christmas island cruelty theatre

Even by the government’s degraded standards, this one takes a moment to sink in.

It has been a dependable truism for two decades of refugee policy in Australia, that every time you think things can’t get any worse, they immediately do. In a rare break from this pattern, the government was forced into a historic retreat by the will of the parliament on the medical evacuations, or “medevac” bill in February. The bill put into effect the principle that refugees trapped in Australian detention camps are owed a duty of medical care that transcends politics, a fact which only the heartless would find controversial.

First published at the Guardian

Rather than conceding, the government doubled down. Prime minister Scott Morrison committed $1.4bn over four years to reopen the shuttered Christmas Island detention centre, despite its manifest inadequacy for treating for the complex physical and mental injuries his government is inflicting on stranded refugees.

Within weeks it became clear that Christmas Island’s role in detention policy was as a stage set. In early March the prime minister flew a media cohort to the facility, a 10,000km round trip from Canberra. He got what he wanted: footage of him inspecting gleaming palisade fences and scrolls of razor wire, and some soundbites from a vacuous press conference. Then everyone returned to Australia.

On budget night, the kicker: the centre will be closed by July. The flood of opportunistic refugees and their bleeding-heart lawyers never materialised. The government has torched more than $180m dollars ramping up security and services at the site, in anticipation of a deluge of people who only ever existed as a talking point to hurl at Labor and the crossbench.

One hundred and eighty million dollars. The figure didn’t feature in the treasurers’ budget night speech, and nor does it seem to exist anywhere in the excruciating “back in black” budget rebrand. The government is no doubt counting on the story to go under the wheels of tax cuts that nobody asked for and the jumble of an oncoming election campaign. They are banking on political amnesia to erase the short-term memory of what must count as the most costly press conference in history.

If we let them, then it’s on us. The passing of the medevac bill and the ensuing fallout proved two things, both of them very salient for a country in the teeth of an election. First, that this is one of the most casually amoral, ethically unmoored governments we’ve ever had. They aren’t even trying to hide it any more. Second, that Labor acting in concert with a strong, progressive crossbench can reverse two decades of bipartisan atrocities and set a different course.

Like the threatened flood of refugees exploiting loopholes in the bill, the political backlash against Labor for supporting this crossbench initiative never arrived. Dare we hope that the power of vicious windbags on talkback radio and tabloid front pages might be fading?

The architects of this $180m press conference now look to be heading to a bruising election defeat next month.

Every day we delay action on asylum seekers there is further needless and arbitrary suffering inflicted on innocent people trapped in immigration detention.

There was a slew of catastrophic consequences predicted for Labor and the crossbench who voted to allow medical evacuations from offshore detention. These consequences are yet to materialise and instead it seems with concerted organising, and a refusal to submit to further memory loss, Morrison’s Christmas Island blunder may be converted into the most politically costly press conference in history.