John Keane | Concentration Camps and Democracy
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Concentration Camps and Democracy

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Manus Island camp
Refugee Action Coalition

The following commentary on the Abbott government’s policy of forcibly preventing people from seeking asylum within Australia has aroused considerable controversy. Several thousand public and private comments, from a wide variety of sources, have so far been received.

More than a few readers have seen the point of calling troubling things by their proper name. Against the routine reliance on misleading euphemisms, such as ‘clients’ and ‘customers’ held in ‘detention centres’, the piece makes a reasoned case for speaking of Manus Island and Nauru as concentration camps. First used at the end of the nineteenth century, the phrase is carefully defined. It is shown to have a history that predates Stalinism and Nazism, and still to have a sting in its tail.

The commentary targets double standards. It asks a privately-funded foundation concerned with the future of democracy to explain its view of a company that has taken on the dirty business of running offshore concentration camps.

The newDemocracy Foundation has so far not responded publicly. Many hope it will; it would be the democratic thing to do.

The dust of public controversy over the Sydney Biennale may have settled, but there are other questions for Luca Belgiorno-Nettis in light of the Australian government awarding Transfield Services a $1.22 billion contract to manage the Manus Island and Nauru detention centres.

In addition to his philanthropic contributions to the arts, Belgiorno-Nettis is also the founder and spokesman of the newDemocracy Foundation. It is funded by the Anita and Luca Belgiorno-Nettis Family Foundation. Transfield Holdings, a company privately owned by the Belgiorno-Nettis family, has a 12% shareholding (though, it must be acknowledged, currently no board directorships) in Transfield Services.

So how does a foundation that seeks “a better way to do democracy” regard a company that has taken on the dirty business of running what are actually offshore concentration camps and the site of terrible rights abuses?

This is no idle question, but as the phrase concentration camp is contentious, it’s important to be clear about its exact meaning and to examine the entangled histories of democracy and concentration camps, including here in Australia.

Without sparing the subject much thought, you’d imagine a democratic country founded on long-distance transportation and the incarceration and systematic violence against indigenous peoples would harbour deep antipathy towards concentration camps.

You’d think the country would enjoy an abundance of brave citizens, journalists, politicians and public opinion leaders willing to speak against the cohabitation of democracy and camps.

After all, democracy rests on the radical idea that nobody on our planet is entitled to rule arbitrarily, without restraint, over others.

Concentration camps, you’d say, stand at the polar opposite of democracy in this sense.

The Manus Island and Nauru centres are concentration camps, in my view. Concentration camps are places where people, often in large numbers, are indefinitely confined, against their will. In overcrowded settings, they’re denied proper toilet and sanitation facilities, pushed to the limits of their endurance, beaten, driven crazy.

In extreme cases, such as in Nazi Germany and in the Soviet Union, concentration camps become sites of extermination where camp victims are punished through such measures as forced labour, torture, starvation and mass execution.

Here it’s wise to pause, and to think twice: the local Australian brand of democracy doesn’t measure up to these standards, at least not for the moment. Groups of petitioners and bodies like the Refugee Advocacy Network and their supporters are doing good work, yet in recent weeks the septic subject of concentration camps – Manus Island and Nauru, for short – has gradually become a conversation stopper at parties and dinner tables. It’s been disappeared from the headlines by journalists hungry for the next chunk of bite-size breaking news; or the topic’s been reduced to a version of the boys-only story (how the Australian navy is running out of sea-worthy ships to run Operation Sovereign Borders) published recently by The Saturday Paper.

The silence is uncanny. It’s as if opal-hearted Australians collectively want to smudge their reputation for fair-go generosity by confirming the grim provocation of the radical Italian political thinker Giorgio Agamben, who insists there’s an ‘inner solidarity’ between modern democracy and concentration camps.

There are more than a few pebbles of truth in his claim. While both the phrase (from the Spanish reconcentrados) and the institution predated the coming of one-person, one-vote universal suffrage, democracies soon built camps, often with enthusiasm.

In the name of democracy, the United States first indulged the double standard when it militarily occupied the Philippines (1899 – 1902). Parliamentary democracies, among them Canada and the United Kingdom, readily wielded concentration camps as weapons against their ear-marked domestic opponents during World War II. Australia had its share: more than 15,000 people were locked up, mainly in remote locations, in such places as Cowra, Hay, Holdsworthy, Bathurst, Long Bay and Orange (NSW); at Harvey, Rottnest Island and Parkeston (Western Australia); Tatura and Dhurringile (Victoria); Loveday (South Australia) and Enoggera (Queensland).

Then along came the ‘War on Terror’. Well beyond the public gaze and rule of law, it saw the development of Guantanamo Bay as the hub of a global network of interrogation camps that treated ‘enemy combatants’ as nothing better than crushable insects.

Yes, concentration camps are a cancerous feature of modern democracies; but in each and every case, the connections have been contingent and context-dependent. That’s another way of saying that Agamben and his admirers both confuse and conflate democracy with forces such as government bureaucracy and military might.

They also understate the way concentration camps have sparked public resistance by citizens who know in their guts that the equalising spirit of democracy contradicts the whole dirty principle of mass detention without trial.

Sometimes resistance takes the form of remembering, mourning and public confessions. Post-1945 Germany is a powerful case in point: its second transition to democracy happened in the frightening shadows of Terezin, Bergen-Belsen, Dachau and Auschwitz.

Australia is no exception to this democratic rule. The earliest concentration camps, for instance (from October 1914) on Torrens Island in my native South Australia, sparked court action and public outcries against the incarceration and brutal treatment of ‘enemy aliens’, mainly people of German and Austro-Hungarian background.

The confinement of our own indigenous peoples in reserves, institutions and camps, following the Aborigines Protection Act 1909, remains a running sore for many Australian citizens.

And during World War Two, on both the European and Asia Pacific fronts, Australian women and men bravely gave their lives in total opposition to camps. An uncle of mine, Private Robert Charlick, was among them. Captured by the Army of the Greater Japanese Empire, he was starved to death in Tan Toey concentration camp, on the island of Ambon. My family is still in mourning.

Ambon camp survivors bound for home, reading newspapers, on board a rescue ship, September 1945
Department of Veterans’ Affairs

I count myself blessed to have a black and white photograph of him. There he is, glancing at me from my study wall, beaming and jesting before the camera, wearing a silly hat, just days away from boarding a troop ship, a young fighter for democratic decency, a good bloke who wasn’t to know he’d soon be robbed of his right to have rights in a concentration camp that reduced him to a nobody.

Published reports from the camps of Manus Island and Nauru suggest more than a few parallels with the taunting, torture and general deprivation that took place on Ambon, and in all concentration camps.

That’s why, just over a month ago, amidst the public uproar over the Sydney Biennale, I wrote to Luca Belgiorno-Nettis, founder and funder of the newDemocracy Foundation and the Executive Director of Transfield Holdings. I asked if we could speak on record about the relationship between democracy, the public responsibilities of people in high places and his financial involvement in a chain of personal and corporate connections with Transfield Services. I reminded him that in the history of democracy violence has always corrupted the spirit and substance of equality. I explained my concern about possible public reputational damage to his newDemocracy Foundation and to other democracy initiatives, such as the Sydney Democracy Network, which I am now building with colleagues inside and outside the University of Sydney.

I asked him whether he had plans to make a public statement about his political interest in democracy, the work of his foundation and the Manus Island and Nauru contract. For instance, would he be willing to come to the University, in a well-hosted and well-moderated arrangement, to discuss the issues on neutral public ground?

Luca Belgiorno-Nettis graciously replied, saying he’d be pleased to oblige. He emphasised that the death of an inmate at the Manus Island camp happened before the implementation of the off-shore detention contract by Transfield Services. I was intrigued by his suggestion that Transfield Services could better service the camps, so I pressed him for an exact date for our meeting. Next day, he wrote to say things were pretty busy (they were: he had just tendered his resignation as chairman of the 2014 Biennale) and, after further correspondence, said there was just too much going on for our meeting to take place.

I decided to pen some questions, which I hope Mr Belgiorno-Nettis will publicly answer. These questions are not personal. They’re political questions that bear on his sense of public responsibility and the behaviour of governments stretching back to the time of Malcolm Fraser.

First: You’re the founder of the newDemocracy Foundation and at the same time you are the beneficiary of investment in Transfield Services.Given the clash between democratic ideals and the realities of concentration camps, don’t you have a responsibility to divest your interests in Transfield Services?

Second: Is the quality of democracy damaged when governments, Tony Abbott’s for instance, try to operate camps on the sly? His government has clamped down on journalists. It has breached its obligations as a party to the Refugee Convention, refused access to the camps by UN monitors, launched a review that will probably never be publicly released. Doesn’t all this herald a form of moral collapse? Isn’t it tragically at odds with the stuff of democracy: fair-minded equality, human rights, public openness and due process of law?

Third: The newDemocracy Foundation funds small-scale, face-to-face experiments with Greek-style ‘deliberative democracy’. Don’t these experiments in effect encourage people to turn their backs on parliamentary politics, government and the corporate world, where the biggest decisions in fields like environment and immigration policy are increasingly taken without any measure of public accountability? In a strangely unintended way, isn’t there a mental and practical connection between your dabbling in ‘deliberative democracy’, where little real change happens, and businesses and governments that build concentration camps, and try to run them in silence?

Finally: The newDemocracy Foundation website says ‘the research evidence is compelling’ that ‘trusted outcomes are achieved when a diverse and representative group of citizens, randomly selected, deliberate together’. The inmates of Manus Island and Nauru are non-citizens. They’re the outcasts of a democracy that treats them as inferior foreign invaders, but they do have urgent stories to tell. So could someone in the Transfield group arrange a live-streamed public forum in the camps? Or perhaps you could fund an assembly featuring people who’ve spent time in such camps? It’d be technically easy, and low-budget. You’d surely have a huge audience of public witnesses, plus a long tail of follow-up social media coverage.

Will Mr Belgiorno-Nettis, or those who speak on his behalf, reply to these questions? I don’t know. Quite probably, his spokesmen will grumble and complain privately they’re being unfairly picked on. They’ll insist they do good work, and perhaps ask where all this talk of public responsibility ends. The real culprit, they might add, is government policy. Go pick on them.

I’m guessing these replies, in order to spotlight unanswered questions. I would like Mr Belgiorno-Nettis to address them, and to say something about why language matters in politics and what he thinks about the official double-speak that defines concentration camps as ‘detention centres’ holding victims renamed as ‘transferees’ and ‘customers’ of ‘people smugglers’.

I’d urge him to talk about weeping children; what it’s like to have no name, just a boat ID number. Or how it feels to be dragged without warning from bed in the middle of the night; and why camp inmates sleep in shifts, and shit their pants out of fear for their lives. How does he react when he hears their complaints that the very worst thing of all is uncertainty: the mental torture that results when nothing is explained by those who run the camps, so that victims have no idea what’s happening to them, for how much longer they’ll be imprisoned, or what the future holds?

It’s possible such questions have become politically redundant. Everybody may be terminally bored by the whole subject. Perhaps the country that once had an opal heart is giving up on democratic politics. Might the mainstream pundits and politicians have a point? Perhaps people deluded enough to still worry their heads about concentration camps are simply passé: crotchety moribunds from a bygone era.

Co-published by The Conversation the ABC’s The Drum on 29 April 2014

Disclosure: the author has in the past discussed possible project funding with the newDemocracy Foundation. No specific proposals were ever formally submitted, and no funding has ever been received.