We Are All Di­min­ished

On cit­i­zen­ship and the void in Aus­tralian pol­i­tics

The Monthly (Australia) - - CONTENTS - Com­ment by Don Wat­son

My mother is 98. As the re­spon­si­ble au­thor­i­ties ac­cept only cur­rent pass­ports and li­cences as pho­to­graphic proof of iden­tity, when hers ex­pired she lost, as a con­tin­u­ing hu­man be­ing, a cer­tain amount of pur­chase with them. In the ab­sence of the vi­tal doc­u­ments, the au­thor­i­ties de­manded her birth cer­tifi­cate; alas, when he reg­is­tered her birth in 1919, her fa­ther – a de­cent cit­i­zen in ev­ery way, but ab­sent-minded – wrote down the wrong date. He was just a day out, but with these things it may as well have been a decade. It took 98 years for the au­thor­i­ties to spot the anom­aly. Un­aware that her fa­ther had writ­ten the 7th on her birth cer­tifi­cate, all her life on ev­ery form she ever filled in my mother had writ­ten the 6th. Now they’ve sprung her, and un­less we can find a way to sat­isfy the pow­ers that she is for them as she is for us, and the same per­son whose ex­is­tence has been of­fi­cially ac­cepted for nearly a hun­dred years, her bed in the aged-care cen­tre will be near as dammit terra nul­lius. I sup­pose we could hire a cou­ple of silks and take it to the High Court, as those par­lia­men­tar­i­ans were forced to do when, like Grandpa, they slipped up with their forms. But we don’t have the money, and even if we did, we might have to take my mother too – as proof, you know – and she doesn’t travel so well these days. Be­sides, while we think we have com­mon sense and jus­tice on our side, long ex­pe­ri­ence and our very na­tures in­cline us to doubt that the court would so hold, even

Un­less we blame them for not be­ing born in such a pleas­ant place as this, the refugees are guilty of noth­ing more than the in­el­i­gi­ble MPs are, or my mother is.

if Mal­colm Turn­bull di­rected the judges. Es­pe­cially if he di­rected them. And it does not help our con­fi­dence in the sys­tem when, in ad­di­tion to the case of our al­most ex­ces­sively law-abid­ing mother, the onus of proof is re­versed on thou­sands of other du­ti­ful cit­i­zens, and they are re­quired to prove their in­no­cence or re­turn money paid to them in er­ror by a gov­ern­ment agency. Yet, when mem­bers of parliament find that through their own care­less­ness or de­nial they got them­selves elected un­law­fully, wise men and women talk of amend­ing the Con­sti­tu­tion – a bridge con­sid­ered much too far if it con­cerns recog­ni­tion of the coun­try’s In­dige­nous peo­ple – and the of­fend­ing pol­lies are not asked to re­pay a cent of the mil­lions paid to them from the pub­lic purse. It does shake our con­fi­dence. Still, you wouldn’t wish it on your worst en­emy. Barn­aby Joyce not an Aus­tralian? We are all di­min­ished, surely. And there’s the prime min­is­ter, as if sit­ting in the new Tesla, ready to power silently into the fu­ture with as many of his col­leagues as he can per­suade to get in with him, when from nowhere a 19th-cen­tury don­key cart lands on the bon­net and makes a com­pre­hen­sive wreck of his exquisitely in­no­va­tive 21st-cen­tury ma­chine. Was there ever more telling con­fir­ma­tion of Wil­liam Faulkner’s view that the past is “not even past”? Of course, it’s not en­tirely clear that the PM or any­one close to him had fig­ured out how to start the car; or if Eric Abetz hadn’t nicked the soft­ware for the re­verse lim­iter that will stop it ca­reer­ing at 200 kilo­me­tres an hour back­wards through Kingston and into the lake. But were we to sal­vage from the present con­sti­tu­tional wreck­age the les­son that we can­not un­tether our­selves from his­tory, per­haps all would not be lost. Even as we’re urged to think of noth­ing but the fu­ture, and go pas­sively into it beguiled by the tech­nol­ogy and the self-de­feat­ing crap it dredges from sty­gian depths into the palms of our hands, we’ll be mugs if we go colonis­ing Mars or min­ing the as­ter­oid belt with­out know­ing where we came from. In Egypt, re­searchers us­ing cos­mic rays have dis­cov­ered that the Great Pyra­mid of Giza con­tains a huge and mys­te­ri­ous void. They have not yet de­cided what pur­pose it was meant to serve. Does it add struc­tural strength? Does it con­tain corpses, trea­sure, a pharaoh or some kind of plinth giv­ing off an odd noise? Were they sav­ing on bricks? Or by hid­ing a void in the pyra­mid did the builders mean to cre­ate an undy­ing sym­bol of the hid­ing places to which hu­man be­ings con­sign ev­ery­thing they find un­pleas­ant to be­hold, in­clud­ing their bad con­sciences? Aus­tralia’s lit­tle gu­lags on Manus Is­land and Nauru, like all gu­lags large and small, are the hidden void made con­crete. Mad as the parliament thing seems, it’s not as mad as Manus Is­land, and if only we were not groan­ing with the weight of our com­pas­sion for the MPs caught up in it, we’d love to have some sym­pa­thy left over for the peo­ple con­fined there. They, like the MPs, are guilty of noth­ing but hope and am­bi­tion and fail­ing to fill in the forms, but have ended up in­car­cer­ated for years. Poor Barn­aby Joyce, poor John Alexan­der, poor all of them, sure: but they know that noth­ing a frac­tion as bad is go­ing to hap­pen to them. And that is why, by his re­cent ad­mis­sion, Joyce con­tin­ued to serve in the cabi­net and to be paid for do­ing it, ex­pect­ing all the while to be found in­el­i­gi­ble. The hon­est way to deal with the peo­ple on Manus Is­land and Nauru would have been to put some in cages on per­ma­nent dis­play in city squares, and oth­ers in cat­tle trucks trav­el­ling the coun­try with ex­tended stays in pro­vin­cial malls. Thus the Aus­tralian peo­ple in whose name the guilt­less have been im­pris­oned could face them squarely, and weep or taunt as their feel­ings in­cline them. The cow­ards’ way is to put them out of sight, and then in­vent a con­ve­nient nar­ra­tive and new words – such as “il­le­gals” – to sat­isfy them­selves that Aus­tralians con­tinue to be good. It is by this process, surely, that a cabi­net min­is­ter who with good rea­son finds it “ab­surd” that he should be pun­ished be­cause his fam­ily were refugees does not find it just as ab­surd for his gov­ern­ment to pun­ish refugees on Manus Is­land and Nauru – or if he does, judges it im­politic to say so.

Chid­ing the re­searchers for their “pro­pa­gan­dist” an­nounce­ment, Egypt’s min­istry of an­tiq­ui­ties said the ex­is­tence of the void had long been known. In fact, a min­istry spokesper­son de­clared, there is more than one void in the pyra­mid. This might lead us to won­der if the pyra­mid-builders wished to se­cretly ut­ter an­other truth. Maybe those other voids are the un­filled gu­lags: the places to which those most de­serv­ing of in­car­cer­a­tion and pun­ish­ment are never sent. This is not to rec­om­mend that the in­el­i­gi­ble MPs be ban­ished to Manus Is­land or Nauru, or in some other way have their free­dom, their fam­i­lies and their years taken from them. But un­less we blame them for not be­ing born in such a pleas­ant place as this, the refugees are guilty of noth­ing more than the in­el­i­gi­ble MPs are, or my mother is – and are no more or less “il­le­gals”. On the other hand, the peo­ple who con­tinue to hold them there, even when other coun­tries of­fer to take them in, are guilty of some­thing very like a crime. To say other­wise is to turn Kafka on his head. It’s to turn his­tory on its head, and say the dic­ta­tors were just and their vic­tims the crim­i­nals, which is to say it’s also to turn de­cency, and all our pre­tences to it, on its head. But of course the scheme’s im­prac­ti­cal. There’s no place big enough to hold us all – ex­cept this place.

© Gary Ra­m­age / Newspix

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