Since 2010 we have killed more than forty people in our various island prisons, scattered in a vast arc of nearly 7000 kms, stretching from Christmas Island to Nauru. Seeking asylum they found only punitive sanction and the cold calculations of our miserable politics.
We almost killed another one this week. Little Tharni Murugappan, three years old, Australian-born, but disowned by Australia, or at least by the Australian state. Tharnicaa and her older sister Kopika did not arrive here as boat people. The girls were born in Australia after their parents, father Nades and mother Priya, fled the violent aftermath of Sri Lanka’s civil war. Major combat ended in 2009 with the defeat of the Tamil Tigers, but the violence and oppression did not.
The always odious horror-tuber Peter Dutton called them ‘anchor babies’ borrowing both the language and toxic rancour of the US migration debate, even though he knew the allegation was bullshit. There is no ‘jus soli’ or birthright citizenship in Australia; not since 1986 when the Hawke Government legislated it away to hold down its right flank against John Howard, who was sniping at them for being soft on illegal migrants.
I know, right? Who’d a thunk it?
Most people in Biloela, the small Queensland hamlet where the family settled in to await the determination of their refugees status, didn’t care for Dutton’s anchor baby bullshit.
The family was popular. The children were just local kids – at least until the Nightmare Tater’s armed goons arrived at five in the morning to drag them away, ultimately all the way to Christmas Island, where the whole family was dropped into the vasty deep of the government’s razor-wired memory hole.
It was there, thousands of miles across the Indian Ocean, that Tharni caught a cold a couple of weeks ago. A simple cold which became a chest infection, which turned into pneumonia with ten days of vomiting, diarrhoea and raging storms of fever.
The detention centre’s medical contractors prescribed children’s Panadol and a course of hardening the fuck up, anchor baby.
This led, as it sometimes will, to blood sepsis.
When the guards, presumably having an oh-no moment, at last relented and allowed Tharnicaa to be seen by a GP at the island’s public hospital, staff there were so freaked out they ordered her immediate medivac to Perth.
Puts this statement from the Department of Home Affairs into context, doesn’t it.
"The minor has been receiving medical treatment on Christmas Island consistent with medical advice.”
Hmm. I dunno. Maybe it’s just me but it sounds like ‘the minor’ had been getting advice and treatment from high functioning sociopaths whose medical training consisted entirely of unsupervised dissections of missing neighbourhood pets.
The dehumanising rhetoric of ‘the minor’ is the tell. Suddenly a problem which had been effectively dealt with by internal exile and selective forgetting was back up in everyone’s grill, reminding us all that the only thing Scott Morrison has ever really succeeded at is the militarised capture and unchecked internment of lots of brown people.
You could feel the panic rat sinking its teeth in when a handful of uppity journos pivoted from Scotty’s tough-on-crime, tough-on-bikies-chat-apps presser to why we were spending millions of dollars to torture a seemingly pleasant family of four. Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews, who could release the family forever with one signature, started burbling on about negotiating “a range of resettlement options”.
The Anxious Smirk suddenly cut in to clarify that Andrews wasn’t specifically referring to the family of the little girl they’d almost killed with performative cruelty and neglect but “all cohorts, across all possible groups.”
Yeah, nah, not really.
Someone in the PMO baited the media with hints that the US or New Zealand might be willing to have the family, but a couple of phone calls by the ABC consigned that to the yeah, nah, not really bin too.
The Herald ran a breathtakingly credulous piece about unnamed coalition backbenchers quietly lobbying, in secret, possibly via super anonymous biker chat apps, to have the whole thing sorted out.
What actually happened was the Herald swallowed an enormous pork pie designed to make the Coalition look a little bit less like unfeeling monsters who would happily let a little girl die if it meant improving their chances in a couple of outer metro seats. I note we’ve heard nothing more of this lobbying effort or any subsequent change in policy. Almost like it was never a real thing.
But what is a real thing is that for the first time in years the welfare of the Murugappan family is a live issue for Morrison, because the welfare of his government got tangled up with it. We know their names. We know what they look like. They are not simply the Alien Other. The Smirk’s problem is that unlike the symbolic demagoguery of border control, the politics of letting a photogenic little girl nearly cark it from your government’s negligent mendacity is a helluva rake to step on.
Especially when you’ve spent a whole pandemic pantomiming negligent mendacity for a captive national audience.
Especially when, lets not forget, the photogenic little girl your hapless goons almost killed was born here.
Especially when your embattled Home Affairs Minister could make this all go away with the stroke of her pen.
Especially when your previous Home Affairs Führer managed something not entirely dissimilar for three au pairs.
Inevitably lurking in the wings of this production is the question of a little racism. I’ll repeat a hypothetical I’ve posed before: If they were Katie and Tessa instead of Kopika and Tharnicaa, if they were the blonde and blue-eyed Australian-born children of, say, white former South African farmers who had legally sought refuge here, can you imagine the relevant Coalition ministers would have treated them like this, hounded them, persecuted them, spread falsehoods about them?
Yeah, nah. Not so fucking much.