Welcome back to White Australia
February 28, 2014
Sydney Morning Herald columnist
Before our eyes, day by day, Scott Morrison becomes the hollow man. His face tightens and twists, his eyes are dead, and his words strangled with jargon.
This is what happens to human beings who believe the ends justify the means. Ends that are wretched will invariably produce bad means.
When you peel back the layers, the oft repeated Coalition justification for stopping the boats is that ''the Australian people want it''.
It hardly needs me to point out that history is littered with tragedies when justification is hitched to popularity.
Stopping the boats is an end, and any amount of nastiness to achieve that is justified - popularity confers legitimacy.
Maybe, in decades to come, we will look back at this time and regard it as one of the worst stains on our nation. More awful than the White Australia Policy and up there with the stolen generations. A time when our nation had a dark heart.
Manus Island and Nauru are wretched wastelands, gulags without activity, but they justify the ends.
Professor Ben Saul, on ABC television on Tuesday night, drew an interesting parallel with our policy of indefinite detention, where refugees have been given an adverse security assessment. The other place under the jurisdiction of a western democracy where this also happens is Guantanamo Bay.
It appears Manus Island is also a place of indefinite detention. Liz Thompson, who, as a migration agent, had been assisting asylum seekers on Manus with their refugee claims, told Fairfax Media the official line was that the detainees would be resettled in Papua New Guinea.
Unfortunately, a PNG immigration official went ''off script'' and confirmed to the camp that there were no plans in place for any resettlement program, the incarcerated should simply return home, otherwise their detention would be indefinite.
Is that why Foreign Minister Julie Bishop was pressing the flesh in Cambodia in search of resettlement possibilities? When people put their minds to it, there's no limit to the ''refinements of wickedness'' - a phrase used by Martin Amis in a television interview earlier this week.
Thompson revealed the extent of this chilling apparatus. She was taking the Manus asylum seekers through a process ''that goes nowhere … there's no visa for them to get''. With its ''fake processing'' of refugee claims, ''Manus Island is an experiment in the ultimate logic of deterrence''.
And all of this is backed up by an elaborate legal regime that sanctions and sanctifies our refinements of wickedness. Again, history shows us all too clearly where we end up if people sit idly by while nice ideals such as the rule of law and due process are diced.
So, it is all very good for well-meaning types to hyperventilate about this, week after week. Instead of politicians outdoing themselves to race to the bottom, is there something better that can be proposed?
Months ago, this column advocated going a step further than the idea earlier floated by the Greens. They proposed we take 3800 refugees from Indonesia and invest $70 million into United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees processing in that country.
I would go further and switch our entire humanitarian refugee intake of almost 14,000 from the Middle East, Africa and other parts of Asia and place it all in Indonesia.
The reason people get on boats from Indonesia is because they have no hope of being part of an orderly settlement program. If you give them hope, there is a chance they will not get on boats, because refugees will know they have a place in the queue. As a bonus we would be spared the sanctimonious claptrap that the purpose of the current policy is to save lives.
Our refugee intake from Indonesia has been woeful.
In the nine years to 2009, we took an average of 59 UNHCR refugees a year from that country. In 2010-11 it spiked to 480, a tiny 3.4 per cent of our humanitarian program.
As well, there would be real benefits for Indonesia if we sat down and negotiated a plan along these lines.
A sensible resettlement program managed from Indonesia would dramatically reduce the need for a boats policy, with all its attendant damage to our neighbourhood relations, the long-term psychological and physical damage we are inflicting on detainees, not to mention the harm we are doing to the soul of our nation.
If I am flogging a dead horse here, I would love to know. At least it might be worth trying, even for a few years, to see if it had an impact on boat arrivals and obviate the tow-backs and Manus and Nauru ''solutions''.
Would it be too cynical to suggest that governments, of whatever hue, do not want to test something that is humane? They are too invested in the nasty option - which has the flimsy justification of popularity.