Wonderful idea, sovereignty. It conveys this reassuring sense of control; a sense that on each of our own patches, we're in charge and things happen by some exercise of our own free choice. And maybe that sense isn't an illusion. Maybe, for example, Nauru just happened to choose to open a "regional processing centre" for asylum seekers. And maybe it just happened to put an Australian government office in it. And maybe it just happened to ask the people in that office – who just happen to be Australians – if they could wear Australian government uniforms with the Australian coat of arms on them while they deal with the detainees in that centre.
Maybe it's mere happenstance that Nauru has made visas all but impossible for journalists to obtain if they want to scrutinise these detention arrangements, in a manner eerily similar to the way the Australian government routinely denies journalists access to our own detention centres.
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The Anglican Dean of Brisbane feels "so desperate" about the plight of asylum seekers facing deportation he is offering to protect them in the church and resist by closing the building.
Maybe that same happenstance accounts for the fact that the single journalist to have been the exception to this rule in the past two years is a dedicated supporter of the Australian government's asylum-seeker policies.
And maybe Nauru's sudden decision to open the gates of its detention centre so its detainees could roam freely around (but not leave) Nauru had nothing whatsoever to do with the fact that the Australian government was – at precisely the same time – in danger of losing a case in the High Court that would bring its offshore detention regime crashing down.
And maybe all that has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that the Australian government pays for that centre. And nothing to do with the fact under our government's agreement with Nauru, we have the right to step in and take over the centre whenever we like. Maybe all this is some completely free, unbounded choice of Nauru's that miraculously happens to coincide with the Australian government's interests again and again.
So maybe it's true that while the arrival of boats of asylum seekers in our waters is severe enough to mean people smugglers are robbing us of our sovereignty, our own official, uniformed control of Nauru's detention centre somehow leaves theirs perfectly intact.
Or maybe that's all crap. It matters because whatever it is, we're building our asylum-seeker policy on it. That has been true for years now. Perhaps you've noticed how often when controversy arrives, say in the form of some act of abuse in these detention centres, these things become matters for Nauru. Nauru has become a screen behind which we hide our own culpability; its sovereignty a charade, really – a sort of legal fiction we use to obscure the consequences of our own policy even as we claim its successes.
This week we learned those consequences might have included the rape of a five-year-old boy. And this week, the High Court confirmed the government has every legal right to send him straight back to the scene of that alleged crime. And who could honestly claim to be surprised if the government did exactly that?
The horror of this thought is obvious. But perhaps the greatest horror is that as a nation, we've now become so hopelessly addicted to the fictions that justify it. It's not just the fiction of Nauru. It's also the fiction of Australia, which you might recall we've declared simply doesn't exist if you're coming here by boat. You can dock in Sydney Harbour if you like, and as far as the law is concerned, you simply never arrived here. But there's also the fiction that Nauru and Papua New Guinea were ever anything more than a dumping ground for us.
If these countries were truly something more, we'd have known from the beginning how the asylum seekers we were sending there would be resettled. Or indeed that it was going to happen at all. But there was never any plan. There still isn't. The "regional processing centre" in Nauru seems drastically misnamed given precious little processing is actually happening. Remember last year when we heard the 600 remaining detainees on Nauru would be processed within a week? Many weeks on, 537 remain.
This as we've paid Cambodia $55 million to resettle almost nobody (or four nobodies to be precise). And while we've been belatedly scouring the region looking for countries to take asylum seekers off our hands, we've flatly rejected an offer from New Zealand to resettle 150 of them each year. Resettlement in New Zealand, you see, would encourage more boats.
Note, here, the tacit admission that our policy is to send them to places so bad they couldn't possibly want to live there. Only then, it seems, will they stop coming. It's a problem that goes back to the very inception of this policy, implemented in the last throes of Kevin Rudd's political career. Labor's present objection that people were not meant to be "languishing in indefinite detention" is so profoundly hypocritical because it ignores that the Rudd government had never arranged anything else.
Asylum seeker children traumatised
The Human Rights Commission says children are scared at the thought of returning to Nauru so should stay in Australia. Courtesy ABC News 24.
Ultimately, this whole issue exists in a world of make-believe: make-believe borders, make-believe compliance with the refugee convention, and make-believe resettlement policy. Among all the moral injuries we've inflicted on ourselves in this sordid area of politics – and there are many – the most overlooked is how adept we've become at lying to ourselves.
One day, when the history of this period is written, it will be a story of how successive governments have legislated their lies. How John Howard, then Julia Gillard made real their pretence that boat arrivals never got here, so we could be good international citizens yet still owe these people nothing. How Tony Abbott passed a law in June last year to ensure Rudd's Nauru arrangement was legal, and how that law pretended it had been in force ever since 2012.
I don't know if we can do this forever; if eventually our lawmaking won't be able to outrun our lying. But I know that buried in this week's High Court judgment is unanimous agreement the government simply cannot detain people indefinitely on Nauru. At some point, the clock runs out. And on that day, maybe the alarm will sound on these mighty fictions that have been sustaining us. Then who will we be?
Waleed Aly is a Fairfax Media columnist and a lecturer in politics at Monash University.