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Tapping the wells of compassion that exist in the nation

  • 19 October 2016


In the last week two significant statements about people detained on Manus Island and on Nauru have appeared.

The Australian Catholic bishops issued a statement deploring Australian treatment of these vulnerable people, declaring that enough is enough, and endorsing the campaign to bring them here. It pledged the cooperation of Catholic health, welfare and educational agencies to care for them pending their final settlement.

Later Island of Despair, the Amnesty report on conditions on Nauru, was published. It joined a series of other independent reports on conditions on Nauru and Manus Island. It gave instances of the failure of a duty of care to the people detained there, the deterioration of their mental and physical health and the brutal culture that enfolded them. The Amnesty report claimed that the Australian government was responsible for 'a system deliberately set up to cause harm to people'.

The response of the government has been to deny the findings, to attribute them to unsubstantiated claims by people who are detained and by organisations advocating for them, and to insist that all is well. It has not responded to the statement or to the offer made by the bishops. Likewise, the Opposition has remained all but silent, as yet another wave of horrific revelations have been uncovered.

This ritual dance of visits and reports by independent humanitarian groups, blanket denial by government spokespersons and subsequent attempts to silence criticism and more critical reports has gone on for years. It has corroded trust in government and in agencies involved in Nauru and Manus Island. It poses the question, Should we believe the government, whose assertions that all is well are constantly undercut by new reports of abuse, despair and harm, or give credence to independent overseas visitors who have seen and talked to people in Nauru and Manus Island?

Few would believe the government and its spokespersons, from the Prime Minister down. Even many of those in favour of the government's policy would regard its ritual disavowals as pure spin.

In a democracy, it is unhealthy for the government to be routinely mistrusted and disbelieved. In any society it is unhealthy for women, children and men in its care to be imprisoned indefinitely without trial, and to live in conditions where mental and physical illness breed and where compassion has no play. For the self-respect of any nation it is unhealthy to have credible accusations of the use of torture as an instrument of