‘Well done, mate’

It’s difficult sometimes, in the face of true callousness, to know whether a comment will have greater effect if reported first without context or whether it should come after the facts to which it responds.

In this instance, the comment does not need its facts. Although the facts make it more terrible.

On Thursday morning, Tony Abbott appeared on radio with Neil Mitchell. He said a number of odd things. This was one of them:

“I reckon that the Human Rights Commission ought to be sending a note of congratulations to Scott Morrison saying, ‘Well done, mate. Because your actions have been very good for the human rights and the human flourishing of thousands of people.’ ”

Having taken in the statement, consider the facts:

In February last year the president of the Australian Human Rights Commission, Gillian Triggs, began an inquiry into children in immigration detention. She prepared a report in October. The government has been sitting on it until this week.

Triggs describes what she found, modestly, as “deeply shocking”. More than one-third of children in detention on Christmas Island or in Australia had mental-health disorders of a severity that would require psychiatric care. This is more than 15 times the community average.

During the 15 months covered by the report, there were 128 incidents of self-harm among children in detention. There were 30 accounts of sexual abuse of children in centres, and 200 of assault. This is the legacy for which the prime minister believes Morrison deserves a card with the words “Well done, mate” written on it.

“Never again should any child be treated in this way in Australia’s name,” Triggs said as the report was finally tabled. “It is contrary to those values we admire in the Australian spirit; a generous-hearted welcome to those needing our protection and a fair go. I appeal for a more humane and legally responsible approach to refugees who seek our help. I ask you to read this report and decide for yourself.”

Elsewhere in his interview with Mitchell, Abbott was asked if he felt any guilt about the treatment of children in detention. He did not. “None whatsoever.”

Abbott was more interested in criticising Triggs than addressing her findings. His notion of shame is a unique one. “Frankly, this is a blatantly partisan politicised exercise and the Human Rights Commission ought to be ashamed of itself.”

He went further. “I have a very simple question: Where was the Human Rights Commission during the life of the former government when hundreds of people were drowning at sea?”

Australia is the only country in the world where children face mandatory and indefinite detention in the course of immigration processing. As appalling as the findings in Triggs’ report are, as terrible as its testimonies, its recommendations are strikingly simple.

Triggs suggests children and their families currently in detention be released into the community and that the Migration Act be amended so that children and families are not detained indefinitely. A royal commission is also called for, and needed.

Each of these things is unlikely, however. The cruelty visited on those wretched souls who attempt to reach Australia by boat is a bipartisan concern. It has been decided that the lives of those people on Manus and Nauru will be knowingly destroyed as a warning to anyone else who might consider boarding a boat and fleeing to Australia.

They are not collateral damage; they are the piked heads of our border protection program. Professor Triggs let us glimpse them briefly, but it will not change how we treat them. The political class is too busy writing itself notes of congratulations. People no longer drown, they kill themselves.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 14, 2015 as "‘Well done, mate’". Subscribe here.