John Menadue. Why are we so cruel? The problem starts at the top.

Aug 30, 2015

The news out of Manus and particularly Nauru shows how callous we have become. It is not that we are always as cold-hearted as this. The response to the attacks on Adam Goodes and the murder of an AFL football coach shows our generous and humane side…our better angels.

But we don’t seem to care about the cruelty being inflicted on children and women in Nauru. The Nauru government is corrupt. There is no rule of law worth the name. Magistrates are sacked by the government. In effect, we bribe the Nauru government to do our dirty work. Women and children in Nauru are crying and we turn away.

There is poison in our public life but we don’t seem to care.

I suggest there are three main reasons why we have become so callous.

The first is the abdication of political and moral leadership. Asylum seekers have been demonized for years. It goes back to John Howard and his exploitation of fear of the outsider. He told us that asylum seekers were so inhuman that they would even throw their children overboard. For years Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison described asylum seekers as illegals and by inference, criminals. Scott Morrison told us that asylum seekers brought disease and wads of cash. He said that we should have a ‘behavioral protocol’ for asylum seekers living in the community. Senator Abetz told us that asylum seekers in the community should be publicly listed like pedophiles.

If asylum seekers are as inhuman as Ministers have repeatedly told us, why should those with administrative responsibility take particular care?

Leaders set the tone on how people behave in any organization. Put more bluntly is the old adage that the fish rots from the head down. People dealing with asylum seekers can read the signs from the top. These signs tell them that we don’t need to take particular care of asylum seekers and refugees. Surely the staff in the field for Transfield must be reading these signs. The signs tell them that if you rough up asylum seekers they probably deserve it.

Every organization has a spectrum of people who are concerned about discipline and police-like roles. These organizations also have people that are generous and humanitarian in their outlook. When I was the Secretary of the Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs I was aware of the tension in the department between enforcement and control people on the one hand, and humanitarian and generous people on the other. I was fortunate that I had as Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser and Immigration Minister Ian Macphee who made it clear where the balance should be. The staff in the department could read the intent of the Prime Minister and the Minister. That strongly influenced the culture of the department.

I think I was able to shift the culture of the department at least temporarily because we knew what the Prime Minister and the Minister wanted. People in the department today would get a very different reading. It would explain, at least in part the fiasco in Melbourne last Friday.

The second reason for our callous disregard of asylum seekers and refugees is that there is no effective supervision. Journalists are largely excluded from Manus and Nauru. The President of the Human Rights Commission was vilified for defending the rights of children in detention. There is no UNHCR to assess and report on what is occurring in our name in Nauru and Manus.

The third problem is contracting out. The government seems to have contracted out both refugee policy and operations. In some respects contracting out makes sense but contractors, with pursuit of profit, have a different ethic to public servants who are directly responsible to the government for the public good. In these circumstances it is essential that departments retain the ability to effectively supervise contractors. But over the years competence in our public service has been stripped away in the name of getting rid of red tape and downsizing government. Our public service must maintain its competence and it cannot contract out its moral responsibility to private corporations. When working holiday makers are exploited as fruit pickers, it is not defensible for the employer to say that hiring of staff has been contracted out to a labor hire company.

As the prime contractor how could Transfield not know what has been happening!

If governments won’t listen, we should welcome action by superannuation funds like HESTA and UniSuper and others to withdraw support from companies such as Transfield. I welcome the growing disinvestment from companies who are acting unethically. It gained momentum with divestment in tobacco companies and then companies that did business with apartheid South Africa. It is growing rapidly in fossil fuels. The business elite and their supporting business commentators will tut tut but if governments won’t listen, it is important that civic groups take action when they believe that companies are acting unethically or improperly. Unethical investments, even if they are legal such as investments in tobacco companies are seldom good investments in the medium and long term.

It is interesting that in 2015-16 the cost of the offshore management of less than 2,000 asylum seekers in Manus and Nauru is expected to be $811 million. Companies such as Transfield have been gorging themselves. Yet UNHCR in South East Asia has a budget of only $160 million to cover over 200,000 refugees, half a million internally displaced people and nearly 1.4 million stateless persons in the region. It says a great deal about our priorities and our morality.

Our processing in Nauru and Manus is unsustainable. It is unethical. It is wasteful.

We should not be surprised at what is unfolding in Manus and Nauru. There are prices to be paid when our leaders demonize and dehumanize human beings. Innocent and vulnerable people are paying a heavy price for failed moral leadership and the exploitation of fear in the community. Our problems start at the top and not just in one political party.

Today is Migrant and Refugee Sunday. Pope Francis has chosen the theme ‘Church without Frontiers, Mother to All’ and asks us to build ‘a culture of acceptance and solidarity, in which no one is seen as useless, out of place or disposable…Suspicion and prejudice conflict with the biblical commandment of welcoming with respect and solidarity the stranger in need..’

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