Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Today by Sean Kelly

Crimes of omission
We are all responsible for the depravities on Nauru

Image: The Guardian

Earlier today, Donald Trump made a comment that has been widely interpreted as encouragement to assassinate Hillary Clinton and the judges she might appoint to the Supreme Court.

Hillary wants to abolish, essentially abolish, the Second Amendment. By the way, and if she gets to pick – if she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is, I don’t know.

The Second Amendment is the one giving people the right to carry guns.  

Of course, Trump was probably joking. An American lawyer named Jason Steed today explained why that didn’t really matter. As Vox put it:

Jokes about socially unacceptable things aren’t just ‘jokes’. They serve a function of normalizing that unacceptable thing, of telling the people who agree with you that, yes, this is an okay thing to talk about. This, Steed explains, is why ‘it’s a joke’ isn’t a good defense of racist jokes. By telling the joke, the person is signaling that they think racism is an appropriate thing to express … Likewise, Trump is signalling that assassinating Hillary Clinton and/or her Supreme Court nominees is an okay thing to talk about. He’s normalizing the unacceptable.

There are other ways to normalise the unacceptable. Ignoring something that you know to be offensive – or disturbing, or degrading, or harmful – can be as effective as endorsing something. It can be more effective, in its calm quietness, because there is nothing there to grapple with, nothing to refute. Instead there is only insidious absence.

As former Chief of Army David Morrison said in his 2013 address on sexual assault in the armed forces, “The standard you walk past is the standard you accept.”

At the time of writing, most news services I’ve seen are focusing on the Census debacle. It is a debacle, too, and while we’re speaking of how things become normalised, this seems like another step towards universal acceptance of the incompetence of the Turnbull government. The Census is important, and it’s an important story.

But it’s hard to see how it compares with the devastating facts contained in the massive leak to the Guardian of 2000 incident reports from the Nauru detention centre. You should read as much as you can about it, but let me quote two paragraphs to give you a sense:

In the files there are seven reports of sexual assault of children, 59 reports of assault on children, 30 of self-harm involving children and 159 of threatened self-harm involving children.

The reports range from a guard allegedly grabbing a boy and threatening to kill him once he is living in the community to guards allegedly slapping children in the face. In September 2014 a teacher reported that a young classroom helper had requested a four-minute shower instead of a two-minute shower. ‘Her request has been accepted on condition of sexual favours. It is a male security person. She did not state if this has or hasn’t occurred. The security officer wants to view a boy or girl having a shower.’

That is almost 100 reports of harm or self-harm of children in detention centres, centres established by our government. I understand commercial pressures on news outlets and the need to appeal to readers and the competition that exists between media companies. No matter. This should be on the front page of every newspaper tomorrow morning. (To those who say many of the reports are not new, neither was much of what we learned about the Don Dale centre.)

Gillian Triggs is right when she says nothing will change unless the public reacts, and that won’t happen unless the media does too.

The media is hardly the main culprit though. That title obviously belongs to our political leaders. The files cover the last days of Labor’s last term in office and the period of the current government. When David Morrison made his comment about the standard you walk by being the standard you accept, he added, “That goes for all of us, but especially those who, by their rank, have a leadership role.”

And it cannot be said often enough that even though the coverage of the Don Dale scandal varied considerably between outlets, the prime minister’s reaction to those reports was clear and sharp. As opposed to the miserable words parading as reaction today.

Turnbull told us that the centres were the responsibility of the Nauruan government, when anyone with a passing knowledge of events knows that Turnbull could snap his fingers and get anything he wants from Nauru. Scott Morrison said these were only reports, not findings of fact. This is true, but is a disgraceful denial of what common sense would suggest about that volume of incidents. In his strongest comments, Turnbull said the report would be “carefully examined to see if there are any complaints there or issues there that were not properly addressed”. Which misses the point entirely. It is not that particular complaints were not dealt with in some way; it is that we are seeing massive systemic failure.

The prime minister should begin by visiting Nauru and Manus Island. It is harder to ignore depravities you have witnessed.

The Don Dale comparisons are important. But a more instructive comparison can be found in the national outrage prompted by Peter Dutton’s comments during the election campaign on refugees being illiterate and innumerate and languishing in unemployment queues. They were awful comments. Australians, including many in prominent positions, reacted with anger, as was right. Many had refugees as parents or grandparents, and understood the contribution they had made to the country. We were not, we told ourselves at the time, a country which would accept slurs like Dutton’s.

In retrospect it all seems a bit easy. Dutton had said a stupid thing; he was criticised for it. The refugees who had already made it to our country were defended.

But what of the refugees without Australian-born descendants? The refugees who still wish to come here? The refugees who might still make a contribution to this country, or another country? The refugees and asylum seekers whose lives we are obliterating by leaving them in the pits of devastation we call offshore detention centres? The actual policies being pursued in our name?

Because make no mistake, it is not just our government that is harming these men, women, and children. All of us who walk by – and I do not excuse myself – play our part. We are not a country that will allow refugees to be slandered. But we are a country that will allow them to be abused, hurt, destroyed.


Today’s links

Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly is a columnist for Fairfax and a former adviser to Labor prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard.



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