Formula 1, comedy, footy, sunshine and a refugee rally – an ordinary Sunday in Melbourne

Palm Sunday 2022 in Melbourne was many things for many people. The city hosted the Formula 1 Grand Prix, the Comedy Festival, Saints vs Hawks AFL at the MCG, a small protest about Pakistan’s elections, and the Palm Sunday Walk for Justice and Freedom for Refugees. On the first day of the school holidays, with a blue-sky golden afternoon of warm sunshine and a light breeze to rustle the browning leaves of the plane trees, the city was at its autumn busiest and best.

I made my way into the State Library on a tram crowded with locals and tourists. Looming above the corner of Flinders Street and Swanston Street is St Paul’s Cathedral and hanging from the southwest spire of the church is a huge, slightly faded sign, erected in 2014: ‘Let’s fully welcome refugees’. It will not be removed until refugees are indeed welcome in Australia.

A few blocks further along Swanston Street, the spacious Library lawns were occupied to standing room only. About two thousand people gathered to hear campaign speakers on the continuing plight of refugees before setting out on a short march through the city.

“Are you quiet Australians?” asks Hassan

A refugee identified as Hassan spoke of the mental stress of ten years of “living without hope or certainty of a future on a temporary protection visa”. He spoke of community members on TPVs unable to see their children for many years, and unable to visit dying parents. They receive letters from the federal department threatening imminent deportation, and their lives are circumscribed by restrictive requirements. “The Morrison government is cruel for people seeking asylum”, he said, “but we are not going to stay quiet any longer. Are you quiet Australians?”, he asked “No!” bellowed the crowd in response.

Faith, Ethics and Politics

Rev Tim Costello, spokesperson for the #setthemfree campaign, took the theme of ethical promises. When Costello met Minister Peter Dutton on Manus Island he had told Dutton that “locking people up with exaggerated cruelty” was not the policy that was effective in stopping the boats. Dutton had replied “we made a promise and we’ll keep it” that not one of those who arrived by boat would set foot on Australia. “The language of promise is the language of ethics”, said Costello. There is “an ethical over-ride to break a promise that imposes exaggerated cruelty”. The Morrison government is still promising to keep open the offshore detention centres, he said. “We say”, said Costello to the applauding crowd, “break that promise!”

“God’s face is seen in the stranger” – Tim Costello

“My faith influences my politics”, said Costello, “not the other way around.” When it comes to our government leaders, however, “the politics of fear and division has completely captured your Christian faith”, he said. He went on to note that the biblical term for ‘refugee’ is the ‘stranger’ and that the Bible frequently reminds us that “God’s face is seen in the stranger”.

Banners flapping, sunsmart Palm Sunday walkers for justice stream down Swanston St Melbourne Stefanie C Pearce

Activism can achieve results, according to both Costello and Bishop Paul Barker, Anglican Diocese of Melbourne. They both referred to the combined influence of Christian lobby groups and Anglican bishops meeting with Immigration Minister Alex Hawke that had persuaded the Minister to ensure that 16,500 additional places for Afghan refugees were included in last week’s Budget papers. Thus a promise made and then broken had been restored and “faith influenced politics”, said Costello. Costello called on both parties to break unethical promises that result in exaggerated cruelty.

“Let’s start again, wipe the slate clean” – Sister Brigid

Sister Brigid Arthur, of the Brigidine Asylum Seekers Project, called for an amnesty or an act of grace extended to all asylum seekers in detention and in the community: “Let’s start again, wipe the slate clean”, she said. Sr Brigid called on both federal parties to commit to closing offshore detention centres and pass a law never to reopen them; to extend working rights and medical care to asylum seekers; to implement a federal office of welcome to oversight refugee matters rather than Border Force; and to have Australia recognised within the next twelve months as a country of compassion and human rights.

“..demand compassion of our politicians over the next six weeks”  – Bishop Paul Barker

Finally, Bishop Paul reminded the crowd of the words of the second verse of the national anthem: “For those who’ve come across the seas we’ve boundless plains to share; with courage let us all combine to advance Australia fair”. These words are what it means to be Australian, he said. The citizens of Biloela had demonstrated these values of sharing and of courage in standing by the Murugappan family. He urged those listening to “demand compassion of our politicians over the next six weeks”, to have courage and share our boundless plains.

The crowd then set off along Swanston Street towards the Parkville ‘prison’ hotel, where refugees had been detained for years until last week.

As I returned home I passed St Paul’s cathedral; the banner ‘Let’s Fully Welcome Refugees’ is still there. Will it come down, as Sr Brigid dreams, by next Palm Sunday?

Stefanie C Pearce is a freelance writer