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Dreyfus redivivus

  • 04 March 2021
  Any government decision can cause hurt to some groups in society. There is a difference, however, between decisions that are only painful and those that are vindictive. The former may be regretted but forced by circumstances, and inflicted out of a concern, well or badly founded, for the common good. Vindictiveness implies a satisfaction in causing pain that does not arise out of need. The reason for it must be sought in the minds and hearts and culture of those who devise the policies.

Two recent Federal Government actions evoke this reflection. The first had to do with the treatment of ill refugees brought back to Australia for medical treatment under legislation opposed by the Government. They were confined mostly in hotels where they could see and be tormented by the sight of people living free lives and going about their ordinary business. Some remain in confinement.

Many were released into the community and left unsupported to fend for themselves. The Minister justified the release on the grounds that it they would cost the government less. The remark was consistent with the contempt for people seeking protection which has characterised the treatment of those on Manus Island and Nauru.

The second decision was to raise Jobseeker by under four dollars a day, a sum that will do nothing to ease the pressures that finding housing imposes on people. The raise, which will replace a substantially greater payment in response to the coronavirus, was the result of pressure from economists, employers and bankers. It has been widely criticised for its meanness. The Government will also reimpose more stringent obligations to seek work and introduce a line to dob in people who refuse jobs. It is hard not to see in these decisions, too, a long-standing disrespect for people who cannot find employment.

When reflecting on the vindictiveness that appears to underly these actions, I found some illumination in the treatment of Alfred Dreyfus by French authorities at the end of the nineteenth century. The loss of Alsace and Lorraine to Germany in 1874 was followed by a strong nationalist reaction in France, particularly in the army. Rumours spread of spies who were disclosing French military secrets to Germany.

On the basis of insubstantial and later falsified evidence, the army charged Dreyfus, already suspect as a Jewish military officer from Alsace. He was tried in a closed military court on a charge supported by the most tenuous