Profile: George Newhouse

Hannah Ryan talks to George Newhouse, human rights lawyer and asylum seeker advocate.

George Newhouse at Parliament House, Canberra
George Newhouse at Parliament House, Canberra

This is a time when you can gain political capital by complaining that the government paid for asylum seekers to fly to their own relatives’ funerals. A country where the Labor Party, traditionally the defender of the little guy, seeks to ship asylum seekers off to Malaysia. It is in this challenging milieu that the lawyer George Newhouse, best known for representing Vivian Solon and Cornelia Rau, advocates for the rights of asylum seekers.

Newhouse is a familiar name to political junkies and residents of Double Bay: he ran a close campaign to unseat Malcolm Turnbull from the federal electorate of Wentworth in 2007. The circumstances were melodramatic. Newhouse’s then recent ex-girlfriend Danielle Ecuyer, a banker-cum-environmentalist, criticised his and the Labor Party’s support for the Tasmanian pulp mill, and then threw her hat in the ring as an Independent candidate. Enter Australian journalist Caroline Overington.

Overington pushed Ecuyer to direct her preferences to Malcolm Turnbull and reportedly sent Newhouse threatening emails in an attempt to score an interview (this reporter didn’t have to try quite as hard). Then, in a turn of events fit for a teledrama, Newhouse’s campaign climaxed with a slap. On election day, at the innocuous Bellevue Hill Public School, Overington thwacked Newhouse in front of a bunch of curious voters. Although it seemed for a while that Turnbull could lose his seat, Newhouse was ultimately unsuccessful.

The first line of Newhouse’s CV is now human-rights lawyer rather than politician. He is the antidote to those who sneer that commercial lawyers and bankers are all amoral sell-outs. While he wins bread and drives a nice car, spoils of successful years in banking, finance and commercial law, he’s also firmly on the side of the good guys.

“I came via a very long and circuitous route,” he agrees. “Although I had been involved in the community through local government, I had not done that much for refugees.” The turning point was a lecture given by the journalist David Marr about the sinking of the SIEV (‘Suspected Irregular Entry Vehicle’) X, a boat carrying more than 400 asylum seekers. This eye-opening speech led Newhouse to get involved in the Vivian Solon case: while Solon had been wrongfully deported to the Philippines, she had two sons in Brisbane, whom Newhouse offered to help. “One thing led to another and I ended up acting for Vivian Solon and then Cornelia Rau, and the rest is history,” he said. Newhouse is now a prominent legal activist, supporting asylum seekers and indigenous Australians.

Most recently, Newhouse acted for the survivors of the Christmas Island boat disaster of December 2010 at the coronial inquest into the tragedy. SIEV 221 approached Christmas Island in the early hours of the morning on December 15 2010. December falls in Christmas Island’s monsoon season, and conditions were rough. The small boat was holding 92 passengers: 89 asylum seekers from Iraq and Iran, and three crewmembers. The boat crashed into the rocky shoreline of Christmas Island, resulting in horrific pictures of a shattered boat, desperate men clinging to its flimsy remains. In all, fifty people perished in the largest peacetime loss of life at sea in Australia in 115 years.

Following the disaster, survivors were placed in detention centres, a setting hardly conducive to working through grief. When the Commonwealth government paid for family members’ flights to mainland Australia to attend loved ones’ funerals, the Shadow Immigration Minister Scott Morrison attacked Labor for wasting public funds. Families of the deceased and survivors also had had very limited opportunities to speak at the inquest. To Newhouse’s disappointment, the government denied them financial assistance. “It’s a very sad story, frankly,” he says. “You have people with absolutely nothing, they’ve lost family members, they’ve survived trauma, they’ve come out of it damaged, they’ve got no assets, no money, and very little English. And they got no support at all from the Commonwealth government or West Australian Legal Aid.” Although the Coroner’s main role is to determine cause of death and make recommendations, rather than to act as a platform for victims to discuss their feelings, Newhouse’s clients told him they felt alienated from the process. “That is a very unfortunate situation because it leaves them with no resolution.”

The Coroner’s report was released last week. It laid the blame for the accident firmly at the feet of people smugglers, who lied to passengers about the quality of the boat and the number of lifejackets on board, and who were responsible for the boat being so overloaded. But the Coroner was also critical of the Commonwealth, who failed to ensure adequate resources were available on the island (it was the residents who first raised the alarm when they saw the boat approaching from a distance, and it was only by coincidence that an appropriate rescue boat was available). But Newhouse wanted the report to go further, concerned about a breakdown of communication at the time of the accident. He is now working on getting the findings translated into Farsi and Arabic for his clients, a process which demands considerable resources, and will consult them about their next options.

Liberal MP Scott Morrison’s response to the funeral issue demonstrates how noticeably absent compassion can be from the debate about asylum seekers. Newhouse points to a longstanding fear of the “yellow peril” and of people invading Australia in boats, suggesting that fears about boat people don’t always stem from concerns about the safety of passengers. His hope lies in bipartisanship. “You only have to look at the 70s, when Vietnamese refugees were received and settled under the Fraser government,” he explains. “A bipartisan approach saw Australians accept those refugees on the whole.” But he’s sceptical that the two major parties will ever agree. He describes our current political environment as: “one where the two parties don’t compete on economics, but rather on how brutally they’ll treat refugees, and it’s a sad indictment on our political system that politicians feel that they can take political advantage playing with real people’s lives.”

As for what an adequate asylum seeker policy would look like, Newhouse’s main concern is that people don’t get on boats in the first place. The Christmas Island inquest made it clear that there are catastrophic risks in coming to Australia on a boat, and that only the most desperate people in the world would take such a risk. With that in mind, he is not wholly opposed to last year’s proposed “Malaysia Solution”, although he admits his clients might disagree. “I can see a real benefit in a refugee processing system that is outside of Australia,” he explains, “in order to process people coming to Australia before they get into a boat and put their lives in danger.” But he stresses that such a system can only be acceptable when asylum seekers’ rights are prioritised. “If there were a satisfactory system in place to protect their rights and their dignity,” he hypothesises, “then an offshore regional processing centre or centres might be a viable solution….it might be and it would require a lot more than just dumping people in camps without work, freedom or housing.”

Newhouse has bowed out of politics for now. Asked about the recent leadership shenanigans in Canberra, he seems disinterested. “Well, I don’t really have to buy into that, it’s not really relevant for my social justice practice.” He is worried, however, about its ramifications at the next election. “I’m concerned that the [leadership] fracas is going to lead to an Abbott government, and that will have incredibly detrimental effects on human rights in this country. Those who are weakest in our society have much to fear from a Liberal Government, because their track record on human rights, particularly in this area, is poor.”

It was the story of a sunken boat that led Newhouse to his human rights work, and he believes that finding out personal stories of refugees is one of the most important things you can do in this area. “When you hear the true stories of their life and death situations and the trauma, slaughter, violence, rape, their fear of death and torture, it’s hard to be so cynical about why people come to Australia,” he explains. “So find out the facts.”

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