Drowning in propagandaTom Hyland
April 16, 2005
A new play that puts prejudice before facts does a disservice to an important debate.
It's an old truism of Australian politics: when the choice, in seeking to explain an event, is between a conspiracy and a stuff-up, go for the stuff-up every time.
The lines are repeated by Garry McDonald, who plays the unspeakable Minister for Home Security in Hannie Rayson's latest play, Two Brothers, which opened in Melbourne this week.
It's a pity, then, that Rayson, in what she insists is an attempt to examine the complex moral issues thrown up by Australia's treatment of asylum seekers, ignores the truism and opts for the comforting certainty of the conspiracy theory. Instead of examining those complex moral issues, she has produced a piece of propaganda that deals in stereotypes, preaches to the converted and panders to prejudice. In the process, she does a disservice to the cause she seeks to espouse.
This is not to say that Two Brothers is not a compelling, provocative and entertaining dramatic thriller. It is all that. It centres on the ruthlessly ambitious James "Eggs" Benedict, a conservative Home Security Minister prepared to do whatever it takes to become prime minister. This includes ordering the navy to leave asylum seekers to drown when their boat sinks on its way to Australia. His son is a naval officer on the ship that turns away, leaving the asylum seekers to their deaths.
Two Brothers cannot be judged simply as a fictitious work of art, because it purports to be more than that. Theatre-goers are left in no doubt as to the play's polemic purpose. The printed program includes chapters on the Tampa scandal, mandatory detention, an appeal from Baxter detainees, the "living nightmare" of temporary protection visas, and so on.
The program also includes an interview with Rayson that stresses the importance of research in her work. We are told that as part of her research she made "scouting expeditions into the conservative heartland" so she could explode the myth that the asylum seeker issue divides on party lines. But the play shows that she returned from her research "expeditions" with that myth intact, the divisions unambiguous. The Home Security Minister (we are left in no doubt he is based loosely on Philip Ruddock) is a stereotype, a wine-swilling, adulterous, Grammar-educated, bigoted bully - and cold-hearted killer to boot. The central Labor figure is a compassionate, selfless defender of human rights. No moral complexities there, no blurring of the party lines, just prejudices reinforced.
It is a piece of propaganda that panders to prejudice. In the process, she does a disservice to the cause she seeks to espouse."The plot of what Rayson says is a "completely fictitious" play draws on the tragedy of the SIEV X, the overcrowded Indonesian fishing boat that sank on October 19, 2001, with the loss off 353 lives, most of them Iraqis.
In the play's version of events, we are told of a sinking witnessed by the Australian Navy; survivors close enough to see the Australian flag on RAN ships; RAN crews seeing asylum seekers struggling in the water; the Government ordering the Australian ships to turn away; and that order being carried out by a supine navy.
There are plenty of unsettling and unanswered questions about Australia's role in the SIEV X disaster. But despite her purported research, Rayson has overlooked much of what is on the public record. A Senate committee that reported in October 2002 found no evidence the RAN knew about the sinking and failed to act. Labor senator John Faulkner, who had doggedly pursued the Government on the "children overboard" affair, said any suggestion the navy had abandoned the SIEV X survivors was "very unfair". Instead, Faulkner said he and his colleagues were confident the navy "acted appropriately in relation to a safety of life at sea issue".
Rayson comes close to examining moral complexities through the character of Lachlan Benedict, the young naval officer son of the Home Security Minister. At times he is tormented when the dictates of military discipline go against his instinctive humanity. But in the end he is like a mute tin soldier, refusing to speak out about what he has seen. Ultimately he comes across as a stereotypical military boofhead, simply obeying orders.
Again Rayson's research has ignored the inconvenient evidence on the public record. Sailors dived into the water to rescue asylum seekers. A number of naval officers spoke out during the Tampa "crisis". After service on the Arunta, a navy psychiatrist wrote to the press condemning the "morally wrong and despicable" action against boat people. An officer from the Tobruk gave an interview in which he said he was sickened by what the Government had asked him to do. And the chief of the navy ultimately confirmed the truth about the children overboard lies.
The trouble with Rayson's one-dimensional story is that the truth about what we have done to asylum seekers is bad enough. In carrying out Government policy, the navy fired machine-guns across the bows of leaking boats overcrowded with frightened, desperate, traumatised people. Armed boarding parties forced boats around and towed then towards Indonesia. Agitated, hysterical people were hit with capsicum spray. Asylum seekers were forced onto the troopships Kanimbla and Manoora where some alleged they were subjected to humiliating and degrading treatment. Some claimed that, in an attempt to pacify them, sailors said they were being taken to Australia, when their real destination was detention in Nauru. In turn, some distraught asylum seekers pelted sailors with excrement.
All of this, of course, is overlooked by the Government's defenders - and here is another tragedy in Rayson's play, as it can be dismissed as bleeding-heart propaganda. Already the media ranters in the Government cheer squad have gone on the attack, accusing the play of pandering to the left and besmirching the honour of the navy.
Two Brothers ends with "Eggs" Benedict becoming Prime Minister. As he gives a jingoistic acceptance speech, the Star Spangled Banner plays in the background. Why does Rayson play an American anthem, if not to pander to leftist sentiment? This is a cop-out. Our asylum-seeker policy is uniquely Australian, conceived in Canberra and exploiting distinctly Australian fears and prejudices. It's as dinky-di as a gum tree. Uncle Sam didn't tell us what to do with unwanted foreigners.
It's a pity Rayson has ignored another political truism: truth is the best propaganda.
Tom Hyland is national news editor.