01 July 2016
by Paul Stevenson

The Day We Stopped Being Australian

I remember the day democracy walked out the door. It was the day we stopped being Australian

Where did we go wrong? Did anybody see it happen? The day democracy walked out the door. The day we lost our freedom of speech. The day we stopped being Australian.

Well, I saw it. It was Wednesday 1 July 2015. I was sitting at the Wilson headquarters briefing table with about 20 other senior officers of Wilson Security on Nauru. I recall a chill went down my spine as I listened to the Australian Border Force Act prepared script being read out to the group: “From this day forward, a term of two years’ imprisonment will apply to any person convicted of speaking out against offshore detention.”

For me as a psychologist, unlike the others at that meeting, I immediately experienced the dilemma of being pitched against my professional ethical code (to protect and foster the wellbeing of my patients), and the threat of imprisonment for doing just that.

For the previous year, I had justified my existence on Nauru and Manus Island by doing my utmost to ease the pain and suffering of innocent people detained in these hell holes. But now it seemed I could endure my own hell hole in jail. Would that be an Australian jail, with a clean bed and three square meals a day, or a Nauruan jail, sleeping on a cement floor in 40-degree heat?

I thought of the nine Save the Children staff who had dared to speak out a couple of months earlier. They were corralled into a room at a hotel under Wilson’s guard until we could get them out of the country, and spare them the wrath of the Nauruan police. I also reflected on the brave doctors and nurses of International Health and Medical Services (IHMS), who (prior to the ABF Act), dared to tell their story to the Australian media. I was in good company.

I kept a clandestine profile for my last deployment on Nauru, basically waiting two weeks for the plane to fly in and rescue me from the island. You see, I had already “spilt the beans” before this deployment, and it was only a matter of time before the authorities there found out. It was a very uncomfortable two weeks.

Exiting Nauru for the final time, my mind was focussed on the terror and desperation of the people I had sought to assist. Many of those critical incidents were reported to the Guardian last week when I blew the whistle on all I had seen. These included the excessive number of suicide attempts and self-harm – people swallowing nails and screws, ingesting bleach and other toxic chemicals, the head bashing, the chokings, the lip sewing, and the protests.

But there was one incident which will never leave me alone. This was an incident reported by one of my colleagues, that put me out of action for a day. She said a young woman (Asylum Seeker RPC 3) approached her with her infant child in her arms. Then with arms outstretched she said: “Would you please take my baby, so I can die.”

Wake up Australia! What are we doing to people?

I had another contract with Nauru initiated two weeks ago on 16 June when I was asked by PsyCare to report to Nauru RPC 1 on 30 June. By 17 June I had completed my medical examination and PsyCare had completed my visa application, and forwarded my plane ticket. By 20 June at lunchtime – about 2 hours after the Guardian published the story – I received an email to inform me my services were no longer required.

And what of this election campaign? The rhetoric has been pure lies and deceit. On Four Corners Malcolm Turnbull repeatedly stated that offshore detention was the responsibility of Nauru and PNG.

This has always been in contention, but you only have to be on the ground there to know who’s in charge. On Nauru, the Government of Nauru is considered by Australian contractors to be a nuisance factor only - an organisation to whom extortionate rent payments are made for the privilege of housing our centres there.

We are not only running the camps, we are supporting and sustaining the whole island. On Manus Island, one never sees any indication that the PNG Government is involved in any way. This was a disgraceful declaration by the leader of our nation, and a testament to just how out of touch he really is.

These next couple of days are crucial in determining the future of Australia’s offshore detention regime. Great Australians, like Frank Brennan, Gillian Triggs and Julian Burnside have all called for closure of these concentration camps. After all, these are the international lawyers who best understand the implications of sovereign borders, and are calling for a compassionate integration of the 2000 remaining asylum seekers and refugees on Manus Island and Nauru in Australia.

If you want to talk money, if the centres were closed there would be a budget saving of billions of dollars a year – and that is substantial at a time of marked deficit.

But what of our democracy? What does all this say about Australians, about who we are? What does it do to a country to accept that we are condemned by every decent nation in the world, along with the UN, the UNHCR in particular?

I think it says we are a mob of complacents. We’re far happier to spend the dying days of the election campaign on rehashed speeches about the economy, negative gearing, the homophobic-oriented plebiscite.

Both major parties have a policy to do nothing about offshore detention, but remember, if nothing happens now to get asylum seekers and refugees on the political agenda, then they will languish in those hell holes for another three years.