Torture in a Kyriarchcal system



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5 Minutes

Guest post by Julie Macken, former journalist and political consultant. Using a pyscho-analytic/political frame Julie is currently doing her PhD into the question of how Australia became a nation that tortures asylum seekers.

A beach on Nauru

In his prize-winning work, No friend but the Mountains, film-maker, author, refugee and journalist, Behrouz Boochani, and his collaborator, Omid Tofighian, describe the power structure that sustains Australia’s detention regime as a Kyriarchcal system. This term describes the amplifying, interlocking and potentiating forms of oppression that make Australia’s detention camps, sites of such extraordinary brutality. In this post, I draw on my PhD research investigating how Australia became a nation that tortures people seeking its protection. I suggest it is the kyriarchcal system emanating from a melancholic psycho-affective terrain that creates the ecology necessary to produce this abuse and torture.  

If nations are, as proposed by Benedict Anderson (1983), “imagined political communities,” we need to investigate the contents of our collective imaginings. It is in these imaginings we find, not only the ecology of torture, but also the psycho-affective terrain from which these imaginings arise.

I first heard Australia accused of state sanctioned torture in September 2002. I was a senior writer with The Australian Financial Review (AFR) newspaper and in that capacity, I attended Australia’s first Mental Health Alliance for Refugees conference, where senior psychiatrists revealed the findings of their research into the mental health impacts of Australia’s policy of mandatory, arbitrary and indefinite detention: children attempting suicide, women so damaged they had become paralysed and blind, men sewing their lips together and others taking so much medication they slept 20 hours a day. The revelations continued in grim detail for hours until Professor Michael Dudley from University of NSW (UNSW) said, “What all of this describes is state sanctioned torture. Australia is torturing refugees in these camps.”

Getting back to work I told the news editor that senior medicos had found Australia guilty of state sanctioned torture of refugees, and that I would file a story on that. His response shocked me then and shocks me still.  “No paper I edit will ever run a story like that – Australia doesn’t torture people,” he said. “It’s not who we are.”

I never got to write that story for the AFR, but it has been written in numerous reports from reputable sources such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the report Protection Denied Abuse Condoned, authored by myself, Professor Lawrence, Professor Bacon, Pamela Curr and Claire O’Connor S.C, to name just a few.

It was not just my failure to get the story published that has left me wondering about the exchange between the news editor and myself. It was his powerful assertion that, “it’s not who we are” - his response grounded in the confidence of a “good” Australia and a “we” that could be relied upon to not torture other people.

Since 2002 life in Australia’s detention regime has deteriorated further. Twelve people have died from medical neglect, suicide and murder and many more have been sexually assaulted and beaten in Nauru and Manus Island. Australia’s treatment of refugees has been found to be cruel and inhumane and to constitute torture.

How did Australia become that nation?

To ask this question is not to deny the violence at the heart of Australia’s colonisation by the British. Massacres, dawn raids, poisoning flour and waterholes, violent theft of land, children and culture are all part of the white Australian story and history. I am not suggesting torture is new to Australia. Rather that the abuse and torture of asylum seekers only became commonplace post 1996. Prior to that, the idea of abusing refugees was unimaginable. As Neil Blewetts’s, A Cabinet Diary, makes clear the Australia of the early 1990’s was a place where the suggestion that refugees be “interned” at Port Hedland was dismissed as absurd with Blewett saying, “This is a nonsensical proposal – politically unsellable to the liberal constituency…”

Torture is a word that conjures images of Abu Ghraib, darkened rooms and blood-spattered walls. Here my use of the word more closely reflects the description offered by Danielle Celermajer as a “banal form of torture”. Psychiatrists who have worked with women and men incarcerated in Australia’s detention complex describe a system designed to destroy the selfhood of those detained. These practices include the capriciousness of changing the rules daily, of calling people by a number, lethal levels of medical neglect and the practice of moving deadlines and decisions so asylum seekers never know where or whether their claims are being processed.

I propose that the systemic abuse of asylum seekers has arisen out of an inherently racist two-step dynamic. Firstly, that torture was the result of operationalising a number of strategies that include but are not limited to the neo-liberal decision to privatise and then offshore the detention of refugees with attendant loss of transparency; the invocation of Georgio Agamben’s state of exception as the Australian government negotiated the liminal space between international treaty obligations and its own lawlessness, and finally the use of propaganda that framed those seeking Australia’s protection as a dangerous/non-valid other.

Secondly, and critically, I suggest Australia needs to be understood psycho-analytically as well as geo-politically, legally and ideologically. The strategies that enabled the public to accept the torture of asylum seekers make sense only if we see Australia as a psycho-affective field as well as a political, economic and cultural space. I am arguing these political and discursive developments described above were effective because they emanated from an unconscious melancholic pyscho-affective field that mobilised a powerful majority of Australians. Here I am using the Freudian understanding of melancholia as mourning denied with the attendant psychic splitting such a denial demanded.

My PhD research is in the process of tracing the pyscho-political delineation of this transition from a nation in mourning with its attendant truth-telling and acceptance of reality; to a nation in denial of the need to mourn with the attendant melancholic traits of loss of vitality and reality and splitting. It is this splitting that enables the Australian public to effectively perceive asylum seekers as the Other. Having achieved psychological and relational separation from asylum seekers, almost any level of abuse becomes acceptable if it ensures the Australian community remains free of the contamination of the Other.

I argue that from 1972 to 1996, Australia had been engaged in the national project of mourning the violence of its colonisation that culminated in the Redfern Speech by then-Prime Minister Paul Keating. An imperfect and unfinished business, by 1996 the Prime Ministership of John Howard vigorously foreclosed on that phase by declaring there would be no looking back, no black armband reflections on the nation’s colonisation. With the need for mourning denied, melancholia arose in its place. This denial of the truth led inexorably to splits emerging across the nation leaving it vulnerable to the primitive phase described by psychoanalyst, Melanie Klein, as paranoid/schizoid.

This is an infantilised split psychic position from which the “all-good” white Australia could denounce the Other now in the form of those seeking asylum at the nation’s shores. As asylum seekers were now carrying the projected psychic material of a mourning still-born, it was essential the nation drive refugees offshore. Essential because refugees now carried the toxic cargo of Australia’s disavowed anxiety, shame and fear of discovery with them.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Macken, J. (2021). Torture in a Kyriarchcal system. Available at: [date]


Found within

Detention centres; immigration detention; border control; unaccompanied minors; Australia; Nauru; mental health


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