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Nauru Files reinforce the need for political grace

  • 11 August 2016


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.

We'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