Greens Leader Senator Christine Milne comments on asylum seekers in July, 2012. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
I don't know what happened on Manus Island last week. I don't know whether the appalling spectacle of people being attacked, of horrific injuries being sustained, of one person lying dead were the product of forces within or outside the control of the Australian authorities on the island. I don't know whether those authorities did all they could to avoid the violence, or contributed to it through poor administration, or complacency, or through putting too much responsibility into the hands of private contractors.
Some have already passed judgment on what happened, and who was to blame. I prefer to wait for the review process to sift the evidence and provide an account anchored on facts. Nor do I know whether the minister, Scott Morrison, culpably misled the public when he initially told them the riot had taken place largely outside the detention centre, when it now seems to have taken place largely inside the centre.
Any "culpability" for misrepresenting the situation would hinge substantially on whether the minister faithfully relayed to the public the events on the island as reported to him, in circumstances where the common law's "reasonable person" would find the reports credible, or whether he or his office "embellished" the reports to score political points.
Again, the departmental review may answer that question (possibly indirectly). I note that the opposition has at various points demanded immediate accounts of what occurred, and attacked the minister when early accounts have had to be corrected or retracted.
Our reasonable person can demand immediate reports of an incident, or accurate reports of an incident, but in circumstances like this – taking place on a distant island, over several hours, with many witnesses – he cannot demand both. Nor can I say whether the policies of this government with respect to the operation of offshore processing centres have made a riot like this more or less likely than the policies of the previous Labor government.
I can draw tentative conclusions from the report just released with echoes of this incident, into the riot last July on Nauru, which cost the taxpayer $60 million. It found that mixed messages to detainees about their prospects of resettlement was a significant factor in the riot occurring. Sound familiar?
With the Manus Island incident igniting a welter of claim and counterclaim, each carrying the whiff of a vested interest behind them, it is possible to be certain about very little indeed.
But we can be very certain about one thing. We can be certain that the impassioned cries coming from the Australian Greens about the death of a person at the centre, about the need for a royal commission, about the minister's head needing to be served up on a plate as atonement for this death, are all unadulterated, gold-plated hypocrisy. And why? Because there are far, far too many asylum seeker deaths already on the Greens' ledger for them to make such claims about anybody else.
In August 2008, when the Rudd government dismantled John Howard's "Pacific solution", the Greens had a conspicuous policy win. Granted, they criticised aspects of the policy – they are Greens, after all – but the fundamentals of the policy were Green to the core.
A seminal feature of this policy was that genuine refugees reaching Australia's territorial waters would receive asylum. This was the granting of letters patent to the region's people smuggling businesses. It was a necessary and inevitable part of this arrangement that the journeys would be undertaken in small vessels largely unsuited for long voyages across open seas. It was equally inevitable that many boats would not make it. And hundreds drowned. Most drowned cold, lonely, agonising deaths far from anywhere, but 50 – passengers on board SIEV 221 – died under the gaze of onlookers and cameras when it smashed to pieces on the rocks around Christmas Island.
We do not know exactly how many died as a direct consequence of this bizarre policy; estimates range between 1000 and 1500. Our reasonable person would say, of course, that there is a moral distinction to be drawn between the duty of care owed to a person travelling to Australia and that owed to a person in an Australian-supervised processing centre.
Our reasonable person might say that, but the Australian Greens cannot, because the Greens have long ago adopted a higher, more stringent test of responsibility.
When the SIEV X sank in 2001, claiming 353 lives, the Australian Greens were quick to sheet home responsibility for those deaths to the Howard government. Yet they have never drawn the obvious link between their own policies and the much larger number of deaths since SIEV X.
Now that asylum seeker deaths are again occurring on the watch of a Coalition government, that old, judgmental righteousness is returning to Greens' rhetoric. But I don't buy it. Christine Milne has more deaths to explain than Scott Morrison ever will.
Gary Humphries, a former ACT Liberal chief minister and senator, is now a lobbyist.