Editorial
Nelson’s new column

For a time the Australian War Memorial had trouble with children defecating in the decommissioned toilet of one of its naval exhibits. The metaphor is simple and apt.

This week, Brendan Nelson proposed that the war memorial be used to commemorate military involvement in Australia’s campaign against asylum seekers – a war fought against innocent people. This solemn monument to loss in battle would be repurposed to honour the worst of our contemporary human rights abuses.

In an Anzac Day interview, Nelson said border protection was, “arguably the most important thing our military is doing with other agencies”.

He said he spent two days on a patrol boat when he was defence minister in the Howard government and that he was struck by the courage of the young sailors. “If you ask the average Australian, out of all the things the Royal Australian Navy is doing, I’m pretty confident most would rank what these young men and women are doing in these patrol boats as pretty close to the top.”

The politics of this gesture were clear. The Australian described it as a memorial for the “sailors who stopped illegal boat arrivals from landing here”. Richard Marles broke ranks in the Labor Party to endorse it. Jim Molan, the co-architect of Operation Sovereign Borders, now a Liberal senator, said: “It is a legitimate part of Australian military history.”

Finally, the militarisation of our immigration policy is complete. The public servants are in uniform. The policy is increasingly hostile and warlike. And the war memorial, that monument to blood and carnage, is waiting anxiously to commemorate the campaign.

“It is not something that will be done tomorrow, but some point in the future, all of those men and women who served in the border protection operations quite rightly would expect their story is going to be told at the Australian War Memorial,” Nelson said. “If we do not invest in more space soon, a decade or 20 years from now those veterans will be told, ‘Look, I’m sorry, we can’t tell your story ... because the war memorial doesn’t have any space.’ ”

Here is the hustle in Nelson’s pitch. The former Labor Party member, who once lied that he had never voted Liberal, is looking for $500 million to expand the war memorial. He knows that there is no limit to what governments will spend on the demonisation of refugees, and so he is chasing that cruel money.

The navy loathes turnbacks. They are dangerous and traumatic. There is no doubt that this work is difficult and that it is forced on service people by our politics. But it is still worth asking what Nelson’s memorial would commemorate.

Would it commemorate the camps these people are pushed into once they have been intercepted? Would it commemorate the torturous conditions? The mental degradation? The murder by guards? The suicides and immolations? The rapes? The soliciting in detention of women for sex?

Nelson’s proposal is an opportunistic one. That is fitting: the whole system of offshore detention is opportunistic. It’s a system built not for refugees but for swinging voters, a system of gross imperfection, of cruelties and incompetence. There is no plan for it, nothing beyond votes. That is how these men and women have ended up marooned, with no clear prospects. That is how these lives have been ruined.

It is hard to know how a system so flawed, so broken, might be commemorated. It is worrying to think it might be glorified. But that, it seems, is what is happening.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 28, 2018 as "Nelson’s new column". Subscribe here.