THE play Something to Declare tells the story of a pregnant asylum seeker who is about to give birth in an Adelaide hospital. The scenario raises a problem: the baby is about to be born in Australia, and that gives it a better chance of becoming an Australian citizen.
So, summoning every ounce of legal creativity it can, the government decides to excise the maternity ward from the Australian migration zone. Problem solved. The child wasn’t born in Australia. It was born on a parcel of land specifically marked un-Australia.
I don’t know if the story is true. The play purports to be factual but I haven’t found the government notice that would prove it. It scarcely matters, though. The point is that it’s so eminently believable. This is exactly the kind of thing we do. We’ve done it ever since the Howard government figured out that we could deny people who land on our shores the right to seek asylum through make-believe. We just pretend they never arrived. And the beautiful thing is that if we turn that make-believe into law, it becomes true. If the maternity ward story is fiction, that only makes it very good satire.
Now the Gillard government has left the satirists with nothing to say. It’s excising the whole damn country. For boat people, Australia will effectively no longer exist. Howard’s logic has been taken to its most absurd extreme – an extreme that was too much even for Howard’s own cabinet. It allows us to maintain all sorts of hollow fictions. Like the fiction that we’re good international citizens upholding the Refugee Convention. How can you breach a convention that instructs you on how to deal with people who arrive in your country if no one ever makes it in the first place?
But there’s a more pernicious fiction here that simply must be called out: the fiction that we’re doing this because we’re so benevolent. ”The government is committed to … giving people better options than risking their lives at sea,” said Immigration Minister Chris Bowen, as though we’re providing a service. It’s the kind of thing your phone company tells you when it’s about to ratchet up prices. Better options? Which ones exactly? The option to be ignored for years in a camp, stuck in a mirage of a queue that doesn’t move because we barely process it? They have that option already, thanks. The fact that lots of people actually prefer to take a risk that might kill them tells you just how abysmal that option is.
Let’s be honest. The aim here is to make staying in no man’s land the only option. We’re not providing any alternatives. We’re not hurriedly clearing the backlog of asylum seekers that haven’t been resettled since forever. We’re not, say, processing applications in the region within a year. The only message we’re sending is: don’t come. We’re not offering somewhere else to go. We’re offering nothing except delay and rejection. If that’s a better option, it’s mainly better for us. And that’s what really counts.
All this is obscured by the high moral rhetoric. ”We’re trying to save people’s lives here,” says Bowen. You see the effect. High stakes justify extreme measures, and how could the stakes be any higher than death? Now the moral script is flipped. To oppose this measure is to vote for the deaths of these tragic souls. It’s almost akin to murder. You’re a bleeding heart with blood on your hands.
But it’s a sleight of hand. If this is really all about saving people’s lives, if this is really about preventing people from drowning at sea, then send a fleet of cruise liners to Indonesia to pick up the people who have been stuck there for up to a decade. It’s much safer. Or if arrivals by plane are so superior, charter a bunch of Qantas flights to pick them up and bring them here for processing. That’s much safer, too. People smuggling will disappear instantly. Surely we could provide a superior people smuggling service than some poor Indonesian kids with dodgy boats. Let’s beat them at their own game. We’re trying to save people’s lives here, right?
I’ll admit this suggestion is ridiculous if we all admit the inescapable truth that flows from it: that this must be about something other than saving lives. We’re only interested in saving lives if it involves punitive forms of deterrence. We’re not interested in doing it through increased generosity, for example, by seriously increasing our humanitarian intake and significantly speeding up our processing times. What we really want is for asylum seekers to stop being our problem.
That’s why we’re so selective about the lives we want to save. That’s why there’s no crying in Parliament, no hand-wringing, and no cross-party soul-searching when an asylum seeker is killed because we sent them back to the country they were fleeing. Those deaths don’t matter. We don’t count them. We don’t ask tough questions about the quality of the information we’re using to decide their home country is safe. And we certainly don’t go through absurd policy contortions to prevent it happening again. Why not? Are those asylum seekers any less dead?
The point is that they’re out of our system. They aren’t ours any more. No care. No responsibility. Our desperate concern for the wellbeing of asylum seekers begins only when they board boats and ends when we intercept them. It’s like we’re excising the rest of their lives from our humanitarian concern. And here the artifice of our whole political discourse becomes clear: the studied, confected compassion is as much a convenient fiction as the one that pretends Australia doesn’t exist.
Waleed Aly is an Age columnist. He hosts Drive on ABC Radio National and is a lecturer in politics at Monash University.