Biloela family

Yesterday a journalist sidled up to me at the latest Melbourne Federal Circuit Court matter relating to the Biloela family and said “Morrison has just spoken out; he’s not going to intervene”.

After a short pause they lowered their voice even further and said, “Dutton won’t stop lashing out now, I wonder if…”

They trailed off but the tone was familiar; as was the resigned posture, the ashen face, the fear.

It took a second before it clicked: what I was seeing, what I was hearing, what I was recognising. This is how people who live with bullies behave. This is the endless guesswork and magical thinking that goes into avoiding a thrashing. The hyper-vigilance and the pointless internal bargaining.

Moments later a member of the public approached me and asked a question I’ve heard a lot in the last few days: “Do you think New Zealand could take them? Could you ask?”

Last week I would have made a joke if a stranger asked me to pull strings to shelter asylum seeker families from the Australian government, but that was before last Thursday night when I saw two little girls screaming on a plane at Melbourne airport.

This week it seems an entirely reasonable gambit that I give old mate NZ deputy PM Winston Peters a call and ask him to do me a solid and save some little girls I know.

That’s how you start thinking when you try to do a deal with a bully.

Of course, it didn’t need to go this way. The Australian government had many options on how to handle the Biloela family starting in March last year — most of which did not involve institutional child abuse.

Instead of a pre-dawn raid that ripped infants from their beds, the government could have left the family in their home while all legal avenues were explored. This would have saved taxpayers the more than $2 million that detaining them in Melbourne has cost (jet fuel and private plane charter costs not included).

If the family had been left in their Biloela home while legal matters were on foot then their father Nades could have continued working and paying taxes, two-year-old Tharunicaa would have healthy baby teeth, and Priya would have had the surgery she required. All four of them would have incurred 100% less trauma from being removed from their community and held in internationally condemned detention facilities.

When the government decided that this family were in fact a risk to Australia’s border security, they could have been shifted to a community detention facility. Nades would have lost his job, but at least the family wouldn’t have had Serco guards in their house 24/7. The girls would have been allowed to attend play group regularly rather than just the two times they were taken in the last 18 months of their lives.

If they had been left in their home then Tharunicaa would not have sustained a head injury while playing in a room not designed for toddlers, and this week her life-long friend and fellow detained toddler Isabella wouldn’t be crying and constantly asking where her friends have gone.

If Peter Dutton doesn’t feel the government has a duty to act on all that, he should at least feel a duty to his own words: he has previously claimed that all children have been taken out of detention.

Maintaining strong borders shouldn’t mean we have no boundaries.

Peter Fray

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