Bill Morris and Simon Overland in exile


Although politicians constantly urge us to move forward, a much harder challenge is to move on.

During this May and June there has been much to move on from. Among some of the events that have caused dismay are the Malaysian solution to asylum seekers, the forced resignation of Bishop Bill Morris, the moves towards severe and inflexible sentencing in New South Wales and Victoria, and most recently, the resignation of Simon Overland, the Victorian Police Commissioner after he lost the confidence of his police minister.

Whatever his failings, Overland was a patently good man. His resignation followed a disedifying and concerted campaign against him by media groups, the police union, some of his colleagues and many politicians. It is hard to see any good coming out of this affair. We may expect something like the New South Wales police department as portrayed in Jon Cleary's Scobie Malone novels.

One of the difficulties we may have with moving on is that it's always the victors who counsel us to do so. They suggest we should accept what has happened, and go into the future not only with respect for the humanity of those who have engineered these events, but with admiration for their wisdom, courage, motivation and methods. We should leave behind any solidarity with the people who have been injured in these affairs.

In moving on, we are to accept our helplessness, fold up our tents, deal clinically with our feelings of guilt, and cut our connections with the asylum seekers we have sold into exile, with Bill Morris and with Simon Overland.

For many that kind of moving on will seem too come at to high a cost. But what are the alternatives? 

One response, popular after the Whitlam sacking, was to 'maintain the rage'. But as time goes on, anger seems faintly ridiculous. It also tends to corrupt those who nurture it and does little for public life.

A more constructive response is to weave abominable and piteous deeds into art. The Bible, which has fed so much of Western literature, is full of stories of good people undone and humiliated by scheming arrogance. The Book of Psalms particularly contains expressive prayers of complaint at the triumph of the unjust. Dante's Inferno, and the novels of Solzhenitzyn fix the protagonists of their era for all time in heaven or hell. The literature of the Holocaust remembers the reality of things done which were suppressed by their perpetrators.

But to move on in good order demands personal resources and the support found in lively conversation. When much has been lost, apparently definitively, the most pressing task is to focus on what matters. This is difficult in the wreckage of a decency previously taken for granted and the feelings occasioned by the wreck.

What always matters most is the welfare and the spirit of those who are affected by unseemly events. Their claim on us continues. To move on by cutting our connections with these people, to treat them as a problem to be solved, and to accept that in polite company their names should disappear into silence, would be to move on from our decent selves.

After Tampa the exemplary figures were the country women who took buses to Baxter and Woomera to visit asylum seekers and to keep their hopes, their names and their claims alive. They moved on to some purpose.

What also matters is to maintain the ethical principles at issue in the unjust treatment of good people. In dealing with a new settlement that follows improper actions, it is necessary to recognise reality and to negotiate for the least bad treatment of people affected. But those kind of dealings can easily distort one's moral compass. So it is important to be clear about what is required in a society based on respect for human dignity.

We may not move on from that. The claims of asylum seekers to be treated as human beings and not as items for export may not be moved on from. Nor can the need in church governance for respect based on transparency and due process. Nor can the need for a non-politicised police force whose members are accountable for their actions. These are the things that matter. They continue to be worth fighting for.

To focus on what matters and to continue to press for it is a lonely path. It is easier to move back into silence or to move away from engagement in church or public life. Constancy needs to be supported and directed by good conversation. Winners always try to control the story and drown out conversation by censorship or ridicule. So to move on decently demands nurturing convivial conversation among like-minded friends. Ultimately moving on takes place in the imagination. The task is to keep the imagination fresh and decent.

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, SImon Overland, Malaysian solution, asylum seekers, victoria police, bill morris



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Existing comments

Another issue we have often been counselled to "move on" from is our treatment, both past and present, of indigenous Australians. In our desire to move on while yet trying to maintain some integrity, we often look for a simple solution so that we can feel that we have "ticked the box" and dealt with it. To stay in the mess, with hope, requires great courage and energy.

Mary | 20 June 2011  

Beautifully put: thanks for your on-going contribution to just this conversation, Andrew.

Anne | 20 June 2011  


Karen | 20 June 2011  

Thank you. Encouragement like this is needed to stay on the 'lonely path'. for that is what it seems to be.

Jenny | 20 June 2011  

Another fine piece, Andrew, giving impetus to the 'what can I do?' question. One thing is for teachers of Shakespeare in our schools to point out, in season and out of season, that identifying and anatomising villains great and small and relating their behaviour to a sustaining set of values is exactly what he did in his plays all the time.

On another point, could someone south of the border please let us poor northerners in on just why Overland sacked his deputy so ruthlessly? Was he part of the conspiracy that Overland had to defeat?

Joe Castley | 20 June 2011  

I am with Karen here. I cannot resist. Andrew Hamilton has blotted his usual impeccable English and fine arguments. Fifty years ago Sister Mary always used the term unedifying and I have relished using the term from then on.

Anne Schmid | 20 June 2011  

Moving back into silence and away from engagement - these are the responses of powerless people, not people who do not care. Where do we find leadership so that we do not act only as solitary thinkers? It is not coming from politicians. from political parties, from the media

Lorna Hannan | 20 June 2011  

Andrew Hamilton is right. History is written by the winners. Here are some (possibly controversial) examples.

1. The denigration of Governor Bligh who opposed the criminal activities of the powerful in early Sydney.
2. The unnecessary second atomic bomb that killed over 60,000 people in Nagasaki
3. The painting of H.V.Evatt as a 'Red' because of his opposition to declaring the Communist Party illegal.
4. The continued veneration of Santamaria despite his (now undeniable) falsification of his basic political ambition.

Bob Corcoran | 20 June 2011  

Andy’s remarks about imagination and the psalms reminds me of the observation by Helen Garner in her piece entitled “On Being Bad at Reading the Bible”: “I told Tim Winton that the Holy Spirit was the only aspect of God that had any reality in my personal experience. He wrote to me: ‘How it works for me (which is all I can honestly go by) is that the stories work on me. That they seem true as stories, and that I believe them. Not just because I accept that their authors are reliable and their witnesses numerous and their repercussions beyond anything I know of in changes of human history..., but because they convince me emotionally, instinctively. As stories, as lives. ... They ring true to me... Probably a matter of imagination, for what else is belief mostly built on.’”

Frank Brennan SJ | 20 June 2011  

Another excellent essay. The OED lists disedify: "To do the reverse of edifying"

Russell | 20 June 2011  

As many Eureka Street readers might remember, "disedifying" was a much used word in devotional literature of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

In my schooling the dominies used to say that "unedifying" is derived from the adjective "edifying" and simply negates it. But the adjective "disedifying" is derived from the verb to"disedify". So it has active and causative connotations. It is a stronger word. They used to draw the same distinction between unpleasing and displeasing.

Perhaps the writer of the article, whose name suggests Scottish origins, may have imbibed the same pedantry at school. Certainly, when he used the word he was describing the bad doings of mickleheads, and so, knowing or unknowing, would have reached for the stronger form of the adjective.

Dan McGonigal | 20 June 2011  

The forced resignation of Bishop William Morris did not cause any dismay. The only problem it took so long to bring sanity back to Toowoomba. It should have been done years ago.

Ron Cini | 20 June 2011  

Excellent article and beautifully considered. I found your observation that 'one of the difficulties we may have with moving on is that it's always the victors who counsel us to do so' particularly resonant. I loved your suggestions of what can be done and encouragement to do so. Thank you.

Moira Byrne Garton | 20 June 2011  

Thank you,Andrew, for once more giving us something worthwhile to chew on and to lift our hearts in hope.

Anne Forbes | 20 June 2011  

In silence we engage with the true God and reflect to others around us a presence of His existence. To possess and to be aware of the true dignity and freedom that comes with our creation which we enjoy in our relas=tionships with others is not a sitting back on our hands doing nothing but a demonstration of these attributes which we all have. Such silence challenges us to accord to all people of whatever class and failings this same dignity and freedom. In the image of God He made us souls of great dignity and beauty and He calls us to live it.

Charles | 20 June 2011  

The "forced" resignation of Simon Overland
does not sit easily to many people in victoria.
This is a man of integrity who has been victimized
by the current government and the Police Association.

HELEN GIBSON | 20 June 2011  

Well, now that I have learnt about "disedifying" I can apply it Ron Cini's statement. Either he has never been to Toowoomba, or he is one of the half-dozen people there for whom Bishop Morris' forced resignation was not dismaying. Not only that, but by implication, he is perpetuating the Roman myth that Bishop Morris actually did anything against church teaching.

Frank S | 20 June 2011  

Bp Morris got what was coming, and it took a long time coming and he grazed off that patience of the Holy See.

If prelates don't like the teachings of the Church they can go elsewhere.

But please don't confect some argument about an unheard prophet.

As a Catholic layman I have had an absolute gutful of trendy prelates and clergy and paid Catholic apparatchiks hijacking my Church and denying me and my family authentic teaching and praxis.

Peter, Canberra, Australia | 20 June 2011  

Refreshingly candid, humane and sane.

RFI Smith | 21 June 2011  

Dear Andrew,
Thank you for that comment. I had been perhaps too harsh in my thoughts about Simon Overland since the sacking of Ken Jones. You have given me a more merciful perspective.

Jean SIetzema-Dickson | 22 June 2011  

Thanks Andy. This is a very sane and reflective piece. I am glad you put all these 'get over it' events together in the way you did and in particular drew parallels between the hand dealt to both Bill Morris and Simon Overland. Sometimes one can feel so small in witnessing the unjust fate of others just an arms length away. And in this smallness we look every which way for a broader significance.

Christopher Dureau | 24 June 2011  

"The Wire" is compulsory viewing for those who are interested in the machinations of politics and the state's police force.

Alex Njoo | 25 June 2011  

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