How We Justify Our Cruelty


Over the last week Australians have formed opposing camps on the question of asylum seekers in response to Kevin Rudd’s resettlement deal with PNG. The jingoism of the main political parties has confused intentions between “stop the boats” and “stop the drownings”.

Between the refugee advocates and their adversaries debate has raged over the definition of terms. The legality and accuracy of captioning the plight of asylum seekers with coercive language such as “queue jumpers” and “illegals” has been rightly disputed. Our obligations under the UN Convention on Refugees have been correctly restated.

Yet something more that confusion reigns, arguably something far more inflected with emotion and affect, and beyond even invoking a threat through the language of border security and invasion. There is something else in play that is difficult to acknowledge in such a sharply divided debate; the disquiet Australians feel about the drownings, sinkings and violent landfalls.

Because the fate of drowning refugees has been misappropriated by the major parties and deployed to justify their inhumane policies, it has become difficult to even raise the question of unsafe passage without being identified with the anti-refugee camp. Yet if we skirt over the question it becomes further entrenched by the demand, as Rudd said, for “radical” policy.

Gathered on the salt hem of this continent we perhaps know better than most that drowning is a horrific fate. We know you don’t slip under the water and drift off to sleep, but rather you claw for oxygen as your lungs riot with pain. For over 800 people to be left to such a fate, some knowing their children were suffering the same death with them, is simply unimaginable.

Rudd will be able to introduce his policy not because Australians are heartless –  though some clearly are. Most Australians are profoundly disturbed by the drownings, but are defensively inverting the causality of asylum. If people loved their children they wouldn’t place them at such risk of drowning, the argument goes. Never mind that people perceive drowning as a lesser risk to the children they love than the persecution they fled in the first place. There can be no purchase for deterrence under such a scenario and it’s doubtful PNG can proffer a worse deterrent than drowning.

Australians have a peculiar history of this kind of behaviour, very often arising from their own defensive witnessing of the suffering of others. Causality was inverted with the very visible suffering of Aborigines on the frontier and in its aftermath. Rapid depopulation was attributed not to the impacts of colonialism, but the “barbaric rite” of infanticide which, like “children overboard”, was never substantiated. It was a defensive shrug, an alibi for massive child mortality, just as “children overboard” was an alibi for Australia’s failure to rescue people from capsizing boats.

The legacy of colonialism for non-indigenous Australians comes from our disputed origins of “home” and belonging. We will ever be constitutionally unsettled in those foundational meanings of identity, not only arising from dispossession, but from forced transportation and deportation. It has made Australians unusually defensive, and more likely to succumb to the inverted causality we see written through the asylum seeker debate. It has made so many of us cruel.

We assign to vulnerable, desperate people blame for circumstances they did not create. A string of causal factors drop out of the picture. Australians, for instance, were part of the forces invading Iraq and Afghanistan. We contributed to making many of the places people are fleeing uninhabitable, either by failing to act advisedly, or acting inadvisedly. What we are doing to asylum seekers is simply vindictive, and like so many pitiless policies, it says more about our own unsettled identities than the needs of asylum seekers.

People who are at risk of drowning need our help. People who perceive that risk as lesser than the fate they are fleeing really need our help. Until we acknowledge that we can never fully feel at home here and find ways to resolve the paradox at the heart of our national identity, we will go on blaming, demonising, even punishing vulnerable, traumatised people who turn to us for asylum. The PNG deal is as great a wrong as this nation has perpetrated and will only add to our unsettled feelings.

Liz Conor is a columnist at New Matilda and an ARC Future Fellow at La Trobe University. She is the author of Skin Deep: Settler Impressions of Aboriginal Women, [UWAP, 2016] and The Spectacular Modern Woman: Feminine Visibility in the 1920s [Indiana University Press, 2004]. She is editor of Aboriginal History and has published widely in academic and mainstream press on gender, race and representation.