Stage-managing cruelty

‘We will decide who reports on immigration and the circumstances in which they report.’

John Howard’s notorious slogan comes to mind in relation to the apparent ease with which government cheerleader and Australian editor Chris Kenny obtained a journalist visa for Nauru. You’ll recall how, only a few weeks ago, Lateline’s Ginny Stein described her own experience seeking permission to visit the detention centre, a process that involved ponying up the $8000 non-refundable fee that Nauru currently extorts from applicants. ‘When an application form was requested,’ she said. ‘I was told that I had been rejected, even before an application was issued.’

Kenny, a former adviser to Alexander Downer, evidently received a very different response.

These shenanigans coincide with new revelations about the Australian Border Force’s infamous Operation Fortitude from August, courtesy of a FOI request by Josh Taylor at Crikey. The resulting document trove proves that Border Force’s apparent promise that officers would be ‘positioned at various locations around the CBD speaking with any individual we cross paths with’ was not (as was subsequently claimed) the result of poor wording by a bumbling junior staffer. On the contrary, earlier versions of the press release contained far stronger promises that the ABF would be roaming the streets ‘speaking to individuals who we suspect may be in Australia illegally without a current and valid visa’.

And on what were these suspicions to be based, in an operation that consisted largely of mooching around the Melbourne CBD?

The talking points continued: ‘Our officers employ a range of techniques to determine if we think someone is demonstrating traits which indicate there is a need to conduct a more in-depth assessment of their current visa status.’

The widely voiced fears about racial profiling are scarcely dispelled by the draft’s reference to these ‘techniques’, which apparently identify those ‘demonstrating traits’ (whatever that means) pertaining to suspect visa statuses.

But the content of the new material released to Crikey is probably less disturbing than the general sense conveyed of a department that instinctively responds to publicity by spin and dissimulation. Quite clearly, without the protest and the corresponding social media outrage, Border Force would have gone ahead with its plans to stop passers-by and demanding to see their papers. Yet that protest was only possible because the ABF made the mistake of staging its operation in a central location. Most of the time, however, the Border Force performs its work away from the spotlight, exerting enormous control over the lives of extraordinarily vulnerable people. And, quite clearly, it reacts to media exposure like the devil shying from holy water.

Let’s be clear: the ease with which Kenny obtained access to the detention centre at Nauru is, in some respects, far more disturbing than the previous policy of near total journalistic exclusion. Everyone knows that Nauru’s decisions about who can and can’t visit its camp are guided by the Australian immigration department, which is, after all, the regional expert at border policing. The new turn to welcoming friendly reporters (while still keeping everyone else out) is disturbingly reminiscent of media management techniques adopted by history’s worst dictatorships, most of whom were only too eager to lay on a guided tour for reliable fellow travellers.  ‘I am very much obliged to you, Mr Stalin, for agreeing to see me’, said HG Wells in his fawning interview of 1934. And every generation produces similar examples.

Of course, the government’s recourse to such crude techniques is not an accident. The Australian response to asylum seekers is now notorious throughout the world. It appals all decent people; it delights Katie Hopkins and German neo-Nazis.

The cruelty on which the policy rests cannot be laid out before the Australian public, for fear they’d recoil at what’s being done in their name. By necessity, then, the government resorts instinctively to lies and spin and media management.


Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland.

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  1. Buccaneers of the south seas. My father and in-laws all did time in Villawood when one was free to come and go, play a spot of table tennis after taking an English language lesson. Before long the old man was on a staple of Monte Carlos and sleeping in the hollows of giant figs in Hyde Park. He was crazy before getting on the ship. I’d rather not imagine what That Island would have done to him.

  2. Well articulated. Institutional abuse, rape, murder. Might Australia be held to account, and by whom? How does international law work in these regards? Is it possible that Australia and Australians could be denied or lose international citizenship rights (if such a thing exists?) over its treatment of refugees and indigenous peoples?

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