Bribe and prejudice

People die in these camps. Hamid Khazaei died because the immigration department hopelessly delayed treatment for a skin infection. His medical evacuation was stalled for close to 30 hours in part because a bureaucrat had gone home and chose not to check his emails.

As Four Corners reported this week, the first request for evacuation did not get a response for five hours. That response, when it finally came, was to ask why Khazaei could not be cared for on Manus. Khazaei died of a treatable condition that became septicaemic. It is a grim and grimly apt analogy for the whole edifice of offshore detention. 

Although not marked by humility or perception, if there is one truth to be found in Tony Abbott’s third Quadrant apologia it is this: “The most compelling vindication of the Abbott government has been the Turnbull government’s maintenance of its key policies: including turning around illegal immigrant boats, direct action on climate change, a plebiscite on same-sex marriage and stripping terrorists with dual nationality of their Australian citizenship.”

But while this might be vindication for Abbott, for the country it is disheartenment. This week, the basis on which Australia locks up innocent men on Manus Island was found by Papua New Guinea’s Supreme Court to be unlawful.

This should have been no surprise. It was only by doctoring Australian legislation to head off a High Court challenge here that the farce of offshore detention had been allowed to continue. It was only a matter of time before a foreign judiciary might disagree with a polity we pay to keep our secrets. 

In the melee of rhetoric that followed, at least six people attempted suicide in Australia’s other island camp on Nauru. Two of them were children. One of them was 13.

Malcolm Turnbull’s response to this was to remind these people – refugees, which is what they have always been – that they would never be settled in Australia. “We cannot be misty-eyed about this,” he said. “We have to be very clear and determined in our national purpose ... We must have secure borders and we do and we will, and they will remain so, as long as I am the prime minister of this country.”

This is Tony Abbott’s vindication. It is not his alone, of course: Labor under Kevin Rudd built the illegal camp on Manus, and envisaged a world where no refugee by dint of the boat on which they arrived would find compassion in Australia.

The specious language of “queue jumpers” and “illegals” goes back to the late 1970s. It was Paul Keating, before John Howard, who made criminals of innocent people by placing them in mandatory detention.

It was Julia Gillard who said: “My view is many in the community should feel anxious when they see asylum-seeker boats and obviously we as a government want to manage our borders. For people to say they’re anxious about border security doesn’t make them intolerant, it certainly doesn’t make them a racist, it means that they’re expressing a genuine view that they’re anxious about border security.”

But it is not the public. It is politics. This issue has been so exploited for political gain that all logic and humanity has left it. When a foreign court tells Australia that it is acting unlawfully, the response is not to consider what is being done to the people in these camps; it is to work out who we should bribe first. These are life and death decisions. This is cruelty on an industrial scale.

There were some who thought, ahead of the latest High Court decision, that a finding against the arbitrary detention of people in foreign countries might offer an impetus to dismantle this foul system: that, having built a terrible straw man of these people, the highest court in the land might give politicians the necessary cover to finally disassemble it.

This was incredibly naive. For one, it thought too much of our politicians. It lent them a heart that might look at a child drinking detergent and see a great moral catastrophe rather than a failed state in need of another kickback to smooth over the unimaginative squalor of our political system.

There is another solution, but it won’t be found on either side of politics: Close the camps, and bring these poor souls here.

Lifeline 13 11 14

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 30, 2016 as "Bribe and prejudice".

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