Our pollies in the main, have lost theirs, it seems – or maybe the salt water has got into them, or they have been sitting on them instead of steering by them Begin where Tom does and you just might come up with a policy that both makes sense and also makes us proud.
An open letter to ‘Shooty’, who committed suicide in Villawood detention centre last week.
I’ve just watched our Prime Minister talking about shared Commonwealth values in Perth. My mind turned at once to you and your solitary, late-night death in Villawood detention centre last week.
I say solitary, but you may have had a mobile. You may have talked to your girlfriend on the outside that dismal night. She is said to have urgently rung Villawood to ask the desk there to call an ambulance because you were taking poison or a lethal overdose. But they declined to make the call at that stage. Your girlfriend’s mother was the one who then contacted the ambulance, which took you to hospital too late. An earlier refusal by the authorities to let you out for a day to attend a Hindu festival may have caused the final despair.
So, after telling your girlfriend you were fed up with Serco, the company that runs the place for profit, you died, a man refugee advocates called perhaps the most positive and chirpy in the camp. Never mind. You were a Tamil from Sri Lanka, and a son of the Commonwealth of Nations. Even if that did you no good, I hope it consoles you.
Your suicide came after two years’ detention. But you had been already declared a bona fide refugee seven months ago. You were waiting only for the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation to complete a routine security check. After seven months they hadn’t. An unreasonable person, like myself, might ask how long they bloody well need. But of course, I don’t understand the subtleties of their situation. And in any case, you short-circuited their efficiency.
Because you couldn’t take any more of what we dished up to you – those Commonwealth values, the ones on which we take years to deliver while we treat you as if you have committed armed robbery with assault. You could have lived in the community awaiting the formality of the routine ASIO check. But that would have been too much dignity paid to you.
Your death comes at the end of a period when the psychiatric advisers to the government had warned the government that self-destructive acts like yours would occur. Yet the funny thing is, Shooty, that had you been able to endure, you would have become a resident and an Australian. A brother. A fellow guest at the table of the Commonwealth of Australia. A mate, clasped by the shoulder and probably praised at barbecues – in that back-handed way – as a decent bloody brown bastard!
At CHOGM, the high table of Commonwealth values, Sri Lanka went un-punished for atrocities against Tamils. But even when the Tamil human-shield civilians were being blasted at the end of the Sri Lankan war between the government and the Tigers, we all knew some people like you would inevitably come to Australia. Good old John Dowd, who is head of our local chapter of the International Commission of Jurists, had already called for the trial of the Sri Lankan High Commissioner to Australia for war crimes against your people. This just cry, like most just cries these days, has penetrated the stratosphere and vanished into space.
Amnesty International has reported death and torture of those asylum seekers returned to Sri Lanka. Of course, none of those accusations made it to the high table of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Mateship. The only person who said anything of note at CHOGM, anything that tried to push out the envelope of concern, was the Queen.
It’s important to know none of what befell you was personal. You died for a failing government that has lost its soul and will soon lose an election. That is, it will have sold its essence to no benefit, and you’ll still be dead. A crease-browed, callow young Minister for Immigration can console us in dusk news bulletins as to why the circumstances imposed on you were so necessary to Australia’s security. And the rest of us have the rhetoric of morning radio and, thank you, but we decided some time back we don’t want you adding your static to our heedless days.
At least until the next suicide, the next foretold and desperate death, some Australians, an increasing number, weep for you as for a brother. Some curse the ineptitude, the cosy lies, the political conjuring and party self-deceit that brought you to your death. And the ironic truth is your remains will have a claim on a patch of Australian soil we wouldn’t give you before.
If we could summon up your soul from that place, we would offer you our useless apologies. If we could summon up your soul, we would ask it to remain among us – the man who was on the brink of Australian-ness, led to water, not allowed to drink. But for now, mandatory detention rolls on, a wheel that crushes many and avails Australia nothing.
What we need, Shooty, what we Australians need for the peace of our souls, is a whisper, a breeze from the direction of your vanished spirit. And what it would say is: treat us as members of the same species. What it would say is: I thought you were a just people.
Tom Keneally, AO, is the Booker prize-winning author of Schindler’s Ark. ‘Shooty’ committed suicide in Villawood detention centre last week.