Opinion

Rod Bower
Biloela showing community spirit

As I write, I am struggling to comprehend that Sri Lankan couple Priya and Nadesalingam and their Australian-born daughters, Kopika and Tharunicaa, continue to face an uncertain future. Meanwhile, back in Biloela, a traumatised town will be attempting to come to terms with how “un-Australian” the community really is. The Tamil family spent four years residing in this small Queensland community, 120 kilometres south-west of Gladstone. Nades had taken up a not-very-sought-after job at the local meatworks, and both he and Priya contributed to Biloela society in myriad ways, forging deep and abiding bonds. According to our prime minister, “If you have a go, you get a go.” As it turns out, this maxim doesn’t apply to everyone.

This truth became catastrophically apparent after Priya’s visa expired on March 4, 2018. Despite her constant communication with the Department of Immigration and assurances her new visa was in the mail, in the early hours of March 5 the family’s home was raided by a coalition of police officers, Serco guards and Border Force officials, who forcibly removed and transported the family to a Melbourne immigration detention centre. This process, which is well documented, can be described only as draconian, far beyond what would once have been acceptable in a democracy governed by the rule of law. It is understandable, then, that it is not only the good burghers of Biloela who are left wondering how the virtues of hospitality, decency and a fair go are seen as so very un-Australian.

Since that day, the members of this family have been denied their basic human rights. They have suffered intolerably, the children in particular experiencing health issues due to deprivations that must be considered unacceptable in any developed nation. Then, a little over a week ago, the family was forced onto another plane in the middle of the night, reportedly surrounded by a cohort of 50 guards. Kopika and Tharunicaa were hysterical as they saw their mother dragged past them. The distraught children were denied comfort from Priya for the entire journey. If not for a last-minute court injunction, which allowed the family to land in Darwin, their deportation would have been a fait accompli. Biloela was not about to give up. However, the next night the family was taken to Christmas Island, this little piece of paradise having been turned into hell for the world’s most vulnerable people after being excised from Australia’s migration zone, rendering those taken there beyond our civic universe.

Interestingly, though unsurprisingly, several newspapers this week revealed that a number of Sri Lankan boats had been turned back by Operation Sovereign Borders. The usual secrecy surrounding “on-water matters” to avoid giving people smugglers “tactical advantage” and to “protect our people in the conduct of their duties” was deemed redundant as, according to the prime minister, “We followed a practice that we have in the past and I think that keeps the issue of the ever-present threat of illegal arrivals to Australia foremost in the public’s mind.” One is left to wonder if this startling and disturbingly honest admission is merely some kind of Freudian revelation, or perhaps, even more ominously, evidence Scott Morrison no longer feels the moral constraints that once dictated unethical behaviour be camouflaged in a veil of spin and doublespeak.

Could this be the new Australia? Maybe it is simply the old one being honest with itself.

According to the Liberal senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, “Quiet Australians of family and faith voted for us, thinking that … a prime minister who had overtly demonstrated his religious faith during the election campaign would be in a better position to protect those religious freedoms.” It is a shameful disgrace that these same “quiet Australians of family and faith” have no expectation that the Biloela family would be treated with compassion and dignity by our so-called Christian prime minister. It is shameful.

While we have never been a “Christian” nation, and nor as a secular democracy should we ever seek to be, the Judaeo-Christian narrative provides one of the most comprehensive longitudinal studies on human political behaviour available to us. We dismiss the insights provided in the narrative at our peril.

One of the undeniable themes in the narrative is the imperative not only to care for the foreigner but also to refrain from doing harm. In the Christian scriptures, this finds its ultimate development in Jesus’s example of radical open-table hospitality and the command to love others as we love ourselves. This is not, of course, a uniquely Christian expression; rather, it is evidence of a universal truth – we cannot diminish others without diminishing ourselves.

But there is a dark shadow in the Australian heart that can only temporarily be obscured by occasional flashes of light and the reaffirming of mythologies such as the “fair go”. European settlement came with the foundation of otherising. It began with the attempted genocide of First Nations peoples, and quickly moved on to persecution of the Chinese when they were perceived, among other things, as competition in the goldfields. Federation saw racism, bigotry and prejudice enshrined in our constitution through the White Australia Policy, which quickly manifested itself in the deportation of Pacific Islanders who had been manipulated into slavery in the Queensland cane fields, simply because they were non-European. During the two world wars, citizens of German and Japanese descent were treated appallingly, and after 1945 Italian and Greek immigrants were the subject of racism and discrimination. In the 1970s we moved on to otherising the Vietnamese, in the ’90s it was all about denigrating Asians, after 2001 it became people of “Middle Eastern appearance”, and once again ever-present anti-Semitism is on the rise.

The devastating thing about the people of Biloela is that they are the exception to the rule. They are what happens when our better angels break free from their self-imposed prison. This is occasionally possible, as evidenced by the strong “Yes” support during the same-sex marriage vote, but even this moment in the sun must be overshadowed by the demons of fear and prejudice now clamouring for attention through the religious freedoms debate. Those who seek power over us will continue to work in the shadows, engaging and manipulating the demons of fear and anxiety within our national psyche.

Between December 2014 and August 2018, Peter Dutton used his ministerial discretion to grant 4129 visas. That is three a day. Why not four more? Precisely because this family has the ability to call on our better angels. This government cannot afford for that to happen.

This is why the people of Biloela are so important. Priya, Nades, Kopika and Tharunicaa face a devastatingly uncertain future, but the people of Biloela continue their witness of love and compassion. A friend has even flown to Christmas Island to support the family. These extraordinary Australians refuse to become infected by our nation’s corporate shadow, and in so doing remain manifestations of our better angels. If we are not only to survive, but flourish, we could all do well to be a little more like Biloela.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 7, 2019 as "Biloela and our better angels". Subscribe here.

Rod Bower
is the archdeacon for justice ministries in the Anglican Diocese of Newcastle.