COMMENT: Refugees, burned hands and not making compromises – by Max Lane

On January 22 the Australian Broadcasting Commission radio, TV and website as well as the Sydney morning Herald and The Age published reports that refugees that had been intercepted on the sea by Australian navy vessels had been tortured by navy personnel. According to the refugees, they had been forced to hold on to hot exhaust pipes from their boat’s motor. They also claimed that Australian Navy personnel had kicked them. The news reports showed photos of their burned hands. The refugees reported this to the Indonesian police who have stated that they are investigating the claims.  The Australian government says it will assist any Indonesian police investigation.

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Sydney Morning Herald photo: January 25.

Overall however the reactions in Australia to these allegations have been disgraceful but also very dangerous.  Worse, is that these disgraceful and dangerous reactions have come from both the “left” and the right of the mainstream commentaries and responses.

The article which has provoked me into writing these remarks was an article “Official secrecy leaves our Navy exposed” by Mungo MacCallum.  MacCallum has long been one of the more sarcastic critics of Australia’s conservative elite. His ideological perspective has been one of Whitlam-Hawke era social democracy, and not socialist but his criticisms have often been sharp and apt. His article on this issue is, however, quite shocking and contributes to the dangerous slide towards granting impunity to the state in almost all of the discussion.

MacCallum declares at the beginning of his article the overlap between his owns views and those of current right-wing prime minister, Abbott:  “For once I have to agree with Tony Abbott. I do not believe that Australian Navy personnel ordered asylum seekers to hold on to hot metal pipes, thereby inflicting serious burns to their hands.”  This automatic defence of Australian navy personnel as being impossible of carrying out such torture is shared across the whole mainstream of political groups and commentators. The most the ALP leader, Shorten, could say was that was the allegations were “concerning” but then he went on to echo the pre-Australia Day patriotic defence of the Australian Armed Forces.

There are many issues here. I want to comment on just two.

I have no idea whether the allegations are justified or not, although it is very clear that the refugees were burned when they alighted from the boat they had been on, which had been forced back into Indonesian territorial waters.  However, neither do I have some fairy-tale belief in the inevitable innocence of the Australian state’s armed forces. MacCallum himself admits:

Our sailors are not perfect: various inquiries over the years have shown that they, or at least some of them, can be insensitive, undisciplined and at times downright ugly. But this is not to say that they would indulge in pointless sadism. There has to be another explanation.

“They would [not] indulge in pointless sadism”.  Why not? This would make the Australian armed forces unique in the world not to contain elements whose ugliness would descend to maltreatment and torture. And also somehow they must be made of very different stuff from the Australian police forces. MacCallum was saying this at the same time as the Sydney Morning Herald (January 26) was reporting an inquiry by the Navy into facebook comments by Navy personnel, who were apparently members of the a racist group, the Australian Defence League, attacking refugees with a comment from one: ”I’m about to head out today to deal with these f—ers.’

All the bald assertions, wherever they come from, that that members of the Australian armed forces would never do wrong, must be seen as nothing but fairy tale patriotism and very dangerous.

The second issue, and the most important, is the acceptance that very serious allegations of torture made against members of the Australian state apparatus should not be investigated.  This is a most dangerous precedent – especially when the justification is simply “they are ours and couldn’t possibly have done it.” This grants impunity to members of the Australian armed forces. The appropriate response my any government with a sense of justice and rights would have been to announce an immediate investigation into the allegations. The Abbot regime’s response of “we will cooperate with Indonesian police if they do something” is a dangerous cop-out.

That the Abbot-Morrison regime would opt for this position is not unexpected and simply reflects the character of their elite-centred politics. In some ways more dangerous is when this position is adopted by the regime’s critics. MacCallum does criticise Abbott and co but for exposing Australian navy personnel to false allegations that can harm their reputation and not for the unjustness and dangerous precedent set by not investigating the allegations made against the Navy. Perhaps, MacCallum sees this as some kind of tactical manoeuvre. Is he thinking that to attack the government on a spot where these seems to be greater public support- sympathy for the Navy – will win a wider hearing. This too is dangerous and, I think, under-estimates or mis-analyses how the mass of ordinary people relate to refugees and refugee issues.

There are tens of thousands of refugees who have come to Australia since it has become an issue – when Keating introduced compulsory detention. How many cases have there been of serious social tensions relating to this in day-to-day life? None that have registered on any social radar. But “ideological” incidents – reflected in something like the Cronulla riots – and harassment over the media via shock jocks and others do happen. The almost 100% domination of all media with mass outreach by xenophobic political outlooks, the hardening of the Liberal National Parties rhetoric on this, the enthusiastic acquiescence of the ALP leadership, whether Gillard, Rudd or Carr in refugee bashing and the refusal of the Greens to consider an extra-parliamentary strategy on the issue all mean that the day-to-day ideological world of the ordinary person is drenched in the most disgusting ideas and values. Whatever they really think based on their core values and day-to-day life experiences, many people are literally left with no free head space outside what is being shoved into it by a machine driven by enormous power.

In this situation, there is a core stance we must take: no compromise with any of this junk. No so-called “tactics”.  Tell the truth and demand what is right.

What is right this time is: a full investigation of the refugees’s allegations. And given the guarantees of innocence given by the state officialdom so far: better make this a public inquiry.

Refugees are welcome!

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