It is the logic of our times:
No subject for immortal verse
That we who lived by honest dreams
Defend the bad against the worse.
(Cecil Day-Lewis Where are the War Poets, 1943)
Most people understand intuitively the importance of language. We all use it every day in order to function in society. Society without language is inconceivable. But as the torrent of words increases, we come to know that words can be used to trap us or to free us; to help us or hurt us.
In most circumstances, language is intended to convey meaning. Ideally, it should do so accurately. Some writers and speakers betray this ideal, and use language as a stalking horse for quite different ideas they wish to disguise or dare not acknowledge.
Depending on circumstances, this technique may be called tact, diplomacy, euphemism, doublespeak or lying. The proper description depends on the speaker’s purpose.
Tact sets out to avoid giving offence. It suppresses or disguises an unhappy truth to spare the feelings of another. It is falsehood in the service of kindness; a down-payment on future favour. When tact is lifted from the personal to the national scale, it is called diplomacy.
Euphemism does not directly suppress the truth, but disguises it by substituting gentle words for harsher ones. Its intention is benign, if somewhat fey. Its excesses of delicacy inspired Dr Bowdler to strip Shakespeare of any disturbing content: removing, as he said, its ‘blemishes’. Euphemism is especially needed where body parts and body functions are the subject: a cheap frock for recognised facts.
Tact is kind; diplomacy is useful; euphemism is harmless and sometimes entertaining. By contrast, doublespeak is dishonest and dangerous.
When Cecil Day-Lewis wrote the words above, the world was wracked by Hitler’s war. Hitler had done much to restore the fortunes and spirit of the German nation, a nation which had been nearly destroyed by the terms of the Treaty of Versailles.
But Hitler had also been engaged in enterprises which the world would eventually deplore; much of what he did was masked in falsehood; and what was seen and known of its worst excesses was covered over, or denied or ignored by allied powers who did not find truth convenient in that desperate time. The allies knew of Hitler’s death camps but did nothing.
In his closing address at Nuremberg, US prosecutor Robert Jackson said:
‘Lying has always been a highly approved Nazi technique. Hitler, in Mein Kampf, advocated mendacity as a policy. Von Ribbentrop admits the use of the “diplomatic lie.” Keitel advised that the facts of rearmament be kept secret so that they could be denied at Geneva. Raeder deceived about rebuilding the German Navy in violation of Versailles. Goering urged Ribbentrop to tell a “legal lie” to the British Foreign Office about the Anschluss, and in so doing only marshaled him the way he was going. Goering gave his word of honour to the Czechs and proceeded to break it. Even Speer proposed to deceive the French into revealing the specially trained among their prisoners.
Nor is the lie direct the only means of falsehood. They all speak with a Nazi double talk with which to deceive the unwary. In the Nazi dictionary of sardonic euphemisms “final solution” of the Jewish problem was a phrase which meant extermination “special treatment” of prisoners of war meant killing; “protective custody” meant concentration camp; “duty labor” meant slave labor; and an order to “take a firm attitude” or “take positive measures” meant to act with unrestrained savagery. Before we accept their word at what seems to be its face, we must always look for hidden meanings. Goering assured us, on his oath, that the Reich Defense Council never met “as such.” When we produced the stenographic minutes of a meeting at which he presided and did most of the talking, he reminded us of the “as such” and explained this was not a meeting of the Council “as such” because other persons were present…’
Twisting the truth was a commonplace in Hitler’s Germany, but politicians in many regimes use the same technique: a fact emphasised by George Orwell in Politics and the English Language (1946) and in Nineteen Eightyfour (1948). Orwell wrote of the misuse of language by politicians:
‘A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details. The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink.’
It is an astonishing thing that, although Orwell showed the stage tricks used by the main offenders, those tricks continue to work. We sit, most of us, like captivated schoolchildren in a sideshow alley, spellbound as the hucksters of language deceive and dissemble. The contagion of dishonest language has not abated.
When senior politicians speak today, it is essential to listen acutely to appreciate that they are simply staying on message whilst avoiding truth, accuracy or anything remotely approaching an answer to the question they have been asked. Even when they appear to be answering the question, you have to look very closely to see which part of the question they are answering. Remember the skillful evasions of Mr Howard when he was asked a question in Parliament by the Member for Chisholm:
ANNA BURKE, MEMBER FOR CHISHOLM: Prime Minister, was the Government contacted by the major Australian producer of ethanol or by any representative of him or his company or the industry association before its decision to impose fuel excise on ethanol?
JOHN HOWARD, PRIME MINISTER: Speaking for myself, I didn’t personally have any discussions, from recollection, with any of them.
A document obtained by the Opposition under freedom of information laws records a meeting between John Howard and Dick Honan about ethanol, just six weeks before the decision. But Mr Howard says he spoke the truth; that his answer related to a different part of the question and that he has been taken out of context.
This same inclination to use language in order to deceive has infected the public service. At a public meeting in April 2002, I had the opportunity to debate aspects of refugee policy with one Philippa Godwin, then the Deputy Secretary of the Department of Immigration. Philippa Godwin is clearly a woman of great intelligence. I asked her a question about a fence which surrounds the Baxter Detention Centre. The fence is described on a plan of Baxter as a ‘courtesy fence’. I suggested that it was in fact an electric fence. ‘No,’ she insisted ‘It is not an electric fence. It is an energized fence.’ A 9,000 volt energized fence.
Doublespeak uses language to smuggle uncomfortable ideas into comfortable minds. The Nazi regime were masters at it. The Howard Government was an enthusiastic apprentice. The Morrison government is devoted to it: after all, Scott Morrison learned at the feet of John Howard.
The victims of protective reaction air strikes, or incontinent ordnance, or active defence, or fraternal internationalist assistance, often flee for safety. A small number of them arrive in Australia asking for help. They commit no offence under Australian or international law by arriving here, without invitation and without papers, in order to seek protection. Nonetheless the Australian Government referred to them then, and still refers to them, as ‘illegals’.
Like all doublespeak, ‘illegals’ is used for a purpose: these people are immediately locked up without trial. No doubt it seems less offensive to lock up ‘illegals’ than to lock up innocent, traumatised human beings. When Scott Morrison became Immigration Minister in the government of Tony Abbott, he tried to rename that group “illegal maritime arrivals”. (The Migration Act refers to them, more accurately, as “irregular maritime arrivals”).
They are also disparaged as ‘queue jumpers’: a neat device which falsely suggests two things. First that there is a queue, and second that it is in some way appropriate to stand in line when your life is at risk.
In July 2013, the law was changed so that all “irregular maritime arrivals” had to be sent offshore (to Manus Island, Papua New Guinea, if they were unaccompanied males, or to Nauru if they were women, children or family groups).
Until the law changed in 2013, when the ‘illegals/queue jumpers’ arrived in Australia, they were ‘detained’ in ‘Immigration Reception and Processing Centres’. This description is false in every detail. They were locked up without trial, for an indefinite period – typically months or years – in desert camps which are as remote from civilisation as it is possible to be. They were held behind razor wire and slowly sank into hopelessness and despair.
Mr Howard’s congenital dishonesty deceived a nation into accepting these obscenities, while he massaged our conscience with soft words for hard things.
At its foundations, democracy depends on a degree of honesty in politicians. The essence of democracy is that the elected representatives are chosen because their constituents think this candidate or that will best represent their views in parliament. If a candidate lies about his or her beliefs and values, the democratic process is compromised. The greater the lie, the greater the damage to the true course of democracy.
Equally important, the conduct of politicians sets an example for all of us. Children learn by watching our leaders: Mr Howard won the 2001 election by lying: he said, falsely, that some refugees had thrown their children overboard. Refugees were the hot issue in November 2001. Mr Howard showed that it is OK to lie as long as you win. The effects of this, and his many other excursions in dishonesty, will take a long time to eradicate.
Family values was one of the great catch cries of the Howard Government. They came to office in 1996 under the banner of ‘Family Values’. On 8 July 2004, in a major speech in Adelaide, Mr. Howard declared that he stood for a ‘fair and decent society’. These are noble sentiments, but were they to be taken at full value or were they to be interpreted by some special code which we can only discover by looking at what Mr Howard did?
Just a month after the Adelaide speech, the Howard government won an important refugee case in the High Court. Mr al Kateb arrived in Australia in mid-December 2000. He was born in Kuwait. His request for asylum was refused. He found conditions in Woomera so intolerable that he asked to be removed from Australia. Eighteen months later he was still here because, being a stateless Palestinian, there was no country where he was entitled to be, and no country was willing to receive him.
The Migration Act provides that a person who comes to Australia without a visa must be detained, and they must remain in detention until either they get a visa or they are removed from the country. When the Keating government introduced those measures in 1992, one supposes that Parliament suspected that either of those two outcomes would be available in every instance.
They had not allowed for the anomalous case of stateless people. You might think that a government which has paraded itself virtuously as committed to a fair and decent society, with family values and so on, might quickly amend the law to account for these few anomalous cases. But what the government did, in fact, was to argue at every level of the court system that Mr al Kateb, although he had committed no offence in Australia, could be held in detention for the rest of his life. The government won in the High Court, on 6 August 2004.
The thought of an innocent person being jailed for the rest of his life is so shocking that it is impossible to resist the impulse to try and do something about it. Anyone, even the most hardened, must find it a dreadful thing to imagine the circumstances of a person being held in detention forever when they have not committed any offence. It should be a matter of real concern that a government ostensibly committed to a ‘fair and decent society’ is willing to argue for the right to jail the innocent for life.
Likewise, the treatment of the Bakhtiyari family is impossible to reconcile with Mr Howard’s asserted adherence to Christian values and family values.
The family’s claim for asylum foundered, apparently because the government thought they came from Pakistan, not Afghanistan. Like many asylum seekers, they were jailed in Woomera.
Locking up innocent people for years has certain fairly obvious and predictable consequences, especially if the prisoners are children. Depending on their age, resilience and personality, children will retreat into depression and incontinence, or they will take charge by harming themselves or attempting suicide. Either way, the effect on children of prolonged detention is devastating.
The Bakhtiyari case gained a certain notoriety, because the two boys escaped from Woomera, having tried to kill themselves at the tender ages of twelve and fourteen. Regardless of doubt about which country they had fled, one thing was clear: we damaged these children. They were not to blame. The harm they suffered was the obvious and predictable consequence of the treatment we inflicted.
It continued just before Christmas, when their house in Adelaide was raided and they were taken to Port Augusta in preparation for removal from Australia. The baby had a dirty nappy: the mother was not allowed to change it; the younger girl wet her pants in fright; but she was not allowed to change before the five hour drive. Alamdar – his face made familiar to us on TV as he screamed in terror through the steel bars at Woomera – Alamdar was afraid to sleep at night in case of another sudden, wrenching raid. And all the children were haunted by terrors childhood should never know.
The Australian government is responsible for damaging these children. It had a choice at Christmas 2004: to enforce the policy rigidly, or to show kindness to a few damaged children and their parents.
Their response was an interesting test of their pretended Christian values.
The government’s policy of punitive deterrence succeeded in shutting off almost completely the trickle of unauthorised arrivals to Australia. The drowning of 353 people on SIEV X effectively ended the people smugglers’ trade. It is difficult to imagine that sparing the Bakhtiyari family would have triggered a spate of new arrivals, eager to spend years behind razor wire. From there on the cruelty was truly pointless.
On the other hand, showing compassion to the Bakhtiyari family would have been consistent with family values, Christian charity, fairness and decency – the values Mr Howard claimed to hold. His government chose to remove the family, despite increasing public concern.
The removal of the Bakhtiyari family reflected on the character of this country’s leadership. Mr Howard, Mr Ruddock and Mrs Vanstone were personally responsible for the shocking damage suffered by those children. Those politicians held themselves out as Christians; they embraced ‘family values’. But at Christmas time in 2004 they denied kindness or compassion to six children whose lives they had blighted.
Scott Morrison’s mistreatment of the Tamil family previously living in Biloela (Queensland) is another example of the same mentality. The family comprised: mother, father and Australian-born daughters (aged 4 and 3 at the time). In 2018, the PM re-opened the detention centre in Christmas Island just for that family. To make it clear that he intended to return them to Sri Lanka, he held a vastly expensive press conference on Christmas Island.
Unfortunately, the government – then and now – seems concerned that mercy and compassion set a bad precedent. Given that the government had a discretion to allow the family to stay, it is difficult to understand why it insisted on removing a family it had damaged so badly, unless its purpose was to send a message: not to people smugglers, but to us. Its message to us is this: We hold absolute power; we do not have to acknowledge public sentiment; we can crush anyone who messes with us.
This is why honesty matters. Imagine the reaction at the polls if John Howard had told the truth. Imagine if, in 2001, he had said:
‘I know the asylum seekers did not throw their children overboard – they were just doing what any decent parent would do – they were trying to save them from the Taliban, or Saddam Hussein.’
Imagine if he had said at the 2004 election:
‘My government locks up innocent people. We treat them cruelly, because we don’t want to encourage their type. We have power to gaol innocent people for life. I will not help the Bakhtiyari children at Christmas time because I don’t have to. I will only show compassion for popular victims.’
Imagine also how different things might be if the press in this country had shown some spine over the past few years. Many – perhaps most – journalists in Australia today shy away from unpopular truths. The case of Cornelia Rau provided an interesting example. Cornelia Rau was held in immigration detention for nearly a year – initially in a Queensland prison, then in Baxter. She was obviously mentally disturbed. The officials at Baxter deemed her to be mentally sound, but showing ‘behavioural difficulties’. She was held in isolation for most of her time in Baxter. As long as she was Anna, ‘an illegal’ no one outside the refugee network was interested, despite Pamela Curr’s valiant attempts to bring her story to light. Once it was revealed that she was an Australian citizen, the press was in uproar. The story ran for weeks.
In the wake of the Cornelia Rau story, other stories of systemic cruelty in Baxter emerged. For example, Francis Milne, one of the centre’s volunteers from the Uniting Church told the story of Hassan, a 37-year-old Algerian man. He spent nine weeks in solitary confinement in Baxter because he had threatened to commit suicide. He was subjected to a cavity search in front of two females.
And there is the case of Amin, who was in Baxter with his seven year old daughter.
On 14 July 2003, three ACM guards entered Amin’s room and ordered him to strip. He refused, because his seven-year old daughter was in the room. When he refused to strip, the guards beat him up, handcuffed him, and took him to the ‘Management Unit’.
The Management Unit is a series of solitary confinement cells.
I have viewed a video tape of one of the Management Unit cells. It shows a cell about 3½ metres square, with a mattress on the floor. There is no other furniture; the walls are bare. A doorway, with no door, leads into a tiny bathroom. The cell has no view outside; it is never dark. The occupant has nothing to read, no writing materials, no TV or radio; no company yet no privacy because a video camera observes and records everything, 24 hours a day. The detainee is kept in the cell 23 ½ hours a day. For half an hour a day he is allowed into a small exercise area where he can see the sky.
There he stayed from 14 July until 23 July: each 24 hours relieved only by a half-hour visit from his daughter. But on 23 July she did not come. It was explained to him that she had been taken shopping in Port Augusta.
The next day, 24 July, she did not arrive for her visit: the manager came and explained that the daughter was back in Tehran. She had been removed from Australia under cover of a lie, without giving Amin the chance to say goodbye to her.
Anyone who has visited Baxter knows stories like these. But these stories disappear without a trace because the press, with some honourable exceptions, are only interested in the sufferings of an Australian resident.
In presenting an unbalanced view of Australia’s conduct, by not exposing the dishonesty of the Howard and Morrison governments, the press engages in its own form of dishonesty. They help maintain the comfortable illusion of our own worthiness, and we are blind to a society turning sour. When the process is complete, when we have been stripped of our liberties for our own protection, when the values which once held this nation high have been terminally debased, then we will realise that honesty matters.