Refugees from celebrity

BEFORE committing to the new series of the life-as-an-asylum-seeker show Go Back to Where You Came From, Peter Reith fell back on the politicians’ crutch – he took advice. He phoned his colleague Philip Ruddock, who told the former deputy leader of the Liberal Party that the show is genuine and that he should go. (The producers had already approached Ruddock, but parliamentary commitments prevented him from taking up the offer).
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Reith’s son’s assessment was more pragmatic. He told his father that he would be bait for co-participant Catherine Deveny, a comedienne and outspoken critic of the Howard government in which Reith held key and contentious posts. He was an architect of the ”Pacific Solution” scheme to process asylum seekers offshore, he made the order for troops to board the Tampa and was at the centre of the ”children overboard” controversy.

Despite some reservations, Reith signed up, which is how he and five other well-known Australians with strong views on immigration – musician and fledgling politician Angry Anderson, shock jock Michael Smith, model Imogen Bailey, former ombudsman Allan Asher and Deveny – found themselves on a dangerous three-week journey to the hell holes of Afghanistan and Somalia, retracing the journeys undertaken by thousands of asylum seekers each year.

The advice he was given turned out to be correct. On the first day of filming, Deveny, who at one point tells Reith he has blood on his hands, goads him into a discussion about Australia’s intake of refugees. ”I said, ‘Let’s say we take 13,000 now, we double that and then double it again to 40,000,” Reith says. ”What will you do when person 40,000-plus-one comes in? That is the question.

”It’s not a choice of being humanitarian or not. The reality is that at some point in time governments have to make decisions.

”I’m in favour of more immigration,” says Reith, who retired from politics in 2001. ”We have plenty of room for people; I think we should take more people. But in a democracy, you have to have public support for such programs.”

Indeed, one of the most salient points Go Back makes for Reith is the fact the show’s six participants could not agree among themselves. ”Where the public goes wrong is they say, ‘Those politicians, why can’t they get together?”’ Reith says. ”We couldn’t get six people together.

”For the public to think this is what politicians are like, don’t kid yourself, they’re reasonably reflective of the public as a whole.”

Stretched out on a couch in his South Yarra apartment, Reith bats off the suggestion his participation is a corrective to his reputation as a political hard man. ”I gave up [thinking] about my image a long time ago,” he laughs.

He says the trip didn’t change his basic outlook but ”certainly fills it in”. His first visit to a refugee camp in Kabul was distressing, and he was moved by the plight of the Hazara people, one of many that have sought refuge in Australia and with whom he lunches in a modest Dandenong share house.

In a poor Indonesian village, he was able to understand the circumstances of the teenagers who crew the boats used by people smugglers, some of whom have ended up in Australian prisons. ”They’re kids without any parental contact, advice or influence, roaming through Kupang, sleeping who knows where and ending up on boats. They’re kids who know nothing about anything. They don’t know where Australia is.

”So why Julia Gillard thought it was a good idea to start upping the pressure on the crew and throwing them in jail beats me.”

Overall, the experience of making the show wasn’t an entirely happy one, Reith admits. The producer, Rick McPhee, says the security situation in Afghanistan was more volatile than they had anticipated, the crew having arrived in the wake of an incident at the Bagram Air Base in which books – including Korans – suspected of containing hidden messages were burned by US military authorities.

Matters came to a head on the second day in Kabul, when McPhee says a robust discussion took place with Reith and the security team. It was agreed that Reith would come back if he was unsatisfied with the security provisions and that the participants’ passports and mobile phones would be returned.

Reith contends that the situation was far more dangerous than the producers made out and was exacerbated by the positions in which they were placed for the purposes of filming. After reading a newspaper report stating that nowhere in Kabul was safe, Reith asked the security team about the safety of the hotel. ”And of course there had been incidents in the past where the Taliban or insurgents have infiltrated hotels,” he says. ”The lives of people are at risk.”

McPhee says he was confident with the security arrangements, while noting that their nervousness is the point of the show – ”going to a place people flee from and to understand why they flee”.

”We wanted to put people in the shoes of refugees; living in fear and having little control over your circumstances is part of the experience,” he says.

Reith also questions the tactic of withholding from the participants information that could have made encounters with the people they met more constructive. One of those people is Rezai, a former refugee who was rescued from the Tampa, held on Nauru and eventually repatriated back to Afghanistan, where, he claims, his life is now in danger. Days later, Reith says, he learnt that the Refugee Council recommended he be returned to Australia.

Reith says he would have been prepared to publicly support the recommendation had he known. ”I had it in the back of my mind there would be a 1 per cent chance we would do something for someone that would be useful,” he says.

”A lot of things we don’t tell them,” McPhee says, ”because that’s part of the experience.

”The refugee experience is about not having any sense of what’s happening in your life. We’re giving them a taste of this. We know they will never be refugees, but that’s why we take away their phones.”

Go Back to Where You Came FromSBS One, Tuesday-Thursday, 8.30pm.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.