Scott Morrison’s Pentecostal faith claims to channel the religion of Christ’s time, in which God’s presence was immediately felt and people spoke in tongues. Combining a postmodern obsession for feeling with the dogmatism of prosperity gospel, it is a completely unselfconscious anachronism.
This self-centered admixture can sanction any evil. On December 4, it did. Morrison’s government repealed the Medevac Bill, a law that expedited the transfer of sick refugees from offshore detention to the mainland for treatment.
Morrison’s celebration was tactically muted. But in the past, he has left us no doubt as to his personal motivation. He claimed his election win as a miracle. Prior to this, he said of politics: “You’ll find yourself on your knees. You’ll find yourself in tears. You’ll find yourself wrestling with this tough stuff.”
Over the years, this kind of thing has gradually made us speechless. The typically secular moral discourse of the Left is becoming exhausted.
So, maybe we should borrow from the Bible. Many Christians before Morrison have, after all, wrestled with similar demons.
Take Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Christ for thirty pieces of silver. When he understood the gravity of what he had done, he repented bitterly: “And he cast down the pieces of silver in the temple, and departed, and went and hanged himself.” (Matthew 27:5)
Most Christians consider Judas’s sin as ultimate. Some wonder if his repentance earned him a margin of forgiveness. Whatever the case, at least he briefly felt the gift of human empathy where, previously, hard-heartedness and vanity prevailed.
But this is too much to ask for Scott Morrison. Still, in describing Judas’s fate, the Bible suggests an alternative: “Judas by transgression fell, that he might go to his own place.” (Acts 1:25)
What would Scott Morrison’s own place look like?
Medevac did not enjoy a long life. It passed in early 2019, during a brief moment in which the Liberal National Party (LNP) lost its majority. It was not a radical bill. It did not overturn offshore detention for refugees, nor did it abolish Australia’s policy of turning back refugee boats.
But Medevac changed one important thing. Previously, sick refugees were forced to wait on average two years, and sometimes up to five, before accessing treatment on the mainland. Between 2014 and 2019, twelve people died awaiting transfer (or after being denied).
The Medevac Bill tried to stop this by imposing a seventy-two-hour deadline on ministerial approval for medical transfer requests. Failing this, the bill empowered a panel of health-care professionals to approve requests. During Medevac’s ten-month life, ninety people were transferred for treatment. Lives were saved.
Shortly after his victory, Morrison gave a press conference, noting, “We’ve always understood that that type of loophole doesn’t strengthen our borders, it only weakens them.”
He was flanked by his minister for home affairs, Peter Dutton, an ex-cop from Queensland who once joked about a forum of Pacific nations running late, saying: “Time doesn’t mean anything when you’re about to have water lapping at your door.”
In repealing Medevac, Morrison was aided by One Nation senators Pauline Hanson and Malcolm Roberts, as well as the far-right independent Cory Bernardi. A tearful Jacqui Lambie, an independent conservative senator from Tasmania, also cast her vote against Medevac, saying: “My hand is on my heart and I can stand here and say that I would be putting at risk Australia’s national security and national interest if I said anything else about this.”
Make no mistake, the repeal of Medevac means more death on Nauru and Manus Island. As this list shows, this is the inevitable result of denying or delaying medical transfer.
The main cause of death for refugees kept by Australia on these islands is depression. Most recently, in June of 2018, Fariborz Karami was found dead in his tent. His mental health had been deteriorating for years. A little less than a year earlier, Hamed Shamshiripour was found dead near a school. He had previously been assaulted after wandering the island, destitute. These are two of many more confirmed and suspected suicides.
Suicides on Nauru and Manus Island are not unexpected; they are the intended outcome of a system designed to wear down the will to live, coercing refugees into refoulement while dissuading others from seeking asylum. The suggestion that someone can preserve their mental health while imprisoned in temporary accommodation, in the tropics, where washed clothes do not dry and where mold is undefeatable, is horrifying.
Other refugees have died from physical injuries or conditions that are simple to treat. Faysal Ishak Ahmed, twenty-seven, suffered repeated seizures. Labeled a “malingerer,” he was denied medical treatment. He died after striking his head during a seizure.
After having set himself on fire, Omid Masoumali was made to wait for hours before being given painkillers. His transfer to Brisbane was delayed. He died after several days of suffering. Perhaps most gallingly, Hamid Kehazaei was denied antibiotics for a minor infection in his leg. The Department of Immigration denied his transfer until he was septic; he suffered a heart attack in Port Moresby and was declared brain-dead a few days later.
There are well over two thousand names on this extended list of those who have died directly and indirectly (for example, by drowning) as a result of Australian government policy from the turn of the century until 2015.
As Matthew recounts Christ saying: “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” (Matthew 25:45)
A Place of Morrison’s Own
In fairness, the Australian Labor Party shares the blame for all of this. It was Julia Gillard’s Labor government who, in May of 2013, excised the Australian mainland from the migration zone, meaning that Australian law would no longer apply to asylum seekers, even if they managed to reach the Australian mainland without being intercepted. It was a move that took terra nullius, the legal doctrine under which Australia was colonized, one step closer to its logical conclusion. The genocidal fiction of no one’s land became, under Labor, a no land for people with no land.
This bipartisanship is why refugees are languishing in camps, cut off from any future. These are places where abuse is rife — even murder — and in which children as young as eight are diagnosed with “traumatic withdrawal syndrome” — essentially catatonic despair.
It’s a race to the bottom, and each new low makes it harder to respond. We risk becoming blasé, as a kind of defense mechanism. But this slide backward must be resisted: it’s so much worse to respond with cool rationalism or to capitulate under the cover of conscience. Behrouz Boochani is right: we need a moral revolution.
For a man like Scott Morrison, hoping for a “road to Engadine” moment of revelation is, of course, a fantasy. This is the man who keeps a trophy of a refugee boat bearing the caption “I stopped these” on his desk.
Instead, he should go, like Judas, to “his own place.” The Voyage of Saint Brendan, an Irish Christian mystic text of the fifth or sixth century, makes a fitting suggestion as to where this may be.
After a long voyage at sea, Saint Brendan and his fellow monks encountered “a man sitting on a rugged and shapeless rock, with the waves on every side, which in their flowing beat upon him.” The resemblance with Nauru or Manus Island is striking.
The man identified himself to the travelers as Judas Iscariot. Although he had no right to hope for forgiveness, as a brief and merciful respite from hell, he was allowed to stay on the rock on the Lord’s Day and other holy days.
As night fell on Judas’s lonely rock, demons appeared to take him back to hell. Saint Brendan and his fellows, taking pity, interceded in the name of Christ to delay Judas’s refoulement until the next morning.
But, of course, we are only borrowing from Christianity. So we are in no position to intercede against Scott Morrison’s demons, should they descend upon him as night falls, in his place.