December 2017

Are we “honourable people”?

Why do the majority of Australians support a Government policy that is illegal, cruel, inflicted on hapless people and contrary to international conventions that we have voluntarily signed, asks Sister Rita Hayes.

BY Rita Hayes SGS

In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, he has Mark Antony give a now famous speech (Act III, Scene ii) when he juxtaposes a narration of each disloyal action of Brutus with a seemingly contradictory exclamation: “But Brutus is an honourable man!” While no Mark Antony, I find myself making a similar exclamation in regard to what is currently happening in Australian society.

At present I have the privilege of working with the Brigidine Asylum Seekers Project in Melbourne, where I meet with numerous volunteers from all walks of ordinary Australian life. I had assumed that what motivated us in our work was pretty typical of the majority of Australians, who may not necessarily be involved in such a ‘hands-on’ way.

But I now find myself almost consumed with concern and frustrations because I am confronted in the daily events of life with people whose tacit support for the Government’s refugee policy has emboldened the Coalition and has the complicit endorsement of the majority party Opposition. These are people I meet at church, over coffee, in the shopping centre and frequently in the letters page of certain newspapers.

In an echo of Mark Antony I exclaim to myself over and over: “But these are all honourable people!” – people who would see themselves as kind, generous and committed to the ethic of the ‘fair go for all’, especially for the underdog.

Why then do the majority (according to the polls) of Aussies support a Government policy that is illegal, cruel, inflicted on hapless people and contrary to international conventions that we have voluntarily signed?

So then, my query is not just a question of political difference. Support or opposition for our Government’s refugee policy goes to the heart of who we are as a people. My concern is not only for the asylum seekers incarcerated in our detention centres or in limbo in community detention, but it is for us Australians, and the legacy we will pass on to future generations.

In a recent powerful article in The Guardian Australia, Richard Flanagan states: “Australia built a hell for refugees on Manus. The shame will outlive us all”. Do we care? The polls tell us the majority don’t. Was this article taken up and widely broadcast on air, in print, on TV? Why was it not newsworthy? When future generations ask: why did you let this happen? Can we answer: we didn’t know about it?

In OUR detention camps the inmates – men, women and children – are identified by numbers. Little children have to answer to a number! Am I talking about the Nazi concentration camps? No, I am talking about Manus Island and Nauru! Medical professionals, social workers and teachers working in these camps were threatened with two years’ jail if they reported publicly of the abuses that they witnessed. Does this make headlines in our papers?

We have just spent weeks of parliamentary time arguing over what constitutes freedom of speech and what threatens it within Australia. Why are these same honourable people deaf and blind to the travesties of justice perpetrated by our Government on asylum seekers and those who try to help them?

“Once we Australians had led the world in democratic reform,” says Richard Flanagan. “Now we are seen globally as the inventors of a particularly vile form of 21st century repression, in which the innocent are subjected to suffering in a prison where the crime is never named, no sentence is ever passed, and punishment is assured.”

We know certain elements of the media have been forthright in supporting Government policy, denouncing any opposition as emanating from the Greens, left-wing radicals, ‘bleeding hearts’, and un-thinking proponents of allowing everyone into the country. Their commentary is usually assertive, as distinct from factual, repetitive of populous mantras, scare-mongering and productive of a fake and dangerous nationalism.

My question is, why do so many accept this as truth? And my concern is that it is what they want to hear. I say this because the veracity of the assertions in this writing is so easy to refute.

Typical of what is proclaimed and, sadly, what is repeated by so many well-meaning people, was evident in a recent daily newspaper article: “The Greens and a small but loud minority of agitators shamelessly engage in untruths and hyperbole to push their open borders agenda”.

Although given little publicity, there has been sufficient acknowledgement that opposition to the deterrent policy has come from Australia’s Catholic bishops, the World Council of Churches, Father Frank Brennan AO, Jesuit priest and Professor of Law at Australian Catholic University, Dr John Falzon, CEO of the St Vincent de Paul Society, Tim Costello, CEO of World Vision Australia, and numerous organisations and community groups, including Amnesty International Australia, Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation, Human Rights Law Centre, to mention a few. These are not the most likely people to “shamelessly engage in untruths and hyperbole…”

Our author continues: “Australia is tarnished by fools with short memories who claim we are running Nazi-style ‘concentration camps’ and ‘torturing asylum seekers’”. It would seem that the “fools with short memories” have considerable support from the highest reputable sources for their accusations.

“Draconian” and “abusive”: these are the words Human Rights Watch uses in its 2017 global report to describe Australia’s treatment of people seeking asylum. This 27th annual review of human rights around the globe highlights the violence, depression and hopelessness experienced by refugees and people seeking asylum on Manus Island and Nauru, as do numerous other UN reports all readily available.

Of course, the raison d’etre for the detention camps has to be trotted out as this is the salve for the conscience of all supporters: “There is nothing compassionate about dangerous policies that lead to hundreds of deaths”. This spurious argument, that promotes indefinite detention that is deleterious to the physical, mental and social well-being of innocent people as necessary in order to save people from drowning, is as ridiculous as it is false.

But if we can get a majority in a population to accept that it is out of compassion that we incarcerate innocent men, women and children, and treat them with physical and psychological cruelty for an indefinite period of time in order to deter others, then my fears for this great country of ours are well founded.

That decent people are prepared to deny all evidence to the contrary and accept this pathetic delusion leads to a logical conclusion that they do so out of selfishness and/or fear. “This is our country and we don’t want you”!

But… these are honourable people!

Rita Hayes

After 35 years teaching in Good Samaritan Secondary Schools, 23 years as principal, Good Samaritan Sister Rita Hayes spent 15 years ministering in Timor Leste, and returned to Australia in 2015. She currently organises the Good Samaritan Scholarship Program for mountain village children in Timor, and is a volunteer with the Brigidine Asylum Seekers Project in Melbourne.

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