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Published in The Canberra Times 28 August 2011

The Howard, Rudd and Gillard governments have employed bullying as an instrument of government policy.

The Oxford dictionary defines bullying as; “subject to persecution, force by persecution into or out of doing; hired ruffian” and The American College Dictionary describes a bully as, “…a blustering, quarrelsome, overbearing person who browbeats smaller or weaker people; a man hired to do violence; to be loudly arrogant and overbearing; a pimp or procurer.”

Bullying is always wrong; it seeks to by-pass co-operation and consensus, rational discussion and decision making; it also seeks to intimidate and deny the intellectual process, basic human rights, including dissent, and the ability to negotiate time and place.

Bullies are, by nature, weak individuals. They lack the strengths – intellect, personality and character to bring about the outcome they desire and to assess or reassess the desirability of seeking that outcome. Fear and inflexibility are characteristics of bullying.

Bullying most often arises when there is an imbalance of power or at least a perception of one. That imbalance can be reversed by acquisition of sufficient influence, perhaps converted into power by the group or individuals previously the subject of bullying.

There is no act of bullying which, of itself, has the prospect of endorsement by anyone but the bully. However coercion might be employed against a person apprehended for a crime, suspected or caught trying to escape custody. It might be employed by a State seeking to bring about change in another. For example, sanctions against South Africa to end Apartheid.

Intimidation might be a precursor to an act of bullying or it might be undertaken to remove or reduce a threat, particularly on the part of nation states. However any act of intimidation is threatening, designed to bring about a favourable outcome, even if that is to reduce a perceived or possible threat.

Intimidation converted into an act to bring about an outcome not otherwise likely to be agreed to, would amount to an act of bullying and unlikely therefore to have been implemented without intent.

Howard’s policies toward asylum seekers were not designed to protect and embrace those most in need, but rather to deter people coming to Australia by boat. This policy did not extend to those coming to Australia on commercial airline flights.

The so-called boat people were visible and became more so with media coverage. Events in Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan pushed the number of asylum seekers coming to Australia by boat.

A small group of right wing activists and media commentators sensationalised the issue, and in doing so, injected emotion and racism into the way the issue was covered in the conservative media.

The resultant hysteria spread to other sections of the media, the government and the public service. It fed off itself and the government came to believe that its electoral prospects were tied to turning back the boats.

The events of 9/11 and the erratic emotions associated with terrorism, fed into policy relating to boat people, including mandatory detention inclusive of children, Temporary Protection Visas, the excision of northern islands from the migration zone and finally the Pacific solution of Christmas, Nauru and Manus Islands.

In panic and fear Rudd sought to get Tamil refugees processed in Indonesia while Gillard has instituted a policy of sending asylum seekers to Malaysia on a five to one swap in favour of Malaysia.

The rhetoric of the Gillard government has been to claim that they are trying to break the people smuggler business model and prevent people from taking to the high seas in dangerous leaking boats.

In order to do this the Gillard government has implemented and enforced policy, which gravely harms the people it claims to want to protect. Like its predecessors, it has deliberately chosen to further victimise the victims.

Abbott has indicated that he would return to Howard’s policies should he become Prime Minister.

Asylum seekers have limited power. What power they have resides within the strength of their character, the UN Refugee Convention and the willingness of governments to accede to that Convention and process asylum seekers accordingly.

The Australian government has been more inclined to comply with the Convention in respect to asylum seekers who arrive by air than by boat.

Boat people apparently threaten their electoral prospects, so they are treated differently, badly and publicly vilified. They are incarcerated like common criminals, shipped around the country without explanation and denied access to basic and required services, including physical and mental health.

All of this in the name of deterrence; it amounts to an unconscionable and prolonged act of state bullying.

Despite what the government indicates in its flawed dialogue with the Australian people, they are not stupid. The government condones indeed practices state sponsored bullying.

Why should kids on facebook, in the playground, at parties or on the footy ground behave differently? The government should be leading by example. Instead it shows no leadership.

Its cowardly bullying of the most vulnerable is setting a standard for the young and not so young which, undermines values once cherished and which are important in the maintenance of social cohesion.

Bruce Haigh is a social and political commentator.