It’s consistent with my luck, that I’m speaking to you through teeth that have just suffered a dental trauma. SPEECH, free or otherwise is a little awkward for me, I might be slow, I hope you can bear it.
Now, to account for myself. In 2001, I set up “Spare Rooms for Refugees” I also smuggled letters into Nauru and established contact with many of the detainees there. Through them we got a near complete list of names which we distributed in groups of five to concerned Australians and the letter writing began.
In those early days I lobbied Canberra bureaucrats and the press daily as I learned the conditions, mistreatments and mistranslations the detainees were suffering.
My distress rose as it dawned on me that our press was not as interested in reporting or getting to Nauru as I was. I’d discovered a long but legal way of getting there. It required flights from New Zealand to Fiji, then Kiribas, and allowed a three day layover in Nauru.
At last, Four Corners producers asked me to assist a bright British journalist. She would make a one hour documentary called “The Pacific Solution” for a world audience, and Four Corners were to air it here on the ABC.
In June 2002, armed with secret contacts and cameras, and the story that we were half-cocked housewives on a charity mission, we set off to Nauru. At first, we were believed. We got into both of the monstrous camps and were escorted on a very grim tour. The misery of that place haunts me still. Imagine a building project and a makeshift army camp, streets of it set out on a white hot baking tray. Men crisping as they lay on stretcher beds all day, like the injured they were. Tiny pale wrapped women confined to even smaller quarters, the nauseating toilets and the obscenity of a giant generator that made this madness a possibility. Hell should be chaos, not organized like this one. Cruelty like this really costs.
At the time I was there it was admitted that $400 per day per detainee was the tariff, or “units” if you prefer Mr Ruddock’s terminology. “Unit costs” rise, he informed us, when numbers dwindle, as they indeed did over four years. In Nauru I was eventually arrested, I was even briefly assaulted.
Free SPEECH was forbidden when I returned, as the air date for the BBC was held over until September. Both networks lectured me long and hard that if I spoke I might even jeopardize the film’s viability on air. The film received glowing reviews in Britain especially from John Pilger but it wasn’t until December that Four Corners rather shamefacedly said they would not air it. The ABC also made their footage used in the film too expensive for SBS and the commercials to buy it. Effectively, I’d had my tongue lasered.
However, I still had about 70 letters I’d gathered from nervous hands in Nauru. These weren’t the sort of letters the prisoners felt were secure enough to send by post, and they were always reluctant to complain about their hosts. But I implored them. The letters detailed their mistreatment at the hands of our navy and military in their removal from boats and from our all important Australian waters.
I had all the letters translated, and with some lawyers we made a report called “Soldiers, Sailors and Asylum Seekers”. Our findings and their speech. It was launched by Carmen Lawrence and was universally ignored except by SBS. Since then I’ve helped journalists with countless stories that were cut short or washed away. Free Speech isn’t all that useful or interesting when no-one wants to hear.
I will never forget those discarded young Hazara men in Nauru. I can’t forget their dignity and subtlety, and I am still burdened with the stories they’ve entrusted me with. They’re still locked up.
There is no shortage of Free Speech in Australia. If you’re with the Government, you’re rolling in it, you can lie, distort, make ads, spin and rant as unaccountably as any bigot could wish. We, who shyly regard ourselves as humanitarians have been abandoned by the Labor Party, and possibly the High Court. I think we’re at sea. We are marooned on another pitiless, crude and poorly managed island – AUSTRALIA. I am comforted by you to celebrate and drink to an older notion of free speech, especially at a time when our legislators are gorging themselves on laws that won’t tolerate it.
Another intolerable and dying Australian tradition of rewarding failure or the underdog has been resuscitated here tonight. You’re honouring my aim and not my success as there has been so little. I very humbly accept your kindness.