I AM hoping that at the ALP National Conference, to be held in Adelaide in late July, that Opposition Leader Bill Shorten will start his address by calling on delegates to observe a few minutes silence and join him in reflecting on the impact the successful implementation of the Labor Party’s mandatory offshore detention policy is having.
I would like the delegates to think about what the policy has done. To focus on the deaths that have occurred under the policy, both the murders and suicides, as well as the torture, the rapes, the beatings, the psychiatric illness, the loss of freedom, the lack of liberty and the psychological distress of innocent men, women and children.
I would like them to think about the children who have spent five years of their young lives on Nauru in a virtual prison because of us and for them to dare to imagine their own children or grandchildren being treated as we have treated them. To think about the consequences for, say, a seven-year-old child detained by the Labor Party on Nauru in 2013 who is now 12 and who is still detained on the island.
Such a boy, Ali, recently spoke to all of us in Australia directly, via video link, from Nauru. This is some of what he had to say:
“I feel helpless because there is no one to help us. There is no one to see how we are suffering. My mother is very sick and my brother is totally depressed.
“From the age of seven, when I came here, I have been stuck. I had so many dreams but they have all blown away. I wanted to become an important person but instead I became nothing – even worse than nothing.
“I feel all good people have died. No good humans exist in the world. Why is this happening to me? The people totally hate us. They made my mother sick. They want to kill me with torture.”
Coincidentally, the ALP’s National Conference will be held a few weeks after the fifth anniversary of the introduction, by the short-lived Rudd/Albanese government, of mandatory offshore detention. It is probably the only policy of that particular Labor Government that has survived
Early reports of the machinations of the factions in preparation for the conference are that neither Kevin Rudd nor Anthony Albanese need fear that their legacy offshore detention policy will be abandoned any time soon, even assuming a Labor victory at the next election.
While the Left, to its credit, appears set to demand a return by the ALP to a humane policy, consistent with Labor’s core principles and values, Shorten has already come out publicly in support of a continuation of the boat turn-backs policy. Shorten’s faction, the right, is also said to be opposed to any change to any part of the policy. My sense is that he is clearly hoping that the deal Malcolm Turnbull has sealed with Donald Trump to take some asylum seekers from Nauru and Manus has created a perception that the offshore detention policy will shortly be obsolete or in any event the deal will sufficiently distract public attention from just how odious is offshore detention.
In which case it would probably not take much for anyone to convince the dozen or so factional and union leaders who determine the outcome of any issues of significance at a Labor Conference to let sleeping dogs lie and leave the policy intact.
What is it about we human beings, particularly those of us who live such fortunate lives, that allows us to so easily turn our eyes away so as not to see or at least to not respond to the harm and the hurt that people less fortunate and with less power than us suffer as a result of policies or behaviour which we sanction?
I fear that the great Australian motto of a” fair go” is being confined in its application to only those perceived by some invisible process as worthy of a ”fair go” and that asylum seekers are among the range of marginalised groups clearly not included among them.
How else does one explain or rationalise our collective insensitivity to the distressing and despairing cry of a 12-year-old boy, locked away by us for five years, living in a tent on a tiny, third-world, isolated island in the Pacific Ocean with a deeply ill mother and brother?
What is the answer to 12-year-old Ali’s gut-wrenching question: “Why is this happening to me?”
Jon Stanhope was chief minister from 2001 to 2011 and represented Ginninderra for the Labor Party from 1998. He is the only chief minister to have governed with a majority in the Assembly.