Tom Ballard visited refugees in detention as research for a new show, but found his subject became his white guilt. By Tom Ballard.

Tom Ballard’s eye-opening refugee visits inspire MICF show

Comedian Tom Ballard
Comedian Tom Ballard
Credit: Jim Lee

The first time I visited a detention centre, I was hungover. That has to be up there as one of the most pathetic, privileged, white person things you can do. I had used my freedom to dance the night away and drink a lot of gin and try, unsuccessfully, to kiss boys. Now I was here.

I’d met Nick on a Facebook group that facilitated visits to detention. He met me out the front to chat before we went inside.

“So, Tom, why were you keen to come along and visit today?”

I explained the premise of a show I was writing, and peppered it with a bit of “I’ve-been-meaning-to-do-this-for-a-long-time-anyway”. Nick nodded cautiously.

“Okay,” he said. “Just wanted to check. I saw you on the telly the other night and I said to my friend, who used to be here in detention, ‘That guy wants to come visit and find out more about refugees.’ And he sort of said, ‘Why? So he can just make money out of us?’ ”

I was taken aback. I hadn’t considered this. At all. I’d assumed that I was a good guy doing a good thing. I was helping.

The maxim is Nihil de nobis, sine nobis. Nothing about us, without us. It has been doing the rounds for centuries. Since the 1990s, it’s been a catchcry of disability activism. It’s there in the fight against HIV/AIDS, too, and in the drug debate.

The request seems reasonable: if you’re going to enact policies that directly affect a certain group, include that group in the conversation about those policies. This is particularly important if that group of people lacks the very advantages that, chances are, have resulted in people like you being in power in the first place.

The motto has been enthusiastically embraced by RISE, a group of “Refugees, Survivors and Ex-detainees”. It’s emblazoned in red across the group’s website, it’s the final line of their Twitter description and it acts as their Twitter profile photo. For Australia’s first refugee-run welfare and advocacy organisation, the message is: We have agency. We have voices. We deserve to be heard. Directly. The government and the media do a perfectly good job of twisting and diminishing our stories; they don’t need help from well-intentioned white advocates who constantly speak on our behalf and take up public space.

And yet here’s me: a middle-class, Australian-born, monolingual, very white comedian, clicking through RISE’s website, that red slogan glaring back at me accusingly.

I’m looking for material.

The idea of writing a comedy show about refugees arrived in my head one day and wouldn’t leave. I filed it under “just-so-crazy-it-might-work”. As Australia’s cruelty towards these desperate people played out in the news each day, I found myself thinking about the toxic politics of the boats and what it said about my country. I’d written the odd routine that approached it all in a fairly superficial way. Jokes such as: “If you really want to ‘stop the boats’, don’t get the military involved – just give the contract to Myki.” I’d seen some comics riff on the notion of “boat people” and mock Tony Abbott’s xenophobia. But I couldn’t think of anyone who had dedicated an entire show to our sordid immigration history.

Could it be done? Could you make the White Australia Policy and Tampa and turn-backs and offshore detention “funny”? Could you detail how we got to where we are and try to explain why it’s so extraordinarily fucked up without boring an audience to tears or lecturing them to death?

I didn’t know the answers in August of last year and, quite honestly, I’m not sure of them now. But I had a crack. I applied for a Moosehead grant to develop a 70-minute comedy lecture, called Boundless Plains to Share. I had maybe six minutes of existing material that could work. I was no longer playing in the realm of dick jokes and observations about Facebook: this was about serious things, happening right now. This was about the trauma and lives and deaths of real people.

I started reading. David Marr and Marian Wilkinson’s book Dark Victory, Klaus Neumann’s Across the Seas, Quarterly Essays, opinion pieces, government statistics, essays, critiques and “solutions”. I consumed documentaries and old news reports and was depressed by Q&A shouting matches. The naivety of my privilege became clear and soon enough my lefty-pinko heart was paralysed in the vice-like grip of white guilt.

Visiting detention centres is bizarre. After the security checks and the showing of photo ID and the signing of forms and stowing of phones and wallets and coins in a locker, you’re led through two security doors to a large open room containing about 10 big tables and a few couches. And there are “clients” there, waiting for you.

What can you say to people who are living in detention? Nice to meet you? What have you been up to? Do I talk about my life? Do I ask them about their situation? Do they want someone to listen to their problems or is thinking about what’s happening to them the last thing in the entire world they want to do?

The initial awkwardness was avoided by the fact these smiling people were constantly offering me things to eat and drink. One man – the barista of the centre, apparently – brought me a latte and sat it proudly in front of me.

“Oh, thanks,” I said. “This place is great.”

It came out of me automatically. They all ignored it. Someone asked what time I had to get up to do breakfast radio.

“About 4am.”

“Every day?”


“Oh. That would be hard.”


Slowly, the clumsiness fades. If you make the effort and visit often enough, genuine friendships are formed. It becomes more than just a “good deed”: it’s something you want to do. Something you want to keep doing.

The deeper I got, the more I came to view my silly jokes as just one element of what I can and should be doing to help. Spend enough time with the sharp, resilient and often very funny members of the refugee community and you’ll be dispelled of any notion of them as helpless victims in need of white saviours. They’re certainly not waiting for a 26-year-old university dropout to come along and fix everything with his japes and his PowerPoint presentation – they just need bureaucracy and petty racism to get out of their way and let them get on with their lives in peace. My show does, I should add, prominently feature a PowerPoint presentation.

In the early stages of conceiving the show, a dear friend who spends almost every day working in this space said, “If you want to be really radical, you should include voices of real refugees.” Nothing about us without us.

Four refugees I’ve been fortunate to meet have granted me permission to incorporate their stories into the show. One is a young man who spent three years as a child on Nauru. Another, a political cartoonist exiled from Syria. I met a woman who fled South Vietnam by boat and a Tamil man who has been locked up in detention since 2011.

I can invest as much blood, sweat and tears as I like into a show but ultimately, for me, it’s just a show. If it goes badly, I’ll cop some poor reviews, lose some money and move on to the next thing. But for the hundreds and hundreds of people suffering in immigration detention, this is their brutal reality. And it doesn’t seem like it’s going to change any time soon.

I went to visit my friend M at the Maribyrnong detention centre the other week. It takes about half an hour to get out there. We arrived and I realised I’d screwed up: I had no photo ID. My new driver’s licence hadn’t come in the mail yet and my old licence had been destroyed. I’d briefly considered bringing my passport but left it behind, figuring it would be fine.

“I’m afraid I can’t let you in, sir,” said the guard on reception.

“But I’ve been here before and you have my ID on file.”

“Can’t do it. Sorry.”

I waited in the car as my cousin went inside to say hello and explain what had happened. M was apparently quite upset. “I’m really sorry about our management,” he told me later on Facebook. “I missed ur visit. Plz next time bring some of ur ID card. Thanx so much for ur time today…have a good time.”

And that is white privilege, the source of white guilt: meeting someone hungover, someone my country is arbitrarily detaining, someone who is fleeing torture or death or persecution, and later having that person apologise to you for your own fuck-up. Oh, and then writing a comedy show about it.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 19, 2016 as "Reach of privilege".

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Tom Ballard is a comedian and broadcaster.

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