Hoping for a miracle

It is customary, if outmoded, for newspapers to deliver an Easter message. It is traditionally a time for news to stop, for leader writers to reflect with piety and calm on how one ought live.

Heavy in these messages is the notion of redemption, of atonement and delivery from sin. Sacrifice and rebirth and so on.

These things are worth mentioning not for their Judeo-Christian themes but for what they say about politics in this country. Forgiveness – that Easter tonic – is the most central of Tony Abbott’s religious and political tenets. “Sometimes,” the prime minister says, “it’s better to ask forgiveness than permission.”

This is not a strictly theological uttering. Most often, the quote is attributed to US naval officer and computer programmer Grace Hopper.

But in a political sense, just as in a religious one, forgiveness comes only with admission. One must confess before they can repent. Abbott has made an art of this – of quiet acknowledgement, made with limited fanfare and the intention of moving on. Before him, the skill was Peter Beattie’s. Both see politics as a series of obstacles bridged by stiles of apology.

Abbott shares his politics with some of his frontbench and his faith with most of them, especially Scott Morrison. At Easter, it might be worth Morrison considering the honesty required for forgiveness.

The Moss review into abuse on Nauru might yet be one point for such confession. As soon as it was released, Morrison declared he would not apologise to the 10 Save the Children workers whose names it cleared. Never mind that he had called them “political activists… making false claims and, worse, allegedly coaching self-harm”. Or that his department had removed the aid workers from Nauru on the basis of information the Moss review heard was “somewhat flimsy”.

Morrison was unmoved: “I’m happy to deal with things I’ve said and done, absolutely, but I don’t feel there is a need where people have distorted … things I’ve said in the past.”

And yet repentance here is about more than the 10 aid workers Morrison and his department smeared, presumably as a distraction from the reports of hardship and abuse that were finding their way back from Australia’s offshore detention centres. Repentance is about accepting the evil of this whole system.

Last week, The Saturday Paper published credible reports of minors on Nauru in relationships with guards; of departmental pressure to temper incident reports; and of general dysfunction in the detention centre. Nothing was said in Canberra.

These reports added to the Human Rights Commission’s recent findings on children in detention, and the reports of rape listed in Moss’s review. But, unlike its strategy in other areas – of apologising before ambling forward – the government has chosen instead to ignore the substance of the reports.

A senate inquiry is welcome and necessary, but it will not address the deeper issue here: that neither of the major parties sees any need for redemption on the issue. A manufactured fear of refugees is a bipartisan political expedience. A distraction from real issues, such as health and education.

Focus groups confirm this: shift workers who believe they must take weekend work or asylum seekers will take their jobs; parents who believe they wait in emergency queues because refugees are clogging the hospital system; commuters who believe traffic is caused by Hazaras.

These are all issues for government, and it is a happy coincidence they can be so blamed on a helpless and uncared for minority group. It would require a miracle to address this, for politicians to confess to the voters misled by these assumptions, but it is one for which it is worth praying.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 4, 2015 as "Hoping for a miracle".

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