In season 5 of meth tragedy Breaking Bad, Lydia, the avaricious business lady, knows what needs doing. Profits are failing, and she must restore her product to the blue-sky standard. When Lydia offers the lab a Heisenberg-trained cook and is refused, she passes her henchmen a look. They act. Lydia puts her fingers in her ears as shots are fired, and with hands over her eyes, she makes her way on heels over the bodies of the wretched men she ordered dead. Lydia knows what needs doing; she just doesn’t want to know that it’s been done.
If you don’t understand why I’ve been spending time with Walter White again, then you haven’t been watching the news. In recent months, it’s taken on an unbearably obscene dimension. Reports of the rape and botched abortion of a woman in Nauru and the rape of a boy in Nauru are themselves obscene. They become unbearably so when government representatives explain that these brutalised victims of Australian policy haven’t been raped as badly as initial reports imply.
Apparently, we really are able to talk in public about grades of government-funded torture. As though there were an acceptable standard for obscenity performed by state agents.
A Somali asylum seeker became pregnant at an Australian facility (she says she was raped), but the problem as Peter Dutton saw it was the “political motivation by some of the advocates”. One or possibly two children suffered recent sexual assault, but the problem as senior public servant Michael Pezzullo saw it was “advocacy parading as journalism”.
What kind of interval is this that permits the misreported age of a child rape victim to be a greater moral outrage than the rape of a child? Or the emotive nature of protest to be of more urgent concern than the sadistic system of detention it decries? The kind in which you stick your fingers in your ears like Lydia and watch an entire season of Breaking Bad.
But in this atmosphere, even streaming TV can offer little respite. Lydia reminded me only of the Prime Minister. In a well-made suit, she covered her eyes when she passed by the carnage she’d outsourced to Transfield’s thugs. It’s difficult to escape news from Nauru.
You can’t dodge the news and, as Bernard Keane offered Thursday, you can hardly dodge the imperative to form a response to it. But there are currently only two on offer: “stop the boats” and “let them all come”. Where we stand on asylum seekers is every bit as complex and nuanced as a focus group question. Which is to say, not one bit.
In the 20 years since Paul Keating first used mandatory detention as a campaign device, we’ve learned to conform to the needs of politicians. The “processing” of asylum seekers serves national security a lot less than it does speechwriters on their race to the arse end of ethics.
Tragically, even resistance to the “stop the boats” argument has become as convenient to politics as the securitisation mania found in certain of our marginal seats. For all its appealing humanism, “let them all come” and “not in my name” do not argue in the terms of policy or electoral logic, but only in stark opposition to a terrible idea. Few, as Keane points out, are arguing toward a workable solution and outside the narrative we’re forced to retell. We produce so little when we protest this obscenity. Just some candlelight, some Greens annual fees and an ongoing commitment to an argument manufactured two decades ago in Canberra.
This is not to question the sincere humanism or even the intelligence of those sickened by our nation’s outsourced horror. After all, these reports point to an atrocity. A costly, pointless atrocity that is made worse by privatisation — if there’s one thing worse than a state that commits systematic torture to no apparent end, it’s a state that pays someone else to do it.
But it’s not to doubt the sincerity of those on the other side, either — patently wrong, in my view, as they are. It’s to doubt the entire debate, which, if uttered in this old and ratified vocabulary, delivers nothing to the people behind the wire, the people on boats, people in Jordan’s desert camps.
The debate has become as path dependent as the horrifying policy itself. Leader of the party that really pressed bodies, and fictional children overboard, into the service of polls, Turnbull has no way out of this mess. He’s up to his neck in it and as bound by dirty history as Lydia. If we really want to oppose actions that were never really intended to do anything but sell us a cheap sensation, we’ve got to stop buying this moralising drug.
How? I would suggest clear thinking formed beyond the margins of political meth, but I am not as confident as Keane is that such a thing is possible. The “sanctuary” offered by Anglican and Uniting churches might be the only space on offer where we can have such a lucid conversation. This might sound a bit mediaeval, but our contemporary strategies aren’t working. We need extra-parliamentary room to talk our way out of this manufactured nightmare. Perhaps it has to take place in a church hall.
It’s either that or back to the season 5 finale. We either find a new way to talk or a new way to cover our eyes.