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Fear and Loathing Down Under
There is a case before the high court of Australia at the moment which could snap Australia out of one of the ugliest periods in Australian history. That is the system of the off shore processing of asylum seekers. This case involves a group of Sri Lankan Tamils, refused asylum in Australia, whose lawyers are claiming that the Federal Government's processing procedures on Christmas Island are unlawful and unconstitutional.
In 2002, I remember with a deep sense of disdain, cynicism and loathing, the machinations and manoeuvrings of George W Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and the rest of his ultra right wing military minded henchmen as they shamelessly negotiated with their long term nemesis, Cuba, permission to reestablish a high security prison camp on Cuban soil. Cuba, after a fleeting period of mock indignation, readily accepted an obscene amount of freshly printed US bills as rent, and quickly granted this permission.
The camp already existed as a US run refugee detention centre, but was run down and in disrepair since its use was declared unconstitutional by a US District court judge in June of 1993.
This facility which we all know today as the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, or Gitmo, was quickly transformed into a high security military detention centre by US department of defense through its principal private defense contractor Halliburton.
The single objective of reopening this facility was to secure a location outside of the jurisdiction of American law in order to prevent their own people from prying into the insidious activities they intended to pursue within its confines. That’s right! They desperately had to find a way to circumvent the very laws which they are sworn to uphold, protect and abide by.
They also had to come up with a new term to classify prisoners so as to escape the strict parameters of international law. The new classification they devised was “Unlawful Enemy Combatants”. This new classification allowed the US to treat the inmates as prisoners of war and removed any avenues of representation through the international courts.
And the rest, as we say, is history. It is a dirty, disgusting and unbelievably shameful history of multiple breaches of the international convention on civil and political rights. Some of these abuses include sleep deprivation, water boarding, sexual degradation, prolonged exposure to extremely loud noises or music, prolonged sensory isolation and brutal beatings just to name a few. Added to this list should also be the psychological torture of the prospect of indefinite detention without charge. Something any US citizen can now be lumbered with at will thanks to the Patriot Act.
To his credit, the present US president, Barrack Obama has recently announced the imminent closure of this facility. But alas, even the US president is being stonewalled on this issue by the US Senate, which has recently passed an amendment which blocks the funding needed for the transfer of prisoners to the US mainland.
Our own PM at the time Gitmo was being re-commissioned was John Howard. Remember him? He had securely attached himself like a limpet to George W’s arse some years before. For his entire term as prime minister he was something akin to a lick spittle lap dog at the beck and call of the US administration at every turn. I wasn’t particularly surprised by this. I was sickened and ashamed, but not surprised.
One should never be surprised to find ultra right wing minnows sucking up to ultra right wing goliaths. It’s like the snot nosed little wimp befriending the school yard bully for protection.
But I was surprised when John Howard put forward his very own Pacific/final solution. Not so much by the fact that he did it, but more by the fact that we allowed him too. The fear and frenzy whipped up by the mainstream media in the wake of the attacks on the twin towers galvanized public anger to the point where almost anything seemed reasonable. Right here in Australia, there were attacks on mosques, people of Middle Eastern appearance, a term the media loved to hammer home, were being attacked for no rational reasons whatsoever. Any budget approvals regarding matters of defense or security were fast tracked and rubber stamped through the senate almost without scrutiny.
I remember writing an article at the time highlighting the insanity of it all. I made the point that for the cost per head for each detainee, we could have put them all up in 5 star hotel accommodations. We could have given each of them the best legal and medical care money could buy, hired 24 hour security guards for each and every one of them and still come out of it with quite a lot of change in comparison to the money we were squandering on off shore solutions. Obviously I was never suggesting that this was how they should be treated, but I thought it a comparison worth noting at the time. On matters of costs, I don’t believe that a great deal has changed in this regard.
The reason for this is that the marketing of fear is big business. There are vast fortunes to be made in the services of the fear mongers. I was quite disillusioned in 2007 when the ALP failed to put an immediate stop to the off shore processing of refugees. But I was tolerant. These things take time I told myself. It wasn’t in the ALP policy platform when they were elected. Public opinion was still very much in the grip of fear and loathing. We would need to slowly change the zeitgeist. The mood of the times had to be changed first or the electorate would never buy it. Labor had made some significant inroads into the more humane treatment of refugees and at last we were having open discussions on the topic.
Then along came Tony Abbott and the 2010 election. In the finest of ultra right wing conservative traditions, Tony Abbott cranked up the rhetoric. “WE WILL STOP THE BOATS” was his mantra. He bombarded the media with this disgusting and shameful declaration, reigniting the completely unwarranted fear across the community that we were at risk of being inundated by millions of illegal immigrants in leaky boats, each of them waving a copy of the Koran and bringing with them an unshakeable hatred of the infidel and a deep seated love of Sharia law. Nothing could be further from the truth.
There must come a time soon in Australia when the truth on these matters is brought to the forefront of political debate. A time when facts and verifiable statistics are administered to the fearful and doubting public as a powerful sedative to counteract the anxieties created by a decade of hate based stimulants being mainlined into our collective psyche on a daily basis.
I believe the ALP may have just missed that opportunity. Had ALP policy allowed Julia Gillard to publicly and passionately slam Tony Abbott to the canvas on this issue, we may not be in the political deadlock we now find ourselves locked into until we go to the polls again. Had the ALP had a little more confidence in the better angels of the nature of the majority of Australian people, instead of caving into the ignorance and fear of the red necked Kath n Kim demographic, the results could well have been very different.
And if I am wrong, which I may well be, and the results swung heavily to the conservatives, at least the ALP could have walked away from a good scrap knowing that they still held the moral high ground. But they didn’t. Either way, public education on the realities of people seeking asylum here must be given extra attention.
In my own opinion, the off shore treatment of refugees, Howards final solution, should be jettisoned from ALP policy once and for all. Change the zeitgeist and win the battle. Right now, there are a small handful of independents a few Greens that, if invited, might be ready to hop onto this boat.
Labor can either grab this initiative right now and claim it as their own, or they can wait for the high court to decide for them and forever have it said that the moral high ground was forced upon them. This of course is based upon the assumption that the High Court of Australia has a moral inclination towards justice.