In Parliament last week, Kevin Rudd - perhaps hoping to remind us of his Christian principles and his admiration of the martyred people smuggler Bonhoeffer - thunderously responded to growing criticism of his asylum seeker policies by reiterating that the Labor party does not hold children or adults in indefinite and abject detention behind razor wire, as did the Coalition. This, he argues, makes them a lot more humane than the other lot who did all those bad things.
What he ought to have admitted is that the Labor Government, just like the Howard government, will pay millions to have these children and adults held in indefinite and abject detention in another country. Whether or not they will be incarcerated behind razor wire remains to be seen. As Indonesia is not a signatory to any UN refugee conventions, that country has no formalised moral obligation towards the treatment of asylum seekers.
However, being a signatory to UN refugee conventions did not prevent the Howard government from disregarding Australia’s moral obligations and international responsibilities. Why Rudd should expect a more humane approach from the Indonesian government remains a mystery, assuming that is his expectation. This is an assumption I make solely on the Prime Minister’s insistence that he has acted and will continue to act with more humanity than did the Coalition.
But how will he ensure that the sovereign state of Indonesia meets his as yet un-stated standards of humane treatment? Isn’t it likely that the Howard government had more control over the Pacific Solution than Rudd can ever hope for over the Indonesian?
Howard never made any secret of his furious animosity towards asylum seekers, and his utter disregard for their circumstances. He was equally contemptuous of the UN. With Rudd, the language has been moderated. He has clad the iron fist in an unctuous velvet glove. There is little doubt that he will not enter into the type of viciously ignorant verbal xenophobia so ably practiced to this day by the Coalition. His goals, however, are exactly the same: to maintain Fortress Australia at all costs.
The Labor party, while castigating the Opposition for vile and intemperate remarks, continues to enact the same policies, albeit without the accompanying slander. Does this make them better? Or just more creepy? Rudd and Howard both attempt to wash their hands of the problems of the world’s asylum seekers. They simply use a different type of soap.
What Rudd also has in common with Howard, although they have varying ways of expressing this, is a wilful inability to acknowledge human desperation and despair. This failure of imagination, which I fear may be more conscious and deliberate on Rudd’s part than it was on Howard’s, leads to the construction of a narrative that deliberately omits any reference to the asylum seekers as individual human beings.
Howard attempted to implement this process of dehumanisation by controlling and distorting public images of them. The ultimate dehumanising weapon is to banish them entirely from sight, either in the middle of the desert or even better, in another country. That way nobody’s consciences can be discomforted by the intrusion of their all too evident suffering.
The public’s focus is then firmly steered towards border protection. The arguments are determinedly framed as matters of sovereignty and entitlement, and not as issues of mass human suffering to which anyone, other than a sociopath, would feel a desire to compassionately respond.
I’ve been to the Baxter Detention Centre, and to Woomera when it existed, and listened to detainees, and their guards. These are not places we want to have in our country, and neither can we ethically support their proliferation offshore. Millions and millions of dollars to Nauru. Millions on the now defunct Baxter Centre. And now, millions to Indonesia. This cup of money is apparently bottomless, regardless of who is in charge of pouring.
Yet in my experience, many Australians who’ve encountered asylum seekers have a great deal of regard for them, and their determination and industry. In my experience, the most vocal and aggressive opponents have never been near an asylum seeker, and wouldn’t if you paid them. These opponents have, for their own reasons, bought into the distorted narratives of propaganda purveyed by populist politicians and shock jocks. Their arguments are not built on any rational foundation. There is no empirical evidence for their catastrophic expectations. At the very least, they are silly and hysterical. At the very worst they are dehumanising and extremely dangerous.
So why does Kevin Rudd, a Christian and devotee of Bonhoeffer, continue to pander to these irrational and inhumane attitudes? Are we to be governed by the paranoid insistences of the wilfully ignorant and racially abusive because our leader doesn’t have the guts to take a stand and face them down?