The friction where asylum seekers meet unwilling hosts
I’m guessing that former prime minister Malcolm Fraser and Western Australian woman Jo Ruprecht wouldn’t agree on much when it comes to federal politics.
At the launch of Refugee Week in Sydney yesterday, Mr Fraser joined forces with the vocal minority once more, calling for greater compassion towards asylum seekers, and attacking both sides of politics for their race “to see who can be the toughest” in their pre-election rhetoric.
Unfortunately for Mr Fraser and the good folk at the Refugee Council of Australia, it seems the public view is very much running one way when it comes to the asylum seeker debate.
Were it left to a good many of us to decide, we’d rather task the Royal Australian Navy to turn the boats around, rather than simply watch them as they drift onwards in large numbers towards our prosperous shores.
It was this kind of public sentiment, read hostility, which greeted a group of 86 asylum seekers who arrived on the other side of the country in WA earlier this month on a chartered jet from a bursting Christmas Island.
In all, 21 family groups of Afghan, Iranian and Sri Lankan heritage, many women and children, were among the group offered homes in a former mining camp comprising demountable accommodation and the most basic of comforts at Leonora, population 1500, located 800km north east of Perth.
A Seven News television reporter covering the arrival in Leonora, pointed the camera towards Ms Ruprecht, who was coincidentally at the airport seeing off friends, and asked her what the locals thought of refugees in her town, Ms Ruprecht gave voice to what it seems many in Australian think.
She told viewers she was opposed to allowing asylum seekers to stay in the town, and she criticised the extent of Federal Government assistance to the group, given that many Australians were forced to go without.
Stories of the mining camp being stocked with essential supplies such as fresh meat and vegetables for the new arrivals, as well as luxury items such as cigarettes, had apparently touched a nerve among the isolated population.
Ms Ruprecht’s polarising comments would have passed without incident were it not for the St John Ambulance shirt she happened to be wearing, albeit in an off-duty capacity.
Somewhere else in WA that evening, some other St John volunteers had also been watching and they must have been channelling Malcolm Fraser, for they were quick to report their colleague to head office in Perth.
It is at this stage of the story where distinguishing fact from fiction becomes a bit bit harder.
According to Ms Ruprecht, a veteran of 13 years with St John, she was called into the office in Leonora after the television report by visiting regional manager, Alan Churchill, to be counselled for allowing herself to be interviewed while wearing her St John ambulance uniform.
Management felt that her comments towards refugees could be construed by some as as ambulance service policy, not a good look for an organisation whose international motto is “For the Services of Mankind”.
Ms Ruprecht is not someone used to being interviewed by television reporters every day, and she conceded to management she had made a horrible mistake.
She agreed that she had unwittingly compromised the service, and apologised for her mistake in wearing their shirt in front of media.
She thought the apology ought to have been the end of the issue, but well into the meeting, she began to feel that Mr Churchill had arrived in the town with only one mission in mind, to remove her from the service.
Faced with the prospect of being stood down, she offered a written resignation on the spot, and walked out - taking two other volunteers, or half of the town’s available volunteers with her.
“I don’t think I should have been treated that way after 13 years,” Ms Ruprecht later told reporters.
Talkback radio across WA was abuzz with the story, with callers rushing to Ms Ruprecht’s defence, and criticising St John management for their apparent heavy-handedness.
It wasn’t until the issue had generated a head of steam in the media last week that Mr Churchill was offered up to tell his side of the story, and when he did, it cast the issue in a very different light.
Mr Churchill claimed that Ms Ruprecht had been counselled over the uniform issue, but it was a completely different matter as to why the volunteer’s service record was hanging the balance.
At the end of the disciplinary meeting, Mr Churchill said he had, in light of Ms Ruprecht’s obvious hostility towards the town’s asylum seekers, asked her whether she would be prepared to to attend to an emergency at the refugee centre in Leonora.
Mr Churchill says Ms Ruprecht replied that “she probably would not”.
Their volunteer had placed the service in an untenable position, he argued, and she could not be permitted back in the service.
“As an ambulance service we can’t pick and choose who we go to,” he said.
The fair-minded among us would have to agree: surely ambulance officers have a duty of care to everyone, not those they pick and choose.
The uncomfortable stalemate has resulted in a regrettable and extremely unfortunate position for the people of Leonora.
St John Ambulance has lost the services of three dedicated volunteers, one of whom has provided 13 years of invaluable service.
You can’t develop these sorts of skills in a country town overnight, nor can you import the commitment and enthusiasm of salt-of-the-earth types who give their time readily to such an important community service.
With the benefit of hindsight, and following a lengthy discussion with St John about their responsibility to all patients, Ms Ruprecht now concedes she would not hesitate in responding to a call-out to the refugee centre were she permitted back into the organisation.
If only St John would now take her back.
Ms Ruprecht and St John management have both lost some skin over the issue, and a week on and it seems hopes for mediation or some form of resolution are fading.
This is a terrible pity. When it comes to refugee policy, it seems there is no turning back for anyone.
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