Events at the Lady Cilento Children’s Hospital may presage the rebirth of compassion and the end of modern Australian savagery towards the vulnerable and stricken, writes Alex McKean.
IN THE DARK DAYS of 1943 there was controversy over whether Australia should adopt a policy where the northern half of the continent should be effectively abandoned to the Japanese — a policy known as the "Brisbane Line".
In the more cruel and indifferent Australia of 2016, Brisbane has once again come to represent a border; a fault line in the seismic undercurrents of the politics of race and xenophobia.
The actions of the courageous staff at the Lady Cilento Children’s Hospital, in refusing to deliver an infant back to the horrors of our dirty little camp on Nauru may signal the turning of the tide. A groundswell of community support has built up, with a vigil being held to support the Hospital staff, and prevent the "Australian Border Force" and their mercenaries, Serco, from disappearing baby Asha.
Serco and the Australian Border Force are doubtless disgruntled that their actions are attracting so much attention. It is so much easier to deal with troublesome individuals in one of the camps, or the high seas, with no pesky protestors and journalists about.
Each of the major parties has participated in a race to the bottom on the issue of refugees. Each of their policies has been nothing short of a disgrace.
The Abbott Government took things to a new low. Claiming to have stopped the boats, the only thing which had actually stopped was any information about the boats. Flags started sprouting in ever-increasing numbers at press conferences, while slick politicians stood alongside uniformed military officers, there to cloak the whole catastrophe in the extreme secrecy of a military operation.
At least the military officers, while refusing to answer any question beyond their name, rank and serial number, managed to look vaguely ashamed about the use to which they were being put.
Not so the politicians.
Trapped in a downward spiral of having to look increasingly "tough" in response to the peril posed by a few leaky boats, the politicians reached for a principled argument to justify the ramped up cruelty of their policies.
That argument, stripped back, goes pretty much like this:
By stopping people getting on "leaky" boats, we prevent the inevitable cases where those boats will come to grief and we have bodies washing up on the coast of Christmas Island.
Therefore, any amount of suffering we inflict on the people we already have here is justified, because it will send a message to the people who would otherwise get on boats.
So, if we make life as horrific for asylum-seekers on Nauru, Manus Island, or in Cambodia, as it was ‘back where they came from.
The job, then, of the Australian Government is to make life as awful on Nauru as it is for a member of the Rohingya minority in Burma, to give the individuals on Nauru no hope that things will ever get better, and to advertise their despair to aspirants lining up for passage in Indonesia.
The more immoral we are with respect to those interred on Nauru, the more moral we actually are, by saving the lives of the many more who might otherwise drown.
This argument has been the salve to the consciences of those Australians who have bothered to think beyond the fear generated by assumed differences between "us" as members of an earlier wave of colonisation or immigration, and "them", as a more recent manifestation of the peopling of this continent.
The argument is, however, flawed.
Firstly, there can be little doubt that the boats have not actually stopped. Despite the ridiculous and extreme measures taken by the Government to prevent information getting to the Australian people about boats arriving – or being turned back – with or without bundles of cash being gifted to people smugglers.
The Government cynically imagines that the individual consciences of the Australian people will be untroubled by the fate of the people who would otherwise seek safety here, provided they are not confronted with any data in conflict with the Government’s big lie.
Secondly and more importantly, there is no moral or ethical foundation to the argument. It is a fundamental problem with utilitarian theory that it could allow the greatest good to be experienced by the greatest number of people by means of suffering being caused to a persecuted minority.
Nothing excuses the suffering being imposed upon the people on Nauru. That suffering can never be transformed into a virtue.
The Government is seemingly prepared to spend any amount of our money, in times of budgetary constraints, to maintain the regime of trafficking traumatised people to horrific camps where they can be further brutalised by highly-paid thugs. Despite the verified reports of murder, sexual assault and child abuse under the watch of the detention-centre operators, Serco managed to renew the contract, reportedly worth up to $1.4 billion of taxpayer’s money.
We now live in an Australia where private contractors hold desperate mothers are held incommunicado while plans are made to whisk her infant child back to the Nauru hell-hole.
It is unlikely we will see any political leadership on this issue from either of the major parties. Neither can now blink and risk being the party who allowed the boats – or at least news of the boats – to start flowing again. Neither seems to have the moral capacity to articulate a position which could lead Australia back to a rational, compassionate and proportionate response to the trickle of asylum seekers who could ever realistically reach our shores.
In the absence of such leadership, change can only come through the people withdrawing their consent for the damage being done in their name. The parties will respond only if they sense the cruel policies are no longer supported.
A significant proportion of the Australian people have always been opposed to the way we treat refugees. It is my fervent belief that a substantial majority would support change if courage and leadership were shown.
Events at the Lady Cilento Children’s Hospital may presage a shift in momentum, but there is a long way to go. Large sums of public money are at stake and those currently profiting from the operation of the cruelty industry can be expected to adamantly resist any form of change.
We stand, as a people, at the border between a continuing spiral down into savagery or a return to a principled approach which recognizes the value of every human life and us to hold our head up high as a good global citizen.
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