The ongoing crisis at Manus is not just an issue that needs solving, it is also a slash across the face of the Australia we grew up idolising.
I have deep-seated pride in my country. Pride born from the Australia that I was taught about as a child. The Australia I saw as a child. The Australia that didn’t need blind, spectacle-driven patriotism to get its people onboard. The Australia that had national pride because we knew, through our actions, that we were better than everyone else. That we were fairer. That the Australian dream, rather than being built on the relentless pursuit of success, was built on a core concept that we could all relate to: a fair go…literally the most Australian phrase that could be uttered.
In a country made up of a myriad of cultures, religions, races, genders and backgrounds, the “fair go” has always been the thing we could agree on – the credo that transcended every other artificial divide that society thrust upon us. The concept that saw generations of refugees make Australia their home; where they may not have always been welcomed with open arms, but were permitted to freely and openly contribute their thread to the rich tapestry of our culture. All under the proviso that they believed in a fair go for everyone. Are we richer for it? Bloody oath we are. A large portion of us (myself included) wouldn’t exist otherwise, and the many things that make our country great now wouldn’t have either.
If anyone can honestly say that what the current refugees on Manus Island have been and are being subjected to right now represents a “fair go”, then I would politely suggest that they need a rather aggressive lobotomy.
Those with a modicum of respect for basic human rights celebrated not too long ago when the PNG Supreme Court ruled the Australian-run Manus facility as being in violation of the PNG Constitution (specifically the right to liberty) and ordered its closure. Pressure on the Government both domestically and internationally had consistently failed to sway them so perhaps a forced closure would leave them with no option but to bring the detainees to Australian shores and process them properly.
After all, the ruling by the PNG Supreme Court spoke specifically to the deprivation of liberty and treatment of the detainees; what choice could there be other than to finally process and resettle them?
For the Australian Government, however, what should have been a watershed moment in this mess where they might be forced to remember their human rights obligations (both legally and otherwise) was seen as the perfect opportunity for a handball and for some surgical handwashing.
Manus was run by the Australian Government with Australian personnel involved (both public and private). They’ve left. The detainees, however, remain. They are being relocated to nearby PNG-run facilities. There are no declared plans for them, nor a real strategy. They don’t know whether they will be permitted to work in the areas that they are potentially going to be resettled in. Most importantly, they don’t know whether they will be safe.
So much so that 600 detainees have refused to leave, citing their safety concerns. An affidavit lodged in the PNG Supreme Court by one of the refugees, Behrouz Boochani, stated that “The police already, they beat some of the refugees and the local people. They attack the refugees and rob them. This place is not a safe place”.
As bad as conditions were for the people on Manus, and the treatment and negligence they have suffered at the hands of Australians, for them it is still their safest option. This alone should be cause for a closer look at what is going on, but rather than investigating, we’ve packed up our shit and left, making sure to clear out the fridge, turn off the electricity and turn off the water on our way out.
Border protection is as important as it is difficult. It’s as grey as an area can get, which above all else means that it doesn’t lend itself to blanket solutions.
Those that are refusing to leave have been told in no uncertain terms that if they choose to remain, they will be treated as anyone would who is trespassing on an active military base as control of Manus is given to the PNG Government. What that means remains to be seen, but I don’t think anyone is naïve enough to believe that it will be handled peacefully.
Immigration Minister Peter Dutton has waved away criticism as only he can, sticking to his tired claim that anything negative reported about the conditions in Manus or in the new facilities is “nothing more than subterfuge“.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, however, isn’t buying what Dutton is shovelling, describing the situation as an “unfolding humanitarian emergency”. Spokesperson, Rupert Colville, has expressed “serious concerns for the welfare, safety and wellbeing of the roughly 600 men who remain in the accommodation compound, who are too frightened to leave… We call on the Australian Government as the party who interned the men in the first place, to immediately provide protection, food, water and other basic services”.
Another statement that cuts to the very core of this divisive issue. The Australian Government interned these people. In basic legal terms, we have a duty of care. In more important terms, washing our hands of a situation that we have created is inherently un-Australian.
Acting PM, Julie Bishop, towed the same old tired line this week, making it very clear that these men are not the responsibility of the Australian Government – these men who we detained, exposed to horrific and dangerous conditions and left to languish for years, all for the crime of asking for help.
The issue of border protection is as important as it is difficult. It’s as grey as an area can get, which above all else means that it doesn’t lend itself to blanket solutions. Not one of us wants to see the next radicalised suicide bomber welcomed through the gates. But I simply cannot believe that this is what we want. It can’t be. We are better than that. Well, we’re supposed to be better than that.
Believe it or not, that’s not even the worst part. The position of the Australian Government has been consistent and unwavering for some time – refugees arriving by boat will not be allowed on Australian shores – a position I wholeheartedly disagree with, but it’s hardly a secret. Now, not only are we not letting them come here, not only have we locked them up and exposed them to conditions rivalling those they were fleeing, not only have we happily walked away from them and handed them over with no strategy in place for their welfare, but we have refused the help of others who are willing to do the right thing.
NZ PM Jacinda Arden reached out to the Australian Government to reiterate NZ’s previous offer to take 150 of the 600 detainees on Manus. The Australian Government again refused, claiming that it would still undermine the message they are trying to send to people smugglers. Even when someone else offers to make it their problem, the politics of it all is more important than the lives of the innocent people at the centre of it all. In one breath we claim to not be responsible; in the next, refuse to allow anyone else to help. The word “disgusting” doesn’t have enough synonyms to adequately express the depths to which we have sunk.
All too often in recent times, I’ve been faced with the idea of “being ashamed to be an Australian”. The thought does come to mind when you look at atrocities like this being performed by our Government and therefore in our name. The truth is, I do feel shame. But I will never say that I am ashamed to be Australian.
The sociopaths (is there really another term more appropriate here?), making these decisions don’t have the right to misappropriate our culture or our wishes. I refuse to allow their misguided actions to define what an Australian is; and at the risk of sounding emotive, if you truly believe that what they are doing is right then you don’t have the right to call yourself an Australian.
We have allowed our leaders to become lazy. We’ve allowed them to exclusively adopt approaches that more often than not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Running a country, especially in a fair way, is no easy task. I don’t claim for a second that I could do it. But those who are, asked for the job. They pleaded for your votes. They signed a contract with all of us to not only protect and advance our interests as a people, but to do so in a way that is in line with our basic cultural values. They continue to breach that contract and we continue to let them. So while I’m not ashamed of my country, we are heading down a path that could very well take us to a point where my country is no longer recognisable; no longer mine and no longer yours.
If you still aren’t convinced, consider the fact that US President Trump told Malcolm Turnbull “You are worse than I am”, when discussing the treatment of refugees. There could be nothing more un-Australian than to be compared with, let alone considered worse than, the current US President.
One of my favourite quotes, usually attributed to Edmund Burke, is “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”. For an Irishman, he’s done a pretty good job of describing the Australian spirit in my opinion. For we have always held ourselves up to be those good men (and women). Those who stand up and call out bullshit when it needs to be called. Those that stand up for the little guy, particularly when they are being persecuted by a much bigger guy.
Is this something we really want to lose?