Every Morning a Politician


Every morning a politician jumps out of bed, scheming, dreaming, thinking, what harm can I do today? Whom can I betray, traduce, diminish, promote? How to hide that lobbyist’s bribe? What principle or promise can I break, whose arse might I lick today? Perhaps I’ll knight a duke, maybe I’ll munch an onion.

Alternatively, every morning a politician wakes up, gets up, does the morning’s physiology, washes, dresses, buckles on the day’s armour, takes on fuel, paints her face to face the world – to face herself – lights his cigar, drops the kids off at school, her mind abstracted with the birthday CD she’ll buy her husband, with the vote in the House, with the speech he’s preparing for the School Fundraiser.

We get the politicians we deserve.

At those times when our leaders disappoint us, people make this assertion.

They do so with a grim satisfaction, almost with relish. It bespeaks a rush to judge, a refusal to wonder why. Over many years I’ve known politicians enough to judge them – that is, I’ve known them superficially and like electors everywhere, I’ve made my superficial judgements. I’ve found politicians to be pretty unextraordinary. Generally bright enough, usually public-spirited, not scared of hard work, usually more ambitious than enough.  My mind wrestles with the contradictions we see between a politician’s avowed belief and actions. In particular, we’ve seen ostensibly active Christian people actively demonising asylum seekers. Where, I’ve been wondering, is the love?

The first person of power I knew was Oscar Washington, Mayor of Leeton in my early childhood. He lived a bit down Jarrah Street from my best friend Johnny Wanklyn. Oscar had a large belly and he smoked a large cigar. Oscar would smoke his cigar as he walked from his front door to the car. We’d smell the aroma lingering in Jarrah Street. I liked the music of his names, I liked the cigar smell so I liked our Mayor.

A good stretch of time passed before my next brush with one of the great, those who are at once our masters and our servants. This one was a Cabinet Minister, mother of young children. She first came to see me suffering a florid attack of hay fever. I treated her, saved her life, and she stuck. In the course of subsequent visits the politician and I have spoken of many things. She introduced me to the music and verse of Nick Cave. Newspaper editorials blamed her for failures in her department. I read and I wondered and I judged her to be conscientious and diligent.

Great Ones from all sectors passed through our waiting room. We’d bump into the Premier, into potentates of the Australian football League and its champion players. One of the leaders of the Opposition visited. I liked her. She drank too much, she carried a bit of weight, she worked too hard. Earlier, while in power, she’d been a member of Cabinet with a sensitive portfolio.  Exercising ministerial discretion she made numerous decisions that favoured cronies. I judged those decisions corrupt.

When an economist friend married off his daughter he seated me at the reception next to a parliamentarian who held an Economics portfolio. Through the evening I watched and I listened. I watched him empty wine bottles and I heard how Economics was his ideology, his theology and his sociology. He welded his faith to his practice of politics. I was enlightened and impressed by the seamless content of mind and work. No splits.

One night I delivered a keynote address at an Awards ceremony for volunteers who worked in human rights. I spoke in passionate protest against my country’s treatment of asylum seekers. The standing ovation that followed amazed me. First on their feet in the audience were two Federal parliamentarians, one a backbencher, the other a very senior frontbencher. The two approached me, independently, requesting a copy of my text for their websites. The junior parliamentarian confided: You’ve said what we all want to say, but we can’t. There it was, the split, the active paring away of principle from action. I didn’t know the politician personally, but I knew his of family’s refugee origins. 

I recalled one desolate day on Christmas Island where I worked in the Detention Centre. When off duty I’d run the tracks on the island’s hills and forests and beaches. At one lonely cove I sighted a small street sign that read, Tampa Bay. My legs stopped. I was back in the day of ‘Tampa Election’ when the arch-politician of the era saved his government by turning away those refugees. We will decide who comes to our country he said, a credo parroted by the Opposition leader. That was the day I first felt shame in my country. Many elections later that credo governs our policies still.

That same leader astonished me some years later when he promulgated a law of this land that ruled Australian Law, Australian human rights, would not apply in certain Australian places. The detention camps were to be Australian islands free of Australian rights.

How? Why? What force separates a human’s deeds from his core beliefs?  In the case of a politician I think it’s fear. While a few succumb to the offerings – fame, celebrity, power, little bribes, big bribes – most stumble upon the fear of sacking by their bosses. An election can happen at any time. The electors are fickle, voters don’t want more Muslim terrorists, do they? And all those people, they’re all queue jumpers, illegals, aren’t they?  

It’s not easy to function in your job while in fear of losing it. Those people we vote in to serve and to rule us, those ordinary, fearful individuals with their cigars and their families and their ambitions and ideals and drives, organise themselves into gangs. The gangs are called political parties. Parties appoint managers. Managers put their ears to the ground and listen for tremors from the electorate. They conduct focus groups. They survey voters to discover what they’ll punish. They learn we’ll punish congestion on our roads, we’ll punish job losses in mining.

Managers veto any policy softening on refugees and on climate change. The politician, having joined her gang, having outsourced morality and left her conscience at home, never learns that we voters regret these harsh policies. The politician, elected to lead us, follows instead, abiding byourlower instincts. That much is our own fault; we choose our politicians, we reward them for timidity, we don’t ask them to dream, to wonder how good this country can be. We too live lives of moral laxity. We split belief from policy. And as election follows election, the refugee languishes in our prisons.

A Story for Children

Most evenings I read a chapter from ‘A Threefold Cord’ to my grandchildren in Sydney. I have to wait until they’ve brushed their teeth, then, like apparitions in pyjamas, Ruby and Joel materialise, chattering and excited, on my screen. The book from which we’re reading is the novel I wrote for children in 2013. In the late chapters of the story, three Aussie fourth-graders meet a much younger child named Samara, an orphan, and take her under their wing. Samara has an extraordinary story to tell: she is a boat person, sole survivor of her family who all drowned when their “irregular” vessel foundered off Christmas Island. 

The painful tale that Samara tells of seeing her loved ones slip beneath the waves is taken from events that were life-true facts in 2013. After those drownings the real-life child who lost his entire nuclear family was denied the right to attend the family funeral on the mainland. The Minister for On-Water Matters ruled it out. At the time I felt shame. I decided to exclude that shameful pettiness from my novel. I did not want children readers to think badly of Australia.
After reading of “Samara” to the children this evening, I came across the following: Prime Minister Morrison has issued enforceable physical distancing directives to protect everyone in Australia from infection, transmission and loss of life in the COVID-19 crisis in Australia.1440 people seeking asylum and refugees remain held inside the national immigration places of detention in crowded, communal living conditions, under constant guard and without personal protective equipment or medical oversight into their care.Medical professionals have warned a lethal outbreak is imminent which will endanger the public and place greater strain on health care systems…The former Minister for On-Water matters is now Father of the Nation. I’ve been impressed by his leadership during our present emergency, (I’ve written as much in this medium). He’s been firm, calm, calming. In my simplicity I have difficulty reconciling his religious posture with his previous management of ‘illegal’ asylum seekers. His iron-minded predecessor was likewise a man of conspicuous religiosity. Doesn’t their religion preach love, especially love to the least among us? Their political ministry was bare of love, seemingly at odds with any religious ministry.
A friend of this blog is a Minister in the Anglican Church in this country. He wrote to me today, asking me reflect in these pages on the place of the Almighty in COVID-19. I smiled and I dismissed the idea. Theodicy is a steep slope; on those steeps, I’d just write idiocy. But now Samara calls to me. She calls to all of us, calling in the name of her God, whom she calls God, “Allah.” She calls to us on behalf of the fourteen hundred and forty, ‘the least of us’; she calls for the Father of the Nation to protect the fourteen hundred and forty.
I don’t doubt the Fathers of the Nation have their better angels. In office the Fathers bind their angels’ wings. In private conversation with politicians of the backbench and the frontbench,I’ve heard them sigh and regret not feeling free to act differently. I see these people not as diabolical but as captive. They are captive to their fear of us, the electors, who would punish them for acting not on platform but prompted by love.
It is for the nation as a whole to give the fathers courage, to free their angels, to free the captives, to bring them into their love.

The Voice of Victor

For a few years my daughter lived in England where she met lots of other young mothers, ordinary white middle class women with orderly lives, healthy babies and toddlers. They all had husbands with jobs, all were native English speakers in an English speaking country. They were all OK. Their babies got croup and cradle cap and they saw competent doctors in a timely way and had access to suitable, safe and effective medicines, and soon their babies were OK again; and they were all OK. 

But one day, one of my daughter’s friends saw the papers, watched the TV news and she stopped being OK. The friend’s name is Ros. And although Ros – a person in London with an ordinary life, who abandoned her day job and roused herself and roused one hundred thousand other ordinary English mothers and fathers and children to demonstrate and campaign for refugees, and this led to David Cameron rousing himself and his government, and this roused Britain to admit many whom they previously would have turned away – this story is not about ordinary Ros.
My daughter left England and returned home to Australia. She and Ros remain in touch. Ros sent a photo that broke my daughter’s heart. She wrote me a letter that included the image below:
 

My daughter’s friend Ros sent her this photo in a letter she came across in a camp on the Greek Island of Thessaloniki. In shrinking lettering near the foot of the letter the writer signed his name, “victor”.

 
My daughter says Victor’s is the despairing voice of one refugee so desperate to be heard he writes on the wall of his tent. He knows no-one hears. She says the world has turned its back. My daughter turns to her writer father with a plea of her own: “Maybe your writing could give Victor a voice. I’m just saying it made me think of you. Do with that what you will.”
I read my daughter’s letter. I read Victor’s letter.
Do with that what you will, she says, then adds, “Going to sleep with a heavy heart.”
Days pass and I don’t do anything.
Every time I switch on my computer, my daughter’s letter asks me, what will I do to make Victor’s voice heard? Something indistinct echoes, something about the unheard voice. It is a voice from a cattle car.
WRITTEN IN PENCIL IN THE SEALED RAILWAY-CAR:

here in this carload 

i am eve 

with abel my son 

if you see my other son 

cain son of man 

tell him I

  

What can I do? What can any of us do? We can try to emulate ordinary Ros. We can write to our local Member of Parliament, write to our faith leaders, speak to our friends. We can do as an ordinary friend of mine does – she organises aid packages. (That friend – a lapsed fundamentalist Christian – writes annually to this Jewish friend, seeking donations of Christmas gifts for Muslim refugees.) We can adopt a Victor – there are so, so many – and write to him. We can send him books. We can remind him he is not alone, not forgotten.

 

What good will these ordinary acts do? In the case of Ros they led to the saving of thousands. In Australia, our ordinary voices were raised enough to encourage our very ordinary leaders to find our captives place of safety in the USA. Our leaders are timid. It is for us to lead them.
(You can find out how to emulate ordinary Ros if you visit http://www.swruk.org/ )

How to Recruit an Ordinary Australian, How to Torment Her, How to Drive her to madness 

Sitting watching Eva Orner’s movie, ‘Chasing Asylum’, I fully expected to be appalled. I anticipated I’d feel the old outrage. I feared I’d see things that would shock me.What took me unprepared was the vision of Australian workers on Manus and Nauru as they disintegrated before the camera. Three in particular found the courage to expose themselves before the slow, careful camera of Eva Orner. Two of the three were young women. The camera never revealed them full face, their names were not mentioned. Like their charges who subsist behind Boat Numbers, these are humans without names. Their voices told us what was happening to the people seeking asylum; but it was their hands that gave them away. Nail-bitten fingers worked continually. A writhing was seen, a slow dance of agony. Voices hesitated, speech fell away as the young women spoke. I watched these young people as they struggled to shed a burden that will never leave them. The third beanspiller was not young. A former prison guard, he was a man in his fifties, a man surely innured by his past experience. He spoke to the camera of what he saw. He recounted carefully and precisely his attempts to bring about change from within the system. How he spoke to superiors, how he complained of wrongdoing, how anonymous threats to ‘shut up’ mounted, until he feared for his life. Finally he fled his island. He returned home and lay low. For some time he did not speak of what he’d seen, what had happened to his detained charges, how he had been threatened and lived alone in fear. Finally he decided he could keep silent no longer: “I was brought up to know right from wrong. I couldn’t live in silence.” The man’s face worked as he spoke. He struggled for composure but grief and pain defeated him as he wept his honest tears.    

Elsewhere in my life I have a colleague, a mental health worker, who has been engaged in the repair of a wounded offshore worker damaged deeply by trying to protect and support detained refugees. Hired by the government, that worker can never safely return to the work that is his vocation, which is to care for vulnerable people. He is now counted among the vulnerable. Innocent casualties, these, like the mates of the former detention worker who told me of two fellow guards who attempted suicide, one successfully.

What are we doing? What have we done.? What price do we demand of our own people? How we disgust ourselves!

When, at some time in the next century, I become leader of this nation I will do some things urgently. Apart from what ever I do to abate our present cruelty, apart from preparing for the Next National Apology, apart from prosecuting the Prime Ministers and their Border Control Ministers for crimes against humanity – apart from all these necessary steps, I will seek out these whistle blowers and offer them honours in the highest echelon of the Order of Australia. But I will not be surprised if they decline any honour offered in the name of a nation that betrayed itself. 
Chasing Asylum is screening now. See it and learn where our taxes are going and what is being done in our name. 

http://www.chasingasylum.com.au/

The Last Refugee

Imagine this. A disaster at sea, a lifeboat adrift, full of survivors, now despairing, now in hope, as land takes form through the mists ahead. A form is seen in the water. The boat comes alongside, the form is human and alive. The human extends an arm in supplication. Weary survivors take the limb and heave. The lifeboat, already heavily laden, tilts, takes water. The heavers persist in their heaving and the boat takes more water. A murmur within the boat swells to a cry: “Let him go!”

But the human is already aboard. The boat rights itself, the shouting subsides to a murmuring. The boat drifts on.

Imagine this: a second story. Australia prospers, confidence surges and trust becomes the settled order of things. Somehow Australia’s peoples lose their fears of difference, neither Sharia nor Tjukurrpa nor Kosher is imposed by any person upon any other person, but all are respected and all thrive. The leaders of the government decide to lead opinion rather than to follow it. They declare, “We who have plenty can take in those who have nothing more their need and their stories. Let us welcome them, let them come in!”

And so it comes to pass. Australia booms, its empty lands are claimed, cultivated and nurtured under the guiding hand of the first inhabitants. Australia feeds its peoples, feeds Asia, and prospers greatly. The seekers for asylum fulfil the promise that every newcomer brings. Australia accepts scores of thousands, who succeed in the new land and become part of the community. The community now takes in hundreds of thousands as History smiles upon the land and even the climate shows clemency.

The seekers for refuge are numberless, the land is vast, its resources seem endless. Eventually the land is filled. The flow of seekers for refuge slows to a trickle. It stops. All now are saved, all are safe. But wait! A boat. Aboard the boat are two persons. They extend supplicating arms. The peoples of Australia, accustomed to rescue, habituated and drenched in its ethos, wish to help. But their land is full. There is no room for newcomers. Australians squeeze up together, they wish to rescue those people who extend those arms. They make room, a little room: just one, one alone can be squeezed in. But there are two humans in the boat.

Imagine this: a third story. A lifeboat full of survivors of shipwreck drifts in an uncertain sea. This boat is full. Its gunwhales barely clear the calm surface. Whenever the seas rise all bail mightily to save the boat that saves them, and the boat remains afloat. The boat drifts on.

A shape is seen ahead in the water. As the boat comes alongside, the shape moves, cries, flings human words of thanks, raises an arm in supplication. All aboard the craft can see, all understand: “This lifeboat is barely afloat. If we take in this human his weight will sink us; every one of us – every human person – is lost.”

So much for my little stories. Readers of this blog are well acquainted with my pain, my outrage, my shame. All that old stuff. My eruptions of moral rage have brought a brief pleasure, a relief not unlike the visceral satisfaction of purging. But these explosions achieve nothing, convince no-one who is not already convinced, influence no-one in government.

A couple of years ago I spoke at an awards ceremony for defenders of human rights. I told my lifeboat stories. I pointed out Australia’s lifeboat is not full. I was grand in my flight of brave words and noble ideals. I carried the audience, which, led by two Federal parliamentarians, rose as one to applaud. Afterwards each of the parliamentarians, one a frontbencher in the government, requested a copy of my speech which they’d put up on their websites. One confided: ”You have said what we would like to say but cannot.”

What to do? What more to do? What can we – we powerless people do – beyond voicing our outrage, our shame, our grief? Firstly, we must continue to raise that human voice, to give human words to the suffering of fellow humans. That voice, those words, these are the marks of our being human. These words, the irreducible minimum:

Written in Pencil in the Sealed Railway-Car

By: Dan Pagis

here in this carload
I am eve
with abel my son
if you see my other son
cain son of man
tell him I

But what more? As my little stories suggest, ultimately we persons of good will – and I mean that to refer to my fellow Australians at large – sooner or later must face a terrible choice. At the end of all our rescuing there will always be one more supplicant, one too many for our resources, for our lifeboat. We will face a choice. This is Sophie’s choice, whereby we will chose one to be saved and send another – a human other – to perdition.

But Australia’s lifeboat is not yet full. So, what more, what wiser, what more potent act can we non-governors do? The answer cannot be simple, but our powers of imagination, of thinking hard and speaking softly, have helped in the past. Thus Petro Georgiou of happier memory, with Jozef Szwarc, softened the adamantine policies of John Howard. The image of a dead child floating in the shallows of Lesvos softened the policies of Tony Abbott.

I know of one small group in a faith congregation that has approached leaders of other faiths in an attempt to think hard together and to speak softly together to those who govern. State governors have spoken for their people, saying, give us the children; let them not return to offshore detention. Dr David Isaacs blew a whistle on his return from offshore that mobilised doctors and nurses at Melbourne’s Royal Children’s Hospital and now at Lady Cilento in Brisbane. The RCH refuses to discharge child patients to places of detention. We must understand that for what it is: the RCH is not some Marxist commune, not a place of sedition. It is rather an emblem in the state of Victoria. It stands for the highest skill and care. When the RCH speaks it carries Victoria. None gainsays its voice or its acts.

So, what to do? Think hard, confer, suggest, bring ideas to government. One idea, hardly original, strikes me as promising: let Australia progressively divert funds, currently used for offshore detention, towards a respectable, respectful supra-national staging and assessment process in south Asia. There we would maintain accessible, supportive consular representation. No-one would need to board a leaky boat, no-one would need to jump a queue, no human person would come to Australia and be called by a SIEV number. Our brothers and sisters would arrive with their own names.

We might save money, we might not. Neither governments nor we the governed see these issues in money terms: governments never count the cost when augmenting our cruelties; and we bleeding hearts never count beans. No, these issues are strangely unmonetised. The people of Australia hanker quietly to regain some self-respect.

Respectful policies will save lives. We might save our souls.

Do you have a better idea? Work on it, tell your minister of religion, your minister of the crown, the playgroup mothers, the neighbours. Governments need to follow. It is up to us to lead. We won’t save everyone, but we can hardly do worse than we do at present.

“I’m just a boy whose intentions are good; Please don’t let me be misunderstood.”

Picture: Ray Strange Source: News Corp Australia

Picture: Ray Strange Source: News Corp Australia

A photo in the current issue of The Monthly shows Bob Hawke and John Howard seated together at a public event to honour the memory of a deceased Prime Minister. Their old faces deeply creased, their bodies close, Hawke’s right arm entwined with Howard’s left, the picture of two old men united in deep sympathy – and in Hawke’s case at least – showing characteristic demonstrativeness, as his hand gently grasps Howard’s thigh. The image arrested me. I thought of Yeats’ Lapis Lazuli:

‘There, on the mountain and the sky,
On all the tragic scene they stare.
One asks for mournful melodies…
Their eyes mid many wrinkles, their eyes,
Their ancient glittering eyes…’

In the same issue of the magazine I was arrested by an equally unexpected image: Noel Pearson the leading Aboriginal intellectual seated close to Tony Abbott, our Prime Minister. Pearson looks past the PM, gazing severely into the distance; Tony Abbott, smiling tightly, looks upward to Pearson’s face. I spent some time interrogating their expressions. In Pearson I found depth, a sober realism. In Tony I saw yearning. I wondered how it was the PM appeared to be the supplicant, the client, while the man from disadvantage wore such self-assurance.

Tony Abbott is co-author (along with predecessor PM’s and a succession of underlings) of our World’s Worst Practice towards human beings who arrive in Australia by boat and seek asylum. That policy is cruel by calculation; it is calibrated torture. Our practice is a precise antithesis of the parable of the Good Samaritan. Now, would-be-good Tony knows this and only by a sustained effort of moral contortion and will can he manage to unknow it.

Along with Morrison, Ruddock, Howard, Beasley and Rudd, Tony Abbott is an avowed believer. He belongs to a claque of believers who perpetrate this unchristian – indeed antichristian – policy. How do they all do it? What do the believers believe?

In Tony’s case the face I see is an innocent face. He gazes towards his grownup interlocutor, his expression seeking approval: he seeks a word or a sign: “Good boy, Tony, you’ve done well.” Like a small boy Tony seeks affirmation. By means of sustained effort he has gained this, successively from the ghost of Bob Santamaria and from Cardinal George Pell. From such firmly formed personages Tony learned notions of goodness. He would be good and thereby be approved.
The child looked for affirmation from John Howard and the Liberal Party. He sought our approbation too and, in opinion polls and at the last federal election we gave it. We became complicit in sustaining the ego structure of this needy child. Patently we no longer show approval to this immature person. He locks himself inside a tightening circle of insecurity, looking to spouse, offspring and advisors, some of them women, to whom he seeks mothering.

On Mother’s day I will muster all the compassion I am capable of and try to think kindly of Tony Abbott, the child leader who just wants to be good (just so long as we’ll approve).

Riding Home to a Wardrobe Full of Shoes

2330 hours. Riding the pushbike home from the hospital for sick children on a Sunday night, racing dreamy trams through the Central Business District, through the drowsing city as it winds itself down from weekend revels. The streets drain visitors to their dormitory suburbs; those on foot, inner city dwellers, are mostly students, mostly Asian.

The bike affords a view at street level. On every city block there is one figure seen seated on the footpath, male, his back supported by a shopfront, before him a placard, his testament of poverty, of need. Before him an upturned cap solicits alms. Peering from the bike across the emptying asphalt, between unclad legs, I see the bearded face of the seated man, mute, impassive, staying put.

The unclad legs are of groups of Asian girls who wear spring frocks shorter than the precipice high heels dictated by fashion. The legs pass; the beard, the placard, the face remain. No alms fall into the money hat.

On the next block the same slow tableau.

Red lights arrest me at the third block. I can hear the girls’ soft laughter as they pass. The face of this man is not seen: his head slumped, he sleeps, sleeps on the cooling street, sleeps before the hat. No-one comes near.

The green light releases me from indecision. Riding now, racing trams once more, leaving behind me undischarged my impulse of munificence, I ride hard, ride towards my home where warmth, a shower await, where I have a wardrobe full of shoes. Those high heeled extravagances speak to my own blessed feet as they depress the pedals. How many are your shoes? I count them as I ride.

I count ten pairs of shoes in my warm home. I have only two feet. Ten pairs plus all the running shoes, those retired from marathons but still serviceable, and the new pair in lapis blue waiting for a runner whose running days are done.

Twenty eight shoes for my two feet.

We are two bearded men who write our testaments, two of us tired from fetching our daily bread. I ride to my home. Mon frere, mon semblable, sleeps already, on the street.

Beyond these city blocks lie the docks and the silent cold sea. Across the cold waters, homeless, locked from sight, from our hearing, locked away in distant islands of poverty are the thousands who will never, ever – on a government’s solemn vow – come into our comfortable home.