Anne Coombs, Susan Varga & Helen McCue

on Sunday, 13 May 2012. Posted in Leadership Interviews, Action Motivated Leadership

Anne Coombs, Susan Varga & Helen McCue
Rural Australians for Refugees Founders
Anne Coombs, Susan Varga and Helen McCue

Rural Australians for Refugees (RAR) began in the Southern Highlands of NSW, in October 2001.  Formed in response to, and reaction against, the bi-party policy on asylum seekers, it is a  grass-roots movement with rapidly growing support  across regional Australia.  Its initiatives include Welcome Books, Welcome Towns, The Welcome Lobby and The Tampa Human Rights Award 2001. RAR groups appear to be springing up all over the country, from Denmark in WA, to Wangaratta in Victoria, to Katherine in the Northern Territory. With a vision in the form of a Ten Point Plan for the Australian Government to undertake, it calls on the Government to:

"Receive all asylum seekers in accordance with our obligations under the UN Convention on Refugees which Australia signed in 1954...

Abolish existing holding centres in Nauru and Papua New Guinea and abandon any further plans to pay our poorer Pacific neighbours to take in refugees for processing.

Stop military intervention against boat people. Using Australia's military against the victims of oppression is totally inappropriate.

Abolish the Temporary Protection Visas (TPVs), which were introduced specifically for asylum seekers, who mainly arrive by boat. These visas deny people access to crucial services such as English lessons, and work and housing assistance which are available to other refugees...

Close all detention centres in their present form. Asylum seekers should be held in detention only to establish their identity and for criminal clearance, along the lines of the Swedish model...

Take any detention facilities out of the hands of private enterprise. Such facilities should be publicly accountable and open to scrutiny... 

and...Increase Australia's refugee intake by recognising how small our current quota of 12,000 refugees per year is, and doubling the quota to 24,000 per year."

Founders, Anne Coombs, Susan Varga and Helen McCue explain that RAR began with three depressed people in a lounge room, feeling angry and helpless and saying, 'what can we do?' "The answer we came up with was: 'let's work locally'. Three weeks later, after leaf-letting in the streets and outside the supermarkets, and promotion in the local press and on the radio, we put on a hugely successful public meeting in Bowral, attended by nearly 500 people. We also collected over 400 signatures for an open letter which was published in the local paper, protesting the Government's policies. After that first meeting we were inundated with supportive emails and phone calls. Since then at least a dozen RAR groups have formed in country towns all over Australia.  RAR is also networking with many other organisations committed to justice for refugees."

Helen McCue, one of the convenors of Rural Australians for Refugees,  received the Order of Australia Medal for services to the community in Australia and overseas as a contributor to development assistance, public health and education projects and as an advocate for human rights, refugees and refugee issues in May 2003.

What was the catalyst that motivated you to form RAR? Prior to doing so, how did the Refugee situation impact upon you?

As with many Australians, the catalyst was the Tampa - watching with horror and shame the Howard Government turning its back on people whose only crime was to ask for asylum. One of our convenors, Helen McCue  had been involved in working with refugees for twenty years. For Anne and Susan, we are ashamed to say, it had been an issue about which we knew little, until Tampa focussed our minds.

How did you come to formulate the 10 Point Plan? Is this the vision of RAR?

Living in rural NSW as we do, we decided to work locally. Our first move was to work towards a public meeting in Bowral. We decided, in the vague hope that there were some others  like us out there in rural and regional Australia, to call ourselves (all three of us) Rural Australians for Refugees or RAR. Our next decision was to formulate a set of demands/principles to put to the public meeting as a way forward for our organisation. The next day we were flooded with support and with people wanting to set up their own branch of RAR. The 10 Point Plan became the rough blueprint of the organisation. All who agreed with it, more or less, were welcome to join RAR.

Unfortunately, while the 10 Point Plan needs updating a little, it still remains our core vision - the Government has not moved sufficiently on this issue for us to be able yet to change our goals. However in this current year we will be campaigning to rectify the invidious position of those refugees on Temporary Protection Visas.  

How much of the success and organisational aspects of RAR do you feel is attributed to the strength of your relationship with each other? What do you see as important in your being able to work together?  Does RAR place any strains on your relationship with each other?

We were very lucky that three people with such complementary skills and personalities happened to come together and say, "what can we do?" Anne and Susan are a couple and used to working with each other, which does sometimes put a strain on our personal relationship but generally works well. Helen was a relatively new friend to us both, but we sensed quickly that we had common concerns, similar ways of thinking and complementary ways of operating in the world. We were 'in sympathy.'

Of importance in working well together:- listening to each other, spending time to talk things through, all of us able to think strategically, shared passion and commitment, energy, and willingness to take up the slack from each other when one of the trio was busy or stressed. Leadership qualities, but no-one needing to be 'the' leader.. Ability to defer to each other's strengths. Not all of these work all the time, but enough of the time to make the three-way team effective.

Do each of you have a certain role to play with respect to the workings of RAR?  How were these duties divided amongst you?

It changes around quite a bit, but to generalise: Helen has the depth of knowledge and experience in refugee issues. She thinks politically and globally but prefers to work with the local community and the local RAR group. A good networker and energiser.

Anne is very media savvy and has done much of the media work. Also a good organiser and keeps RAR up with political developments. Has kept the RAR 'engine' going. Susan is a networker, encourager and ideas person.  

How do you all cope with managing RAR and your other work and family commitments?   

With great difficulty. Sometimes it's been almost impossible. There being three of us has helped - although we have sometimes fought a bit over who should be doing what/how much. We've also been able to get part-time paid help when the administrative load of RAR -which-grew-like-Topsy got too much for us. This was a huge help.

How do you cope with any negative reactions from members of the community who do not agree with your views on refugees?  

We expect that and try very hard not to over-react. But we have had very few hate-calls or strong negative reaction. Community support has been widespread and encouraging.

How do you empower new RAR leaders to set up and run a group?  Do you provide training, ongoing guidance etc?

We keep it very simple. When people approach us, we simply give them a lot of encouragement, tell them as long as they roughly agree with the Ten-Point Plan, they can become a RAR group, and tell them to work as they see fit in their local community. We feed then ideas from time to time, encourage them to stay in touch and let us know of their activities, publicise anything good or new they are doing, put them in touch with groups/ individuals near them. We strongly encourage RAR groups to develop their own 'personalities' and modus operandi.

With the development of newly formed rural RAR movements, do you as the founders, retain central control and monitor the performance and policies of these groups? 

See above. Recently, having 'run' RAR, by default for over a year, we have been handing over the reins to another group. As RAR has been basically informal and unstructured  -and we believe this to be one of its strengths - handing over the 'leadership' to another group has actually been quite difficult - exactly what is it we are handing over?    

What action do you undertake if a RAR group’s action is not what you see as appropriate, but is in the spirit of fighting for justice for Refugees? 

We take the view that if the spirit is ok we do not demand a toeing of the 'party line.' We will however discuss with the group how consistent their actions are with RAR's general principles and purposes. RAR to date has run on a great deal of good will and mutual understanding. We hope that will not change.

What has RAR achieved so far in the political sphere?  What are the main forms of activism  used to bring about a political change in Australia’s treatment of Refugees?  

RAR has been effective partly because of the 'surprise' element. Few people thought that sympathy for refugees and asylum seekers would have spread into 'redneck' rural Australia. With nearly sixty RAR groups Australia-wide we have been able to prove that popular perception very wrong.  RAR ahs also been successful because it is a genuine grass roots movement working from the base of  local community -  we do streetwork, public meetings, pressure our local politicians, write to to our local papers (and  the national ones) visit detention centres, many of which are in rural areas, support refugees on Temporary Protection Visas living in country towns, raise money and promote a policy of Welcome Towns. And more - each RAR does its own thing, although we co-operate nationally, especially in promoting Welcome Towns with our local councils and communities. 

What are your long term plans with respect to keeping RAR alive?

We hope RAR will live as long as our Government continues its infamous policies. Keeping our membership informed and motivated is the key. As fewer people are locked up in fewer detention centres, we continue our campaign to have them closed ,but this year we also concentrate on those recognised refugees living precariously and temporarily in the community on the grossly unfair Temporary Protection Visas . Our long term plan? To have an active RAR in every country town in Australia, supporting refugees and asylum seekers. When Australia finally has a humane policy, RAR may disappear, but there will be a core of people in country towns actively committed to fighting injustice and promoting humane, compassionate values.