Occasionally in a nation’s history, horror over past events triggers a kind of national shame. Germany went through it – is still going through it – in the wake of the Third Reich. South Africa has not yet healed the wounds of apartheid. The US continues to struggle with the evil legacy of white supremacism.
In Australia, we haven’t had a Holocaust. We haven’t institutionalised racial discrimination (though we’ve come close). But there have been periods in our short history that have cast very dark shadows across our national psyche, evoking entirely appropriate feelings of shame.
“White Australia” now seems shocking, though it was once regarded as a pillar of national pride, and a symbol of a perfectly legitimate determination to “keep Asians out”. Today’s Australians can hardly be expected to feel guilty about that policy, but they would be less than human if they didn’t feel a twinge of shame at its recollection.
Our treatment of indigenous Australians, right from the beginning, was shameful, but the so-called Stolen Generations have come to symbolise that more protracted moral failure. Even here, contemporary non-indigenous Australians need feel no guilt – after all, they didn’t do it – but they know it was done (yes, often by well-meaning but misguided people) and a sense of shame is entirely appropriate.
And now we must confront and contend with the shameful reality of our treatment of asylum-seekers both in our offshore detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island, and in our community.
This time, there’s a big difference: we all know what’s happening. The brutality, the cruelty – amounting to sustained mental torture – occurring in the detention centres is not some little secret known only to a few insiders. This is Australian government policy, out in the open, supported and sustained on both sides of politics. This is a national disgrace, and we are all complicit.
Anyone who describes asylum-seekers – regardless of how they got here – as “illegals” is guilty of perpetuating a Big Lie. Anyone who says we must treat innocent people as if they are guilty in order to discourage others from attempting to come here by boat has embraced the slipperiest and ugliest of all pseudo-moral propositions: “the end justifies the means”.
It is clear that the world is in crisis when it comes to refugees, displaced persons, and asylum-seekers. We’re talking somewhere in the region of 60 million people. Yet we are not prepared to rescue 2,000 hapless souls who languish in despair, under conditions harsher than those we inflict on convicted criminals.
As if to paper over this source of national shame, our Prime Minister goes on the offensive at the United Nations, claiming that our treatment of refugees is “world’s best practice”. Had he momentarily, conveniently, forgotten the 2,000?
There are some excellent features of Australia’s refugee policy. We are generous in many ways. But it’s pointless posturing about the good stuff when we let the bad stuff persist. We can hardly claim to be heroes when we are also villains – not only in the treatment being meted out to the detainees, but in our almost equally heartless treatment of asylum-seekers who have been permitted to live in Australia, but not to work, or study, or make any of the contributions to our society they are keen to make.
Leadership is crucial. When leaders like Malcolm Fraser and Bob Hawke were able to persuade reluctant Australians to be generous in our reception and treatment of Vietnamese “boat people”, we responded appropriately. We acted decently and humanely.
But when leaders on both sides of politics are pushing the line that the only way to “stop the boats” is by inflicting inhumane treatment on those people already here, then vast swathes of the community are prepared to be persuaded by that and to assume that this is an issue we don’t have to confront. This is something we can “let go”. This is something for someone else to worry about. Not us.
People who aren’t actually formulating, administering and implementing the policy might reasonably claim they feel no personal guilt. But what about those who are active players – the leaders, the immigration ministers in particular, who have overseen this ruthless policy? From John Howard and Philip Ruddock to Malcolm Turnbull and Peter Dutton, they have come from all sides, all factions. Some, like Ruddock, seemed almost to wilt under the moral pressure, as though their personal consciences were in direct conflict with the policy. Others, like Scott Morrison, seemed to enjoy the power they exerted and, when pressed, used the infamous “Nuremburg defence”, claiming they were just implementing government policy – as though a minister’s personal conscience could have no role in the matter at all.
(Ironic, really, that some of the most ruthless exponents of this policy have been self-declared Christians, who have presumably found some way around the Christian definition of “neighbour”.)
There’s been a lot of recent talk about “Australian values” and whether Muslims (who comprise just 2.2 percent of the Australian population) could be expected to embrace those values. Which values are we thinking about? On any list of contemporary Australian values, we must include “we inflict prolonged mental torture on innocent people”, and “we let some asylum-seekers live here, but we deny them a fair go.” Because that’s what we do – and our values are expressed not by what we say, but by what we do.
This is a very specific moral lapse, bound to induce feelings of profound national shame when the policy changes, as it inevitably will.
That’s bad enough. But there’s worse: when a government has a Big Lie (“illegals”) at the heart of a policy as important as this one, other lies become easier to tell. When a government numbs its conscience on one matter, that numbness is easier to maintain in response to other matters.
As for the rest of us, whether or not we actively support Australia’s asylum-seeker policy, this is a policy that diminishes us all.
Hugh Mackay’s new book, Beyond Belief, is published by Macmillan.