An Open Letter To Malcolm Turnbull And Peter Dutton

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As Australia’s refugee policies continue to inflict agony, it’s time for the Prime Minister and Minister for Immigration to suspend their moral disengagement, writes Liam McLoughlin.

Dear Mr Turnbull and Mr Dutton,

I know you’re both really busy securing our borders from the threat of compassion, but please just take a moment to reflect on your actions in recent times.

Omid Masoumali spent three years imprisoned on Nauru for fleeing persecution in Iran. Last week he was told by UNHCR officials he would remain on Nauru for another decade. Soon after, he doused himself in accelerant, yelled “This how tired we are; this action will prove how exhausted we are. I cannot take it anymore”, and set himself on fire. Waiting in agony two hours for a doctor’s care, eight hours for morphine, and 22 hours for medical evacuation, Omid suffered cardiac arrest and was dead upon arrival in Brisbane. He was 23.

And what was your response? Charge Omid’s family $17,000 to return the body to Iran. Sedate his wife, deny her a lawyer and refuse calls to family. Then try to persuade her to return to the country from which she’s fled.

Hodan Yasi also spent three years on Nauru before being brought to Australia for medical treatment. Like Omid, Hodan was also granted refugee status, this time from Somalia. About 4am last Wednesday, Australian Border Force guards dragged Hodan from her Brisbane bed by the arms and legs as she begged to remain in Australia. Just days later on Nauru, the young Somalian refugee set fire to herself and “all of her clothes were burnt off”. She now lies in a Brisbane hospital bed in a critical condition, with severe burns to 70 per cent of her body. She is 19.

As the Prime Minister and Immigration Minister behind the policies causing these deaths, you’ve taken full responsibility, right? Nope, nope, nope. Instead you’ve blamed and condemned the “very dangerous” actions of refugee advocates, those few Australians dedicated to protecting the vulnerable people you choose to demonise for political gain.

In a 24-hour period last week, six people attempted suicide on Nauru. Adults swallowed razor blades, children ingested washing powder. This follows 188 incidents of self-harm on Nauru in 2015. Desperate human beings bash their heads against walls, consume poisons and hang from bed sheets.

One would think these horrors would prompt reconsideration of this brutal regime. Instead you double down. You’ve accused asylum seekers of trying to blackmail you to come to Australia. The corrupt government of Nauru which you’ve charged with caring for refugees has convicted an Iranian man of attempted suicide.

Then there was Khodayar Amini, who feared a return to detention and burned himself to death in bushland around Dandenong. He left these parting words: “My crime was that I was a refugee. They tortured me for 37 months…Red Cross, Immigration and the Police killed me with their slogans of humanity and cruel treatments.”

14 men have died in mandatory detention since your government was elected.

Pardon me if I’m a bit misty-eyed.


The recent wave of self-immolation marks 15 years since Pakistani refugee Shahraz Kayani’s death after setting himself on fire outside Parliament House in Canberra in April 2001.

Oppressed people around the world have used self-immolation to protest grossly unjust regimes.  Thich Quang Duc famously protested the persecution of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government in June 1963, burning himself to death at a busy Saigon intersection. 100 others followed in Asia and the US between 1963 and 1971.

Czechs self-immolated in 1969 following the Soviet invasion, Kurds did so in Turkey in 1999, and Falun Gong practitioners did likewise in Tiananmen Square in 2009. This form of protest spread across the Middle-East and North Africa after the Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself alight in December 2010. His action was a response to repeated harassment and humiliation by local officials. Since 2009, at least 120 Tibetans have self-immolated. The Dalai Lama advises against the protests but the Chinese government argues the exiled Tibetan government is inciting such acts.

So China blames Tibetan advocates for self-harm by Tibetans.

Sound familiar, Mr Dutton?

There’s no question that Australian refugee policy is grossly unjust. There’s no doubt our government has executed years of atrocities on innocent people. No amount of cynical political rhetoric can wipe away years of physical, sexual and psychological abuse. Everyone from the Human Rights Commission to the UNHCR to North Korea agrees.

Yet Mr Turnbull and Mr Dutton, you see it differently, don’t you?

Through a range of psychological techniques you’ve disabled your own moral codes and have absolved yourselves of some truly wicked deeds.

I have some bad news. These techniques are well-known and you can only fool yourselves for so long.

Whether you know it or not, you are both suffering severe levels of moral disengagement.

Social psychologist Albert Bandura devised moral disengagement theory as a way to explain the ways people avoid shame and guilt for their own immoral actions. It applies well to things like aggression in children and violence towards animals, as well as to large scale events like medieval crusades, witch-hunts and modern genocides.

Moral disengagementIt also applies neatly to Australia’s asylum seeker policies and discourse. Seen through this framework, your responses to developments in Papua New Guinea and Nauru over the last week have been formulaic.

If you were say, I don’t know, two political leaders who believed ruining innocent lives in the Pacific was necessary to win you the next election, but you didn’t want to feel all icky inside, here’s what you would do.

First, you would argue to yourself and to the public that your actions were morally justified.

Cue your press conference last week, Mr Turnbull, when you said “by stopping the people smuggling, we’ve stopped people drowning at sea” and your interview with Leigh Sales, Mr Dutton, when you said “we’re not going to allow people to drown at sea”.

Your nauseating faux compassion distorts reality. Your false dilemma between drowning at sea and torture and self-immolation in Pacific gulags wilfully ignores the many other humane and sensible policy alternatives on offer.

Second, you would minimise the harm to victims.

Mr Dutton, this explains the veil of secrecy around your policies; the remote prison locations, the denial of journalistic access, the punishment for whistleblowers. It also explains the cold, anodyne language with which you describe some of the greatest human rights abuses in Australia’s history. Your obfuscations deceive yourself and the nation about the immense harm you have inflicted.

Next, you would dehumanise and demonise the victims.

You both work hard at this one. Mr Turnbull, you talk a lot about “securing our borders” from “unauthorised arrivals” and say “our national security has to come first”, as if refugees were an invading enemy. You were asked by Neil Mitchell “Do you believe any of them are dangerous?” You replied “I can’t tell you whether some have got security issues more than others”. Way to make voters wonder if depressed and suicidal men, raped women, and sick children could actually be ISIS cover stories.

Meanwhile Mr Dutton, you appeared on the 730 Report saying “particularly in this day and age with national security such an important issue, we’re going to make sure that our borders remain secure so that we can keep our community in Australia as safe as possible”. Do you say it like this because you couldn’t get away with the slogan “Refugees Are Terrorists”?

Finally, you would displace responsibility onto others.

This is your favourite technique of moral disengagement. Prime Minister, you lay the blame with the Opposition: “That detention centre at Manus was set up by Labor…the detainees there are the consequence of Labor’s failure to maintain the strong border protection policies that they had inherited”.

Mr Dutton, you prefer the scattergun approach to blame shifting. Last week on 730 you blamed Labor, saying “we are not going to trash the policies that have worked, that have cleaned up Labor’s mess”. You also said the 850 asylum seekers on Manus were the responsibility of the PNG government. Consistent with your record of morally repugnant actions, this week you blamed refugee advocates for the epidemic of self-harm.

Your attempts to spin the national psyche are nothing if not predictable.

It’s nice to have these psychological mechanisms, isn’t it lads? That way your will to power takes over and your morality can skulk off into your mind’s dark recesses, just where you desperately hope it will stay.

The more I watch you both, the more I’m convinced you’ve been reading way too much Friedrich Nietzsche. In Beyond Good and Evil , the German philosopher wrote this of any individual human being:

…it will strive to grow, spread, seize, become predominant – not from any morality or immorality but because it is living and because life simply is will to power…”Exploitation” does not belong to a corrupt or imperfect and primitive society: it belongs to the essence of what lives, as a basic organic function; it is a consequence of the will to power, which is after all the will to life.

It’s a bleak view of humanity which you both work hard to prove accurate. As you dismiss moral concerns with cheap psychological and political tricks and focus only on how human rights abuses will play in marginal seats, you debase yourselves and you shame us all.

You wouldn’t be the first to use and abuse Nietzsche’s philosophy. Hitler perverted his philosophy with ambitions to breed a master race and expand Germany’s territory across Europe.

I hear you both objecting that such Nazi comparisons are odious. Perhaps then you should stop the current policies and rhetoric which invite these comparisons, such as that recently circulated by Lucy Hamilton. Prime Minister, you may want to avoid language like “we cannot be misty-eyed about this”. It’s strikingly similar to Joseph Goebbels’ approach to the Holocaust: “there must be no squeamish sentimentalism about it”.

Or perhaps you’d prefer to take your cues from fascism. Mr Turnbull, you did say at your press conference last week “Our borders are secure because we are strong and we have to be strong. A strong Australia is a secure Australia”. Germany was pretty strong there for a while.

There is actually one particular story from Nazi Germany that you two could benefit from.

In 1943, a Jewish woman called Stella Goldschlag was living illegally in Berlin, made possible by her ‘Aryan’ appearance. Discovered, arrested and tortured by the Nazis, she was made an offer she didn’t refuse. Stella and her parents could avoid deportation if she became a ‘catcher’ for the Gestapo, hunting down Jews hiding as non-Jews. Paid for each Jew she betrayed, Stella was so effective she is estimated to have condemned up to 3,000 Jews to the death camps.

Following her role in WWII, Stella was forced to use classic techniques of moral disengagement to live with herself.

She claimed her actions were morally justified because she did it to save her parents.

She minimised the harm, desperately trying to ignore or suppress the consequences of her actions.

She dehumanised the Jews. With blonde hair and blue eyes, Stella distinguished herself from other Jewish people, who she thought were vermin.

She displaced blame, seeing herself entirely as an innocent victim of Nazism. She also told herself the fates of the hidden Jews she exposed were not her responsibility; she blamed the Wehrmacht soldier with which she partnered.

As she aged, Stella’s actions caught up with her. Failing in her fraught attempts to avoid shame and guilt, she was disowned by her daughter and consumed by her past. In 1994 she killed herself by jumping out of her Berlin apartment window. She was 71.

Mr Dutton and Mr Turnbull, as you grow old, how will you look back upon your treatment of refugees?

Do you think you will be able to outrun your shame and guilt forever?

Best wishes,

Liam McLoughlin

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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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