Dutton may face questions, but no royal commission can fix cruelty. That’s up to us
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Last week, independent MP Kylea Tink wrote to the prime minister calling for a royal commission. It was, she tweeted, our “chance of finally seeing what’s really been going on with our uniquely cruel treatment of asylum seekers”. Her fellow independent Zali Steggall also called for one, as did the Greens.
There is likely to be an inquiry of some sort into last week’s revelations in this masthead of questionable dealings involving our offshore detention arrangements. This will likely be at least a little politically inconvenient for Peter Dutton, who was the minister when some of these contracts were signed (though he may have had no involvement at all). The inquiry may be limited. A broad-ranging royal commission seems unlikely – but should it happen?
Opposition Leader Peter Dutton could face some difficult questions on offshore detention contracts. Credit: AAP
Such a commission would run for years. There were the allegations of sexual abuse on the island prisons we ran. Very sick refugees were denied urgent care. Children were reported to have “resignation syndrome”. Inevitably, too, Peter Dutton would end up answering questions about his own responses, including his suggestion that women alleging rape were “trying it on” in attempts to be flown to Australia.
But could a royal commission – or any inquiry – ever do what critics of the system expect it to? Take the robo-debt royal commission. The final document made an important cultural point: that demonisation of those on welfare was at the root of what happened. If we wanted to prevent such things, such rhetoric had to stop.
But there are questions that lie behind that, which no royal commission could ever answer. Why do politicians think demonising is politically useful? Are they correct? If they are correct, then why are we satisfied in some way when our politicians are mean to those who are struggling most? If we do not have answers – if we are not even prepared to ask the questions – the chance of stopping the rhetoric that results is minimal.
Or think of the banking royal commission. The Commissioner wrote about “pursuit of profit” and “greed”. He wrote that people and companies did awful things “because they could”. Many good suggestions came from that inquiry. Those conclusions, though, are really about the structure of our society: capitalism not only as economic system but as the defining principle of our lives.
Illustration: Jim Pavlidis. Credit:
Or think of the long-ago Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. Still so little has changed – why? Part of the answer must be Noel Pearson’s point that Indigenous people have been for so long the “most unloved” ethnic group in Australia. If the Voice to parliament represents a possible solution, then the fact we are only talking about such a body in 2023 points to the massive time spans required to achieve change not only in our laws but in our culture.
When it comes to asylum seekers, we have barely begun to think about our responsibilities and our failures. There seems to be bipartisan consensus these days that we do not want boats to come. This may be the correct approach, but it has rarely been seriously interrogated in our public sphere at a moral level: how do we weigh the lives saved from avoiding drownings against the people facing harm in their own countries who we have blocked? Instead, we have reached a political consensus – neither major party wants the political risk of boats arriving – that conveniently marries to a possible moral justification. Adequately working out how we have arrived here involves political and philosophical questions, probably beyond the role of a royal commission.
We could say – as I wrote a few weeks ago – there is something cruel in our society. But don’t we need to push beyond that, and ask why, and what can be done? I have lately been thinking of a short story by J.M. Coetzee, called The Dog. In it, a woman is terrorised by a local dog. She asks its owners to be introduced, so the dog might stop treating her as an enemy. They refuse. “It is our road,” one says. “We did not invite you here. You can take another road.” It is a story and so not easily reduced, but one possible meaning for me has to do with those who seek protection – or asylum – and the response of those who are asked to give that protection. The image that stays with me is of the dog, filled with what the woman takes to be hatred, hurling itself against a fence. I am left with the feeling that on this question of asylum and protection there is something blind and animal at work – something not easily grasped or dealt with.
Climate change is another blind force. And that blind force will soon create still more refugees: some estimate more than a billion in just the next 27 years. Some will flee as their lands become unliveable; some will flee as conflict breaks out over the land and drinkable water that remains. Some already have.
By “blind force” I do not mean to absolve us of responsibility; merely to note that we are poor at thinking about our responsibility in such matters. Remember that we export huge amounts of fossil fuels. Australians are likely, then, to arrive at the perverse situation of having genuine responsibility for creating climate refugees while insisting on our right to refuse entry to many of those same refugees for reasons we have never been called upon to fully explain.
A royal commission would do some useful things. It might even ask some of what lawyer Michael Bradley described as “the large, uncomfortable questions”. But asking and answering the largest and most uncomfortable questions is not only up to commissioners or even politicians. A society is built in many ways, by all the individuals who live within it. The refugee crisis is far from over, whatever we may tell ourselves since the boats have largely stopped coming to our shores. If we stand any chance of working out “what’s really been going on” with the cruelty we exhibit towards asylum seekers and fixing it before politics overwhelms us once more, that work must begin now. Even then, the task may prove beyond us.
Sean Kelly is author of The Game: A Portrait of Scott Morrison, a regular columnist and a former adviser to Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.
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