By now it is obvious that people in detention are props to Scott Morrison. They are not human to him. They represent only voters’ fears.
It is no accident that four weeks into an election campaign he is losing, a dozen detainees were woken in the early hours of the morning, loaded onto a bus, and taken to Christmas Island. They are being moved on character grounds, character being the slyest trick in immigration policy, the reason people are locked up, the reason they are treated as a threat.
If Morrison’s Australia seems unfeeling or mean or cruel, that’s because it is. He never grew larger than his first public office as jailor of the country’s refugees. Underneath any prosperity was always his belief that someone needed to be punished.
The people loaded onto buses this week were moved not because their circumstances had changed. They were moved to remind the public that they were there in the first place. It was the political equivalent of chains being rattled in a haunted house.
“We have asked them to let us know the day before – in prison they let you know the day before,” one detainee told Guardian Australia. “Just so people can let their family or their lawyers know. But they don’t.”
Before the last election, Morrison reopened the prison on Christmas Island. He took a clutch of journalists there and walked them among the empty cages. The photo opportunity cost $185 million. More than 100 people were sent to work on his Mary Celeste. No refugees were on the island.
“It is providing a deterrent to those who would have looked to game the system,” he said at the time. “The fact you’ve seen so few people now seeking to game that system, when advocates and others said they would be coming each and every day, that hasn’t happened because of the actions we’ve taken as a government. We’ll continue to always take the strongest decisions to ensure our borders remain secure.”
Morrison’s skill is for problems that don’t exist. It is why he pretends to worry about trans athletes. It is why refugees are so fascinating to him. Incompetence is no obstacle to make-believe. When he is playing dress-ups, he is the most powerful man in his imagination.
“The cohort being transferred is made up of detainees whose visas have been cancelled due to being a risk to the community,” Border Force said in a statement this week, “and includes those convicted of serious crimes relating to assault, illicit drugs, robbery, domestic violence and other offences.”
Morrison has said before that he prays for refugees. Likely, he is praying for a boat of them to arrive in the next fortnight and win him a second vicious and undeserved victory. In the meantime, he moves the props around his empty set, a half-mad director uncertain of what he is meant to do next.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 7, 2022 as "Last refugees of the scoundrel".
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