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February 17th 2015 print

Murray Walters

Deaf, Blind & Stupid in Triggs’ Australia

Is anyone even a little surprised that the Labor-appointed Human Rights Commissioner has put her reputation, not to mention an exquisite sense of timing, into a report intended to alert her oblivious countrymen to the alleged inhumanity of the current government?

hrcThere has been quite a to-do about the The Forgotten Children: National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention and its demand for a Royal Commission. The Prime Minister, noting that no such report emerged under Labor, has called it “a blatantly partisan politicised exercise” while supporters say quetions of timing is irrelevant and that having children in detention, for whatever reason, is an indictment of the current government’s cruelty. That the former government, the one that detained all those children in the first place, avoided just such a savage indictment has been explained as a consequence of the 2013 election, which inspired its authors not to set to work lest their investigation become a political football.

Now that the document has been released, it is sad to think how naive we were back then, in those pre-Triggsian days of  the BFC era, as in Before Forgotten Children. How could it have been otherwise? The bickering and sloganeering in the lead up to the 2013 election were just too important for Commissioner Gillian Triggs to risk distracting our attention with the psychological trauma and sexual abuse of children she has now found it timely to chronicle. Professor Triggs has scoffed at suggestions that partisan motivation may have played its part in her timing, but the rest of us can only wonder. It’s a bit like the police becoming aware that your kids have been abducted by sadists but deciding not to bother you with such information because they noticed you were busy disputing the finer points of garden design with your spouse.

Now, finally, the report has dropped with a resounding plop all over the nation’s front pages. At long last, the moment is right, so behold The Forgotten Children! Take it as yet another reminder that at Australia is not much better than a great southern nursing home populated by decrepit, forgetful fools of the deaf-and-blind variety.

We failed to see whole generations of children ‘stolen’ from under our very noses (nor could we catch even the faintest whiff of the endemic racism that refuses to see abuse, neglect, violence and abysmal living conditions as integral to the “otherness” of an oppressed culture). As we are repeatedly reminded by taxpayer-funded investigators and righteous panels, we are blind to all sorts of discrimination and evil – so blind, in fact, it requires an Australian of the Year to direct the nation’s gaze toward the epidemic of domestic violence. These things are always “epidemics”, by the way, and we fail to notice them too. If not for the nursing staff (mostly Filipinas in desperate need of gender-wage-parity, but only if they’re paying union dues), we would probably forget to check our privilege at the door, as a catchphrase of the moment repeatedly asserts.

Properly heard and assiduously promoted, our nation’s marvelous polyphony of endless pain will soon have the entire world agape, especially as Professor Triggs has invoked the United Nations and noted that, along with everything else, Australians are also blind to their international obligations. At no small cost to the taxpayer, she is determined to provide these children (hitherto forgotten, possibly stolen) with just the “voice” they need.

Imagine the surprise it must have been to discover that this “voice”, so in need of amplifying, informed Professor Triggs and her comrades that it didn’t like being in detention. What a shock it must have been to learn that people in detention hate being there, sometimes even harming themselves to blackmail their custodians. What an unusually cruel government we must have to know all this and still refuse to let them out straight away.

Those whose senses are not entirely degraded could quite confidently have predicted the outcome of Professor Triggs’ delving, which it was very tempting to believe she knew even before it was even commissioned. How else could it have been used as an “advocacy tool” to pressure the government and, as The Australian has just reported, bring to bear pressure, both domestic and international, to force “policy and legal changes to the system of mandatory and indefin­ite detention”.

Just an exercise, imagine the title of the report we shall read if it is ever discovered that Africa is afflicted with famine from time to time: “Filling Them Up: The Forgotten Tummies”, perhaps? It, too, would have more gravitas if endorsed by paediatricians and academics. After all, you can’t trust mums and dads of Australia, deaf, dumb, blind and stupid as they are, to conclude that starving children ought to be given help and pretty sharpish. What an unusually cruel person it must be who could see such suffering and not bring tens of thousands, nay hundreds of thousands, to Australia.

triggs looking rightlovejoyAh, but its easy to mock, and my favourite TV show, The Simpsons, mocks best of all. Who amongst my fellow fans can stand the bleatings of Helen Lovejoy, the minister’s uppity wife? Not even Reverend Lovejoy. Her now-famous, vacuous catchphrase, “Won’t somebody please think of the children!”, has given rise, in an oh-so-predictable way, to the Helen Lovejoy Syndrome which essentially means that, once something is suggested to be in any way inimical to the welfare of children, all rational debate must cease. The requirement to see armed guards at the gates of a detention centre when there are none is both a manifestation and a pre-condition of such moral superiority. Professor Triggs (left), an eminent Australian, is no Helen Lovejoy (right), but those armed guards are a palpable presence in her imagination.

A lifetime of psychiatric practice makes one suspicious of those who care longer, better, harder and more conspicuously than everyone else. They mistake their instinct to gaze lovingly and painfully at a problem with the delusion that they are actually doing something useful about it,  not making things worse. After all, those children were in detention in greater numbers under the Labor-Green coalition precisely because those very same people – the ones who care, really care so very, very much — could not bear the idea that they had themselves created the crisis by glibly dismantling the Howard government’s Pacific Solution and attracting fresh flotillas of leaky boats.

The capacity for empathy — to be distressed by the suffering of children, for instance — is not only a characteristic of highly evolved people like Professor Trigg and her investigation’s roster of per diem consultants in psychology, social work, medicine and all the rest. Pre-schoolers understand the discomfort of others and have that empathy in spades. So do Labradors, for that matter, as anyone who has ever had a blue moment comforted by a wet muzzle will know know and understand. It’s what you do about it that is important.

To claim, as some do, that criticism of Professor Trigg’s report is simply shooting the messenger misses the point by implying that such criticism is equivalent to a defence of keeping kids in detention. That’s lazy at best, intentionally misleading at worse. So wouldn’t it be nice if the HRC were able to do something better with its time than tell us what we already know, long after we knew it, and especially when the number of children incarcerated by the armed guards Professor Triggs imagines she sees have now declined from a four-figure tally to a mere few hundred-and-shrinking?

Yes, it would be nice, but then Triggs & Co. might have to see and acknowledge thoroughly ugly things, such as the international racket of people smuggling and the bodies of children floating face-down in the oil slicks of their rotten, sunken boats.

In excoriating the blindness she says has allowed Australians to “forget” children in detention Professor Triggs has put her own tunnel vision on display. In that respect at least, she demonstrates a rare even-handedness.

Dr Murray Walters is a Brisbane psychiatrist