Parishioner reflects on meeting his MP

Please note, the opinions expressed by the guest contributor (below) are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of JRS Australia or any employee thereof. 

Nangami is a social justice group formed by the Our Lady of the Way parish in North Sydney. The group was formed by parishioners due to the initiative of the parish. The word ‘Nangami’  was chosen due to its meaning of being a “dream which we all share.”

Since then, Nangami has supported people seeking asylum and refugees in various ways. The below reflection by Nangami member, Joe Fernandez gives a detailed indication of what communities can do to bring about positive change. 

Reflection from Joe Fernandez of Nangami, of Our Lady of the Way, North Sydney.

The Catholic magazine The Record (in its issue for 23 November 2011) published the following letter from a reader Mitchel Peters of Marangaroo: 

“It is a scene that has been frequently depicted in art: a mother and her son riding on a donkey, led by the woman’s husband. The family is seeking refuge in a foreign country; they are refugees who must flee elsewhere in order to avoid the killing of the infant by the ruler of their land. That ruler is of course, Herod the Great and the infant whose life he seeks to end is Jesus (Matthew 2:13-23). 

“However the Holy Family is not intercepted at the border and the flight into Egypt does not end in tragedy. Fast forward to another time and place, and we are witnessing a recurring scenario that is playing out tragically. Desperate people are fleeing their country of birth to avoid all sorts of harm, including persecution and death. It is a measure of their desperation that they feel compelled to risk their life by journeying in leaky boats. 

“But their misery is compounded by the fact that they find themselves embroiled in the politics of the land in which they wish to resettle. Among the players in this game is the leader of a major political party, with a propensity for sound bites and slogans, including the three-word mantra: “Stop the boats.” 

“Never mind that the so-called boat people constitute about 1.4 per cent of the country’s annual intake. Never mind that over 90 per cent of them are subsequently found to be genuine refugees. Never mind that nothing is mentioned of over 50,000 people who arrived by air and who overstay illegally in the country given the expiration of their visas. Never mind the moral bankruptcy of the slogan “Stop the boats.” The background of this political leader suggests he is familiar with the Gospel, but his consistent actions suggest that he does not understand its essential message. Presumably if he lived in Egypt over two thousand years ago he would be shouting vehemently “Stop the donkeys.” 

I feel frustrated but I would nonetheless commend to him the Gospel passage in Matthew 25 about responding to the hidden Christ: “Truly I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” 

~ Mitchel Peters, Marangaroo, WA. 

The Nangami Peace and Justice Group at Our Lady of the Way had meetings in late 2018, at which members decided, as one of their actions, to advocate to MPs on asylum seeker policy, and, in particular, to highlight the devastating effect of the cuts to the Status Resolution Support Services (SRSS). 

My Federal MP at the time was the political leader referred to by Mr Peters in his letter above. 

I had previously met with my MP and put some effort and time into dialogue and correspondence on asylum seeker policy. I came to the conclusion that my engaging in further attempts at such advocacy would be fruitless and that my efforts would be better directed in securing a different representative for our electorate. 

So this was the first lesson I learned in this exercise: Evaluate your chances of being successful in any advocacy you plan, be realistic, and if you decide it is pointless with your existing representative, rather than wasting your time and energy in advocacy to him or her, direct your efforts towards electing a different representative. After all we live in a democracy, where we elect the leaders we want. 

The electorate in which I live, Warringah, had at the previous election returned the incumbent, with the Greens candidate running second on the two-candidate-preferred result. 

As a Greens member, I am well aware that, in contrast to the two major parties, the Australian Greens are the only significant party whose policies align with the Australian Catholic Bishops policy on asylum seekers: 

“Regardless of how they arrive in Australia, all asylum-seekers should have their claims processed in Australia, according to international conventions, and as speedily as possible. That includes resettling all remaining refugees on Manus Island and Nauru in Australia.” 

(Politics in the Service of Peace: A statement by the Australian Catholic Bishops of Australia for the 2019 Federal Election.) 

Furthermore the Australian Greens policy is to restore and enhance SRSS, the issue which the Nangami group wished to advocate. 

Each electorate is different and accordingly residents of each need to look at the specific circumstances in their electorate. 

In this case, the major requirement prior to the election was to advocate to the Greens to direct their preferences to the strong Independent candidate Zali Steggall who was running for the first time, with a platform that listed policies to treat our refugees humanely and fairly” and “ People should not have to risk their lives making dangerous journeys across seas or sit for 5+ years in detention.” once again, policies that aligned with the Australian Catholic Bishops policy statement. 

Whether or not it was a result of my advocacy, the Greens did, in this electorate, direct their preferences to the Independent candidate Zali Steggall right after the activist Susan Moylan- Coombs, and on Sunday 19 May 2019 our Federal electorate had a new member, elected on Greens and Labor preferences. 

So a second lesson that I learned was that advocacy could be more effective by engaging in it prior to the election and directing it to take into account the specific circumstances of candidates and parties. 

On Monday May 20 2019 the Nangami group emailed the office of the new Federal member of Warringah to establish contact, with an invitation to our screening of the movie The Staging Post

Over June we maintained contact with the new member’s staff who explained to us that they were setting up their new office and therefore unable to have meetings with us until this was complete. 

In preparing for advocacy, the Nangami group had previously had a presentation on the topic of advocacy to Parliamentary representatives from Stafford Sanders of the Uniting Church

In mid-June we held a Nangami advocacy team meeting which our Parish Priest, Father Philip Moller, attended and Nishadh Rego of JRS Australia led us through a first round of preparation for the anticipated meeting. 

In early July we were given a date in mid-July for a meeting with our Federal MP’s Policy Coordinator and her Electorate Officer, and asked for a list of issues to be provided, together with a list of attendees. Our team was Elizabeth Biok, Joe Collins, Joe Fernandez, Alexandra Hogan, Raphael Manirakiza, Anne Noonan, Nishadh Rego; Nish and Elizabeth produced a briefing paper on the issues for the MP’s office, and we submitted this ahead of time. 

Nishadh then held two meetings with Nangami members at which he and Elizabeth Biok talked through the issues with us so we were all well prepared for the meeting with the MP’s staff. 

The meeting lasted for an hour and a half and went very well. The MP’s Policy Coordinator and Electorate Officer expressed the view that they valued the session as providing them an opportunity to learn the technical details of the issues being raised, from the subject experts, Nish and Elizabeth in particular, and others in the team. 

Following the meeting, the MP’s office emailed us asking for documents that provide detailed information on the issues we discussed, and we supplied these. 

The MP’s office now plans to hold a meeting, possibly in September or October, of different asylum seeker support groups to let us collaborate with each other and to meet with our new Federal MP. 

~Joe Fernandez

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