Hard Truths

17 September 2019

Photo by Ivor Prickett for the New York Times

In collaboration with the New York Times, The University of Melbourne is playing host to ‘Hard Truths’, an exhibition showcasing photographs from conflict zones around the world. A panel discussion was held in Arts West on Thursday, the 12th September, to discuss the polarizing question: is the global approach to migration broken?

These photographers—including Tomas Munita, Meridith Kohut, Ivor Prickett and Adam Ferguson, have often risked their lives to bear witness from the world’s front lines, and their profound images depict the experiences of struggle and survival in some of the most embattled areas on our planet. This exhibition is in extremis from behind the lens, a tribute to the outstanding journalism that relentlessly thrusts the human face of conflict into the public consciousness. These photos chronicle the ravaged streets of Mosul, the turbulence of Venezuelan protests, the arid isolation of the Australian outback—as people go about daily life against the backdrop of political turbulence and climate devastation. These images are challenging: they seek to confront, to provoke, to raise questions about media coverage of conflict, and to consider how we respond to it.

Over the past several weeks Australia has watched in horror as Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton has vehemently denied the Biloela Tamil family the right to stay in the country. Last week, Dutton described the family’s children, who are 4 and 2, as “anchor babies” condemning their attempt to “leverage a migration outcome based on children”. Dutton’s comments immediately drew comparison to President Trump, who has deployed identical rhetoric in his various attacks on immigrants in the United States. This misguided attempt to defend the government’s appalling treatment of the family garnered much criticism, as a symbol of the cynical, inhumane approach of the Morrison government to refugees and asylum seekers.

This fundamental lack of compassion for other human beings was a central pillar of Thursday’s panel discussion, which saw New York Times Australia Bureau Chief Damien Cave in conversation with QC Julian Burnside, human rights lawyer, Professor Karen Farquharson, who researches the sociology of identity and race, and moderated by Professor Michelle Foster, the inaugural director of the Peter McMullin Center on Statelessness at Melbourne Law School.

The discussion interrogated the tensions surrounding global migration and the media’s role in influencing and reflecting public attitudes towards migration. Is compassion itself being demonized? Are we living in a period of global apartheid? How do we avoid being apathetic to the onslaught of horrendous news stories we face every day? The panel dissected these heavy questions, emphasizing the role of the media in delivering easy, accurate and accessible information to citizens in order to mediate the polarizing rhetoric which surrounds people smugglers, refugees, and illegal immigration in Australia.

Burnside emphasized Australia’s long history of productive engagement in human rights discourse, as one of the founding members of the UN Declaration of Human Rights and one of the first to ratify the subsequent refugee convention.

The panel collectively that noted it is these purportedly Australian values of ‘mateship’, of a ‘fair go’, so frequently weaponised by Scott Morrison and still brandished as integral to our social fabric, which seem to evaporate in the face of migration discourse.

It was compassion that seemed to trouble the panel—has it been lost? Why is Australia behaving so remarkably un-Australian towards people in need, people seeking help from the lucky country? Cave, an American, remarked that as an outsider, he observes a profound disjuncture between the makeup of Australian parliament and the demographics of the society it is meant to represent. Tolerance and compassion manifested clearly in the response to the treatment of the Biloela Tamil Family, where the Australian community mobilized in support of the family: holding vigils, protests, and sit-ins to voice their opposition to such hard line immigration policies. Australia is a party to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, as well as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Our treatment of refugees and asylum seekers has been consistently condemned by the United Nations.

Whether this current political moment is an anomaly or just the beginning of an extended period of nationalism is unclear. Burnside argued we need to use sovereignty to “build us up rather than divide us”, in an era in which Cave observed “compassion has been displaced by fear”. It is these ‘hard truths’ that we must face, interrogate, resolve.

The New York Times’ photography exhibition is on display in the Arts West foyer until 11 October 2019.


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