How dangerous things have become in an era marked by post-truth. As opposed to appeals to the heart, objective facts are no longer able to influence public opinion. Look no further than Australia's offshore detention program in post-truth terms.
It is difficult to fathom how a system could be touted publicly as an international success story when it dehumanises and tortures; costs $500,000 per person per year; is marked by untendered contracts and preferential deals; blocks journalists and lawyers; directs government officials and detention staff to publicly refer to asylum seekers as illegal arrivals and as detainees; raids offices of contractors and surveils doctors, and has been criticised in copious reports as being in breach of international laws.
Unpersons was a description, by George Orwel,l of people erased from society, the present, the universe, and existence. A person taken out of books, photographs, and articles so that no trace of them is found in the present anywhere. That's one objective of Australia's refugee policies. It's not about human rights, peace and security and development. It's about dehumanising and then using these unpersons as trading chips in deal making, trading refugees for money.
Article 3(a) of the Smuggling Protocol defines 'smuggling of migrants' as the procurement, in order to obtain, directly or indirectly, a financial or other material benefit, of the illegal entry of a person into a State Party of which the person is not a national or a permanent resident. People smugglers know how to get through borders whether with people, drugs or arms. Of course "illegal" is a matter of definition, but what then is the business model or the appropriate characterisation for a State Party engaged in the 'swapping' of refugees? Could it be the transfer of dehumanised and tortured unpersons from one State Party to another for domestic political purposes and/or to receive substantial sums of money or trade advantages?
Details surrounding the Turnbull Government's plans to participate in a US-led program to re-settle Central American refugees currently in a resettlement centre in Costa Rica are scarce. We know that it's a one-off refugee deal. Numbers unknown. It will prioritise families. If rejected, refugees will be offered a 20 year Nauruan visa and the United States is to cover cost of resettlement including flights and accommodation.
Much is known about the United States' long history of destabilising democratic governments in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador - the very countries that are now sources of the migration wave. Much less is known about the extra continental migrants coming from Africa, Asia and the Middle East who have found a new route through Costa Rica. They fly or come via cargo ship to South America and come by land to Central America which is a landbridge between South and North America. Their final destination is the United States.
In keeping with post-truth there's no discussion about Australia's participation in the military incursions that may be contributing to the exponential increase in extra-continental migrants landing in Costa Rica, nor is attention drawn to the fact that the European countries which have pulled down the shutters have looked to Australia's offshore detention program for ideas. Afterall, it's about feeling good about the orderly nature of refugees being processed by the UNHCR in Costa Rica and being offered asylum as part of Australia's annual intake.
Arguably, one of the most high profile supporters of offshore detention, and personal beneficiary of the post-truth era is former Prime Minister John Howard. In his autobiography 'Lazarus Rising' he didn't raise concerns about the loss of life at sea, rather he wrote:
The dramatic rise in 2001 put the issue on the front pages. Every day, so it seemed, another boat arrived. The sheer size of our coastline led Australians to feel particularly vulnerable to the unchecked arrival of scores of boats. Visa-holders who came by air had to present valid documentation to arrive here in the first place; even if they overstayed they were not viewed in the same light as people who came here in the first instance without documentation. That is why the alarm about the rise in the number of unauthorised boat arrivals was understandable.
By July and August 2001, there was genuine concern in the Australian community about the flow of asylum-seekers. There was a growing feeling that Australia had lost control of its borders. No matter how logical the arguments the Government had employed to date might have been there was intensifying public unease. In the process, public support for orthodox immigration and an orderly humanitarian refugee program began to erode. This was apparent to me from extensive talk-back radio sessions, comments from MPs and random encounters with members of the public. Politicians are rightly exhorted to keep in touch – no MP doing that would have missed the strength of community feeling.
The reality of post-truth is that politicians will continue to tread precariously between, on the one hand, stirring racial animosity in order to win elections and to keep the middle-class voting against their own economic interests in an atmosphere of underlying discontent, and on the other, with the need to avoid undermining social cohesion to the extent that people riot in the streets and in doing so effect private interests such as the financial benefits of migration, including keeping real estate prices high.
Is this a successful political strategy at a time when right-wing parties are moving from the fringe to the mainstream? Consider even further how such a policy would fail spectacularly in the context of the removal of the words offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person or a group of people from the Racial Discrimination Act? The Special rapporteur on human rights of migrants has considered proposed changes to section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act and opined that such appeal would be significantly detrimental to the integrative process.
Freedom of speech is essential but, in a post-truth world the substantial mainstream media platform for it is not shared equally between, for example, privately funded think tanks which seek the removal of any operational constraints, as opposed to educated moderate humanists. The right to free speech was formulated in a different age when its vehicles were the spoken word, pamphlets and newspapers. More now than ever, with the expansion of means of expression to extend from radio and television through to the internet, our substantially disembowelled media is co-opted by commercial interests so that there is no such thing as 'equal time' in the expression of the right of free speech in conventional media, which in turn devalues the efficacy of such a right.
Kellie Tranter is a lawyer and human rights activist. You can follow her on Twitter @KellieTranter