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Fixations of propriety: the Manus closure scandal

By Binoy Kampmark - posted Monday, 13 November 2017


The reduction of the entire issue to a business model has similarities to another absurd and futile argument: the puritanical efforts to criminalise prostitution. Where there is demand, there will be supply.

As sex has been a commodity for sale since humans discovered the primeval delights, and desperate pitfalls, of copulation, supply has been forthcoming. The only way you abolish prostitution would be to abolish sex, and, perhaps, lobotimise the entire human race. (This is a proposition that would, no doubt, rest well with the Catherine McKinnon-Andrea Dworkin school of totalitarian, and essentially sexless human relations.)

In refugee politics, a similar type of totalitarian thinking on human relations has taken hold. The refugee must be proper, decent, and very well disposed to begin with. Fleeing poverty and bombs, one must do so with a stoic determination without mental strain, concern of debility. But importantly, in fleeing, one should wait one's turn. Shut up and put up – Australians are generous.

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Those who have bucked this have ended up in such places of tragedy and travesty as Nauru and the Manus Island Centre. The Australian state, through its subsidised satraps, has effectively relocated and dehumanised individuals that could have been processed and resettled far more cheaply in Australia. But that would not be proper.

The language of propriety is neatly tied to the language of property, ownership, and liberal market values. It would be inappropriate to pay a smuggler to assist you in discharging obligations due under the Refugee Convention, but it would also be inappropriate to refuse to relocate to other processing centres where safety at the hands of the local population is questionable.

The 570 men who remain at the facility are therefore deemed, in the words of government minister Christopher Pyne, "squatters". They supposedly have a choice, a distinctly bankrupt way of assessing the problem given that they never asked to be placed on Manus to begin with.

These obstinate souls are now told they have three centres to be relocated to in Lorengau, faux refugee Hiltons with running water, food and in some cases spending money, yet refuse to heed the direction of authorities. They are, essentially, asserting rights that Australian and PNG authorities regard as non-existent. Forcible removal is deemed imminent.

The term "squatter" has a curious historical salience: Australia was essentially settled (read conquered, plundered, appropriated) by squatters. Indeed, the entire Australian psyche was shaped by squattocratic values. Fascinating, then, when confronted with such a spectacle, it should offend.

As the Manus Island brutality show persists, human rights advocates issue pleas, politicians in Canberra issue cant-filled rebukes, and officials in the Immigration ministry insist on the nonsensical notion that detaining individuals on land is a humanitarian response to preventing deaths at sea. The mendacity of refugee politics knows no end, but obscene propriety, at whatever cost, shall prevail.

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About the Author

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He currently lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne and blogs at Oz Moses.

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