In Australia, reality bites back

Jun 12, 2023
Canberra, Australia - View of The Commonwealth Coat of Arms, the formal symbol of the Commonwealth of Australia, in bronze outside the old Parliament House.

Australia is fast approaching a reckoning with its past, its present and the state of the nation’s soul. And if the last month is any indication to go by, we will be found wanting.

A hundred years ago, Sigmund Freud wrote a paper called, Mourning and Melancholia. In it he mapped the divergent paths of life and a kind of death for his shell-shocked patients. For those able to confront the truth and pain of loss and death, mourning was the wild road they could travel back to life. For those caught in a denial and disavowal of their loss – in the hope of avoiding the pain involved in loss – melancholia awaited them; with its narcissism, its sadism and its thin, superficial world view. Contact with reality and the truth of their loss was the only way back to life and to love for the melancholic patient.

Melancholia – with its deathly denial of reality – has held the nation in its grip for 25 years. But reality is coming for Australia ready or not. Two revelations over the last few weeks track its emergence beginning with the consequences of having elite fighters accused of war crimes.

As the national and international media were processing the judgment against Ben Roberts-Smith – a judgement by Justice Anthony Besanko that concluded Roberts-Smith was directly involved in the murders of four unarmed prisoners over three years that he is a war criminal, a liar and a bully – the Prime Minister was arguing the judgement would have no impact on how the world viewed Australia.

Speaking in Singapore, the Prime Minister said, “Australia’s international standing is extraordinarily strong including the standing of our Defence Force and our Defence personnel’. He pointed to Australia’s membership of the Quad and the AUKUs deal as evidence of that.

This is nonsense. As Defence Force chief Angus Campbell revealed earlier this week, the US may allow Australia to pay it $400 billion for three of its submarines, but the revelations of war crimes contained in the Brereton Report – and presumably in Justice Besanko’s finding – could prevent US/Australian military co-operation because of a law preventing the US from working with units linked to “gross violations of human rights”

The second foot to fall on the way back to reality was the announcement that Australia may become the first OECD country to be placed on UN’s non-compliance list, known as the Article 17 list for its failure to implement its obligations under the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (OPCAT).

In 2017 the Coalition ratified this treaty and was given time to set up independent inspection and monitoring bodies to allow regular visits from a group of UN experts to these places. Five years later Australia has done neither.

But it has done more than just block the UN inspecting sites of detention, it has also sort to destroy the integrity of the protocol.

Vice-chair of the subcommittee on prevention of torture (SPT) Aisha Shujune Muhammad, told the Saturday Paper the federal government has been acting in bad faith by attempting to exclude several places of detention from the scheme, including offshore detention and aged-care homes.

The federal government has created the bizarre idea that the UN will only be given access to “primary” sites of detention such as prisons but will not have access to what it calls “secondary” sites like Immigration detention, aged care facilities and disability homes.

Muhammad says this is the first time a country has tried to do this and it runs directly counter to the agreement Australia signed. “Having signed up to OPCAT and agreed that this is what a place of deprivation of liberty would be, for Australia to then say that they will for the purpose of implementing it, divide it into primary and secondary, is a bit shocking. This distinction is unnecessary and is contrary to the provisions of the OPCAT.”

This is not the first time Australia has fallen foul of the UN over questions around the use of torture. In 2015, when the United Nations accused Australia of systematically violating the international Convention Against Torture by detaining children in immigration detention and holding asylum seekers in dangerous and violent conditions on Manus Island, the prime minister, Tony Abbott, reacted angrily, saying Australians were ‘sick of being lectured to by the United Nations’

As a nation we can tell ourselves whatever stories we like; that this country was empty when we “found” it, that it was settled peacefully, that we are an egalitarian people who uphold and value human rights. But eventually we will be dragged away from our denial and delusions and forced to confront the reality of our collective behaviour. We don’t need gaslighting for national leadership but rather courage, wit and compassion to take the lead in our journey back to the lifefullness of reality and the consequences of our behaviour.

Share and Enjoy !

Subscribe to John Menadue's Newsletter
Subscribe to John Menadue's Newsletter


Thank you for subscribing!