Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

The Border Force Act's disquieting parallels


Victims of Argentina's Dirty War

On July 1 the Australian Border Force Act 2015 came into force. On the same day 40 people who were working in Australian detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island signed an open letter of protest to the Prime Minister and Minister for Immigration and Border Protection.

They attacked the provision that forbids them to speak publicly about abuses of human rights.  The penalty for doing so is two years in jail. They also dared the Government to prosecute them for writing the letter.

Such letters reflect their letters deep disquiet and considerable bravery. The disquiet is justified. Enquiries and reports have brought to public notice incidents of sexual abuse, have claimed Australia to be in breach of the International Convention on torture, and have highlighted the way in which human beings are damaged in detention centres.  

As a Catholic priest I all too slowly became aware of the defects in church governance and culture that led to so many children being abused and the crimes against them being kept secret.  So I am horrified that the Government should impose this culture of silence on detention centres by legislating to ensure that sexual abuse and other crimes are kept in-house.  I have learned how foolish people were to believe us when we said to them, ‘You can trust us, we are the church’.  I have still less reason to believe government ministers when they say, ‘You can trust us to act justly, we are the government’.

Although comparisons with other times and other states are never conclusive, there are disquieting parallels between the purpose of this and other recent legislation and the steps taken by other security states bear reflection. In nations like Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, Apartheid South Africa, and Chile and Argentina under the Generals, evidence of gross violation of human rights through arbitrary detention, beatings, rapes, torture  and murder in places of detention came to light only when the regimes that practiced them fell. All these regimes ensured that their security apparatus could act in secrecy, and prevented information from leaking out.

These security states also denigrated their victims as enemies of the people and gave impunity to those who mistreated them. In Stalin’s Russia those sent to the Gulags were considered enemies of the state, as were the Jews and gypsies sent to Nazi camps, and Black activists imprisoned in South Africa. The populace generally was not concerned about how they were treated.  Furthermore the military and other officers of the state enjoyed impunity for any brutality they practiced.

In Australia people who come by boat to seek protection from persecution have long been vilified.  Recent legislation, too, allows officers in detention centres to use whatever force they themselves deem necessary to maintain order. They will effectively be judges of their own cases. This confers on them a dangerous degree of impunity. Taken together with the imposition of secrecy and the widespread antipathy to asylum seekers, this measure removes all the effective hindrances to the development of a brutal culture.

People will say that this can never happen in Australia – our national virtues and institutions will prevent it. So will the decency of the officers working in detention centres. And  I can testify to their decency.  But this is what people said in South Africa, Chile, Germany and Russia.  

Still in those nations brave people risked their lives or freedom when telling the truth to power. Osip Mandel’stam, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Aleksandr Solzhenitisyn, Nelson Mandela and Pablo Neruda are some of the best known faces of resistance to brutality. The signatories of the open letter follow honorably in their own small way in this tradition.

Over the entrance to the Nazi death camps hung the slogan: ‘Work makes free’.  For those arriving there its chilling irony lay in the fact that the only freedom offered and imposed upon them was to be killed. But for the Nazi State its comforting irony lay in the knowledge that, if it worked to denigrate its victims, to impose silence around its security apparatus and to give its officials impunity, it would be made free from all that waffle about decency, justice and respect.  

As we read the letter of the 40 just people, that bears thinking about…

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Image: Victims of Argentina's Dirty War.


Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, national security, detention centres, asylum seekers, human rights



submit a comment

Existing comments

Thank God for Eureka Street and writers such as Andy Hamilton. It is not just politicians who are at fault here; it is time for the Australian people to take their cue from the brave people who signed the open letter to Tony Abbott, to look squarely at themselves and to admit that these detention centres, little different from the prisons operated in such places as Iraq, Iran and other middle eastern countries, have been established only with our consent. The cruelty heaped on these detainees today will ensure that our grandchildren and great grandchildren, left to deal with the horror left behind, will look back on us with scorn and contempt just as many people now look with scorn and contempt at Church authorities who turned a blind eye to the abuse that occurred under their very noses.

Paul | 03 July 2015  

Thank you Andy Hamilton for your insightful and masterful piece of writing. I will certainly share it widely as you so eloquently express the fears of many ….that our government is not just content with appalling policy in the treatment of asylum seekers and refugees it now passes legislation to attempt to gag nurses,doctors,health workers, social workers and teachers from speaking out against abuse particularly of children on Nauru and Manus Island. Out of sight out of mind is no longer enough. Now we have the insidious evil of enforced silence. Thank you for your words of dissent and in speaking in support for the brave forty who wrote the letter.

Christina Coombe | 04 July 2015  

Well written and the distinct irony of the issue is that Tont Abbott is or professes to be a Religious man who served 8 years in a Seminary learning to be a Catholic Priest > Does this mean that he has taken it of his own shoulders to try and restore the bad ways of the church with this , his own special deal

Gary Roberts | 04 July 2015  

It is so heart warming to see a Christian standing up for what was once regarded as basic decency and Christian teaching. How a front bench weighed down with very vocal "Christians" could put forward this disgusting repressive law, with "Opposition" support boggles the mind. What has happened to our country?

Bilal | 05 July 2015  

Bilal. The answer to your question is that this country has stopped being Christian.

john frawley | 06 July 2015  

Andrew. Ihaven't been able to read the open letter. Do the people who wrote it identify those who are perpetrating the abuse?

john frawley | 06 July 2015  

many thanks, Andrew, for this forthright article. Of course, the problem is not just Tony Abbott's total lack of moral compass, the mood in both major parties appears to much the same, backed, it appears, by a significant proportion of the electorate who cannot see through the issues that are constantly conflated by the government. Ignorance, xenophobia, fear of terrorism and a significant dose of racism and bigotry are all in the mix, reduced to "1984"-style Newspeak (read , duplicitous political spin). Hence three-word slogans that fail to put the issues clearly, and indeed seem deliberately crafted to cover them up. Today's news that Mr Abbott has banned ministers from appearing on the Q&A program is in the same vein, in my view, by sacrificing potential informative interviews or panel performance to a desire to beat up the fear of terrorism under the guise of outrage at a " breach of security".

Dennis Green | 06 July 2015  

"First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me." Pastor Martin Niemöller (German theologian, Lutheran pastor, originally Hitler supporter, but later vehement Anti-Nazi, imprisoned in Sachsenhausen and Dachau Concentration Camps from 1937 to 1945, narrowly escaping execution. Upon his release, he expressed great regret at ignoring the Nazis' earlier victims, because "that was not our affair".)

PaulM | 06 July 2015  

Andrew you must wonder about the 'value' of Jesuit education when you witness the incredible cynical treatment of refuges by so many political elites in Australian politics who all talk about their 'development and christian experience' at Jesuit colleges at the very top end of the entitlement chain in Australia. Reminds those who value history of Jesuit efforts in the middle ages with torture and death through the inquisition! Look forward to more dreadful decisions yet Andrew unless Jesuits have some other plan to address the debasement of others by this current crop of Jesuit school graduates.

Laurie | 06 July 2015  

Brilliant article. If more Australians had been taught European history, maybe there would have been greater disquiet as freedoms were lost and secrecy became the norm in our country.

Vineta | 06 July 2015  

Andrew thank you for your clear and prophetic writing, detailing Australia's growing alignment with forces contrary to freedom, justice and truth. In name Australia espouses to these values. But in practice we do the opposite. We continue to be duped by and vote for people who support violence, injustice, imprisonment. Where are we as a people? Are we not each living to a false rather than true self.

John Pettit | 06 July 2015  

All credit to the 40 courageous people who signed the open letter to the Prime Minister. Sadly it appears that government propaganda to justify its policies has been unquestionably accepted by many Australians. As Andrew has so deftly pointed out, the parallels are ominous.

Ernest Azzopardi | 06 July 2015  

Surely comparing the intention of the government to the brutal regimes of the past is an overreach, an unfair comparison. Sifting and sorting asylum seekers is the responsibility of a good government, in a time when a silent, invidious war is being waged against relatively peaceful societies in all parts of the world. Perhaps a better solution to the disquiet would be be an independent arbitrator/or small such committee appointed to monitor the behaviours of detention officers in detention camps, to advise & report to government......someone who cannot score political points! I don't believe it is always wise to make everything public all the time and raise hysteria one way or another as is often the case. I wonder Andrew how a government balances the peace & safety of its population with the needs of those who seek asylum in a peaceful country? There has to be some checks & balances, particularly since not is all as it may seem. We would be wise to be guarded with strangers. Australia has NOT stopped accepted asylum seekers, only those who try and sneak in by the back door. Desperate people are in camps all over the world!

penny | 06 July 2015  

Yes, John Frawley a very good question.......who is in fact perpetrating the abuse?.....the asylum seekers or the officers in charge?

Penny | 06 July 2015  

Thank you Andrew for reminding us of the parallels between what is happening in Australia and our treatment of asylum seekers and Nazi Germany's treatment of the Jewish people.

terry fitz | 06 July 2015  

Penny, you mentioned two key points. We need an approach or a body not intended to "score political points". And indeed what seems obvious to some may not be "as it may seem". With a real terrorism threat and ever-increasing numbers of people trying to access Western countries, with some refugees genuine and some clearly not, some kind of creative solution is needed. International discussion, planning and co-ordination above all. But it's not just about that in Australia. What we are seeing here is the most cynical behaviour by this government and its supporters, aimed primarily at wedging and politically wrong-footing opposition. Plus unprecedented dishonesty, stifling secrecy, constant propaganda whipping up the prejudices of the suggestible and insecure, deliberate media scapegoating of unpopular groups - not just asylum seekers - and a clear shift towards dehumanising intolerance by increasing numbers of Australians. Good people in Germany in the early 30s also thought like you. They were convinced that the Party would 'reign in the extremists' in their own ranks. But while you question comparison of this government to brutal past regimes, one does wonder just how far this particular Leader is prepared to go. How can thinkers not be disquieted?

PaulM | 06 July 2015  

Thanks Andrew. What we must not stand by and let happen! This, our country's version of Guantanamo Bay, multplied many times. Celebration of Nelson Mandela's birthday in coming week bring to mind words in his inaugual speech as President of his country, after years of imprisonment on that island gaol. We have the strength within us, we have what martin Luther King called 'a dream'. Current focus in many parts of Europe, and at the heart of the life and action of the ecumenical community at Taize - acting in 'solidarity'. A call to each of us, regardless of age, to keep working to have it happen. In Muslim faith - words we need 'insh Allah' - 'God willing', a 'must act' with and for others.This must not be allowed to go ahead.

Lynne Green | 06 July 2015  

Why did my grandfather die in the war in Europe fighting fascism?

Graham Warren | 06 July 2015  

Our Australian Federal Govt and the Shadow Party seem to be in each others shady leanings. Questions are posed as to how such elite educated Christians could fall so low. How could a country that espoused egalitarianism and 'a fair go mate' such a short lifetime ago, become so undemocratic? Warhurst's article is not news to any of us I fear, however it bolsters exactly what Fr Andrew Hamilton is decrying. Of course, this is not new in the world. Been around for a long time in terms of what a government will do to pridefully secure itself as anointed leaders of the Homeland. Where and when will it stop? Since we as a nation and the politicians misbehaving on our behalf are, I contend, are acting out of fear, then it will not heal until the wounds are recognised and some loving attention is paid to them. What is Australia afraid of? Well, it is a Brave New World. And there is much scarier stuff to come. Unless we can drop pc and start talking openly about our fears. About how we are being conned and perhaps by who? Some claim I'm a conspiracy theorist. I contend that the real conspiracy is our willingness to accept the lies, distortions and omissions, to ignore the mechanisms that point to the uncomfortable truths. We need to face the truth. Bite the bullet. It's an exercise in ethics. Study American society, which looms much larger in all directions than our profile, to get a sense of the injustices that are being perpetrated. Study their paramilitary police departments to discovery how officialdom can paper over individual illegal acts of violence. Study the words and acts emanating from the very top to understand how ruthlessly power can be wielded (refs supplied if you bite). Study facts, and when they don't add up, what are we going to do about it? Like, who cares about the Indonesian atrocities that occurred under our noses from the mid 60s. Again, both shades of government washed their hands of innocent people in the 'interests of Australian security'. Whitlam knew several days before the Oct 1975 Indonesian invasion of the former Portuguese colony of East Timor. The East Timorese had no wish to be recolonised by a people they feared for they knew the Indonesians were not sympathetic to their predominately Christian culture. And how right they were. Finally, when they achieved independence via a UN protected overwhelming Yes vote, a vindictive and mainly Islamic cultural military assisted and participated in an action of retribution that gutted the country of infrastructure and up to 1500 more deaths (after overseeing well over 100,000, up to 200,000 during the previous 24 year 'pacification' period) Plus a forced resettlement of about 300,000 Timorese into Indonesian West Timor. Australia sat on its hands. Shame. This may all seem like a rant. It's facts. You can bury them (and the consequences) or they can be lessons on what we need to choose. Not all readers are Christian, however the phrase of Pilate washing his hands of innocent blood is surely a prod recognised? How about we stand behind the 40 Names? MichCook will stand with them in Court, if that's what it takes.

MichCook | 07 July 2015  

Pope Francis called upon the faithful to treat refugees with compassion, dignity and respect. Tony Abbott claims to be a Catholic yet hs treatment of refugees is anything but.compassionate.

Luke Weyland | 07 July 2015  

Regarding violence in detention centres: To what extent is it committed by: 1) Security personnel against detainees; 2) Detainees against security personnel; 3) Detainees against each other. It would be helpful if the asylum seeker lobby would first specify who is committing what violence against whom, before slipping into its usual moral indignation mode on the whole matter. Less moralizing and more facts would help. One keeps hearing of reports that much violence and sexual abuse, especially against children, seem to have been perpetrated by detainees. The ASL also demands protection of whistle-blowers exposing violence in detention centres – as it should. But what if they were exposing violence by asylum-seekers against each other or security personnel? Would the ASL be as ready to go out to bat for such whistle-blowers then, or would it quietly slink away from the whole issue? I wonder. Also, the ASL habit of likening of asylum-seeker detention centres to Nazi concentration camps and Stalinist gulags discredits its views. The Nazi camps were places of genocidal mass murder, as were the gulags though there the inmates were usually worked to death. Comparing Manus Island and Nauru with such horrific places is ludicrous.

Dennis | 08 July 2015  

thanks, Andrew.

Appalling Government. Gutless and pathetic Opposition.

p31 | 08 July 2015  

I've never thought I'd seriously be a dissenter. Yet now, at the age of 67, I find I must be, however uncomfortable it is. Thank you, Father, for your leadership. We are the Church, and matters of justice and human dignity are our responsibility. Let's go....

Joan Seymour | 08 July 2015  

Dennis, the point of this article isn't abuse in the detention centres. It's the government's attempt to silence those who would report it publicly. It's irrelevant who is commiting it. It's wrong, and it's wrong to silence the reporting.

Joan Seymour | 08 July 2015  

I am deeply concerned by the Commonwealth Government's slide into a fascist dictatorship.
How are we ordinary people to stop this frightening development? Psalm 11:3 When the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?

Gwilym | 08 July 2015  

Dissenting while I still can. Ever seen the movie V for Vendetta?

Read and weep. Cuts a little fine to the bone. Substitute names and it's almost a playbook for our gov.

Excerpts below from imdb movie synopsis:


(The government) pass themselves as the moral good but they are the ultimate corruption of power...

In the not too distant future...a land ruled by a fascist government.

Prothero, known as The Voice of London. He is a religious fueled right winged maniac TV host... a fraud and a loathsome person and his words are propaganda for the government.

The words spoken by Prothero are fueled with resentment towards people who are different than himself and his cohorts. He blames Immigrants, Muslims, homosexuals etc for the problems that London faces and for the reason why such a Government exists to protect the people.

Like Hitler they make good use of a crisis to blame certain people for the problems of the nation and then put themselves forward as the solution.

The men in power order militaries to do their dirty work while they sit back and preach hate and holy wrath upon those who dare disobey. The morality here is that...those who disagree with the powers that be are silenced and killed. (Well Australia, at least we're not killing dissenters yet, just jail for whistleblowers).

V...points out to the populace there is something terribly wrong with this country. That cruelty and intolerance put forth by the government is a means of oppression ...vilifying (sectors of) the public as the evil ones which in turn justifying the actions of the Government.

Prothero was involved in some sort of Government-sponsored detention facility...Evey's parents were people who went against the Governments rule and were subsequently killed.

V seeks to stop...the politicians, media moguls and priests (for paedophilia).

A police inspector is told...to cease all investigation into this detention facility or else face charges of high treason.

...a virus was the cause of the demise of the United States and that the detention facility we have heard about was in fact a research center where subjects were used to test a vaccine...the test subjects were colored people, homosexuals, Muslims.

Dietrich is the host of a variety show that is heavily censored but for unknown reasons he has gotten tired of the censorship and has decided to do a show mocking the Arch Chancellor...(who) is furious about this and he sends the police to capture Dietrich who is taken away and (we learn later) executed. Evey (being guilty by association) is also captured and taken away for interrogation.

Meanwhile Inspector Finch has been trying to find out the truth about the detention center but he is being blocked by the government. Even his motives are questioned.

The Chancellor mirrors the image of Hitler and convinces Londoners that they must vote for him or fall victim to terrorists. Under his control the government quickly contains the virus he released and appears to be effective at keeping everyone safe. As a result of this so-called terrorist attack the Chancellor comes to power.

V is a symbol of who the common Londoner should be: One who rises up and takes back what was theirs: Free to live as they want, to question authority and to be the power of their nation. It took the likes of V to make this clear to the people: That they are slaves of the Government...

At the end, V's role in the world is now void because he will not be needed once the government is abolished and power is restored to the people.

Inspector Finch was on the side of the government but he slowly begins to understand why V was doing what he was doing. He is caught in a moral dilemma. He was sworn to serve under the Government but he has come to realize face to face with the atrocities that his own government committed.

This movie embodied Nietzsche's idea of the Moral Good, which was set up under Christianity. It also shows how the government was fundamentally weak because of the resentment they carried. They relied on tactics of fear...

This government took away the arts and the music which one can say is an outwardly expression of the people. They were forced to live inward through religious experience and mostly fear.

The right and wrong created by the Government turned the people against each other...

K | 10 July 2015  

Entirely agree Joan, “It’s wrong to silence the reporting”. The question is whether the asylum-seeker lobby is only really interested in the violence perpetrated by security personnel on detainees. It seems to have little to say about the violence done by detainees on each other or security personnel.
The ASL also goes on about abuse of children in detention without specifying who committed the abuse. If the perpetrators were often the detainees against each other would the ASL care that much?. Such detainee-driven violence would certainly sabotage the ASL’s efforts to generate sympathy and support for them if they were seen as responsible for much
detention centre violence. Would this lobby still support any whistle-blower that exposed this? Consider these comments from one former detention centre employee. He said that while 5% of detainees were ‘saints” and “really nice blokes” there was “a hard core 10% thugs” who caused “90% of the centre problems, engaged in stand-over tactics with other detainees and weren’t averse to using violence to get their way.” (See “Gov’t Fights for no Win on Asylum-seekers”, comment by “Mole”, April 27, 2011).

Dennis | 10 July 2015  

This good article deepens the question in all of us: how do we handle the silencing? Why? The marked absence of a constructive narrative, to create an alternative to the institutionalized alienation created by laws to silence, to suppress and to deny, is noticed. More and more are very uncomfortable in this new and sad Australia and more are asking, in the public forum, what alternative do we have? Thanks for being a voice Andrew!

annelie mclaughlin | 10 July 2015  

Luke ,do not be surprised at Abbott's lack of compassion .It is claimed the Directors of the seminary he entered in his youth ,suggested he was unsuitable for the priesthood as he lacked 'compassion ' .I would suggest it renders him also unsuitable to be our PM . regards John

john kersh | 11 July 2015  

Hey, Laurie, those who "value history" would have to note that the Jesuits didn't exist in the Middle Ages. Jesuit schools in Australia today, as well as valuing knowledge, ensure that their students are directly involved with the lives of the poor and are formed in a "faith that does justice." In an imperfect world, this at least is a genuine effort to place schooling at the service of the Gospel and make a constructive difference to the lives of students and the world in which they are growing up.

John | 11 July 2015  

'What can the righteous do?' Gwimlyn? Put them last on every ballot paper that we can, and the almost equally obnoxious opposition second last.

Ginger Meggs | 12 July 2015  

The Australian Border Force Act does indeed prescribe a penalty of two years imprisonment for disclosure of protected information. But, section 42(2)c provides that there is no offence if such a disclosure is required or authorised by Commonwealth, State or Territory law. Section 48 allows for the disclosure of protected information to prevent or lessen a serious threat to life and health. Thus, health care professionals etc are still able (or in some circumstances, are still obliged) to report sexual abuse, assault etc. So, did those penning the open the letter deliberately or inadvertently overlook these provisions?

Jack | 29 July 2015  

Similar Articles

Foreign fighter with the 'Anzac spirit'

  • Tim Robertson
  • 13 July 2015

It's hard not to admire Reece Harding, whose sense of social justice, idealism and internationalism led him to take up arms against an organisation he seemingly believed lived up to Tony Abbott's characterisation as a 'death cult'. The Federal Government has warned Australians against travelling to the Middle East to fight on any side. But these calls are drowned out by decades of contradictory rhetoric that has seen the Anzac legend placed at the fore of our history and culture.


The limits to private ownership of property

  • Samuel Tyrer
  • 08 July 2015

Private property rights are one of the few rights expressly protected under the Australian Constitution, but broader societal interests must be taken into consideration. Compulsory acquisition of land for the greater public good has always been a fact of life for property owners. France is currently enacting laws to force supermarkets to give their unsold consumable food 'property' to charities.