The Australian rock musician Jimmy Barnes had some strong words for the Australian government ahead of a rally on the Parliament House lawn in Canberra to remove children and their families from indefinite detention on Nauru.
Tuesday’s rally saw the delivery of a petition of 170,000 signatures to the government by the newly elected member for Wentworth, independent MP Dr Kerryn Phelps.
Barnes pointed to his own heritage: “I’m an immigrant,” he said.
“I came to Australia in a boat. We were running away from poverty and violence in Scotland, and what we fled was nothing compared to what these people have tried to get away from.
“We should be helping them. Taking these people and sticking them on an island, indefinitely, is not the Australian way.”
Since the launch of the Kids off Nauru campaign three months ago by refugee advocacy groups, around 110 of the 119 children and their families had been brought to Australia after five years in detention on the island.
The Asylum Centre Resource Centre estimated only 40% of Australians were aware children were being held in detention at the time the campaign was launched. Many had spent their entire lives on the island.
That figure has since been raised to 80%, boosted by medical professionals including Phelps and international charity organisations World Vision, Save the Children and Oxfam.
A woman and her daughter hold up a sign during a rally demanding the resettlement of children held on Nauru. Photograph: Lukas Coch/AAP
A statement from Save the Children, which was contracted by the Australian government in 2013 to provide education and welfare services to children on Nauru before its workers were removed and its role taken over by Transfield in October 2015, said the organisation had “seen first-hand the distress and hardship endured by children languishing indefinitely on Nauru”.
“One day in effective detention for a child is unacceptable; five years is a disgrace,” the statement said.
Barnes, one of 65 ambassadors for Kids off Nauru, said he had reached a point where he felt he had to stand up.
‘I hate fear politics’: Jimmy Barnes (centre) with his wife Jane Mahoney at Tuesday’s protest. Photograph: Tracey Nearmy/Getty Images
“You can’t blame governments because we’ve allowed this to happen. The government represents us,” he said.
“I am ashamed that our government has allowed this to happen. And I’m ashamed of myself, because the government represents us, and that’s all of us, and we have to stand up and demand that this be changed … This has to stop.”
Asked how he responded to the view that ending offshore detention risked putting people smugglers back in business, Barnes said: “I think that’s rubbish.”
“There’s got to be better ways to stop that. Let’s tackle that problem on the ground in Indonesia, or wherever. But holding people up as hostages to stop people smugglers, that’s not the way to do things. That’s like two wrongs making a right … This has to stop.
“Politicians have been spreading fear, saying if we’re letting in refugees we’re letting in terrorists. It’s not the truth. We’ve got to recognise the difference between terrorism and people who are refugees; people who are struggling.
“I hate fear politics. And if you look at the Victorian election, that didn’t work and I think the tide is turning, people are changing and they’re not going to fall for that one any more.”
Protesters hold up signs during the Kids off Nauru rally on Tuesday. Photograph: Lukas Coch/AAP
Barnes has become active in humanitarian causes in recent years, especially since the release of his memoirs Working Class Boy and Working Class Man.
“I had enough of my own problems before,” he said. “I can see a lot clearer now, and I just don’t feel comfortable sitting around not speaking out and saying what I want to say. These are kids, these are families, and they’re people who need help … I can’t sit by any more.”
Asked how he would respond to those – hypothetically, home affairs minister Peter Dutton – who might tell him to stick to singing, Barnes said: “I wouldn’t give Peter Dutton any of my time. It’s a waste of time speaking to someone like him, because they just spread lies and propaganda. He doesn’t represent me, he doesn’t care about people, and I wouldn’t give him the time of day, to tell you the truth.”