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An Indonesian boy looks at the camera, sadly, wearing a rain slicker on a boat
This ten-year-old boy’s father and cousin were believed to have drowned when their boat sank on the way to Australia. Karlius Salna/AAP

‘We’d be getting it from both sides, which was horrendous’: Australian political players on our brutal refugee policies

In September 2017, I interviewed a senior figure within the Australian Labor Party in his office in Canberra. At one point in our discussion he told me:

The biggest contest in Australian politics is essentially around which issue you can make ascendant, so if you’re [a] conservative Opposition leader, you want to make border security or the lack thereof and debt and deficits the issues that are ascendant in people’s minds, and then the carbon tax. But certainly in 2010, prior to the hung parliament and the cross-party agreement on climate, it was all about border security and debt and deficits.

He continued, explaining:

So what you’re doing every day, the whole contest is about can you make sure that that’s the story in the newspapers the next day, and then if it’s the story in the newspapers the next day, is it what the radio’s talking about in the morning, and then if it’s what the radio’s talking about in the morning, is it what the TVs pick up or it’s what the leaders get asked about at their media events and therefore that informs the TV news in the evening, and then you have a new revelation at some point in the afternoon that you push out or that someone uncovers that starts the cycle again.

This, he argued, was a tactic the Liberal Party embraced in the “latter period” of Chris Evans’s time as Immigration minister, when “every time [Labor] thought they had been successful in moving the conversation on to some other topic, either events would catch up with them or Abbott or Morrison would go out and say something really outrageous that would inflame the conversation about border security and it would shift the conversation back onto that”.

He described this as

the Lynton Crosby thing of if you drop a dead cat on the table in the middle of a dinner party, no-one’s going to like it. Everyone’s going to think you’re a bit weird, but they’re going to spend the rest of the night talking about the dead cat on the middle of the table in the dinner party.

The Lynton Crosby being referred to here is a former federal director of the Liberal Party, who, with Mark Textor, co-runs a political campaigning consultancy firm, C|T Group. Crosby oversaw the Liberal Party’s campaigns for the 1996, 1998, 2001 and 2004 federal elections, all of which were won by the Howard-led Liberal–Nationals Coalition.

People who have worked for C|T Group also played a role in more recent Coalition campaigns: the 2022 federal election campaign included someone from C|T Group as a pollster, and an “alumnus” as a consultant.

And so many did not feel it was a coincidence that on the final day of that campaign, with clear signs that the Coalition would lose, there was an announcement that Border Force had intercepted a boat carrying refugees which had been heading towards Australia.

Former federal director of the Liberal Party Lynton Crosby’s strategy: if you drop a dead cat on the table during a dinner party, no one will like it, but it will absorb all the attention. Mark Graham/AAP

Crosby himself has subsequently run elections for the Conservative Party in the United Kingdom, including for Boris Johnson and Theresa May, where his “dead cat” strategy gained some notoriety thanks to a Telegraph column by his former star politician.

Writing in 2013, Johnson revealed:

Let us suppose you are losing an argument. The facts are overwhelmingly against you and the more people focus on the reality the worse it is for you and your case. Your best bet in these circumstances is to perform a manoeuvre that a great campaigner describes as “throwing a dead cat on the table, mate”.

He continued:

The key point, says my Australian friend, is that everyone will shout “Jeez, mate, there’s a dead cat on the table!”; in other words they will be talking about the dead cat, the thing you want them to talk about, and they will not be talking about the issue that has been causing you so much grief.

While at times the strategy is used to distract from potentially more damning political conversations, in Australia we have also seen controversy being created to direct attention to the political games being played over matters related to national security and our borders.

Creating a crisis is a means of controlling the media and the narrative, controlling people’s emotions and controlling people’s lives. For we should never lose sight of the asylum seekers at the borders whose lives are subjected to these political games.

Read more: Australia's asylum seeker policy history: a story of blunders and shame

Crisis controlled and refused

On 15 December 2010, a boat carrying asylum seekers crashed at Christmas Island, in a maritime tragedy that made news around the country. Janga was carrying Iranian, Iraqi and stateless asylum seekers, as well as an Indonesian crew, when its engine failed and propelled it towards a dangerous outcrop, where it was dashed against the rocks.

Both those on board and residents on Christmas Island had called the Australian authorities to report a vessel in distress, but the authorities were remarkably slow to respond.

Christmas Island residents watched from the cliffs as passengers screamed for help when the hull broke apart and they were catapulted into the water. Residents threw lifejackets and safety equipment into the water to help the drowning passengers, but for many, it was to no avail. Janga, which the Australian authorities labelled SIEV 221, was carrying 92 people, and only 42 survived.

Footage captured by Christmas Island residents was shown widely on Australian television. It is horrific. One survivor, Hassan, told researchers Linda Briskman and Michelle Dimasi:

If the Navy could have come a little bit closer to the rocks to save people […]

I don’t know what happened but one speed boat it came to save only one of the people, one person, then going back to the Navy boat, smoking and looking, but then staying there for a while before they came back. They could have picked up seven or eight people at one time [but] they didn’t do so. It seems they didn’t care about us. If they had been quicker, only by two or three minutes, they would have saved the people […]

We owe our lives to the people of Christmas Island, not the Australian Navy. The life jackets they threw us made us to survive.

Another survivor lost his wife and three-month-old son: he told the 2011 coronial inquest into the disaster that he saw his son’s body floating in the water six metres away from him, but his wife had disappeared. Her body was never recovered.

We have suffered enough and we can’t sleep during the night because as soon as we shut our eyes, all these scenes and memories come to our eyes … Who’s going to answer for that?

SIEV 221 being forced against a cliff during the Christmas Island boat tragedy in which up to asylum seekers died. WA Coroner

When I discussed this crash with a former ministerial adviser, she told me, “You can’t underestimate how shell-shocked [government] people were. Some of the ministers that went up to Christmas Island were just traumatised by what happened.”

Numerous other interviewees mentioned this to me as a key event that shaped their feelings about refugee policy. It has had a profound effect on those in the Australian Labor Party in particular, as Labor was in government then.

Matt Thistlethwaite, Member of Parliament for Kingsford Smith, told me he was deeply affected, as someone involved in the lifesaving community.

“I was just looking at it thinking, geez, get in there and save them,” he told me.

You could just see these people drowning. Jump in and bloody well save them. That’s the natural reaction that someone as a lifesaver has. But I understand that that couldn’t be done because it was quite a dangerous situation and a lot of those people wouldn’t have had the skills that a lifesaver has or the devices that a lifesaver uses … but that really changed a lot of my view of that. It was just a tragedy that so many people could drown in front of everyone’s eyes really, in front of the nation’s eyes.

This moment, he told me, had “a massive effect in changing a lot of people’s views”.

It certainly did within the Party. So, we then started to try to work on well, how do you – how do you still become compassionate, how do you take your fair share of refugees, given what’s happening internationally, but stop people from putting themselves in those dangerous situations, because a lot of the evidence that we were receiving was that they’re vulnerable people.

“Because they might get to Indonesia, they’re told that – [by] the UNHCR – that well, you’re going to have to wait eight to ten years if you want to go to Australia. If you’ve got kids that’s your kids’ education, gone,” he said.

So they’re vulnerable and they’re manipulated by people who can say, “Well, I can get you there in the next six months.” They don’t tell you that it’s going to be on an overcrowded boat and you’re going to – there won’t be lifejackets, travelling across a rough stretch of sea, you don’t swim, you don’t know how to swim, and you’re risking your life. So that was the policy dilemma really for us: how do you make it safe but still show compassion and generosity?

Read more: Like Primo Levi at Auschwitz, Behrouz Boochani testifies for the people who lived and died in a prison camp

The work of feelings

I am not aiming to adjudicate on whether claims to emotional stress, sadness and desperation on the part of those in power are genuinely felt. But I am trying to understand what work the description of these feelings – whether they are being discussed in an interview with a historian, or in a caucus meeting, or with a journalist – does.

Here, the problem is identified as people (including children) boarding boats and risking death on the seas – “putting themselves in these dangerous situations”. And the solution is understood to rest in the governmental management of people’s movements and access to border crossing, to balance restriction with “compassion and generosity” in a formulation determined by the policymakers.

It is always a government’s ideas, a government’s understanding of the events and the possible solutions, which become pre-eminent. We need to question why governments are so rarely seen as being responsible for creating the conditions that allow for such tragedies to occur.

The problem is identified as people (including children) boarding boats and risking death on the seas. Trevor Collens/AAP

Moments of crisis, refused

In 2017, I discussed with a former ministerial adviser in the immigration portfolio the role of ministerial decisions in removing people from detention, or other forms of ministerial intervention into people’s claims for asylum.

She explained some of the different situations and factors. There was a reluctance in both the immigration minister’s office and the department to release those who were self-harming, as they believed this would be considered a “reward”. The best response was a refusal to engage, they believed.

For her, this constituted a particularly difficult part of the job:

[T]he hardest job in the office were the people who answered the phones: people would be ringing up abusing you saying, “You’re all hard arses and you’re this and you’re cruel and you’re horrible,” and other people are ringing up and saying, “You’re not being hard enough,” and you didn’t know which phone call you were taking every day, and that would happen. When there was something blowing up it would just come in. We’d be getting it from both sides, which was horrendous.

I have thought a lot about this comment. She had been incredibly welcoming: hosting me in her home, buying lunch, looking through her files for information, talking with me at length and generally being engaged, interested and supportive of my research. We were two white, middle-class women chatting.

Yet in this moment she describes people self-harming – inscribing on their bodies the depth of their need for asylum in ways that those of us who have never experienced such trauma can scarcely imagine. She describes the dreadful emotional impact of allowing people to self-harm and the effects on staffers of taking phone calls. And reiterates the wisdom of doing nothing. I think of this as a moment of crisis refused.

Many of those who are self-harming are also attempting to force a crisis, but this crisis is of a fundamentally different nature to the notion of crisis described by Milton Friedman:

Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.

Some policymakers work to institute this kind of crisis, which Naomi Klein critiques in her book The Shock Doctrine. Klein explains some crises (like the 2001 Tampa affair, where the Howard government refused to let a Norwegian freighter carrying 433 rescued refugees enter Australian waters, on the cusp of a federal election) are created in order to “shock” things: to take control and change conditions.

Some crises, like the Tampa affair, are created in order to ‘shock’ things – to take control and change conditions. Dean Lewins/AAP

In the case of refugees self-harming, they are attempting to force a response that recognises their claims. But those with the power and authority to intervene too often turn away.

The department refuses to see an epidemic of self-harm as a crisis, denying the historical context and discourse these asylum seekers and refugees claim. Instead, senior staffers tell a story of suffering also endured by politicians, advisers and staffers.

Read more: Asylum seekers and the dignity of work

A brutal society

We see this pattern again and again. In 2016, the so-called “Nauru files” – a collection of “more than 2,000 leaked reports from Australia’s detention camp for asylum seekers” in Nauru – were published by The Guardian. The journalists explained:

The Guardian’s analysis of the files reveal that children are vastly over-represented in the reports.

More than half of the 2,116 reports – a total of 1,086 incidents, or 51.3% – involved children, although children made up only about 18% of those in detention in Nauru during the time covered by the reports, May 2013 to October 2015.

The release of these documents, some of which “contain distressing examples of behaviour by traumatised children”, led to a parliamentary inquiry, but no substantial policy or practical changes. The desire to provoke a crisis was clear, but the cry went unheeded.

The former ministerial adviser informed me that she cannot imagine any government allowing asylum seekers who arrive without permit to be granted free entry on arrival any time soon. She has “had arguments with plenty of advocates”, and her view is:

get over mandatory [detention] … no government’s ever going to get rid of mandatory detention … particularly in the current environment.

No government is going to put themselves in the position […] that someone has arrived on a boat or arrived on a plane and three weeks later blows up the Sydney Opera House. They’re just not going to do it.

They’re not going to leave themselves wide open for that. And that’s actually what the Australian people want, so, that’s the political reality […] It’s a really challenging space.

Stories of national security – that is, of the “risk management” needed to avoid a potential “crisis” – dominate the media headlines. Yet my interviews also tell of the brutality of the society in which this border regime exists.

They tell of the fundamental problem that is woven into the fabric of a settler-colonial government.

A former ministerial advisor told Jordy Silverstein refugee advocates need to ‘get over mandatory detention’. Pictured: refugees on Nauru. Rural Australians for Refugees

‘He is killing us’

In 2015, paediatricians Professor Elizabeth Elliott and Dr Hasantha Gunasekera conducted a “monitoring visit” to the detention centre at Wickham Point in Darwin, in order to report to the Australian Human Rights Commission on “the health and well-being of children in immigration detention”.

As part of their visit, they asked children and their parents what they would like reported to the AHRC. One 16-year-old boy told them, “The Prime Minister of Australia says he is saving our lives but at the same time he is killing us.”

A 15-year-old boy said, “I honestly don’t see [a] future. I wish I had died in the ocean.” An 18-year-old boy told them, “I think for dying. I don’t see any future. I feel sadness I see no future.” A father of three teenage boys said, “I have not come to this country to teach my children how to commit suicide.”

When I interviewed Elliott in November 2018, she distinctly remembered the father telling her this. She related more stories of what she had seen, and the conversations she had had, impressing upon me,

It is not normal for a woman with a young baby to try and kill herself. It’s not normal for a seven-year-old child – or not just one, many seven-year-old children – to say they want to kill themselves. It’s not that these people realise, you know, what might be manipulative behaviour.

People become, in queer theorist Sara Ahmed’s formulation of the work of emotions, orientated towards certain other peoples, histories and ideas.

In my interview extracts with the government staffer, we can see she is broadly sympathetic to those ringing in with complaints and to those who self-harm, but she identifies strongly with the members of the department who provide advice on how to respond, or with the staffers in the offices receiving the angry phone calls.

She expresses sympathy for them while remaining keenly aware of the broader tragedy of the situation. But this may create a false equivalence, whether intended or not.

A direction maintained

According to the most recently released government statistics, there are now fewer than five children living in so-called “Alternative Places of Detention” (such as hotels, hospitals, and the like) and another 132 children who are living in community detention.

All of these children are in Australia: those who were in Nauru have been brought to Australia for medical treatment.

The Labor government announced in February 2023 they are granting permanent residency to a cohort of people currently on temporary protection visas or safe haven enterprise visas. But they are keeping temporary protection visas on the books – and have recently re-authorised the use of the detention centre in Nauru. They also maintain the policy of turning back boats of asylum seekers who enter Australian waters.

The direction this government maintains towards refugees and asylum seekers seems clear.

This is an edited extract from Cruel Care: A History of Children at our Borders by Jordana Silverstein (Monash University Publishing).

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