Prime Minister until 2007, John Howard had shoes – an old school form of spectator disrespect – thrown at him twice over “racist” policies and the Iraq War. Australia’s first female PM Julia Gillard also had sandwiches thrown at her during two separate school visits and she narrowly missed a flung egg in Perth. Even in New Zealand, MP John Banks was recently sprayed with a bucket of mud over charges for failing to declare high profile donations.

Dr Chen says that throwing things constitutes as violence. “Everyone should have the right to participate politically without the fear of violence, and it does no good when violence is used as a political strategy by any side of the political spectrum in a democracy,” he said.

Name-calling and ridiculing

If an average person experienced the amount of name-calling and ridiculing that politicians face in the media and on the street, people would not hesitate to call it extreme bullying.

During her time as Prime Minister, Julia Gillard was called a bitch and a witch. “Take that, you dog,” is one line shouted before a group of Greens supporters threw shoes at somebody dressed up as former PM Kevin Rudd. Last October in Melbourne, students burnt an effigy of current leader Tony Abbott outside Victorian Parliament, and it’s not unusual to see young and old Australians wearing t-shirts or holding signs that say “Fuck Tony Abbott” or “Tony Abbott eats poo”.

When we don’t know a politician, it is easy to idealise them as an ultimate hero or villain – much like the way we sometimes forget that celebrities like Kanye West or Kim Kardashian are actually real people. Some people say that putting yourself up for criticism is a price to pay for public power. But should we still take into account a politician’s emotions, the impact on their loved ones or their basic human rights?

Some people realise that politicians aren’t just talking heads on a TV screen. Georgia Hitch, a student from the University of Sydney, went to school with Kevin Rudd’s son. Kevin Rudd was mostly just the dad who showed up to his son’s tech shows or held a charity event with the school. “He was first and foremost a dad, just like the rest of our [parents],” says Hitch to Hijacked. “At the end of the day, politicians really are people with emotions,” she says of the effect of Rudd’s ousting on his family.

Like the rest of us, politicians deserve the right to feel safe from harm, to be free from persecution based on sex, race and religion and – dare I say it – to be allowed freedom of political communication (to the extent that it does not incite hatred, violence or significant harm against others).

Ineffective protest strategies

Some people say that violence, profanities and abusive slogans like “Fuck Tony Abbott” are not only crass, but that they also undermine the effectiveness of the movement because they overshadow the issues and peaceful nature of protests.

“The ambush of Julie Bishop made the protesters seem erratic and abusive and potentially undermined the cause and their motives,” says Hitch. “Considering how critical the media are being towards protesters [we] all have to think very carefully about exactly how we choose to get our message across [and not] through profanities, shoes and sandwiches.”

In a protest of thousands, it is often the small and apparently violent group that will make front page news. It is the violence, the egg and the shoe – not the issue or peaceful protesters that we remember – that are often latched onto by tabloid newspapers or those with an agenda to push.

Dr Chen says the protesters face a difficult paradox when dealing with the media. Violent protests can distort the focus of an issue, but peaceful protests like March in March are often under-reported. “While a more rambunctious style of protest may be somewhat counterproductive, it may be less counterproductive than getting no coverage at all,” he said.

Politics is not an easy job and sometimes it becomes intensely personal. While protesters are disadvantaged when challenging powerful politicians, it is still within their power to determine their personal actions and decide what kind of social movement they want to create.

Published in Hijacked, 26 May 2014.

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Modern day thought police

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“Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing.” – George Orwell.

You sit at your dusty desk at the Ministry of Truth, where your job is to alter historical records in favour of the Party. The Ministry is currently implementing a new language called Newspeak where certain words are deleted from the dictionary.

“Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.”

Thoughtcrime is the worst crime of all. Wherever you go, Big Brother is watching through telescreens. Wherever you go, there is the irrepressible murmur of political propaganda in the airwaves. The outside world is your enemy. Food is scarce. The torture of dissidents is rife.

Everything is great. Because that is what they tell you and this is all you know.

“The masses never revolt of their own accord, and they never revolt merely because they are oppressed. Indeed, so long as they are not permitted to have standards of comparison, they never even become aware that they are oppressed.”

It sounds like a fictional story because it is. This is the world of George Orwell’s 1984. But it is also harrowingly similar to the world of today’s North Korea.

“I had to be careful of my thoughts because I believed Kim Jong-il could read my mind. Every couple of days someone would disappear. A classmate’s mother was punished in a public execution that I was made to attend. I had no choice – there were spies in the neighbourhood,”writes Yeonmi Park, a young woman who escaped North Korea.

In Nazi Germany, it was the Gestapo. In Orwell’s 1984, it was the thinkpol. And now, the mental and physical repression of the masses in North Korea is nothing short of a modern day thought-policing system. Both the past and the fiction exist in today’s reality.

For the first 15 years of her life, Yeonmi Park grew up in North Korea literally believing Kim Jong-il was an omniscient god. “I never doubted it because I didn’t know anything else. I could not even imagine life outside of the regime.” Earlier this month, she appeared on SBS Insight to share the harrowing reality of the North Korean regime.

“It was like living in hell. There were constant power outages, so everything was dark. There was no transportation – everyone had to walk everywhere. It was very dirty and no one could eat anything.

“It was not the right conditions for human life, but you couldn’t think about it, let alone complain about it. Even though you were suffering, you had to worship the regime every day.”

When her father, a government worker, was accused of doing something wrong, he was sent to prison for three years. The regime’s policy of generational punishment meant that Park’s entire family was exiled from Pyongyang to the countryside near the Chinese border.

The UN Commission has also heard many testimonies indicating there are currently 120,000 political prisoners in North Korea. Many are systematically starved and instructed to burn dead bodies into fertiliser. Mothers are forced to kill babies that are of ‘impure’ blood.

As a teenager, Park fled the dictatorship, crossing a frozen river and a winter desert to get from North Korea to China to Mongolia and finally, to South Korea. After years of brainwashing, it was difficult for her and her mother to let go of their indoctrination.

“I realised that everything I thought was a lie. I had not been a real person – I was created for the regime to work for them. If they ordered us to die, I would’ve died for them,” she writes. It took Park three years to overcome the brainwashing.

“My mother took longer than me. When Kim Jong-il died she couldn’t believe it…she said, ‘he can’t die because he’s not a human, he’s a God!’”

While Park may have escaped, some of her family and many more North Koreans have not been so lucky. In 2014, it seems unfathomable that this could be a reality for anyone. But it is.

Published in Hijacked, 23 April 2014.

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Buying Time From The Poor

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It can be difficult enough deciding whether or not to boycott clothes that have been outsourced from factories with abysmal working conditions. Boycotting may put workers out of a job but continuing to buy may encourage unethical sourcing methods. Replace ‘clothes’ with ‘human organs’ and the internal dilemma gets even more complicated.

Like a diamond ring or the clothes on your back, it is hard to imagine that a donated organ may come from a slum in India or a shack in Brazil. Only this time, an organ can give you what you didn’t think anyone could: time.

World Health Organisation statistics from 2011 recorded 112, 631 solid organ transplantations worldwide, which only satisfied about 10 per cent of global needs. With global demand significantly higher than global supply, patients may seek alternative routes and countries to desperately find an organ.

If you could get a life-saving organ from the slums of India or a shanty town in Brazil, would you take it?

A nephrologist (kidney physician) from the Netherlands, taking part in a 2013 study, showed empathy to those who buy. “It’s a matter of life and death.” “It is to be expected from a rational minded person that he will look for other ways to find organs”.

Image Credit: North Dakota National Guard

It can be a difficult decision whether to buy or die. Before he died, Steve Jobs spoke of the importance of death as “the single best invention of life.” “It’s life’s change agent”, he said. “It clears out the old to make way for the new.” So, when death comes knocking, do we fold or do we fight for another day? How do we know when, if ever, is the right time to die? In the context of global organ trading, some may be better equipped to fight for more time than others.

With technological advances comes the prospect of immortality for the rich, argues Elliot Leyton, anthropologist from Memorial University of Newfoundland. Leyton argued that the commodification of body parts, sold in a new world market, “offers the wealthy and the well-connected an indefinite extension of life, limited only by the abilities of current medical technology.” “[T]he rich now live forever (at least in theory)”, he wrote.

On the flipside, imagine you are living in poverty and have no money to pay for your daughter’s hefty dowry or for your children’s education. If technological advances and global networks allowed your body to become a new source of currency, would you use it?

Several academics have argued over the ethics of the global organ trade and whether the decision to donate an organ is autonomous or subject to exploitation. That is, whether organ commodification is an empowering means of escaping abject poverty or a mechanism that exploits the desperation of the abjectly poor.

Francis Delmonico, surgeon and president of the Transplantation Society, argued, “the vulnerable in resource-poor countries are exploited for their organs as a major source of organs for the rich patient-tourists”. Rich patient-tourists create the demand and the resource-poor become a source of supply.

Dharavi Slum in Mumbai . Image Credit: Kounosu

However, others may criticise this perspective as social paternalism, arguing that an individual should be free to choose what to do with their own body. “I would sell my own kidney if I could therefore feed my children or give them good education. I cannot be judgmental about that”, one nephrologist reflected.

Poverty is the problem, not global organ transplantation, Radcliffe-Richards argues. “Removing their option to sell leaves them poor and makes their range of options smaller still.” Rather, Radcliffe-Richards believes we need to combat poverty at its root and provide safer means of organ extraction.

Alternatively, Scheper-Hughes (2000) argues that selling organs is hardly a fair option to suggest in the first place. When considering the social and economic poverty faced by donors, she argues the “choice to sell a kidney in an urban slum of Calcutta or in a Brazilian favela (is) anything but a free and autonomous one.” The seeming ‘consent’ to commodify one’s organs is forced upon donors by crippling circumstances.

Veena Das, anthropologist from Johns Hopkins University, agrees that putting a market price on body parts in not a means of escape but rather, “exploits the desperation of the poor, turning their suffering into an opportunity”.

In an increasingly globalised world with advancing medical technologies, there comes greater opportunity to save and extend lives. But there is also the risk that this new market may further entrench global inequalities.

Published in Vibewire, 30 October 2013.

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Australia far from settled on refugees

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In a sea of political rhetoric, phrases like “stop the boats, “refugee rights” and “queue jumping” seem to constantly get splashed around. Problems, causes, symptoms and solutions get swirled together, often making it difficult to grasp the complexities of the asylum seeker issue.

Rudd’s PNG Solution gave fresh lungs to voices across the political spectrum. Over a month later, the Coalition has finally made its move.

Early on, the left voiced outrage at Labor’s PNG solution with Greens leader, Christine Milne, accusing Rudd of lurching so far right that he leapfrogged Tony Abbott in cruelty.

In a political standoff, the right found itself facing a Labor policy that looked uncannily like its own – ‘offshore processing’ and ‘stopping the boats’ seemed to be the phrases of the day. Abbott’s initial response seemed baffled and ambiguous. “I welcome it, but it won’t work under Kevin Rudd, ” he said. Later, at the federal debate 11 August, in almost schoolyard “you copied me” style, Abbott said: “let’s face it, we invented off-shore processing.”

But on Friday 16 August, Tony Abbott came out with bigger guns and a more coherent response in an attempt to distinguish Liberal from Labor and secure the conservative votes.  Firstly, Liberal will deny asylum seekers the right to appeal to the courts for refugee status. Secondly, any legitimate refugee found among the 30, 000 asylum seekers who have already arrived will only be granted temporary rather than permanent visas.

There are many stages in an asylum seeker’s journey to Australia. Every stage remains controversial. This is the story Australians tend to hear: a person is manipulated by a conniving boat smuggler into hopping onto a rickety boat without a visa, placing their lives at the mercy of the turbulent high seas. If they survive, the asylum seeker is taken into mandatory detention where their claim for refugee status is processed. If the claim succeeds, questions remain over where they will be settled and what rights they will be given.

Should the boats be stopped?

Both Labor and Liberal have echoed a resounding “yes”.  Australians are no stranger to stories of disastrous boat journeys and deaths at sea. Like most politicians, when Rudd announced his hardline deterrence policy, he framed it as a compassionately motivated attempt to end an exploitative system of boat smuggling. “There is nothing compassionate about criminal operations which see children and families drowning at sea, ” he said.

However, many refugee advocates denied these moral claims, arguing that such deterrence methods merely punish the most vulnerable.

Daniel Webb from Human Rights Law Centre told Fairfax Media that deterrence was the wrong policy. He said deterring boats only addresses the symptom of the problem. The problem, he said, is that there are people in our region who desperately need protection and who lack a safe, viable, alternative pathway to access it. “Now you can shut Australia’s doors but that doesn’t resolve their underlying desperation and their underlying need to obtain protection”, Mr Webb said.

Like Rudd, Abbott seems determined to stop the boats, expressing sentiments of effective border protection. ”The essential point is, this is our country and we determine who comes here, ” Mr Abbott said.

Detention and Processing Claims

With both major parties now supporting offshore detention, the Liberal party has hardened their stance on the processing stage. Shadow Immigration Minister, Scott Morrison, expressed a desire to end Labor’s “tick and flick” approach by removing asylum seekers’ right to appeal. In the March quarter, Labor’s court appeal system saw an increase of approved refugee statuses from 65.3 to over 90 per cent. According to Mr Morrison, this appeal process was being “promoted by the people smugglers to put people on boats”.

Settlement

There are currently 30, 000 asylum seekers “that Kevin Rudd’s already let in”, said Mr Morrison. From these, any legitimate refugee will be denied permanent residency under the Coalition.

In the words of Mr Morrison: “You don’t get the right to stay in Australia forever, you don’t get the right to apply for citizenship, you don’t get the right to bring your family here, you don’t get the right to come and go from the country as you please.”

Refugees on welfare will be signed up to the ‘Work for the Dole’ program where work experience must be completed in order to receive continuing income support from the government. This is because “you shouldn’t get something for nothing if you’re coming to this country, ” said Mr Morrison. According to the government website, this program aims to “give eligible job seekers the opportunity to learn new skills, get work experience and improve their chance of finding a job.”

When a temporary visa expires, refugee status will be reassessed according to whether a person’s home country has improved enough for them to return home.

#AUSylum Conversation

The questions are complex and the answers in Australia remain divided…

Should the boats be stopped and if so, how?

Will policies of deterrence support the greater good in dismantling a boat smuggling system of exploitation or does it merely punish vulnerable individuals? 

Is this a matter of border security, humanitarian obligations or both?

Is ‘queue-jumping’ a myth used to demonise desperate boat people?

Is a system of (potentially indefinite) detention humane and economically viable?

Should asylum seekers be processed on the mainland or offshore?

Should refugees be granted permanent or temporary visas?

Whether you want to learn more, or you want to have your say on these issues, join the #AUSylum Twitter conversation. To tackle these complex questions with you, Vibewire will be hosting these panellists:

  • Joe Hildebrand, journalist from The Daily Telegraph
  • Graeme McGregor, National Refugee Campaign Coordinator of Amnesty International
  • Sara Saleh from Amnesty International
  • Gemma Amy-Lee from I am a Boat Person

Follow the twitter feed and add your piece to the puzzle as we explore these complex issues in 140 or less characters.

Published in Vibewire, 21 August 2013.

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Faces behind the fashion tags


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With over 1,100 lives lost, the Bangladesh factory tragedy has placed a magnifying glass over the issue of labour exploitation. From beneath the rubble, stories of survival and loss emerge – the faces behind the fashion tags.
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Filed under Feature, News, South Sydney Herald

Who Should Tell Indigenous Stories?

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To represent a story truthfully is a complex task—particularly when unravelling something that remains a “great mystery” to many Australians. In reporting on Aboriginal issues, I’ve often wondered if I, as a non-Aboriginal Australian, have any right to tell their stories.
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Filed under Feature, Vibewire