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Unaccompanied children in detention - Part 2

Marilyn Shepherd continues her account of unaccompanied children in detention, the first part of which, published last week, was Unaccompanied minors.

Unaccompanied children in detention - Part 2 

Dr Aamer Sultan, an Iraqi refugee detained at Villawood, has named the condition Immigration Stress Syndrome. It can lead to almost catatonic depressive states.

In the Australian on 5th December, Michael Steketee, national affairs editor, followed up the previous reports with a powerful editorial, especially concerning the plight of our unaccompanied children.

Dr Ozdowski reported another of the stories of our boys who told him:

My father was taken away by the Taliban two years ago and has never been seen again. Then my brother was taken. My mother borrowed money from every member of the family and whoever else she could to buy me a ticket for Australia. He was clearly afraid to go back, this was a family decision so that a younger male member could survive.

Margaret Piper from the Refugee Council said of the unaccompanied children:

Most are Hazara boys aged between 15 and 17 whom their parents put on boats because of the common Taliban practice of raiding villages, kidnapping children and forcing them to perform tasks such as walking through minefields ahead of Taliban troops. There are also quite a number whose parents have been killed and who have been sent out by the extended family.

Steketee went on to say:

Acknowledging such realities does not fit with the government’s consistent practice of demonising asylum seekers, which now extends to children. If the parents of the Afghan boys have heard of the UN Convention on the rights of the child, they certainly could invoke it in an attempt to be reunited with their children.

They may be disappointed, however, that a civilised country like Australia often ignores UN conventions to which it is signatory if their provisions do not suit.

No policy of misrepresentation in the name of deterrence can justify keeping children in prisons, complete with high fences, razor wire and riots, as punishment for trying to come to Australia by jumping a non-existent queue.

On 17th December, 2001 the Australian featured what happened to some of the boys once they had been released from Woomera and Port Hedland:

Abdul Rauf, 16, talks of the unimaginable – a person skinned, a limb hanging off a post, a baby speared to a wall, a woman’s breast cut off.

When we came out of Afghanistan we didn’t have a time and place to say goodbye properly, so it happened very rapidly. There is no family that did not lose a member. Every family had one or two lost. It’s just like a mouse sitting in hole until an opportunity arises to run.

Seven Hazara minors released from detention lived in a house in suburban Brisbane where they pooled their money, $140 a week each, bought cheap food and wore the same clothes two days in a row. While their Australian peers were being hassled by parents to get to school, having their lunch packed and often being driven, these boys must fend for themselves.

They bus across Brisbane to get to school to learn English, play soccer, cook their own meals, clean up and do their homework. Because they came by boat they are only issued with Temporary Protection visas and live in the nether world of hopelessness. They cannot be citizens and have no idea if they have any family alive.

The Romero centre has taken care of the boys, they might well be some of the lucky ones, but they are lost. Ms Rashisa Joseph is the only paid employee of the centre and says:

Sometimes they just come I here and say I think I might go to Adelaide or to Melbourne, but when they are questioned they admit they have no money and no-one to go to. The crack down after the TAMPA took away their right to apply for permanent residence and family reunion, that has made them restless.

Where in the world can they call home?

Ijaz Ibrahimi, 14, likens his TPV to a piece of paper to draw on and not much else. He has been through the same pattern of horror – fleeing his home, the boat journey, months in detention and now lives in uncertainty.

He says also:

They are giving medication to lots of people to calm them down. I am no different from the others. It’s just become daytime, night-time, day. In the camp out mind was not functioning.

If I have to send a message to John Howard he will kick my arse right then.

Mr Hassan Ghulam, a local Hazara leader in Brisbane, talks of one boy who was 11 and just released:

He was staying with another friend or two under the Story Bridge. I asked him if he would like to stay at my house, but he said no I am going to Sydney where I have cousins.

So he moved from here to Sydney, but I don’t know what happened to him, if he is safe, if he is learning something.

Zulfegar Ali, 16, thinks he is one of the lucky ones. He decided not to live alone and through the Romero centre found himself an Australian family:

I gave a lot until I found this family to live with. It’s not easy I found. Lot’s of lonely nights. I think the government should put a difference between teenagers and others.

In spite of, or maybe because of the increased pressure to release all the children, but mostly the unaccompanied ones, nothing was done.

In his guidelines and a follow up submission to a Children in Detention enquiry throughout 2002 the minister stated the following treatment was the normal practice for unaccompanied children. It must be remembered that the minister was the guardian as well as the jailer of the children.

The minister had an article about the experience of dealing with children from Vietnam as a guide to doing things better as the years passed:

Following the Vietnam war a number of unaccompanied minors arrived from Vietnam to Australia as asylum seekers. After release into the community these children experienced a range of significant adjustment problems while trying to settle into Australian society. The impact of the resettlement process on their physical and psychological well being was profound. Factors such as the loss of their immediate family, social isolation, boredom and misconceptions by some members of the public led to their difficulties and subsequent psychological problems.

A number of them were placed into foster care and alternatives to foster care, such as accommodation in independent cottages and hostels were explored. Adoption was the least favoured as it was felt it would impede later family reunion.

Out of these experiences the importance of providing a safe, supportive and culturally appropriate environment for unaccompanied children became evident. Finding suitable foster families is a difficult and challenging task.

It is important that lessons from Australia’s past experiences with unaccompanied minors be taken into account in developing and implementing management strategies for unaccompanied children in detention. A responsible and considered assessment of alternative arrangements is paramount, as part of fulfilling the department’s duty of care.

Under the Immigration Guardianship of Children Act 1946 (IGOC) legal guardianship for unaccompanied children and some others is the responsibility of the minister. It was originally introduced to provide legal status to the children who came immediately following WW11 but today is mainly used for children seeking refugee status and some who enter for re-settlement or adoption.

Section 6 means that the guardian has all of the rights and powers a parent might have. Justice North of the Federal court in a case named X v MIMA (1999), considered that the guardian must address the basic human needs of a child, food, housing, health care and education. Justice North also held that the Act must include the responsibilities under various international instruments, in particular the UN Convention on the rights of the Child.

In this case the minister has ceded his guardianship to the State of South Australia under a Memorandum of Understanding signed in December 2001,

part of which agrees that the state must ignore all international conventions and human rights treaties for the purposes of the guardianship.

So the minister has given up much of his responsibility to the State Government of South Australia but has given the state no control over whether they can order the release of any child for their own safety.

In another twist the minister states in the document:

Australia assists, to the extent possible, the process of re-unification of unaccompanied minors who are seeking asylum in Australia. Article 10 of the CROC specifies the obligations of the state parties in relation to re-unification, particularly that all applications must be dealt with in a positive, humane and expeditious manner.

These obligations under the CROC do not automatically entitle a parent or parents to join their child or children who might be seeking asylum. Unfortunately there are parents who are prepared to risk the dangers to the lives and wellbeing of their children for travel to Australia in the expectation that if the child is a refugee, they will be able to follow. This is not necessarily the case.

Australia continues to grant immediate permanent residence and access to family re-unification to those who arrive “lawfully” and have been found to be refugees. This also applies to those resettled in Australia from other countries where they could not gain protection.

Holders of a Temporary Protection Visa are not allowed to have family re-union in Australia except in some cases if the minister considers that a permanent visa is in the public interest.

Effectively a little boy like Mustafa, sent from Afghanistan to save his life, not knowing if any of his family are alive, is left in stateless limbo at the age of 10 – unless the minister decides he can stay.

At the time of this report 12 children had been released during the hunger strike in January, mostly due to suicide threats and pressure applied by publicity of their plight. Robert McDonald was their lawyer and was calm and understated in his dealings with the media, but the children were released.

Sayed Zahir was only 12 years old when he arrived in Woomera:

I am a citizen of Afghanistan, I do not hold any other citizenship and I do not hold a right of residence in any other country. I am an Hazara and a Shi’ite muslim. I was born in 1989 in Sadat, Jaghouri, Ghazni in Afghanistan. I have three younger brothers and a twin brother who went missing a year before I left Afghanistan.

I have had no formal education and only attended religious school for three months at the local village mosque.

Around 2.5 years ago the Taliban took over all the Jaghouri area. They tortured and killed some Hazara because they prayed with open hands. A lot of people stopped praying at the mosque and could only pray at home. The Taliban hate the Hazara and have killed many as a result. The Taliban would also punish people who did not have the appropriate length beard. Sometimes women were taken from the streets and their houses if the Taliban liked them.

When the Taliban first came to the area they demanded everyone submit their weapons and searched people’s homes. On one occasion they took my father from the street and detained him at the Taliban Headquarters for two or three days. He paid them money so they would release him.

About a year before I left Afghanistan my twin brother went out alone and never returned. We are not sure if he was taken or killed. The Taliban headquarters is close to our house so maybe they took him, a lot of people were taken there to be tortured.

The Taliban took a lot of people to the front line to fight, and most of them never returned.

Prior to my twin going missing my young uncle was taken to fight at the front line. We never saw him again, and think he was killed.

Around 2 months after my brother went missing the Taliban came to our land where my father was working while I watched. They demanded my father pay tax which he agreed he would do after he finished work. They hit us and ordered us to go with them to our house where they took the wheat and other items. They came back every two months and demanded tax.

My father was scared that as I got older my life would be at a greater risk. He was worried that I may go missing like my twin. He then said he was going to send me out of Afghanistan and arranged my trip with a smuggler. The smuggler took me from my home and I went in a car with 6 other people. We travelled to Pakistan where we stayed for two weeks and then flew to Indonesia.

We travelled from Jakarta to Surabaya where we waited for a boat to be prepared. We went to a different island and then taken to Australia.

I fear that is I am forced to return to Afghanistan I will be killed, they will question me as to why I left Afghanistan. The Taliban don’t like Shi’ite’s or Hazara.

Ms Mia Handshin, Tirana Hassan and our interpreter Babak interviewed Sayed in Woomera and details were added to this statement:

Nobody has explained to me what is happening to me at any time. I don’t know what will happen to me.

Sometimes I work as a gardener and I did work in the kitchen. An ACM officer got me a job after I spoke to him. I have worked as a gardener since I was in India compound and I work from 1.30 to 5 pm for $6 per day. I don’t have any other money.

I have had no contact with my family as there are no phones in Afghanistan for me to call them.

I sleep a lot and only wake up to work and eat. My biggest problem is that I am in detention. I am in the Mike compound with unaccompanied minors and share a donga with about 14 other boys. There are 6 rooms and a central television room. There is a television, a fridge, some chairs and a table. Everyone is under 18.

There are three ACM officers who come to see us daily. They sometimes come three times to check on us. They help me out. They ask us for our numbers and sometimes come into our rooms.

I have an appointment with a psychologist today because I am thinking too much and I am worried and upset a lot. I would like to study in the future, I want an education and anything god provides for me, I will do any job at all.

I am sick with a cold, but after my first request to see the doctor it took 2 days. He gave me some medication, some vitamins, but did not explain what was wrong with me.

After my third interview with DIMIA I have not seen anyone. One time, Sharon from ACM came to our room. Some of my friends asked her some questions about why we are here in detention. Sharon said it was not her business or responsibility. It is out of her control and a decision that somebody in Canberra has made.

I did not ask any questions but some of my friends were very angry about being in detention.

About one month ago, on the same day as I had my interview with DIMIA a small group of about 6 boys were taken outside the detention to go swimming and to a park and barbecue in Woomera.

ACM have transferred us many times. They change us from place to place all the time and they don’t explain why. When I came to English I learned some English. An officer comes to speak to us and teaches us some English.

There is a computer in Mike but I do not like to go there because there is nothing to do but to sit and watch. I sometimes play football.

When the riots start I am afraid, I go to my room and play. There is sometimes fighting between Afghanis and Iraqis during meals. I go to my room when they fight.

We pray on our own. Nobody from a mosque has ever come to visit. We run our own prayers.

On 19th December the crisis response and child abuse service were notified that Sayed had been assaulted. The report states:

Last night Zahir went to work in the kitchen when there was a riot and he was taken into custody. Zahir claimed that 3 guards then attacked him – one held both of his arms down, one dragged him out of the room and the other hit him across the face with an open hand.

There were obvious bruises on Zahir’s face an welts on his neck consistent with this story. They were observed by Doctor Meaney working at the centre.

In response to the allegations Family and Youth services referred the matter to SAPOL (South Australian police at Port Augusta. Photos of his injuries were taken by SAPOL who then referred the matter to the Federal police.

Zahir was removed from the centre into foster care on 23rd January 2002, during the hunger strike. He was placed with carers but was not granted any sort of visa for refugee status. Zahir is still in detention until his case is decided and as an unaccommpanied minor was the ward of the minister. Family and youth services of SA took on his daily care provisions.

Dr Colby Pearce from the FAYS department for Unaccommpanied Humanitarian Minors program interviewed Sayed on 30th January 2002. Dr Colby reported:

I interviewed Zahir at his school on 30 January. He was happy and sociable and communicative throughtout the interview. He talked to me through an Afghani worker. He reported that the hunger strike in the centre was a collective protest over the government’s failure to issue visas to the people.

All Afghani people in the centre joined the hunger strike, he hoped to gain a visa by his participation. He remained on strike for seven days and for part of this time his lips were sewn together. Prior to joining the strike he had deliberately cut his arm in protest over moving to a different compound in the centre.

Zahir stated that he felt happy and no longer felt like harming himself following his release. He denied having any difficulty sleeping or experiencing any nightmares since moving to Adelaide. He indicated that he had a good appetite and though he worries about the people still in Woomera, he did not report any intrusive traumatic memories.

Zahir expressed the view that the Woomera detention centre was unfit even for animals. He stated he would rather die than return there, and if attempts were made to do so he would kill himself. Similarly Zahir said he did not want to return to Afghanistan as there is always war and he doesn’t know where his family is.

In addition Zahir completed the Trauma Symptom Checklist for Children (TSCC-A) . This is a 44 item self-report measure of post-traumatic distress and related psychological symptomolgy. The questionairre was translated into Dari by an Afghan worker. Zahir’s responding produced an elevated score on the anxiety scale which may reflect past exposure to traumatic events.

On the basis of this interview I do not believe he is suffering from any clinically significant disturbance at this time, but remain concerned about his threat to harm himself if attempts are made to return him to Woomera. I recommend that I become involved with him in the event that he receives unfavourable news regarding his visa or ongoing stay in Adelaide.

By April there had been no report from the police so we decided to make the story public through Russell Skelton at the AGE but he was referred to the Minister for Justice to write a formal request.

The interview did not proceed.

On 1st May Sayed was sent a letter through his foster parents offering him the opportunity to reassess his claim for protection due to changed circumstances in Afghanistan. At the age of just 13 he was given the choice of continuing his claims for protection or to return home. He was given till 10th June offered Immigration Advice and Application assistance (IAAAS) to help him.

Also that day at a FAYS strategy meeting, his case-worker contacted the Federal police about the investigation into the assault charges, and was told the investigation was completed but had not been handed over to the Department of Public Prosecutions. The police gave permission for FAYs to interview Sayed as long as they informed the police of the outcome.

On 7th May Zahir confirmed that he had already provided a statement to the Federal police, but he was concerned that speaking out had caused him to have his visa rejected. Zahir went on the say that if he “made trouble” he would be “punished” and sent back to Woomera. The FAYS staff explained that it was a separate matter.

When asked about events Zahir said that on that day:

Gulam Ali and I were working in the kitchen where we were paid $3 a day to wash dishes and to do various kitchen tasks. On this particular day there had been a disturbance at the centre and as was the practice UHM’s were taken back to their compounds. However, we were taken to some sort of office and told to stay there.

There was a Iraqi man there with a sick child waiting for the doctor. I asked the lady detention officer if I could go back to my room. Soon after another officer entered the room with his face covered and I didn’t know who he was or why he came into the room. He grabbed me around the neck and scratched my neck. He then dragged me out of the room and hit me with the lower part of his hand.

The hit caused me to be thrown back and to hit my head on the wall behind. The force made it feel as “if my eyes would pop out”. I began to cry, as did the female officer, Gulam Ali and the Iraqi family. The doctor came to see the Iraqi family and saw me as well.

Doctor Meaney took photos and did a thorough examination of my sore face and scratched neck.

When he was asked about the assault Ghulum remembered the same room and explained that there had been rioting that day. He said they were in that different room because the window of the medical centre had been broken in the riot.

Ghulum remembered that Sayed had been taken from the room but he did’nt know why, and a short time later Sayed came back crying with his face swollen. He didn’t know what had happened.

Russell was not worried about being turned away by FAYS and managed to interview Dr Meaney. Dr Meaney made a statement, and pointed out that he had left the centre on the 20th December as his contract had expired.

Sayed had been in the kitchen and sent to the customs donga for his protection when the riot started. I was called to the donga after being told there were people who needed medical attention. There were 2 teenagers, Sayed was one of them, and a mother and daughter.

Sayed was sitting next to the doorway of the donga semi-reclined on a chair with his feet on another chair. Three male guards appeared in the doorway in riot gear. They were big beefy guards and two of them wore helmets. One of Maori and the other two were white with one of them being really tall.

The Maori guard grabbed Sayed by the neck and pulled him to his feet. Sayed was forced out of the donga and taken to the back of the donga where someone laid into him. I hear a clunk and the nurse went to the door when Sayed was pushed back into the donga. I did not see him being hit.

I asked for photos even though ACM were not keen. Normally everything is videod but this time the video camera person didn’t turn up. After about 1.5 hours someone turned up with a digital camera, which was not regular at all. The person taking the photos didn’t seem to know what they were doing, and in early January I got a call to say that the photos had all been lost.

I rang the FAYS abuse hotline but they could not get involved because it was not a parent who was the abuser. Then I contacted David Frencham from DIMIA who said he would call the police but they didn’t get involved until late January.

The female guard, the nurse and the other teenager were very upset. Ghulum was only 16 and the police heavied him when they took his statement.

When Russell approached DIMIA about interviewing Sayed he was threatened with penalties under the migration act if he approached a child without the permission of his guardian, the minister.

In early June Phillipa Godwin , manager of unauthorised arrivals in DIMIA informed the Senate legal and constitutional committee that the investigation had been finalised with no charges laid. A week later she retracted the statement with a letter to the committee with the statement “I was advised today by the Australian Federal Police that this information is incorrect and that the matter is still under assessment. I am keen to take steps to bring the error to the attention of the committee. Three guards had initially been dismissed but were re-instated after union objections to the head office of ACM.

This effectively split the ranks of ACM at Woomera, and David Frencham of DIMIA. Frencham wanted the guards permanently fired.

By September three guards had been charged with the assault on Sayed but failed to arrive at the court in Port Augusta to stand trial.

Sayed was just one of a group of Afghani boys sent from Afghanistan to the safety of Australia only to end up in Woomera.

The department of human services applied to the Minister for discretionary visas for the boys in March 2002, after finding that most had no family and were deeply distressed by their experiences. The minister is able to make more favourable decisions and grant visas under his public interest powers pursuant to Article s417 of the Migration Act 1958 if

  1. It would be inhumane to return a person to their country of origin because of their subjective fear , such as a person who has experienced torture or trauma and who is likely to experience further trauma if returned to their country
  2. The psychological state of the person would warrant it.

As with Sayed Zahir, all the testing was conducted by Dr Colby Pearce, and the brief outline of each report is as follows. It must be remembered that the boy were all under 18 when they arrived from Afghanistan.


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Get the book Michael

And prepare yourself for horror upon horror.

The Oz has a good piece

The Australian in another moment of brilliance has an article today that should be read; Unwanted Cruelty by Chris Goddard, Susie Latham and Linda Briskman:

"THERE have been highs and lows, heroes and villains, in Australia's treatment of refugees. In recent years, the heroes have been hard to find. This is why, in Human Rights Overboard, published this week, we are calling for a royal commission into every aspect of immigration policy."


"For many on both sides of politics, it was the treatment of children that highlighted the cruelty to all. More than 2000 children were kept in Australian detention centres for an average period of 20 months. At least one child was locked up for more than five years. So many children, so terribly damaged, for so little reason.


"But if you build a prison, you treat those inside, even children, as criminals. Especially if the prisons are out of sight. A former detention centre officer told the inquiry that many officers thought asylum-seekers were criminals: "I was once told ... you are the cat, they are the rat, and don't forget that."

"This was organised and ritualised abuse of vulnerable people, including children, by the Australian government. Even when child abuse was reported to state child protection authorities, no action was taken.

This abuse of children was institutionalised, placed beyond the law. "

It's a must read.

A 3 year old who tried to kill his truck

I read this book on Monday and even though I knew a good deal of it I did not know about this little boy, nor that 4 year old Amina Bakhtiyari had been drugged during Easter 2002 because her mum and 4 siblings were in Adelaide jail and she was all alone.

I suggest everyone get a copy, that means you David and someone let Margo know.

The welfare plan won't get off the ground

This one will fade away or just won't get implemented in reality. But it's hardly like locking up innocent children for years.

Eliot, you just have to resist the urge to find something – anything – in an attempt to balance the score sheet.


Eliot reads me very well. He's probably aware of the distaste I experienced the other night after the Blair doco, too.

Yes Eliot, I am aware that the change of government in Australia may not have rid us of the neolib infection – an infection deeply entrenched in most state governments, from recent reports from Victoria, NSW, etc.

Symptoms include big infrastructure projects that have scrutiny strangely avoided through debauched FOI and crass commercial-in-confidence procedures and a warped misanthropy so similar as to be likely derived from neoliberalism's lobotomising predecessor: Reaganism / Thatcherism / Howardism.

I lived in hope, but once again perhaps not so.

I know some feel that the ALP is forced to carry a Hansonist agenda because of Nelson's Senate obstructionism – Rudd must stay on side with the mortgage belt in case government is forced to grind to a halt and the country must go to a double dissolution to resolve matters one way or another.

The Question for the Ages is: would Labor, free of Senate obstructionism, revert to a progressive agenda when last mandated, or would it only deteriorate into something resembling certain state governments, or the Howard pork barrel government of the previous decade from which it has inherited several substantial problems, along with power.

Hence the feasibility of the explanation for the recent bout of populist environmentalist / left/ welfare / black bashing – just to keep favour with the mortgage belt.

In a way, you have me more confident of my tentative thesis about the Australian sub species of Western (human?) pathology expressed in response to Marilyn Shepherd's disturbing series demonstrating the example of the loss of direction vis-à-vis politicised and brutalised (mis)application of refugee policy.

Collective punishment a part of national psyche

Paul Walter: "Some of it above indicates actually, possibly to a disturbing implied deficiency in the Australian psyche itself; when held up as a mirror for us to look at ourselves with, in reports like the above."

Oh, then you're going to love Rudd's plan to cut welfare payments to Aboriginal kids' families to punish them for playing truant..

Parliamentary secretary for early childhood education Maxine McKew supports the move but acknowledges some of her colleagues do not.

I think I told you how Maxine would do exactly as she was told.

Revenons a nos moutons...

Interesting point, Eliot Ramsey, but not exactly relevant to the thread.

How about you contribute a threadstarter on that particular topic? I am sure that many of us would like to discuss it.

duty of care

To me, the underlying thread throughout the incidents related above seems to involve, yet again, a problem in comprehending the notion of duty of care and principles of basic humanity.

Some of it above indicates actually, possibly to a disturbing implied deficiency in the Australian psyche itself; when held up as a mirror for us to look at ourselves with, in reports like the above.

It seems striking that many involved in the administering of the policy, including guards, bureaucrats and the like, seemed to have little concept of how to act toward people under severe stress and already traumatised from previous events back in places like Iran, Iraq or Afghanistan.

Were some of these supervising people just oafs, or were they somehow misinformed by higher ups who should have been more aware of, and capable of, a holistic approach to the problem of dealing with people in detention?

The behaviour of three guards giving the lad the hiding related to in the last paragraphs is Neanderthal enough. But are we actually looking at something a little similar to Abu Ghraib, where the people "upstairs" are culpable for assigning untrained or barely competent underlings to do certain jobs?

Why? Seems a very strange pathology to encourage in a civilised society?

Were the guards and officials on the ground government employees or hired hands for privatised "cowboy" security brought in to allow the government to remain at arms length and unaccountable? Why was surveillance and harassment more important than fair treatment? Where was the Aussie "fair go"?

To me, people who think the series is about "queue jumpers” are missing the point. It goes beyond that.

Regardless of whether the detainees are legitimate refugees or not no longer remains the issue. The issue becomes the operation or otherwise of a civilised regime in place, whilst people for whatever reason, are in detention.

Now it seems significant, thinking back on it, that the government was so reluctant to have advocate groups or responsible press and media about these places, if the standard of care was of a level that would be expected by normal Aussies.

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