News & Current Affairs
23 December 2014
by Julian Burnside
Scott Morrison's calculated cruelty is his legacy
He proved to be a callous Immigration Minister, yet he is given another portfolio that requires compassion.
Cruel minister: Scott Morrison espouses Christian principles, but took an extraordinarily harsh stance on boat people. Now he will be dealing with another group of vulnerable people under the social services portfolio.
Scott Morrison's performance as immigration minister will be assessed differently, depending on where you stand. For those who think boat people are criminals who should be locked up, his time in the immigration portfolio has been hailed a success. For those who understand the truth of the matter, Morrison's time as immigration minister is a terrible stain on our history.
Morrison's tenure as immigration minister saw a few novelties. First, he directed officially that boat people, who were previously called "irregular maritime arrivals" should thereafter be called "illegal maritime arrivals". By officially insisting on this language, Morrison helped revive the old lie that boat people are "illegal": powerful rhetoric introduced by the Howard government at the time of the Tampa episode in August 2001. It was the first of a series of moves calculated to deliver him ministerial success built on the suffering of innocent men, women and children who had done nothing worse than try to escape persecution and flee to safety.
Morrison's willingness to mislead the public was pushed further when he renamed the department: it became the "Department of Immigration and Border Protection". The word "protection" implies a threat. Boat people are not a threat to us.
Then he introduced "Operation Sovereign Borders", in which he shrouded maritime operations in a cloak of military secrecy. By creating a sense of military emergency, he made it look somehow justifiable to lock people up in misery on Manus Island and Nauru. The secrecy was a curious innovation: during his time in opposition, he never missed a chance to publicise the arrival of refugee boats.
The reinvigorated use of deceptive language, coupled with the trappings of military defence, was successful: an increasing number of people thought it was a good thing to "prevent dangerous criminals getting to Australia". And if that was the fact, they were right. But it was all a lie: boat people are not criminals; they do not commit an offence by coming here the way they do; they are not a risk to us. So the bottom line is that we have been persuaded to spend about $5 billion a year mistreating innocent people.
It is no novelty that politicians lie to us, so Morrison calling boat people "illegal" was false, but not unprecedented. And the flourish of "border protection" was a deft way of finessing the deception. So far, standard Australian politics. But the 2013 federal election took us somewhere new: both major parties tried to attract political support by promising cruelty to boat people. It is easy to imagine that if they had promised cruelty to animals, it would not have worked so well.
And it was Morrison who delivered on the promise of cruelty. This sat oddly with his avowed religious views, and his maiden speech in Parliament, delivered on February 14, 2008.
Among other things, he said:
"I turn now to the most significant influences on my life – my family and my faith. Family is the stuff of life and there is nothing more precious ... For me, faith is personal, but the implications are social – as personal and social responsibility are at the heart of the Christian message ..."
He drew on the example of William Wilberforce (the great English anti-slavery campaigner). He quoted Desmond Tutu as saying: "we expect Christians ... to be those who stand up for the truth, to stand up for justice, to stand on the side of the poor and the hungry, the homeless and the naked" and was inspired to add: "These are my principles."
It is lucky he identified his principles so clearly, because no one would be able to discover them by watching his behaviour as immigration minister.
As minister, Morrison was more concerned to ensure boat people were treated so harshly that the prospect of being locked up in Manus or Nauru would act as a "deterrent": it had to look more alarming than the risk of dying on the sea in the attempt to reach safety. He was responsible for holding more children in detention than any previous government. He presided over a system that was calculated to humiliate, degrade, damage and break people. And, worse than all that, Morrison deceived us into thinking that all this was being done for the benefit of the Australian public.
Morrison's conduct as immigration minister is impossible to reconcile with his stated Christian beliefs. He visited the detention centre at Manus Island on September 26, 2013, and delivered a clear message that the transferees would remain at the centre until they went home or resettled in a country other than Australia. This stands awkwardly alongside a passage from Matthew 25:35: "For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me", a message at the heart of the Christian teaching he claims to embrace.
All things considered, the immigration portfolio will improve by losing Morrison, who has shown himself to be a hypocrite, willing to harm innocent people for political purposes.
It will be interesting to see how much damage he can do to pensioners.