Philip Ruddock had to brave a gaggle of protesters yesterday when he fronted the Wheeler Centre’s audience to talk about his four decades in Parliament, now drawn to a close. Police were out in force blocking the front entrance, meaning those with tickets had to go through a side entrance, where police allowed attendees to go through in single file once their tickets were checked.
“Ask Ruddock about children overboard,” urged a protester as Ms Tips filed past. Ruddock seemed pleased with the reception, telling the audience he was glad to still feel relevant. As to children overboard, the topic didn’t come up, but refugee issues did dominate a discussion between Ruddock and Sally Warhaft, as she and her audience tried to come to terms with a man who frames his parliamentary legacy in terms of human rights (when leaving Parliament he was appointed as Australia’s UN envoy on the issue), but who is most associated with what is seen as the direct contravention of those rights in relation to Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers.
Asked by an audience member how the former immigration minister reconciled his career-long opposition to the death penalty with his support for offshore detention, described as a “living death”, Ruddock drew on his own experiences of global refugee camps to say no one could claim conditions in Australia’s detention camps were anywhere near as bad. He repeatedly insisted that public support for immigration rested on the public having faith in the “integrity” of the system — which includes Australia retaining control of who it allows into the country. He insisted that Australia must help those who need it the most, and not those who have the money to pay people smugglers.
He was facing a tough audience, which was polite but generally critical — perhaps as would be expected in inner Melbourne. Before the questions on refugee policy began, Ruddock was asked why he was stepping down. He was blunt in his response. “Am I likely to come back as a minister? I listened to my leader, who was talking about generational change … He wasn’t going to be bring me back as a minister. I would be back chairing a parliamentary committee.”
Ruddock’s current role at the UN is part of Australia’s efforts to secure a seat on the UN Security Council. Asked about the realpolitik surrounding this, Ruddock acknowledged the negotiations were highly political. But to Ms Tips’ disappointment, he declined to elaborate, saying the politics was best left unseen.
An hour later, when the talk ended, it appeared the cold had chased off the protesters. They were nowhere to be seen.