Leave of compassion

Peter Dutton says compassion would destroy the system of offshore detention he has built. That’s his word: compassion.

He says this as a man commits suicide on Nauru and his mother begs for the right to bury him. He says this as families are starved in the community and on Manus Island the fog of indecision creates what has been called the most hostile mental environment in the world.

Dutton’s exact words were these: “It’s essential that people realise that the hard-won success of the last few years could be undone overnight by a single act of compassion in bringing 20 people from Manus to Australia.”

Without evidence, he said: “We are in a danger phase.” What he meant was: “We are contesting five byelections.”

This week, payments stopped to people in the community who are awaiting assessments on their asylum claims. The savings are negligible; the cost to individuals is enormous. Families wonder how to feed their children, how to keep the power on. A single act of compassion would undo all this.

On Nauru, Fazileh Mansour Beigi writes to the officers of Border Force. She calls these people her oppressors. She calls the island her torture house. Both descriptions are true.

Her son lies in a fridge, dead by his own hand, killed by the system over which Dutton presides. A single act of compassion would undo all this.

“My 26-year-old son had his last breaths in your mouldy tents and closed his beautiful eyes to your abomination, injustice and disgusting policies,” she writes. “You even hesitate to provide him a bottle of cold water.”

She writes: “For five years you incarcerated me and my innocent children in Nauru and ignored us. I know that your violence and cruelty is deeply rooted and against that I am a powerless woman. You even deprived me from having a mobile phone, lest I speak up? But I always told you if any harm befell my children, I wouldn’t remain silent.”

Peter Dutton has amassed unique powers in this portfolio. More than any minister before, he takes a personal interest in the cases of refugees. He keeps filing cabinets of their stories in his office, awaiting his decision.

He undermines and attempts to dismantle systems of review for this authority, boasts of the numbers he has deported. He says he enjoys this ghoulish work. “I get a lot of professional satisfaction out of it.”

Dutton has made this portfolio his. Its cruelty is his cruelty. The immorality of indefinite detention is now the amorality of a single minister. He wears it on his face. The cynicism of the politics is now the relish of the executioner.

A system that depends on an absence of compassion is a broken system, an evil one. A man that takes pride in this system, in his own lack of compassion, is a man unfit to be entrusted with the lives of people seeking asylum.

Perhaps a single act of compassion could destroy our regime of border protection, could pull apart all the cruelty and abuse, the legal fictions and broken lives. Any decent person might desperately hope that it would.


Lifeline 13 11 14

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 30, 2018 as "Leave of compassion".

For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.

All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.

There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

Use your Google account to create your subscription