What follows is the final in a three-part series of three related reflections on the anniversary of SIEV 221, the Christmas Island Boat Tragedy. Here are parts one and two.

Part Three: Getting the message

What is the message of border security, and who is its intended recipient? The imputed message is for the categorically ‘evil’ people smugglers, whom Gillard described, in a major speech given at the Lowy Institute, as being involved in ‘an evil trade to be punished’. Surely, the evildoers would have ‘gotten the message’ by now? Apparently not. SIEV 221 – like the horrendous sinking this week, so close to the anniversary, so close to Java – strongly suggests that, for one reason or another, the message never arrived. Why?

It’s not just that the Indian Ocean is large. A friend of mine suggested, in a revealing half joke, that BPC needs to employ translators and interpreters, to enable the messages to be delivered in Dari, Farsi, Arabic and Javanese. Perhaps Julia needs to be subtitled. I had to agree with my friend, it is very presumptuous – and in every way just like Australians in Indonesia – to assume English will get through, somehow. We drive a hard bargain.

Half jokes aside, is this how the message should be understood? Let’s consider the following: why are there so many fishing boats available to smugglers in West Java? Why are the crews of these boats – fisherman with significant knowledge of local conditions – prepared to set sail during swell season, considering the hazards, with what would arguably be their single greatest asset, which BPC scuttles after interdiction has been performed? Let’s assume, for the sake of the argument, the message – or at the very least, news of SIEV 221 – did get through to Indonesia, that smugglers, captains, crew and some passengers are to some extent aware of the risks. Then, let’s assume that they are not evil, stupid, or gullible, as large chunks of our message-sending media seems to assume. What is border security then, as a matter of sending messages? Was SIEV 221 a communication breakdown?

Border security involves a number of mixed messages being sent simultaneously. As I see it, border security is staged in its theatre of operations for our screens. It is fundamentally theatrical; it defends a projection of Australian sovereignty by presenting a semblance of a defended border. This message is for us, the Australians at home, to the extent we accept our role as spectator-supporter. That would mean that we are the intended recipient of the message. The preferred message. It’s hard to hear the other message.

David Marr’s article recalls the other message.

‘So harrowing are the pleas and screams from SIEV 221 that the recordings of these calls have never been released. The same screams could be heard from the garden of the tavern as the boat drew even closer to Rocky Point.’

To the mainland, border security produces an image of a defended society of spectators, dislocated from and unaffected by that which many of us nonetheless support and promote. My sense is that if ‘mainland Australia’ was present on the day of SIEV 221, and heard all the sounds of the shipwreck, things would not be as they are. Most of the media is complicit in this, just as it was and is complicit in hiding the full recordings of the conflicts many of us actively support through our opinions, our reading habits, and our votes. Australians can be relied on to commemorate a ‘fallen digger’, at the very least to mark a life cut short and a family left without a father. Do we know how many people we have killed in the 9/11 wars? Jason Burke estimates 250,000 as a minimum figure. But perhaps far more – as many as million dead in Iraq as a direct result of the conflict, says this most recent attempt to analyse this. These wars are important for SIEV 221 and all boat arrivals; they are part of the reason why many of the people in the water, drowning, were Iraqis and Afghanis. Australia makes a claim upon Christmas Island, as being part of Australia, for complex historical reasons, which I cover schematically here. This is why the arrivals attempt to come there – to become a part of Australia. Do we accept their claim upon us? Do their deaths have any hold on us? My impression is that none of these messages, though sent repeatedly, have never really arrived in a way that might be meaningful to its intended recipients.

For our government, border security is fundamentally, a set of internalised messages, the implemented effect of a transformed understanding of national security. Our government has decided to make ‘national security’ inseparable from ‘border security’: Rudd’s was the key speech. In my view, the paradigm produces the practice; the practice builds structures that are the characteristic expression of its assumptions and obsessions. In another article I talked about the purpose-built detention centre as one of these structures: recall that it was only ever built to house 420 people, with contingency accommodation for another 420. The paradigm also shapes the way people say, do and think things. What does the implementation of this message do to the people who accept it, who make it part of themselves and defend it as such? Has our executive learnt anything from SIEV 221, given that they – especially the Prime Minister – are the ones involved in perpetuating it?

Earlier this year, Prime Minister Julia Gillard accused the High Court of Australia (HCA) of ‘missing an opportunity to send a message to people smugglers’. This moment is worth pausing on. In my view it’s not only that our Prime Minister had simply taken umbrage at a high court decision that overruled her own decision. Or that Gillard was suggesting that the HCA ought to be in correspondence with people smugglers (in English, naturally). What I take from her accusation is that Gillard has actually internalised the message – our message – of border security. Her comment says: this is what the executive does, what it ought to do. It sends messages.

But there’s more. As I see it, Gillard is also suggesting that she thinks the High Court ought to send messages too. To anyone who still believes in liberal democracy and its system of checks and balances, this is, at the very least, inappropriate. Coming from a Prime Minister and a lawyer, it is outrageous: the key job of the HCA is precisely to impede the executive, to show ministers their place when they overstep it. Thankfully, Law is not yet governance – it retains some autonomous force. In my view, Gillard’s comment tells the ugly truth about the corrosive effect that border security is having, differentially, on all of us. Ask yourself: what if the HCA had done as Gillard suggested it ought to? And what does it mean that Chris Bowen knew he could set up an archipelago of offshore detention centres, right up until the moment the HCA said: you know nothing. And now, along comes Ruddock, in every way a proponent of this corrosive view of executive power, to suggest this is still an appealing possibility. Along with the dull thud of Tony Abbott’s sound-byte salvoes, Labor’s short-lived offshore detention-centre plan was, for me, the low point in Australian political life this year. Now the Lowy Institute’s latest is going to tell us how to stop the boats – humanely, of course.

Christmas is a time for reflection, as are anniversaries. Perhaps this is why so many of us struggle with our thoughts around December – in spite of all the glitter and tinsel, there is an undertow at work. On some level we know it, even if most of us prefer to drink our way through it. One more year, coming to an end; so much that is unthought, unfinished, returning to claim us again. Our aging and our families – over which we have so little control – call to us as an unconditional responsibility of love and care. Care could make all the difference. There’s a quote I’ve been sitting with all year, as I fall into my own Christmas reflections. It’s from Marlantes’ Matterhorn, and it reads as follows:

No, the jungle wasn’t evil. It was indifferent. So, too, was the world. Evil, then, must be the negation of something man had added to the world. Ultimately, it was caring about something that made the world liable to evil. Caring. And then the caring gets torn asunder. Everybody dies, but not everybody cares. It occurred to Mellas that he could create the possibility of good or evil through caring. He could nullify the indifferent world. But in so doing he opened himself up to the pain of watching it get blown away.

You who read this: I urge you to remember SIEV 221, to think about it, to look it in the eye. This is the only way in which we learn from our mistakes. Otherwise the future is likely to be more awful, stupid and repetitive than Tony Abbott’s sound bytes. Otherwise accidents will happen, and we will watch, once again paralysed and fixated, threatened and defended. I hope we can avoid this.