The real problem with our asylum policies is not that supporters have a cold-blooded indifference to the plight of others. It’s that they make a conscious decision to follow a harsh approach in pursuit of a supposedly higher purpose, writes Michael Bradley.
Curiouser and curiouser. Only in Wonderland could Philip Ruddock be made Australia’s Special Envoy for Human Rights.
In a sense, we are indeed living in a realm of fantastical imagination. The weird rewarding of Ruddock for decades of service to the cause of bureaucratic inhumanity isn’t so strange when you fully appreciate the moral worldview that he came to represent, and which most Australians accept.
A picture of this worldview can be seen in the appearance by Michael Pezzullo, secretary of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, at the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee on Monday. He has been criticised for politicising his brief and overstepping his proper role by advocating the Government’s asylum seeker policy.
I took the trouble to read the whole transcript of the hearing in an attempt to understand the real person beneath the stereotype of the cold-blooded bureaucrat. Understanding him helps to explain how we got to where we are in our treatment of asylum seekers.
Pezzullo’s personal position is summarised in this passage from his opening statement:
The department is well seized of the need to find durable solutions for all who are the victims of exploitative people smugglers – those on Manus Island and Nauru and those in Australia, who, having arrived by illegal maritime means, are now not eligible for permanent settlement and further, in some cases, may not be owed protection at all.
No amount of moral lecturing by those who seem not to comprehend the negative consequences of an open-borders policy will bring forth those solutions. There is no compassion in giving people false hope. All that can be done is being done.
I speak here of quiet diplomacy in relation to developing options for possible third-country settlement, and the quiet persuasion of those not owed protection to go home.
I’d call that a masterpiece of dissembling misdirection, if it was all I’d read. Each sentence contains an untruth.
The emotive terms are reserved for people smugglers. There is no direct mention of refugees or what they’re escaping. The incorrect appellation “illegal” is there. Nobody in Australia seriously advocates open borders. All that can be done is most certainly not being done, when it is taking more than 400 days to process applications for refugee status and we have managed to resettle four people in Cambodia.
But I did read further, and it is clear to me that Pezzullo, like Ruddock and so many others, has become a true believer. The truth in which they believe is one of impeccably linear logic.
“Open borders” is the starting point, the existential disaster that it is our Government’s duty to prevent. As with any Armageddon scenario, the duty encompasses whatever it takes.
Open borders is a myth. So is the next logical step, which is that the influx of asylum seekers by boat will break our borders. But that is no longer argued. Consequently, the end point of Government policy now is “stop the boats”; meaning, stop them and keep them stopped. That’s the policy goal. That, it is agreed, can only be achieved by deterring people from getting on boats. It is mostly discussed in terms of deterring people smugglers, but in reality they are servicing a demand and it’s the demand we need to stop.
The policy of deterrence is explicit in our offshore processing agreements with Nauru and Papua New Guinea. Those operations exist solely for the purpose of deterring people from trying to get to Australia by boat, and they are designed as a completely closed system.
Pezzullo expanded on this to the committee:
If you have, as the Prime Minister described it yesterday, a policy that is tough – and indeed, to paraphrase him further, one that cannot really be described, in parts, other than as harsh – it has to be applied universally.
The moment you have a chink of light, the moment you give someone a clue as to how to game the system, you will put people’s lives in danger.
The trick is in the closing words. Given the line of his logic, I’d expect Pezzullo to conclude that, the moment we have a chink of light, the boats will start again. But he jumps instead to a different consequence – people drowning at sea.
It’s repeated like a mantra these days – the 1200 lives lost at sea before we stopped the boats. It has become the sole raison d’être of our stop-the-boats policy. It is repeated by both major parties ad nauseam, by media and other supporters of the policy, and by Pezzullo. But it isn’t why we originally introduced mandatory detention, nor offshore processing.
I don’t doubt that Pezzullo sincerely believes that the harshness is necessary, and that saving lives is the reason. I don’t doubt that that’s the rationale sincerely adopted by most people who support the Government’s policy. I merely note that the tail is wagging the dog.
To put it bluntly, the deaths at sea are convenient. Much as nobody would like to admit that they’ve latched onto those deaths because they provide moral cover for the inhuman treatment we are inflicting on the asylum seekers caught in our system, I’m sorry but that is exactly what they’ve done.
Nobody can justify sending a child to Nauru. It doesn’t matter whether or not that child is the victim of sexual abuse or suffering from psychological trauma. It doesn’t matter whether you buy that the asylum seekers on Nauru are not really in detention. You can’t seriously justify sending a child there. Unless – unless you believe that there is something else at stake which is more important than that child’s welfare.
Clearly, Pezzullo believes there is. He was at pains to tell the committee how much care is being lavished on the children under his department’s control, but he advisedly called the system in which they are trapped “harsh”. And he maintains that we must not allow a chink of light to enter that system.
Whatever the real purpose of all this is – keeping asylum seekers away or saving them from drowning – Pezzullo, Ruddock, both major parties and most of the Australian population have bought into the necessity that we must be harsh to other human beings, including children and even babies born in Australia, in ways that we would not ordinarily ever contemplate.
“It’s so difficult,” every politician protests. “As a parent myself…” Pezzullo said to the committee, exactly as every other apologist for our asylum seeker policy says if they happen to have children. As if that’s somehow relevant.
The evidence is undeniable: our asylum seeker system is inflicting harm on children. If you seriously doubt this, please read this report to the Human Rights Commission by two senior independent paediatricians on the health and wellbeing of children in immigration detention at Wickham Point Detention Centre in Darwin. You can only live with what it reveals if you choose not to know.
What the system requires, what Pezzullo’s attitude exemplifies, is not cold-hearted indifference to this harm. It is the conscious decision to allow that harm to be inflicted in pursuit of a supposedly higher purpose. It includes the conscious knowledge that this is harm that you would never allow to be inflicted on your own child.
Wonderland, as it turned out, wasn’t a very nice place. Neither is Australia just now.