The Politics    Tuesday, December 5, 2023

Selective outrage

By Rachel Withers

Image of Peter Dutton

Opposition Leader Peter Dutton speaks to the media in Sydney, December 4, 2023. Image © Bianca De Marchi / AAP Images

The media needs to take a good hard look at itself, and the racist moral panic it has enabled

One can’t help but wonder whether certain members of the Coalition and the media were secretly thrilled to hear that two of the detainees released under the High Court’s NZYQ ruling had allegedly reoffended. The news has become the story of the day, dominating front pages and interviews and Senate motions, with Opposition Leader Peter Dutton ramping up his calls for the ministers for home affairs and immigration to resign, while stoking fears of further “attacks”. (One former detainee, a sex offender, has been charged with indecent assault against a woman in Adelaide, the other with drug possession. Both are “entitled to the presumption of innocence”, says the Australian Lawyers Alliance, as is a third ex-detainee who has today been arrested for breaching reporting requirements.) It’s worth pointing out, again, that offenders who have served their sentences are released into the community all the time. As Crikey’s Emma Elsworthy writes, “recidivism does not typically make headlines”, despite Australia’s rate of reoffending sitting at 60 per cent. But it’s not hard to see what makes these cases different: the stateless former detainees are non-citizens. The Coalition weeks ago sensed the opportunity to give its dog whistle a good, hard blow.

This was clearly the moment the opposition had been waiting for, ever since the High Court handed down its ruling. Today’s complaints have been non-stop, as members of the opposition blast the government for its “failure to keep Australians safe”, even though – as Senate leader Penny Wong kept pointing out during Question Time – it was the Coalition that left the nation in this precarious legal situation, having failed to take action while in government. Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus, in a clear statement earlier today, said the government was simply following the law in releasing these individuals; it could not disregard the High Court and put all former detainees back behind bars. It’s a point other Labor MPs have made throughout the day. “Unlike some tin pot dictatorship we must follow the rulings of the High Court,” said Senator Tim Ayres during the Coalition’s failed condemnation motion. “It is not right to conflate broader issues of migration, of the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers with this issue.”

Of course, that is exactly what Dutton has sought to do throughout this three week racist moral panic, with the mainstream media more than happy to buy into this dog-whistling for clicks. Despite the fact that this was not the government’s decision, that offenders are released into the community all the time after serving their sentences, that some of this cohort have not committed serious crimes and yet have not seen freedom for years, the media has bought into the idea that “these people” are inherently dangerous, that we must keep them locked up at any cost. Journalists, particularly those who host morning television shows, have been more than happy to hammer Labor ministers with Coalition talking points, ignoring the legal and moral factors at play. Those calling it out have been in the minority, but The Drum host Julia Baird put it succinctly when she asked early on: “When, exactly, as a society, did we decide that locking people up indefinitely was OK? Like, forever, without reasonable prospect of release?”

The sad fact is, that decision – that locking up people indefinitely is fine, assuming they are of certain backgrounds – was made long ago, and the media is deeply complicit. Certain facts have again gone out the window in this debate. And most journos have been more than willing to ignore the fact that we regularly let Australian offenders who have served their time out of prison, and that such people do regularly reoffend, and are then re-charged, because we live in a society that observes the rule of law. As I’ve taken to posting online these past weeks, there is no argument for why foreigners with nowhere else to go should be treated differently that isn’t deeply racist. It is a sad fact that offenders reoffend; it is an awkward truth that prisons don’t rehabilitate people. Perhaps those who are so concerned about “community safety” when it comes to these 148 people ought to also care a little more about the appalling rate of recidivism among Australian citizens, and the risk this poses for women and children every single day.

Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.


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