December 2017 – January 2018

Comment

We are all diminished

By Don Watson
Australian politics is full of contradictions, double standards and gaping voids

My mother is 98. As the responsible authorities accept only current passports and licences as photographic proof of identity, when hers expired she lost, as a continuing human being, a certain amount of purchase with them. In the absence of the vital documents, the authorities demanded her birth certificate; alas, when he registered her birth in 1919, her father – a decent citizen in every way, but absent-minded – wrote down the wrong date. He was just a day out, but with these things it may as well have been a decade.

It took 98 years for the authorities to spot the anomaly. Unaware that her father had written the 7th on her birth certificate, all her life on every form she ever filled in my mother had written the 6th. Now they’ve sprung her, and unless we can find a way to satisfy the powers that she is for them as she is for us, and the same person whose existence has been officially accepted for nearly a hundred years, her bed in the aged-care centre will be near as dammit terra nullius.

I suppose we could hire a couple of silks and take it to the High Court, as those parliamentarians were forced to do when, like Grandpa, they slipped up with their forms. But we don’t have the money, and even if we did, we might have to take my mother too – as proof, you know – and she doesn’t travel so well these days. Besides, while we think we have common sense and justice on our side, long experience and our very natures incline us to doubt that the court would so hold, even if Malcolm Turnbull directed the judges. Especially if he directed them.

And it does not help our confidence in the system when, in addition to the case of our almost excessively law-abiding mother, the onus of proof is reversed on thousands of other dutiful citizens, and they are required to prove their innocence or return money paid to them in error by a government agency. Yet, when members of parliament find that through their own carelessness or denial they got themselves elected unlawfully, wise men and women talk of amending the Constitution – a bridge considered much too far if it concerns recognition of the country’s Indigenous people – and the offending pollies are not asked to repay a cent of the millions paid to them from the public purse. It does shake our confidence.

Still, you wouldn’t wish it on your worst enemy. Barnaby Joyce not an Australian? We are all diminished, surely. And there’s the prime minister, as if sitting in the new Tesla, ready to power silently into the future with as many of his colleagues as he can persuade to get in with him, when from nowhere a 19th-century donkey cart lands on the bonnet and makes a comprehensive wreck of his exquisitely innovative 21st-century machine. Was there ever more telling confirmation of William Faulkner’s view that the past is “not even past”?

Of course, it’s not entirely clear that the PM or anyone close to him had figured out how to start the car; or if Eric Abetz hadn’t nicked the software for the reverse limiter that will stop it careering at 200 kilometres an hour backwards through Kingston and into the lake. But were we to salvage from the present constitutional wreckage the lesson that we cannot untether ourselves from history, perhaps all would not be lost. Even as we’re urged to think of nothing but the future, and go passively into it beguiled by the technology and the self-defeating crap it dredges from stygian depths into the palms of our hands, we’ll be mugs if we go colonising Mars or mining the asteroid belt without knowing where we came from.

In Egypt, researchers using cosmic rays have discovered that the Great Pyramid of Giza contains a huge and mysterious void. They have not yet decided what purpose it was meant to serve. Does it add structural strength? Does it contain corpses, treasure, a pharaoh or some kind of plinth giving off an odd noise? Were they saving on bricks?

Or by hiding a void in the pyramid did the builders mean to create an undying symbol of the hiding places to which human beings consign everything they find unpleasant to behold, including their bad consciences?

Australia’s little gulags on Manus Island and Nauru, like all gulags large and small, are the hidden void made concrete. Mad as the parliament thing seems, it’s not as mad as Manus Island, and if only we were not groaning with the weight of our compassion for the MPs caught up in it, we’d love to have some sympathy left over for the people confined there. They, like the MPs, are guilty of nothing but hope and ambition and failing to fill in the forms, but have ended up incarcerated for years. Poor Barnaby Joyce, poor John Alexander, poor all of them, sure: but they know that nothing a fraction as bad is going to happen to them. And that is why, by his recent admission, Joyce continued to serve in the cabinet and to be paid for doing it, expecting all the while to be found ineligible.

The honest way to deal with the people on Manus Island and Nauru would have been to put some in cages on permanent display in city squares, and others in cattle trucks travelling the country with extended stays in provincial malls. Thus the Australian people in whose name the guiltless have been imprisoned could face them squarely, and weep or taunt as their feelings incline them. The cowards’ way is to put them out of sight, and then invent a convenient narrative and new words – such as “illegals” – to satisfy themselves that Australians continue to be good. It is by this process, surely, that a cabinet minister who with good reason finds it “absurd” that he should be punished because his family were refugees does not find it just as absurd for his government to punish refugees on Manus Island and Nauru – or if he does, judges it impolitic to say so.

Chiding the researchers for their “propagandist” announcement, Egypt’s ministry of antiquities said the existence of the void had long been known. In fact, a ministry spokesperson declared, there is more than one void in the pyramid. This might lead us to wonder if the pyramid-builders wished to secretly utter another truth. Maybe those other voids are the unfilled gulags: the places to which those most deserving of incarceration and punishment are never sent.

This is not to recommend that the ineligible MPs be banished to Manus Island or Nauru, or in some other way have their freedom, their families and their years taken from them. But unless we blame them for not being born in such a pleasant place as this, the refugees are guilty of nothing more than the ineligible MPs are, or my mother is – and are no more or less “illegals”.

On the other hand, the people who continue to hold them there, even when other countries offer to take them in, are guilty of something very like a crime. To say otherwise is to turn Kafka on his head. It’s to turn history on its head, and say the dictators were just and their victims the criminals, which is to say it’s also to turn decency, and all our pretences to it, on its head.

But of course the scheme’s impractical. There’s no place big enough to hold us all – except this place.

Don Watson

Don Watson is an award-winning author and former speechwriter for Paul Keating. His books include Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language, Recollections of a Bleeding Heart: A Portrait of Paul Keating PMAmerican JourneysThe Bush, the Quarterly Essay ‘Enemy Within: American Politics in the Time of Trump’ and There It Is Again, a collection of his writing.

December 2017 – January 2018

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Read on

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Shaping the senseless with stories: Beatriz Bracher’s ‘I Didn’t Talk’

An unreliable narrator reckons with the lasting impact of Brazil’s military regime

Image from ‘La Passion de Simone’

Performing philosophy: ‘La Passion de Simone’ at the Sydney Festival

The creatives behind this Sydney Chamber Opera production on the extreme empathy of Simone Weil

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Fake it so real: ‘Can You Ever Forgive Me?’ and ‘Colette’

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