Morrison’s use of asylum seeker death unravels as facts come back to bite
Immigration Minister Scott Morrison has been brought undone by the characteristics that make him the quintessential Abbott government minister: his inexperience, his aggression and his disdain for facts.
In his first press conference last Tuesday following the killing of Reza Berati on Manus Island, Morrison saw in Berati’s death — which, he acknowledged, was a tragedy — an opportunity to criticise asylum seekers. Berati had “put himself at risk” by leaving the detention centre, Morrison explained:
“[T]his was a very dangerous situation where people decided to protest in a very violent way and to take themselves outside the centre and place themselves at great risk. In those situations our security people need to undertake the tasks that they need to undertake to restore the facility to a place of safety, and equally those who are maintaining the safety of the security environment outside the centre need to use their powers and various accoutrements that they have available to them in order to restore in the way that is provided for under PNG law.”
For Morrison, the death of Berati was a salutary lesson, a sort of Aesop’s Fable for detainees — don’t leave the centre or you’ll be dealt with “in the way that is provided for under PNG law”. But the story began unravelling within hours. At a second media conference late on Tuesday afternoon, he admitted under questioning from journalists — not in his opening statement — that Berati might not have been killed outside the detention centre, saying “where physically this took place based on the information I have received this afternoon, that is a matter where there are some conflicting reports”.
Journalist: What are the conflicting reports?
Morrison: Well, the reports are conflicting on where the individual might have been at the time.
Journalist: Either inside or outside.
Morrison: I am saying that there are conflicting reports …
Eager to avoid a “children overboard” situation, Morrison’s department had clearly alerted him to the fact that it was unclear where Berati was when he received his fatal wounds. Nonetheless, Morrison couldn’t help himself — he continued to push the narrative that fault rested with Berati:
“When people engage in violent acts and in disorderly behaviour and breach fences and get involved in that sort of behaviour and go to the other side of the fence, well they will be subject to law enforcement as applies in Papua New Guinea.”
Moreover, Morrison was full of praise for security contractor G4S. At his first Tuesday media conference he wanted to:
“… stress that the actions taken by our people there overnight showed a great deal of courage, showed a great deal of strength, and a great deal of application and determination to maintain a situation which was very tense and very stressful. The people who serve in these centres do so under a great deal of stress, and I particularly want to thank all of those who are involved with our service providers.”
Morrison also relied on G4S’ claims — now proven to be wrong — that no locals had come into the detention centre. On the weekend, Morrison was forced to admit that his claim about Berati was incorrect, releasing a statement at the unusual time of late Saturday evening:
“I wish to confirm that contrary to initial reports received, I have received further information that indicates that the majority of the riotous behaviour that occurred, and the response to that behaviour to restore order to the centre, took place within the perimeter of the centre. As advised on the afternoon of Tuesday, February 18, I indicated that I had received further information which meant that I could no longer confirm that the deceased man sustained his injuries outside the centre. The further information I have now received casts further doubt on the initial advice that his injuries were sustained outside the centre.”
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