Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


The view from outside glass house Australia

  • 29 January 2015

Complaints about hypocrisy are rarely edifying. They are usually made to draw attention away from the harm we are doing by pointing to the bad things our critics are doing.

But Pierre Martinus’ charge made in Saturday's Jakarta Post, that ‘Canberra is merely trying to save their own “subject bodies” from the firing squad, while slowly disposing of “abject bodies” it does not want through inhumane detention camps or returning them to foreign regimes that will probably finish the job for them’, is not so easily dismissed. 

He rightly deplores the brutality both of Indonesian and Australian treatment of drug traffickers and asylum seekers respectively. Both are based on the logic of deterrence – of potential drug traffickers and of people who seek protection from persecution.  

Pragmatically, it must be admitted that deterrence works. Manus Island is its showpiece. The camp on Manus, with its isolated and claustrophobic location, long delay in processing applications, and best option of an uncertain residence in PNG, is a gold-standard deterrent. No one would cheerfully choose to end up there.

Deterrence, like execution, is a transaction between human beings. So it is important for us as Australians to look beyond the language of policy with its antiseptic formulations of push and pull factors, unlawful boat arrivals, transferees, migration zones and security of borders, to reflect on how the deterrent value of Manus Island and of execution is played out in human lives. Only when we have weighed this will we be in a position to applaud the effectiveness and wisdom of our policy or deplore its inhumanity. 

Manus Island is an effective deterrent because people who seek protection from persecution can imagine from personal experience what life on Manus Island may be like. They have lived in fear, are familiar with prisons and licensed callousness, know what it is like for all relationships and projects to be put on hold. Because they seek freedom, hospitality and the opportunity to begin a new and productive life in a generous society, they can imagine the despair of being rejected by that society and being transferred to a prison without trial, with no access to law and no guarantee of any future anywhere. Manus Island will surely make them think again.

But few of us can imagine the effects that the passing of time in detention has on the spirit. As Patrick McGorry famously said, detention centres are factories for producing mental illness. When