Trish and John Highfield - ERC, diversity be thy name

The impact of the Howard Liberal/National Government's decision to privatise operational control of Australian Immigration Detention facilities was becoming startinglingly obvious by the late 1990's. An American company – Wackenhut Corporation – through its Australian subsidary ACM was taking $100m a year as conditions for those in mandatory detention deteriorated. An ABC News report from Port Hedland showed the pitiful plight of very young detained children in the heat haze peering through razor wire.Trish, an early childhood professional, was appalled. Her inquiries to Government agencies led nowhere. Contact with social activist groups gave a better yield – she was guided to Villawood Detention Centre in Sydney. There, Trish met traumatised children and their parents who had almost no contact from outside. Invited to a meeting at the Centre for Refugee Research at UNSW, she contributed to the roundtable discussion. Some good nuns passed on her observations to Sr Aileen Crowe and Zena Elton. Thus our association with the wonderful work of the ERC began. 

Through the impossible detention years of the early 2000's when Australia's nasty treatment of the desert-imprisoned men women and children was publicly submerged by the Sydney Olympic euphoria, to the growing awareness fostered by a rapidly growing advocacy movement through the ERC, mushrooming ad-hoc groups like Chilout, Rural Australians for Refugees and significant formal research on the damaging impact of long-term detention done by Dr Zachary Steel and a Villawood Iraqi inmate, Dr Aamer Sultan and the AHRC Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention by Dr Sev Ozdowski led momentum to greater accountability and public concern. As a journalist/broadcaster, John found plenty of material to occupy many ABC hours ! Advocates like us found plenty of willing support from the ERC crew under Phil Glendenning as the push for release of the children became a minor tsunami of protest. The 2005 achievement of zero children in Detention was, alas,short-lived. Both mainstream ALP and L-NP politicians slid back to bad ways under the weight of boat arrivals by people fleeing conflict zones. Indifference to the plight of those deemed not to be worthy of Australian protection was again marked by forced “repatriation “ and the Stop the Boats populist catchcry rose.

But there were many pleasant diversions from these trials in our long association with ERC. John's participation with fellow journalist Chris Rau at the Human Rights Action Day for Year 10/11 Students in 2014, amongst them. We found a lot of joy in workshops with the young people exploring media attitudes to social issues. More importantly – the day gave us journalists an equally good lesson in communication when the amazing Colm Regan wove his magic for hundreds of us in the Hall. And could we forget the 2016 Justice Through the Arts at the Southern Cross Catholic College Burwood. Hundreds of high school boys and girls exposed to a very full day of fantastic activists, artists, authors and educators – ending with the never-to-be-forgotten Rock Music Finale featuring Phil Glendenning, his brothers and the Hawkesbury Riverboat Postman Lady-neighbour on string double-bass !!

ERC – diversity be thy name.......

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