February 2014

The Nation Reviewed

Scott Morrison at Shirelive

By Sunil Badami

Presents, prayers and asylum seekers

It’s an overcast Sunday morning in Sydney’s Sutherland Shire, ten days before Christmas. The smiling families who drift into Shirelive Church defy stereotypes offered by “reality” shows like Sylvania Waters and The Shire, not to mention images from real events such as the 2005 Cronulla riots. Among the predominantly blonde and grey heads, there are large numbers of Islanders, Asians and Africans. Some are dressed in designer labels; others boast a range of tattoos, even the odd Southern Cross.

The diversity at this Pentecostal Christian church is embodied by its energetic new senior pastor, Brad Bonhomme, a South African of Mauritian descent. He recently moved from Perth with fellow pastor Alison and their children. Dressed in tailored jacket and jeans, he says of his congregation: “We’re the United Nations!”

Most of the worshippers are bearing gifts. The previous week, Pastor Alison had encouraged them to bring Christmas presents for children who are living with their mothers in a local women’s shelter and in detention at Villawood.

Among the congregation, and looking like any modern dad in shorts and loafers, is the local federal MP, the immigration minister Scott Morrison. One of his two young daughters is carrying a large parcel.

Like the Amnesty International badge–wearing Philip Ruddock before him, the immigration minister considers himself compassionate. In his maiden speech to federal parl­iament six years ago, Morrison proclaimed:

From my faith I derive the values of loving kindness, justice and righteousness, to act with compassion and kindness, acknowledging our common humanity and to consider the welfare of others; to fight for a fair go for everyone to fulfil their human potential and to remove whatever unjust obstacles stand in their way … Desmond Tutu put it this way: ‘We expect Christians … to stand up for the truth, to stand up for justice, to stand on the side of the poor and the hungry, the homeless and the naked, and when that happens, then Christians will be trustworthy believable witnesses.’ These are my principles.

If these sentiments seem inconsistent with Australia’s offshore processing and detention of asylum seekers, it’s worth noting that many of us prefer Prime Minister Tony Abbott, a self-confessed “very imperfect Catholic”, to keep his faith at a similar distance from his political decisions. Still, the chance that a child in detention will open a Christmas present from the man responsible for keeping her there presents an ineluctable irony.

A month earlier, just a few days after his department had reportedly refused to let an asylum seeker stay with her newborn boy, who was in intensive care at Brisbane’s Mater Hospital, Morrison asserted:

It doesn’t matter how much education you’ve had, it doesn’t matter whether you’ve come from Syria, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, anywhere else, it doesn’t matter whether you’re a child, it doesn’t matter whether you’re pregnant, it doesn’t matter whether you’re a woman, it doesn’t matter whether you’re an unaccompanied minor, it doesn’t matter if you have a health condition, if you’re fit enough to get on a boat then you can expect you’re fit enough to end up in offshore processing.

Morrison once told a journalist “how I reconcile [my role] with my faith is, frankly, a matter for me”. Rather than be interviewed for this article, he issued a statement:

I engage my policy responsibilities in the public domain on the merits of the measures I seek to implement … stopping the boats, saving lives and ensuring thousands of people who were waiting for a refugee and special humanitarian visa offshore can now access one.

Together with my family [I am] pleased to participate in and support the activities of Shirelive. They do a great job in our local community and much further afield. They have my full support.

In 2011, Morrison said on ABC radio that the Bible was “not a policy handbook”. In the interview with Julia Baird (who, coincidentally, is the daughter of Morrison’s popular predecessor as local MP, Bruce Baird, a Coalition backbencher who challenged the then prime minister, John Howard, on the issue of offshore processing), he continued: “I think the Bible talks more broadly … I think there are important moral … issues that are highlighted. There are important justice issues which are highlighted. There are important compassion issues that are highlighted … I try and keep those three things in balance.”

As carols play at the gift-giving service, Morrison and his daughter troop onto the stage with everyone else to place their parcels under a glittering Christmas tree. “God loves those who have been maligned or ostracised,” says Pastor Brad. “He is an almighty God, who can reach the hardest heart.”

Later, he gives Morrison a hug and a pat on the back. Pastor Brad may or may not have heard his parishioner announce, a few days earlier, that the government would be terminating the Salvation Army’s welfare and support service contracts on Nauru. Or that, the day before, Morrison’s department implemented a code of conduct that threatens asylum seekers with deportation for minor transgressions.

Four days after the service, the defence force quietly removes workplace safety provisions for navy sailors, exempting them from obligations to take reasonable care of themselves, other sailors and asylum seekers.

“The boats have not yet stopped,” Morrison announces after Christmas, “but they are stopping.”

Sunil Badami

Sunil Badami is a writer and broadcaster.


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