When renowned Australian musician Mark Seymour turned up at a detention centre in Victoria five weeks ago, he expected to be playing in front of a “depressed, browbeaten and sad” crowd.
But he got a shock. The 300-strong crowd at the Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation (ITA) – a centre for asylum seekers in detention – erupted at Mark’s arrival.
“I went out there and I got put in a room, I got sound checked and I could see little kids pressing their faces up against the glass and people wandering around in the twilight out in the yard,” said Mr Seymour.
“I played the first song and they just erupted. There was massive applause. After about four songs, they just kept getting more and more excited. Some of the people in there have been in there for four years.”
Mr Seymour was captured by the moment, and the reality hit him that the Federal Government’s policy on the issue was way off the mark. Both major parties have promoted processing refugees offshore in the prelude to the September 7 election – at Nauru or Papua New Guinea – after arriving illegally by boat.
“I said to the crowd [at ITA], ‘there’s many thousands of Australians who want you people to become Australians – they want you to come in and join us on our journey’,” said Mr Seymour.
“They just went bananas. It was like Christmas – they were very happy about it. I was a convert and I thought this is a central issue.”
The experience led Mr Seymour to call the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC) and take part in The Hot Potato tour – a high-profile trip from Melbourne to Brisbane aimed at educating the Australian population about the plight of asylum seekers. After stopping at Martin Place last Thursday, the trip wound up in Brisbane on Saturday.
“I’m doing gigs all over Australia … I’ve got a pretty good perspective on what the economic picture is and we can easily afford to have these people here – there’s no question about it,” said Mr Seymour.
“All of the weirdness that’s coming out of the mouths of Rudd and Abbott – I just think it’s all complete political rubbish.”
Mr Seymour, the Hunters and Collectors frontman, has reworded the second verse of his iconic Australian song ‘Throw Your Arms Around Me’ to embrace the idea of Australia as a multicultural nation that is “welcoming to people all over the world”.
“The narrative since the Howard Government has always been exclusion and punitive treatment of people who come here to seek asylum of places from war or famine,” he said.
“That narrative, regardless of how tenuous it is or temporary it is, the fact is that as long as politicians keep saying that, the concept of exclusion becomes encrypted into our national consciousness.
“What the ASRC is really good at doing is attacking the issue on a street level. We have to embrace the natural generosity of Australian people and change the way the story is constructed.”
Travelling in ‘The Hot Potato van’, the trip travelled to 10 rural and urban places in 10 days. The aim was to bust 10 myths about asylum seekers, serve 10,000 hot potatoes and have 10 million conversations.
Jana Favero from the ASRC said The Hot Potato group – including ambassadors Julian Burnside, Imogen Bailey and Goyte – spoke to many people and “served a lot of potatoes”.
“Food is very much a part of starting conversations in Australia – it’s an easy way to talk to people and it’s non-threatening,” she said.
“I have always been a strong advocate and believer that if people knew the facts about asylum seekers, they wouldn’t have their current opinion.”