Brave cowards

Anthony Albanese was in the marginal seat of Gilmore, on the New South Wales South Coast, when he decided to reiterate his party’s position on people who attempt to reach Australia by boat.

“The Labor Party’s position is very clear – we support boat turnbacks,” he said, halfway into an election he was winning. “And what’s extraordinary here is that this is an example of the prime minister looking for divisions where there aren’t any.

“The truth is that boat turnbacks have worked. The truth is that the Labor Party have been very clear about supporting boat turnbacks. I support it. Everyone in my team supports it. We’ll implement it.”

Labor’s platform supports offshore detention as well. As deputy leader Richard Marles said the same week: “Let’s be really clear. There is no difference between Labor and the government when it comes to border protection policy. Labor supports Operation Sovereign Borders and every aspect of it.”

For three decades, Labor and the Coalition have taken turns developing the instruments with which Australia tortures refugees. The system is a tightly braided rope of cruelty and opportunism.

When Marles says “every aspect of it”, he is being purposely indiscriminate. He is saying: even the deaths, even the immolations, even the emergency abortions, even the complaints of torture. There is no fraction in this system, only whole.

Marles has the politician’s capacity to make the cowardly choice seem brave. This is the sophistry on which immigration detention rests, a trolley problem where the government both builds the tracks and then ties the people to them.

The just choice now would be to end offshore detention. Whatever processing the government pretends is under way could be done here. In a system built from lies they could just as well say it was a measure to save on costs.

It is unlikely this will happen, however. Based on form, the government will enter a contract with an American prisons operator to keep open the pretence of offshore processing. Millions more dollars will be wasted on a system that tortures the last few refugees being held on Nauru or shuffled through Papua New Guinea.

The moral cost of this is indeterminable. Little attention is drawn to it. The system is no longer about votes. The election passed without a panic over refugees, despite the Coalition’s best attempts. Offshore detention persists out of habit: it is a just-in-case system, there because a generation of politicians convinced themselves it needed to be, and who now lack the imagination to see otherwise.

Perhaps the embarrassment is too great. To stop now would be to admit that the torture should never have begun at all. It would be like turning on the lights. And so instead these last few desperate people are kept in darkness, in conditions of unimaginable anguish, with no future in front of them and a past they have already run from, who down a shaky phone line say: “I am hopeless now.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 10, 2022 as "Brave cowards".

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