Postcards from the Edge: On asylum seekers and the language of cruelty



First in a series on the state of Australia

By Warwick McFadyen

A small section of the product was damaged beyond repair this week.

The Prime Minister regretted the irreparable nature of the damage. ‘‘We all regret the death the honourable member referred to (of) the person detained in PNG,’’ he said.

The person to whom the damage was done had a name. He was Hamed Shamshiripour, an Iranian national. Turnbull didn’t call him by name. He was the person detained. He was part of the ‘’product’’ by which the Prime Minister called the detainees on Manus Island and Nauru when he spoke to US President Donald Trump by phone.

“It is not because they are bad people. It is because in order to stop people smugglers, we had to deprive them of the product,’’ he told Trump.

It is easy to rationalise this use of language, to cut Turnbull some slack, because after all he was trying to talk to a child, who only knows that to succeed in this world you have to come out on top. You have to master the deal, screw the opposition in fact. So, it is easy to think, well Turnbull is using terms that the listener will appreciate. After all, they were speaking of a transaction, and they’re both transactional businessmen.

But here was a man. He lived and breathed, even in capture, even condemned to limbo, a victim to a vast indefinite indifference. And it did him in. The cruelty inflicted on the more than 1600 on Manus Island and Nauru is such that even Trump told Turnbull he was worse than himself. Of course, Trump has no sense of history or perspective, or he would have said Turnbull was just one of many who in this country are worse than he. Trump wants to build a wall. Kids’ stuff mate.

You come by boat and we don’t even care if you’re the President of the United States, you’ll be tossed onto an island, and left to be someone else’s problem. That’s the principle, and it applies to everyone on Earth, from theoretically a Nobel Prize winner to a nobody. It’s all product.

The government can live with the product getting more damaged as time goes by – six, seven, eight dead, it doesn’t matter. It can live with the global condemnation from human rights groups and the United Nations, and goody-two shoes bleeding hearts at home. Doesn’t matter.

What matters is the deal. Turnbull as much as begged on crooked knee to Trump to uphold it because “this is a very big issue for us, particularly domestically”. Turnbull didn’t even care about the outcome as long as Trump went through with the process. That’s all anybody needs to see – that there was a transaction of product. And in a scene from Lewis Carroll, Australia will not accept these refugees, but it will accept some of America’s unwanted, for the sake of the deal.

When the centre on Manus Island closes in October, humanitarian agencies are anxious that the detainees will be cast adrift even further. Tensions are rising among the detainees and the alien world in which they find themselves. PNG admits that those who try to enter outside life find it too difficult.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi says the death of Hamed Shamshiripour “highlights the precarious situation for vulnerable people on Manus Island’’.

Even Trump asked why Australia didn’t just take them in. How’s that? Our moral compass is questioned by Donald Trump. And the answer? They came by boat.

This is not a matter of future freight deliveries. It’s about the here and now and doing the right thing. Do you think if Albert Einstein was on a boat we’d toss him off to a speck of sand in the middle of the ocean and say, you’re on your own? Or WB Yeats, or Barack Obama? Turnbull would. He said so.

The language of politics is a product of the times. Are these times in Australia so bereft of compassion that innocent life, life that has done no harm, is labelled akin to unwanted cargo?

Warwick McFadyen is a freelance writer and editor


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