By David Berger, Writing in New Matilda https://newmatilda.com/2016/05/22/its-ok-to-compare-australia-in-2016-with-nazi-germany-and-heres-why/
Above is a photo of my grandmother, Margot von Bentheim, taken with my mother in the Spring of 1925. She would have been 60 when I was born, but she died at the age of 35.
A Jewish refugee from the Nazis, she committed suicide, alone, despairing and destitute in Chile in 1941, leaving a six-year-old girl with no Spanish – my aunt – to be brought up in an orphanage.
The girl was not found again by the family for nine years, by which time she could no longer speak German, but was able to apologise, in Spanish, for not having been able to prevent her mother’s death.
Meanwhile, Margot’s own mother and sister were sent to the concentration camps, which they survived, but which her sister’s husband and two sons did not.
On my father’s side is also written the history of Jewish persecution in the first half of the 20th century. The family fled west at the turn of the century to escape the Russian pogroms. The lucky ones, the prescient ones perhaps, kept going and ended up in Britain and America.
The ones who stayed in mainland Europe ended up caught in the maelstrom.
One day in 1942, gentle, dignified Uncle Solomon and his wife were taken from their apartment in Marseilles and vanished into the ‘Nacht und Nebel’ of wartime Europe. Their fate remains unknown.
There are many other tragic tales of my family from that period which I could relate, but these will suffice. I am a Jew, then, with a personal history in refugee matters, now a doctor in Australia who advocates forcefully for individual refugees caught in the Hell of offshore detention and who also campaigns more generally against these inhumane policies.
There can be few with a bigger, angrier, more ferocious dog in the fight over whether it is justified to draw analogies between the systematic regime of torture, persecution and extermination of the Nazis and the present regime in Australia of indefinite incarceration in appalling conditions of innocent people seeking refuge here.
Some Jewish groups in particular get upset when such analogies are made, accusing the people who make them of ‘trivialising’ the Holocaust. They are completely wrong and here is why.
There can be no doubt that many acts of the Nazis in the Holocaust were unique, not just in their scale, but in the overt, calculated expression of their ideology of genocide and racial purity and the industrial manner in which this was put into practice.
A visit to Auschwitz illustrates this graphically in just one gut-wrenching afternoon.
Auschwitz 1, the original camp, was a Polish army barracks, converted into a place of fiendish torture, the echoes of which remain so vivid today that it is an unspeakable trauma to visit.
So far, so horrific, but the real eye opener is Auschwitz 2, or Auschwitz-Birkenau, the death camp a few kilometres outside town, which was opened later as a key element in the ‘Final Solution’.
On the face of it, there is much less to see here – the gate with its mendacious sign (‘Arbeit macht frei’), rows of drab, anonymous barracks, a few chimneys, a railway siding – but this was a polished death factory, the likes of which the world has not seen before or since.
With methodical, emotionless Teutonic efficiency, Jews arrived in cattle trucks at one end and, with surprisingly little fuss, left mostly within a few hours as ashes out of the chimneys.
The banality of the place, the matter of factness of it, the industrialisation of evil, make it so much more horrific even than Auschwitz 1. If you can get your head round it, that is, which isn’t easy.
As a boy in England, I grew up with the Holocaust ever present. I used to lie awake at night from a very young age, five or six years old, wondering what it would have been like standing in line, naked, waiting for the gas chambers. I still do.
I used to share my mother’s anger at her own mother for being so ‘weak’ as to have committed suicide. I used to debate long and hard with my mother over why it all happened. For years, I refused to accept her uncompromising assertion that what happened in Germany could have happened anywhere: “Not in England, Mum! No way. English people aren’t like that.”
Of course, now I know she was right. When her father fled Berlin in 1936, first for Argentina, then for Egypt, the family decided that she and her grandparents would be safe to stay: “They won’t do anything to the children and old people.” By late 1938, the truth finally dawned and they managed to flee to England; and so here I am.
They had not been able to believe what was happening around them. They had not been able to believe that their friends and neighbours, good Germans all, would allow anything awful to happen to them. They could not believe that Hitler and his thugs would be able to ‘get away with it’. It was incomprehensible to them.
And there is the real lesson the Nazis have taught us, the lesson we must draw on every day in 2016 if the gruesome experiences of 1933-1945 are to teach us anything from history: if you tell a big enough lie, a lie so far out of the experience of ordinary people that they cannot comprehend it, if you tell them that you are doing nothing more than keeping them safe, if you tell them that desperate times require desperate measures and if you do your utmost to conceal from them the unpleasant reality of what you are actually doing, then eventually you will find you can get away with absolutely anything, even the industrialised killing of millions of people.
So when Malcolm Turnbull tells us that ‘We must not be misty-eyed’ about border protection, it is indeed appropriate to recall the words of Joseph Goebbels in 1942: “There should be no squeamishness about it”.
And when we consider the ‘Nacht und Nebel’ (the ‘Night and Fog’) of the Nazis, it is indeed appropriate to draw an analogy with the information blackout which successive Australian governments have sought to place over immigration detention, and which has been solidified into the profoundly anti-democratic Border Force Act and the repeated lies of Peter Dutton, who told us recently that refugee advocates were ‘encouraging certain behaviours’ for political reasons, implying that the self-immolations of the last week were the fault of the advocates, a proposition so preposterous that it is Nazi in its magnitude.
And when we call these places of horror in the Pacific ‘concentration camps’, that is an appropriate term, because that is what they are.
And when we accuse the Australian government of selectively torturing brown-skinned people in the way the Nazis chose the Jews and other groups to torture and ultimately eliminate, that is an appropriate thing to do, because we all know, in our heart of hearts, that if these people fleeing oppression were white, English-speaking Christians (white Zimbabweans, say) then their treatment would be completely different.
The Holocaust is not something to be memorialised as if it were a granite monolith, a ‘Holy of Holies’ to be approached in sombre dress on remembrance days only, to the tolling of a bell or the mournful wail of a bugle, something so unique and grave that nothing else dare be mentioned in the same sentence.
My grandmother wasn’t at all like that. She was a vivacious young woman in the swinging Berlin of the 1920s. She used to dance on the piano at parties with Victor de Kowa, Lotte Lenya, Marlene Dietrich and other film stars, directors and celebrities of that magical era. She apparently did a mean imitation of Felix the Cat.
I will not allow anyone to tell me how I may or may not use her memory and I am using it today to tell the world that it is completely appropriate to draw on Nazi analogies when we contemplate the horror of immigration detention in Australia, and reflect on how this could possibly be happening in what is supposedly one of the world’s leading democracies.
If we fail to do so then we will have failed to learn anything from the Nazis, and my grandmother’s death and Uncle Solomon’s death and the deaths and tragedies of all those other millions of people tortured and killed by the Nazis will be robbed of any meaning.
And no-one has the right to do that.
Claims that a fusion of religion, politics and postmodernism can produce an extreme variant of right-wing conservatism are analysed historically and contemporaneously as a world-wide phenomenon which encompasses many religions and forms of government. Focussing on this alignment in western Christian cultures the result of this amalgam has been described as leading to a new form of fascism. This hypothesis is measured against the current Australian polity. There is a growing volume of evidence that a variant of fascism may be the collateral damage resulting from the Government’s approach to dealing with contemporary events domestically and internationally.
Does the political theology of right-wing conservatism in western postmodern democracies evolve to produce a variant of fascism? This hypothesis is deconstructed into a sequence of subsidiary questions.
What is the relevance of political theology in the 21st Century? How does postmodernism interact with religion, democracy and ultra right wing conservative populism? Does the combination of these factors give rise to a new form of fascism? If so what are its attributes? What is the evidence of this fusion in contemporary Australian democracy?
Political theology describes the relationship between the religious and the secular in government, linking spiritual values with the pursuit of material goods (Yannaras 1983, p.54). Through this relationship the will of God is claimed to be translated into earthly needs (Yannaras 1983, p.55).
Political theology has been described as “a discourse on political authority based on a revealed divine nexus.” (Lilla in Raschke 2008, p.104). It attempts to resolve the theological conundrum expressed in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount ”No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and Mammon.” (The Holy Bible 1959, Matthew 6:24). Jesus later clarified this by saying “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s” (The Holy Bible 1959, Matthew 22:21). This suggests that God and Mammon can coexist provided the latter is “righteous” (Raschke 2008, p.106).
The pendulous movement of political theology may be observed through its historic oscillation as Christianity has attempted to resolve the spiritually transcendent with secular materialism (Yannaras 1983, p.54). After the collapse of the Holy Roman Empire, the 5th Century Bishop of Hippo, Augustine, pioneered the concept of the segregation of church and state through a “two kingdoms” dualism distinguishing between the “City of Earth” and the “City of Heaven” (Popescu 2003, p.24). Nevertheless, during the following millennium political philosophies tended to reflect ecclesiastical dogma.
In 1515 Niccolo Machiavelli urged the exclusion of religion from political life bringing a pragmatic focus to the exercise of power (Aronowitz 2005, p.22) (Machiavelli, 1515, p.36). This concept eventually led to the “secularisation thesis” which concluded that modernism and the rise of technology is characterised by a fading in the importance and significance of religion (Thiem 2012, p.19). The principle of secular dogma and the doctrine of the “separation of church and state” regained momentum in the first half of the 20th century (Raschke 2008, p.101).
In the late 20th century secularisation came under renewed challenge with an increase of spiritual interest, the rise of Pentecostal evangelism, new age values, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and an upsurge of ethnic sectarianism (Norris and Inglehart 2003, p.1). With this re-engagement between church and state, world leaders invoke their own God in support of freedom, insurrection and war (Hickman 2008, p.177). “God’s Politics” (Wallis 2005) are resurgent and are increasingly influential in the way political movements mobilise their supporters (Thiem 2012, p.16). Democracy has been described as a “temporal simulacrum for the church militant” (Raschke 2008, p.108).
In examining the linkage between religion and democracy it has been claimed that Christianity itself is not of itself inherently liberal or democratic (Hickman 2008, p.178). The theologising of American democracy may have led to the concept of a “born to rule” class within society which rules by divine order which is by definition “righteously absolute and rightfully unchallenged” (Hickman 2008, p.194).
The influence of Pentecostal evangelicalism in the 2000 US Presidential elections as well as the religious fervour of radical Islamists confirmed this turn to the recombination of religion with politics (Thiem 2012, p.16). In its 1st November 2007 edition The Economist contained an eighteen-page Special Report on ”The new wars of religion,” suggesting that the relationship between religion and politics defines what was termed the new “global postmodern,” (Raschke 2008, p.102).
A conference in London on ‘The religious right, secularisation and civil rights’ was held on 10-12 October 2014. The focus of the conference was to examine the hypothesis that what we are witnessing is not religious or spiritual renewal but rather the skilful use of this as cover for the rise of extreme right wing political movements (Tran 2014). Concerned by these developments, conference organisers in a ‘Secularist Manifesto’ called for the complete excision of religion from the state, family law, public policy, education, healthcare and scientific research (Namazi 2014).
The concept of postmodernism confounds definition. It has been described as a “semiotic marker” which still requires definition and discourse (Kellner 1995, p.46). The term has become an omnibus descriptor for a global shift in values and discursive practices (Raschke 2008, p.102) and which questions any argument that seeks to evaluate its claims (Tushnet 1995, p.582).
Critics of postmodernism point to its adherents’ reluctance to forge a “grand narrative” to describe life’s moral and political choices, thereby abdicating the need to address them (Tushnet 1995, p.583). Postmodernists are accused of possessing an “anything goes” attitude to life in which you can say anything you want, but so can everyone else (Raschke 2008, p.587). This is akin to the concept of “permanent temporariness” used to describe the plight of the Palestine State (Crooke 2011).
Evidence of Crowder’s assertion may be seen in the paradigm shift within the US Republican Party caused by the emergence of the ultra-rightwing Tea Party movement. The rise of far right nationalistically-based parties in Europe is further evidence (Crowder 2004). In postmodern politics the traditional “left” has become marginalised and increasingly irrelevant (Aronowitz 2005, p.39). Neiwert distinguishes between “conservatism” and the “conservative movement”; the former being a state of mind and the latter a dogmatic political movement with clearly defined tenets and agenda. The strength and resolve of the conservative agenda relies on bluff and bluster, attacking their political opponents as weak and vacillating. This strategy is assisted by a compliant mainstream media (Neiwert 2005, p.7).
American conservatism has been described as is an alloy of cultural conservatism and political liberalism but that if the latter is sacrificed in favour of the former then it produces a variant of right-wing socialism (Goldberg 2007, p.396).
The arrival of postmodern democracy coincided with the end of 500 years of the “Age of Reason” with an explosion of competing ideologies – fascism, communism, socialism and capitalism – which eventually saw the ascension of the Right as the voice of law and order (Saul, J.R. 1993, p.18). The outcome of these ideological clashes favouring right wing conservatism has allowed those in power to distort complex reality through a postmodernist appeal to our baser instincts (Saul, J.R. 1993, p.36).
The Conservatives’ hold on power not only in the US, but around the world, was strengthened after the September 2001 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington which allowed the Bush/Cheney Administration to introduce authoritarian measures justified in the name of the “War on Terror” (Dean 2006, p.169). In 2014 the war continues unabated and we have entered an age where the politics of fear “drives out reason, suppresses the politics of discourse and opens the door to the politics of distraction” (Al Gore in Dean 2006, p.172).
Authoritarian behaviour has been described as “protofascist”, sowing the seeds of a fascism of the future. It is facilitated by strident responses to confected crises and is characterised by dominating behaviour, inequality, vengeful action, lack of compassion, lies, prejudice, militancy and overt nationalism (Dean 2006, p.180).
These changes in public life have introduced a postmodern ambivalence in how we understand democracy, challenging its “grand narrative”. Postmodernism’s destruction of these symbolic markers which helped people to make sense of their lives has led to a public sense of disorientation (Sennett 2000, p.56). Their disappearance has seen a “retreat to a weary and ultimately defeated postmodern politics” where the power of citizens has shrunk to that of a voter when required by the political elite (Aronowitz 2005, p.2).
Within a postmodern government, pragmatic ad hockery supporting corporate and political power relations has become the norm (Crowder 2004). An electoral outcome no matter what its majority is taken as a mandate for the implementation of policies some of which may be significantly different from those used to gain power (Crowder 2004). Through this process of disengagement, postmodern democracy may lead to an ethical stand-off and political paralysis (Crowder 2004).
Dick Morris, former advisor to President Clinton set out a blueprint for a postmodernist government in The New Prince (Morris 1999) urging a pivot towards pragmatic politics postulating a return to Machiavelli’s “down-to-earth, street-smart realism” (Morris 1999, inside front flap). The premise of his book is that if politicians transparently pursued issues which are in their own self interests then the political process would be clearer, more positive, non-partisan and issues-related.
This profound conservative ideological shift presents a sophisticated version of pragmatic rationality as the capacity of governments to control capital, labour, ideas and people is thwarted (Aronowitz 2005, p.21). Where their capacity to determine what happens domestically is disrupted governments focus on those things they still control allowing them to create scapegoats out of welfare recipients, immigrants and other minority groups thereby fomenting fear, division and suspicion in the electorate (Aronowitz 2005, p.8). This leads to an haphazard, uneven, disjointed, pragmatic application of ideas, policies and loyalties in which governments may be unsure as to how everything fits together, and whether this even matters (Gilbert 2009).
With the jettisoning of political ideals and an ad hoc approach to governing, democracy has become vulnerable to a renewed intrusion of religious fundamentalism and right wing extremism (Irigaray and Marder 2014). This is postmodern democracy in action and leads to the conclusion that representative democracy may be impossible to sustain in the postmodern context (Gilbert 2009).
Mussolini coined the term “Fascism” from the Latin fasces, the word for the wooden rods used by ancient Romans for beating their subordinates (Alexa 2006). He adopted and changed the words of St Paul “Everything in Christ, nothing outside of Christ, nothing against Christ” (The Holy Bible 1959, Romans 11:36) to “Everything in the State, nothing outside the State, nothing against the State” (Alexa 2006).
In retrospect, 20th century fascism raises the question of how could sophisticated, well-educated and technologically advanced European nations with long and proud histories descend into “a collective pack of murderous thugs devoid of a moral compass or conscience”? (‘Fascism reborn’ 2010). The postmodernist experience has exposed the vulnerability of modern nations to the loss of values, beliefs and the basic morality which binds civil society together making possible the commitment of unthinkable crimes.
This has led to a claim that “The new name that Fascism has taken for itself is Postmodernism” (’Fascism reborn’ 2010). It scratches at deeply ingrained public prejudices whilst at the same time praying on their sense of justice and patriotism (Georgi Dimitrov in Kossaly 2010).
The fascism we may be heading towards will not look like the totalitarian fascism of Hitler and Mussolini but rather a new radical right-wing populism. It will have a fresh friendly face and will be a twenty-first century “designer fascism” (Copsey 2013, p.1). The point is illustrated by a disarming photograph of Sarah Palin with a caption quoting Sinclair Lewis in 1835 that “When fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross” (Kossaly 2010).
Its defining features will be “nativism”, a combination of nationalism with xenophobia, authoritarianism on law and order issues, and populism (Copsey 2013, p.2). It will be controlled by a Big Business-Big Government partnership preserving the privileges of the ultra-rich, the corporate overseers, and the military whilst removing the rights and liberties of other people (Gross 1980, p.161).
The success in the US of the religious, conservative, ultra right wing political agenda suggests that its aim is to not merely obtain power but to shore it up by transforming itself into a simulacrum of a friendly populism masking the violence and hatred seen in earlier variants of fascism (Neiwert 2005, p.3).
In western democracies the concept of a separation of powers between church and state may be constitutionally explicit, implicit or absent. While the Australian Constitution proscribes religious discrimination it is silent on the separation of powers.
Australia is a Constitutional Monarchy; its Head of State is also the Head of the Church of England therefore by definition State and Church are inextricably intertwined. This is reinforced each parliamentary sitting day which commences with the Lord’s Prayer. Our national flag displays in its upper left-hand quadrant the crosses of St George, St Andrew and St Patrick.
To become a secular republic the Monarchy would have to be disengaged and a referendum held to allow Constitutional confirmation of a separation of church and state (Wallace 2006).
In 2013 Australians elected a Liberal/National Party coalition government which, during its first year in office, has revealed its right wing ideological credentials. This shift has been matched by an increasingly irrelevant Labor Opposition seeking to rebuild and regain its own populist support. Both the LNP Coalition and the ALP have strong links with Christian denominations particularly Roman Catholic, Anglican and increasingly Pentecostal Evangelistic movements such as Hillsong and ShireLive as well as the mysterious sect The Exclusive Brethren.
This strengthening of links between Church and State is moving Australia away from the notion of a secular democracy. In 2006 Kevin Rudd urged Christians to get more involved in politics and Peter Costello made similar comments in his speech on 23 September 2006 to the Australian Christian Lobby National Conference (Wallace Max 2006). Their comments imply that Christian values form the core of Australian culture, at odds with the popular self-perception of scepticism towards authority, mateship and a fair go.
The first decade of the 21st century saw global surges of support for the conservative theology of the extreme right in Christianity, Islam and Judaism (Mackay 2005, p.73). In Australia this effect was diagnosed as creating a preoccupation with the self and an addiction to materialism. In turn this led to disengagement with the larger issues of the day, the loss of narrative, a taste for lifestyle issues and an outbreak of fear and prejudice towards outsiders. Sadly Mackay’s optimism in 2005, that this was a temporary aberration which would fail to gain any sort of permanent hold, was misplaced.
In the same edition of The Griffith Review, Julianne Schultz saw the fusion of ideology and religion as providing a reputational shield behind which a “sophisticated rebadging of totalitarianism” could occur (Schultz 2005, p.9). She predicted that the imagined fundamentalist threat would lead to new forms of engagement undermining traditional cultural values of tolerance, respect and reason (Schultz 2005, p.10).
The prediction of a pragmatic postmodern democracy leading to the election of a plethora of individual self-interests (Morris 1999) has now occurred in the Australian Senate where single-issue candidates have been elected on very low percentages through anomalies in the electoral laws. These Senators along with minor parties form the balance of power and pose significant challenges to representative democracy. PUP Leader Clive Palmer is a perfect example of Morris’ transparently self-interested postmodern politician.
Since 1996, under Prime Minister Howard and now under Mr Abbott, Australia has trended towards being a revisionist, minimalist democracy with voter disengagement and a sense of anti-intellectualism (Maddison 2007, p.32). Under the Howard mantra of “relaxed and comfortable”, rational choice theory has prevailed in which voters simply support what is in their personal interest. This has seen a climate of “quiet authoritarianism” flourish with increasingly ethically-questionable measures implemented and a centralisation of policy and power in the Prime Minister’s Office (Maddison 2007, p.37). We have now graduated into an environment of being “alert but not alarmed” having moved along a continuum from Huxley’s Brave New World towards Orwell’s 1984 (Kindon 2014).
The devolution to State and Territory governments of policy, power and funding on education, health and the environment proposed by the Abbott Government correlates with a postmodern view of democracy comprising smaller government, local control and the dilution or removal of regulatory authorities (Aronowitz 2005, p.9).
Conservatism in Australia is bivalent. At one level it embraces a strong sense of nationalism, a suspicion of foreigners, a predisposition towards militarism and government by a “born to rule” elite. Conversely it embodies a love of the nation, group loyalty, belief in the common good, sense of duty and support for traditional family values (McKnight 2005, p.90).
The success of radical right-wing populist parties is bolstered by the electoral alliances forged through a paradoxical coalition of marginalised blue collar workers, young lower-educated people, and the unemployed. The support of these groups was instrumental in the initial success of Hansonism, Howard’s “Battlers” and now the Palmer United Party (Betz 1993, p.423).
Radical right-wing populist parties generally criticise high levels of taxation, the large and inefficient bureaucracy and the welfare state, leading to tax cuts for the wealthy and the corporate sector and the abolition of other taxes. The Abbott Government’s first federal budget scored highly on these critieria.
Smaller government is achieved through privatisation of government assets and services, attacks on public broadcasting services, deregulation of the private sector, and widespread cuts in the public sector (Betz 1993 p. 418). By using the Party as a reputational shield voters can support can lend support to policies such as restrictive immigration policies without being accused of racism or extremism because the party is also known for promoting other less controversial policies (Ivarsflaten 2006, p.7).
It is unlikely that we are witnessing a deliberate move towards a fascist state; rather that fascism is the collateral damage resulting from an ultra right wing conservative populist agenda. Political scientist Dr Laurence Britt identified fourteen characteristics of fascism which will be used as reference points to measure Australia’s alignment with them (Britt 2003). They are summarised in the following diagram.
Examining Britt’s first characteristic: Powerful and continuing nationalism; the shift to the right in politics, assisted by a Compliant mass media (B6) has revealed a disturbing xenophobic undercurrent in the Australian community. This sense of jingoistic nationalism connects with Britt’s seventh characteristic: Obsession with National Security. The “war on terrorism” identified with Islamic extremism fuelled the Cronulla race riots in the summer of 2005.
In August 2011, the self-styled “Convoy of No Confidence” demonstrated in front of Parliament House in Canberra. It was attended by the then Opposition front bench standing in front of banners reading “Ditch the Bitch”, “Juliar”, “Sack the Crack” and most concerning of all “Tolerance is our Demise”.
The event was compered by Mr Alan Jones who was also instrumental in inciting the Cronulla riots. The convoy was described by Mr Abbott as representing “middle Australia”.
Now following Prime Minister Abbott’s announcement of “Team Australia” as a way of galvanising a sense of nationalism – we are on the Team or against it. It has been described as a “nationalism framed in terms of external threats” (Crowe 2014) with a return to the wartime concept of nationalism from the Menzies era. The term has been criticised as “absurdly jingoistic and precisely un-Australian” leading to an increase of fear and hatred towards those seen as not being on the Team (Saul, B 2014).
Evidence mounts daily over our obsession with national security, supported by a docile Opposition and a compliant mainstream media. After previously debunking in Opposition, Australia’s push for a seat on the United Nations Security Council, the Abbott Government has now used its position to lead international debate on issues such as the shooting down of the Malaysian airliner MH17 in July 2014, sanctions against Russia, investigatory teams to the Ukraine and troops and fighter jets sent to the Middle East as part of a coalition to counter and eliminate the fighters of the Islamist State (IS).
This international posture has increased the threat of terrorist attacks within Australia. On 1 October 2014 the Government introduced the first two tranches of National Security Legislation.
The provisions of the first two Bills, in defence of freedom, paradoxically trade public freedom for national security and have drawn sharp criticism from the media, the legal fraternity and those who feel targeted such as the Islamic community. The provisions give increased powers to the Australian Secret Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) including jail for journalists and whistlebowers, computer hacking, ASIO immunity from prosecution, detention without charge, restrictions on freedom of movement, jail for Australian jihadists and mandatory retention of private web and mobile phone data.
The Bills were rushed into Parliament so quickly that amendments proposed by the Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights were not tabled until after the legislation had passed through the House of Representatives and before the Senate Scrutiny of Bills Committee Report had been tabled (Bacon 2014).The legislation led to former intelligence officer and independent Tasmanian federal MP Andrew Wilkie accusing the government of exploiting fears about terrorism and pushing Australia towards a “police state”(Wilkie 2014).
The media’s response to the passage of the legislation in the same week that it bungled reporting on a frenzied attack by a young Muslim man on Victorian police officers supports the contention that the Mass media in Australia is controlled and compliant. The media’s performance caused The Guardian’s Australian Deputy Political Editor, Katherine Murphy to write a “loveletter to my profession” and “an outpouring of grief for its failings” (Murphy 2014). Her plea for journalists to ask themselves whose agenda they serve and to apply standards of self-accountability led to extensive attacks on her by News Ltd journalists on social media.
A Focus on the Military has been ascendant in the years since the 2001 attack on the World Trade Centre with the defence budget mainly quarantined from fiscal cuts. Australian defence forces are deployed in many overseas conflicts and this has been accompanied by the introduction of “Operation” terminology to label Government policy, for example Operation Sovereign Borders, Operation Bring Them Home and the counter-terrorism raids, Operation Hammerhead.
The trend towards militarism has led to the conclusion that Australia is “obsessed with war” and that undemocratic, hierarchical military prowess appears to increase as public disillusionment with legislators increases (Reynolds 2014).
The recruiting of Australian volunteers to fight with rebels in the Middle East has reinforced the focus on national security with threat levels raised over the possibility of terror attacks in Australia and the prevention of the battle-hardened jihadists from returning to Australia. This has allowed the Use of Enemies and Scapegoats as a Unifying Cause to flourish. Allegedly over 100 Australians volunteers are also fighting with the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) but this is seen as legitimate because Israel is a recognised State with no UN sanctions and the backing of the US.
In September 2014 we witnessed counter-terrorism raids involving 600 police officers conducted in Sydney and Brisbane against alleged terror suspects, creating a high level of community anxiety and an increase in public antagonism towards the Islamic community.
The Use of scapegoats is also evident in the plethora of Inquiries and Royal Commissions into the alleged misdeeds of the previous Government. Unions (B10) have been firmly targeted by the Abbott Government as have welfare recipients carrying the burden of recent budget cuts, whilst more entitlements were delivered to the wealthy and the corporate sector despite having seen the “end of the age of entitlement” announced by the Treasurer.
Britt’s second characteristic: a Disdain for the Recognition of Human Rights; correlates with the manner in which successive Australian Governments have dealt with the humanitarian problem of asylum seekers. Australia is the only country in the OECD that has no Bill of Rights or Human Rights (Broinowski 2014). There is increasing concern that Australia’s human rights are under attack and that by voicing government policies as protecting freedoms they are actually being undermined (Saul, B 2014).
Australia has a long history of raising human rights issues with foreign governments including Russia, China, Myanmar, Malaysia and Indonesia. Now some of these countries, including China, are criticising Australia for its stance on human rights. On 15 March 2014 the ABC reported that China had expressed its concerns during regular human rights talks with Australia over the protection of refugees and the rights of children of refugees in education. China’s spokesperson also raised the legality of repatriation of refugees to countries other than Australia (McDonell 2014).
The United Nations High Commission on Refugees has formally criticised Australia’s policies and practices citing the Government’s record on migration zone changes, maritime operations in which boats are turned or towed back, offshore processing and conditions in detention centres alleging that they contravene Australia’s obligations as a signatory to the Refugee Convention. The Immigration Minister’s response to this criticism has been to propose legislative amendments which remove mention of International Treaty obligations replacing them instead with the Government’s own interpretation of them (Siegel 2014).
The appointment of Mr Tim Wilson as Australia’s Human Rights Commissioner is an example of Britt’s Rampant Cronyism. His appointment seems counterintuitive given his previously strong advocacy as an employee of the Institute of Public Affairs to abolish the Commission.
Other examples of cronyism have included the IPA-aligned Kevin Donnelly to a Review of the Australian School Curriculum, climate sceptic and former head of the Business Council of Australia to head the National Commission of Audit, Climate sceptic Maurice Newman to head the Business Advisory Council, climate sceptic and former chair of Caltex to undertake the Review of the Renewable Energy Target, Head of the Sydney Institute and ex Chief of Staff to John Howard, Gerard Henderson to run the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards and News Ltd journalist Janet Albrechtsen and Neil Brown former Liberal Minister, both strong critics of the ABC, to the Advisory Panel on unbiased appointments to the ABC Board (Secombe 2014).
These appointments also add substance to Britt’s Disdain for Art and Intellectuals. Announcements contained in the 2014 Federal Budget alarmed the education, science, environment, public broadcasting and research sectors with 230 government programs axed and 36 government agencies either abolished or merged. There is no Minister for Science in the Abbott Government.
With the abolition of the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, Climate Change Authority, Climate Commission and the Australian Renewable Energy Authority the Abbott Government signalled a new approach to dealing with climate change. Both the ABC and SBS had base funding cuts totalling $120 million over the next four years with more cuts under review. The CSIRO had cuts imposed of $111 million suggesting that there was indeed an attack on intellectual and scientific endeavour in Australia (‘Federal budget 2014: political experts react’ 2014).
The Intertwining of Religion with Government has been a growing phenomenon since Prime Minister Howard’s meetings with and promises to the Exclusive Brethren – an organisation which forbids its members to vote yet makes political demands on the Government. The introduction of the School Chaplain Scheme under Labor and maintained by the Abbott Government is another example of religious interference.
The High Court has ruled the program to be illegally funded. It is unpopular with many in the community yet the Government is now examining ways of salvaging the program through indirect State and Territory funding (Stevenson 2014).
Those groups contracted to provide the chaplaincy service tend to be the evangelistic Christian Ministries. A representative of Victoria’s largest
chaplaincy provider has been quoted saying “We need to go and make disciples,” and that “schools are our largest mission field” (Stevenson 2014).
Fascists are averse to rational argument leading to the conclusion that they are anti-intellectual. Legal principles are often challenged through criticism of the judiciary or by legislative change to legitimise previously illegal actions. When international conventions get in the way they are ignored or denigrated. (Broinowski 2014).
This is a depressing snapshot of Australia’s current political environment with an increasingly right wing Government, an emasculated, copy-cat Opposition, a rag-bag of self-interests in the Senate and a compliant mainstream media. A truly postmodern democracy heading down the road to fascism.
Do populist right wing governments even realise that they are on the path to fascism?
Robert Theobald’s parable of the frog comes to mind in which “Frogs permit themselves to be slowly boiled to death. If the cool temperature of the water in which the frog is immersed is slowly raised, the frog does not become aware of its danger until it is too late to do anything about it.”(Gross 1980, p.209).
References Available on Request.
SPEECH TO AMA FORUM ON ASYLUM SEEKER HEALTH IN SYDNEY.
21 FEBRUARY 2016
AMA PRESIDENT PROFESSOR BRIAN OWLER
Welcome. I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, and pay my respects to their elders, past and present.
There are times, in any nation, where the medical profession must act in the interests not only of our patients as individuals, or for patients in a health system, but it must act in the national interest.
Doctors, along with nurses, lawyers and others, must lead a debate on an issue of national importance. I believe that is the case when it comes to the issue of children in detention and Australia’s provision of health care to asylum seekers.
Each of our presenters today has demonstrated clearly why there is a need for the medical profession, and others, to speak up and to advocate to remove children from detention. I want to thank each of you not only for your presentations here today, but also for your candour, your conviction, and your courage in taking the approach that you have.
I am proud to be the President of the AMA. When I see the commitment that so many of you have shown by attending today it makes me even more so. We should all be proud of the stand that our colleagues have taken.
Doctors at the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne and, of course, more recently at the Lady Cilento Hospital in Brisbane have refused to release children from hospital because they would be returned to detention.
Some commentators have seen this as a form of political protest. But as a doctor working in a paediatric hospital, who deals with the consequences of physical abuse, I know that there is no reasonable other option for these doctors and nurses to take.
There is an absolute ethical, not to mention moral, obligation to that patient who is in their care. The obligation is to not release a child back into a situation where they have reason to believe that there is a risk of harm, whether that be physical or psychological.
Let me say that it is not an issue of denying someone else a bed for elective procedure. The obligation of that hospital, of those doctors, and nurses, is to the patient that is under their care.
To those doctors and nurses, and indeed, the State Governments and hospital administrators who have supported them, let me say you have our support. 2
Last night I became aware that lawyers for Baby Asha had been refused access to her mother. This communication blackout usually precedes a transfer.
It was reported that guards were to forcibly remove Baby Asha from Lady Cilento Hospital against medical advice. I was shocked. I made a number of calls. Bill Shorten did call Prime Minister Turnbull to seek reassurance that this would not happen.
As I said last night, security guards entering a hospital to forcibly remove a patient would be unprecedented in this country. It a line that cannot be crossed. If crossed, there is no return.
Although there was reassurance nothing would happen last night, it seems that the reprieve may be temporary.
You have to ask why the Department of Immigration and Border Protection is pulling apart the moral fabric of this country!
So, is there is a reason to believe that a child would be at risk? Well, that question has already been answered.
The 2014 Report of the Human Rights Commission: The Forgotten Children clearly documents the harms that children experience as a result of mandatory detention. On that note, I acknowledge the presence here today of Professor Gillian Triggs and acknowledge the work that the Commission has done to highlight these issues.
The Report documents that the rates of mental health disorders were significantly higher compared with children in the Australian community. These findings included cases of self-harm by young children.
Children being detained on Nauru are suffering from extreme levels of physical, emotional, psychological, and developmental distress. The results of this national inquiry could not be more clear.
As noted in the Report, both former and current Ministers at that time agreed that holding children for prolonged periods in detention does not deter people smugglers.
I acknowledge that the then Minister for Immigration, Scott Morrison, did reduce the number of children in detention significantly. But today there are still 67 children on Nauru.
What is just as concerning is the plight of 80 other children, including 37 babies who, as a result of the recent High Court decision, are inexplicably about to be sent back to Nauru.
And inexplicable it is. In fact, the Human Rights Commission Report noted that there was no rational explanation for the prolonged detention of children. The fact of the matter is that prolonged detention of children is a State-sanctioned form of child abuse – and we call for it to stop.
Immigration has enriched our society. That includes those who have come by boat, those who have fled wars and persecution.
I know of one young boy who fled his country by boat – stuffed on an overloaded boat, he became unwell and almost died. The boat was seized and he was returned to his homeland, where he and his family were jailed. They fled again by boat, reaching Australia, where he and his family this time were sponsored by a local family.
This is a story that is similar to any of those children who are in detention now. The difference here is that he was Vietnamese and it was the 1970s. He and his family were embraced by Australia.
He grew up to become an anaesthetist. I am proud to have had him as my anaesthetist for 10 years.
There are many other examples of the contribution that asylum seekers have made to Australian society. In the theatre next to mine at Norwest Hospital is a man who started his journey as a young Iraqi doctor working in Iraq during the Saddam Hussein regime.
He fled Iraq when his senior doctor was shot dead in the car park by soldiers for refusing to cut the ears off deserting soldiers. He fled to Malaysia and then Indonesia, and came here by boat. He spent months in Curtin detention Centre, where he was treated appallingly.
When he was finally released, he completed his orthopaedic training and joined our defence force. He is an expert in osseous integration, and has given many British soldiers, who are double amputees as a result of military injuries, the ability to walk again.
In fact, when Prince Harry was here recently, he made a special visit to him and to see his work. I am proud to call him a colleague and friend.
I am aware of many others who are among the brightest and the best of our profession who did not start life with privilege, but fled in fear of their lives seeking asylum in Australia, where they found safety and made a home. They have enriched our country, and we should be proud to have them as Australian citizens.
Detention is not just harmful to children. The same psychological consequences occur for adults, particularly when detention is prolonged and seemingly indefinite.
When people are detained for whatever reason, they have a right to the provision of an appropriate level of health care. The AMA’s policy is clear.
It is the AMA position that all asylum seekers and refugees under Australian care should have access to the same level of health care as Australian citizens. In addition, it should be ensured that their special needs, including their cultural, linguistic, and health-related needs, are addressed.
In October last year, at its 66th Annual Assembly in Moscow, the World Medical Association issued a Resolution on the Global Refugee Crisis. It emphasised the damage to one’s health imposed by becoming a refugee, and called on nations to play their part in the immediate care and support of these vulnerable people.
You have heard today from our esteemed colleagues how, from their direct experience and observations, Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers could not be considered acceptable.
The defence of this situation, even from the Secretary of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, has been that there are places in Australia where Indigenous people do not have access to the same level of services.
Actually, having returned from remote communities in Central Australia yesterday, that may be true for Indigenous people living in remote communities. Even so, it is not a defence; if anything it is an indictment on the health care provided to our own Indigenous people.
As President of the AMA, I have been approached by concerned doctors and advocates about particular cases.
The case of an otherwise healthy 24-year old Iranian asylum seeker who died of a treatable condition stands out. This man presented with early sepsis while in detention on Manus Island. He had a temperature of over 40C, he was tachycardic, and hypotensive.
He was started on antibiotics. He developed cellulitis and, over the next 24 hours, another antibiotic was instituted – but his symptoms did not settle.
It was decided that the patient should be transferred for inpatient care at Port Moresby the following day on a commercial flight. He was to be escorted by a doctor who was travelling on the same flight.
The following morning, at 10.30am, the request was made for approval for the transfer, and he was booked on the flight. At 3.30pm, there was still no approval and the transfer was therefore cancelled.
That night, the patient deteriorated and developed septic shock with adult respiratory distress syndrome. He was saturating at only 77 per cent.
An emergency evacuation was arranged through International SOS. He was transferred from Manus Island to PNG Pacific Private via air ambulance. He was not intubated for reasons that are unclear.
The patient was saturating at 60 per cent, and was unconscious on arrival at the ED at Pacific Private in Port Moresby. There was apparently no warning to the hospital that the patient was arriving, and a further hour and half passed before the patient was intubated and resuscitated.
By this time, the patient was brain dead. He was transferred to the Mater Hospital in Brisbane where this was confirmed, and treatment was later withdrawn.
The death was referred to the Queensland Coroner. A report was also prepared by the Department of Immigration and Border Protection. This latter report has not been released to the public.
The fact is that this young man should never have died. He should have been treated. If he had had access to appropriate treatment in a timely manner, he would still be alive today.
However, the overall attitude may be summed up by the following report from the Sydney Morning Herald, which quotes a leaked report by a service provider on the Island: “It is likely some Iranian transferee will spread malicious rumours about GDD059’s death to further their own personal agendas, as well as to exploit unrest to further their own agendas and standings amongst their countrymen.”
When you have people in isolated tropical locations under these conditions, people will have significant health problems. It is not possible to provide the level of care that Australian citizens would expect when you are on an island as isolated and remote as Manus Island or Nauru.
Keeping people in such locations when they are sick places these people at risk of death. More recently, I was asked to look into three different cases about which doctors and advocates had raised concerns.
A 70-year old who had been an inpatient in PNG Pacific Private in Port Moresby for 7 months was returned to Manus Island detention facility where he then waited 20 days for a doctor’s appointment.
His diagnosis was described as being a heart condition with high blood pressure. His legs, of which I was provided pictures by an advocate, were grossly swollen and oedematous. He was only able to stand or walk for a few minutes. It turns out that he has TB pericarditis, and he was obviously in gross cardiac failure.
A young man who complained of headaches was investigated and found to have a small pituitary tumour on an MRI performed in Port Moresby. He has not had a full panel of blood tests as anyone in Australia would normally have. His eyesight reportedly deteriorated, and he complained of more severe headaches.
He was transferred back to Manus Island where he was seen by an endocrinologist by teleconference, who prescribed a two-year course of medication. An eye review by an optometrist was to be conducted within six months.
We were last told that he had not received any medication, because the doctors were unsure if he wanted to take it. Therefore, it had not been ordered for the island.
Finally, another man appears to have deteriorating mental health with PTSD and depression. He was witness to a brutal murder, for which two former detention facility workers have been charged.
He remains in the same environment where the event occurred that started his PTSD. Is not removing him from such an environment the most logical and basic step that could be taken to assist this man?
It is not appropriate to keep these patients on Manus Island or Nauru. They need proper investigation and treatment. They need health care.
I have written to Minister Dutton in relation to these cases, and I have met with Dr John Brayley, who is the Chief Medical Officer and Surgeon General of the Australian Border Force. Dr Brayley was unaware of most of the cases we raised with him.
And, consistent with the culture of secrecy that I have described, at every step of the process there were barriers and obstacles imposed that made transparent health care almost impossible.
First, these asylum seekers needed to provide me with a signed and scanned consent form, but the Department couldn’t tell me if they have access to scanners on Manus Island. Their own health records were eventually provided to the detainees after some delays, but they were on computer discs. The Department couldn’t tell me if they had access to the appropriate IT to read them.
When I was eventually provided with these heath records, they were also on a disc. Only it was password protected – and the Department didn’t supply the password.
As a result of this process and our intervention, I am pleased to say that Dr Brayley recommend urgent transfer of the man with TB pericarditis to the mainland. I want to say that I believe Dr Brayley is a good man. He has done great work in his previous roles, but he is clearly in an impossible situation.
It took a week of emails and calls, but this sick man was eventually transferred. I don’t know where to, or what the outcomes are, but I am told that he has been removed from Manus Island.
The concerns about the other patients remain, but this process also highlighted two other major concerns.
First, it took the President of the AMA to write to the Minister for Immigration, arrange an appointment with the Chief Medical Officer, and provide health records and photographic evidence, before action was taken. That is not open, transparent, and appropriate health care.
It is also absolutely wrong that the decision on transferring this asylum seeker for urgent treatment was not made by medical practitioners, but by IHMS. It was not the ABF’s Chief Medical Officer who made the decision. He could only make the recommendation.
So, when the Government and the Minister say asylum seekers enjoy the same level of health care as ordinary Australians, that is simply not true.
In Australia, when a doctor makes a clinical recommendation, including medical transfers involving significant distances, a request does not need to be made to the Department of Health for clearance. Recently, the Department of Immigration told the Senate Estimates hearing that they decide who is transferred, not the Chief Medical Officer, or the treating physician.
Doctors should not only exercise their professional judgment in the care and treatment of their patients, but they must be able to speak out about unjust, unethical maltreatment of asylum seekers without persecution or prosecution.
Rather than a culture of clinical independence and transparency, we have the Border Force Act – a piece of legislation that was passed with the support of both the Coalition and Labor, but opposed by the Greens. The AMA is rightly concerned about the restrictions contained in the Border Force Act.
Despite the Government’s claims that the intent of the Border Force Act is not to prevent doctors from reporting publicly on conditions in detention and regional processing facilities, the AMA has received legal advice that does not reassure us.
There are provisions in the Border Force Act that are unnecessary and shouldn’t apply to healthcare workers. The legislation must be amended to make it absolutely clear that it does not apply to doctors or nurses working in detention facilities.
It is imperative that medical practitioners working with asylum seekers and refugees put their patients’ health needs first. And, to do this, we must have professional autonomy and clinical independence without undue outside pressure.
Apart from the Border Force Act, in December 2013, the Abbott Government disbanded the Immigration Health Advisory Group. This group, known as IHAG, consisted of independent doctors who were able to access and assess the medical care of asylum seekers in detention. It was transparent, and provided advice to Government.
There has been no replacement. Instead, when this was raised with the previous Minister, we were flatly told that internal advice was available, and there would be no such group established.
The AMA has continued to call for the establishment of an independent panel of doctors and other health professionals who can provide independent advice to Parliament, and who can report in a transparent manner on health-related issues.
At the end of the day, if Minister Dutton and the Department of Immigration and Border Protection believe that the care and treatment of asylum seekers is at a level that is appropriate, then why should they oppose this level of transparency? Let me say that the game is up when the Nauruan Government cancels tourist visas for Australians and New Zealanders because they might see something that could be reported.
Refugee and asylum seeker policy is complex. It is also highly political. Both the Coalition and the ALP know that elections have been won and lost on this issue.
A narrative that creates fear among the public by confusing the plight of asylum seekers with the issues of security and terrorism has helped to reinforce support for the Government’s policy.
The dehumanisation of the asylum seekers by Minister Dutton and others referring to these people as ‘illegals’, combined with cloaking them in secrecy in offshore processing, has made it more difficult for the Australian public to identify with these people.
The predominance of mental health conditions among the problems of detainees, including among children, does not seem to convey the same sense of seriousness as it might if the problems were physical. A question has to be asked about the apparent pervasive indifference to mental health conditions despite the promotion, discussion and apparent progress that has been made in this area.
Somehow, these asylum seekers seem less worthy. The Syrian asylum seekers that we can see arriving in Europe or waiting in Turkish refugee camps seem more human and in need of help.
I was pleased at the announcement that Australia was accepting 12,000 more Syrian refugees, but disappointed that the same indifference to the asylum seekers in offshore processing centres remains. It should be noted that only 26 of the 12,000 refugees have actually been accepted.
There is no doubt that hundreds of people died at sea while trying to reach Australia. No one wants that situation to arise again. But, as I mentioned previously, there is widespread acknowledgement that the detention of children has no impact on the actions of people smugglers.
It is also no excuse for the lack of transparency and inadequate provision of health care to the asylum seekers for whom Australia has a responsibility.
The issue of a boycott in terms of providing services to detention facilities by Australian doctors has been raised a number of times. I don’t agree that is the way forward, not just because IHMS will recruit from overseas, as it is already doing, but for simple reasons.
Provision of medical treatment to asylum seekers is not condoning the system or being complicit. Far from it. Rather, it is what doctors and nurses always do. They put the patient first.
As I said at the National Press Club last year, it would not matter what we said on this issue. Doctors would go and care for these people because that is what doctors do. If we want to change the Government’s approach, it must be through the weight of public opinion.
Australians need to understand that this is not an argument based on political ideology. Rather, it is an argument based on our Australian identity, not just in terms of how the rest of the world sees us, but how we see ourselves. It is based on the prevention of harm, the welfare of our patients as people but, most importantly, it is based on compassion. It is the right thing to do.
There will be some who might wonder why the AMA has spoken out so strongly on this issue. As doctors, we care for all people, without regard to race or creed, without regard to where they come from. That is a basic moral tenet of our profession.
My message to the Government and to the Labor Party is this: You need to listen to doctors, nurses, and other health practitioners – particularly the experts in the fields of psychiatry and children’s health.
The AMA is calling for the following:
One – a moratorium on asylum seeker children being sent back to detention centres.
Two – the immediate release of all children from both offshore and onshore detention centres into the community where they can be properly cared for.
Three – the establishment of a transparent, national statutory body of clinical experts, independent of government, with the power to investigate and report to the Parliament on the health and welfare of asylum seekers and refugees.
And, four – if the Government or Opposition cannot provide satisfactory health care to people seeking asylum, then their policies should be revisited.
Australia, to me, represents democracy, freedom, openness, and accountability. A fair go and honesty are sources of national pride.
The reality is that children, and adults, are being subjected to physical and emotional harm. People are being moved in the middle of the night without notice; under a cloak of secrecy and intimidation.
Denying people access to the legal representatives. Threatening to forcibly remove a baby from Hospital against medical advice. Our colleagues are being intimidated. It is being done by the Australian Government, and it is being done in our name.
This is happening now. It is occurring during our time. It’s time for all of us to listen to our conscience. To give a voice to our better angels.
It’s time to say that this is not what Australia is, it is not what Australia stands for, and we want it to stop.
Colleagues and friends, it is a simple truth that asylum seekers are people like me, like you. They are no different. Just as our friends and colleagues came here seeking asylum for themselves and their families, to escape persecution and death, so are these people.
But, just like all of the other wrongs, Australia’s detention of children and our treatment of asylum seekers is indefensible because it fails the one true test. That test is how we love and care for our fellow man and woman, and particularly how we love, care, and nurture the children of this world.
Doctors at the Royal Children’s Hospital say they cannot effectively treat severe disturbances among children in detention while they are being detained and have refused to discharge an asylum seeker and her child because the immigration department would have sent them back to detention at the expense of their health.
The woman, aged in her 30s, was suffering post-traumatic stress disorder and post-natal depression, which also affected her infant child’s development. Both were flown from detention in Nauru to Australia in late 2014 for hospital treatment.
Louise Newman, director of mental health at the Royal Women’s Hospital, first treated the woman in December and has followed her condition since.
Doctors at the Royal Children’s Hospital refused to discharge a mother and child into detention.
Doctors at the Royal Children’s Hospital refused to discharge a mother and child into detention. Photo: John Gollings
She said the pair was discharged to an immigration transit centre in Broadmeadows, where their condition immediately deteriorated.
They were readmitted to a mother and baby unit at the Royal Children’s Hospital.
Professor Newman said even though the pair’s health had improved by mid-2015, their doctors refused to discharge them unless the Department of Immigration agreed to not return them to detention.
“It was a situation of having to negotiate her and her family’s treatment needs, and it was very much agreed that it was against their interests to be returned to detention,” said Professor Newman, who is also vice president of the group Doctors for Refugees.
“How can we recommend that people go back into detention when we know they’re not going to get proper health care?”
Professor Newman said the woman and her baby were eventually released into the community and were living in Melbourne with “considerably improved’ health. Details of the extraordinary stand-off comes after nearly 1000 doctors, nurses and staff at the Royal Children’s took an unprecedented stand against children being held in detention.
In a letter published on Sunday, the hospital’s doctors said detention took an enormous toll on children’s health, and called on the federal government to abandon its policy of locking up minors.
Victoria’s Health Minister Jill Hennessy threw her support behind the doctors who kept asylum seekers out of detention.
“I’m extremely proud to be the health minister in a state where its doctors and nurses are putting the interest of children first,” Ms Hennessy said on Sunday.
“If the staff of the Royal Children’s Hospital come to the clinical view that it is not in the interests of those children to go back into detention, then we will support them.”
The doctors’ actions also earned them the praise of thousands of people at a rally in support of refugees at Melbourne’s State Library on Sunday, who erupted into cheers when the hospital was mentioned.
The Australian Medical Association said it had a “fundamental problem” that children were in detention and had been asking governments to look for “any alternative” to it for years.
“We acknowledge the evidence that children in detention face circumstances which are very harmful to their health, their growth and their development,” vice president Stephen Parnis said.
He said that if children did need to be detained, then they should be released “in weeks” at the absolute most.
Dr Parnis said the AMA was aware that a “number” of doctors who had provided care to children in detention had been quite distressed.
Children were presenting having self-harmed, with anxiety, severe depression and not growing in a healthy or normal way, he said.
Dr Parnis said doctors were constrained in the care that could be offered to these children. “It flies in the face of our ethical obligation to provide good care.”
Sydney paediatrician David Isaacs, who runs the children’s refugee clinic at the Children’s Hospital at Westmead, also backed the Royal Children’s Hospital staff.
Dr Isaacs visited Nauru in December 2014 and saw a six-year-old girl try to hang herself. He said his visit to the island left him deeply troubled, and he experienced nightmares on his return.
“These are very traumatic cases where children are severely suicidal and in a lot of trouble,” Dr Isaacs said.
Immigration Minister Peter Dutton said he understood the doctors’ concerns, but did not support a change in government policy.
“The Defence and Border Force staff on our vessels who were pulling dead kids out of the water don’t want the boats to restart,” he said.
Royal Children’s Hospital chairman Rob Knowles said he supported the doctors’ stand to protect the health and safety of children.
Fairfax Media understands there are not currently any asylum seekers who are inpatients at the Royal Children’s Hospital.
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Open letter regarding the Border Force Act 2015:
Today (1 July 2015) the Border Force Act comes into force. It includes provision for a two-year jail sentence for “entrusted persons” such as ourselves if we continue to speak out about the deplorable state of human rights in immigration detention without the express permission of the minister for immigration and border protection. This strengthens the wall of secrecy which prevents proper public scrutiny.
We have advocated, and will continue to advocate, for the health of those for whom we have a duty of care, despite the threats of imprisonment, because standing by and watching sub-standard and harmful care, child abuse and gross violations of human rights is not ethically justifiable.
If we witness child abuse in Australia we are legally obliged to report it to child protection authorities. If we witness child abuse in detention centres, we can go to prison for attempting to advocate for them effectively. Internal reporting mechanisms such as they are have failed to remove children from detention; a situation that is itself recognised as a form of systematic child abuse.
Evidence of the devastating effects of institutional self-protection and blindness to child abuse has been presented before the current royal commission. We are determined not to collude with a system that repeats these same mistakes.
There are currently many issues which constitute a serious threat to the health of those in detention for whom we have a duty of care. The Department of Immigration and Border Protection is aware of these problems and has for years failed to address them adequately.
We are aware that in publishing this letter we may be prosecuted under the Border Force Act and we challenge the department to prosecute so that these issues may be discussed in open court and in the full view of the Australian public.
Dr John-Paul Sanggaran, MBBS M.H.Med B.H.Sc, former IHMS medical officer
Dr Richard Kidd, BHB, MBChB, Dip.Obs., FAMA, Deputy Chair AMACGP, former IHMS medical officer
Dr Grant Ferguson, MBBS B.Sc (Hons), former IHMS medical officer
Dr Ben Hew, MBBS B.Sc, former IHMS medical officer
Dr Alison Bleaney, MBchB FRACRRM OBE, former IHMS medical officer
Dr Merrilyn Williams, MBBS, M. (GP Psych) FACRRM, former IHMS medical officer
Dr Ai-Lene Chan, MBBS FRACGP ObsSC MPH&TM, former IHMS medical officer
Dr John Vallentine, MBBS MRCP, former IHMS medical officer
Dr Jill Maxwell, MBBS OAM, former IHMS medical officer
Dr Sally Manuell, MBBS FRACGP, former IHMS medical officer
Prof Bernard Pearn-Rowe, BSc (Hons), MBBS, FAMA, former IHMS medical officer
Tracey Donehue, secondary school teacher
Judith Reen, secondary school coordinator
Jane Willey, former secondary school teacher
Evan Davis, former senior secondary school teacher
Dr Peter Young, MBBS FRANZCP, former IHMS medical director mental health services
Steve Brooker, BSc MA, former IHMS director of mental health services
Dr Rodney Juratowitch, MBBS FRANZCP, former IHMS psychiatrist
Dr Amanda Trenaman, MBBS, FRANZCP, former IHMS psychiatrist
Prof Robert Adler, PhD MBBS, former IHMS psychiatrist
Ryan Essex, BHSc, Grad Dip Psych, BSocSc (Psych), (Hons), MHL, MPH, former IHMS counsellor
James Harris, former case manager and residential youth worker
Toby Gunn, former child and youth recreation officer
Samantha Betts, BA, former child and youth recreation worker
Martin Reusch, former humanitarian worker
Timm Knapp, former humanitarian worker
Amanda Lloyd-Tait, former humanitarian worker
Jennifer Dennis, former humanitarian worker
Amy Marden, former humanitarian worker
Prof David Isaacs, MBBChir MD FRACP FRCPCH, former IHMS paediatrician
Dr Hasantha Gunasekera, MBBS FRACP, former IHMS paediatrician
Alanna Maycock, BN RN, former IHMS paediatric nurse
Prof Louise Newman, MBBS PhD FANZCP AM, former DEHAG consultant IHMS psychiatrist
Dr Micheal Dudley, AM MBBS BD FRANZCP, former DEHAG consultant
Prof Caroline de Costa, PhD MPH MBBS BA FRANZCOG FRCOG, former DEHAG consultant
Viktoria Vibhakar, MSW, LCSW, AASW, former senior child protection and support worker
Ashleigh Millard, former adult case manager and social worker
Jaime O’donovan, former social worker, child protection team
Hamish Tacey, BBehavSc, former unaccompanied minor team leader and refugee assistance program case manager
Serena Hansen, former case manager and residential team leader
Marc Isaacs, BA (Com), BA (Int.S), former recreations manager