Editorial
Humanity in question

It was the final question in a press conference on Wednesday, ended with the kind of “thank you” that means the minister has had enough.

“That’s a matter you’d have to put for the minister for immigration,” Scott Morrison said. “I no longer have responsibility for those matters. I wouldn’t be in a position – I understand that the minister himself has made a comment about that in the last 24 hours and I’d refer you to that comment. Thank you.”

Peter Dutton’s earlier response had been brief and he refused to elaborate: “No.”

The question to both men was about whether Australian officials had paid people smugglers to take a boatload of asylum seekers back to Indonesia earlier this year. A report, quoting an Indonesia police chief, suggested the crew were paid $30,000 in the turn-back operation – $5000 for each crew member. “I saw the money,” the police chief said. “The $5000 was in $100 banknotes.”

Responsibility is an interesting issue for Morrison. The senate inquiry into conditions on Nauru heard this week that, as minister for immigration, Morrison was made personally aware of child molestation in the island’s detention centre as far back as December 2013. But it would be almost a year before a review of the allegations was commissioned.

Although the staff member involved in the incident reported to Morrison was dismissed, no further efforts were made to protect the child he had allegedly groped in the showers.

“During the conversation with the boy, he was visibly upset and stated repeatedly, ‘This is a matter of my honour,’ ” the former Save the Children child protection worker who reported the assault, Kirsty Diallo, told the inquiry. “I also spoke with his mother, who sobbed throughout the conversation, stating, ‘I brought my children to Australia to keep them safe, now this happens.’ ”

The senate inquiry has heard appalling reports of abuse at the Nauru detention centre: children beaten by guards, children showing signs of sexual abuse being left in situations where they had been assessed likely to encounter further abuse, callous denials of humanity to minors trapped in this system.

Diallo also painted a picture of sustained neglect – a lack of basic resources or support, one that would be entirely unacceptable in Australia. “Children were subjected to extended periods of neglect,” she said. “In Australia, this type of neglect would often warrant a child protection investigation and could result in children being removed from their biological parents. However, in Nauru this type of systematic neglect was accepted as normal due to the persistent logistical and policy deficits in place.”

Morrison no longer has responsibility for the portfolio. But he is imprinted on the system. The senate inquiry raises serious questions about what was allowed to happen in offshore detention centres while he was minister and what as minister he did to remedy this.

Diallo has called for a royal commission into abuse on Nauru and its handling. One is needed. The powers of a royal commission might compel responsibility and perhaps end a system of refugee processing founded on cruelty, a system that has become a national disgrace.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 13, 2015 as "Humanity in question". Subscribe here.