Government delay to Save the Children report inexcusable

It is difficult to see why it took seven months for the government to release a report comprehensively clearing Save the Children employees of wrongdoing on Nauru. Except, of course, for vindictiveness.

The report, commissioned by the government, finds “contractor staff on Nauru were being pushed to provide names and information to support what was perceived in Canberra to be [Save the Children] staff providing support or assistance to transferees in various ways”. It found “there was in fact no evidence nor reliable information” to support the removal of nine Save the Children employees. Details about a tenth are redacted.

The circumstances of the report’s release are just as grubby as those that led to the events it was investigating.

At the time Save the Children staff, employed to provide care to people in detention on Nauru, were falsely accused of coaching asylum seekers into self-harm. The story came as credible reports of sexual abuse were leaking from the camps. It is now patently obvious in its purpose: a distraction from what really was happening.

The leak to Sydney’s Daily Telegraph served this end on page one. “Truth overboard,” read the headline, and the subhead: “Exclusive: Nauru child abuse claim ‘fabricated’.”

Then minister Scott Morrison held a press conference the same morning. “If people want to be political activists, that’s their choice,” he said, “but they don’t get to do it on the taxpayer’s dollar and working in a sensitive place like Nauru … The public don’t want to be played for mugs.”

And: “Making false claims and worse – allegedly coaching self-harm and using children in protests – is also completely unacceptable, whatever their political views or whatever their agendas.”

This version of events was rejected first by the Moss review, which was released early last year, and is completely repudiated by the report released last Friday.  

But the delay in releasing these reports, and the refusal to apologise for the grave injustices described in them, is about one thing: persuading the public that the news of appalling mistreatment on Nauru is part of some great conspiracy to unfairly malign offshore processing.

For more than a year, the government has got away with this lie. Nowhere has it corrected the statements made about Save the Children. Nowhere has it shown concern for the 10 young Australians baselessly accused of terrible misdeeds.

Late last week, Border Force made this limping statement: “The Department recognises [Save the Children] staff were providing services to the Government of Nauru in difficult and challenging circumstances. It also recognises departmental staff were seeking to act in the best interests of transferees.”

This is specious, at best. The issue here is not nameless “departmental staff”: it is a government that misled its people about what was happening on Nauru and that, once it became aware beyond doubt that these claims were false, made no expedient effort to correct them. 

And all this was deliberate. The report says as much. “From review of the documentation it seems reasonably clear that the information provided in relation to the ten [Save the Children] staff members was not intended to be acted upon in the way it was acted upon,” it says. “Rather it seems that the intention was that further investigation would be undertaken before any action was taken.”

But the action was taken. It was extreme, and unreasonable. Still, the minister refuses to correct it. Ten more innocent people have been thrown on the slagheap of falsehood and broken lives – tailings from the system we have built to punish refugees.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 23, 2016 as "Accusations overboard".

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