Recent poll results that show rising support for the Abbott Government’s approach to border security are disturbing even if not entirely surprising. Asylum seekers have been detained offshore, out of general sight and conveniently out of mind for those Australians who prefer not to think about the issue, and the Labor Opposition has consistently failed to offer any decent alternative. Given that refugee advocates have had the better of the Government on details of truth and on virtually every moral and economic argument, they might well be wondering what they must do to convince Australians that our approach to asylum seekers is shameful and urgently in need of change.
While advocates must maintain the arguments and keep pressure on government to tell the truth about what is happening in our proxy prisons, other approaches also have the potential to appeal to the popular imagination. Writers, visual artists, dancers and musicians are all playing important roles in the campaign to make Australian policy more just, humane and positive. The CD Reclaim Your Voice: Stopping the Punishment of Asylum Seekers deserves recognition as an important addition to this campaign. The album of 18 very strong and moving tracks was assembled and produced by Andy Busuttil, whose musical skill is matched by his compassion towards asylum seekers.
There are clear messages in these 18 tracks, each of which demands attention for its sincerity and power. For example, Blindmans Holiday sings the late Alistair Hulett’s ‘Behind Barbed Wire’ which presents internment as a measure of our own fears and a mutual constraint: it is we who ‘retire behind barbed wire’. Just as Hulett’s song is now a classic, the prolific Shortis and Simpson point out that their ‘Detainee’ was written twelve years ago but there is no sign that our understanding and compassion have increased during the twenty-first century.
Spike Flynn’s beautiful ‘Further On Down the Line’ speaks of the hope that refugees must hold in order to survive. The down side is that it reminds us that we are effectively their only hope. The Bridge Project – including Andy Busuttil – tell the tragic tale of a man from Lebanon who witnessed the drowning of his eight children and pregnant wife between Indonesia and Christmas Island. In ‘Fruit of the Earth’ Andy recites the poem of Hossein Babahmaadi who was forcibly returned to Iran after enduring the ‘hell hole’ of Manus Island for three months. Kavisha Mazzella’s mother escaped Rangoon when it was bombed by the invading Japanese military. ‘May I Be A Raft’ is her Bodhissatvas-inspired prayer for asylum seekers.
In ‘The Journey’ Christina Mimmochi sings of the ‘nameless, faceless refugee’ asking for our assistance. She laments the way that the news seems to be always the same, with a list of the ways that we disappoint them and eventually ourselves. She asks simply whether Australia will play its part in relieving the distress of some fraction of the millions cast adrift by the failure of politicians or whether we have lost our national heart. Here we sit ‘girt by sea’ and dare to judge people who have never known the peace and prosperity we enjoy by the accident of where we were born.
Contributors to Reclaim Your Voice use a wide variety of musical sub-genres. As well as Ben Iota’s hip-hop and Getano Ban’s reggae ‘Stop Da Boats’ there are pieces that would be fine additions to blues, folk or rock albums. There is also wide variety in instrumentation thanks to Andy Busuttil’s skilful mixing and the donation of time and skills by session musicians. He can be contacted at.. [email protected] All proceeds from the sale of the album go to the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre. www.asrc.org.au
If there is a most commonly occurring term it is ‘humanity’. The songs and verse appeal to the listener to respond to asylum seekers with a greater sense of our shared humanity. In dealing with this issue, refugee advocates know we are not alone but sometimes knowing is not enough. Reclaim Your Voice operates on an emotional level, helping us to feel we are in excellent company. The warmth and strength on offer in Reclaim Your Voice should open the hearts of many of those people who have closed their minds. While the contributors to this excellent album speak from their hearts, Reclaim Your Voice is not a despairing cry but a hopeful demand for action.
Tony Smith is a former academic, regular contributor to Eureka Street, Australian Review of Public Affairs and Australian Quarterly. He is now a keen “folkie”