The Politics    Tuesday, May 3, 2016

A despicable press conference

By Sean Kelly

Peter Dutton hit a low today

Peter Dutton today displayed either the worst case of cynicism I have seen in politics – which, believe me, is saying something – or a sad tendency towards self-delusion.

Another refugee has set themselves on fire. Take a moment to consider the first word of the previous sentence. Another.

This time it was a young Somali woman, Hodan Yasi. This time.

Responding to this latest tragedy, the immigration minister, in the lethally restrained language of bureaucracy, sought to blame refugee advocates:

I have previously expressed my frustration and anger at advocates and others who are in contact with those in regional processing centres and who are encouraging some of these people to behave in a certain way, believing that that pressure exerted on the Australian government will see a change in our policy in relation to our border protection measures … We are not going to change those policies, and the advocates, by providing false hope to these people, really [are] to be condemned. They can provide offers of support, that is reasonable. But to provide advice otherwise is very dangerous.

I have no idea about the facts behind Dutton’s claims of “encouragement”. It is certainly a serious allegation and one that deserves more substantiation than the minister’s vague references to “advice” and “intelligence”. I can only assume a cabinet minister is being straight with us.

In any case, that’s not the point.

Nobody in their right mind burns themselves – potentially to death – because someone tells them it might be an effective political tactic. Imagine the despair that must accrue before that advice begins to sound sane. Imagine the mental illness that must have come to dwell within that person.  

It is possible that Dutton does not understand this, which leads me to the verdict of self-delusion above. That he genuinely believes this is all just another form of political strategising.

Alternatively, Dutton’s decision to again express his “frustration and anger” was a carefully calibrated political decision to point the finger elsewhere. His reference to the motivation of altering government policy was a decision to paint the young Somali woman as someone engaging in a scheme.

It was, in other words, a decision to blame anything other than government policy.

I suspect this second is more likely than the first.

Dutton may be right that some people have encouraged suicidal behaviour, in which case he is right that they should not be doing so. But the decision to focus on that at today’s press conference was ignoble. Certainly unnecessary.

One of the strengths of humanity is its ability to adapt to new conditions. The downside of this is our tendency to accustom ourselves to new patterns very quickly. The argument that this is how Australia’s asylum seeker policy is meant to work – the deliberate exercise of cruelty in order to prevent potentially disastrous decisions – is no longer shocking.

Perhaps we will feel that way about self-immolation, soon.

Most political journalists are by now locked in a few rooms in Canberra, examining Budget papers. Tonight we’ll get their verdict on the Budget itself: on the company tax cuts and the superannuation changes and the hole in Labor’s tobacco costings (or non-hole depending on whom you ask, literally). I’ll do the same myself tomorrow afternoon. We are in for days of debate over the Budget.

All of this is right and proper.

But let’s none of us forget that while all this is going on people are continuing to be made to suffer, and that it is happening in our name. So far two people have decided to set themselves alight. I’ve said before there is no simple answer. But let’s at least stop pretending these tragedies are not a direct result of our country’s policy.

 

Today’s links

Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly is a columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, and was an adviser to Labor prime ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.

@mrseankelly

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