Comment: Asylum seeker policy in lockstep

Shadow Immigration Minister Richard Marles during a press conference in Canberra. (AAP)

The events in Manus Island are a disgrace that should have the government running for cover. Yet they don’t need to because the ALP is side by side with them, writes Greg Jericho.

The violent conflicts on Manus Island this week highlighted the warped nature of the asylum seekers debate in this country, and also how on this issue the ALP is utterly bereft of a reason for being.

Early this week came news of unrest in the asylum seekers detention centre on Manus Island. As is often the case with such events, information was sketchy, and given Scott Morrison’s delight in being obdurate there was little hope of getting information from him. 

Then the next day came news that one man had been killed and 77 people were injured – 13 of them seriously. Information filtered through that one man had been shot in the buttocks. This forced Mr Morrison to depart from his usual operational matters script and he fronted the media to tell us the bare bones of the incident but little else other than there would be an investigation. Even 24 hours later he was still unable to state whether the man died inside the detention centre or outside. 

So it wasn’t that much of a departure from his usual script. 

The Refugee Rights Network of Western Australia allege the man died from head injuries sustained through being beaten with rocks. Guardian Australia reported one Sudanese asylum seeker saying of the events of the night: “We tried to hide under the containers, but they dragged us out and beat us. We couldn’t get away.”

All in all it is a pretty horrific picture being painted. And all in all it is utterly unsurprising. 

When you have an asylum-seeker policy which involves commissioning a graphic novel that fairly boasts of how awful asylum seekers will be treated it should be no shock that violence will be at the end of it. 

Whether the violence occurred because of unrest by the asylum seekers, or, as is alleged by an interpreter who works for the Department of Immigration, by “PNG locals employed by security guards”, we have a situation of soulless hell created by the Australian government.

And you can’t say it is the Liberal Party’s fault. The graphic novel is a case in point. It was commissioned by the ALP government, and approved by the LNP government.  

It’s why the ALP’s opposition on this issue has been absolutely woeful. The best that they have been able to come up with is that the Abbott government has lost control of the situation. But it’s a bit like pushing someone down a hill in a shopping trolley and blaming them for not steering it properly. 

And the LNP are not off the hook, because they not only volunteered to get into the shopping trolley, they chose the most bent up one they could find. 

The asylum seekers debate for most of the media and the two political parties is debated through the same frame – the boats must be stopped and how that is done is largely irrelevant, because nothing done on behalf of our government (whether directly or not), can be considered too cruel.

Both sides and vast sections of the media have bought into the “need to be cruel to be kind” belief, and thus when cruelty occurs, well, too bad. 

Underneath it all is the supposition that asylum seekers brought it on themselves, because if they didn’t want to be treated cruelly they shouldn’t have come. 

Just listen, if you can bear it, to the interview of the opposition spokesperson Richard Marles and 2GB’s Ben Fordham. The entire 10 minutes is spoken through the frame of who stopped the boats. After listing the death and numbers of injuries, the discussion veers immediately into how important Manus Island is to stopping the boats and who can claim credit for the drop in boat arrivals. 

Neither even for a second considers that the man’s death and the 77 injured people displays that the Manus Island detention centre should be closed down, and that we need to treat people with respect rather than contract out our soul to the PNG government and the 4GS security firm. 

The events in Manus Island are a disgrace that should have the government running for cover. And yet they don’t need to because the ALP is side by side with them. 

The opposition have nothing different to offer other than “we would have done it better”. When Tony Abbott yesterday talked of not succumbing to moral blackmail he wasn’t referring to the opposition.  

The Prime Minister also made it clear the frame though which the entire incident is to be viewed. He noted that “these camps... will be firm if necessary, because the important thing and the fairest thing you can do for anyone is to stop the boats and to finally stamp out the evil trade of people smuggling which has done so much damage to this country”.

Being cruel to be kind has morphed into being firm to be fair. 

The Prime Minister did not state what specific damage to our country people smuggling has done , but for mine, the only damage done to our country is that which has been done by the policies of both major parties.

For we are now at a point where death and serious injury of people is considered less important than who gets to take credit for stopping the boats. 

And for the political debate to get to such a point suggests we have all been irreparably damaged. 

Greg Jericho is an economics and politics blogger and writes for The Guardian and The Drum.

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