On record

It is easy for refugee advocates to be caught in despair. They know what Australia does to asylum seekers and are outraged by it. When asked why Australian policy should change, they describe what lies before their eyes. But few of their listeners see the indecency, feel the outrage, see the need for change. Asked for more evidence, more convincing arguments, they are tempted to use the words of the parable, ‘if they don’t see what is in front of them, they would not be convinced even if someone were to rise from the dead’.

Robert Manne’s Quarterly Essay reflects the tension between the need to record what asylum seekers suffer at the hands of Australian refugee policy and the need to urge changes that, in all decency, should not need to be pressed. He writes with a barely controlled passion about the treatment of asylum seekers, while arguing that those currently in Australia should be granted permanent residence. With some heroism he restricts his arguments to the reception of asylum seekers, leaving aside the morality of the devices by which Australia now excludes anyone arriving by boat from claiming protection here. His arguments are persuasive, although like any arguments for common decency, they are unlikely to persuade those who call loudest for argument.

Manne uses well the more substantial accounts of Mares, Brennan and Wilkinson to tell the story of recent changes to Australian immigration policy and the pressures that led to them. The arrival of the Tampa was the catalyst for brutal measures to turn away the large numbers of refugees arriving from Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran. Manne shows that detention in remote places, harsh living conditions, and limitations on the protection awarded to refugees, have been conceived as a deterrent. He also acknowledges that the interdiction of vessels by sea, the excision of Australian territory from the immigration zone, and the transportation of asylum seekers to Nauru have made it impossible for refugees arriving by boat to engage Australian obligations to protect refugees.

Of particular interest in Manne’s narrative is his account of the deceitful and intimidatory devices by which Immigration Department officials have tried to send back to dangerous situations both asylum seekers and refugees on temporary protection visas. The indecency of these dealings supports his argument that decency requires that they be allowed to remain in Australia. It also shows how great the obstacles are to arguments based on decency.

The most notable and moving feature of Manne’s essay is his use of the stories of asylum seekers provided by David Corlett. These allow us to see the battered human face of refugees in Australia—the despair, human diminishment, anger and unmanning of young asylum seekers. The stories counterpose this face to the inhuman face of those who administer the policy. The brutality, denial of responsibility and cynicism on display evoke the world of Kafka and Goya.

Manne’s arguments for decency in the treatment of asylum seekers and of refugees given temporary protection visas may bear some fruit, if those responsible for making policy judge that the greater indecency of Australia’s exclusion of boat people is secure. He argues that the moral claim made upon us by those who are closest to us is inescapable. These claims cannot be traded against our professed concerns for those distant from us. I find this argument cogent. In Christian terms it echoes John’s mordant question, ‘How can we say we love the God whom we cannot see, if we do not love our neighbours whom we can see?’

The more lasting effect of this essay, however, may be as a record of what asylum seekers have suffered in and from Australia. It is an exercise of public memory, the building material of civilisation.
In a more modest way, it reminded me of Chaim Kaplan’s scroll discovered in the Warsaw ghetto. His manuscript begins with the commitment to record and remember. Anna Akhmatova also celebrated the importance of memory in her cycle of poems on the Stalinist purges. She reassured a woman waiting outside the prison for news of a disappeared son with the words, ‘I can describe this’. Manne records and describes.

In recording what has been done in Australia, by Australians, Manne engages with what he describes as the politics of indifference. He sets out to reassert the claims of decency, of a moral centre by which future Australians will respond to the asylum seekers whose human dignity has been so abused. By the standards of decency they will also judge the politicians, officials and commentators who have devised, executed and defended this policy. He establishes this moral centre by appealing to ordinary human feelings confronted with stories of abuse. He also appeals to the tradition which we share with other Western cultures through the epigraphs which precede each chapter, each assuming an assured moral perspective on issues of justice and injustice. His essay is a text to which our grandchildren will refer when they ask us what we did in the face of such a great evil.

Manne’s account of the indecent treatment suffered by asylum seekers in Australia is stark and confronting. But like all art and description, it can offer only a limited account of their suffering. It cannot represent the ways in which time registers the torment entailed in the erosion of personality and the deconstruction of character and spirit.

Visiting asylum seekers weekly, one notices the initial bright eyes of those who have against the odds completed a dangerous journey from persecution. Week by week, the eyes become dull, and time hangs slow and heavy with memories of trauma escaped, with inactivity in the present, and fear of a future which they cannot influence. Self-mutilation and despair that are so harrowing to hear described, are a natural response to a world in which time is an instrument of torture. Why might anyone think
that Australian policy could end in any other way?

The one point at which I am ambivalent about Manne’s essay is the point at which it is most effective. When he counterpoints the experience of asylum seekers with the unfeeling words of Australian government representatives, he naturally gives preference to the words of Immigration Ministers, and particularly of Mr Ruddock. In a record of the shameful treatment of refugees in Australia and in providing a basis for subsequent judgment, these quotations are rightly chosen. Like the words of Neville Chamberlain, they should be preserved as signposts to a place where future politicians will not want to go.
Nor do my reservations about Manne’s use of quotations come from political charity. Australian public life will surely be the better for it after every politician on both sides of parliament who has devised, defended or connived at what has been done to asylum seekers in Australia is returned to private life, and after every officer who has administered the policy goes to work less harmfully in the private sector.

I hesitate about this juxtaposition because I fear that the outrage which the stories of asylum seekers properly arouse will be directed too quickly and exclusively against individuals. This would distract attention from the larger and more crucial issues raised by the subtitle of the book—the politics of indifference.

Clearly, this topic can be touched on only marginally within the limits of a Quarterly Essay. A fuller treatment of the political context would reflect on the part played by the Office of Prime Minister and Cabinet in shaping immigration policy. It would also reflect on the broader culture of indifference, including the moral vacuity of public political commentary. But it would also give full weight to the antidotes to indifference, most notably to the initiatives taken in rural Australia where community institutions and conversation are still relatively strong.

But this broader conversation, to which Robert Manne has elsewhere notably contributed, cannot distract from the more urgent need to find a decent ending of the abusive treatment of asylum seekers. We are in debt to Manne for the vigour with which he presses that urgency.

Quarterly Essay, Sending them Home: Refugees and the new politics of indifference,
Robert Manne with David Corlett. Black Inc, isbn 1 863 95141 5, rrp $12.95

Andrew Hamilton sj is the publisher of Eureka Street.



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