You would have to be extraordinarily hard of heart not to have wept at Robert Manne and David Corlett’s account of the treatment of Shayan Badraie, for which each of us must bear our share of Australia’s collective responsibility. Sending Them Home has done us an important service in describing, in such relentless detail, precisely how we go about responding to the plight of asylum seekers detained in our name. (This history is going to make grim reading for our children and grandchildren; they’ll wonder, of course, whether we were complicit.)
Equally, having read the essay, you’d have to be soft in the head not to be puzzling – agonising – over this question: Why have Australians acquiesced so meekly in the Howard government’s treatment of “fourth-wave” asylum seekers, when it stands in such stark contrast to many admirable aspects of our refugee policy? Why, indeed, are most Australians not merely acquiescent but positively supportive of the government’s deliberate and systematic cruelty in relation to asylum seekers, especially children?
It is tempting to fume over the passivity of an electorate that seems to be more interested in home renovations than in the detention of children in refugee camps – or any other current-affairs issues not involving the sexual improprieties of professional footballers – but a moment’s compassionate reflection might help to explain why this is so. I suspect there are at least two reasons for our silence.
First, the reality is too horrible to face, so we simply don’t face it. This is a well-documented and effective psychological mechanism for the protection of our cherished beliefs. We believe that Australia stands for the “fair go”, so we don’t want to admit any information that might suggest otherwise. We’re a harmonious, tolerant, welcoming society, so don’t tell us we’re not. The US military might torture its prisoners in Iraq, but we wouldn’t do that sort of thing, so stories about the maltreatment of children in detention centres must either be wrong or … well, anyway, we don’t want to know.
Second, Australians have been so destabilised by the experience of our very own cultural revolution – a quarter-century of relentless social, cultural, economic and technological upheaval – that we have become weary both of reform and of “issues”. It’s all too hard; it’s all beyond our control; we feel powerless, and we don’t like feeling powerless. So we disengage from “the big picture” and from the national agenda; we turn the focus inwards; we devote our attention to things we can control – where we’ll send the kids to school, what video we’ll rent tonight, where we’ll spend the weekend, whether we’ll renovate or move.
This is bad for the health of our democracy – partly because it lets governments get away with murder while the electorate is distracted by the choice of colour for repainting the children’s bedrooms, or the need to try that new little Indian place down the street, and partly because an electorate in this kind of mood is inclined to leave it to the leader. “Howard must know something we don’t know” was a common response to the mystery of why Australia found itself invading Iraq.
But it’s also bad for the moral health of our society. When the focus is turned so relentlessly inward, we become more self-absorbed, more self-obsessed (which is why consumer confidence is so high) and correspondingly less compassionate, less tolerant and more inclined to let our prejudices off the leash. Who would have guessed that in the early years of the twenty-first century, Australia would be in danger of losing its hard-won reputation for tolerance and compassion towards minorities? How did this happen? To some extent, leadership is to blame. When we are officially encouraged to describe asylum seekers as “illegals”, when we dehumanise people in detention centres by calling them by numbers instead of names or by degrading them in other ways, the dominoes of prejudice start to fall. If it’s alright to express malevolent attitudes towards asylum seekers, why not towards Iraqis in general, or Arabs, or Afghans, or Lebanese, or Aborigines, or Muslims, or Asians?
In other words, we are having some of our darkest impulses reinforced, and this damage to the national psyche will be hard to repair. It will begin to happen when leaders – political or otherwise – begin to reinforce some of our nobler impulses by offering us a more uplifting vision of the kind of society we can become. In the meantime, it remains mysterious that a government prepared to lead the world in so many aspects of its refugee policy should be prepared to implicate us all in such a tarnished, nasty little operation on the fringes. No wonder we don’t want to know.
Hugh Mackay is a psychologist, social researcher and writer. His books include Reinventing Australia (1993), The Good Listener (1998), Turning Points (1999) and, most recently, Right & Wrong: How To Decide for Yourself.
This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 14, Mission Impossible.
ALSO FROM QUARTERLY ESSAY