From island prison to island prisons: White Australia and other stories

This week the highest court in Papua New Guinea unanimously ruled that the detention camps established by Australia on Manus Island are unconstitutional, which is to say illegal.

There were two layers to the decision, both of which went against the case for the legality of the camps. The first was that the establishment of the camps was unconstitutional. The second was that the constitutional amendment designed to authorise the establishment of the camps was itself unconstitutional.

The next day the PNG Prime Minister Peter O’Neill announced that the camps would be closed. Bear in mind that the case was brought and won by the leader of the opposition. The PNG Supreme Court may have displayed greater moral fortitude and constitutional rigor than the High Court of Australia, but politics is politics wherever we look.


Two constitutions, four islands: Australia, Papua New Guinea, Manus and Nauru

This post is not about these legal decisions. I leave that to others who are far more qualified than I to write. The PNG decision is available here, and can be contrasted with the case against the constitutionality of Australian detention camps on Nauru here. There are many great explainers of the issues, the legalities and the politics. This article by Madeline Gleeson in The Conversation is excellent, as is this by Richard Ackland in The Guardian. Ackland has been publishing pieces on asylum seeker policy for the layperson for years.

This post is about the failure of the Australian political leadership and society to decolonise our thinking, over 220 years since what Aboriginal pastor Ray Minniecon recently described as the original sin of terra nullius.


The current political landscape and ongoing colonial project

The Australian political landscape this week was once again a garbling of strategy and tactics and messaging and what passes for policy these days. I say ‘what passes for policy’ because current government policy is predictably predicated on doing more-or-less nothing, or nothing differently to immediate predecessor PM Abbott.

As the PNG Supreme Court decision hit the news, the Immigration Minister was accused of contradicting the Defence Minister and the Prime Minister expressed surprise at the PNG court decision while the Immigration Minister said the government had been ‘working behind closed doors’ in preparation for such an outcome. Nothing new here. The month before the Treasurer and Prime Minister were at sixes and sevens on when the budget would be brought down – a matter of some import, or so we would be forgiven for thinking.

We are accustomed to this incoherent and mendacious incompetence from the Coalition government (though we are less accustomed to the Murdoch press completely ignoring it rather than screeching CHAOS!11!! at every opportunity, as was the case during the last Labor government).

There are many contradictions – some would say lies – of the 28 April 2016 prime ministerial interactions with the electorate. Fresh from memorialising victims of a massacre at Port Arthur 20 years ago, Turnbull put on his paternalistic lecturing voice to caution that ‘we can not be misty-eyed’ about indefinite detention on island camps.

These are camps that we know for a fact facilitate mental illness, rape, torture, and murder.

Anyway. Misty-eyed. From the man who did all he could to muster misty-eyed-ness mere hours earlier. It is obligatory at this point to emphasise that I do not intend to disrespect the dead at Port Arthur, which I do not. I write as a mother and human rights scholar, of the value of a single human life.

The events of the day were reliably exploited to:

  • perpetuate the lie that an event in 1996 was the worst massacre in our history, erasing massacres across the country from 1788 to 1928
  • elevate the legacy of John Howard, a racist, small-minded and deeply conservative prime minister who nurtured the meanness and madness of Tony Abbott and who is responsible for conflating asylum seekers with terrorism during the 2001 ‘Tampa affair’
  • reinforce the dominant narratives that ‘our’ dead were lives of value and must be remembered, while those human beings living in ‘offshore’ detention are to be dismissed as means to some other political end

It was like a one-day methodologies workshop on aggressive prosecution of the colonial project, a seemingly endless national preoccupation. Australia Day is merely the most blatant example. Abbott was merely the most blatantly racist recent prime minister. The erasure of the oldest continuing human history on earth continues unabated right here, right now, in Australia, in the 21st century.


The social landscape and dominant cultural hegemony

How might white and other non-Indigenous Australians decolonise our thinking on island exile? For island exile is not new to the white Australian colonial-settler state. It is in our DNA.

I do not mean to hate on this amazing country, cared for as it has been for upwards of 50,000 years by First Nations people. Nor do I ignore the vibrant multiculturalism of 21st century Australian society. I am looking at the dominant cultural hegemony of white middle class Australian values. It is these values that apparently approve the camps on Manus Island and Nauru; which makes these values racist and cruel.

This culture was bequeathed by the colonisers, and continued in recent times by the mean and tricky Howard; the aggressively nasty Abbott; and the cowardly and conformist Turnbull. Conservatives all, these men think that the way things have ‘always’  been done  (always being for as long as a liberal democracy is run by property-owning white men) is the way things ought to be done – despite evidence of a growing discomfort (discomfort!) with the inhumanity our off-shore processing arrangements.


Island exile: nothing new here

Island exile as a social and legal control measure is not only central to white Australian history. It is said that St John was exiled to the Greek island of Patmos in the first century C.E.

From France we have a rich store of lore: Napoleon was famously banished to St Helena, and prisoners including the elusive Papillon (butterfly) to Devil’s Island. Stories of the brutal island prison Alcatraz live on in film; while freedom fighter Nelson Mandela was labelled a terrorist and spent 27 years on Robben Island (and highly accessible island prison lore from the Smithsonian here).

This is not ancient history, any more than that notorious torture site, Guantanamo Bay on the island of Cuba off the coast of the US, is a thing of the past (I strongly recommend the account of David Hicks’ time there by his lawyer Major Michael Mori, pointedly titled In the Company of Cowards).

Placing particular people beyond the laws of the state is a key feature and purpose of island prisons. We are told this is to keep us safe. But the dominant purpose is to prosecute cruel and inhumane treatment of the banished. Cruel and inhumane treatment by the state, but out of sight of the people. Island prisons are not set up to keep us safe from the banished but from knowledge of the cruel and lawless actions authorised by the government we elected.

Even self-exile to the wilderness appears throughout the human story, and it is a universal human trait to makes sense of ourselves and our world through story. Involuntary exile is a harsh measure of social control, and to an island is harsher again. It is therefore imperative on the leadership of the society that has imposed such a measure to tell a credible story about why we have expelled some people from the land itself, to an island.


The past coexists with the present

There is no shortage of examples since 1770 of how island exile has been used to control, up to and including ending, the lives of those who are devalued and dehumanised by Australian society.  This 250-year old cultural hegemony appears unlikely to be dislodged any time soon.

Many of us are familiar with the ‘loaf of bread’ narrative. The invading forces came from a culture which placed greater value on the property rights a baker held in a loaf of bread than on sharing food with the hungry. Steal a loaf of bread, and you’re bound for Kamay (Botany Bay). This denies the poor and the hungry their basic human rights to food, sense of family, belonging and connection to country (as miserable and dirty a country was C18 England, it was still their home, where their family and friends resided).

The ‘remote island’ where we still perpetuate terra nullius thinking like ‘middle of nowhere’ and ‘alien landscape’ was not remote or alien or nowhere to the locals. The ‘hostile country’ was not hostile to its First Peoples. On this incredible archipelago, mother earth to more than 200 distinct Peoples, generations of Aboriginal peoples sustained their law and societies and cultures for upwards of 50,000 years.

These uncontested facts alone prove that the land is abundant and the people live in close harmony with it. But first the English, then the colonials, and now the dominant hegemony are invested in a ‘great man’ approach. This methodology elevates individuals, perpetuating liberal mythology. Shining a spotlight on just a few ‘great men’ illuminates much about the island gulag model that Australia perpetuates today.

For example, Cook came here with the bloated botanist Banks, for whom the Dharawhal place Kamay was renamed Botany Bay. The English filled their barrels with clean fresh water on Palawa shores – without which they could neither sail nor live. It is a matter of historical fact that the English foul their own rivers and streams to the point of undrinkability, and those of others territories, wherever they go.

Palawa lands were later called Van Diemens Land – or The Demon by those Irishmen on whose backs the vicious brutality of English penal practices were inscribed. After a concerted attempt at genocide, the Palawa peoples (‘Tasmanian Aborigines’, in colonial terms) were declared ‘extinct’. What we meant by this social Darwinian erasure was ‘brutally murdered – by us’.

Palawa culture and peoples endure. The claim that there are no more Aboriginal Tasmanians is a lie. Meanwhile, Cape Barren Island was conceptualised by the English as a place for Palawa descendants to die. Think about that. The English claimed to have ‘discovered’ a place where their own ‘great men’ would have perished of thirst without the sustenance of its streams. They declared ‘extinct’ a people whose epic voyages predated the English by 50-70 millennia; peoples who survived the ice age that saw the island formed. The Palawa were there when the island became an island, the invaders framed their attempted genocide as some kind of natural Darwinian phenomenon.

Back on the mainland, in 1788 Phillip set up camp at Warrane (Sydney Cove). He established a punishment site at Mat-te-wan-ye (Fort Jackson/Pinchgut, more rocky outcrop than island but either way surrounded by a large body of water). He sent a boat north to set up a secondary punishment island at Norfolk, an essential part of the colonial project.

Like Tasmanian streams, Norfolk resources were key to colonial survival. Without decreasing the number of mouths to feed at Warrane, by sending them to Norfolk to live off mutton birds, the ‘second fleet’ and its cargo of human misery may have ‘arrived’ to find a pile of white people bones.

Like the first, ‘Second fleet’ reflects the absurdity and arrogance of English naming practices. Australia is an island, populated for 60,000 years. The English claim the first ever fleet of boats to arrive here was in 1788. That we accept this as fact is too absurd for words. There was no other way to get here.

So Phillip used Sydney Harbour and Norfolk islands for punishment and survival. Tasmania was also a site of punishment and exile as the penal bureaucracy was established. Langerrareroune off the coast of Tasmania, named Sarah Island by the colonisers, became a secondary secondary prison – an island off an island off an island. Langherrareroune was chosen for the rocky channel they called Hells Gates, in a fairly typical indicator of what navigating a boat to the island entailed.

Then there are islands where different clans of sovereign peoples were forced together by the colonisers. Like Palm Island off the Queensland coast, a place of great tragedy in a tropical paradise; Rottnest off teh Western Australian coast; and Cape Barren (I wonder what Cape Barren is like?). Aboriginal people were forcibly transported, out of sight, out of mind, as were the convicts before them and asylum seekers today. It didn’t work, and it will never work. It is a terrible mindset, a terrible thing to do, and we proclaim ourselves to be civilised.

Why coerce and isolate people on small islands off the Australian mainland? First peoples, colonial recidivists, refugees?

The answer is fear. Fear of the unknown, because it is not our land to know, fear of our own illegitimacy, fear that we do not really belong here. Fear that somehow in the great karma of things, someone somewhere might do what we did, and take the island by force, and dispossess us of this paradise.

That the contemporary Australian state banishes refugees to remote island prisons is not innovative, it is not civilised, it is predictable and backwards. The origin of these traditions and fears is a remote and windswept island off a (northern hemisphere) continent which experienced wave after wave of violent invasion. It does not originate here, and it does not belong here. On this continent and her islands, an different law, and a different set of cultual values, developed over a much longer period.


Two preventable deaths, one colonial mindset

As I was writing this, news of two preventable deaths came streaming through the news feed. Within minutes of each other. The news was so sad, and so frustrating. I had been reflecting on the colonial mindset that informs Australian treatment of asylum seekers, particularly as colonisers of pacific islands, including Australia as the biggest island in the largest ocean on earth.

From the English imposition of its laws and ways on these lands to the ghastly gulags on Manus Island and Nauru, the idea that it is the laws and culture of a civilised society that produce such outcomes could not be further from the truth.

First there was the devastating news of the loss of Bangarra Dance Theatre musical director. Here is their statement:

The Bangarra clan is unbelievably saddened that our brother David Page is no longer with us. On behalf of Stephen, the Page family and Bangarra, we ask for your privacy and respect at this difficult time.

He was only 55 years old. A towering talent. He achieved huge success with his brother, family and clan. I saw many Bangarra productions, most memorably a performance of Kin at Belvoir St, starring seven young brother cousins, on 26 January ten years ago.  The eulogies will and should be filled with praise. That 55 is the average life expectancy for Aboriginal men might be mentioned.

This sounds young, because it is. My father in law, a proud Aboriginal man, died of cancer at the age of 55. This is the terrible toll of a life expectancy twenty years lower for Aboriginal people than the rest of Australia. This is why the death of David Page also feels close to home. I miss them, for their teaching, for their generosity.

Then came news that the 23 year old man Omid who set himself on fire had died. I cried for Omid too. My oldest son is 23 years old. I raised him myself. We live in a place that demonises some while elevating the health and well-being of others. This includes valuing some children over others. Some babies. Did anyone else find the sight of the Turnbull grandson running around Yarralumla fawned on by all, while refugee babies are locked behind barbed wire, monumentally disgusting?

We should mourn the great David Page who died too young and the life of Omid and other young people who commit suicide in despair including those suffering the intergenerational trauma that causes so much suicide in Aboriginal communities. As we do this we should reflect on our own lives; and on the origins and traditions of governance, law and justice in this country.


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