What if the PM went to Manus Island?

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During the course of the election campaign the cost of just about everything has been debated. Except the cost, human and monetary, of Australia's treatment of people seeking asylum, which both parties have mostly shrouded in silence. Yet occasionally the wounds can be glimpsed beneath the shroud.

Turnbull on QandAIt happened in the QandA program in which Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was questioned by Behrouz Bouchani, a Kurdish journalist on Manus Island.

While defending Australian policy, Turnbull remarked, 'None of us have hearts of stone. All of us understand how harsh our policy is in terms of its impact on particular individuals.'

Later a member of the audience asked him, 'Will the Prime Minister visit the centres and see them for himself?' Turnbull declined to answer that question — a politic silence that rearranged the shroud after the momentary disturbance caused by Bouchani's question and the contradiction enshrined in the Prime Minister's answer.

On the previous day the Guardian published an interview with Paul Stevenson on the Manus Island Centre. He was a trauma counsellor responsible for the mental wellbeing of Wilson employees there. The interview described in graphic detail and understated prose what a prime minister would see and hear if he went with an enquiring mind to Manus Island.

Among the wide range of 'particular individuals' impacted by this policy, were detainees who had to be cut down with specially designed knives when trying to hang themselves, women who tried to kill themselves to give their young children a better chance for resettlement, those involved in the five or six incidents of self-harm on some days, the refugees who tried to return to the camp after suffering worse violence outside, people in whom the light had gone out and who live in shadowland.

There are the quiet people who live constantly under surveillance and try to keep hope alive.

Among them were staff members who are traumatised by their experience, those who were hardened to suffering, and the islanders whose lives had been disrupted by the camp.

 

"While we are at it, spare a thought for Stevenson, a man decorated for his work after the Bali bombing, that he found less traumatic than Manus Island."

 

In the background of Stevenson's interview were the architects, developers, inheritors and supporters of the policy whose efficacy rested on its harsh impact on individuals. Their burden was to assure themselves that they did not indeed have hearts of stone. And finally, there was Australia, a community, a culture, a nation, with a reputation to keep and relations to nurture.

The presence of all those individuals would make it difficult for any prime minister to go to Manus Island. When he knew that the misery and deadening of spirit suffered by so many people was intended by government policy, how could he return to Australia fixed on continuing the policy without wondering whether his heart was indeed turned to stone?

It is one thing to sit at a desk on this side of the sea and to make policies that will impact on individuals across the sea whom you do not know. It is another thing to cross the sea, to look into the eyes of people abandoned there, to meet the children and see the pictures they have drawn, and to see in their eyes terror, despair, depression and contempt as you tell them that for reasons of state you have washed your hands of them.

For a prime minister to go to Manus Island would require him to throw off the shroud and stare affrighted at the maggots in the flesh of the body politic. It would require him then to return and defend a policy on which his electoral success rests.

In fact those striving to be prime minister are also among the particular individuals impacted by the harshness of this policy. They are constrained by the necessities of politics to ignore the contradiction between enforcing the brutal human consequences of their policy and simultaneously denying that they have hearts of stone.

Like the others harshly impacted by this policy, would-be prime ministers call on our sympathy, if we are generous. We should hope that they, together with those imprisoned in despair on Manus Island and Nauru, those keeping them there, and those who support the policy will be delivered from their necessities. It is time for the shroud to be removed and washed, and for the policy to be buried.

And while we are at it, spare a thought for Stevenson, a man decorated for his work after the Bali bombing, that he found less traumatic than Manus Island. A day after his interview was published he was dismissed from his work. He, too, is one of the individuals impacted by the harshness of our policy.

 


Samuel Dariol Samuel Dariol is a social and environmental activist and coordinator of the Catholic Alliance for People Seeking Asylum.

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Existing comments

I AM so sick of the lie that the so-called leaders are constrained to keep these atrocities in place - leaders lead, they don't listen to the loudest racist voices.
Marilyn | 22 June 2016


From the CAPSA website, Principle 7 (of 10): "People who seek asylum should live in the Australian community. Respect for their humanity demands that they have the right to work, access to basic services, and to some financial support if they cannot find work. The financial burden of their support should be accepted by the Government and not be shifted to the community sector." The intentions, undeniably, are good but when, as should be the practice, the policy is number-crunched to work out the resources needed to deliver its good intentions, how many asylum seekers would CAPSA expect Australia to be receiving each year?
Roy Chen Yee | 22 June 2016


Malcolm lost my vote when he said Dutton was an outstanding Minister. He is not by any measure. He is a failed human being and has failed in all he has done and continues to do. Malcolm was going to make a difference but has not. He deserves to loosen the election. I would send the two of them to Manus for a month or two.
Bill | 23 June 2016


Well said!
Patrick Jurd | 23 June 2016


Well done, Sam! Similar situations exist with politicians in both major Parties - they do not want to meet these people personally - even those in Australia waiting for determination, unable to work, lonely, frightened by the prospect of refoulement, desperately reliant on charity but wanting to work and make a contribution to Australia.
Shane Wood cfc | 23 June 2016


I don't hink I will ever be free of that image: "For a prime minister to go to Manus Island would require him to throw off the shroud and stare affrighted at the maggots in the flesh of the body politic."
James | 23 June 2016


Samuel, "The misery and deadening of spirit " affects us all. If only the hard hearted who implement harsh laws , practices and willful blindness to abandoned fellow human beings knew how much it affects the psyche of all of us, how it shapes our country's culture. If they realized this maybe they would quickly act with compassion and free innocent people even if it was selfishly just for Australian citizens sake.. ....On the tram recently there was a middle aged man visibly affected by alcohol or drugs. As he lurched and swayed , young girls were frightened and moved away, some people looked derisively at him, one fellow asked if he was ok and some cringed in their seats and looked away. All the occupants of the tram were affected in different ways. It left everyone thinking their own thoughts, when the "lost sheep " just got off at the next stop, out into the rain and cold.How much more so are the people of Australia affected when they hear of the publicised shameful treatment of people seeking asylum and those vilified for helping and alerting others to their plight. Real leadership leads people to compassion by compassionate actions , words and even tears. Aussies are at heart "good people". The spirit of mate ship still evidenced in country towns ,small communities is alive. It simply needs harnessing and channeling by the right leaders.
Celia | 23 June 2016


Well said - "maggots in the flesh of the body politic". Paul Stevenson's words and the way in which he has been treated should make us pause.
Laxmi | 23 June 2016


I am in awe of Paul Stevenson's courage, integrity, moral strength and compassion. Let's see if we have a single politician who can match him.
Jena Woodhouse | 23 June 2016


Well said Samuel! You have nailed the issue front & centre. I for one, will never vote for either of the apologists for this cruel, inhuman regime all in the name of 'stopping a business model'. It is just one of the spin-doctored positions put out by both of the two larger political parties and their minions. Where are the voices calling out for humanity, justice, common good, innocent until proven guilty, violation of trust in elected officials? We who allow this obscenity today that is 'harsh' or 'necessary' will regret the day when it is applied to ourselves in other circumstances equally doctored to allegedly fit the crime. Alternatively, has it ever entered the minds of these perpetrators that they may be called to account one day for crimes against humanity?
Brian Larsson | 23 June 2016


I'm haunted by the image of two innocent human beings self-immolating in desperation on Nauru, and one poor asylum seeker being brain dead from untreated septus by the time he arrived in Australia from Nauru. Contrast this with images of Turnbull, Dutton, Shorten, Marles and their cohorts enjoying the perks of political office in Australia. I never thought we would have our own Guantanamo Bay, but now we have worse. At least David Hicks survived Guantanamo Bay and was brought back to Australia. How could anyone with any sense of humanity and integrity put either the Coalition or Labor first on their ballot paper this election?
Grant Allen | 24 June 2016


It would appear that our foreign policy is HIGHLY dysfunctional. We now allow the military to refuse to answer Govt. senate committees on questions of whether international law has been violated with tow backs at sea and alledged payments to crews of boats holding refugees which violates our signed international agreements that we wont send refugees back to where they've fled from. Imagine if the churches, who spend so much time and effort mounting a hate campaign against marriage equality could harness this same energy for the plight of refugees? This is an area the churches could really make a difference and win public opinion to do the right thing rather than allowing unscrupulous pollies to play wedge politics with the Australian electorate.
jackalision | 27 June 2016


Jackalision , Your wish will never come true .There are too many Abbott clones within the Coalition & too many Pell clones within our Church . Regards John
john kersh | 28 June 2016


It should be compulsory for both the prime minister. And the leader of the opposition and Pauline Hanson to go to Manus Island to see for themselves the hell hole created by them
Irena | 27 July 2016


Perhaps it should also be compulsory for the executives and parliamentarians of the countries from whom the Manus Island detainees hail to come and see what they are putting their own people through.
Roy Chen Yee | 28 July 2016


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