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What if the PM went to Manus Island?

  • 23 June 2016
  During the course of the election campaign the cost of just about everything has been debated. Except the cost, human and monetary, of Australia's treatment of people seeking asylum, which both parties have mostly shrouded in silence. Yet occasionally the wounds can be glimpsed beneath the shroud.

It happened in the QandA program in which Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was questioned by Behrouz Bouchani, a Kurdish journalist on Manus Island.

While defending Australian policy, Turnbull remarked, 'None of us have hearts of stone. All of us understand how harsh our policy is in terms of its impact on particular individuals.'

Later a member of the audience asked him, 'Will the Prime Minister visit the centres and see them for himself?' Turnbull declined to answer that question — a politic silence that rearranged the shroud after the momentary disturbance caused by Bouchani's question and the contradiction enshrined in the Prime Minister's answer.

On the previous day the Guardian published an interview with Paul Stevenson on the Manus Island Centre. He was a trauma counsellor responsible for the mental wellbeing of Wilson employees there. The interview described in graphic detail and understated prose what a prime minister would see and hear if he went with an enquiring mind to Manus Island.

Among the wide range of 'particular individuals' impacted by this policy, were detainees who had to be cut down with specially designed knives when trying to hang themselves, women who tried to kill themselves to give their young children a better chance for resettlement, those involved in the five or six incidents of self-harm on some days, the refugees who tried to return to the camp after suffering worse violence outside, people in whom the light had gone out and who live in shadowland.

There are the quiet people who live constantly under surveillance and try to keep hope alive.

Among them were staff members who are traumatised by their experience, those who were hardened to suffering, and the islanders whose lives had been disrupted by the camp.


"While we are at it, spare a thought for Stevenson, a man decorated for his work after the Bali bombing, that he found less traumatic than Manus Island."


In the background of Stevenson's interview were the architects, developers, inheritors and supporters of the policy whose efficacy rested on its harsh impact on individuals. Their burden was to assure themselves that they did not indeed have hearts of stone. And finally, there was Australia,