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Nauru Files reinforce the need for political grace



The Guardian has released incident reports that lay bare the details of life on Nauru for people detained under our immigration regime. It is an 8000-page indictment of the ethical and moral character of this country.

The Guardian Nauru Files front pageWe've been here before. None of this is unfamiliar. What would it take to break the impasse? We already know that the torment of children does not move the political class, nor do the particular indignities meted out to women. Men have died under circumstances that flow from decisions nominally made on our behalf.

If prior whistleblower interventions and institutional inquiries failed to dismantle these systems of deterrence, what difference would the latest leaks make? There is no political capital to be made in releasing those detained, and even those found to be refugees have been barred from settlement in New Zealand. The status quo keeps the Coalition and Labor safe at the ballot.

Abstractions over border protection will therefore continue to prevail over hundreds of bodies warehoused out of sight. Elected officials govern and traffic in abstractions.

It is not necessarily a wicked thing. In the theory, the most good for the most number of people is created from a distance. Education and health systems, for instance, aren't constructed around the experience of a particular child from a particular family in a particular suburb.

There is a case for allowing such perspectives, but the default policy lens is macro because that is the only way a decision can be made at all.

Yet this is also how every prime minister from John Howard onward lost sight of the human dimensions of our immigration detention regime. Those we have rendered stateless are not even people. They are, first and ever, abstractions.

As the years have shown, it is impossible to tear that shield from politicians. Our mistake always is to assume that asserting the humanity of human beings is persuasive. But this is not a mutually understood term of reference.


"It makes no difference to people in despair whether politicians are sad about keeping them in desperate conditions."


So what would it take? We are at the point where seaborne asylum seekers would have to count on senior members of Cabinet and Shadow Cabinet having an epiphany — a moment of grace that would stun them toward the only appropriate response to abject despair and suffering: compassion.

That is really what it would take. Facts, legal challenges, international censure, grassroots campaigns, and numerous appeals in various forms have not budged our leaders. The fact that it comes down to a political sacrifice is not so much a reflection of the toxicity of the issue but the banal arbitrariness with which we have held lives hostage.

It is how we know ourselves to be wicked, when the only thing left to commend this group of people to our better nature — bare humanity — has far less substance than imagined fears and vaulting ambition.

To genuinely accept that we are damaging human beings is to be compelled to do something about that damage. A politician who accepts that that damage is real and then does nothing more than wring their hands and sigh can hardly be taken as sincere. It makes no difference to people in despair whether politicians are sad about keeping them in desperate conditions.

Lawyers, advocates and friends of asylum seekers have worked hard for more than a decade now, providing every kind of assistance, building alliances and putting their minds toward workable and humane immigration policy. Our political leaders must now take their turn. All of them need to get to work.


Fatima MeashamFatima Measham is a Eureka Street consulting editor. She tweets @foomeister .

Topic tags: Fatima Measham, Nauru, asylum seekers



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Existing comments

I can't believe that our politicians are really so inhuman. The Guardian has reported that the PM now going to "carefully examine" these report to see if there were any incidents not properly addressed. It also reports Scott Morrison as saying that they are all just allegations and not facts. Is it possible that they seriously believe what they are saying, or are they just hoping that we are all stupid enough to believe them?

Brian Finlayson | 11 August 2016  

Last night I saw "Chasing Asylum." It also demonstrated the lack of any moral and ethical dimension to our Governments treatment of refugees. It lay bare the pitiful argument that people's live are being saved and the boats have been stopped. This has been achieved by either traumatising them in detention(especially the children), or sending them back to die in the circumstances they have escaped from. When political motivations ride roughshod over moral and ethical treatment of fellow human beings, how can Australia be considered a decent society.

Joseph Cauchi | 11 August 2016  

Yet the treatment of children at Don Dale Detention Centre moved the Prime Minister within 48 hrs of the Four Corners report to call for a Royal Commission into the treatment of children in detention. If he considers the government has a duty of care for those children, why not for the ones they have condemned to a life without hope on Nauru?

Ingerid Meagher | 11 August 2016  

Could someone please recommend an ethical and moral country, to which I could safely emigrate and abandon this dreadful pile!.

john frawley | 11 August 2016  

This is an excellent analysis of the problem faced by all who campaign for a humane system for managing short term detention for status assessment followed by rapid settling of refugees who arrive by boat. Responses from the Prime Minister and the ex-Immigration Minister to the Guardian article indicate that nothing new will come from the publication of this litany of abuse and neglect. That any "senior members of Cabinet and Shadow Cabinet [have] an epiphany" which would change their stance is about as likely as the present world-wide refugee crisis being resolved by the end of this year. Meanwhile what can we do apart from continue with our relatively small - but hopefully still significant - activities to ameliorate the lives of those held in sordid detention, and facilitate the settlement of the few who have survived detention and negotiated the maze?

Ian Fraser | 11 August 2016  

Timing of the report was wrong. I feel sure we would have been able to unseat Peter Dutton if this publication had come out before the election. It is one thing to "know" rape has occurred and another to have it clearly documented. Sadly it was only the Greens who were tuned into the problem - I just hope Bill Shorten will read listen and reverse Rudd's vote seeking change made in haste.

Delma DOHERTY | 11 August 2016  

"What does it take?" you ask. It takes a member of the Federal Government or of the Opposition to break ranks with their party policy and name it for what it is and does. It is immoral. It brings all Australians into disrepute for seeming to back it. The member must then offer an alternative method to " stop the boats" since that will be the type of retort that they receive. As I have suggested in previous responses on Eureka Street such methods do exist. They are not only moral and respect the rights of asylum seekers according to international law, but also are cheaper than the current inhumane and shameful policy.

Ern Azzopardi | 11 August 2016  

We all know so much now about the appalling conditions on this island - even medical people are threatened if they report about what they see - so one can only wonder after hearing Mr Dutton's response - what is wrong with him ? One can only feel shame about our refusal to act in a humanitarian way. The excuses about more children being drowned has become a cruel mantra, or that any help shown by Australia will bring out hordes of illegal helpers. Could we hear an honest apprarisal from our government for a change. Why are we allowing ourselves to be seen as cruel and uncaring?

Mary Maraz | 12 August 2016  

As always, your articles are well worth reading. You say truly that our politicians don't really believe that they are damaging children - if they did they would feel compelled to stop it IMMEDIATELY! It is logical therefore that they must completely lack any compassion. However, as elected politicians must also be human beings, their 50.13% voters will never believe any of this. Those of us who do agree that such leaders have allowed their "imagined fears and vaulting ambition" to rid them of a decent conscience feel powerless after years of demanding justice. The deliberate lies of Morrison and Dutton are dangerous for all Nauru victims. Let's forget the innuendo and polite negative criticism. Let us take to the streets as we did when we marched against the atrocities of the Vietnam war. Those Moratoriums shook the government to the core after world-wide coverage showed that people (proudly showing they were from all walks of life in Australia) wanted justice and an IMMEDIATE end to the cruelty. Crimes against humanity demand full-scale action now.

Annabel | 13 August 2016  

Thanks Fatima, a very well written article, the greatest sadness at the moment is that no political leader seems to have the moral will to work for a compassionate solution to our of shore detention policy. No leader is interested in welcoming the stranger, we are all complicit in this disgrace.

peter Igoe-Taylor | 14 August 2016  

What will it take? I think it will take a combined, on-going, united act of civil obedience by all decent Australians to change this cruel immigration policy. If you don't already belong to an association supporting refugees, please join one. If you do, encourage your association along the above lines. Follow the 'LOVE MAKES A WAY' movement and put your money and your time where your convictions are!

George Allen | 15 August 2016  

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