The former Commissioner of Australian Border Force, Roman Quaedvlieg, took time out of pouring petrol on the au pair scandal last week to pen his reflections on a far bigger scandal that is somehow not really a scandal at all. Initially self-published, then re-posted on Meanjin, Quaedvlieg wrote about a trip he took to Nauru in the second half of 2015:
I laced my Nike Flyknit trainers in my room, ensuring I set the air-conditioning to the highest fan setting and the lowest possible temperature before I headed off on a 7km run back through the Anibare Bay Area. Experience had taught me that if I didn’t cool off quickly after running in high heat and humidity that I’d still be sweating profusely when getting ready for the early evening BBQ dinner […] As I showered, first in cold water and then in warm water to keep my skin pores open and breathing, I was searching for a word, a phrase, that could adequately describe the overall impression of my observations of Nauru so far.
The tone and voice, the obligatory brand-check, the tedious, pointless details and the strange obsession with personal grooming seemed familiar. Compare it to, say, this passage:
I worked out heavily at the gym after leaving the office today but the tension has returned, so I do ninety abdominal crunches, a hundred and fifty push-ups, and then I run in place for twenty minutes while listening to the new Huey Lewis CD. I take a hot shower and afterwards use a new facial scrub by Caswell-Massey and a body wash by Greune, then a body moisturizer by Lubriderm and a Neutrogena facial cream.
Roman Quaedvlieg reads like Patrick Bateman.
The verbosity that makes American Psycho almost unreadable in parts permeates every paragraph of Quaedvlieg’s reminiscences. A cargo vessel bobs ‘like a cork in a turbulent tub while fluro-vested peons affixed cargo netting’. He’s not attentive; rather his ‘ears pricked up at the occasional synaesthetic colouring in the otherwise monochrome solilophy’. And he doesn’t just think through a problem, he tries ‘to dissolve a cognitive knot’.
There are times when Quaedvlieg, like Bateman – slaves to their consuming compulsion for tedium – abandons any semblance of narrative altogether and, instead, just starts making lists. Quaedvlieg’s ‘dreamy reverie’ (anyone who uses adjectives so liberally is bound to strike upon a tautology or two) includes ‘Paul Gauguin, Thor Heyerdahl, Somerset Maugham, James A. Michener and the Reverend Missionary John Williams’ (yeah, we get it, you’re an Intellectual). The answer to one of his questions is punctuated with the ‘usual words’: ‘Corruption, profligacy, elitism, political, fraudulent, poor investments, bankruptcy.’ Dogs aren’t just dogs, they’re ‘semi-domesticated, mangy, dingo-esque, yapping and biting at the lower legs’. Dinner includes: ‘Buffet salads and breads, tropical fruits, marinated BBQ meats, and a modest selection of Australian beer, wine and soft drinks.’ The ‘least professional’ security contingent are recognisable by their ‘bellicosity, tightly tailored shirts, muscularity on display, “special forces” watches, cargo-pant trouser legs tucked into steel-toed Magnum boots, webbed utility belts cluttered with accoutrements, and lanyards tucked pre-emptively into their epaulettes in the event of a physical confrontation.’ Okay, enough.
Quaedvlieg also possesses the most Batemanesque trait of all; he is self-referential without being self-reflective. When he spots two refugee men holding hands and is told that they’re the only two openly gay men on the island, he writes:
They had consciously chosen to live overtly as a gay couple and for their perceived sin they had been harassed often and assaulted occasionally. They walked into the Capelle & Partner supermarket with empty woven bags, I presumed to buy ingredients for dinner.
Well, one can’t question his powers of presumption. But there’s a cold detachment in the way he juxtaposes the two realties of their daily lives: the constant threat of violence and the most mundane of tasks are placed side by side, as if of equal value and significance. This would be bad enough were he just an impartial observer, but he’s not.
It’s never entirely clear what role he sees himself playing in the horror show all around him. On the first day, looking out over Nauru’s once rich phosphate deposits, Quaedvlieg observes a ‘barren landscape of spires bearing testament to the callous greed of colonialism.’ He wakes the next morning ‘still thinking about the history of colonisation of Nauru’. But it’s a history that extends until the present day; the small island nation is still essentially an Australian colony. Nauru is still economically dependent on its larger neighbour and, in return, is made to warehouse the refugees the Australian government sees as superfluous. Does Quaedvlieg not recognise this and see that he is, by extension, a very significant cog in the colonial wheel? Or does he see himself as a kind of morally superior observer like John Flory, ‘the lone and lacking individual trapped within a bigger system that is undermining the better side of human nature’, in Burmese Days?
Speckled throughout his over-wrought prose, Quaedvlieg makes some frank admissions about the conditions on Nauru: ‘the hospital was a veritable ruin’; Fly Camp, village-style accommodation for those granted refugee status, ‘was jolting in its squalidness’ and the atmosphere at processing centre ‘was dangerously reminiscent of the prisons I had been in’ and its population showed the ‘unsettling signs of the volatility of an incarcerated population’. But these conditions, although regularly refuted by the government, have been described in far greater detail elsewhere. Quaedvlieg isn’t providing anything new here.
As he’s preparing to leave Nauru, the fearless Commissioner pushes his way through the throng and engages in conversation with a Nauruan he spots leaning against a fence in the distance:
He was employed by the Australian OPC contractor to deliver material and food to Fly Camp and was its dedicated liaison officer. I asked him about the attacks on the camp by locals and he smiled wryly as he told me of the provocations. I asked him about drugs in the camp and he asked me what I wanted and how much.
I asked him about the availability of alcohol in the camp and he told me it depended on the reliability of contraband shipments, but he showed me an area off a slope at the edge of the camp where thousands of bottles and cans lay discarded. I asked him about prostitution and he pointed at three teenage Nauruan girls seated waiting on the other side of the road for me to leave.
Is this passage meant to imply that the refugees are not guilt free? That they’re not innocent victims? That they bear some responsibility for the squalid situation they’ve found themselves in?
Quaedvlieg, whose quick-cast aspersions disingenuously question the character of refugees, doesn’t once probe his own moral culpability in the cruelty that surrounds him. That sort of self-examination – which he seems incapable of – would be worth reading; instead, he’s indulged his undergraduate literary fantasies and produced a prison island travelogue, in which he – the very important, very capable high official – is at the centre (‘I instinctively switched into a state of hyper-alert as the first perceptions hit my sense, my sixth sense screaming’) and the prisoners and lowly officials are mere props in his world.
(This was originally published in Overland on 11th September, 2018.)