No good can come from the government’s refugee policy as long as it continues to be driven by fear of voters misinformed by radio shock jocks and extreme right-wing groups
Australian federal politicians last week served up both the best and the worst they are capable of. The government finally accepted that the Catholic church could no longer escape the consequences of protecting the paedophiles in its ranks, and the opposition went along with the establishment of a royal commission into child abuse, despite the Catholic fundamentalism of Tony Abbott and his close relationship with Cardinal George Pell.
Then the government tightened the screws on the asylum seekers on Nauru, forbidding photographic coverage of their conditions, and the opposition not only went along with it but in the person of Tony Abbott shrieked that the government was too soft on ‘illegal’ immigrants (although it is not against the law to be an asylum seeker) and should reduce the number of places that are given to refugees on humanitarian grounds, despite his specific agreement to the present number just a few months ago.
These extremes of policy invite speculation about what makes the Australian politician tick. We should protect our children from paedophile priests, naturally (although we have not done a good job of it in the past), but it seems we should also allow and encourage the abuse of other children by locking them up behind razor wire if that should be required in the delicate political calculus of retaining or acquiring office.
Note that Tony Abbott when he makes untrue and inflammatory statements about the refugee issue does not have the excuse of some western Sydney bogan whose only source of information is Alan Jones. Abbott is an educated man with all the statistics at his fingertips, or at least in the notebooks of his staff. He has no excuse for mistaking the situation of asylum seekers, still less for lying about it. When he does so, he does so for short-term political gain with no thought of the moral consequences.
George Pell has a similar distant relationship to the truth. The announcement of the royal commission into child abuse was careful to make its terms wider than merely the Catholic church, although it is that church that has been overwhelmingly the worst offender, both in actual abuse and in cover-ups. Nevertheless, Pell was immediately playing the victim and insinuating that the whole affair was somehow an invention of the media. In another enquiry in Melbourne last week a witness said the cardinal had a ‘sociopathic lack of empathy’ towards the victims of abuse. So he does, no doubt, just as federal politicians and, if we are to believe the polls, a majority of voters have a sociopathic lack of empathy towards those fleeing the bloody aftermaths of wars in Sri Lanka and Afghanistan.
No good can come from the government’s refugee policy as long as it continues to be driven by fear of voters misinformed by radio shock jocks and extreme right-wing groups. Asylum seekers need to be processed on our mainland according to the international treaties we are supposed to uphold, rather than be punished in island concentration camps as an example to deter others. (Or, as Abbott puts it, ‘for taking advantage of our good nature’.) The number of people we receive should be put in the context of our overall population and the much greater numbers in other countries where refugees land. Demystifying the refugee question, however, is difficult when the 70 per cent of our media that is controlled by Rupert Murdoch has a direct interest in creating social anxiety for political and commercial purposes.
Some good may, on the other hand, come from the royal commission. In the first place it is likely that George Pell will shortly be removed from Australian public life. His superiors will surely view his flat-footed, pachyderm performance as a liability when the commission begins. A promotion to the Vatican, where he already has a high profile as the cardinal who persuaded the Australian faithful to donate millions to various vanity projects in Rome, might be on the cards.
The main benefit of course will come from the relief of those who get to tell their stories and finally be heard instead of sneered at by a church hierarchy intent on destroying the victims’ credibility and covering up the perpetrators’ crimes.
In the long term one can hope that the investigation – when allied to the similar Ryan commission in Ireland – will prompt genuine changes. Rather than merely instigating an awareness of the need for criminal reporting within the hierarchy, the outcome desired by most lay Catholics would be to tackle the roots of the misogyny and paedophilia that grow so rankly in the church. The institution of married priests, for example, as obtained in the first millennium of its existence, would help steer the ship back towards Jesus and away from all the saintly usurpers of his message.