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If Politicians Distort Facts, Our Post-Truth World Will Become A Post-Rights One

It is urgent that ordinary members of the public see their own rights as intimately bound up with the rights of refugees.

28/04/2017 10:13 AM AEST | Updated 28/04/2017 10:17 AM AEST
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"Dutton has been unable to provide a single piece of evidence for any of his assertions; like Trump, he relies on alternate facts."

On Good Friday, a drunken mob, including PNG armed forces members, sprayed over 100 rounds of live ammunition into the detention centre compound on Manus Island. Miraculously, no one was killed. Initially, Peter Dutton, the minister responsible, made no comment. Apparently, refugees being the targets of a sustained shooting spree wasn't major enough an incident to warrant his attention.

Eventually, Dutton claimed that far from being the victims of the attack, refugees were ultimately responsible for it: the mob tried to invade the compound, Dutton alleged, because refugees had led a five-year-old boy into the centre.

There were two implications in Dutton's assertions. The first was clear to everyone: refugees are paedophiles, and they entice and abuse very young children. Just as well that we're locking them up on Manus and Nauru.

The second implication was less overt: the high-powered rifle attack may have been a breach of military discipline, but, in the end, it was understandable. When it comes to suspicions of child abuse, isn't it natural that the "mood" among Manusians was "elevated", as Dutton repeatedly put it? The inference wasn't hard to draw: it makes sense that the Manus locals thought asylum seekers are paedophiles; it makes sense that they wanted to do violence to them.

Dutton has been unable to provide a single piece of evidence for any of his assertions; like Trump, he relies on alternate facts. His allegations have been contradicted outright by Manus police. Refugees did not abuse a five-year-old: a 10-year-old came to the centre to ask them for food, and was given some fruit, a week earlier.

This is, after all, hardly the first time Dutton has misrepresented the facts and resorted to vilification for his own political purposes. Last year, he slurred second and third generation Lebanese-background people as terrorists, and Sudanese people as criminals. Earlier, he said -- completely inaccurately -- that many refugees are illiterate and innumerate, using the opportunity to slip in an attack on his political opponents and the CFMEU for good measure. Sex abuse features regularly in Dutton's repertoire of allegations: in 2016 he also claimed that asylum seekers make false allegations of sexual assault, as well as of self-immolation, in order to get to Australia.

To support his story, all Dutton could manage was to cite "senior people on the island" as the source of his allegations. He has refused to name them, or to release surveillance footage to back his claims up -- because, of course, there is none to release. Now he is claiming to be relying on "classified" information.

After Dutton's attack on Lebanese-Muslims, Malcom Turnbull declared that "Peter Dutton is doing an outstanding job as Immigration Minister". Is that still the case?

Presumably intended as offerings to the Liberals' far right, under pressure from an ascendant One Nation, especially in Queensland (Dutton's home state), Dutton's claims have been abetted by the ALP's silence. Among parties in Federal Parliament, only the Greens have made the necessary call: Dutton must be sacked.

Shayne Neumann, the ALP's immigration spokesman, could only find it in himself to decry the Coalition's secrecy and demand an "apology". The joint architect of our current detention regime, the ALP has done more than its fair share to degrade standards of decency and accountability in regard to refugee policy.

It is going to take concerted public pressure to overcome the massive inertia of federal politics and restore both justice to refugees, and some modicum of integrity to public political life.

Dutton's allegations are baseless. His persistence in advancing them, despite all evidence to the contrary, shows just how far he considers himself immune from any of the obligations of honesty or reasonableness that ordinary community standards demand.

In the face of an abuse of public office as cavalier and entitled as Dutton's, any failure to hold him to account will reflect on the political system as much as the Minister himself.

It is urgent that ordinary members of the public see their own rights as intimately bound up with refugees, and join the campaign to end offshore processing and mandatory detention. Hundreds of organizations have already called for the offshore camps to be evacuated and all those being held on those islands to be brought to safety.

It is going to take concerted public pressure to overcome the massive inertia of federal politics and restore both justice to refugees, and some modicum of integrity to public political life.

Otherwise the injustice and the lies will not just continue over refugees: they will generalise, and corrode other areas of Australian politics, and take us from a post-truth arena to a post-rights one, too.

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