On Thursday morning of the Liberals’ week of mayhem, facing front benches empty of ministers and with the day’s sitting of Parliament about to be shut down, ALP leader Bill Shorten said: “The purpose of government is to uplift the nation’s vision”. He’s right. We all know that he’s right. But vision takes courage. And within the Liberal Party – whoever is leading it – courage, like decency, has long been absent.
It is not just that exiting Prime Minister Turnbull allowed principles and unifying values – and the policies that expressed them – to be snatched one by one by the wreckers until only his job was left, and they took that, too. It is also that the Liberals seriously offered us as an initial alternative Peter Dutton, known not for his power to connect or inspire, nor for the depth of his thinking nor his policy agility, but as an unleashed “attack dog” whose victims are, to a person, powerless, marginalised and not-white.
The new Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, may be cleverer than Dutton in packaging his party’s attitudes, but it was he who presided with pride over “Operation Sovereign Borders”. It is clear that the elevation of either man grimly warns where their “broad church” is heading. Or where it remains mired in muck.
No one within the Coalition has done anything but trivialise and defend the harm indefinite detention is causing, despite the Law Council of Australia’s explicit policy that all seeking Australia’s protection should be treated with humanity and dignity. (Ref: https://www.lawcouncil.asn.au/policy-agenda/human-rights/immigration-detention-and-asylum-seekers)
Flourishing the race card in a country where racial divisiveness is already the primal wound? Ignoring and silencing climate science when there’s catastrophic local drought and global warnings? Portraying refugees as a threat to justify their indefinite agony? Redefining “sovereignty” to mean regressive white-bread nationalism? Regarding it as “sport” to attack the institutions of middle Australia, including the ABC? Carrying coal into the Parliament as a stunt? Resisting the equity calls of same sex marriage? If these are the Liberal Party values and behaviours that our nation deserves, it is most certainly not what it needs.
In presenting Dutton as their first alternative Prime Minister, and not merely as master manipulator Tony Abbott’s “glove puppet”, his keenest allies repeatedly pointed to his success at “securing our borders”. There was also the long-held admiration for “turning back the boats” driven by Morrison and accelerated by Dutton. But this is a fear-driven narrative that is also false. And it is towards that appalling falsehood that our attention should turn.
Boats carrying legitimate asylum seekers have slowed significantly and there are no longer mass deaths at sea. There are plenty of deaths, however, in the impoverished countries where refugees wait in bitter abandonment, unable to return or go forward. There have also been at least a dozen deaths in the humiliatingly punitive off-shore detention centres for which Australia is wholly responsible. Children on the barren, inhospitable island of Nauru are beyond despair: self-harming and seeking suicide in unprecedented numbers. The story is no better on Manus. Desperation comes to all human beings after a few months without hope. This has been five years.
But details, facts, feelings remain oblique. Section 42 – the secrecy provision – of the 2015 Australian Border Force Act seeks to ensure that we do not see those held in detention as real people or offer direct witness to their suffering.
Central to this dehumanising process is the routine use by detention centre staff of numbers rather than names for asylum seekers. Even babies brought by their parents to doctors come with a boat number rather than a name. Known by number and not by name? Each individual accompanied by a separate guard, including a baby in arms? Implemented by international companies profiting grossly from daily humiliations that remind each refugee that they are “no one” and certainly no one deserving of dignity or respect? The answer is yes. Many thousands of times, yes.
The ridiculous thing is that asylum seekers arriving by boat were anyway a miniscule number compared to the estimated 64,600 visa over-stayers in Australia. The “unlawful non-citizens”, as the Australian Border Force calls them, came largely from the US, Malaysia, China and Britain and, to a person, arrived by plane. As of 30 June 2017, there were an estimated 64,600 visa over-stayers in Australia. Roman Quaedvlieg was chief of the Australian Border Force at the time. He’s since left under a low-hanging integrity cloud, but research reported on by The Australian suggested the agency he then led was “toothless” in halting the overstaying problem.
“Open borders” has never been the desired alternative but the hysteria around boats suggests that its sole purpose is to pump up fear and justify massive expenditure on the fake promise of “security” and “protection”. Is there a dark irony here that the Liberals cannot keep themselves secure within their own party? Or protect their own leadership from “invaders”? If the issues weren’t so deathly serious they would be laughable.
From the knowingly false “children overboard” claims of John Howard and Peter Reith in October 2001, racism and religious prejudice have been used repeatedly to “win” votes by appealing to the worst impulses in Australians, and not the finest.
The refugees now on Manus and Nauru were fleeing terror, war, persecution and death. They have been processed within an inch of their lives. The ALP knows this as well as the Coalition does and their complicity in fear-mongering is, if anything, worse, given their distance from race politics more generally.
If common sense and a scrap of vision prevailed, processing could be achieved onshore with massive financial and humanitarian savings. Boats from Indonesia or elsewhere could be safely turned back (and are), and services offered without keeping 1,534 people, including 121 children, for five years and counting, as human deterrents.
History shows it’s never been possible to cause terrible harm without first stereotyping and dehumanising the people you are harming. Taking away the identity of refugees held off-shore is an act of profound repression. Building policies based on racial contempt and divisiveness has become central to the Coalition parties and their idea of Australia. It has also driven the careers of both Dutton and now Morrison right to the top.
When stringent efforts are made to ensure that refugees remain “non-people”, and to enforce a narrative that presents those battered traumatised people as the threat, rather than regressive policies that perversely deny our local and global wellbeing, it takes exceptional courage to transcend that.
How extraordinary then that on Manus Island there is such a person. A Kurdish poet who looks much like Jesus, he could have been Australia’s first double Nobel Prize winner, winning for non-violent peacemaking and also for writing that emerges from an experience of hell.
He may yet win those prizes, but not as an Australian. Behrouz Boochani is now visible, risking his fragile future by speaking out. Unlike those who would seek to lead us, Boochani’s courage and strength are genuine. So are his insights. His Manus memoir, No Friend but the Mountains, can’t be read quickly. Taking it in, we must process what Australia is doing to people imprisoned indefinitely but guilty of no crime. Taking it in, we must understand the political and leadership forces that would make us smaller, meaner and infinitely less secure – until enough of us rise up to resist them.
Reverend Dr Stephanie Dowrick is a writer, an Interfaith minister and a long-time social commentator. Her many books include Seeking the Sacred: Transforming our view of ourselves and one another. She co-leads a World Meditation for Peace gathering each third Sunday, 11 am, at the BK Inner Space Centre, 181 First Avenue, Five Dock, NSW
This article appeared in a slightly different form in the Sydney Morning Herald on 25 August 2018.