February 3, 2016

How has it come to this?

By Robert Manne
How has it come to this?
Our asylum-seeker system has been taken over by a rigid, irrational mindset

Now that the High Court has decided that the offshore detention of asylum seekers is lawful, reports suggest that the Turnbull Government is considering returning 234 asylum seekers to Nauru along with the 33 babies of these asylum seekers born in Australia. Given what everyone knows about the spiritual, psychological and bodily ruin that accompanies indefinite detention on Nauru, if the reports turn out to be true this will be a genuinely monstrous act which will outrage millions of decent citizens.

Outrage and acts of protest, however, are not enough. If things are to change, if the decision is to be reversed, what we need is to try to get the prime minister to acknowledge and to reject the thinking that has brought us to a place where it is now possible that a decision of this kind can be taken by the responsible minister of an important department of the Australian Commonwealth Government.

From 1992, deterrence has provided the motive force of the asylum-seeker policy of every Commonwealth government, with one brief exception. The deterrent measures have steadily increased. At first we placed asylum seekers who arrived by boat in mandatory detention. Then we decided to give temporary protection to those asylum seekers who were found to be refugees. When those two measures failed to deter, we began to send the asylum seekers to offshore detention camps and to use the navy to intercept asylum seeker boats and to return those who arrived by boat to their point of departure. The last two deterrence measures succeeded in stopping the boats as clearly as the first two measures had failed.

Kevin Rudd’s first government was the only one which began to dismantle part of the deterrent system, both offshore processing and turn-back. The consequence was a thousand drownings and 50,000 new arrivals. As a result of the experience of the Rudd and then Gillard governments, a strange mindset came to dominate the thinking of both the Department of Immigration and Border Protection and its responsible minister. This mindset suggested that if any single brick of the Australian asylum seeker deterrent system was removed, the whole building would collapse.

This mindset is entirely irrational. Its irrationality is perfectly exemplified by a recent incident. Doctors at the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne, who were appalled by the fact that they were treating children who had been traumatised by the government’s detention policy, mounted a protest. In response, the minister, Peter Dutton, reminded them that the consequence of allowing these children out of detention would be naval officers removing drowned bodies of asylum seekers from the ocean. The idea that allowing a few children out of detention in Australia would act as an international signal that would see the return of the people smuggling trade was insane. What it revealed was that the minister and his department had simply lost touch with reality.

The same insanity attends the idea that in order to stop the return of asylum seeker boats we must now destroy the lives of 267 asylum seekers, including children and babies, by transporting them to the hell of Nauru. Everyone who thinks about the issue for a moment would realise that if these people are allowed to remain in Australia, there is zero chance that this would act as a signal that would see the return of the people-smuggling trade. It follows that if the minister decides to implement what has been reported to be his plan, 267 lives will be utterly and predictably destroyed, entirely without purpose.

I do not believe that the minister or the senior members of his department are wanton sadists. How then can such behaviour be explained? There is a clue in two of the greatest political books on the 20th century—Vaclav Havel’s The Power of the Powerless and Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem.

Havel explained that the engine that drove the political system of his country, post-totalitarian Czechoslovakia, was something he called “automaticity”. Things which served no-one’s interest or no social purpose continued according to a certain pattern because that is how things had long been done. Our asylum-seeker deterrent system now carries on automatically, through the force of bureaucratic inertia, without the need for thought about its purpose, or about the relation of different elements of the system to each other, or concern about the relation of means to ends. Automaticity now shapes the behaviour of the minister and the senior officials of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection.

The most important idea in Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem is the banality of evil. The idea is usually misunderstood. In essence what Arendt tried to explain was how evil acts might be perpetrated by conventional individuals because of their blindness: their loss, for one or another reason, of the capacity to see what it was that they were doing.  Arendt’s idea helped explain how the atmosphere created within Nazi Germany allowed the most extreme of all state-sponsored acts of political evil to appear to a conventional character like Eichmann to be normal. But the extreme context from which the idea emerged does not mean that the concept of the banality of evil cannot illuminate far smaller matters.

The minister of immigration and his senior officials are presently considering destroying the lives of 267 fellow human beings for no purpose. They are willing to allow this to happen because, as a consequence of the irrational but consensual mindset that now has them in its grip, they have lost, in the Arendtian sense, the capacity to see the monstrousness of what it that they are proposing to do.

When Turnbull replaced Tony Abbott as prime minister he had and deserved the respect of many liberal, progressive and humane Australians. He is an intelligent man who need not, and, I hope, does not, accept the conventional mindset that now dominates the Department of Immigration and Border Protection and its minister and that has allowed this moment to arrive. If through political calculation or cowardice or indifference, he does not now intervene and save the lives of the 267 human beings which are about to be destroyed, he will be regarded with anger and contempt by millions of open-hearted Australians. Such anger and contempt will be thoroughly deserved. 

Robert Manne

Robert Manne is emeritus professor of politics and vice-chancellor’s fellow at La Trobe University. His most recent books are The Mind of the Islamic State and On Borrowed Time.

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