Politicians take note: Response to Deng Thiak Adut video shows voters care about refugees

Politicians take note: Response to Deng Thiak Adut video shows voters care about refugees

The most common reaction to Deng Thiak Adut's YouTube story is tears.

The harrowing tale with a message of hope has been viewed 2 million times since the video about a child soldier turned western Sydney lawyer was posted in September.

This week, it is still being shared, with viewers leaving comment after comment blaming "the onions".

How strange that a TV advertisement could expose such strong emotions and empathy among Australians towards a refugee's journey.

Deng Adut has been named NSW Australian of the Year for 2017.

Deng Adut has been named NSW Australian of the Year for 2017.

Photo: James Brickwood

If you listened to the politicians, busy turning back the boats and locking up the children, anyone would think Australians had hardened their hearts to suffering long ago.

It was originally an ad to sell opportunity – the potential for education, in this case, the University of Western Sydney, to change lives. But it said something more.

Among those to see the clip was NSW Premier Mike Baird. Without having met him, Baird nominated the young lawyer, who works in Blacktown, to give the Australia Day Address.

What an address. It was being too scared, as a child, to pull the trigger of an AK47 and blow his own brains out that saved him, he said, when children around him were choosing death as the quickest escape from the horror of life.

But it was Deng's description of life in western Sydney, and his reminder to carefully safeguard the freedom from fear that Australians take for granted, that should be heeded.

Referring to terrorism, Deng said fear was the ideal environment for manipulation, particularly of the young.

In Sudan, Deng was considered too black, but he sees the Australian community as a rich palate.

"Visit a building site, walk around an educational campus, look at the names in our sporting teams and hear, see, smell and taste the richness of the cultures in any of our shopping centres. White is a colour to which so much can be added."

In a federal election year, the major parties would do well to consider this description of western Sydney.

Policies that seek to divide Australians into two categories (for example, allowing the deportation of Australians who hold dual nationality) strike at the heart of multicultural Sydney.

Dog whistling on asylum seekers has been the default election position for the Liberals and Labor since 2010, when Julia Gillard announced a "Timor Solution" to shore up the marginal seat of Lindsay.

The seat was lost in 2013 to Liberal Fiona Scott (who blamed asylum seekers for worsening traffic on the M4).

Instead of blaming refugees, Baird is widening the M4 to fix traffic.

He played Deng's video when he delivered his own Premier's Australia Day speech. Baird said he was "proud – but fearful" of what will happen to Australia if it shut its door on people like Deng. Baird said the nation is at a fork in the road.

The coming months will show whether the Turnbull government has the backbone to appeal to the better angels of our nature this election on refugee policy.

Instead of second-guessing voters through focus groups, party strategists should consider the millions who responded positively on social media to Deng's journey.

In western Sydney, more like Deng Thiak Adut surely walk among us.

Kirsty Needham

Kirsty Needham is China Correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age

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