Mungo MacCallum: Turnbull, 18C and boat paranoia

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Mungo MacCallum discusses the motivation behind the Turnbull Government's latest assault on asylum seekers and the inquiry into Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.

THERE must surely be more to the government’s latest assault on the boat people than simply crude wedge politics and gratuitous cruelty; but if there is, the prime minister is not saying — at least not yet.

This, of course, is part of a long-standing tradition. When and where asylum seekers are concerned, nothing is to be revealed unless it is absolutely necessary, and not always then.

But Malcolm Turnbull’s announcement last week that anyone seeking to arrive to Australia by boat after July 2013 is now to be banned from our fair shores always and forever seems more than usually puzzling. The boats stopped two years ago. So the new move is not only sadistic – the image of a jackboot trampling on the faces of the already defeated and helpless is hard to avoid – it is also, as Bill Shorten equivocally avers, ridiculous — and worse, it is almost certainly unworkable.

For starters, it is undeniably retrospective; the penalty is to apply to an offence (which refugee advocate Julian Burnside acerbically defines as not being drowned at sea) which took place years ago. Real conservatives would reject Turnbull’s proposed legislation for that reason alone. But, as always, they are ready with excuses: it will enhance national security (How? Why? Well, time to move on). So once again, the end justifies the means.

And we are assured there is an end — a political fix which will shut down the debate and sweep the sorry saga out of history. The idea, we are told by the usual leaks from reliable government sources, is that Turnbull and that wily negotiator Peter Dutton have finally come close to a deal to remove some of the asylum seekers from Manus Island and Nauru.

The probable suspects are the United States and Canada. New Zealand has already been ruled out as too pleasant and too close, and moreover its principled prime minister, John Keys, has said that it would be intolerable for Kiwi residents to discriminate between those who could and those who could not access tourist entry to Australia. It may be problematic to impose the same restriction on other countries, but even if it is practicable, it is highly unlikely that all the detainees will be considered eligible, or for that matter willing, to be transferred in the arbitrary fashion suggested.

Which will still leave the Government with its intractable problem: what does it do with genuine refugees, confirmed as such through its own stringent rules, who will remain confined against their will? The United Nations, of course, has already said that their plight is against international conventions ratified by Australia and that the punishment of refugees (which Turnbull and Dutton are determined to exacerbate through the new measures) is against the law; but, as Tony Abbott once famously declared, we are sick of being lectured by the United Nations.

We say what we’re doing is okay — black is white and that is the end of it. And if those bleeding hearts in the Labor Party object, so much the better — Pauline Hanson has applauded and so will the shock jocks.

And so, unsurprisingly, do the conservative elitists of The Australian, who have their own concerns about human rights abuses. They do not mean persecution and brutality, leading to suicide and despair and the destruction of innocent men, women and children, they are mere sideshows. The real fear for the future for Australia is the redemption of their much awarded and well remunerated cartoonist Bill Leak.

He is the victim – the martyr – and no acre of newsprint may be left untouched until the totalitarian laws that dare criticise him are expunged forever.

On the issue of the offending (in the sense that it caused offence to some) cartoon depicting an Indigenous father unable to name his son, I follow Stan Grant. The drawing was not very funny (indeed, I have found Leak’s work increasingly unfunny and rightist polemic) but it should not be banned.

However, it is hardly serious – the claim of offence has to be investigated by the Human Rights Commission under 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act – but Leak has an iron-clad defence under 18D. He, unlike the prisoners on Nauru and Manus, can sleep soundly.

The Act has seldom been invoked and almost never demanded censure, let alone penalty. The problem with the widely publicised case of Andrew Bolt, which The Australian steadfastly ignores, was not that his criticism of what he called white-skinned Aboriginals was offensive — but rather that it was demonstrably untrue.

The point about the Racial Discrimination Act is that it allows people to be offensive, or even (as George Brandis insists) bigots: but they must do so for a sound reason and in good faith, as is the case with the defamation laws. Simply screaming racial abuse in public is equivalent to the common example of shouting “fire!” in a crowded cinema.

But this is apparently what the comfortable zealots of The Australian want: the total abolition of section 18C. Or, if they can’t have that, its diminution to the point of becoming meaningless. And, by a happy juxtaposition of obsessions, the hated Gilllan Triggs is the Commissioner of the Human Rights Commission and charged with examining the lot of the asylum seekers the Government and The Australian prefer to ignore — so with any luck she can be despatched along with 18C.

For some, this febrile campaign is actually an attack on human rights, on the arbitrary abuse of power by the forces of government over the detainees of Nauru and Manus and an attempt to limit its excesses through the Racial Discrimination Act. But, of course, that is just political correctness, the nanny state.

What is important is to allow the grandees of the Murdoch oligarchy to do and say anything they like — and bugger the rest of us. Any restrictions threaten the fabric of society — or News Corp, which is actually the same thing.

The most worrying aspect of it all is that it appears not merely the Government’s right wing rump, but the prime minister himself, is being forced to listen to them. And that is the real danger, which will undermine the essential unity and decency of the nation. Paranoia about boat people is absurd, but the rise of manufactured, demagogic outrage about fundamental protections in the polity can be very real.

Mungo MacCallum is a veteran journalist who for many years worked in the Canberra Press Gallery. This article was published on John Menadue's blog 'Pearls and Irritations'. It is republished with permission.

Malcolm Turnbull calling for a compassionate approach to refugees in 2005. 

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