Nations and peoples are largely the stories they feed themselves. If they tell themselves stories that are lies, they will suffer the future consequences of those lies. If they tell themselves stories that face their own truths, they will free their histories for future flowerings.
Ben Okri, A Way of Being Free (Head of Zeus, 1997)
THE PROSPECT OF Barnaby Joyce being declared ineligible to sit in parliament because of a split allegiance with New Zealand was so ludicrous that we Australians consumed the spectacle with barely contained glee. After he fell, scalped by the blades of the now infamous section 44 of our ageing constitution, the good electors of New England dusted him off and stood him back up again. For while his careless actions had forced upon them the inconvenience of giving up a Saturday morning to the ballot box, he remained, so obviously and unrepentantly, one of them, and his hatted white-larrikin grin was deemed undeserving of further punishment.
In the weeks and months after Barnaby discovered his unwitting New Zealand citizenship in August 2017, as an academic with expertise in constitutional law I fielded increasingly urgent calls from our country’s media; each journalist fixated on chasing their own facsimile of the ‘breaking’ constitutional ‘crisis’. I finally turned my phone off, no longer able to contain a sense of weariness and despair with the media and, more crushingly, with my fellow Australians (for although I proudly – and knowingly – retain my New Zealand citizenship, I am a long-ago naturalised Australian).
When journalists primed me with well-intentioned jokes that it must be an exciting time to be a constitutional expert, I had to swallow a burgeoning frustration. I wanted to explain that the alluring and simple drama, turmoil and so-called ‘constitutional crisis’ of the dual-citizenship story was largely a distraction. I wanted to tell them that this was not a time when the Australian people could afford to be staring at their own navels and giggling as they discovered that those navels might not be as ‘Aussie’ as they had assumed. Australians needed the courage to see what was really occurring in their nation and in their name. To start confronting the complex, often uncomfortable, truths about themselves.
AT THE END of October 2017, just days after the High Court decided Barnaby’s fate, six hundred men staged a protest. Years earlier, Australia had shipped these men off to a razor-wire fenced compound on a remote island off Papua New Guinea. That week, they were desperate to draw Australia’s attention to their pending physical danger should they be forced to leave the compound and live in a community deeply distrustful of them – a community in which a number of them had already experienced shocking violence and death.
In the face of these protests, our government remained committed to its mistreatment of these men, refusing offers by New Zealand to take at least some of them to provide small relief against the ongoing suffering and torment caused by the situation. With notable exceptions (particularly stories by journalists at The Guardian and The Saturday Paper), the mainstream Australian media was largely uninterested in following their plight.
Why? It must at least be partly explained by the fact their tale lacked the immediate theatrics and ironic edge of the dual-citizenship story. But I fear it was because the media also knew that the protests were highly unlikely to interest Australians as a people. We have turned away from the stories and complexities of these men.
Large parts of the Australian population have accepted an interpretation of the government’s refugee policy as reflecting Australians’ humanity and compassion. We resettle (some) refugees who wait patiently in camps, but we stop them arriving on boats. While there is undoubtably human cost, our policy is nonetheless the only humane response to a complex problem, because it prevents deaths at sea: a different approach would cause asylum seekers to rush to our shores, to meet terrible watery deaths, and put at risk the lives of Australian naval officers who must then fish them out of the ocean.
This is not the story Australians have always been told by our government. In her 2017 book, Asylum By Boat: Origins of Australia’s Refugee Policy (UNSW Press), Claire Higgins revealed that when Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser was confronted by boats filled with asylum seekers fleeing communism after the Vietnam War, he was offered a series of choices as to how to respond, including:
Reprovision and refuel all boats, tow them beyond the three-mile limit and encourage them to find some other country to land in;
Treat boat refugees almost as lepers, segregating them into special camps and giving them minimal standards of support;
Construct a major holding centre in some very remote area and hold them in such a camp indefinitely.
While Fraser’s government did attempt to stop boat arrivals, it recoiled from these specific suggestions. As the Minister for Immigration and Foreign Affairs explained in response to the memo: ‘We will not risk action against genuine refugees just to get a message across. That would be an utterly inhuman course of action.’ Fraser and his ministers introduced Australians to the stories of these people and the complexities of their situation. They not only told Australians the stories of these new arrivals, but also a larger story of themselves as a humane people who provide sanctuary to those
What changed? The international circumstances and domestic political context of the refugee arrivals in the 1970s compared to the twenty-first century are certainly different. But in the last two decades the government has also developed a very different narrative. Today’s world is one in which our politicians all remember the unexpected electoral success of John Howard in 2001 following his refusal to assist in the plight of 433 asylum seekers sitting, rescued and desperate, aboard the MV Tampa and seeking refuge in Australia. Our politicians remember Howard’s ongoing success in dehumanising asylum seekers and talking tough on borders and immigrants (at least when those immigrants arrive by boat), particularly in the aftermath of September 11 and subsequent terrorist attacks.
In a trend that has exacerbated since that time, government ministers and military commanders have developed an asylum-seeker narrative that uses language and concepts of urgency, secrecy and militarisation. ‘Stop the boats’ is a military objective and ‘on water matters’ are not to be revealed – even to the parliament – for ‘operational reasons’. It has become an offence to reveal information gained while working at an offshore detention centre. Through the narrative of urgency and emergency, the government implies that these measures are an aberration that will pass when normalcy returns. But these measures have not passed. Today, the extraordinary has become the quotidian.
The government has adopted the policy – not once, but consistently – of sending asylum seekers offshore, far away and under the care and control of strangers. It is all too easy to forget that these guards, wearing the uniforms of private companies, act for us; all too easy to close our eyes to the allegations of sexual assault, rape, child abuse, violence and murder. Indeed, the government would claim in front of the High Court that it was in no way responsible, because the detention of these asylum seekers was the sole responsibility of the island nation of Nauru. The majority of the court accepted this argument, giving legal imprimatur to the government’s actions in taking these people from our immediate sight and responsibility.
It is difficult to apportion blame for this self-deception. Is it the government’s fault? Have they manipulated the Australian people to pursue their agenda in secret? To hide the costs of their policies and prevent the good people of Australia from being shocked? Is the media to blame, in failing to report these distressing realities consistently and doggedly? Or is it our fault? Have we signalled to government and media alike not merely our lack of interest, but our active discomfort and dislike in learning the truth about what is happening to asylum seekers in the vast oceans of the Pacific? Would we prefer a narrative that is congruent with our pre-imagined self-image?
WE ALL TELL ourselves stories about who we are. These stories shape our self-image as Australians, our culturally constructed concept of nation and citizenship or, as historian Benedict Anderson referred to it, our ‘imagined community’. This self-image unconsciously influences how we perceive facts and images, and whether we believe the narrative that those facts reveal. Psychologists tell us that we are wired to embrace narratives that are congruent with our self-image, uncritical of the belying simplicity of the stories.
We push back against stories of our past or our present that insult our constructed identity. And as we increasingly subject ourselves to the algorithms of Facebook and other social media platforms, we find it increasingly easy to avoid the discomfort of dissonance.
Others, looking on from afar and without self-identity at stake, witness a different story. In 2015, in the middle of Europe’s own refugee crisis, former UKIP leader Nigel Farage was urged by Tony Abbott to adopt Australia’s asylum-seeker policies. He balked. Some of Australia’s actions, he explained, were ‘tougher than we in Britain can perhaps stomach’. The United Nations have consistently condemned Australia’s actions; last year, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said we have ‘caused extensive, avoidable suffering for far too long.’
The government has moved the suffering of these people beyond our gaze and has stripped them of their names and faces. We are told that this is in their interests: for their privacy, for their security, at their request. In the seemingly endless stream of cases that come before the courts, names are removed and replaced with anonymising and numbing numerical and alphabetical combinations. The facts of their lives are discarded, unless they are ‘material’ to the resolution of the technical legal question that the judges must answer. They hardly ever are. The faces, names and stories of Plaintiff M96A/2016 and Plaintiff S195/2016 have been lost to the weight of privacy and security concerns and legal technicality. In 2016, when The Guardian published more than two thousand leaked incident reports from Nauru, the individual women, men and children were again removed from these tales of trauma and suffering. And while there might have been legitimate and pressing reasons for such actions, we were left with disturbing but redacted stories:
28 Sept 2014
I was asked on Friday…by a fellow teacher [NAME REDACTED] if I would sit with an asylum seeker [NAME REDACTED] who was sobbing. She is a classroom helper for the children… She reported that she has been asking for a 4 minute shower as opposed to 2 minutes. 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 showering.
5 May 2015
On morning bus run [NAME REDACTED] showed me a heart he had sewn into his hand using a needle and thread. I asked why and he said ‘I don’t know’…[NAME REDACTED] is [NUMBER REDACTED] yrs of age.
When we see their images, Australians are not entirely immune from responding to the suffering of these people. There can be a flaring of compassion and sympathy when the public glimpses the faces of those trying to reach our shores and share our lives: the terrified faces of young children grasped tightly to the forms of their mothers or held high above the heads of their sinewy fathers in an attempt to obtain some sort of safety on so obviously dangerous boats, or faces listless from days, weeks, years in detention. As Susie Linfield argues in her book The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence (University of Chicago Press, 2010), photographs bring us closer to the complexity of human suffering more than any other form of art or journalism, in that they ‘refus[e] to tell us what to feel, and [allow] us to feel things we don’t quite understand, they make us dig, and even think, a little deeper’. For Linfield, photographs can be part of a ‘dialogue, the start of an investigation – into which we thoughtfully, consciously enter.’
We Australians have the capacity to enter such conversations. The images of Dylan Voller – pinned to the walls of a cell and stripped naked, strapped to a chair, hooded and left alone for hours – evoked national outrage when they played on our television screens. We demanded an investigation, a royal commission to uncover the truth, find the cause and action the wrong. But in intractable contexts – the plight of refugees, or climate change – knowledge and images have frequently proven insufficient for the moral understanding that motivates action. We have allowed – perhaps even sought – narratives that obscure and hide these truths.
In Regarding the Pain of Others (Penguin, 2003) Susan Sontag observes that on their own, emotional responses of compassion or sympathy are unlikely to prompt action, or force a change in our self-narratives. ‘Compassion,’ Sontag observes, ‘is an unstable emotion. It needs to be translated into action, or it withers’:
If one feels that there is nothing ‘we’ can do…and nothing ‘they’ can do either…then one starts to get bored, cynical, apathetic.
Sympathy, Sontag explains, is possibly even more dangerous:
So far as we feel sympathy, we feel we are not accomplices to what caused the suffering. Our sympathy proclaims our innocence as well as our impotence. To that extent, it can be (for all our good intentions) an impertinent – if not an inappropriate – response.
For Sontag, we must set aside sympathy and instead reflect on how others’ suffering reflects our privilege, which may ‘in ways we might prefer not to imagine – be linked to their suffering’.
The Australian people, almost entirely sheltered from these images, are not reflecting on the causes of suffering and privilege and their intersection, let alone acting on them. Ours remains a narrative that resolutely accords with Australians’ cultural self-perception as a humane people. It avoids the need to understand and take responsibility for the suffering of others. In his letter from Manus Island, published by The Saturday Paper in December 2017, journalist, refugee and Manus Island detainee Behrouz Boochani called us out on this failure:
If a majority of Australians were to reflect deeply on our resistance and sympathise with us, they would come to realise something about how they imagined themselves to be now. They would undergo a kind of self-realisation regarding their illusions of moral superiority.
But most of us still embrace the government’s proffered simple solution. We avoid the reality of a far more complicated problem, one in which the answers are not easy or even, as yet, clear. We turn away: bored, cynical and apathetic.
IT IS NOT only the stories of people seeking asylum that Australians, assisted ably by our government, have forgotten. In that same week in 2017 in which we gorged on the High Court’s ruling in the dual-citizenship saga, a more enduring ‘Great Australian Silence’ returned. The day before the High Court determined Barnaby’s political fate, the Prime Minister told Australia’s First Peoples that their request for a ‘Voice’ in their own affairs had been rejected by his Cabinet.
There was something deeply disturbing about the timing of his rejection of the Uluru Statement from the Heart. It went beyond the cynicism of burying it the day before the High Court’s citizenship decision was due to be handed down. It went beyond the bitter irony of the Prime Minister dismissing the considered views of Indigenous Australians just when he was claiming the outcome of the marriage equality postal survey as a victory for inclusiveness. On the day before the High Court would make an important ruling on Australian identity around notions of citizenship and qualification for political office, our Prime Minister denied the stories of the treatment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, denied an important, if painful, part of our identity. In allowing that denial to pass virtually unchallenged, in succumbing once again to the Great Australian Silence, Australians failed to recognise who they are. We failed to take the time, and endure the discomfort and shame, of understanding our history in its completeness.
Nigerian-born poet and novelist Ben Okri spoke of stories leading to national growth, to ‘future flowerings’. This is the sentiment captured in the Uluru Statement from the Heart when it speaks of reforms that would allow Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to ‘take a rightful place’ in their own country, to have the dignity of a ‘Voice’ in their own affairs, to have their stories told:
When we have power over our destiny our children will flourish. They will walk in two worlds and their culture will be a gift to their country.
While Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people across Australia were likely disappointed, if unsurprised, by the government’s response to the Uluru Statement, they know that their stories must be told to ensure real reform can succeed. As delegates participating in the regional dialogues that preceded the Uluru Convention said:
In order for meaningful change to happen, Australian society generally needs to ‘work on itself’ and to know the truth of its own history. (Brisbane Dialogue)
People repeatedly emphasised the need for truth and justice, and for non-Aboriginal Australians to take responsibility for that history and this legacy it has created: ‘Government needs to be told the truth of how people got to there. They need to admit to that and sort it out.’ (Melbourne Dialogue)
The Uluru Statement’s call for a truth-telling to accompany the Voice and the treaty process was part of Australia ‘working on itself’. It was Australia’s First Peoples asking the rest of the country to choose to adopt a different, more truthful national identity.
Australians have long interpreted – distorted – these calls as one-dimensional asks for an acceptance of ‘white guilt’ and ‘black vengeance’ (Anthony McAdam, The Herald, 1988). This misinterpretation does a great injustice to the goals of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples. The Uluru Statement was a call to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’ particular and unique place in the Australian community by giving them greater political participation in decisions that affect them. It sought their recognition as peoples whose law stretches back tens of thousands of years; as peoples whose law and connection to country was violated by the British invasion of their lands; as peoples who were killed through state-sanctioned massacre, disease and poison; as peoples who were removed from their ancestral lands and herded onto missions and reserves; as peoples whose children were stolen from them to be assimilated into white society; and, through all of this, as peoples who have never ceded their sovereign claims, and who have fought for, but been denied, a say in the policies that govern their lives through the actions of governments, parliaments and courts.
In rejecting the Uluru Statement’s call for a Voice, the Prime Minister said he was upholding the universal principles of unity and equality. This assertion denies Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples their histories. It tells the Australian people that the claim of Australia’s First Nations to their unique status and stories is unjustified. It replaces their narrative with one of an Australian community in which equality must be pursued in ignorance of the past. But this is an equality that fails to acknowledge and grapple with the context and history against which claims for equality are made.
IN THAT SINGLE week in 2017, as I saw the Australian people watch, laugh, Google their own citizenship status and grow fondly frustrated with the seemingly endless constitutional spectacle, I also witnessed a people, easily and willingly, turned away from the more enduring threats to our nation’s heart. Yet, in spite of these events of 2017, I have retained hope that we Australians can overcome our simplistic self-imagery, and we can open ourselves to real and uncompromising stories.
Indeed, 2017 also brought evidence that we have the capacity to do so. In the seventeen volumes of the report of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Sexual Abuse of Children, documenting the testimony of our children abandoned by our society and abused by our institutions, we have started to hear stories that challenge and displace a simplistic self-imagery.
For so long those children were silenced and not believed by the powerful institutional and state actors. For while the royal commission was ultimately established by then Prime Minister Julia Gillard, it was certainly not government-led to that point. It was a grassroots campaign launched by the victims, their families and friends, and an ever-expanding group of Australians from all walks of life who brought sufficient pressure to bear on governments across Australia to force them to provide an institutional mechanism for stories of abuse to be heard and investigated and for a dialogue to be started.
While we may rue our lack of political leaders with the morality and strength to tell us the truths of our stories, we can still choose which stories to believe. We can turn away from simplistic narratives and towards stories that offer us the possibility of our future flowering. Indeed, when we are open to investigating these stories and the dialogue they invite, no matter where it might lead us and what it might reveal to us about the complexities of who we are as a people, then we may see our government more willing to grapple with them as well.
The writer would like to thank Alan Rogers, Jamie Hanson, Alex Reilly, Amanda Nettelbeck and Megan Davis for comments on earlier versions of this essay.