Every phone a lifeline

September 3, 2020
Photo: Mostafa Azimitabar / Facebook

If we lived in a rational society, the media at immigration minister Alan Tudge’s August 28 address to the National Press Club would have all asked: “What is he smoking?”

“There are factors today, putting strain on our [social] cohesion,” Tudge claimed.

He was not talking about the big and growing rise in inequality which allows Qantas CEO Alan Joyce to receive $14,226 an hour while more than 1 million people are officially unemployed.

He was not talking about the rampant misogyny that means more than one woman dies every week due to domestic violence, while a police officer can escape conviction after accessing police resources to aid an abuser.

He was not talking about the racism that means Aboriginal people continue to die in custody and no one is ever convicted while mining companies routinely destroy First Nations’ sacred sites.


Tudge said the real strain on “social cohesion” is coming from “foreign interference”.

“Foreign actors have multiple objectives,” he said. “But one is to seek to grow division in our society by pushing people away from Australia and placing their loyalties elsewhere.”

If he was seriously worried about growing divisions in society, he could start by looking in the mirror.

The Sydney Morning Herald’s take-home summary from Tudge’s speech was that “aspiring Australians will face a tougher values test amid challenges to social cohesion from the coronavirus pandemic and foreign interference”.

It didn’t question the government’s political line, which relies on racism and a society-wide acceptance that governments can act in a more authoritarian way in a pandemic.

Tudge wants to change the Migration Act to “strengthen” the character test and introduce a ban on “prohibited items”. It is undemocratic and racist because it implicitly promotes a finger-pointing attitude towards people of colour as the source of society’s problems.

Nobody will be surprised when people of colour and those from poor countries end up being the most disadvantaged.

It is in this context that the government is sharpening its racism.

There are so many reasons why allowing the minister the power to take phones away from refugees in immigration detention is a bad idea.

First, having a connection to friends and family inside the detention system and outside in the community is critical to maintaining refugees’ mental health. Phones are an absolutely positive contribution to maintaining “social cohesion”.

Secondly, it is already well-known that human rights abuses are routinely perpetrated in detention centres. This is why the government has always attempted to shroud them with secrecy. It is also why they are located in remote locations — journalists and even MPs are restricted from visiting, and the detention services have been privatised, helping diminish accountability. Taking phones away from refugees will exacerbate this secrecy and will undoubtedly lead to even more human rights abuses.

Separating refugees from the broader community has been and remains one of the government’s primary goals.

Nevertheless, even after decades of racist demonisation, opinion polls regularly find that there is strong support for helping “genuine refugees”. One poll in 2017, for instance, found that “almost three quarters (72%) of respondents think those assessed to be genuine refugees who arrive in Australia by boat should be allowed to stay in Australia”.

However, many of those who agree with helping “genuine refugees” also believe that the government wouldn’t be locking them up if they were “genuine”.

Yet, the truth is that about 80% of refugees brought to Australia under the Medevac law, and currently detained, have already been found to be “genuine refugees”.

Their ongoing detention is therefore the government’s means of trying to break down the social cohesion between refugees and the wider community.

Refugees’ access to phones in detention hotel,s such as at Kangaroo Point, has been critical to their campaign for freedom, which itself has worked well to undermine the government’s demonisation of them.

Tudge also told the Press Club that he is concerned that “foreign actors” are seeking to “sow distrust in government and institutions”. But as Labor and the Coalition continue to support such cruelty towards refugees and asylum seekers — undermining the 1951 Refugee Convention among other international human rights treaties — it is clear that they are achieving that all on their own.

[Alex Bainbridge is the national convenor of Socialist Alliance.]

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