The view from Billinudgel

Morrison looks the other way
Mental health is taken seriously in Australia, but not for those incarcerated on Nauru


Scott Morrison has announced that the Productivity Commission is to inquire into mental illness and how it affects the Australian economy. There are those who would prefer an inquiry into the plight of those who suffer from mental illness, and their families, rather than the government’s bottom line, but it must count as a positive; it suggests that mental illness is regarded as a serious issue – at least in Australia.

But not, it appears, for those whom our Christian prime minister incarcerates on Nauru. The impeccably credentialled international charity Médecins Sans Frontières has been peremptorily instructed to cease treating Australia’s refugees on the island because the country’s autocratic leader says it is no longer necessary.

And in his own appalling terms, Baron Waqa is right: since Australia is clearly not interested in taking responsibility for the desperate men, women and children it has delivered to his clutches, why should he bother? Let them rot – as long, of course, as Australia pays him to let them do so.

The distinguished lawyer Geoffrey Watson sees this as simply a cynical commercial arrangement: Waqa’s corrupt administration trousers $3000 a month per refugee, and the more of that that can be retained as profit, the better. Thus outsiders – and especially those with the special knowledge to know how broken the system has become – are decidedly unwelcome; the money boat must not be rocked.

There is an alternative interpretation, which is that Waqa is simply being arrogant and petulant. If that is the case it is up to the Australian government to point out firstly that we are talking about human beings, and secondly that Australia put them there and sends the money to keep them there: we pay the piper and should be calling the tune.

But Morrison replies with the robotic response that it has absolutely nothing to do with him, it is purely a matter for Nauru. Apart from being wrong in international law, this offends both common decency and common sense.

Any number of health professionals have explained the parlous effects of long-term detention, the hopelessness that leads to despair and self-harm. They’ve argued for the immediate need of not only the palliative treatment MSF was able to provide but also the far more effective long-term therapy, which is available in Australia.

But Morrison and his crew are unmoved. On the rare occasions when a patient’s condition is so dire that a medical evacuation is authorised, it may or may not be in time to make a significant difference, but whether it is or not, the individual is sent straight back to Nauru to start the whole cycle of humiliation and degradation again.

Waqa’s edict has done one useful thing: it has made it clear that our government’s campaign of persecution and brutality is deliberate. Morrison has all the clout he needs to protest, to insist on providing at least marginally humane conditions, but has chosen not to. Like the priest and the Levite in the parable, Morrison the Pentacostalist has chosen to pass by on the other side.

Worse, in fact: he has effectively sold innocent asylum seekers into a form of slavery. And why not? At least the Old Testament part of his Bible allows it. No need for an inquiry there.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum is a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Visit his blog, The View from Billinudgel.

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