The response to Four Corners’ Nauru report underscores a shift in the immigration debate from human lives to media bias. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Culture war in offshore detention

Thirteen-year-old Misbah on the Four Corners program.
Thirteen-year-old Misbah on the Four Corners program.

This Monday, Four Corners aired its investigation into the plight of the 128 child refugees on Nauru. Barred from the country, the show relied on a third party to film interviews with the children before smuggling the footage to Australia. The stories of these children – interwoven with the testimony of Save the Children teachers who once taught them – reflected the entrenched mental disorders reported on in this paper and others. Children discussed suicidal thoughts and displayed evidence of self-harm. On the same day, Amnesty International released a report on the very same children, describing their conditions as a form of “torture”.

But discussions of our immigration policy is another casualty of the culture wars, so in the week of Four Corners airing an investigation of Nauru, it was the professionalism of the ABC, and not the nature and sustainability of our offshore policy, that became the cause célèbre for The Australian and the Coalition. Senator Jane Hume pointedly wondered in senate estimates this week if “all we heard on this program were the representatives of Save the Children and Amnesty and the stories they wanted to tell, and selected stories from the young people on Nauru?” Senator Eric Abetz suggested the ABC was conspiring with activists. The immigration minister, Peter Dutton, indicated he would write to the ABC’s managing director to complain.

While the episode broadcast harrowing testimony, it was criticised for airing footage of buildings that had since been upgraded and of utilising “random” footage lifted from YouTube. “At the moment,” Dutton said, “these advocates dressed up as journalists, frankly at the ABC and Guardian and some parts of Fairfax, are compounding these people’s problems because they are telling them ‘don’t accept settlement packages, don’t go back to your country of origin’ – even though hundreds of people before them have and many other people have been able to start a new life fresh.”

Dutton said refugee advocates had “completely taken over” the ABC and now “owned and operated the place”.

The Coalition’s criticism of the ABC was of a piece with the Nauruan government, which excoriated our national broadcaster. “Last night’s Four Corners program on the ABC was yet another example of the ABC’s biased political propaganda and lies, and was an insult to the people of Nauru. This report was an embarrassment to journalism. From start to finish it was denigrating, racist, false and pure political activism.”

If it wasn’t already obvious, this week made clear that an important issue has become buried in banal tribal suspicions. A culture war has sprung up. Experts I spoke with are aggrieved that the complexities of the problem have become distorted by its aggressive political co-option. No longer do we talk about solutions; we talk about bias, about activists and operatives, about everyone in this story but the 1500 or so people who remain marooned in island camps off our shores.

1 . Regional solution lost

“The current discussion of the policy is a political performance,” Professor Sharon Pickering tells me. Pickering is a professor of criminology at Monash University, and specialises in migration, trafficking and border control. “Both major parties have backed themselves into the corner and no one’s willing to move. This is an issue that plays into the white noise of politics – that rings louder than human rights reports. But I’ve yet to see a politician stand up and say ‘I’m proud of these abuses’. Rather, we hear platitudes about deterrence. This is an issue that must shift outside of the electoral cycle.”

This week, a former executive of the Department of Immigration told me that the issue had become hopelessly, unworkably politicised. “The media cycle that has come out from the Four Corners episode has been staggering,” he tells me. “Dutton says now that the ABC sought to paint the bleakest picture imaginable. But the truth is, there’s no good news to tell.”

In August 2012, former chief of the Defence Force Angus Houston offered his report on immigration to then prime minister Julia Gillard. It contained 22 recommendations, one of them to process asylum seekers on Manus Island and Nauru. At the heart of the report’s logic was the “no advantage” principle, whereby “irregular migrants gain no benefit by choosing to circumvent regular migration mechanisms”.

But the former immigration department executive tells me the resumption of offshore processing, as conceived by the Houston report, was meant to be relatively short term – something to deter boat arrivals while a regional policy was realised. “The Malaysia people swap, to use the shorthand, was found not to be possible by the High Court. An attempt to legislate for it failed in the senate. So an expert panel was convened to serve as a circuit-breaker. I think this was about the time we had maximum level of boat arrivals. The report was a framework that would serve as a temporary situation to stabilise things. But the devil was in the detail. Rudd’s arrangements with Papua New Guinea and Nauru were rushed; there were a lot of loose ends.”

Four years on, there has been no such development and almost 1500 people remain in limbo. “It was pie in the sky,” the official tells me, “The work hadn’t been done.” The Houston report’s optimism has resulted in an agonising limbo.

The significant issue here, but one that excites less discussion than whether the ABC used old or new footage of Nauru, is why a regional solution has failed and what we might do next. “Our highest-rated solution today is to offer people financial inducements to return home,” the former executive tells me. “From virtually day one, there was money on the table. Three years ago a package to refugees would have involved some cash, but some other good that could be used to make a living – a van, a scooter, some tools. But today, it’s mostly just cash. Now, this might make some sense to offer these packages before someone has been determined to be a refugee, but afterwards?”

Professor Stephen Castles holds a research chair in sociology at the University of Sydney, and specialises in migration. In 2012 he gave expert testimony to the Houston panel. “Australia used to be seen as a shining beacon in our region for human rights,” he told me this week. “Well, we’ve now lost that. We’re heavily criticised internationally. It’s very disappointing the way it’s gone. I said back in 2012 – like most other experts – that we needed a regional sharing solution and that established refugees should not be in detention. But Australia has done little to advance this. In fact, especially under Abbott, we have set it back with things like our navy entering Indonesian waters.”

This is echoed by Pickering, who says it’s “absolutely necessary” to have a regional arrangement, but that Australia has injured its capacity to engineer one. “Australia has lost their legitimacy in the region on this issue,” she tells me. “What was needed was a multilateral approach, but we can’t broker that now. ASEAN is trying to figure it out, but Australia should have been leading the charge on this. It’s the only way forward. We should have been taking a leading role both politically and materially.”

Pickering tells me the Houston report disappointed her with its false belief it could maintain both offshore processing and establish a regional arrangement. “They pretended they could do both,” she says. “That report played to local politics, and it has cost people their lives.”

Pickering says our legitimacy is salvageable, but that it requires far more sophisticated and depoliticised conversations about our regional and legal responsibilities. Castles agrees. “Ideally, we would be processing people in Indonesia and Malaysia and obviously we don’t want people smugglers to profit,” he says. “A hurdle to that is Malaysia’s refusal to sign the UN convention on refugees. Australia should be persuading its neighbours to sign such agreements. The majority of countries already have. But we can’t do that unless we set a good example. Nauru and Manus has set a very negative example.” 

2 . A detailed picture

It is true to say that, in covering offshore processing, there is uncomfortable dependence upon distant sources with uncorroborated tales or ideological inclination. I’ve spoken with any number of refugees and asylum seekers, most often in conjunction with supporting witnesses and documents, but occasionally not. I accept that it’s unlikely a person desperate to leave detention would describe their circumstances in anything other than abject terms, and I have written as much, just as it’s discomforting to – at times – rely upon the direction of activists whose passion for the cause can be distorting. This is not to say that these people are inherently untrustworthy, but simply that this occasional dependence runs contrary to a journalist’s scepticism.

But this kind of reliance is unavoidable when the country in question refuses to admit journalists, and our own country refuses to share details of what is happening there, using legislation and our police to limit what information might trickle out. When The Australian supportively quotes the Nauruan government’s indignation, or accepts as wise and authoritative the reporting of Chris Kenny, one of only two Australian journalists admitted to Nauru in the past three years, it must accept its own dubious reliance on a government that has criminally mismanaged its wealth, has served as a laundering hub for drug lords, sold passports to terrorists, and summarily expelled its coroner and chief justice for investigating the suspicious death of its justice minister’s wife. The ABC’s critics this week snidely dismissed the testimony of Save the Children teachers – who were previously and slanderously accused of encouraging refugees to self-harm, an accusation disproved by an official inquiry – yet elevated the indignity of the Nauruan government to gospel.

The point is, we now have a detailed picture of the conditions on Manus and Nauru. This picture is not composed of a handful of dubious testimonies, but rather an extraordinary variety of expert judgements. It is a very detailed mosaic. In two years of reporting on our offshore policy, I have spoken with refugees, lawyers, senators, security guards, teachers, the former chief justice, psychiatrists, doctors, criminologists, UNHCR officials and former executives of the Department of Immigration, each with intimate knowledge of the camps. Each has independently reinforced the others’ testimony. In addition, we have many hundreds of pages of various independent reports, including ones commissioned by the Australian government.

Four Corners used a recent report from Amnesty International this week, one that likened conditions on Nauru to torture. An arguably more detailed and damning report, written by the UNHCR after inspecting both offshore sites, is yet to be made public but has been given to the government and records that some 88 per cent of men on Manus are suffering some kind of mental disorder and that indefinite detention itself was the cause of much of it. This is a bald fact, but following the conversations we have around it, Sharon Pickering tells me, is “like swimming in honey”.

Late this week, Dutton revived his attacks upon the national broadcaster. “I think the ABC has well and truly taken the Kool Aid here,” he said. “And they’re following the lead of Fairfax and some of the others who are on a crusade because they hate the fact that we’ve stopped boats and they believe we should have open borders and they’ve turned themselves into political operatives.”

In an editorial this week, The Australian argued that the limbo endured by those in the camps must cease. The best way to achieve this might be to ask the immigration minister why our best current solution is to bribe refugees to return to the countries they fled.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 22, 2016 as "Culture war in offshore detention".

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Martin McKenzie-Murray is The Saturday Paper’s associate editor.

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