Cowardly motives

It was cynicism that settled this week’s class action against the government. Peter Dutton’s word for it is “prudent”.

If the government had no case to answer from the almost 2000 men joined in the case, men who have been locked up on Manus Island for four years, whose treatment international observers have called tantamount to torture, then they should have fought it in court.

Dutton characterises his decisions as brave. He argues he takes a tough stance on difficult matters. The braggart in him mocks the lawyers involved as “ambulance chasers” and Labor Party donors.

But there is nothing brave about the government’s decision to settle. It is the cowardice of tyranny. The cost was immaterial: $70 million to keep a shroud pulled over camps that cost the government $3 billion a year to maintain.

Dr Sangeetha Pillai, of the Andrew and Renata Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law, says something like 80 claims have been brought in the past two years and most have been quietly settled. “But it’s a lost opportunity,” she says. “There is so much secrecy regarding what happens there … There is a trend towards settlement.”

This case would have confirmed in court what the government already knows: that these camps destroy people. They are inhumane. Despite the enormous sums spent on them, they remain inadequate on even the most basic levels. Psychological trauma is huge. Death and desperation is everywhere.

There will be no ruling now on whether Australia is responsible for the camps it pays for but claims others run. The thimble trick remains. It is an extraordinarily useful one, worth more than the $35,000 that will be paid to each plaintiff.

Not always is settlement an admission of guilt. Sometimes the law is prohibitively expensive and settlement is the only viable mitigation. But the government does not have that excuse.

It did not end this action because the costs would be too high; it ended it because the reality of what would be heard was too much to bear.

Offshore detention is about secrecy. It is that secrecy that allows governments to profit politically from the mistreatment of innocent people. This class action, brought to address that mistreatment, threatened the system with too much truth.

Following the decision, Tony Abbott said it “looks like a windfall for people who unfairly took advantage of our nation’s generosity”.

He said: “I don’t think this is the sort of case that should have even got to court, let alone resulted in this kind of a settlement.”

It is hard to know what he means by this. Elsewhere, he said: “We’ve got a judiciary that takes the side of the so-called victim rather than the side of common sense.”

These people did not take advantage of generosity. They sought asylum and were instead trapped in a system of barbarous cruelty, a political game in which their lives are of no consequence.

It is this last point the government will pay $70 million to settle. They are not willing to defend it in court because there is no defence. Nothing could forgive their actions.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 17, 2017 as " Cowardly motives".

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