PM's cultivated illusion of moral superiority over Abbott unravels over refugee children

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Malcolm Turnbull's carefully cultivated illusion of moral superiority to Tony Abbott continues to unravel with his failure to protect refugee babies and children, writes David Tyler.

PEOPLE SMUGGLERS are no threat to our sovereignty postured Malcolm Turnbull in Question Time, Tuesday, as a beleaguered PM, beset by internal division and a continuing decline in global economic news, resorts to the old Liberal line that cruelty to asylum seekers is an effective and worthy deterrent of demon people smugglers. It is an unworthy and unwelcome decline in his leadership.

Of course it helps when heading into an election year if you can engender a sense of national crisis and pose as your nation’s saviour, but when babies and children must suffer as a result of your need to appear "tough on people smuggling", you tread thin ice.

What does this do to “brand Turnbull”? What damage will this cause to his carefully cultivated illusion of a superior moral tone? What price his slogan-less government now?

Does the PM really need to appease his party’s disaffected right wingers by channelling Tony Abbott’s apparent cavalier disregard for humanity; his apparent contempt for our international obligations to refugees and asylum seekers?

The new parliamentary term has not begun well. Economic indicators are all heading south. AGL has pulled out of coal-seam gas. There is back-biting from the backbench about the GST hike, despite Douglas Robb’s denial.

Worse, the government’s game plan, which featured killing Bill Shorten with union smears is all over the media. A rat in the ranks has leaked the very first Cabinet meeting’s talking points.

The gauntlet is down. By Wednesday, the PM seems all out to win at all costs in a race to the bottom. He uses parliament's Question Time to pose as guardian of our national security, apparently happy to grandstand on the High Court 6:1 verdict in favour of the legality of Manus and Nauru.  

Some MSM reporters, doubtless, will praise Turnbull's ersatz patriotism. His cheap rhetoric will be hailed as making him “strong on border protection”. His posturing will blend in well with Scott Morrison's “tough but fair” stance on raising the GST for everyone so that a privileged few get income tax cuts. And it may help get the Monkey Pod room off his back for a moment.

Turnbull is under pressure to prove he's no bleeding heart liberal. Abbott's speech in the U.S. helps wedge him on gay marriage and Kevin Andrews urges troop deployment in Syria in what seems to be a continuing bid to paint the new leader soft on terror. Or just soft.

A flying visit to the frontline does not quite do the trick. Images of Turnbull in a bomber jacket for an awkward photo session reveal few of our boys in Iraq with smiles on their faces. The ABC, does, however, seem to step up its anti-ISIS news items.

Knocking back a U.S. invitation to boost our troop deployment may not have won any hearts and minds amongst our military personnel already deployed in Iraq, but it was a wise decision. On the second sitting day of Parliament, 2016, Turnbull’s decision to dive into the people smuggling bag of tricks with all its attendant assumptions lies and misconceptions, on the other hand, was less well-considered viz when he said :

 “The people smugglers will not prevail over our sovereignty. Our borders are secure. The line has to be drawn somewhere and it is drawn at our border”. 

Our borders never were threatened by people smugglers. In the meantime, however, as a result of the High Court’s ruling against a challenge, babies are able to be sent back to Nauru and Manus Island. Despite the PM’s real intentions and despite Peter Dutton’s desperate backpedalling, the news from the High Court is nothing to crow about.

It’s not something that merits a public pat on the back in parliament, Mr Turnbull. It doesn’t vindicate our policy towards asylum seekers. It doesn't do anything for our international reputation or our claims to be a humane and compassionate society.

All it is an expected legal outcome. The High Court has ruled against a challenge to the legality of offshore detention. It says nothing about the morality of indefinite off shore detention in life endangering conditions on Manus or Nauru.

Ninety-one children, thirty-seven of them babies are among the 267 asylum seekers including female victims of sexual assault now threatened with deportation to places so notoriously unsafe and badly run that they've attracted protests from the UNHCR and human rights groups around the world.

Children suffer especially acutely, from bed wetting, nightmares, ongoing effects of trauma and torture in previous countries, as well as “situational crisis” from their current detention, International Health and Medical Services reports. Those attending school on Nauru are threatened with knives and are subject to sexual harassment. Often beaten and abused by community members, they live in fear.

To send the babies back would be child abuse, says Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young, whose heroic efforts to expose conditions in the off-shore detention centres have been subject to ridicule by Immigration Minister, Peter Dutton. Even Dutton is now saying, however, that he would not send a child back into danger.

Border protection is at best a confected nonsense, one of the worst legacies of the Abbott prime ministership debacle. Our national sovereignty was never in question. Punishing asylum seekers and refugees by putting them on Manus and Nauru has never been a deterrent to any people smuggler.

Instead of pretending to be tough on people smugglers, Malcolm Turnbull could prove he is tough by exercising moral leadership. Close down the detention centres. Let the men, women and children live amongst us. Let us look to their healing. Surely they have suffered enough.

You can follow David Tyler on Twitter @urbanwronski.

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