July 20, 2010

At the corner of Packard and Smith Street, Larrakeyah – less than one kilometre from the heart of Darwin City is the Asti Motel. A relaxing environment

'The Asti Motel'

'A promotional photograph from the Asti Motel website'

for guests .. Affordable and comfortable accommodation’ is how the proprietors describe the Asti, on the Motel’s website. ‘86 air-conditioned units, all with balcony .. colour television with in house movies .. saltwater swimming pool .. and ironing facilities.’ Even asylum seekers need to iron their clothes.

The Asti Motel is Darwin’s unofficial ‘Asylum Seeker Hotel’.

From dusk each night, standing on the Asti’s first and second floor balconies you can see the asylum seekers. Men, women and children looking out onto the street; watching locals and tourists walk past – unaware who the people watching them from the Motel are. The Government says the asylum seekers are not imprisoned. While they may not be surrounded by four walls and barbed wire, these Asti Motel guests can’t leave.

The 40 plus asylum seekers are the people Prime Minister Julie Gillard wants to send to a regional offshore processing centre – Gillard’s East Timor solution. Will an offshore processing centre in Dili, PNG or Nauru really stop the boats? It might take the asylum seeker issue off the ‘front page’, but while there is a chance of a new start in Australia, people will risk their lives trying to achieve the Aussie dream.

Christmas Islands overcrowding has now become Darwin’s problem. At the height of the tourist season (the dry), the three star Asti Motel is a mid-range hotel at Capital City prices. A special website rate of $150 for a double room is available, but be quick there is only one room left. Accommodation is at a peak” says Tony Clementson, the General Manager of Tourism Top End – “… we’re in the peak season, very very busy. Last night I think we were just about at capacity”.

Darwin’s room shortage, cost saving or a mistake – embarrassingly, members of the Royal Thai Air Force who are in Darwin to participate in Pitch Black 2010, a multi-national fast jet exercise are also bunking down at the ‘Asylum Seeker Hotel’. Air Commander Australia, Vice Marshall Mark Skidmore in Darwin for the launch of Pitch Black was unaware his Thai military counterparts and several dozen asylum seekers are living under the same roof. Asked if there were any security concerns about the housing arrangement, AVM Skidmore replied: That’s something we would look at, again I need to talk to the Thai and understand what the issues might be.”

'The Asti Motel'

'Promotional photograph taken inside an Asti Motel room'

The Thai pilots must not be concerned – five days later, they are still sleeping at the Asti Motel.

Like it or not, the asylum seekers are caught in the middle of a political football game called – ‘asylum seeker hard ball’. A real life match where both major parties tell potential voters they will stop the boats. A Northern Command Navy Officer whose job it is to stop the boats at sea, said to me recently – ‘we should just double our intake’ .. ‘think of the money we would save’. It’s not a bad argument.

Looking at the Asti’s booking website – ‘Extended Stay Double/Single and Studio Family rooms’ are fully booked until the first of January 2011. Promising – ‘the friendly helpful staff are always ready to welcome you and ensure a pleasant stay’ – it appears these Iraqi’s, Afghani’s and Sri Lankan’s will be calling the Asti Motel home for some time yet.


March 18, 2010

Illegal Boat Crew - Photo Courtesy Channel Nine

22 alleged people smuggles were flown by a charted plane from Christmas Island to Darwin last night, arriving just after midnight.

Immigration Minister Chris Evans spokesperson Simon Dowding denied the men were being move to the Darwin Immigration Detention Centre to relieve overcrowding at the Christmas Island facility.

The Department of Immigration and Citizenship responed with a statement saying – “No, Christmas Island has not reached capacity. Crew transfers to the mainland are normal procedure and happen as needed.”

The men who said the were from Indonesia were escorted by five minders as they walked from the Customs arrivals area at Darwin Airport to a coach parked near a side exit.

Questioned about the conditions at the Christmas Island Detention Centre – one of the alleged people smuggles said .. “It’s pretty good, it’s very good .. (where are you from?) .. From Indonesia.”

The men, believed aged in their late teens to mid-30’s were driven from Darwin Airport to the Darwin Immigration Detention Centre at around 1:30am.

Australia Federal Police will interview the men to determine if they have committed people smuggling offences under Australian law.

According to the AFP website, 118 people have been charged with people smuggling since September 2008.

The offence carried a maximum penalty of 20 years imprisonment and/or a $220,000 fine.


March 26, 2009

24-year-old Corporal Mathew Hopkins will never know he is the ninth Australian soldier to die in Australia’s War against terrorism – Afghanistan. As accolades or personal recognition goes, it not the sort of thing you’d set out to achieve. Remembered as Number 9.

CPL Mathew Hopkins

CPL Mathew Hopkins

I met Mathew Hopkins three years ago during a farewell barbeque at Robertson Barracks in Darwin. Then a Private and 21 years old he was preparing for his first tour of Afghanistan with the Reconstruction Task Force 1 (RTF1). During the interview Mathew was positive, laughing with his mates, eager and happy to be going overseas to fight for his country.

Mathew gave the standard Department Of Defence response when asked if he was concerned about the dangers in Afghanistan – “We’re well trained, have the best equipment and looking forward to going over there and doing the job”, he said. (Page 7 of the Public Affairs Officer’s handbook).

Looking back at that interview recently, I could tell he was yet to meet his wife Victoria. He had that happiness and carefree attitude of youth. But, when I recently looked at the photos of Mathew on patrol in Afghanistan released by the DOD – I could see the youth had grown into a man.

Soldiers know the risk when they sign up. The risk is death. No one forces you to join the Australian Army, there is no conscription, you join up because you want to fight. Unlike the United States Army, Air Force or Marines – Australian soldiers can choose not to go to Afghanistan. Sure it wouldn’t be a good career move, your Unit ships out and you choose to stay behind. I suppose the reasoning from a DOD point of view is they only want people there who want to go. That policy could change though – as Australia is certain to increase troop numbers in Afghanistan and to sustain those numbers (a Brigade size, upward of 1000 troops) it may be a case of .. ‘You are going, like it or not’.

The true tragedy of Mathew Hopkins’ death is those he’s left behind. A month old

CPL Mathew Hopkins holding his son Alex

CPL Mathew Hopkins holding his son Alex

 baby boy he got to hold for only four days. Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull referred to Mathew’s son Alexander – saying in effect, ‘the Country must not forget his little boy who’ll now live life without his biological father’, during a speech before question time when the Lower House of Parliament held a minutes silence to mark Mathew’s death. Paying tribute to Number 9, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd justified Mathew’s death as part of the war on terror – ‘since 2000’ he said, ‘more than 100 innocent Australian’s have been killed by terrorists who were trained by Al Qaeda or the Taliban in Afghanistan’.

Both men are right. But, one couldn’t help see the colour of politics smudged in their words. Turnbull – in Opposition and no power to change Government policy towards the ‘good war Afghanistan’ stated the obvious .. Hopkins’ family must not be forgotten or endure preventable financial hardship. While Rudd – aware the fighting season has began, anticipating more casualties and likely to double Australia’s troop number in Afghanistan in the near future, felt the need to justify why Australia is fighting in Afghanistan.     

A senior Australian Army Officer told me over a beer once – he was ‘more worried about Afghanistan than Iraq’. It seemed odd at the time, as there were hundreds being killed by car bombs every month in Iraq. He said simply, ‘(Iraq) they’ll get it together, it may take 20 years but they’ll be okay – there is infrastructure. Afghanistan is a different story, there is nothing there’.


7RAR Soldiers carry CPL Hopkins' casket, Afghanistan

7RAR Soldiers carry CPL Hopkins' casket, Afghanistan

This is Rudd’s political dilemma – at what number does the loss of Australian soldiers (now at ten), out weigh the Australian public’s stomach for the war in Afghanistan. At what number does it become Rudd’s electoral defeat. Canada has lost more than 100 soldiers to the war, Britain and the United States even more. Up until now, the majority of Aussie troops have been re-building Afghanistan, undertaking small community construction projects. Now they are ‘taking the fight to the enemy’, fighting alongside Afghan National Army soldiers and our casualty figures are reflecting this increased danger.

Military friends say we have been very very lucky in Afghanistan – but add, “we’re only one roadside bomb away from having a very bad day.” Last Monday was a bad day for Corporal Mathew Hopkins, the soldiers on patrol with him, his wife, baby boy, his family and the mates that will never get to see him grow old.  

We’ve signed up for the war in Afghanistan – and it would be a naive Australian who didn’t share the view there are going to be many more bad days ahead. Pick a number.  

(photos courtesy of the Australian Department Of Defence website http://www.defence.gov.au

(2006 interview courtesy Channel Nine News Australia)