The following is an opinion piece written by Nepean Greens member and former candidate for Lindsay, David Lenton. The views expressed in this piece of writing are the author’s and are not meant to be taken as an official statement from the Nepean Greens.
*Author’s note: This was originally written in late December of 2013 and thus does not refer to more recent revelations about the treatment of asylum seekers.
I dislike the tendency toward hyperbole that has made Godwin’s Law a staple of contemporary discourse. I believe that references to the actions and rhetoric of Nazis has become so commonplace in discussing anything we simply don’t like or enjoy, that there is a constant threat of diminishing the unthinkable suffering of those who died at the hands of Hitler’s regime; and to diminish the horror of human suffering, particularly on that scale, is ultimately to diminish ourselves.
This is probably why, for a long time, while I was absolutely against the stance that we were taking on asylum seekers, the many references I saw to our offshore processing centres as being “concentration camps” made me feel uneasy. While WWII Germany certainly has no exclusive claim to the use of concentration camps, rightly or wrongly, this was the standard that had been set for me – and my unease was a sign of that lingering doubt that we, in modern-day Australia, could possibly be responsible for keeping people in conditions that could be considered the same as what happens in concentration camps. Simply put, the term would not mesh with my understanding of the time and place in which we live.
When I stood as the Greens candidate for Lindsay during the federal election earlier this year, I spoke out against the asylum seeker policies of both the Labor and Liberal parties. I genuinely felt that both of the major parties vying for the leadership of this country were taking us further down a dark path, from which any chance of returning was quickly diminishing. I believed – and still believe – that how horribly we are to treat people fleeing from persecution should not be the starting point from which all other conversations about asylum seekers begin.
What’s changed for me since September is the recognition that, as genuine as my feelings were back then, they were based on an abstract notion of what form our treatment of asylum seekers had taken – and what it would come to take after the result of the election was declared.
Since then, we’ve read about Immigration Minister Scott Morrison’s decree that asylum seekers should only been referred to by the misnomer of “illegal arrivals”. We’ve seen his attempts to further shift our consideration away from questions relating to the humanity of asylum seekers and more toward the management of their numbers, as we might do when discussing animals.
We’ve read the reports from Amnesty International and seen the photos published by the Guardian Australia, which reveal in gruesome detail the conditions in which those seeking asylum in Australia are being kept. We’ve heard from medical professionals that the mental health and physical well-being of these people are currently at a standard that would spark an insurmountable wave of outrage if it were animals that were being treated in this way.
We’ve reached a point where comparisons to our treatment of animals have become relevant to our treatment of other human beings.
Even as a staunch believer in our need to improve our handling of animal welfare, I find this horrifying.
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop’s claim that the conditions in the asylum centre on Nauru are better than mining camps has caused outrage, exactly because we know enough about the truth of the matter that her words ring hollow.
Despite the Herculean efforts of this government to keep negative information about our treatment of asylum seekers from surfacing, we no longer have any excuse for only understanding the plight of these people in an abstract sense.
My unease at the use of the term “concentration camps” has become a gnawing sense of dread at the realisation that, in modern-day Australia – in my Australia – this is exactly what we have.
It’s a realisation that, for me, has come with an almost crushing sense of shame. That I’m writing this in the first place is, I can admit, a somewhat selfish attempt to work through my own sense of guilt and question my complicity in a system that has reached a point where this treatment of other people has not only become the norm, but is decried by many as being ‘too soft’.
I believe that Kevin Rudd got it wrong when he declared climate change to be the “greatest moral challenge of our time”. Rather, I agree with Barry Jones, who wrote for The Conversation that asylum is our greatest moral challenge.
Claims that we should focus on our own before we help others – whether they be the homeless, our unemployed, or members of any other disadvantaged group – fall flat in the face of an election that was won not on policies relating to addressing the issues faced by any of these groups, but on a platform no more complex than “we will stop the boats [and they won’t]”.
If we’re to continue to lay claim to a sense of moral authority, then we need to start taking a serious look at what we have become. We need to recognise that those coming here seeking asylum are deserving of the same standard of human decency that we expect for ourselves.
We’ve gone well past the point where it’s acceptable to continue looking at our behaviour in the abstract. Things need to change.