Those eminent jurists Malcolm Turnbull and George Brandis are normally very careful with the words they use; indeed, Brandis did his best to bore a senate committee rigid as he spent many minutes explaining exactly what he meant by the term “consult.”
But in spite of their learning and erudition, our latter day Perry Masons seem unable to distinguish between the difference between “refute” (which is the one they constantly use) and “rebut” (which what they presumably mean).
They were at it again last week when the regular denunciations of their policies on the detention centres of Nauru and Manus Island resurfaced, as the same, or similar, accusations of brutality, torment and torture against asylum seekers, and particularly children, were documented by Amnesty International and later by the ABC program Four Corners.
Our political masters said indignantly that the criticisms were refuted: that they had been proved to be false. They had not; the best that could be said was that they had been rebutted: that they had been denied, that there had been assertions that put them in some doubt.
And in the case of the Four Corners program, there was some evidence in the assertions; the material was second hand and in some instances clearly out of date. There were, of course, reasons for this: the puppet government of Nauru had refused, as it almost always does, to issue visas to allow first hand accounts to be shown. The essence of the whole exercise has been secrecy and deception so the only the reports Australians have available are the surreptitious and sometimes smuggled accounts of those desperate enough to try and break through the iron curtain.
But in the case of Amnesty, the barriers have had to be lifted, at least briefly and selectively: after all, it would not be politic to debar the world’s pre-eminent human rights warrior from the squalid reality from what the government still insists is a firm but fair regime of border control. So yet again Amnesty blew the whistle.
And there was nothing really new about it, which is the most shameful aspect of the whole appalling saga. For years now we have had credible accusations of cruelty, mistreatment and callous neglect of those to whom our government owes, at the very least, a duty of care.
Revelations have come not only from international sources such as Amnesty, the United Nations and others but from doctors, social workers and other carers appalled at the state of the centres. Even the guards of Border Security and the mercenaries hired to enforce the regime have become whistleblowers as they cannot stomach what hey have seen.
And of course the asylum seekers themselves, when they have been able, have demanded, begged, self-harmed and even suicided to draw attention to their plight. The evidence is overwhelming and the claim that it has always and forever been the inventions of partisan activists is simply silly.
The ritual denials of ministers such as Scott Morrison and Peter Dutton, backed up by a fiercely partisan Immigration Department headed by Michael Pezzullo, an equally ruthless political warrior, can only be sustained by the right wing media, who slavishly follow the government’s lines about the desperate need to secure our borders, regardless of the cost in human misery.
Their hypocrisy over previous deaths at sea, on which they have followed the politicians, is mind-blowing; at the time the line was that the boat people, those disease carrying, drug-smuggling, child-murdering terrorists used to deserve whatever came to them: the cry was to blow them into the ocean.
But now, of course, it has been somewhat nuanced: the mantra repeated ad nauseam by Malcolm Turnbull is that Nauru and Manus are part of the package by which border security, continued immigration and even multiculturalism have become essential ingredients; if they fall, the entire structure will collapse.
This is not a rational proposition; it is more akin to the archaic superstitious ritual of the scapegoat – the idea that an innocent victim must be sacrificed to safeguard the welfare of the wider community. But as this mistaken belief has repeatedly shown, in its heart is a moral corruption that finally destroys the society it is designed to protect. The ancient Greeks knew it well and wrote many plays on the subject: more recently the writer Ursula Le Guin has described it in her searing parable “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.”
In fact it is by no means certain that if Nauru and Manus were closed the asylum seekers would return to attempt to reach our shores, and even if they did, that would become another question of morals as well as politics. But if it happened, and if it was determined that they had to be again repulsed, there are plenty of other ways of doing things. And if, in the end, offshore processing was considered the only solution, it could be refurbished in ways that were both humane and transparent.
Turnbull’s refutation, which is actually an unconvincing rebuttal, of the latest documentations of abuse, relies almost entirely on his government’s ability to conceal its alleged crimes. It is a reasonably safe bet that despite all the assiduous propaganda thrown at the asylum seekers by the government machine and its complaisant media, once the truth was known – once the individual stories could be told and the faces brought into the open, once it had to be acknowledged that these are real people like us, not just the sinister caricatures being portrayed by Dutton and Pezzullo, the fiction of desperate refugees constituting a threat to Australia could not be sustained.
We would be able to start reclaiming the once rational and generous country we once were, and can always be if we are given a chance.. If Nauru and Manus could be finally expunged from our psyche, the long lies that have been perpetrated for more than 15 years would be exposed as the travesty they are And that would be the real refutation.
Mungo MacCallum is a veteran journalist and was a senior member of the Canberra Press Gallery.