Three Letters and some Links

It feels very strange in Melbourne today.  It’s drizzly and dark, and the weather is cold enough to require central heating and winter pyjamas, but the air is absolutely permeated by smoke – from the Tasmanian fires, we are told, though it could just as easily have been from the ones in Gippsland or in northern Victoria or on Kangaroo island.  There are fires in every direction, and yet we are safe, and can go about our lives as normal, except for the stinging in our eyes and throats, the tightness in our chests from the smoke.

I almost welcome it, though.  We’ve had several days of truly glorious weather over the last week (not consecutively, and none of them like any of the others of course – this is Melbourne we’re talking about), and it has felt so surreal to be able to go outside and enjoy the beautiful weather when all this devastation exists just a few hundred kilometres away.  (Clearly, the Catholic upbringing which I did not have has still managed to give me an over-inflated sense of guilt about ever enjoying myself).

Anyway.  I’ve been meaning to write some letters to politicians, but I’ve been running into difficulties, because my letters to Morrison keep on coming out as ‘Dear Prime Minister, Please get f*cked. Sincerely, Catherine,’ or sometimes ‘Dear Prime Minister, What the f*ck is wrong with you?’, which are certainly sincere statements of personal belief, but perhaps not very productive.

I did finally manage to write something slightly more useful, however, and since I thought that some of you might be sharing my difficulties, I figured I’d follow tradition and put my letters here for anyone to use as a starting point for their own missives.  Per my usual disclaimer, they are far from perfect.  And per my usual encouragement, they don’t need to be.  Don’t be crippled by the need to make everything exactly right.  The important thing is to send *something*.

Please note, incidentally, that I’ve seen a few people saying that emails sent through the form on the Prime Minister’s website are not being read, and that it is difficult to get through to him on the phone.  I don’t know if this is true or not, but just in case, let’s break out the envelopes and stamps for this one.

If you can’t bear to write to politicians right now – and honestly, I can’t blame you for that – I’ve also provided some more links at the bottom to charities and other organisations you might want to support.

And of course, wherever you are, I hope you are staying safe from the fires and the smoke, that your loved ones are also safe, and that you have the things you need.

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Marriage Equality letters

I’ve actually been ill today, so I didn’t manage to write as many letters as I meant to.  I’m hoping to do a bit of blitz of Senators tomorrow, but I have covered some of the main suspects at least.  I understand that the Plebiscite is being debated in Parliament this week, possibly even this evening, so I went with emails rather than postal letters this time.

As usual, having written the letters, I find them entirely inadequate, but I’m posting them here for two reasons.  Well, one reason, with two parts.  The reason is, of course, that I’m hoping some of you will also feel inclined to write to your politicians, and sometimes it’s hard to know where to start.  Feel free to use these as a starting point – it’s easier to fix a bad letter than to write one from scratch, in my experience.

It’s also sometimes hard to decide that a letter is good enough to send, and that’s the other reason I’m posting these.  I want to write the perfect letter, which will cause politicians to realise, at last, that they have made a terrible mistake and should be doing things differently (ie, my way…).  In the real world, that’s not going to happen.  Or at least, not through me – I am definitely not that eloquent.  But at least part of this is a numbers game.  A letter that does not perfectly express what you want to say is still a letter in someone’s inbox, reminding them that another one of their constituents opposes the plebiscite.  And you never know – your letter of support to a politician who is doing the write thing may be the encouragement they need, or may provide them with an argument or phrase that they hadn’t thought of and can use to sway others.  But even if it doesn’t, every little bit helps.

You can find contact lists for all Senators and MPs at this link.  These include phone numbers, postal and email addresses, so pick the medium of your choice and go for it.

If letters are too hard write now, the ALP has a campagin ‘It’s Time for Marriage Equality‘, which is half petition, half tweet, and certainly worth a look.  The Greens have a similar campaign.  And Australian Marriage Equality have all sorts of actions you can take, depending on your time, energy and financial resources.

And if you just need a break from all of this, here’s a link I found earlier when I was looking (unsuccessfully) for some information about my local Member.  It’s the 404 page for The Australian‘s National Affairs section, and it is absolutely hilarious.  Enjoy!

Letters below the cut…

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Kitchen Table Activism: How to Host a Letter-Writing Party

I’m in the fortunate position of knowing a lot of people who are deeply upset about what has been happening on Nauru, and would like to do something about it.  And many of these people are already doing great things – going to protests, working with refugee support services of various kinds, ringing MPs, and so forth.  (Incidentally, if you are not tied to a 9-5 job, there are some amazing non-violent actions taking place across Australia this week – the list can be found here.)

But one thing that I’ve been hearing a lot recently is that if you want to show politicians that you are serious, actual paper letters are the way to go.  Now, I write a fair number of letters, and I feel as though most of the relevant ministers have a pretty good idea how I feel about asylum seekers by now. (Or perhaps not – but I do start to wonder at what point one makes it onto the crank list.  Shorten, for one, must be pretty tired of me by now, and I’m sure I’m just one more reason Kelvin Thomson feels happy to have retired.).  It’s hard to think of new ways to say the same thing, and it can be rather demoralising to make the attempt.

So on Sunday, I invited a handful of friends around for a Tea and Letters Party.  The plan was simple: I provided the location, writing (and printing) supplies, stamps, envelopes, and rather copious amounts of baked goods (because once I start baking I find it hard to stop), and then we sat around the kitchen table for a few hours, writing letters over afternoon tea.

There were a few things about this party that I thought worked very well.  Over the course of the afternoon, people read out bits of letters, asked for advice, and discussed how particular politicians might be approached.  I found this useful on two levels – first, it was good for pooling information, and second, it was extremely helpful to see how other people phrased things, or how they approached particular letters. I tend to err on the side of writing far too much, and so seeing the ways that other people condensed their letters into only a few sentences was really useful.  On the other hand, I tend to try to ask for quite specific actions (repeal that secrecy act!), which others hadn’t necessarily thought of.  While we all wrote quite different letters in quite different styles, we definitely benefited from borrowing ideas, approaches and even phrases from each other.

Another thing which worked quite well, though it wasn’t something I’d planned for, was that of the nine people present, two actually didn’t write any letters.  My husband was largely on printer duty, as well as being in charge of tea and doors and things like that (I’m great at baking, but I never remember that people might want to drink something other than water).  Another friend of ours came intending to write letters, but realised after half an hour or so that he was too enraged by the whole situation to write anything that wasn’t so bitingly sarcastic as to be counterproductive.  He moved onto research duty, and became our looker-upper, responsible for answering questions such as ‘what was that act of Parliament called that said doctors weren’t allowed to talk about what was happening on Nauru?’ or ‘who are the Victorian Senators again?’.  He also did a lot of addressing of envelopes, and the final run to the postbox at the end of the day.  This was actually pretty useful, sufficiently so that I might plan to have an official looker-upper next time I host something like this.  But I do want to mention these roles as worth bearing in mind if you have people who would like to contribute but for one reason or another do not want to write letters themselves.

I think the tea and cake and social aspect helped, too.  It’s a little bit of incentive, and honestly, I think it’s helpful, if one is writing letters about terrible things, to have the company of like-minded people, as a reminder that really, one is not alone in being upset about this.

There were other things that I think could have worked better.  The first – which in retrospect is quite amusing but was a little distressing at the time – is that by turning letter-writing into a social occasion I managed to create a situation in which I was almost incapable of writing anything at all, due to the noise and conversation and interruptions!  After a while, I decided to view my role as facilitating letter-writing for others, rather than writing lots of letters myself, and that helped.  In future, I think I will draft at least a couple of letters ahead of time.  Once I actually had a few reasonable paragraphs that I could modify or recycle for other letters, I was able to write quite a bit, but I achieved almost nothing in the first two hours.

The second was that I really should, I think, have started by printing out some possible talking points, or even examples of good letters that I’d seen.  Several people asked if I had anything like that, and I didn’t – and I think it would have given us a starting point, and helped us get going in those first few hours.  So that’s something I’ve learned for next time.  I also should have printed out a list of politicians’ postal addresses before starting – I had them on my iPad, but it wasn’t as useful.  Fortunately, that was a fairly easy problem to fix.

The third was that occasionally everything got really noisy, and it made it hard to concentrate.  I think next time, I’ll try to set up a bit of a break-out room for people who want to chat more (about letters, or about other things, because this is a social event as well as a political one, it’s not a homework session), and be more active about chivvying people into it if need be!

But for a first attempt, organised on 24 hours notice, it was a pretty good effort.  We had a total of nine people, including me and our two non-writers, though a couple of them could only stay long enough to write one or two letters, and by the end of the afternoon we had written and posted twenty-seven letters to the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, Peter Dutton and his opposite number, Shayne Neumann, our various local MPs and a wide selection of Victorian Senators.  This may not sound particularly efficient, but for at least one person in the room, it was the first time he had written a letter to an MP, and he would not have done so now without this impetus.  So that’s three or four letters that certainly would not have happened without our afternoon tea – and I think 27 letters from 7 different people is a lot more valuable than fifty letters from one person in terms of showing politicians that the community feels strongly about an issue.

And I can’t stress enough how simple this was to organise.  Really, if you have friends, and live reasonably close to a post office, and can drop past the supermarket to buy some tea bags and some Tim Tams, you are more than halfway there.  I’ll definitely be doing this again.

Check-list for a Letter Writing Party

  • A reasonably sized table, or other writing surfaces
  • Pens
  • A4 paper (preferably the kind that can go through a printer)
  • Envelopes
  • Stamps
  • A printer (optional, but helpful – many people prefer to write on their laptops)
  • Wifi access so that people can look up things (you may want to appoint an official Looker Upper)
  • Tea and Coffee (don’t forget milk and sugar – I always do!)
  • Cake or biscuits or both (you can bake, or ask someone else to bake, or you can buy Tim Tams and a punnet of strawberries at the supermarket and everyone will still be happy)
  • A printed list of postal addresses for your target politicians (you can find a list of the Senators here, and can download a list of MPs here)
  • A few talking points, or sample letters, for inspiration

I like smallish groups and inviting people to my house, but this is probably something that you could run with a larger community group, if your community felt strongly about something.  Though the noise levels might become prohibitive, so that’s something to think about.  Also – and this is probably obvious, but still – pick a topic for the day.  I think one of the most valuable parts of this Tea and Letters party was hearing what other people had written, and that only really works if you are largely writing about the same thing.

I’d also recommend trying to keep it reasonably fun – yes, you want to get stuff done, and it’s important, but you also don’t want to make everyone feel as though this is a chore.  In fact, half the point of this is to make letter-writing less of a chore.  I suspect I err on the side of being a petty dictator, so this reminder is for me as much as for anyone else who wants to hold a Tea and Letters party.

Finally – and I know I said this already, but it bears repeating – if you are hosting a party like this, please, please, go easy on yourself and don’t feel bad if you, personally don’t write as many letters as you meant to write.  You are hosting, and answering questions, and helping people find things, and sorting out tea, and cutting cake, and making sure people can find the bathroom, and helping with whatever else they need, in order to create a space in which other people can write the letters that need to be written.  You are empowering other people to write letters!  It’s OK if you don’t get around to writing many (or even any) yourself.  Besides, I bet if you are hosting this, you’ve written plenty of letters in the past.  It’s someone else’s turn!

Lunchtime is letter time…

Some excellent speakers at yesterday’s rally, and I will try to write about it at some point.

But in the meantime, it’s lunchtime, which means it’s time to ring and write to the politician of your choice!  I rang my local member, and spoke to a lovely woman who told me that he is already against returning children to Nauru (onya, Kelvin!), but because I find phone calls terribly intimidating, I’m writing to the PM, Shorten and the various Immigration types…

As usual, these letters are very imperfect, but if they help you find a place to start, then they have done their job.  I do want to write at some point about the adult asylum seekers – we do focus on children, because they are an easier sell – but frankly, I don’t think anyone belongs in a detention centre on Nauru for years on end, regardless of age or gender.  If someone is a refugee, they deserve to be resettled somewhere safe.  If someone is not a refugee, then maybe they need to go home.  And if someone is a criminal, well, that’s why we have a legal system.  But holding someone indefinitely and without trial is never OK.

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Asylum Legacy Caseload Bill, and some letter-writing campaigns

As you might imagine, there are a few campaigns going against the Bills I wrote about on Sunday.  A Just Australia is organising a letter-writing campaign, with tips on what to say and information on how to find your local MPs and Senators.  The Refugee Advocacy Network is organising a similar campagin, and has information and interviews on YouTube explaining why these Bills are dangerous.  Or if you are a social media person, check out the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre‘s campaign, which combines Facebook and Twitter selfies with the more traditional letter-writing and phone calls.  You might also want to sign GetUp’s petition to close the Manus Island and Nauru detention centres – I know it’s been around for a few weeks, but it’s still worth doing.

The good news is that the Labor Party have said that they will oppose the bill (I have read that they do still support some measures, though I have not yet managed to find out which – I suspect it’s the off-shore detention part).  Independent Senator Madigan, formerly of the DLP, has also expressed opposition to this Bill, and when I called his office a few weeks ago on a related topic, I was told that he feels very strongly about Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers.  So if you are not in the mood for admonitory letters or emails, you could write a brief note of thanks and encouragement to your Labor and DLP Senators – or, of course, your Green Senators, whose opposition to this Bill is taken so much for granted that the ASRC doesn’t even bother to mention them!

Also, Pope Francis has also written to Tony Abbott asking him to remember the human cost of his laws, and calling for generosity to refugees – as well as more equitable social policies generally.   I’m beginning to think this Pope is almost as much of a socialist as I am – it will be interesting to see what our oh-so-Catholic Prime Minister makes of this letter.

But enough of these fun and games!  It’s letter-writing time!  As usual, I’m posting below the cut copies of the letters I have just sent to all my cross-bench Senators, my local MP, the PM and the Leader of the Opposition, the Minister for Immigration, and his Shadow Minister.

You can find contact details for your own local Senators and MPs here.  Happy writing!

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Two days

That’s how long it has taken for everyone to forget I’m wearing a scarf and interactions to go back to normal.  True, there are still a few double takes – it’s a big Institute, and I haven’t crossed paths with everyone yet, but in my lab, everyone’s basically used to the idea and has moved on.  Which is nice.

As for me, it turns out that it’s taken about four days for me to reach the point where I can go for long periods of time without remembering that I’m wearing a scarf.  It’s not that I’ve been wandering around feeling self-conscious at all times up until now – though for the first three days, and especially on Monday, I was certainly self-conscious pretty often – but today I found that I’d become so used to the feel of my scarf that I had to check visually several times that I was still wearing it and wasn’t leaving hair or neck exposed (the horror!).  My brain is now tuning out all those nerve endings that were jumping up and down going “Something on my head!  Something on my cheek! Something on my neck!” for the last few days, and this is apparently the new normal.

This does, of course, lead to random moments of confusion when someone reacts to my scarf and at first I don’t know what they are reacting to – or moments of fear when I realise that I have forgotten what I’m wearing and have thus also forgotten to think about where I am, and have to do a quick “Is this somewhere I feel safe wearing a scarf” analysis.  Because the thing that hasn’t stopped is the constant, low-level anxiety about being out in public and looking Non-White.  Even though, I have to say, the worst I’ve had to deal with since Saturday is people moving away from me on public transport or glaring at me at tram stops.

(And I’d just like to add that while this is really very low-grade stuff, I can imagine that it’s the sort of thing that could really build up and start to weigh on one’s psyche over time.  I was bullied at school, and it took me years to walk into a room and not expect everyone to hate me on sight – I still expect this sometimes – and I must admit, getting onto public transport in Hijab does feel a lot like walking into my year nine classroom.)

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Politics: Children in Detention – Seena Akhliqi Sheikhdost

So, there’s a child in detention on Christmas Island because he is an ‘illegal immigrant’. Actually, there are a lot of children in detention in Australia and on Christmas Island for this reason, but for now I’m just going to focus on one, because I am torn between tears and fury.

Seena Akhliqi Sheikhdost was one of the children in the boat tragedy off Christmas Island late last year. His parents both drowned, but he survived, and was of course put into detention, because we are compassionate people who find this an appropriate way to deal with bereaved eight-year-old suspected terrorists. He does, in fact, have family in Sydney, but as an unaccompanied minor, the Government is his legal guardian, and the Government apparently have forgotten why we got rid of Little Johnny, or else they don’t care. They don’t want to release him to his family because they haven’t processed him yet. He has been in detention for more than two months, His first six days in detention he spent without any family, although he had an aunt in the same centre. She wasn’t initially told he was there, you see (to be fair, this was probably bureaucratic stupidity, but there is enough awfulness to go around without adding that sort of thing into it).

As an illegal immigrant, Seena doesn’t get to go to school. He doesn’t get to associate with Australian citizens, either. And while he was allowed to go to the funeral of his parents, he can’t go back home with the family members who are in Australia legally, because he doesn’t have ASIO clearance. And did I mention that he is eight years old?

I find this deeply upsetting to contemplate, which means it’s time to write to the politicians again…

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