Neil McMahon and Nathan Grayson

The Millennial Conscience

“I’m sorry for the hurt our country has caused … if I could change places with you I would in a second…”

When was it that Australia became the kind of country in which a sentence like that — or this next one — made sense?
“In the cover of darkness this morning our government took my friend from his bed in Melbourne and flew him straight out to Christmas Island.”
When was it that we accepted that such a sentence described not just the behaviour we expected of our government, but behaviour of which we expressly approved? When did we become the country in which our kids — in this case, my nephew Nathan— would have to relate such events to describe what had happened to his friend?
“In the cover of darkness…”
“Took my friend from his bed…”
“Flew him straight out…”

Read those words again, and think about them, and of the kinds of countries and circumstances to which you once might have thought such descriptions were confined. Not here. Never here. Oh, yes they do. Now it’s what we do. That’s us. Our country. Our government. All of us. We tell them to do this in our name. We vote for it. Again and again and again.

That sentence was the opening line to a Facebook post last night from my nephew, who is 24, a mad surfer, a devoted Collingwood supporter, a self-taught player of the ukelele and the harmonica, with a generous soul and a huge heart, a keen awareness of the world around him and a conscience that kicks in when he sees the world not delivering on its promises. For a while now, he’s been doing volunteer work whenever he can find the time — sometimes two or three times a week if he can manage it — visiting asylum seekers and refugees in detention and in the community, providing them with everything from food, to advice and comfort, to deeper friendship. He loves doing it, and passionately believes Australia’s treatment of these people is wrong.

In recent week, rumours had swirled that at least one asylum seeker at the detention centre in Melbourne was going to be spirited in the night to Christmas Island. He and Nathan had become friends through Nathan’s volunteering. Not sure when the deportation might take place, on a couple of nights last week Nathan would finish work and then spend all night outside the detention centre gates, where he could bear witness if they tried to take his friend away.

But when they finally did it — in the early hours of Tuesday morning — he wasn’t there.

Here’s his full post from Tuesday night.

He may not have been there at the detention centre gate in the cold darkness of Tuesday morning, but Nathan is bearing witness anyway. I post this because he is my nephew and I’m proud of him beyond measure; because he is leading by action and example; and because this is a reminder that we can all do better — as people and as a country. We can certainly do more. Last night, I called Nathan a hero. He wasn’t having it: “Thanks mate. Although, I’m no hero. He is the hero in this. Him and the many others in the same spot who somehow manage to keep a smile on their faces and keep pushing through.”

Labour to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience. — George Washington, Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour

We’ve heard a lot in Australia in recent times about the “millennial” generation and the various sins committed against them by older Australians. The sins cited are mostly of an economic kind — of a workforce in which they can’t find firm and long-term footing, of a housing market denying them their birthright of a quarter acre block.

But neither a house with a mortgage nor a high-wage job are the measure of us. If they are, we’re in worse trouble than I thought. No, there is more to us than that. And there is more to the millennials than money lust. The one thing younger generations will not forgive — the legacy for which they will surely come to despise us the most — would be the bequest of a permanent blind eye and a rotting national heart, in a world that knows us as a place where people are taken away in the night.

GetUp has details of this week’s deportation, and a call for volunteers to be part of a rapid-response team to react to future sudden deportations. Click here