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Q&A recap: Mem Fox says she will never return to US after being 'interrogated'

On Monday's Q&A, the awkward collision of the arts, politics, economics, free speech and good manners were up for debate – and in the case of famed children's book author Mem Fox, all of them at once.

In one of the more unlikely turns of events in the Trump era, Fox recently found herself the second most famous Australian victim of the unusual diplomatic engagement being employed by the 45th president of the United States and his jovial minions. We all remember fondly Malcolm Turnbull's recent telephonic encounter with President Donald Trump, in which our PM was advised that his was the worst telephone call the president had endured that day.

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Q&A: Australian author vows never to return to US

Australian children's author Mem Fox went through a humiliating ordeal after being wrongfully detained at LA airport. Later in the evening while the Q&A panel discussed Bill Leak and his cartoons, the show was interrupted by protesters. Vision courtesy ABC.

It's hard to imagine, but Mem Fox had a rather more unpleasant experience all together on her recent arrival in the US to deliver a speech. On Q&A – a special arts edition, free of politicians and broadcast from the Adelaide Festival – a questioner wanted to know if Fox's experience was not, really, just a somewhat over-hyped version of our very own immigration policy known as Operation Sovereign Borders.

Fox was keen to disabuse the questioner and the nation of this notion. With great gusto.

"I did go to the US and I was allowed in, amazingly," she began.

"But not until I had been interrogated and I use the word specifically interrogated, not interviewed. I was pulled out of line for a very small reason. The digital cameras didn't work and I was sent to a real person and that's where the trouble started. And the real person found out I was being paid to give a speech in the States and said, 'You've come in on the wrong visa. You need to have more questions asked'.


"It was the way the questions were asked. It was the way they're trying to protect their borders. It was the insolence. It was the fear that they caused in me. It was the humiliation in a public room in which everything about my finances was shouted out to the entire room. It was the way other people in the room were treated which made me ashamed of being a human being.

"It was not only I who was badly treated. It was appalling. Of course they can keep their borders safe. There are ways of doing it that are polite. That are friendly. That are warm. I hope that Australians who would be in the same situation as those border police would be slightly more polite, slightly warmer."

Oh, and as a kicker Fox had this to say: "Please don't ask me to comment on Tony Abbott and our own border protection because there are not enough expletives in Roget's Thesaurus."

"Do you think you will ever return to the US?" asked host Tom Ballard, sitting in for Tony Jones.

"I won't. Absolutely not. It wouldn't be safe for me to do so. I don't think I'd be allowed in," Fox said.

"I'd faint in the immigration queue. I couldn't even stand in the immigration queue. I would just faint with fear. People have said, 'Get over it. Don't be so precious'. I was in that room and had been through that. Get over it. They were not in the room that I was in.

"They were not there after Trump came into power. They were not interviewed by the man who interviewed me who was much younger than I was and who was absolutely terrifying and he humiliated me from the first sentence. The person that says get over it was not there with me."

Later discussion turned to the passing a few days ago of the cartoonist Bill Leak.

Needless to say, this was equally contentious. And for Indigenous actress Ursula Yovich – who had earlier spoken of her pain at performing in The Secret River, pain that nearly caused her to walk away from the production – there was more than mere contention in play when discussing Leak's most controversial depiction of Aboriginal fatherhood.

"Sometimes you do have to check yourself because I have to speak about my own mental illness … I have had some times where I can't handle this and I would rather not be here. I don't like who I am because of the way Aboriginal people are portrayed at times," Yovich said.

"And we need to have control of those stories. I need to be able to put something out there and go, 'That's not all Aboriginal fathers. That's not all Aboriginal women. That's not all mothers.' I am a mother first and foremost. I don't identify as an Aboriginal mother. I'm a mother. I was mortified when I saw that particular cartoon."

Adelaide Festival director Neil Armfield – who directed Yovich in The Secret River – said: "I knew Bill. And enjoyed his company. Respected him. I thought those cartoons in The Australian were despicable. I think that as he grew older he became more and more, for whatever reason, sort of narrowed into a corner. And I thought that he was playing into an attitude which was completely the attitude of the racist and the powerful. And that he was ignoring the inheritance of rage and pain that those social situations that he was … showing in his cartoon are the result of."

Then the audience protests erupted, screams of: "Bill Leak is racist."

Host Ballard moved to calm things. And then it was back to Mem Fox.

"I looked and I thought, 'Bill, Bill, no, please, no'. And I loved Bill Leak's cartoons. And I thought they were fabulous. But … there is another word for political correctness. And it is a simple word. It's called politeness."

There is politeness, and then there is politics, and then there is art. As Q&A showed once more, we are surely bound never to agree on where the boundaries of each of them are properly drawn.