On 9 May I launched OFFSHORE by Madeline Gleeson (NewSouth Publishing, 2016, paperback)
Madeline is a Research Associate at the wonderful Andrew & Renata Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law
It is a terrific book. Buy it; read it; ask yourself: “How did it come to this?”
Here is my speech at the launch.
I have launched quite a few books in my time. I always read a book before launching it. It can be a chore, at times.
I have never launched a book which is as compelling as Offshore.
I thought I knew a fair bit about the treatment of asylum seekers in Manus and Nauru. But Offshore brings together so many compelling details, many of which I was unaware of, that I was torn: part of me could not put the book down; part of me could not cope with more and more searing detail of our cruelty to men, women and children who have had the courage to risk their lives on the ocean in a search for a safe place to live.
This book is meticulously documented: every assertion of fact is attributed to a verifiable source. In fact, this must be the only book ever published which has nearly 100 pages of footnotes, but is genuinely compelling to read.
It covers Australia’s offshore detention regime since 2012. What comes through is quite clear: Australia takes boat people and mistreats them in order to persuade others not to even think about seeking safety in Australia. This is, ostensibly, to protect them from the evils of people smugglers, as if people smugglers were all morally identical. If that were so, the worst imaginable people smuggler would be in the same moral basket as Dietrich Bonnhoeffer, Oskar Schindler and Gustav Schroeder. (Gustav Schroeder was the master of the MS St Louis who tried valiantly to find a safe country for 900 Jewish refugees in 1939, but was eventually forced to return them to Europe where more than half of them perished in concentration camps).
Bonhoeffer, Schindler and Schroeder were people smugglers who made dangerous choices for principle against politics and pragmatism. We honour their memory.
For political leaders in this country, especially self-proclaimed Christians, to prefer politics over principle is as disappointing as it is familiar. This book could be first on the indictment of Scott Morrison and Peter Dutton for crimes against humanity.
Although it only gets a brief mention in Madeline Gleeson’s book, it is interesting to recall that, in 2015, a suggestion emerged that Australian Border Force people had paid $30,000 to a people smuggler to turn back, and take his passengers back to Indonesia. The story was picked up by the Opposition, but suddenly disappeared. But it draws attention to Australia’s law which makes people smuggling an offence. It has just 3 elements. The person arranges or facilitates the entry by a person into a country, of which that person is not a national, without going through the ordinary passport controls. Let’s see how that lines up against our much promoted “turn back” policy. We turn suspected people smuggling boats back to Indonesia – if necessary, we put the passengers into special orange lifeboats. So, we facilitate the entry of those people into Indonesia. In fact, we make their entry into Indonesia a practical certainty, unless they drown on the way back. Do we think they are Indonesian nationals? Probably not. Do we expect that they will go through ordinary passport controls? Probably not.
Australia has boasted about this activity, but it means that Scott Morrison directly authorised people smuggling, as that offence is defined in our law.
But Scott Morrison’s hypocrisy is clear to see elsewhere in the pages of Madeline Gleeson’s book.
He said Reza Berati had escaped from the detention centre at Manus and had been killed by locals. The fact was that Reza Berati was killed, inside the centre, by people paid by Australia to keep the detainees safe.
He said Hamid Khazaie had been medically evacuated to Australia and was receiving the best medical care.
He overlooked that Khazaie was already brain-dead because his evacuation had been so delayed and carelessly handled by the Immigration Department.
He sent children to Nauru against the clearest medical advice.
Under Morrison, detainees were the victims of sexual assault, but no charges were ever laid.
Self-harm and suicide attempts reached “epidemic” proportions.
Save the Children workers, desperate to do whatever they could to relieve the suffering of children in detention, were accused by Morrison of engaging in a “campaign to cast doubt on the government’s border protection policies”. Months after Save the Children had been removed from Nauru, the Moss review found that the allegation was false. Just last week, it was revealed that we have agreed to pay secret compensation in an undisclosed amount.
And each Sunday Morrison went to Church to display his Christian virtues.
Peter Dutton was appointed Immigration Minister by Tony Abbott in early 2015. His appointment was reaffirmed by Malcolm Turnbull. He presided over the introduction of the Australian Border Force Act in 2015. Among other things, the Border Force Act makes it a criminal offence for anyone who works in the detention system to disclose anything they learn in that capacity. In ordinary civil society, if a doctor becomes aware of a case of child abuse, they commit an offence if they fail to report it. Under the Border Force Act, if a doctor working in the detention system becomes aware of a case of child abuse, they commit an offence if they report it. In theory, they face the possibility of two years in jail if they report a case of child sex abuse in the detention system. Madeline’s book reveals numerous cases of child sex abuse in the Nauru detention centre: she reveals them because doctors have had the courage to let their ethics transcend their personal interests.
No one has yet been prosecuted under section 42 of the Border Force Act, but its chilling effect is clear.
What Offshore makes clear is that Australia is brutalising anyone who risks their life to come to Australia to seek safety. Given that Australia played an important role in the formulation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the wake of the second World War, it is a sobering irony that we are now playing a leading role in degrading human rights, and we are doing it because of the dishonest rhetoric of politicians such as John Howard, Philip Ruddock, Kevin Rudd, Tony Abbott, Scott Morrison and Peter Dutton.
Last week, Stephen Charles QC, a former judge of the Victorian Court of Appeal, published an opinion piece in the Fairfax press. In it, he observed:
“The camps in Manus Island and Nauru have long since ceased to be mere detention centres. They are now concentration camps.“
That statement, which 10 years ago would have been dismissed as hysterical alarmism, is now uncontestable. But it provoked no great concern. As we slip down a dangerous moral slope, our politicians assure us it is all for our own protection.
Modern human rights discourse started immediately after the second world war. When the Nazi concentration camps were opened, the world drew breath in horror seeing proof of what had happened. Most civilized nations resolved that it should never happen again. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was inspired by the horrors of the Holocaust. Most of the great human rights instruments came in the wake of the Universal Declaration.
But the tide turned on September 11, 2001, and I suspect that in many countries the idea of human rights is now seen very differently. People are more concerned with protecting themselves than with protecting grand ideals like human rights, probably because they think they’ll always be in the un-persecuted majority.
I have two fears – and I hope I’m wrong about them.
First, that in 50 years from now people might look back on the second half of the twentieth century as “the time when they thought about human rights”, like we look back to the first few decades of the twentieth century and say, oh, they used to talk about eugenics back then. Eugenics was the creation of Francis Galton in the late nineteenth century. It was taken seriously until Hitler gave eugenics a bad name.
In the late nineteenth century people used to talk about spiritualism. It was an area of thought that was taken seriously by many people, including seriously clever people.
You don’t hear about spiritualism or eugenics anymore. It’s not just that people don’t take them seriously as ideas anymore; people don’t think about them anymore. They are ideas which have been removed from the intellectual table.
It worries me that, in 20 or 30 or 40 years from now, people may no longer think about human rights. It may just be seen as one of those historical curiosities that people used to think about.
My second fear is this: that Malcolm Turnbull will win the Federal election on 2 July, but with a reduced majority, and that he will be rolled in the party room…and Scott Morrison will become our Prime Minister.
As I say, I hope I am wrong about both these things
But if that is where we end up, Madeline Gleeson’s wonderful book will be an enduring reminder that human rights matter, and that right now, in Australia, our politicians are betraying the fundamental ideals of human rights.
And it will be a fitting epitaph to the political career of Scott Morrison.