FEDERAL MP Bruce Billson has been forced to defend the Coalition government’s asylum seeker policy after a protest outside his office – not by placard-waving radicals but a loose alliance of peninsula church leaders and local branch of Amnesty International.
Six leaders protested outside the MP’s Frankston office on Monday last week after failing to obtain an appointment to meet Mr Billson, who is Minister for Small Business in the Abbott government and the MP for Dunkley, which stretches from Seaford to Mornington.
They have been invited to meet Mr Billson on 22 December after first requesting a meeting almost a month before but decided to go ahead with last week’s protest, which included the six walking into the MP’s office in pairs to present information sheets, Christmas cards and a “moral compass”.
The six are Reverend Cameron McAdam, minister of the Village Uniting Church in Mt Eliza; Jean Woods; Jamie Edgerton, a member of New Peninsula Baptist Church in Mt Martha; Pastor Jim Catford of Mornington Church of Christ; Kevin Bain of Amnesty International’s peninsula branch; and Dr David Price, OAM, a member of St Mark’s Uniting Church in Mornington.
Another alliance member – Archdeacon Phillip Newman, OAM, interim minister at St Peter’s Anglican Church in Mornington – was not able to attend the protest.
Dr Price, a retired surgeon who worked at Beleura and Frankston hospitals, said the group was very concerned about “the atrocious conditions being experienced by about 700 children held on Christmas Island”.
He said changes to immigration laws passed by the Senate last week did not address about 170 children including 23 infants being held on Nauru.
“We’re calling for all children to be freed from detention not just those on Christmas Island,” he said.
On 5 December the Senate passed sweeping changes to Australia’s immigration laws after Immigration Minister Scott Morrison agreed to lift Australia’s refugee intake by 7500 places, gave asylum seekers on bridging visas the right to work, and agreed to remove all children in camps on Christmas Island. The legislation passed with the support of two Palmer United Party senators, Family First’s Bob Day, Liberal Democrat David Leyonhjelm and Ricky Muir of the Motoring Enthusiast Party.
Dr Price said the peninsula alliance was part of a broader movement pressuring the government to release children in detention.
“We are unhappy about the government reintroducing temporary protection visas [TPVs]. Positive elements include some asylum seekers being permitted to work and children being released from Christmas Island, but Mr Morrison could have done this anytime since the government was elected in September 2013, and there are still children being held on Nauru.”
After the protest, Mr Billson said the government was “continuing efforts that started immediately upon our election to reduce the number of children in detention resulting from Labor’s policy failures”. He said the number of children held on Christmas Island had been reduced by 75 per cent by the Coalition.
“More than 80 per cent of children are residents in the community either on bridging visas or under resident determinations. We are working … to get the remaining children out of detention in Australia now that legislation has been passed by the parliament.”
Rev McAdam said it had never been right to detain children. “We are keeping children and their families locked in these places, many living in limbo, unsure of their futures.”
He said he had asked Mr Billson “to lead and advocate for the immediate release of all children from detention, a closure of all offshore detention centres, and a fairer and more reasonable policy approach including a regional solution in the future”.
Peninsula protesters ejected by police
WHILE church leaders protested in Frankston last week, members of Christian lobby group Love Makes a Way were being carried out of two MPs’ offices in the inner suburbs by Australian Federal Police.
Eleven of the protesters were from the Mornington Peninsula including the shire’s 2013 young citizen of the year Sam Hearn, a youth worker and member of New Peninsula Church.
They conducted non-violent “sit-ins” at the offices of Liberal MPs Kelly O’Dwyer in Malvern and Josh Frydenberg in Camberwell. Ms O’Dwyer replaced former Howard government treasurer Peter Costello in the federal parliament, and Mr Frydenberg replaced Petro Georgiou.
The sit-ins were part of protests around Australia last Wednesday at government MPs’ offices that saw 53 church members arrested or removed.
Mr Hearn, 25, of Mornington said Wednesday was International Human Rights Day. “We were calling on this government to show some humanity when it comes to children in detention,” he said. “There have been 25 babies born on Australian soil to asylum seekers and we want them released into the community, not sent to Nauru.”
The youth worker was one of 10 people ejected from Ms O’Dwyer’s office after Australian Federal Police were called to the office followed by Victoria Police officers, who carried and dragged people out of the office. Eight people were carried or dragged, and a nun and 20-year-old women walked out “unassisted”.
“We were not arrested; just forcibly removed,” Mr Hearn said.