Reza Barati’s murder is a message from the Australian government to the poor of the world: think of this as a civilised nation at your peril.
The admission that Scott Morrison lied to the media and the public about the circumstances surrounding the murder of Barati is, of course, more than ample grounds to call for Morrison’s sacking.
But the debate about who knew what and when should not distract us from the greater crime.
This murder, and the horrific reality of life for asylum seekers on Manus Island, is not an unfortunate side effect, a by-product of some other policy. Horror is the entire point. The Australian government has knowingly and deliberately carried out a policy the singular purpose of which is to inflict cruelty and terror.
The logic is not new. It’s the same as the argument by right wingers that social security recipients must be kept on the brink of financial destitution in order to create “incentives” to find work.
In the case of asylum seekers, though, it takes on a macabre new dimension. These are people fleeing war, torture, abduction, imprisonment, rape, murder. Their situation was already so desperate that they were willing to risk death at sea to give themselves and their family the chance of a life with some dignity and hope.
To convince such people that coming to Australia is not worth the risk requires a special sadism.
Medieval torturers flayed and gutted prisoners in public squares to warn the impoverished peasantry against rebellion. The degree of violence and depravity increased in proportion to the horror of the situation the people faced. Such is the logic of Australia’s gulag archipelago.
What kind of society could tolerate such an approach?
There is an underlying assumption in the media, and in the way politics is discussed and taught, that Western countries like Australia are, while imperfect, fundamentally civilised and decent. Our political institutions are supposedly underpinned by Enlightenment values that espouse human rights, democracy and accountability.
Systemic deception of the population by political leaders, the violent and arbitrary exercise of police and judicial power, imperviousness to the rule of law – all of these things are meant to be confined either to the distant past or to those countries unlucky enough not to know the joys of modern Western civilisation.
It is all a lie. Western “civilisation” was built on the bodies of slave labour, and on barbaric wars of conquest that bloodied whole continents and destroyed civilisations. The great riches that amassed to the rulers of the imperial countries were acquired not by innovation or entrepreneurialism, but through the ruthless exploitation of both the colonial world and the mass of the population in the imperial countries themselves.
Today, more riches are concentrated in the hands of a tiny few than at any time in human history. The ruling elite, through their modern torturers in state institutions and private security firms, will flay the world to maintain their wealth and power.
Refugees are increasingly a key victim of this reality. They are doubly cursed.
First, their attempt to flee the most wretched countries of the earth – countries that were made wretched precisely by the politics of the Western rich – is a challenge to the vast modern security state. That state protects the status quo, dictating the manner in which money, resources and people travel around the world, in particular between the rich countries and the poor.
Second, stoking fears about refugees and migrants is a crucial means by which the mass of the population in the rich countries are convinced that their interests are bound up with those of their own nation state and their own ruling elite. It is no coincidence that hysteria against refugees reaches fever pitch whenever there is an economic crisis, whenever corporations are imposing job cuts to hold up profits, whenever governments are cutting back on social spending in order to cut taxes for the rich.
Those in the boardrooms of corporate Australia, and in the upper echelons of the state machine that guarantees the rule of those boardrooms over the country, do not dirty their own hands by hacking at asylum seekers with machetes or pounding rocks into their heads. They are far too civilised for that.
Instead they set the policy framework that makes such events inevitable. They do so not because they as individuals were born with innate evil intent, but because they rule over a system of such inequality, such injustice, that only the most brutal measures can ensure its continuation.
Labor’s shameful silence
There are two blindingly obvious steps that should be taken in response to revelations about the orgy of anti-asylum seeker violence on Manus Island.
First, the Manus Island detention centre should be immediately closed, and all detainees imprisoned there brought to Australia.
Second, immigration minister Scott Morrison, responsible for the concentration camps at the heart of the government’s refugee policy and now exposed as a bald-faced liar, must resign or be sacked.
That’s what the Greens are demanding. And it’s what an increasing number of voices in the media are calling for. But not the Labor Party.
The reason for this is as obvious as it is depressing. The “PNG solution”, a phrase even more laughable now than when it was first concocted, is a Labor Party invention. Of all the nefariously cunning but ill-fated schemes dreamt up by the Labor right to sacrifice decency in the hope of electoral reward, it is surely first among equals.
After its ignominious defeat at the polls, the ALP had the chance – as it did after numerous defeats since Keating was booted out of office in 1996 – to reassess its direction, to abandon its embrace of right wing economics and social conservatism, and return to something approaching a social-democratic outlook.
It did no such thing. The leadership contest last year between Anthony Albanese and Bill Shorten was an exercise in self delusion. The candidates convinced themselves that what the party really needed was more of the same, only with better salesmanship.
The results of this approach are now in. Immigration spokesperson Richard Marles demanding “answers” from the government, while insisting the Manus Island gulag “has to work”. Bill Shorten arguing that the main problem with Scott Morrison is that he doesn’t know what is going on. That Morrison is presiding over a policy that is murdering and maiming people who came to Australia to flee those very things doesn’t rate a mention.
Every electoral defeat in recent times has raised hopes among some that Labor would learn from its mistakes and retreat from its embrace of Liberal Party social policies. It is a false hope. If this latest outrage doesn’t prove it, nothing will.