Paying attention to the truth of people’s lives

If there’s one thing that Bob Carr’s recent comments on asylum seekers demonstrated it was that our politicians think they can say anything they want about ‘boat people’ and not be held to account for the truth.

Our long and steady decline into the almost total victimisation of a vulnerable group of people continues (I doubt we’ve reached the nadir). We are now at the point where it seems that the truth of people’s lives counts for nothing.

Much has been written lately about the impoverishment of our public conversations and how they have become captive to political spin, endlessly repeated catch phrases and just plain, brazen lying for political and ideological gain. Well, the results are in – as individuals and as a society we have been captured by the lies and easy phrases. Our view of the world around us and our place in it bears too little resemblance to the truth of it; and in this we are doomed to live disconnected, small and impoverished lives.

We can see this at work in the pessimism about the state of our economy, one of the healthiest in the world, and the tendency of those of us with very healthy incomes indeed to regard ourselves as somewhat ‘poor’. We see it in the scepticism about human-induced climate change and its devastating effects – better to believe a comfortable lie than an unpalatable scientific truth. But in no other area of public policy have our hearts and minds been duped by this destructive rhetoric more than on issues relating to asylum seekers who arrive by boat. It seems like truth and integrity have caught a boat and sailed right out of here.

Back in 1996 the Australian Government did what no other country in the world has done. It linked the intake numbers for the offshore humanitarian program (this is about the resettlement of refugees – not an obligation under the Refugee Convention) with those of the onshore protection program (the processing of claims for protection by asylum seekers who arrive on our shores which is the obligation we do have under the Convention). Overnight the rhetoric of ‘queue jumper’ was born. By linking these two separate programs, the claim could now be made that for every person who comes ‘uninvited’ by boat, one long suffering refugee from the camps in Africa and Southeast Asia misses out. It does not have to be this way but no-one tells us this. There is bipartisan support for this policy and bipartisan abuse of the truth about this policy setting. If the concern is, as I am often told by politicians from both major parties, that the ‘floodgates’ would open if the programs were de-linked, then let us have that conversation. Now, all we have is a public mindset held captive to a great lie that gives us permission to treat people badly.

Bob Carr spun a lie we have heard before – that asylum seekers who arrive by boat are not seeking protection from persecution and harm, they are seeking greater economic opportunity. There was no nuance in his statement. There was no evidence behind his claim. As has often been said in reply to him on this matter, we do have a refugee determination process that is designed to assess people’s claims. It is a fact that the majority of people who arrive by boat are granted refugee status and that some are not (those seeking ‘economic’ outcomes, perhaps).

Worst of all, however, is that the truth of people’s lives was ignored.

Bob Carr, like too many others to mention, whatever they say in their offices to people like me, strip the truth of people’s lives from the pubic debate. This has the tragic effect of disconnecting us from the reality of people’s lives – the reality of what it might be like to be one of the thousands the Government dumped in a perfect limbo when it stopped processing the claims of those who arrived after 13 August 2012; the reality that to be an asylum seeker in Indonesia means you live scared; the reality that people will continue to make perilous journeys to find security for themselves and their families; the reality that our neighbours in Kiribati and Tuvalu are one day going to need to join that imaginary queue because we cannot wean ourselves off fossil fuels.

Along with my colleagues and my Church, I am often charged with being a ‘bleeding heart’ which is code for being ‘too soft’ on people who don’t deserve our compassion, or uniformed about the hard facts of life, like the importance of the economy above all else. I will wear this charge proudly because as a Christian advocate for social justice I have a responsibility to understand how our policies, systems and structures actually affect people. I look forward to the day when we stop buying the lies and start paying more attention to the truth of people’s lives.

This piece was first published in Eureka Street on 16 July 2013 under the title ‘Australia falls for a fistful of fibs’.