Manus Island detention centre was started under John Howard in 2001 but the real story began in 2013 with the Abbott Government’s “stop the boats” campaign. Scott Morrison as Minister for Immigration and Border Protection was the architect of Operation Sovereign Borders, the sole aim of which was to set an example of such nastiness that anyone contemplating coming by boat to Australia would give up.
Just how nasty that was is detailed by Kurdish journalist and poet Behrouz Boochani in No Friend but the Mountains (1). After being saved from a sinking asylum seeker vessel from Indonesia Boochani was handed to the Australian Navy who sent him to Christmas Island for a month and then to Manus, indefinitely. Boochani, with a postgraduate degree in political science, political geography and geopolitics, reflected deeply on the hellish experience on Manus. Having no paper or access to post he surreptitiously texted his book to a friend Ohmid Tofigian in Australia who translated it from Farsi to English.
The bulk of the book is about the horrendous conditions on Manus, which are indeed devised to make life as difficult as possible, and especially to mind-fuck the prisoners. The heat and humidity alone were insufferable but as Boochani put it, the guards’ only duty “is to shit all over the sanity of prisoners.” They followed prisoners around, taking notes or pretending to. Many of the Australian guards came from high security private sector prisons for serious criminals, and the asylum seekers were treated accordingly, men, women and children alike. They told local Papu “officers” that the prisoners were criminals, but while the Papu obeyed orders from the Australians, they surreptitiously treated the prisoners with kindness. Prisoners had to queue for hours for meals, for handouts such as razors, telephones, medical assistance (which was nearly always “drink more water” or “take paracetamol” whatever the complaint).
Often the water issued was left in the sun, so hot it was not thirst quenching. At meal times the first in the queue got large servings, and any handouts of cake and fruit, but those at the end got the left-overs. Rules and times were changed arbitrarily seemingly to create confusion. Prisoners were given code names, Boochani’s was MEG45, to depersonalize them; games such as cards were forbidden and destroyed if found. The toilets quickly became so blocked prisoners couldn’t use them, so sewage accumulated outside smelling “so vile that one feels ashamed of being part of the human race” as Boochani graphically put it. Early in his confinement in a container the writing on the walls told Boochani that a family had been confined here prior to him. They had a little girl, who wrote on the wall: “Oh God, do something, take us to a nice place. Kiss Kiss.”
Out of all this mistrust, torture and confusion a system evolved that Boochani called The Kyriarchy System the aim of which was to demoralize, and to create ever more hostility between guards and prisoners, until as predicted by observers, prisoners were driven to extremes; they rioted, resulting in savage beatings and the death of Reza Barati, the Gentle Giant as Boochani calls him.
In 2014 the Immigration Minister arrived, who at that time was Scott Morrison, “taking quick steps not looking at his surroundings. The Minister points his finger like a dictator at a few individuals. He delivers his words with intentional force. He says: ‘You have no chance at all, either you go back to your countries or you will remain on Manus forever.’ He leaves in a hurry.” (p. 313).
So how does Scott Morrison, the man mainly responsible for creating this hell, reconcile this with his Christian faith? When first sworn into Parliament in 2008 Morrison said:
“For me, faith is personal, but the implications are social—as personal and social responsibility are at the heart of the Christian message. In recent times it has become fashionable to negatively stereotype those who … to suggest that such faith has no place in the political debate of this country. This presents a significant challenge for those of us, like my colleague, who seek to follow the example of William Wilberforce or Desmond Tutu, to name just two. These leaders stood for the immutable truths and principles of the Christian faith. So what values do I derive from my faith? My answer comes from Jeremiah, chapter 9:24:.. I am the Lord who exercises loving-kindness, justice and righteousness on earth; for I delight in these things, declares the Lord. From my faith I derive the values of loving-kindness, justice and righteousness, to act with compassion and kindness, acknowledging our common humanity and to consider the welfare of others; to fight for a fair go for everyone to fulfil their human potential and to remove whatever unjust obstacles stand in their way” (2).
The Christian faith that he professes is not that of William Wilberforce or of Desmond Tutu, but Pentecostalism, which started life by Afro-American pastor William Seymour at the Azusa Street Mission in Los Angeles in 1906. There are different varieties of Pentecostals but the majority believe that the Bible is literally true, that the devil exists, that Adam and Eve proved that God created two genders only, so that transgendered people are an aberration, in some sense less than human, likewise homosexuals. Believers need to be “born again” in order to be amongst the “saved”. Many regard speaking in tongues, or glossolalia, as a means of directly conversing with God, and faith healing as a manifestation of God’s power, sickness a consequence of the Fall of Man. A fundamental belief is that Christ will return at any time. Those who are saved will go to Heaven, while those who are not saved will be condemned to hell. Pentecostal thinking is black and white, based on certainty. Pentecostals think in binary terms: people are either saved or not saved, they go either to heaven or to hell, they are either male or female. There are few if any grey areas. They know they are right; how could they not be if they have been saved by God? “Prosperity theology” in Pentecostal thinking sees financial success as the mark of God’s blessing, their reward for being who they are and for believing what they do. Socially, devout Pentecostals live an austere life in which alcohol plays little or no part. (3)
But to what extent does Morrison espouse Pentecostal beliefs such literal belief in the Bible, the immanence of the second coming, loathing of LBGTI people and the rest? Fact is, we don’t know. His statement in his maiden speech to Parliament is typical of him: it says little apart from a broad affirmation of his religious beliefs. As he put it, “the Bible is not a policy handbook”, which sounds rather like a get-out clause. When Jane Cadzow asked how his professed Christianity fitted with his treatment of asylum seekers, he replied: “How I reconcile that with my faith is, frankly, a matter for me.” (4) Well it is not just matter for him if it affects public policy making. So the question is: Does his faith affect public policy?
Sean Kelly, in tracing Morrison’s public statements and answers to journalists’ questions, points out a constant factor: he says nothing beyond barest facts, to the point of giving journalists “the finger” (5). Kelly quotes a typical example:
Journalist: But in terms of making a judgement, if those asylum seekers do come to Australia doesn’t that mean that your turn back the boats policy is kind of …
Morrison: Well, you have made a whole bunch of presumptions there which I’m not about to speculate on.
Journalist: Well, maybe you can clear them up for us?
Morrison: Well, you’re the one making the presumptions not me.
This sort of pugnacious dodging means we really don’t know what he believes in or where he stands on many issues. He contradicts himself time after time, but “he can seemingly convince himself of things aggressively”, which is to say that he believes what he is currently saying is true. Kelly continues:
If accurate, this might make sense of Morrison’s blunt assertions that he has not said things he has said and that he has played no role at all in events in which others believe he was central….(6)
For example, Morrison asserts he had no role in the political assassination of Michael Towke, who beat Morrison in the pre-selection for the seat of Cooke by 82-8. However Towke was then subjected to a smear campaign that lost him the nomination – and Morrison replaced him. Likewise Morrison claims he had no role in the toppling of Abbott for Turnbull, nor in the toppling of Turnbull himself. Yet his rise from newcomer to PM has been spectacular.
Kelly attributes much of this contradiction to Morrison’s background in marketing: he was the former Managing Director of Tourism Australia, and was responsible for the embarrassingly failed “So, where the bloody hell are you?” campaign. From this background came his total support for advertising gambling – or anything else come to that – on the “best billboard in Australia”: the sails of the Sydney Opera House. It also gels with his style of announcing policy. Like Trump, he doesn’t argue a case, he aggressively and loudly asserts it. When his spin does not cut through, he raises a distracting issue: like an aggressive rebuttal to a questioner or what a terrible person Bill Shorten is. Part of his spin – and also to distinguish himself from his predecessor – Morrison dresses himself up as a stereotypical Aussie family man, crazy about footie, a barbie and a beer, the last not being very Pentecostal of him.
If we cannot therefore work out what he believes in from what he says, is there any evidence that his policy positions are in fact affected by Pentecostal beliefs? Given that Pentecostalism is espoused by only 1 per cent of Australians, to the extent that his thinking is Influenced furthers him from representing the values and thinking of a large majority of Australians.
He seems to be applying prosperity theology when he says, using a typical Pentecostal binary divide, that there are the taxed, who do the right thing and make money through their own efforts, and the taxed-nots, who do not deserve social welfare for they have not done their bit in growing the economy. Another feature which may derive from broad Pentecostalism is that he is deaf to the views of other people when they are contrary to his own. A Pentecostal knows he is right – in what he thinks at the time anyway.
In the Wentworth by-election several issues arose that people saw as major priorities. One was getting children and their families off Nauru and returned to Australia for medical care, another was taking action against climate change, yet another discrimination against LBGTI students in religious schools. Prior to the election he agreed at least to allow the New Zealand solution for children and their families provided they could never return to Australia. He also agreed that discrimination against LBGTI children would not be allowed.
However when Labor reluctantly agreed to his version of the New Zealand solution he stuck to his original view: no deal. However, the government surreptitiously started bringing children from Nauru to Australia, not “showboating” as he put it, as if he is reluctant to advertise the fact that he is bowing to public opinion. On the other hand his Government is continuing to fight an appeal to the Federal Court by a group of doctors about the medical condition of children on Nauru. And legislation about discriminating against LBGTI children now seems to be off the agenda.
As for climate change, Morrison’s reaction to the IPCC Report: “Let’s not forget Australia accounts for just over 1% of global emissions.
There are a lot bigger players than us out there. … Emissions per capita in Australia are at their lowest level in a decade.” Official figures show however that emissions increased 1.3% in the year to March 2018 and that Australia is very unlikely to meet the Paris agreement target and certainly not “meet it in a canter” as he said on ABC’s Insiders programme. He is even proposing a new coal fired power station, against the expressed wishes of the business community, the world scientific community and some 79 per cent of the Australian population. The opinions of the Wentworth electorate, let alone the large majority of Australians, are to him post-election but a sounding brass and a tinkling cymbal.
At the final polling of the leadership of the Liberal Party, when Turnbull didn’t stand, Morrison was depicted within the Party as centre right and therefore the better alternative to the hard right Peter Dutton. (7) Centre right Morrison certainly isn’t. He is against such things as same sex marriage, legalising homosexuality, discriminating against gays in religious schools, action against climate change, the welfare state; and for cutting taxes for the top end of town, deregulating (except when it comes to electricity prices): hard neoliberalism in short. (8)
Finally, let us return to the compelling issue of reconciling Morrison’s belief in loving kindness to the way he authorised treatment of asylum seekers and how he treated them when he did meet them. As Boochani records, he was aggressive, pointing his finger at individuals, depriving them of any hope when he said, “return to your countries or you will remain on Manus forever.”
Morrison told the Daily Mail that he went to refugee camps around the world when he was immigration minister, and said he was fully aware of the impact his decisions have had. “You’ll find yourself on your knees, you’ll find yourself in tears, you’ll find yourself wrestling with this tough stuff.” (9)
That is not the impression he gave Behrouz Boochani when Morrison visited Manus, the conditions on which he himself had largely created. Rather it seems as Sean Kelly put it: (10)
This refusal to pick a side and stick with it, and the insistence that it is possible to believe two contradictory things at once, is everywhere in Morrison’s career.
1 Boochani, Behrouz, No Friend but the Mountains, Picador, 2018.
2 Taken from Hansard: https://parlinfo.aph.gov.au/parlInfo/search/display/display.w3p;query=Id:%22chamber/hansardr/2008-02-14/0045%22
3 These points are abstracted from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pentecostalism and from Corinna Elaine, https://independentaustralia.net/politics/politics-display/prime-minister-morrison-and-the-pentecostal-agenda,11878
4 Quoted in Sean Kelly, “Leave no Trace: The story of Scott Morrison. The Monthly November 2018, pp. 22-33.
5 Kelly, Op. cit. pp. 30 and 32.
6 Op. cit.
7 David Speers On Mutiny, Melbourne University Press
8 I expand on this at https://tasmaniantimes.com/2018/04/the-paradox-of-christianity-right-or-left-wing/
9 Daily Mail, 9 November, 2018.
10 Kelly, Op. cit. p. 30
John Biggs is a Hobart writer and a frequent contributor to Tasmanian Times.