Content note: This piece includes graphic discussion of suicide and reference to abuse
Just as I said I wouldn’t, I forgot them, and their stories got tangled up with all the other distant horrors. In May, last year, two young refugees under Australian care set themselves on fire. Omid Masoumali, an 23 year old held in indefinite detention on Nauru, doused his body in petrol and burnt himself alive. Three days later Hodan Yasin, a 21 year old Somali woman, also set herself alight. Unlike Masoumali, she survived; with burns covering seventy per cent of her body. She lost several fingers in the blaze.
Peter Craig Dutton, the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection (previously the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs) declared that Masoumali’s suicide and Yasin’s suicide attempt were efforts “to get to Australia”. Although UN officials had described conditions in the detention centre as intentional and systematic torture, Dutton blamed the self-immolations on those who fought for the human rights of asylum seekers. “Advocates,” he said, “should reflect on their messages of false hope”.
Dutton will now be Australia’s Minister for Home Affairs. Against the advice of security experts, numerous investigations and his own former views, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has announced that the Australian Border Force, ASIO and AFP will be placed under single department, with Dutton at its helm. So, as we bask in the comfort our newfound safety, let’s revisit the career of the man who will hold unprecedented power over Australia’s security apparatus.
In 1989, the Fitzgerald Inquiry revealed endemic corruption in the Queensland Police Service (QPS). A former Police Commissioner was sentenced to ten years in prison. A young Dutton graduated the academy a year later. Throughout the nine years he served with the force, the QPS was hounded by claims of institutional racism and violent excess (aspects of this are explored in Chloe Hooper’s seminal exposé The Tall Man).
There have never been claims of brutality or corruption against Dutton himself. But there is a dark logic in the fact that a man who spent his formative years in so authoritarian a culture should show a fondness for power, a penchant for secrecy and a brazen contempt for human rights.
Dutton’s stint as Health Minister was remarkable only for the depth and breadth of his incompetence in a government where incompetence was the norm. He oversaw the rise and fall of the infamous GP co-payment policy. A poll of 1,100 doctors found that 47% believed he was the worst Health Minister in the last 35 years – Tony Abbott won just 13%.
In the Immigration Portfolio, Dutton has made numerous statements that are unambiguously racist. He has told more heinous lies about refugees than are possible to list here. A fellow Liberal front bencher has described him as “a fascist.” Many journalists – such as Crikey’s Bernard Keane – have long considered Dutton one of the Government’s most inept performers. This is not an ideological assessment – his predecessor and fellow right-winger Scott Morrison, who oversaw at least as many cruelties as Dutton, was still widely regarded as a talented political operator.
The Royal Commission into the Institutional Response to Child Sex Abuse found that Peter Dutton deliberately delayed the release of a report detailing 242 allegations of the abuse of child detainees. Fewer than half of those allegations had been adequately responded to.
Peter Dutton is a man whose only apparent outstanding qualities are a voracious personal ambition and an abnormally low regard for the suffering of others. He is a walking embodiment of the banality of evil.
As the creeping powers of our armed and surveillance forces grow each year, let’s remember what it has become politically impossible to admit: that there has never yet been an Islamist terror attack on Australian soil.
Outrage burns hot and quick, but the years tally up like notches on an arm. Apathy builds like plaque on a neuron, and we forget. Each tragedy plays out like a half-remembered pantomime of the last. We, the chorus, wail from the sidelines about how awful it all is, piteously tutting over olives and white wine.
It was more than a year ago now, but I’m going to try harder to remember Omid and Hodan. Their suffering was not anomalous, but the logical end-point of the policy of deliberate deterrence. We tell the oppressed they will not find refuge here, then we prove it. Those bodies, younger than mine, burned and blackened as warning beacons to other innocents like them. Exactly as we intended.
Let’s not forget who throws petrol on those flames.