Palm Sunday: Inclusivity unites us all

IEUA NSW/ACT Branch Secretary Mark Northam addressed the Palm Sunday rally in Sydney on 28 March. Here are some excerpts from his speech.

Union values spring from a collective view of society. How can a society be progressive and inclusive? How can we take care of each other?

The pandemic is yielding opportunities for a cultural shift: for an Australia that has reflected on its past and, having learned from that past, gained the confidence to create a better, more progressive and inclusive future.

After World War II, Australia made a public policy decision to expand its population by 6 million people. New ideas emerged that we now recognise as the principles of multiculturalism. By the mid-1970s, we had begun embracing diversity.

Think back to 1976, when the first Vietnamese refugees arrived by boat in Darwin. Australian fishermen greeted them and gave them coins so they could “ring someone” to let them know they were here. Our instinctive response was inclusivity.

Think back to 1989 and the Tiananmen Square massacre: on national television, then Prime Minister Bob Hawke offered asylum to some 42,000 Chinese nationals in Australia. Again, our instinctive response was provide safe harbour – and it translated into workable policies.

Why have we now discarded this?

Hope in humanity

In the 2020 lockdowns, union members in schools pivoted almost overnight to teaching online. This same ‘can do’ spirit of cooperation emerged in all professions and industries throughout Australia. Acting collectively is the foundation of the trade union movement and a core Australian value – but one we seem to have lost sight of in recent years.

As one of the world’s wealthiest nations, that Australia makes a conscious choice to withhold support to refugees is a national shame. But we are also withholding justice from hundreds of people who’ve fled violence and persecution and sought our help, only to suffer dehumanisation at the hands of our brutal offshore detention program.

To meet our international obligations and rebuild community acceptance of refugees, Australia needs to readopt union values of dignity, inclusiveness and respect.

Biloela builds union

Dignity, inclusiveness and respect are the values of Biloela, from where Priya and Nades Murugappan and their daughters, Kopika (5) and Tharnicaa (3), were taken and placed into detention more than 1000 days ago. They are still on Christmas Island now. One day in mandatory detention is too many; any longer is utterly unconscionable.

The Biloela community has acted in ways familiar to union members. They’ve built campaigns and petitions that have reached right across the country. This regional community has built the kind of strength and power that no individual could ever hope to achieve on their own.

Theirs is a just plea for humanity in the face of inhuman institutional power and violence – again, themes that ring true for the union movement.

Strength in citizens

The Murugappan family’s plight represents the torture the Australian government inflicts upon refugees. The united Biloela community represents the compassion of the Australian people.

We can all unite and demand to free all the refugees and close the camps. We can demand permanent visas for refugees – not restrictive conditions that condemn them to poverty. We create peace, we can reject racism, we can be inclusive. We can achieve great things by acting in unison.

We call for all refugees in detention to be set free. We call for justice for refugees.

Monica Crouch