(The Guardian 14.4.2019)
We are better than our politicians’ dark fears. We are not their hate. We are optimistic about a country built on openness.
I have only ever heard Behrouz Boochani’s voice through speakers. One day, he will stand here before us, and we will hear and see him in the flesh. As a free human being. And I am here today to say that day is coming.
Because change is coming. You can feel it, you sense it. It is coming and it will not be denied. But it needs us to fight for it and to keep fighting for it, and we need to fight for it, not only for the refugees of Manus and Nauru, but for our own salvation.
There is no fineness of oppression. We become the words we use. One small lie inevitably must be paid for with another larger lie, and that with more again. To rob one human of freedom demands that we must rob another, or the crime becomes too obvious. That is why to falsely imprison one human for no crime is a scandal while to kidnap and falsely imprison thousands for no crime is called a national necessity.
This was, and always was only about the basest electoral politics, playing to a racist idea of Australia, that over 20 years, gave cover and then legitimacy to increasingly dangerous and murderous groups in our society.
And so it went for two decades until the horror of Christchurch, when New Zealand could truthfully say in atonement, “he is not one of us”.
But he is one of us. And the terrible truth is that we are him. We are our media, which too often promotes neo-Nazis. We are our parliament, which voted for a neo-Nazi slogan, resolving that it is OK to be white. We are our senator, who called for a “final solution” to the so-called problem of immigration.
We are our leaders of both major parties, who for too long competed in open cruelty towards refugees. We are our prime minister, who has said those on Manus and Nauru may be paedophiles, rapists, murderers.
And yet it is the refugees of the camps who suffered sexual abuse, rapes, violence, and the psychological destruction of one human being after another in Australia’s name – our name – in Australian internment centres. And so we became the words we used. In the almost two decades since Tampa, it is we who have become the paedophiles, the rapists, the murderers.
In the 2001 election, we decided who would we become and the circumstances in which we could become a new country. We became the charring flesh of 23-year-old Omid Masoumali as he burnt himself to death on Nauru. We became the screams of Hodan Yasin, who did the same thing a few days later. We became the ignored begging of a woman refugee on Nauru being raped.
We became these words, we became these things, in the eyes of the world and in our own hearts, and now the shame of it must end, because we can no longer go forward as a nation when Australia’s soul is daily a little more stained by such evil.
Someone is responsible. Someone is guilty. And it is they and not the innocent of Nauru and Manus who should be in jail. That is why there must be a royal commission into these camps – so that Omid Masoumali did not burn himself to death in vain; so that Reza Barati’s murder is not completely meaningless; so that the countless lives and souls destroyed know some justice.
We need to establish the truth of what we did in those camps so that the white nationalists, the racial supremacists, the Islamophobes – those many new disguises for what is an older evil: fascism – cannot argue that it is in our national interest to persecute, vilify and destroy innocent human beings.
Because there are so many unanswered questions about those camps.
Where did the billions of our dollars go? How could so much taxpayers money be spent and the asylum seekers still be unsafe and often hungry? Who is responsible for the numerous human rights violations, the corrupt business deals, the many criminal acts? Who sanctioned the immense suffering? Who promoted it and who covered it up to keep the evil charade going?
This is not a time for pessimism, but optimism. After 20 years, Australia is once more beginning to move. We are not what we were in 2001. We have lived the shame, we have seen the cost in human lives, and we understand we are less free in consequence. It is time Australia once more walked tall in the company of other nations; time that we no longer bred mass murderers with our words.
And I tell you today, we will win. The camps are mired in the stories of their horror and the corruption that fed off the horror. The camps have lost all moral legitimacy and their closure is only a matter of time.
When a Chinese Communist Party-aligned billionaire – previously found by ASIO to represent a serious security risk – is able, on the payment of a $20,000 fee to an ex-Liberal minister, to secure a lunch meeting with the immigration minister to advance his claim for a visa, it’s no longer possible to take a single word that this government says on border security seriously.
Listening to Behrouz Boochani, I thought we should never ever think words don’t matter. Never ever think one person speaking their truth to power won’t be heard if they are brave enough for long enough. If one jailed man and a mobile phone can achieve what Behrouz did, then together we can close the camps.
In this election and after, we must push harder than ever. We must fight and continue to fight and never ever give up. Because Christchurch proves one thing: national security does not lie in the fairytale of border security; it does not repose in the ongoing torture of free human beings: it exists in tolerance and human decency.
We are better than our politicians’ dark fears. We are not their hate. We are optimistic about a country built on openness. We are hopeful about our Australia that has as its compass the recognition that strength resides in the willingness to help the weakest.
It is our time, it is our country, and we are no longer marching to the beat of those who would sell it out to the NRA, to the neo-Nazis and the mass murderers.
We become the words we use.
Mr Morrison, Mr Shorten: use different words: love, kindness, compassion, goodness, justice. Mr Morrison, Mr Shorten, tear down those camps.
Close Manus and Nauru now. Close the camps and bring them home.
This is an edited version of a speech by Richard Flanagan given on 14 April 2019.