Michael Burge

Michael Burge

Journalist at No Fibs
Michael is an author and Guardian Australia journalist who lives on Ngarabal country in the NSW Northern Tablelands. He was was born at Inverell into a farming family with New England roots deeper than most. His debut novel Tank Water is out now from MidnightSun Publishing.
Michael Burge
Michael's articles about writers, performers, artists, creative rebels and the writing process are available at his website.


There’s no use beating around the bush: The Abbott Government has stopped the boats.

I am arts columnist for No Fibs, and I probably should be writing about the Arts. However, like many artists in Australia at the moment, I am experiencing plenty of distractions of the political kind.

I find it difficult to focus on creative expression while we have thousands of innocent people locked up in Australian detention centres, their images and stories used very creatively as propaganda to prevent others following in boats from Indonesia.

When I come up for air from my writing schedule, I see a nation in a state of fear. Fear about money, the fundamental mainstream issue Australians have made out of immigration, the environment and climate change.

A fortnight ago, I interviewed an asylum seeker advocate in an article which was picked up by Radio New Zealand, who booked me for an interview on the Saturday Morning programme with broadcaster Kim Hill.

The producers had not been totally clear about what we’d be talking about – asylum seekers, freedom of speech, or both. I answered Hill’s questions as best I could, but, as we wrapped-up, what I realised I hadn’t done was get in touch with how I genuinely feel about the reasons Australia has lost its way on human rights.

Perhaps it’s wise I didn’t, because what I would have become, live, on New Zealand’s national radio broadcaster, was an unstoppable and very media-unfriendly bleeding heart.

There’s no use beating around the bush: The Abbott Government has stopped the boats. The odd vessel is still setting out for Australia’s shores, but there is no arguing with the statistics, and the right-wing media has started celebrating.

Well done, Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Minister for Immigration and Border Protection Scott Morrison, Operation Sovereign Borders and its three-word parent ‘Stop The Boats’ has worked, and 60 per cent of Australians are happy about it. Well done Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd of the ALP for giving the Coalition plenty of ideas, avenues and deals to ensure its success.

We who are unhappy about it can do very little in the face of this bipartisan disaster for human rights – right now, Australians have no opposition representation against mandatory detention. Those who visit detainees are doing their best to ameliorate refugees’ suffering, but even that is being wound-back, with new restrictions on what sustenance or succour visitors to detention centres are allowed to bring to detainees.

Nothing is standing in the way of the dehumanising of people in Australia’s care. Nothing.

Whether Abbott and Morrison will now ‘Start the Processing’ of those in detention on Manus Island and Nauru, and in mainland detention centres, remains to be seen. History will judge these men by this moment.

All I really needed to prepare for my interview was to acknowledge their success, achieved whether I felt it was done in my name or not, and start the search for ways to counter the message of economic fear which has reared its ugly head in our country, again. That lives depend on the successful delivery of this message is to my shame. After all, another nation was listening.

The opposite message of economic fear is sharing, but sharing is a very hard sell indeed in Western economies.

Australians are known for voting through our bank balances – nothing like 60 per cent support could be found for Mr Abbott and Treasurer Mr Hockey’s Commission of Audit ideas today, including working until we’re 70, cutting social welfare, paying more for visits to the doctor, and a new (apparently temporary) debt ‘levy’ on those earning more than $80k to help get the nation back to black.

An attack on the human rights of people in need, and we cheer the government. An attack on our household bottom line, and we want to vote them out.

No wonder ‘Stop the Boats’ was the first, and to date, only one of Abbott’s big three items to get ticked off his Great Big Election Promises List.

On Saturday I told Kim Hill that what many need in this country is an end to the myth-making about asylum seekers. That was an awkward attempt at saying that what we seek is the truth, that which Operation Sovereign Borders does not trade in.

Under Howard, it was the ‘children overboard’ lies which got my goat enough to protest in 2002, and here we are again, marching, hoping for swinging voters to come to their senses about the lies of government.

Well, Australia’s lies have bolted, borne up by their three-word ease of motion.

And I suspect the elusive message of sharing is the silent score over images of the blood of the men who tried to hide from their attackers during the Manus Island riot. The undeniable red flow from hearts still beating.

This silence can really only be filled with waiting, simply waiting, for the truth to emerge.

You’ve stopped the boats, Mr Abbott, but just you try stopping my bleeding heart.