Editorial
Political prisoners

Scott Morrison always framed it as a kind of moral vanity. Any justness was a threat to our borders. The slightest decency would undo the system he had built to stop the boats.

In private, he said there could be no gap for the light to get through. He talked about indulgence. He presented what he was doing to refugees as difficult and right.

“Sentiment cannot be indulged at the expense of effective policy,” he said when he was Immigration minister, “that is saving lives and ending the chaos and tragedy that was occurring that many thought could never be turned around and that is my duty.”

As the last refugees leave Park Hotel this week, one of the great lies of Australian politics comes to an end. There is no proof left for the appalling idea that people had to be imprisoned to stop others drowning at sea. This false binary is now undone. Nothing changed in the so-called push factors. No new circumstances presented themselves. The torturers simply grew tired and took off their hoods.

What remains though is a terrible truth: these refugees were kept locked up for purely political ends. They were released only because they had outlasted their purpose. There were finally more votes in letting them free than in continuing their abuse. That is the only change, the craven maths that has shaped their lives for the past decade.

There is no fanfare about this. Billions of dollars have been spent and innumerable lives destroyed and at the end there is simply the opening of a door into a hotel lobby. The same happened on Manus Island when it became clear that the prison there was illegal: the government simply opened the front gate and turned off the power.

The people freed from Park Hotel and from other detention sites this week are not truly free. They have entered the purgatory of bridging visas. Of all the Howard-era torture instruments, these are among the cruellest. They force a person into a perpetual unknowing, waiting for their case to be resolved, uncertain of where they might be sent or what might happen next.

Still, it is the end of one lie. The government has done something it spent a decade saying it couldn’t possibly do and in that moment proved there was never any justification for the system of imprisonment it had built and maintained.

Morrison has outlived the defining myth of his time in office. He has not stayed long enough to apologise to the people whose lives he knowingly damaged. That will happen in another parliament, in a formal setting, when someone says sorry on his behalf and the behalf of all Australians.

But he did stay just long enough to witness his own failure, to see the lie he told himself about what he was doing exposed for what it had always been: optimistic cruelty visited on the most vulnerable people in the world for the sake of a few tawdry votes from people who don’t think they’re racist but reckon someone fleeing a war in another hemisphere might be trying to take their jobs. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 9, 2022 as "Political prisoners".

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