This week, my colleagues Melissa Davey and Josh Taylor put together a rich timeline of the events on Christmas Island that culminated in a three-year-old child being flown to Perth for medical treatment.
I encourage you to read it if you haven’t. What you will learn is a tiny girl, Tharnicaa, waited the best part of two weeks, with her physical condition deteriorating, before someone acted to get her the medical attention she needed.
By the time she was transferred to Perth, Tharnicaa had a high temperature. She was dizzy and vomiting. When she reached the hospital, she was diagnosed with pneumonia and a blood infection.
Tharnicaa’s medevac odyssey pinged around the world. The story was made indelible by the photographs of the distressed preschooler being comforted by her solicitous older sister.
While the events were heartrending, it would be tempting to shrug this off as an arbitrary systems failure – some medical bureaucrat somewhere in the border force apparatus making a suboptimal clinical judgment.
As mistakes go, it’s even relatable, up to a point. Anyone who has cared for young children knows they go downhill fast when they pick up nasty viral infections, sometimes scarily so, but their illnesses can turn around just as fast. Parents, being humans, don’t always make the right calls. Neither do doctors. Australian Border Force denies “any allegations of inaction or mistreatment”.
But we can’t shrug off this incident as just “one of those things”, because the suboptimal treatment of Tharnicaa exists in a broader context.
That context is the performative cruelty of Australia’s border protection regime.
Tharnicaa’s parents, Sri Lankan nationals, are unauthorised boat arrivals. The Australian system is configured to make life deeply uncomfortable for this cohort. The regime doesn’t invite or welcome interrogation, but its arbitrary cruelties are designed to be seen, like an Aesop’s fable, or a morality play.
Australia’s policy of performative cruelty has worn different labels and birthed various catch-phrases over the years – “we decide who comes here and the circumstances in which they come” in the Howard era; “stop the boats” in the Abbott/Turnbull/Morrison years. Governments categorise this activity as border protection, which sounds benignly bureaucratic, but what Australia actually practises is deterrence – the harsher the better.
As Malcolm Turnbull famously told Donald Trump in 2017, Australia would not allow a Nobel prize-winning “genius” to settle in Australia if they happened to arrive by boat – an observation that prompted the avowed nativist Trump to enthuse “we should do that too”. Trump’s administration later put people in cages and separated children from their parents at the US border.
In Australia, we lock people up offshore. We also consign asylum seekers to a permanent limbo life of temporary protection.
Scott Morrison and Peter Dutton regularly trumpet their successes in stopping unauthorised boat arrivals. This triumphalist framing suggests an undeclared invasion force has been repelled. But the truth is a catalogue of genuine horrors lurks on the flip side of the tabloid staging and the ritualistic self-congratulation.
Before Australian authorities responded with passivity and panadol as a preschooler on Christmas Island become gravely ill over the past fortnight, there were the kids on Nauru brought here for urgent medical treatment after they refused food and fluids.
There was the 14-year-old who suffered from a major depressive disorder and severe muscle wastage after not getting out of bed for four months.
There was 23-year-old Reza Barati, who was beaten to death during violent rioting in the detention centre on Manus Island in 2014.
There was the Iranian asylum seeker, Hamid Kehazaei, who was misdiagnosed, treated with broken equipment and left unattended as he grew critically ill on Manus Island. After he died from septicaemia, the Queensland coroner, Terry Ryan, found the death was preventable.
It is possible Australians have forgotten some or all of these things because remembering them is hard. Remembering can trigger acute moral discomfort. Institutionalised acts of inhumanity can make empathetic people uncomfortable.
But this is us. This is what Australia does.
Right now, we have a Sri Lankan family enduring a strange, deracinated, half-life on Christmas Island while they exhaust their remaining legal options because (wait for it) Dutton wanted to be able to deport them without protesters putting ABF officials in a “difficult position”.
I repeat, this is us.
We elect the governments that do these things. Over and over. If we can’t face that simple truth, nothing will ever change.
“It’s not a case of being mean,” the new home affairs minister, Karen Andrews, explained in a television interview this week. (Dutton’s successor was unfurling the rationale for harsh deterrence). “I am not going to have people dying trying to come to Australia by sea on my watch,” Andrews said. “I’m not going to open the gates to the people smugglers.”
This particular soundbite will sound very familiar to people who have followed this wretched conversation, because it is the official rhetorical checkmate.
Australian home affairs ministers deploy this argument routinely to chill legitimate debate. If you aren’t for amoral deterrence then you are apparently for open borders and for people dying at sea.
But what this overworked binary fails to respect is the enduring truth beyond the talking point. People may have stopped dying at sea, but they haven’t stopped suffering, ailing, and in some cases dying, in the punitive deterrence regime Australia has created for unauthorised maritime arrivals.
Andrews’ binary might be stupid, but election results in Australia illustrate its enduring political utility. We’ve all seen the Coalition out at different times with the loud hailer appealing to the deep-seated isolationist instincts of Australians, and Labor at different times creeping around in their crash helmets too terrified to say this rancid hyper-partisan politicking (and it is as much that as practical policy) has a terrible human cost.
Trying to make policy in this area is actually really complex. Nation states have a right to assert their sovereignty. People trying to navigate a broken global resettlement system also have a right to flee danger and persecution. But Australia has reduced the political conversation around these issues to a cartoon.
Sometimes, though, reality punctures the cartoon.
In this particular case, the story of a Sri Lankan family hovering in cascading distress on the brink of deportation is causing the Morrison government some political discomfort, because these people are relatable.
People who arrive in Australia by boat, without visas, are supposed to be queue jumpers. They are supposed to be unworthy. But this family’s basic humanity seems to have eclipsed the tropes. They have been made welcome in a Queensland town that has looked past the pejorative labels associated with their mode of arrival.
While there are always votes in performative cruelty in this country, right now, the government feels a bit caught. A bit hoist on its own petard.
Officials insist senior players are looking for a viable resettlement option once the remaining legal actions have been exhausted. The government has made exceptions in the past, quietly, and the world didn’t end.
But given this case is playing out in full public view, the government is under pressure to square any resolution with the hackneyed truisms of Australia’s deterrence monster.
As Morrison declared back in 2019: “The worst possible thing we could do is ... send a message of ‘you know what if you come illegally to Australia, and the courts say you don’t have a claim and the government says you don’t have a claim, then the government just might make an exception because there’s been a public reaction’.”