Using children: The national abuse apology and Nauru

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Former PM Julia Gillard addresses victims at the national apology to victims and survivors of child sexual abuse delivered by Prime Minister Scott Morrison (Screenshot via YouTube)

As the national apology to victims of institutionalised child sexual abuse was being delivered, the torture of innocent children on Nauru continues, writes Dr Binoy Kampmark.

IT WAS the Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison who, along with Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, nearly wept in apology for the prolonged, extensive and irreversible cruelties that were inflicted on children in institutions for decades. 

Morrison spoke of

“... silenced voices. Muffled cries in the darkness. Unacknowledged tears. The tyranny of invisible suffering.” 


State Government leaders took similar steps, all remorseful. It was a collective political admission that Australia’s institutions had not merely failed the vulnerable but been complicit in ruination and destruction, concealing and perpetrating sexual abuse.

This took place against the backdrop of thunderous disaffection and ferment. The seat of Wentworth – lost to the Liberals after decades of secure and guaranteed management – has fallen to Kerryn Phelps, a doctor who has insisted that humanitarian principles are needed for refugees on Nauru, notably the children.

In Parliament’s public gallery, a man listening to Morrison’s speech of apology stood up with a sign that required little by way of explanation:

'Fix Nauru then apology.' 

In the Great Hall, where Morrison and Shorten greeted the victims of child abuse, along with their families, Nauru was intoned as a haunting reminder about a nagging inconsistency in the occasion. 

Sexual abuse survivor and retired Hunter Uniting Church leader Wes Hartley queried : 

“How can we have this for children sexually abused in institutions and be blind to what we’re actually still doing with the children of asylum seekers?”

As the dust was slowly settling on the vote count in Wentworth, some 11 crushed children on Nauru have been given a dispensation to go to the Australian mainland for medical attention — the result of scars inflicted by their hosts. The lucky complement was selected as part of a calculated political process and Australian Border Force officials evidently felt that an amendment from the initial number of 16 was required. 

Few times in Australian history have any policy changes occurred as a direct consequence of a vote in a by-election but here, the squalid nature of Australia’s border protection policy was laid bare, its grotesque cynicism given an airing. The Morrison Government is set for the chop, so every little thing helps. 

Even Phelps expressed on the ABC’s Q&A: 

“... that we now give the Government an opportunity to respond to what the people have said.” 

Those “people” had, in her view, “spoken on this issue” in Wentworth.

The Q&A audience cheered, resolute that these salvaged show ponies of humanitarian understanding could somehow have made a difference.

Philip Ruddock – who has for so long been part of Canberra’s political furniture – was less impressed. It was Ruddock who had proven instrumental in expanding the web of immigration detention centres from Woomera to Nauru in the early 2000s. 

Wrote Greg Barns of the Australian Lawyers Alliance in 2016, as a tart reminder:

'Under Mr Ruddock, the mental and physical harm endured by asylum seekers was horrendous.'   

To make Ruddock Special Envoy for Human Rights, as then Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull did, was tantamount to 'appointing a cigarette company CEO to champion health.'

As for the treatment of children by the good humanitarian, Human Rights Watch noted in a letter of alarm to Immigration Minister Ruddock that it was

'... deeply concerned about reports that Australia is detaining child asylum seekers in poor conditions for long periods of time and that, to protest their confinement, children have attempted suicide and participated in hunger strikes by sewing their mouths closed.'

That letter, it is worth remembering, wasn’t sent yesterday but on 25 January 2002.

For Ruddock, traumatised children in such a centre as Nauru were less relevant than a global refugee camp system of cruelty he had witnessed. It’s all part of the grim lottery of life and the former immigration minister stopped short – if only, just – of praising the centres on Nauru and Manus Island for their exemplary care and supreme consideration for their detainees. 

This was something the Nauru Government was not shy of doing. In expelling Médecins Sans Frontières earlier this month for being partisan in the execution of its remit, the Nauru Government suggested that its facilities for refugees and asylum seekers were second to none — a sort of Hilton of the Pacific: 

“The facilities, care, welfare and homely environment offered to refugees and asylum seekers are comparable or better than what other refugees and asylum seekers across the globe receive.”

To sense that the policy will change and that the centre of politics in Canberra has suddenly become more compassionate is the loudest of false alarms. Phelps may well feel that “the writing is on the wall” in terms of how refugees, including children, are treated, but the main parties have shown no inclination to permit resettlement on the Australian mainland. Australia remains virgo intacta in that regard, sacred and inaccessible to boat arrivals who would dare penetrate border security. Best leave it to other countries to do the heavy lifting.

The New Zealand resettlement bill, which has been languishing in Parliament for some two years, has been reignited by the deplorable state of health of refugee children on Nauru. The bill is nasty and alleviates Australia of its responsibilities — a fairly common tendency since the 1990s. But in it is a proviso that would prevent any of those from Nauru from ever coming to Australia even after resetting in New Zealand. This would, perversely, introduce another tier of citizenship and status, a matter noxious to international law. 

The ALP, eternally wedged on the issue of refugees, has typically hedged on the resettlement program. Senior politician Anthony Albanese on Monday spoke of “layers”, in terms of what such a program would look like, although he has insisted that the Morrison Government “must listen to the health experts about children in detention”

Both Labor and the Greens, in another feat of political depreciation, have decided to entertain the bill. (It’s all about the children, you see.)  Barring any of those transferred to New Zealand from ever settling in Australia should be entertained, with one vital caveat: it would only apply to that specific cohort currently on Nauru. 

In the words of Greens Leader, Senator Richard Di Natale:

“If resettlement after that means resettlement in New Zealand with limited restrictions, just on that group, that’s something we will consider.” 

The nudging made by Ruddock to Albanese on Q&A was suggestive of it all: the bipartisan understanding on keeping people detained and, afterwards, prevented from coming to Australia at any point, remains. 

Despite the lachrymose nature of Monday’s proceedings, remembering the suffering caused by institutional child abuse, the predations of the Australian state on the vulnerable, inflicted through its Pacific vassals, will continue with tearless relentlessness, its own variation of a tyranny of invisible suffering.

Dr Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. You can follow Dr Kampmark on Twitter @bkampmark.

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