Once upon a time, I liked the boats. I thought the absence of boats to be a lamentable prospect. I saw them as the ultimate sign of respect; that families in the direst need would pin their hopes on us and choose to come here for a better life. I wrote in this magazine that for such people, risking their life on a boat is a rational choice and that the smugglers were providing a service for which some were clearly prepared to pay. I still believe all those things, in my (bleeding) heart of hearts.
But in a feat of cognitive dissonance that I hope you’ll understand, I now find myself wanting the boats to stop. And quickly. According to the government, they sort of have. But through Scott Morrison’s taut veil of secrecy we have gleaned that some boats are still attempting the journey — they’re just being turned back. Fifty days, he boasts, without an ‘illegal arrival’ breaching our fortified shores.
Unlike Morrison, my reasons for hoping the boats stop do not amount to the achievement of a macabre KPI. Nor am I motivated by stopping deaths at sea which, though tragic, are a sad inevitability of the broken global refugee system. Rather, it is because the debate around asylum seekers is happening in a parallel universe, without the reference points of morality or statistics or international law. It is only once the boats have stopped that the discourse can possibly return to something resembling normality.
Here and now, asylum seeker advocates must face the reality that the government is absolutely determined to prevail on this measure and will stop at nothing to see it done. How else to explain the 18-page graphic novel being circulated by the government, which visually depicts the isolation, imprisonment and despair to be inflicted upon those who try to come here by boat? The storyboard is aimed at potential Afghani asylum seekers and their families, and has been on the Customs website since November, but was publicised by the Guardian this week. Its closing scenes show men languishing in a Nauru tent city, head in hands, crying and thinking of home. It has a clear message: come by boat, and we will punish you.
Can you imagine the conversations around that drawing board as hapless public servants went about their assigned task? Would they have been momentarily revolted by the brief? Or would they now be so desensitised to their mission that it was simply another day at the office, executed with perhaps only the mildest raise of an eyebrow? Would they have been comforted, I wonder, by the emphatic public support for this campaign? Out of all the surprising polls over the past few years, the most staggering was published in January by a group called UMR Research. Based on a representative sample of 1,000 online surveys — take that as you will — it found that 60 per cent of Australians want the government to ‘increase the severity of the treatment of asylum seekers’. That’s about the same percentage of Australians that support gay marriage, and is a far more thumping consensus than any federal election in Australian history. You can only hope that it is ignorance and carelessness — ignorance of what is really happening out on Manus Island and Nauru, carelessness toward what might yet happen — that explains this sentiment.
But if boats continue, so will the systematic incarceration of men, women and children on remote islands where heat and boredom slowly dull the pulse. Where legal rights are stripped away and the persecuted are refouled into danger. Where welfare is subcontracted to the most efficient bidder and where military secrecy means we can’t know the truth. Where families are separated and there are so many tears. Temporary protection visas can only be kept at bay in the Senate for so long — they will soon be used retrospectively to destroy any prospect of long-term security and to prevent families from reuniting. And these people will be told they are the lucky ones. Nobody should have to suffer these things, especially not at the hands of a rich and privileged government. Let’s hope those in need of safety can find it elsewhere: somewhere better than here.
With a government and populace so resolute, it is quite clear that the only way to reboot the asylum debate in this country is for the boats to stop, and stop for some time. Perhaps 20 years down the track, with memories of this emotive time sufficiently distant, some brave administration might see fit to revisit this diabolical issue and begin to dismantle the regime that is now in place. There is only one guarantee — whenever that happens, there will still be refugees in need of a boat.
We hear a lot about this operation ‘working’. That can only be true if your lone objective is securing Australia’s periphery from rickety canoes. It is certainly not ‘working’ for those with the real problems — the refugees. And you might not care about that, and that’s your prerogative. You are entitled to feel, in your decidedly unbleeding heart, that the end justifies the means. Sometimes, it certainly does — and you may be sure that this is one of those times. But our successors will judge you harshly, as they will us all, when a more enlightened future dawns.