The Border Force Act’s disquieting parallels

From Andrew Hamilton, Eureka Street July 5, 2015

On July 1 the Australian Border Force Act 2015 came into force. On the same day 40 people who were working in Australian detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island signed an open letter of protest to the Prime Minister and Minister for Immigration and Border Protection.

They attacked the provision that forbids them to speak publicly about abuses of human rights.  The penalty for doing so is two years in jail. They also dared the Government to prosecute them for writing the letter.

Such letters reflect their letters deep disquiet and considerable bravery. The disquiet is justified. Enquiries and reports have brought to public notice incidents of sexual abuse, have claimed Australia to be in breach of the International Convention on torture, and have highlighted the way in which human beings are damaged in detention centres.

As a Catholic priest I all too slowly became aware of the defects in church governance and culture that led to so many children being abused and the crimes against them being kept secret.  So I am horrified that the Government should impose this culture of silence on detention centres by legislating to ensure that sexual abuse and other crimes are kept in-house.  I have learned how foolish people were to believe us when we said to them, ‘You can trust us, we are the church’.  I have still less reason to believe government ministers when they say, ‘You can trust us to act justly, we are the government’.

Although comparisons with other times and other states are never conclusive, there are disquieting parallels between the purpose of this and other recent legislation and the steps taken by other security states bear reflection. In nations like Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, Apartheid South Africa, and Chile and Argentina under the Generals, evidence of gross violation of human rights through arbitrary detention, beatings, rapes, torture  and murder in places of detention came to light only when the regimes that practiced them fell. All these regimes ensured that their security apparatus could act in secrecy, and prevented information from leaking out.

These security states also denigrated their victims as enemies of the people and gave impunity to those who mistreated them. In Stalin’s Russia those sent to the Gulags were considered enemies of the state, as were the Jews and gypsies sent to Nazi camps, and Black activists imprisoned in South Africa. The populace generally was not concerned about how they were treated.  Furthermore the military and other officers of the state enjoyed impunity for any brutality they practiced.

In Australia people who come by boat to seek protection from persecution have long been vilified.  Recent legislation, too, allows officers in detention centres to use whatever force they themselves deem necessary to maintain order. They will effectively be judges of their own cases. This confers on them a dangerous degree of impunity. Taken together with the imposition of secrecy and the widespread antipathy to asylum seekers, this measure removes all the effective hindrances to the development of a brutal culture.

People will say that this can never happen in Australia – our national virtues and institutions will prevent it. So will the decency of the officers working in detention centres. And  I can testify to their decency.  But this is what people said in South Africa, Chile, Germany and Russia.

Still in those nations brave people risked their lives or freedom when telling the truth to power. Osip Mandel’stam, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Aleksandr Solzhenitisyn, Nelson Mandela and Pablo Neruda are some of the best known faces of resistance to brutality. The signatories of the open letter follow honorably in their own small way in this tradition.

Over the entrance to the Nazi death camps hung the slogan: ‘Work makes free’.  For those arriving there its chilling irony lay in the fact that the only freedom offered and imposed upon them was to be killed. But for the Nazi State its comforting irony lay in the knowledge that, if it worked to denigrate its victims, to impose silence around its security apparatus and to give its officials impunity, it would be made free from all that waffle about decency, justice and respect.

As we read the letter of the 40 just people, that bears thinking about…

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Image: Victims of Argentina’s Dirty War.


Andrew Hamilton