By Jane Salmon
Watching the lush tv series “The Great” on Stan, we are reminded that decadent 18th century European despots like Peter III and the nation’s shadow religious regimes were truly threatened by free thought and speech. The arrival of secular literacy and then printing presses gradually brought political debate and satire to repressed Mother Russia.
Any with a yen for controlling and directing our current political and economic systems are finding free expression on the internet a burden in the same way.
Access to accurate information Is certainly controversial and a two-way street.
The government wants to know accurately when we have been in contact with Coronavirus carriers.
The Federal Government concurrently seeks to staunch some resident’s rights to secrecy and limit certain types of information getting out.
Political transparency is a perennial issue. Major parties eschew a powerful Federal ICAC. Whistleblowers are threatened. Spooks seem to be on steroids over Witness K.
Proposed security and intelligence laws would, if enacted, ensure that computer passwords be given up on threat of prison.
In another swag of laws before Senate, Immigration detainees are to be lumped in with criminals and deprived of mobile phone access. “So what?” some say.
What these laws have in common is Peter Dutton, who heads up the Home Affairs super ministry. Peter is the Not-So-Great Super Tsar seeking to staunch scrutiny in the name of Security.
Governing used not to be quite so hard. 18th Century Tsars certainly found life heaps easier before literacy and printing. Super Minister Dutton is similarly challenged by phones, the internet and facts.
(In fact, “Peter Dutton the musical” might include a glowing phone).
“The Great” tele-series colourfully depicts early PR wars against political commentary in 18th Century Russia. The first lie or narrative circulated (as to how Peter III’s war with Sweden ended) is meant to be the one that sticks. Leaders saw that timing was essential.
Any blurring of national security measures as applied by traditional spooks and the conventions of defence secrecy is no accident. Defence is getting more say in the rules applied.
“On water matters” is a phrase used by the navy in border control. It can mask a multitude of asylum seeker processing events (good and bad) at sea. In other words, slap a naval “D Notice” on anything embarrassing and the public will not know whether you are throwing children overboard Tampa style, running modern prison hulks or turning back fishermen in leaky lifeboats.
Former ABF head Roman Quadvlieg still loves this stuff.
It has also suited Border Force to focus on rotten apples rather than sterling heroes in any immigrant cohort. Labelling refugees a disease-raddled inundation of criminals and terrorists has been convenient onshore.
It backfired offshore. The February 2014 fatal Manus RPC attack, in fact, came from local guards, civilians and militia who felt threatened by the massive impact of regional processing and the introduction of these maligned foreigners (as well, perhaps, as mounting evidence of their ongoing economic subservience to Australia).
Then Immigration Minister Scotty (from Marketing) Morrison immediately asserted that asylum seekers were rioting outside the perimeter of Manus Regional Processing centre compound.
Fortunately witnesses who had internet access and some mobile phones (as did Manus immigration officials, bureaucrats, guards). Morrison’s lies about the death of Reza Berati simply unravelled. Berati was murdered in his room.
Xenophobes continue to blame asylum seekers for everything. Others in the community looked harder. Advocates grasped the value of phones to detainees whose vulnerability offshore tore at their consciences. Shame is a great motivator. Funds were raised In Australia for both phones and credit every month for around 80 months. Empathic pensioners saved the means to buy handsets.
Phones gave ordinary Aussies the opportunity to hear refugee narratives first hand. They could assess character critically for themselves. Luckily, once phone access was established, independent media and social media shared news, privacy issues notwithstanding.
It was clear that phones were a lifeline that could inform independent doctors, call families (often still in war zones), sort essential supplies, disrupt neglect, transmit world news or the soft coo of a child, provide counselling or nurture new hobbies.
Events offshore were seen by friends, journalists and family members in real time. Australian nurses acted as remote birth support for women in labour on Nauru (where the nurse doubled as the cleaner). This is complicated by the prevalence of female genital mutilation among those detained. Mums for Refugees have also acted as birth partners onshore for women they got to meet by phone.
Immigration suddenly gained an $8m PR budget.
Only journalists sympathetic to Immigration narratives had access to Nauru. The lack of an adequate Nauru police response and Chris Kenny‘s intrusions upon the privacy of a pregnant Somali survivor of a vicious rape curdled the blood of Dutton calls “mad fucking witch” back in Australia.
When, according to Behrouz Boochani, Manus men were isolated in a windowless punishment container labelled “Chauka” or abused by guards, detainees conveyed the impacts. When locals shot at them or hit them with iron bars and machetes, there were memorable pictures recorded with shaky hands and quavering voices.
Suicidal children were photographed on Nauru. One searing image is the neat red chunk a machete took out of a man’s arm. (Pic too gory?)
During 13 detention deaths offshore, mobiles were used to inform relatives, mourn, arrange funerals, share news, show conditions or critique an impersonal government approach.
Refugee supporters sat up through the night talking to depressed or confused men in a mixture of languages. It helped that key supporters had counselling, nursing, medical or social work training. (They in turn sometimes needed trauma counselling themselves).
The Geneva Convention, its amendments and international laws to which we are signatories would have it that access to friends, lawyers and family is the right of detainees. Australia has wavered in its commitment to this.
Trips to hospital in Port Moresby, Taiwan or onshore would belatedly occur. Usually main medical issues remained untreated. There is no question that all this was as expensive as it was erratic.
Some less-depressed detainees learned new crafts and skills via their phones. Several doggedly composed and recorded music or shared their paintings. One man crocheted rugs that now grace museums. 3am was when Behrouz Boochani would transmit refined pellets of news via WhatsApp that became his film and his book, lyrically translated by Omid Tofighian.
Robust friendships forged in hardship have survived challenges and changes. Various faiths and cultures have been shared or discarded. Rebadged security firms came and went. The RPC was replaced by “freedom” to venture out during fixed hours.
People were shuffled around and slowly vetted by “safe third countries” such as the US or Canada.
In 2017 Australia’s liability for detention was palmed off to PNG.
For many months of 2019, in Bomana Prison (owned by PNG but funded by Australia), some 50 detainees had no phones. They were starved, bullied, lied to, denied property and some were deported without witnesses. They became more withdrawn. Even treating private Pacific International Hospital (funded by Aus taxpayers) maintained their dreadful isolation.
Families of detainees were frantic for news, while traumatic damage to some held in Bomana has been permanent and is probably irreversible. It took repeated appeals to UNHCR and Red Cross by locals and advocates to secure the release of the sickest.
Pending laws stalled in the Senate, the Migration Amendment (Prohibiting Items in Immigration Detention Facilities) Bill 2020 – Parliament of Australia, the National Justice Project has submitted Federal Court injunctions against the ban on mobile phones in Australian detention several times. This was usually done stealthily near Christmas or Easter … under the mask of managing Covid-19.
In fact the new laws might also be applied to phones outside detention. Does this mean APODs or also activist phones?
The powers Dutton seeks claims in his amendments to the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation Act 1979 aim to force the sharing of data under threat of imprisonment for those who refuse to share phone or computer passwords. Some states already lock up ten year olds.
When Dutton was denied freedom by Aussie courts to mute asylum seekers offshore, he handed those detainees over to PNG which has a different set of political vulnerabilities, values and laws.
My fear is that this is how Dutton would have Australian citizen life run, too. As detainees say, we are one human family. The truism that how governments treat migrants stateless people is how they would treat us all was never more relevant.
We should learn from Manus, Nauru and Bomana. We should learn from the limited access to internet of Priya, Nades and children on Christmas Island.
Ex-copper Peter Dutton seems threatened by the internet and by dissent among such colleagues as Coleman or Quadvlieg. His actions betray resentment of free speech. He avoids independent journalists. He may even dislike vocal citizens having a full set of human rights. Then there is the mire of contractor corruption revealed through internet searches and detainee reports.
Under Sovereign Borders, many refugees who came to Australia for help by boat have been stymied by uncertainty for almost 8 years. They have also been slandered as terrorists, driven mad with despair, bored, bullied, starved, deprived of Vitamin D and weakened by various forms of neglect or excruciatingly slow treatment. Some of them have also been isolated indoors for far, far longer than anyone quarantined for ‘Rona risk.
Onshore there are quiet detainees who have languished for up to 11 years.
The AFP raids on journos illustrate the folly of concentrating political and security power in one “super” ministry. That Labor voted repeatedly to enable Dutton to become the sinister overlord he now is, damns them too.
Dutton also teaches refugees that speak publicly in the “Home to Bilo“ or Medevac campaigns they will be punished by prolonging their detention ordeals.
Secrecy even allows him to give foreign high rollers “special visa concessions”, to visit casinos. Categories of legal worker visas aside, we all know many “invaders” are economic and invited. (The spectre of inundation is applied very selectively).
Ministerial Discretion has been stealthily used some 3000 times by Dutton. But not for the Bilo family parked on Christmas Island. They were too loud.
No-one wants boats to resume. It’s too risky. But we do want to see humanitarian solutions to the global refugee problem. We need to take our fair share.
For detainees who have already suffered for 7 or 11 years, any
PRISON is PRISON: whether in the Preston Mantra without sunlight for 9 months, on Christmas Island without full internet or in a crowded formal Immigration Detention Centre such as MITA, BITA, Villawood or Yongah Hill.
However, detainee ordeals under Peter Ruddock and in Bomana Immigration Transit Centre in Port Moresby show, removal of phones can unleash a whole new level of hell.
During the distraction of COVID-19, our Federal Government seeks to usher in laws that will lose Australia whatever is left of journalistic inquiry plus remove mobile phone access.
The Post-Anzac Australia that school children studied was kind to strangers. We had fought the good fight with all our might. We had boundless plains to share. We had seen prisoners of war emerge from SE Asian chain gangs, camps and prisons after the defeat of the Japanese. We mourned the giants those broken ex-prisoners once were and abhored their abusers. According to myth, we were decent, spontaneous and fair. Larrikins that we were, we did not recategorise harmless people as “dangerous“ just so security contractors could grab more moolah.
In fantasy Australia, we did not use ex-Afghanistan vets and counter-terrorism experts to ensure that a person pole-axed with depression, agonising gall stones plus resignation syndrome was denied a packet of dates or a crisp new t-shirt in hospital at Christmas.
We did not conceal the whereabouts of detainees or migrant hospital patients from friends or loved ones.
We did not deny incarcerated folk a chat with mum or an internet music search.
We did not block grannies trying to comfort the suicidal (24/7 in the absence of hope).
We did not send refugees back to Myanmar during a holocaust.
We let people reach their lawyers at mutually convenient times rather than at the whim of guards or queues for phone cards and landlines.
Our team was not the sort to delay cancer scans or treatment by deadly years. Yet this and do many daily micro aggressions have repeatedly happened.
All this lumps us in with many other human rights abusers: just not the most bloody of them yet. Aussies are no longer moral leaders. To me, no facts and no truth means no real freedom.
The porous nature of Aussie ocean borders was indeed an embarrassment to defence and, more importantly, a terrible mass drowning hazard. Increasing asylum seeker intake and funding regional processing queues seems preferable to indefinite detention. It could hardly be more expensive.
Dutton’s latest security and immigration law changes are not just votes about whether criminals get phone access or whether detainees can push back against lies and cruelty.
They are about whether Aussie citizens will have human rights and freedom of information, too.
They represent a frontier with totalitarianism which we should not cross.
As with climate, many engage out of concern about the future that our children will inherit.
It’s time the rest of us looked up from “reality“ tv’s confected desert island survival contests to see what is happening right in front of us.
Security Tsar Pete’s plans are not so “Great”.
“On 14 May 2020 the Senate referred the provisions of the Migration Amendment (Prohibiting Items in Immigration Detention Facilities) Bill 2020 to the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee for inquiry and report by 5 August 2020.
The deadline for submissions to the inquiry is 11 June 2020.”
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