As part of our 15th birthday celebrations, we’ve trawled through the archives to bring you some of the best, weirdest and most salacious articles published on Crikey since our launch on February 14, 2000.
*This article was originally published on July 31, 2008.
There was much to loathe about the Howard years, but two things were utterly unforgivable. One was the abandonment of Australian citizens to illegal imprisonment and torture — David Hicks and Mamdouh Habib. The other was the incarceration of children behind razor wire until they went mad.
Of course mandatory detention began under Labor, and there were already disturbing stories coming out of the detention camp at Port Hedland by the time John Howard came to power in 1996. But it was he who developed the idea as a conscious policy of government, to be pursued for political gain whatever the cost to the victims.
It wasn’t just the children who suffered: despairing adults routinely attempted suicide and self-mutilation after years of imprisonment. But it was the persecution of the children that was most obscene, made more so when the then-minister in charge, Phillip Ruddock, referred to one disturbed little boy as “it”.
This process of dehumanisation was again deliberate government policy, part of a propaganda campaign to depict the internees as deserving of their fate. They were not to be considered refugees, but asylum seekers or boat people.
Well, not even that: unlawful immigrants, queue jumpers chasing a better lifestyle. They probably carried disease and may well have been smuggling drugs. By 2001 they had become child-murderers and potential terrorists. No wonder they were locked up: after all, if they hadn’t done something wrong obviously they wouldn’t be behind barbed wire.
Just to prove the point the running of the camps was turned over to a firm which specialised in running American prisons and whose boss boasted of the harshness of his treatment of inmates. Others were outsourced to Nauru and Papua New Guinea, putting them beyond the reach of Australian law.
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And of course all the prisoners were kept isolated from the media; the lie Ruddock used to do so was that he was protecting their privacy. In fact, of course, they were clamouring to tell their stories. When they were able to, Ruddock and his department intensified the smear campaigns against them.
The assumption always was that they were guilty, and the onus was on them to prove otherwise, a task made nearly impossible by the fact that they were never informed of the case against them. In any case, the fact that most arrived at Australia’s off shore islands, now “excised” from the immigration zone, meant that they never even reached the asylum they were seeking.
The policy was cynical, brutal, and clearly illegal under international law and treaty, and did immense damage to Australia’s international standing and to our own view of ourselves. We are all better for its removal.
Truly, when you change the government, you change the country.