Government's mixed report card on taking responsibility


Shame Abbott Shame Sign

Young men do not always act responsibly.  If they make young women pregnant, some will certainly take responsibility for what they have done and try to be responsible to their partner and child.

But others simply cut and run, denying responsibility and blaming their partner. Others try to control the situation by telling their partner what to do. The more respectable sometimes act hypocritically, appealing to the greater good they will do as lawyers or doctors by simply moving on. 

Governments do not always act responsibly, either.  The behaviour of Australian Governments to the descendants of the Indigenous Australians whom they have conquered and dispossessed, for example, has run through the all the colours of neglect, blame, driving them out of their homes yet again, trying to scrub them white, and sending in the cavalry to sort them out, all for the greater good of Australia.  

Last week two reports exposed the limits of Australian responsibility to people who have suffered as a result of historical or present Government actions.  The Closing the Gap Report showed some improvements in education, but a failure to meet the targets set in life expectancy, early childhood access, reading and numeracy and employment.  

Mr Abbott’s response to the Report was exemplary in taking responsibility. He described the findings of the Report as deeply disappointing and committing the Government to continue to close the gap. But his own response was overshadowed by the walk-out by eleven members of the Coalition. They protested at Mr Shorten criticising funding cuts to Indigenous programs.  Laying blame when talking about the aggrieved turns to money is always a sign of responsibility evaded.  

This promises ill for the prospect that future policy concerning Indigenous Australians will begin by engaging with them as persons and not as a problem to be controlled.  It is to be feared that people will be sent in to prescribe remedies for them, to blame and fine them for not taking their medicine, and so to ensure resistance that will be reflected in future reports. Not an exercise of responsibility but of control.

The second report was the Human Rights Commission Report into children in detention. It found that 218 children were still in detention. Its also showed that detention damages mental health, leads to many incidents of self-harm, to great strain on family relationships and leaves children vulnerable to sexual and physical abuse. 

It is heartbreaking to imagine the faces of the children caught in this hell as a result of Australian government decisions initiated, approved and refined by both major parties. It is hard not to be overwhelmed by tears of pity and shame.  But the Government proved to be made of sterner material. Its response was an instruction manual for any careless young man on how to deal with an unwanted pregnancy.  The Prime Minister denied responsibility, blamed the Human Rights Commission for cooking the facts (which seemed like blaming your partner’s parents for exaggerating the pregnancy), blamed the children for coming to Australia by boat, refused to take them out of detention, and bathed in the virtue conferred by its pursuit of the higher goal of stopping the boats. The Labor Party representative allowed himself also to be cooled in this sprinkling of virtue. 

In the Brothers Karamazov Dostoevsky famously had Ivan Karamazov describe harrowingly the suffering of a single child and setting it against the claim that a just God is ruling the universe. He found God wanting and so felt obliged to hand in his ticket.  Ivan would have been seriously challenged to reconcile  the suffering and humiliation of so many children with the claim that decent Governments have been ruling Australia.

We can sometimes forget that there are decent young men who acknowledge their responsibility to the women whom they make pregnant and to their children. They do not deflect responsibility by blame, do not try to control others’ lives, do not try to justify the damage they have done by appealing to some greater good. They sit down and listen to those they have affected tell them how best they can set things right. 

There are also decent governments. And they act in this way, too. Decent citizens would expect nothing less of them.  

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.


Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Closing the Gap, Human Rights Commission, Tony Abbott



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Existing comments

Impressed by Noel Pearson's words at Gough Whitlam's funeral, I am now reading his Quarterly Essay "A Rightful Place". The government needs to keep listening and working hard to bring justice and healing for indigenous Australians. For children in detention, the evasion of responsibility is nothing less than a tragedy. The most vulnerable in any situation, children deserve to be placed ahead of politics and point-scoring. It is shameful that a Prime Minister would shift blame so blatantly - be the change Mr. Abbott!
Pam | 14 February 2015

Thanks Andrew for this fine article. The prime minister’s reaction to the report on children in detention was bitterly disappointing. One despairs that this country is capable of any humane response to the question of asylum seekers and their children.
Paul | 14 February 2015

I have never been so ashamed to be an Australian as I am currently, with both sides of Federal parliament treating asylum seekers so cruelly, and with no empathy at all for these desperate people, even the children. Please email your elected representatives and demand an end to off-shore processing, where desperate human beings are put out of sight and out of mind. Please also demand a much more determined Government focus on helping our indigenous brothers and sisters.
Grant Allen | 14 February 2015

Readers who wish to get a better understanding of the appalling situation Australia has put itself into with asylum seekers might care to read an opinion piece by professor of paediatrics and child health at the University of Sydney, Elizabeth Elliot. She accompanied the Human Rights Commission on its visit to the Christmas Island detention centre in July last year, and the ABC’s on line opinion page, The Drum, has published her report on what she saw there. After reading her piece, look at some of the comments posted by members of the public and you will understand that any government that attempted to deal humanely with asylum seekers (and assuming that any government might be so inclined is a huge assumption) would be committing political suicide. The callous contempt displayed by some Australians when asked to reflect on the cruelty heaped on these refugees, especially on their children, is beyond description. The liability for this lies, in large part, with every government and every immigration minister since the Hawke/Keating era and ex-minister Gerry Hand. Every government and immigration minister since has tried to out-do his or her predecessors in slandering, mal-treating and banishing asylum seekers to the point that now the Australian electorate would never countenance a change to mandatory detention or to off-shore processing. So much for representative democracy!
Paul | 15 February 2015

Last week I met with 2 Aboriginal families with nothing to live for - the right to dignity and the right to a decent life does not apply to them as they are not white. I think of known educated Indians suffering the same plight, effect and consequences as they too are not white. The very people that put them in this position is the very people from which they must seek help. Nelson Mandela (South African Anti Apartheid leader who spent over 20 years in jail standing up for African rights) stated in his Rivonia trial 'The whites enjoy what may well be the highest standard of living in the world while Africans live in poverty and misery. Our complaint is not that the whites are rich and the Africans poor, but that the laws made by whites are designed to preserve this situation.' The closing the gap report is another report written by white people for white people. Where are the white Christians in Australia? How the concept of Christianity in Australia has been warped to cloak the abhorrence of racism in it. If you are honest and want to close the gap not only with Aboriginals but other dark skinned nations suffering in Australia due to known and deceitful systems, give us our Bill of Human Rights. As minorities, we have no protection and no way out in the Law. We are tired of relying on the whims and vagaries of white people to our conscious detriment but to the benefit and self preservation of white Australia. When are white Australians going to genuinely sacrifice for the greater good of all Australians in Australia?
Jackie | 16 February 2015

Very good Andrew. Thank you.
Michael Duck | 16 February 2015

I too am appalled by the prime minister's comments on the Human Rights commissioner's report on the medical condition of children in detention. For him to state in Parliament that the Commissioner's report was a 'Stitch up" is just another Pontius Pilate stunt by him. But he and Mr Morrison still trumpet that they have stopped the boats. Yes, but at what cost. It is these comments that makes me ashamed to be an Australian, especially while I'm being governed by these people who govern without compassion for humanity seeking refuge from death and the destruction of their homelands. Thanks Andrew please keep writing about these inhumane acts.
Paul Rummery | 16 February 2015

Paul is right. The Australian people as a whole are right behind the Prime Minister and his off-shore processing policy. I have to believe this is due to ignorance and blatant disinformation, but in any case pressure on the political parties is only the beginning. It's about Australian hearts and minds, and now's the time for Christians to demonstrate what it is to be leaven in the dough.
Joan Seymour | 16 February 2015

The Abbott government is certainly not decent, or acting with any integrity, in dealing with abuses of refugees & their children in detention. As Jesus said "Suffer the little children to come unto me"
John Cronin, Toowoomba Q | 16 February 2015

Joan, you are so right. It is about Australian hearts and minds. The education that we receive in schools, the messages and attitudes implied and promoted by the media, the quality of debate that is engendered and encouraged in daily life does little to provoke in imaginative ways the search for a deeper reality to the meaning of life , the mystery of creation. In hospital recently, The nurse who was attending me made comment on the death sentence possibly coming down on our two Australian young men who were convicted as drug carriers. Serves them right she said. The drugs they allowed onto the market killed others. Their turn to pay the price. I misguidedly had thought a person in a caring profession would have had a more compassionate or open view. We get the politicians we deserve. Our current bunch does not say much about what we Australians stand for. Too much of Abbott though and we'll all soon be cheering on team australia and wearing the blue tie and not even bat an eyelid to exploitation of the poor ,indigenous and asylum seekers. Words become actions sooner or later. Let us not speak in false tongues and continue to speak up , write letters and stimulate debate. Thanks as usual to Andrew for his guidance and support.
Celia | 16 February 2015

Thanks, Andrew. I'd also like to remind fellow readers of a relevant truth that Gillian Triggs certainly understands, but that Labor fence sitters like Richard Marles do not, or conveniently pretend not to: that the continuing detention of children and families in no way adds to the effective deterrent that currently exists in the policies and processes of Operation Sovereign Borders, later this year to metastasise into the permanent maritime arm of the new Border Protection Force. As long as Australia can afford to patrol the whole maritime region between our shores and Indonesia, to intercept boats fon the high seas( illegally, but that does not stop OSB) , and to use throwaway lifeboats (also illegally) where needed to push people back safely to Indonesian shores without invading Indonesian maritime space, no lives will be lost on Australia's watch at sea, and the cruelty of our detention gulags is thus wholly redundant. it enrages me that Labor continues to give cynical ideological backup to the Coalition's blind, otiose cruelty.
Tony Kevin | 16 February 2015

“...the Australian electorate would never countenance a change to mandatory detention or to off-shore processing”. Sadly, Paul is right. Our fear, greed and selfishness have seduced us into seeing refugees as evil. They are persistently represented as illegals, economic refugees, threats to our economic future; they use children as pawns in their own self-seeking ambitions; they are queue jumpers who disadvantage those following correct procedures – and, the media tell us, they must be contained. Joan Seymour, seeing the reaction or perhaps the inaction of her fellow Christians throws down the gauntlet: “'s the time for Christians to demonstrate what it is to be leaven in the dough”. Let us hear her, along with Paul’s political realism, knowing that until we can change the mind of the voters we will have no effect on the decisions of the politicians. In response to Joan’s plea, and recognising Fr. Hamilton’s claim that both major parties are at fault, let us turn around the negativity and the bitterness against these helpless people escaping persecution, by harnessing the efforts of the Christian churches. If all who read E.S. were to ask their clergy for a stronger message to be presented in homilies this might help. We are the leaven, but to be effective we must act now before the yeast too loses it flavour.
Dennis Sleigh | 16 February 2015

At the risk of being told "Pigs might fly", the way out of the dilemma is to return to principled bipartisan behaviour and do the right thing. Then we would be in a position to bring neighbouring countries on-board and work out how to handle asylum seekers on a regional level.
Peter Horan | 16 February 2015

The AHRC report has given the asylum seeker lobby yet another opportunity to work itself into one of its customary self-righteous lathers over children in detention. The fact that this report only appeared when 200 children were in detention, not 2000 when Labor was in power is conspicuously ignored by the ASL. The commission’s report is blatantly partisan and clearly designed to embarrass the Abbott government. The report also raises more questions than it answers. It claims that there were 233 assaults involving children and 33 sexual assaults mostly involving children. How many of these assaults were committed by detainees on these children? While security personnel may have been responsible for some it’s clear most would have been by detainees. Do we really want to let such people into Australia? And who brought the detained children to Australia? Their parents! One would have thought that instead of taking their children on a dangerous sea voyage where one per cent usually drown they would have left them with family and relatives back home till asylum was gained in Australia. Unless of course the parents thought they would increase their chances if they took the kids as well. There are questions too about how many of these children were coached and had their testimonies “tailored” by asylum-seeker operatives to support the AHRC line. And all the while the ASL works to demonise the Government on the children in detention issue it completely ignores the millions of genuine refugees in Middle Eastern camps who live in far worse conditions than those on Manus Island. .
Dennis | 17 February 2015

You don't have children, do you Dennis?
AO | 17 February 2015

AO: Parents who loved their children would not send them unaccompanied on a dangerous sea voyage to Australia, knowing that on arrival they would be left to fend for themselves with adult, usually male strangers. Using one’s children this way to get one’s family into Australia is cynical and manipulative and shows a callous disregard for one’s child. Nearly as bad is taking your children with you on such a dangerous and stressful journey knowing they too will spend many months, perhaps more than a year in a detention centre. Leaving them with grandparents or relatives would be far better till one had gained asylum in Australia when one could send for them. But of course not taking one’s children greatly reduces one’s chances of gaining asylum in Australia. .
Deniis | 19 February 2015

Dennis: What about Moses' mother? Did she not love her own child? Desperate times call for desperate measures.
AO | 19 February 2015

Under labor there was over 2000 children in detention yet no interest by this so called "human rights" commission. The current policies are continuing to reduce this problem - already down to just over 200. This recent report was 100% political. There should be cheering not jeering that the problem is being fixed.
Michael | 20 February 2015

I would have thought Triggs' report on children in detention reflected more favourable on LIberal policy than Labor - the comparison between the two govt policies/outcomes clearly shows that the LIberals have drastically reduced the number of children in detention (although for longer time) - so why is it biased?
AURELIUS | 07 March 2015


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