The Hollow Man And The Real Leaders Of The Opposition

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An Opposition Leader in lock step with the government is one thing. But an Opposition Leader in lock step on basic human rights abuses… that’s Bill Shorten. Liam McLoughlin explains.

We are the hollow men

We are the stuffed men

Leaning together

Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!

Our dried voices, when

We whisper together

Are quiet and meaningless

As wind in dry grass

Or rats’ feet over broken glass

In our dry cellar

Shape without form, shade without colour,

Paralysed force, gesture without motion.

-T.S. Eliot, The Hollow Men

There’s never been a more exciting time to bring down a conservative government and there’s never been a worse opposition leader to do it.

You know you’re in trouble when a car crash becomes the perfect metaphor for your leadership, when a satirical website launches a campaign to find you, and when your political title becomes a misnomer.

Bill Shorten deserves many titles: the hollow man, the yes man, the zinger man, the lettuce man, but Opposition Leader is not one of them.

His response to the incredible momentum building behind the #LetTheStay campaign says it all. Much has happened since the High Court legalised immorality last week. 10 Anglican and Uniting churches around the country offered sanctuary to the 267 asylum seekers facing deportation. Thousands gathered for the initial nationwide #LetThemStay protests. More than 60 Australian authors wrote to Malcolm Turnbull and Peter Dutton condemning offshore processing as “brutal” and “shameful”, and tens of thousands more signed petitions.

Over the weekend a wave of State and Territory leaders joined this chorus of voices, with widespread support, and there was a second round of national protests within a week.

Come Monday, Bill Shorten faced a stark choice.

He could have intensified pressure on the government by demonstrating moral and political leadership in backing the #LetThemStay movement. He could have opened up a gap between himself and his older, cooler brother Malcolm Turnbull and mobilised powerful progressive forces across the country behind his attacks on the government’s inhumanity.

new matilda, bill shorten
Leader of the Opposition, Bill Shorten, pictured in parliament in October 2015.

Instead, just like his past decisions to support the Border Force Act, boat turnbacks and changes to the Migration Act to shut down legal challenges to offshore processing, Shorten chose to side with injustice and a seriously misguided notion of political expediency.

At least he’s consistent. If you lack political imagination and moral fortitude, I guess it makes sense to buddy up to those like you.

There a few better illustrations of Tariq Ali’s concept of the “extreme centre” than this ongoing bipartisan approach to asylum seeker policy. The extreme centre describes the ‘catastrophic consensus’ of mainstream political parties across the West, from Republicans and Democrats in the US, to New Labour and the Tories in the UK, to the Liberal and Labor parties here in Australia.

Asked what’s extreme about the extreme centre, Ali says: “It backs the American wars and attacks its own people through austerity. It believes in surveillance on a level we have never seen before, it puts civil liberties under threat, it renditions people – a polite word meaning that people are kidnapped and handed over for torture. People talk about the extreme left and the extreme right, but the real danger today is from the extreme centre.”

Sound familiar? As the 267 asylum seekers await forced removal from Australia to torturous conditions on Nauru and Manus, the words of Father Rod Bower of the Anglican Parish of Gosford are worth sharing.

“If the protecting of our borders requires the incarceration of babies, the sexual abuse of children, the rape of women and the murder of men, then we are of all nations the most depraved.”

This depravity has the support of the so-called Opposition Leader.

Meanwhile the real leaders of the opposition amongst the Greens, activist organisations, community groups, doctors and clergy are gaining courage and strength like never before. Their response to the High Court decision has just been the most magnificent example of Thomas Jefferson’s epithet “when injustice becomes law, resistance becomes duty”.

Church leaders are leading the way in risking arrest by offering sanctuary while doctors bravely risk a two-year prison sentence when they speak about conditions on Nauru and Manus.

Protesters occupied a major Melbourne intersection last Thursday while those in Sydney staged a 43-hour action outside Turnbull’s office.

Meanwhile activists in Love Makes A Way are calling on all Australians to take the pledge to get in the way to let them stay.

May this inspiring movement towards civil disobedience spread like wildfire and escalate into a wildly successful campaign of mass demonstrations, sit-ins and strikes to end mandatory detention once and for all.

IMAGE: Jeff Tan, Love Makes A Way, Flickr.
IMAGE: Jeff Tan, Love Makes A Way, Flickr.

In the meantime, while Bill Shorten seems committed to the role of hollow man, this need not be so. He could join this rising tide of resistance and actually present an alternative political vision to the Australian people. Bill could start work today as the Leader of the Opposition.

Failing that, Tanya or Albo must take over. If the last two decades have taught us anything it’s that leadership change is no panacea when the political system is broken. Yet short of an astronomical growth in the Greens vote at the next election, the most realistic hope for justice for asylum seekers is for the refugee movement to drag a left leaning Labor Prime Minister into more humane territory.

German Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “The test of the morality of a society is what it does for its children”. Former US Democratic Vice-President Hubert Humphrey said, “The moral test of a government is how it treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; those who are in the shadows of life; the sick, the needy and the handicapped.”

The real ‘Leaders of the Opposition’ are doing their best to ensure our government treats not just the 37 babies, not just the 54 children, not just the 267 asylum seekers here in Australia, but all asylum seekers under our care, with the basic humanity they deserve.

Bill Shorten, will you join them?

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Liam McLoughlin

Liam McLoughlin teaches English, politics, and media, and writes a bit. You can find his stuff at Situation Theatre or on Facebook and Twitter. He still can’t decide which quote is more profound: Karl Marx’s “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness” or Stewart Lee’s “David Cameron and Ed Milliband are about as different as two rats fighting over a courgette that has fallen into a urinal. The main difference being that the David Cameron rat is wearing chinos, in an attempt to win over the youth voter”.

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