An Australian Story: Moral ​Breakdown

6 Aug 2016

N’s voice was tense; he was scared. He kept apologising for imposing, his heavily accented English and my deafness an unfortunate combination. I had asked him to call me an hour later as I was on a deadline. He told me he couldn’t as he feared for his safety. I realised my ridiculous insensitivity at thinking my agenda should beat his.

So we talked. N, an Iranian Kurd, an activist for peace and culture, a geographer and GIS expert, is a marked man. He had been forced to flee Iran, which, like the country I live in, is superficially charming, but has the remnants of deep-set enmities ready to deliver death or incarceration to those perceived as threats.

I had explained that I’m an environmental writer, ’a trees and monkeys person’. I also write about dam-building in a totalitarian nation where dams provide inestimable money-laundering possibilities, so much so that I have been warned my own safety is at risk. So we do have something in common, but the threat to me is abstract, his is concrete and immediate. The difference between us is that I have a passport and money to leave.

Now in Kirkuk, N is, as Blanche famously said, dependent on the kindness of strangers and has no access to an escape route.

After I pressed the red hang-up symbol, I felt pressure building in my chest, my pulse rapid. I was fighting back tears. I had absorbed his fear, but it was my helplessness that was debilitating. His is a fear based in reality, forcing him to keep moving, not sleep in the same bed for more than two nights; the fear of speaking not knowing who you are really talking to in a world where operatives from all sides keep the fear happening; where governments, including ours, know the consequences and the routes and do nothing to intervene. Pauline Hansen talks about a fear I imagine she has never experienced. ‘Go back where you came from’ omits the ‘and be murdered’ conclusion.

The ABC’s Four Corners story on the Northern Territory juvenile injustice system—’Australia’s Shame’—upon airing on August 1 was greeted by national and then international outrage. But silence greeted the Australian Story episode that screened just the week before that Four Corners episode about Mojgan Shamsalipoor, a courageous young woman who had fled from Iran. Despite her hopes for an education, aspirations to be a midwife and an obviously adoring resident husband, Minister Dutton has denied her a visa. She was hauled out of Yeronga High School to the obvious distress of teachers and students, and sent back into detention. It was ironic that this story of quiet, deliberate brutality was that night’s Australian Story.

Later that night, I found myself watching Jenny Brockie on SBS TV interviewing migrant workers on Insight. Some, she found, had been paid nothing at all and their passports taken, and some had been subjected to abuse.

The stories Brockie was being told replicated those I had heard from Indonesian women returning from the Middle East. When Australia was considering ‘457 visas’ I made my reservations clear to an Australian safety publication. Instantly, commentators assured me that Australia was a ‘civilised’ country (ergo Indonesia and the accepting countries were not) and I was ‘a typical bleeding heart’. I was assured ‘Australia has laws’; but in many cases Brockie was told that a worker’s visa status was the reason they did not, or could not, complain. The man who blew the whistle on the 7/11 wage scam and exploitation of overseas students now faces deportation for showing courage. Indonesia and the Philippines have taken steps to protect workers from bosses like those we now apparently have in Australia.

So is escalating silence, secrecy, violence, racism, exploitation and brutality the new ‘Australian Story’?

Within a week reports emerged of the abuse of Indigenous youth, abuse of refugees and abuse of migrant labour. Add to this the possible adoption of a data-driven welfare system, one New Zealand experts say will brutalise and abuse the already marginalised, and we have sociopathic bingo.

Each issue of abuse is dealt with separately, not seen as part of a general pattern that is emerging of generalised and casual cruelty. It is that bigger picture that concerns me. As a refugee-advocate friend of mine sighed, ‘Australia has gone from fear to hate without stopping at sympathy or compassion’.

It is hard not to think that Australia’s increasingly xenophobic and punitive bureaucratic structures militate against inclusiveness. As incarcerated Iranian Kurdish writer Behrouz Boochani writes: ‘We cannot say that we believe in human rights and principles and… discriminat(e) between people’. He asks ‘why Australian politicians and people don’t care about those reports international organisations like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, UN committee against torture (sic) and … the Australian Senate inquiry [have] published about abuse, … rapes and torture on … Manus and Nauru’.

Perceptively, Behrouz suggests ‘this is the best time for Australia to think deeply about the prison concept and find an answer for this question—why is prison a big part of Australian culture?’ These are the sort of words that riled Iranian authorities. That he remains sharp and accurate while Australians are apparently cowed and unreflective should be of great concern.

As someone who normally lives outside Australia, in a much more social Asia, I sense a severe national pathology. Australian suburbs resemble an ongoing scene from On the Beach. You can dehumanise other people because you never get to know them. Those that do, penetrating the barricades of innuendo and myth enough to care, are also being damaged. ‘I spend increasing time in my garden to fight off the anger and helplessness’, Frederika Steen of Brisbane’s Romero Centre told me. Others disappear into poetry, with dark ominous stanzas wrapped around an increasingly intransigent situation.

A week or so before the recent federal election, John-Paul Sanggaran (University of New South Wales) and Deborah Zion (Victoria University) wrote that there was ‘increasing evidence that Australia is engaged in torturing asylum seekers’. Their paper, published in the British Journal of Medical Ethics, was widely reported in Europe but did not rate a mention in the Australian press. They noted:

Despite the legal gags, allegations of waterboarding … ‘zipping’, whereby an individual is tied to a metal bed frame which is then thrown in the air, force feeding during hunger strikes, restraints used for deportation, and the incarceration of children, have nevertheless surfaced.

Some of these were the practices that so upset viewers, and apparently Malcolm Turnbull, when Aboriginal kids were the victims (although these travesties were insufficient to ‘pique the interest’ of Turnbull’s responsible Minister Scullion).

All these examples of a systematic and dysfunctional nation are seen as fragments, rather than symptomatic of national ethical breakdown. Airport security does little to save Australians from themselves.

– Melody Kemp