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Australia’s structural cruelty goes beyond refugee policy

By Stuart Rees

Australia’s reprehensible treatment of refugees now goes beyond cruelty, and instead could be described as evil.

Cruelty fostered by government policies is evident in harm to the bodies and minds of powerless individuals, but in regard to Australia’s treatment of refugees, the charge of cruelty now reads like an understatement.

Morally reprehensible, years-long dehumanising treatment of refugees in Melbourne’s Park Hotel illustrates evil equivalent to a permanent virus which we are told we must learn to live with.

To reframe a description of an Australian government’s policies from cruel to evil, I acknowledge the insights and outrage of Crikey commentator Guy Rundle. Writing on January 12, he refers to the treatment of Park Hotel refugees as “an evil that manifests itself in plain sight”, his charge confirmed by the experiences of 24-year-old detainee Mehdi Ali, who was only 15 when first imprisoned, after he tried to escape oppression in Iran by travelling to Australia by boat.

Powerful, proud Canberra politicians have been so preoccupied with appearing strong towards powerless refugees that they appear to enjoy inflicting psychological harm, a practice described by Rundle as “just straight existential horror, weaponized to create permanent damage”.

Under the “Set Them Free” banner, Australia’s religious leaders have identified the hypocrisy of a prime minister who professes a Christian faith which should oblige him “to stand up for truth, for justice, for the poor, the hungry and homeless”. Instead, although not referring to evil, the narrator of a campaign video, Reverend Tim Costello, argues that “Australia treats dogs better than it treats refugees”.

Speaking of evil needs careful caveats. Degrees of evil could be plotted on a continuum, from one miscarriage of justice to headless bodies piled high in the streets of a Syrian town taken by ISIS. The latter macabre picture could be easily recognised as evil, but extremes of cruelty do not imply that apparently lesser acts might be tolerated. One evil act allowed becomes contagious, one refugee unjustly punished metastasises into a policy’s natural order.

A second caveat concerns a world wide spread of evil. The morally repugnant treatment of refugees by an Australian government compares to the policies of other states, where potential for evil is massaged by authoritarianism, by disdain for democracy and for human rights.

Massive death tolls from responses to riots by prisoners crammed in South American jails, most recently in Ecuador, show taken for granted evils in prisons, not only in poor countries.

The UK’s Ministry of Justice records that in the past year, prisoner suicides increased by 28 per cent. Distinguished Observer journalist Nick Cohen describes a mental health disaster. When Covid hit, 80,000 inmates had to stay in their cells for 23 hours per day. An estimated 70 per cent of inmates already suffered from two or more mental health conditions.

Australia’s treatment of Indigenous prisoners is also beyond belief. In The Saturday Paper of January 29, Dechlan Brennan recalls the 2008 death of a Ngaanyatjarra elder Mr Ward who suffocated in a Western Australian prison van when the temperature was 56 degrees Celsius The same author describes northern WA’s Roebourne jail where 80 per cent of prisoners are Indigenous, a majority have pre-existing mental health conditions and temperatures inside prison cells hover around 50C.

As a means of assessing policies, the criterion “evil” produces many candidates, including UK, US, Australian politicians and judiciary obsessed with revenge towards courageous Australian citizens Julian Assange, Bernard Collaery, David McBride and the Sri Lankan Bilolea family. The cruelty becoming evil in these cases is so deep seated as to make the policies structural, almost inherent in national psyche, therefore more difficult to eradicate.

In a country which in Rundle’s terms has become “a leading edge laboratory for new techniques of managed dehumanisation”, abuse of refugees has become normal. In the weeks preceding a federal election, such normality needs to be replaced by resolve to respect human rights, to speak of kindness and generosity as features of a common humanity, that priceless, easily available vaccine.

In her inimitable commentary on the evils of an old normality, Arundhati Roy provides an inspiring alternative. She writes of a chance, “… to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves. Nothing could be worse than a return to normality.” Covid, she says, is “a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”

On that journey, abolishing evil towards all refugees, towards Assange, Collaery, McBride and the Bilolea family would be a start.

Stuart Rees OAM is Professor Emeritus, Univ. of Sydney, recipient of the Jerusalem (Al Quds) Peace Prize and author of the recent Policy Press book ‘Cruelty or Humanity’.




This article was originally published on Pearls and Irritations.


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  1. Phil Pryor

    One tries to and usually succeeds in some love for one’s country, but much is idealised and theoretical. An examination of Australia and its history is quite disturbing. Donald Horne might have written many sequels to his well known and highly influential book, the Lucky Country. How about the Mucky, or Yucky, Country. Soil degradation, water abuses, environmental vandalism, corporate criminality, brainless land clearing and destruction, social policy and its lack, intrusive and imperious righteousness, carelessness, indifference, worship of gross commonality, etc. Not much is being discussed about sheer political stupidity or refugee persecution, but a cricket coaching position does excite some. Anyhow, Gerry and Solly are doing well; Are you?

  2. RomeoCharlie29

    Well said. These evils do not reflect an Australia that I want. Apart from the simply unconscionable treatment of those to whom you refer is the extraordinary costs the government is incurring as part of these tortures. I think Albanese and Labor would earn considerable respect and support if they committed to ending each of these punitive actions. Post election I would like to see a Royal Commission into these actions with a view to prosecuting the perpetrators from Morrison,Dutton,Porter upwards, including those responsible for the bugging of the East Timor (Timor L’este) embassy. Too many nefarious deeds carried out in our names have gone unpunished. But pigs might fly.

  3. New England Cocky

    There is an obvious inexpensive solution to the politician created ”legal refugee” crisis following the COVID pandemic, but DO NOT expect either major political party to bend from their inhumanity to people wanting a safer life and better opportunities in Australia.

    The continuing cost of refugee jailing without trial is solved by releasing legal refugees into a government programme of transitory agricultural work at Australian pay rates excluding the notorious labour hire companies many of which do little except rip off workers.

    The contract could be something like three (3) years on the harvesting road across Australia, then provided the refugees have kept their legal records clean they be allowed to settle firstly in a country region of their choosing before given free access to live anywhere in Australia that they choose. Why, they might even be given Australian citizenship in recognition of their service to Australia bailing out agricultural enterprises that cannot get farm labour at slavery rates.

    Now would somebody be kind enough to estimate the cost savings from paying an American jail corporation for operating the inhumane refugee camps that are only fit for politicians.

  4. GL

    The LNP would be lost if they didn’t have “fear of the other” scare campaigns to fall back on time and time again.

  5. Terence Mills

    Spudley Dutton was working on his China fear campaign when the new Chinese Ambassador threw a spanner in the works.

    New ambassador to Australia Xiao Qian says the China-Australia relationship is at a ‘critical juncture, facing many difficulties and challenges, as well as enormous opportunities and potentials’. He extended the hand of friendship and a willingness to work together with the Australian government to “push the China-Australia relations back to the right track.”

    This olive branch was quickly spurned by Duttion who would prefer to scare the pants off the Australian people in foreshadowing war with China in a desperate effort to get re-elected.

  6. John Hanna

    We are signatory to this document and we need to adhere to it’s tenets….simple. Anything else is political bastardry.

  7. Keith

    Kafka and Orwell appear to have written a handbook for the Federal government in relation to refugees and whisperers.

    The PM has had quite a number of people calling him a liar and other uncomplimentary attributes, they are from people having worked with him, including Joyce, and Malcolm Turnbull et al.

    Prior to becoming a politician, Morrison was sacked from two senior positions in Tourism.
    Morrison was not the first choice in 2007 when he initially tried to be selected for his electorate, Towke was.
    It has been alleged that Towke had been involved with branch stacking, a fairly recent allegation.

  8. RosemaryJ36

    I thought Australia was the Lucky Country. I have lived here for over 50 years – much longer than I spent previously in England.
    Neither country inspires me now.
    Much of the political behaviour under which we now suffer began with John Howard’s narrow-mindedness – which has been well and truly surpassed by the cruelty of the last three PMs.
    The arguments over the importance of religion are futile and unnecessary and ignore the understanding of humanity which is implicit in most religions.
    Let’s teach morality, ethics, equality and humanity. Forget gods and concentrate on helping the living enjoy life on earth – and try to control climate change for everyone’s benefit!

  9. ajogrady

    I want my country back!
    I want to be proud to call Australia my country and my home again. Where truth and justice prevail.
    Where lies and dishonsty have consequences.
    Where corrupt charlatans are prosecuted.
    Where ethics and honesty are valued.
    Where honour and morals are held in high esteem.
    Where trust is something nurtured and respected.
    Where fear is not weaponised.
    Where dignity and respectfulness prevails.
    Where expectations are met not avoided .
    Where “the greater good” is preeminent and not bizarre or the exception.
    Where consideration and regard for others is not a choice.
    Where humility and servility is considered strength.
    Where not being prepared is preparing to fail. Where deceit and duplicity is the mark of a fraudster.
    Where divisiveness is unpatriotic.
    Where empathy and compassion are paramount. Where facts are important and fiction is left for fairytales and the L/NP to fabricate stories, especially ones intended to deceive.
    I reject the LNP’s and Main Stream Medias lies, distortions, corruption, arrogance, deceitfulness, law of the jungle dog eat dog, survival of the fittest world. Australia was built on an egalitarian “fair go” for all. Its strength was that it gave opportunity and security to all Australians. Under the divisive L/NP, who gleefully pick winners and losers, a “fair go” has now gone and is just used as a shallow marketing slogan that has no truth or meaning to it anymore.

    Ode to a Rodent

  10. Canguro

    This could just as easily be a commentary on our own ‘leadership’…

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