The Afghan Express

In the latter half of the 1900's, Afghan camel drivers arrived in Australia to help explore a way into the countries previously-undiscovered central region. The harsh terrain could only be survived by hardened warriors who knew well how to endure such conditions.

The terrain in the center is mostly harsh desert, but is also subject to flash flooding during the wet season. Daytime temperatures are extremely high, yet at night can drop below freezing. The night-time skies are something to behold.

As Australia began to grow and develop, new towns emerged and transportation grew in importance. At the time, a new town named Stuart (later to be renamed Alice Springs) was growing and needed connection and supply. On August 4th, 1929, the first train left Adelaide and arrived two days later.

The train was named "The Afghan Express" in honor of the hardy Afghan camel drivers who forged the way forward into the deep center to create the route the train would eventually follow. Later, this name was reduced to "The Ghan."

The service was quite unreliable with regular track damage arising from flood waters and termites. Sometimes the track was completely swept away.

In 1980, a completely new line was opened that extended the trip all the way through to Darwin. Termite proof sleepers and a new route away from the flood regions ensured the service's long-term future. The Ghan provides an exciting adventure into the heart of one of the world's natural wonderlands.

I give you this background because it is clear to see how we celebrate Afghanis, and the role they played in the opening up of the center of this great country.

Today we see a vastly different story. As modern Afghanistan is torn apart by the ravages of religious extremism and prolonged war, the citizens are being forced to abandon their beloved country to seek a new and peaceful life in other lands.

For whatever reason, they eventually find their way to boats in South East Asia and make the desperate dash for Australia. They know this is a peaceful country, far away from the tyranny of the extremists, and somewhere they may be able to apply their labors to the creation of a new and prosperous future.

I often stop to wonder about the amount of courage, or perhaps desperation, that would drive someone to place his or her family on an overcrowded boat to make the arduous and often treacherous journey across the open seas to Australia.

However, it is when they arrive that things become really challenging.

Right now, I will put my hand on my heart and admit I know nothing of the challenges of being in government. I am sure, most people who do go into government are really good people, but something is not right.

The asylum seekers arrive in Australia and are detained as illegal aliens in detention centers that offer little more than extreme boredom. Some of the detainees have been held in these facilities for longer than five years. Many suffer mental illness, some turn to self-harm and, from time to time, some stage angry and sometimes violent protest.

Their lives are driven to a deep level of despair as their hopes fade and the futility of their plight becomes more and more apparent. My sources tell me that to witness this situation is truly heart breaking.

About the only good I can see in any of this is the work done by many open-hearted people who go to visit the detainees, to talk with them and spend some time, to give them some hope. These are truly compassionate people.

Out of all of this comes a question? We have several cities and towns in remote regions of Australia around mine sites. These cities and towns would benefit greatly from a larger population. Bringing people into these locations, who consider the environment to be quite normal, might be the life blood these places need.

I have no doubt that many of the Afghani and other asylum seekers are clever and industrious people. It does not take too much of a stretch of the imagination to see that they would make a valuable contribution and provide a willing workforce for mine sites struggling under the cost burden of a fly in, fly out workforce.

Some would argue that this would be unfair as jobs would be taken away from Australian workers. However, there are two factors that reduce the validity of such a viewpoint. First, there is a significant percentage of "FIFO" workers who hate their work but simply do it for the high wages. Whilst they have such contempt for their work, they are not the most productive resource for their employer. In fact they create risk.

Second, as populations grow, demand also grows, which creates new opportunities, new employment and increased wealth. As towns grow into cities, new economies rise out of the need for goods and services.

It is my belief that we have a huge country here that is largely uninhabited. Most voters have no intention to ever visit the outback, let alone live there. Yet these voters are the driving force for the harsh treatment of good and courageous people. A change in attitude from the voters may inspire a government to become more compassionate and creative.

What would it take for us to shift our viewpoint and see these people with compassion, respect and optimism? What would it take for us to get in behind their determination to create a new and better life in Australia?

If we can do it, I have a sense we will be in for a pleasant surprise. What we are doing now, cannot continue. So perhaps it is time to climb on board The Afghan Express and open up some new and exciting frontiers.