“Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.”
Rudyard Kipling’s verse, from 1889, makes a mockery of pride in ‘progress’. His ‘twain’ takes many forms in contemporary Australia, and none more entrenched than the division between those who see mandatory, indefinite detention of asylum seekers as inherently wrong and those who consider it necessary to stop the boats and protect borders.
Just to be clear, I’m in the first group, and see detention as wrong, along with the rest of the punitive policies. I’ll call my pole the pro(refugee rights)group. We’re the ones described by the anti-group as biased, hysterical, bleeding-heart, un-Australian even; all the barbs for dismissing an opponent without the need for evidence.
I can’t imagine what would qualify as an un-biased position; there is no middle ground.
The poles personified: Scott Morrison and Gillian Triggs
The poles have recently been personified by Scott Morrison, Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, and Gillian Triggs, President of the Human Rights Commission, who interviewed Morrison as part of the national inquiry into children in immigration detention (click here).
It would be fair to say the Triggs-Morrison interview is fraught (click here) but also that Triggs remains on-task despite being talked over and railroaded. Morrison is…in character as Morrison (although his tie, I notice, is red!)
Responses to this headlock are also pretty much positioned at one or other of the poles.
Responses from the pro(refugee rights)pole
Jenna Price, for example notes that Triggs has a reputation for being calm (click here) and that this is “a common characterisation of women of power; a way to illustrate that this woman is not like the other caricatures: The shrieking harridans, the manipulators, the tantrum-chuckers.” But still a woman! She could, just as likely, be described as ‘feisty’ or ‘fierce’ with similarly gendered effects (click here).
The prism of sexism is certainly relevant and Morrison may well have behaved differently if, for example, Julian Burnside had been asking the questions, but I doubt he would have been any more likely to concede ground. His tactics come from the ‘whatever it takes’ class, and he is intent on controlling refugee policy.
What strikes me is Morrison’s determination to derail the issue of children in detention and score political points. He hijacks Triggs’ questions to dispute the comparison between detention and jail; blames Labor for failing (unlike him) to stop the boats; and maintains that the only reason there are still children in detention is because he has been blocked from reintroducing temporary protection visas. Similar points are made and extended by Binoy Kampmark (click here) and Louise Yaxley (click here).
Andrew Bolt weighs in for the Establishment
Andrew Bolt’s view of Morrison’s experience at the inquiry, on the other hand, makes me wonder if he has actually seen it, or any transcripts (click here). He provides no basis for his opinions, clearly expecting the reader to accept his authoritative word.
- The president of the Human Rights Commission, he asserts, has turned her inquiry into a political witch-hunt, flying at Morrison’s throat. [I must have missed that bit.]
- She has made the Christmas Island detention centre seem like a hellhole. [How could she!]
- Her inquiry seems designed to damn the Abbott Government’s successful [sic] border laws.
- Her claims that ten women have attempted suicide, sick children are being left untreated, and the centre is like a jail are all just plain false. [He just states this.]
Bolt concludes: “If the head of an inquiry can see armed guards where there are none, and a prison where there are only pool fences, what else is she imagining about what she’s supposed to impartially judge? No. Triggs must resign. She is meant to confront injustice, not commit it.”
So there; Triggs brought down to size and her inquiry discredited by, we are told, the most popular columnist in Australia; friend of the blue-tie brigade, part of the Murdoch empire, and springboard for the attempted repeal of Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.
- Would Michael Gordon, respected Fairfax journalist, also be dismissed as ‘biased’ in writing his hair-raising account of unscrutinised abuses on Manus Island (click here)? Even when he cites the former director of mental health services for mainland detention centres, Christmas Island, Nauru and Manus Island?
- Then there’s Admiral Chris Barrie’s description of detention centres as “jails”. He was the Defence Force chief responsible for border protection under Howard, so I reckon he knows what he’s talking about (click here).
- Perhaps Bolt hasn’t heard of Alastair Nicholson, former chief justice of the Family Court, who says that if children in Australia were treated in the same way as those in detention “the child protection authorities would want to prosecute those who are looking after them” (click here).
- And how would he respond, I wonder, to Dr Peter Morris, spokesperson for the Northern Territory branch of the Australian Medical Association who, in commenting on a nine-year-old boy’s attempted suicide in detention said he would be “surprised if it was an isolated event” (click here).
Back in the gulf
So, what is going to happen to this inquiry? And the children, parents, and other adults still behind those “pool fences” that many of us see as barbed?
Gillian Triggs is doing a superb job, but has less power at the Human Rights Commission than the combination of Morrison, Abbott, and friends of the government including Bolt and his boss, Murdoch. She does, on the other hand, sit within the human rights legal fraternity who have collectively been working towards refugee justice over many years. They, in turn, have staunch support from activists, advocates, church groups, and humanitarians.
The question is: Which ‘might’ will define ‘right’? Prevailing politics or humanitarian resistance?
Written By Joan Beckwith, PhD
When the ‘twain’ won’t meet and ‘might’ defines ‘right’ was originally published @ 2020 Social Justice and has been syndicated with permission.