I was recently at an event at which I feared I might bump into a senior member of the Federal Liberal Party. Such is my distaste for the Abbott government, I worried what I might say, knowing that whatever came out would probably not provide good outcomes.
I reckon I can do polite small-talk with the best of them, and painting on a fake smile is something we all do here and there, but there is something about the current government of Australia that I find so viscerally offensive I feared I’d be unable to smile and button my lip, and what I really wanted to say was going to get me in trouble.
So I made a plan. And whilst it was never going to get me invited to a party fundraiser, what I decided to say – in the instance I did meet this senior Liberal – was a lot nicer and politer than I might otherwise have blurted out.
What I planned to say was this.
“I found out this week that the tobacco industry puts tiny pieces of ground up glass in cigarette filters. The idea is that these tiny, sharp pieces of glass get inhaled when you smoke, and cut the inner lining of your lungs. This allows more nicotine and other chemicals to get into your bloodstream, allowing the chemicals to increase your dependency on the cigarettes. Isn’t that unbelievable. Ground up glass! Isn’t it hard to imagine anyone being that evil. But then again, I really can’t believe we live in a country where the weakest and most desperate people on earth are put in prison camps designed to be deliberately cruel as a deterrent to others, where the guards trade favours for sex, and film themselves doing it and then swap the videos. To me that’s not that far off from putting glass in cigarette filters, and I think you should be fucking ashamed of yourself.”
Presumably on hearing these erudite words, any politician would dissolve into uncontrollable weeping, plead for forgiveness and swear to entirely change his outlook on life from this day forth. Or perhaps not. It’s hard to imagine any appeal to humanity striking a chord with people like Scott Morrison or Peter Dutton. I’m at a loss to explain how such heartless men can sleep at night.
What would it take for you to put your family on a rusty boat and sail across the high seas to escape. The fear of death – that’s what. I put life vests on my kids when we take them to Rottnest – these poor people know if they get into trouble, often no-one is coming to save them. Whatever is behind them, it appears it’s worse than getting on an over-crowded boat and taking to the seas.
And how do we treat these desperate people. By subjecting them to state-sanctioned policies aimed at being so inhumane and cruel that they discourage others in similar circumstances. By turning them around in the middle of the ocean, abrogating our own legal and maritime obligations. By paying people smugglers, which somehow is supposed to discourage them.
How can we publicly mourn those who perish on the seas, and yet hate those who survive the crossing so much.
Australia’s offshore processing policies have become such a revolting spectacle that a new law called the ‘Border Force Act’ has been passed, with the support of both Labour and the Liberals, to criminalise and prosecute those who are (or have been) employed at detention centres and dare to speak out. Now if they witness a rape or child abuse, for example, they can be prosecuted just for bringing it to the police or the media’s attention.
The media is barred, for spurious reasons, from getting near the facilities. Of course, we all know it’s because any free and fair media coverage would show the facilities on Nauru to be so dreadful that even the apathetic public would reject the horror show. But we already know more than enough. We know that children are locked up there. That families are divided. That mental illness and self-harm is rife, including among the children. That sexual abuse, including of children, is commonplace. And yes, that Wilson Security guards swapped favours for sex with refugees, filmed their encounters, and swapped the videos among themselves.
Women having abortions rather than face having a new child behind bars. A boy drinking insecticide to try to commit suicide. It is a house of horrors, a modern concentration camp of our own making. It shames Australia, it makes me feel ashamed, and shame should be heaped on our elected representatives who preside over such disgusting policies. Much of it is also in breach of international law, but there’s no-one out there willing to bring the case.
If the government was sure that their policies had public backing, there would be no need to prosecute those who speak out, to hide the truth behind the smokescreen of ‘national security’, or to keep the media from any meaningful access to our overseas facilities. Clearly, they know we couldn’t stomach the truth, and choose instead to hide it from us.
‘So what would you do’, they say. Offshore processing and Liberal party policies have, largely, stopped the boats. Labour relaxed things and the boats started coming again. This is true, although the government’s maritime secrecy means we can only guess at how many boats are trying to get here. Of course, if we really wanted to stop the boats we could just get the navy to machine-gun anyone found in our waters without a permit. That would do the job, but is that the kind of country we want?
Just as there is no silver bullet – a single sentence of devastating truth – that can immediately fix the historic injustices that lead to such a sharp divide between Aboriginal and ‘white’ society, there is no simple answer to a world in which refugees, people genuinely fearing for their lives, are willing to get on rickety boats and strike out for foreign shores, for want of any other option. Act as Australia does now, and we are monstrous. Go to the other extreme, and the boats will multiply, leading inevitably to more deaths at sea.
I do know a few things I would do. First, Australia’s policy on refugees should have the following sentences in big black ink at the very top –
‘Australia acknowledges that refugees arriving by boat are some of the most desperate and vulnerable people alive. Whatever approach this country takes, our guiding principle is to act with humanity and empathy to their plight, values we believe to be central to our national character. For refugees abroad, at sea, and arriving at our shores, Australia’s goal is to minimise harm, and to seek broad-based solutions to worldwide problems that cause people to take such desperate steps to achieve safety’.
There’s plenty we could do. We could use our position within the UN to call for more aid and assistance to be sent to the communities and countries from which most refugees arrive. We could work much more closely with the Indonesian government to ensure the people smugglers have their trade shut down within Indonesia. We could use our ample funds to try to ensure that those arriving with a legitimate claim for asylum are given opportunities to become members of our rich society. We could remove reporting and information restrictions, allowing the Australian public to make informed decisions on how this country’s policies are applied.
But mostly, we need to close Australia’s appalling off-shore processing facilities, now, and remove from the highest office a man who claims the mantle of Christianity, but appears not to have read a single word of Christ’s message, who tortures the weak for the crime of wanting to live. If there is a god, he really, really hates Tony Abbott. Which part of the bible says that those seeking refuge should be punished, imprisoned and abused.
The polly never turned up, by the way. I shall have to save my devastating critiques for a day that may never come.