Cruelty? It’s part of the Australian experience.
Our treatment of refugees is barbaric in an authentically Australian mode, given our early history of penal settlements. Cruelty is a product of our loyalty to the current political order.
How can it be that Australia, a nation whose self-image is of fairness, frankness, and anti-authoritarianism, is so cruel to asylum seekers? It would be better to ask whether the current regime of imprisonment and torture is anything new. It is, after all, the latest in a long history of Australian cruelty, a constant presence in our culture since white settlement.
The usual fallback is to blame a lack of political and moral leadership, a series of “lurches to the right”, or a “dark victory”. The Greens, who brand themselves as the compassionate party, claim that they could do better – if only they could take government. But isn’t it strange that we lay the burden of “fixing” the asylum seeker gulags issue at the feet of parliamentarians, the same group of people who decided to lock them up to begin with?
To say it’s even possible to fix gives the parliament too much credit. More powerful nations, whose immigration flows are comparably much higher, end up conducting their debates along the exact same lines as us. This includes governments run by the left; as I wrote earlier this year for ABC Religion, the French in particular have often been cruellest under socialist leaders, including François Mitterrand.
That said, Operation Sovereign Borders is barbaric in an authentically Australian mode, given our early history of offshore penal settlements like Norfolk Island and Port Arthur. Unfortunately, because nobody bothers to read Australian history, we mainly access the memory of these colonial torture chambers through a popular myth: that convicts who were skilful, hard working and well behaved in the early settlement period were given tickets-of-leave and made a new life (including as constables and barristers), while the baddies, murderers and repeat offenders were shipped off to Norfolk to be flogged and tortured.
Like much of our officially permitted myth-making, this picture of Australian history is a useful fiction that validates current political arrangements. After all, if it wasn’t useful, wouldn’t it just be forgotten?
Convicts numbers Australia
Plan of the accommodation of convicts in Norfolk island. A 2010 study of over 6,000 convict records by Tim Causer, the largest to date, found that the overwhelming majority were not professional felons, but unskilled labourers.
Nearly 70% had been brought to Australia after committing non-violent property offences. Two-thirds had only been punished a single time before their original transportation to Australia, which according to Causer’s reading of the records, could mean “anything from 10 years in prison (a rare sentence) to a couple of days locked up for drunkenness.” In other words, the prisoners at Norfolk Island, Port Arthur and the rest were for the most part ordinary labouring men.
Other early settlement histories have come to a similar point. Nonetheless, the myth of the felonry, the criminal class and the lash has defeated one revisionist historian after another. It retains its stranglehold over the Australian imagination in part because, like all myths, it establishes a false moral order: that good character and hard work were enough to avoid punishment in the colony. It wasn’t true then, and at heart we know it’s not true now.
Unexceptional people were sent to Norfolk as a matter of course, and as a result were treated with exceptional cruelty – not to deter criminals (which the Australian penal settlements failed to do), but to maintain and justify a regime of arbitrary low-level cruelty against the rest of the transported convicts on the mainland.
However, those under the lash did not cease to see themselves as British subjects: punishment tends to breed loyalty to an established social order, rather than encourage rebellion. This is why nobody bothers to read classic Australian fiction, which at its best is anti-colonial and anti-establishment. We no longer know how to find it enjoyable, and that’s a shame, because it offers a clear vantage point from which to view our current situation.
In the pivotal scene of Marcus Clarke’s classic convict novel, For The Term Of His Natural Life, Kirkland (a convict up for a flogging) encourages the protagonist Rufus Dawes to deliver his punishment: “‘Go on, Dawes,’ whispered Kirkland, without turning his head. ‘You are no more than another man.’”
Dawes, also a prisoner, stops after 50 lashes. “I’ll flog no more”, he says. “Get someone else to do your blood work for you. I won’t.” He himself is tied to the triangle for Kirkland’s share plus a few dozen more. Then the novel’s real scandal occurs:
“For 20 lashes more Dawes was mute, and then the agony forced from his labouring breast a hideous cry. But it was not a cry for mercy … He cursed all soldiers for tyrants, all parsons for hypocrites. He blasphemed his God and his Saviour. With a frightful outpouring of obscenity and blasphemy, he called on the earth to gape and swallow his persecutors…”
Dawes, by condemning the pointless and arbitrary colonial order that forces him to terrorise one of his fellows, is the novel’s hero.
By contrast, North, the priest and “establishment humanitarian” character (tellingly also a “confirmed drunkard”, or by today’s lax standards, a hipster epicure) fails in his pledge to save Kirkland from the lash. He instead turns up halfway through hungover, and finds himself delighting in the spectacle: “He would fain have fled, but a horrible fascination held him back.”
The tragedy of Operation Sovereign Borders is that it descends even further from this awful scene. The asylum seekers on Nauru and Christmas Island are not even punished as part of the established legal order, becoming subjects of the state as a result of their suffering. The federal government refuses to recognise their personhood as attracting inherent legal rights, which permits them to be maltreated. It is little wonder that they want to die, they are not even seen as human beings by the authority to which they want to submit themselves.
If we accept this description of asylum seekers (what Agamben calls homo sacer) then the spectacle of members of parliament crying over asylum seekers who drowned off Christmas Island was nothing more than unadulterated narcissism: “It makes me, a powerful elected member of government, upset to see that the legal structure I help perpetuate causes an utterly powerless person to either drown or be tortured.”
They are actually worse than North, who in Clarke’s novel at least has the decency to be ashamed at his failure. When he cries “No. Not if you are Christians!” at the sight of Kirkland’s flogging, he does not look for validation from those around him – unlike our MPs, who were no doubt glad to receive praise for their tears.
Immigration minister Scott Morrison’s decisions are even more loathsome, because he hides his gleeful administration of Operation Sovereign Borders behind a range of military and parliamentary processes. It would be more honest for him to be more like Marcus Clarke’s commandant Burgess, who laughs while Dawes is flogged, taking direct pleasure in doing his duty.
“But it’s sick to enjoy that!” you say. Yes, it is. So why do you support a system that delivered Morrison to power? Because it’s the parliament?
“The parliament has to do all kinds of distasteful things. That doesn’t mean we enjoy it”, you reply. Really? So much for the rule of law – the asylum seekers haven’t committed a crime!
“Yes they have, they came illegally.” Even if that were the case, so did your ancestors – and they were treated the same way. That’s the trained outburst of a broken person, who identifies with the authority that dominates him rather than with justice – not the words of a natural bigot.
Why is Australian culture cruel? Because that’s the behaviour our cruel state demands from us to show loyalty.