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Cruelty as policy

By Stuart Rees - posted Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Claims about fairness are the selling point of the 2017 budget. In other policy matters there's a hidden objective, though few leading politicians or their advisers would admit it.

A week ago, journalists reported on the inadequate medical care of refugees on Nauru. Transfer to Australia of very sick individuals has been obstructed on the deceitful grounds that permission for medical transfer is the responsibility of the government of Nauru. On Manus Island the situation is out of control and the shambolic refugee exchange with President Donald Trump is not 'fake news.'

An editorial in The Saturday Paper of May 20th refers to documents which show, 'that the human rights abuses suffered by refugees on Manus Island are deliberate. The horror of these camps is no accident. This is calculated, cynical, cruel.'


Regarding the treatment of asylum seekers, politicians and bureaucrats seem to derive pleasure from appearing strong by playing with people's lives. They might deny this, but for years they have been rejecting sympathy for the vulnerable even by trampling on them.

In common with the defence of deluded climate policies, - the pollution of others is worse than ours – the charge of cruelty as policy may be defended on the grounds that other countries are far worse than we are. Asylum seekers, members of the Stolen Generation and Australians who as children were abused in institutional care, would be incredulous to hear such a claim.

A Cruelty Continuum

It may be argued there's a cruelty continuum from least cruel policies to the most atrocious, and that countries which like to paint themselves as 'civilized' are unlikely to be cruel. However, a quick look at atrocities around the world suggests that once a government has  facilitated cruelty, or turned a blind eye to such acts, they are in principle no different from the governments whose conduct they abhor. Cruelty allowed at one end of a continuum has a corrupting effect. It introduces a slippery slope down which slide even those who protest their ethics and innocence. The ability to deceive oneself can facilitate cruelty by pretending that it does not exist. In this way the self-assured perception of a moral clean sheet is maintained. Scott Morrison's maiden speech in the Federal parliament in which he extolled Christian virtues –'loving kindness, justice and righteousness' - also has to be assessed in the light of his apparent indifference to the plight of asylum seekers.

Countries with whom Australia has close relations control their citizens with unashamed cruelty. Capital punishment remains in the US, in Indonesia and Saudi Arabia. In the latter two countries, where sentences of public flogging are common, the public may either relish such spectacles or are too afraid to protest. Two weeks ago, in the Indonesian province of Aceh, a young woman was caned for the terrible offence of being in the same room as her boyfriend. A few days later, in the same province, two young men received eighty-three strokes of the cane for, allegedly, being in a homosexual relationship.

With Iranian and Russian connivance, the Syrian government tortures, kills, burns bodies and, like the proverbial psychopath, the President denies the undeniable. In their bestiality alliance with President Assad, the al-Qaeda affiliates and the Isis support groups use every conceivable cruelty to impose what they call Islamic law. An amoral tragedy looks as though it might promote evil for ever.


In celebrations in February when the Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu visited Australia, Malcolm Turnbull insisted that the two countries had much in common. Such a welcome could only be plausible if the ten years of the siege of Gaza, the fifty years of occupation of Palestinian lands did not exist, or if the imprisonment without charge of hundreds of children and thousands of adults in Israeli jails, could be denied.

A thousand Palestinian prisoners are in the fifth week of their hunger strike to protest conditions in Israeli jails. They also want freedom to be achieved by ending the occupation and the devastating siege of Gaza. Canberra's silence about this hunger strike, or about desperation in Gaza amounts to collusion with cruelty.

Behind Amoral Smokescreens

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About the Author

Stuart Rees is Professor Emeritus of the University of Sydney and Founder of the Sydney Peace Foundation. He is the former Director of the Sydney Peace Foundation (1998-2011) and of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies (1988-2008), and a Professor of Social Work (1978-2000) at the University of Sydney.

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