ANDREW HAMILTON. Triggs champions common compassion (Eureka Street 12/6/2018)

Jun 16, 2018

Common compassion is an aspiration more widely praised as a gift of Western Civilisation than accepted and practiced. But once government trash it with impunity we are all the losers.  

I was recently struck by a resonant phrase attributed to a Jewish Australian in the 1930s. He was trying to bring to Australia a Jewish family who were in grave danger in Austria.

Asked by an immigration official what made him want to bring the family of his daughter’s pen friend, none of whom he had ever met, he replied, ‘Common compassion.’ The family could not come, and most were later killed. His phrase lives on.

The story was told by Gillian Triggs in a talk on human rights given to the Xavier Social Justice Network in Melbourne. When president of the Human Rights Commission, she reported on the human rights abuses on Manus Island and Nauru. The jackals of the ruling party and its media supporters then hunted in packs to tear her down.

Common compassion can have many meanings, pertinent to public life as well as to personal virtue. It can name a compassion that is not special, is not based in strong emotion, but in respect as the bottom line in all human relationships. In the same way, we might speak of common decency.

It can also designate a compassion that pervades all human relationships, one that in this case links the applicant, the beneficiary family and the immigration official. It recalls to the official the humanity he shares with the threatened family.

Common compassion might also refer more broadly to a principle that grounds the commons and is the basis of public order and the relationship between rulers and people. It recognises the worth of each person and the respect that is owed to them by governments, prohibiting them from treating persons as things. In particular it is expressed in the Magna Carta, a document foundational for English and so for Australian polity. Par 39 is central:

‘No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land.’

In the context of the conflict between King John and the barons, these words limit the king’s power over individuals by interposing courts and the law. The later doctrines of the separation of powers between executive and judiciary and respect for the rule of law in democracies give expression to the principle.

Though abstract in form they are practical bulwarks against tyranny. They are also easily eroded if a fearful or inattentive people fails to resist when a government intent on control appeals to national security. Whenever a government strips away people’s access to legal appeal against their ill treatment, the rule of law is corroded, common compassion suffers, and with it the humanity of public life.

Triggs is one of many people who have pointed to the erosion of the rule of law in Australia in recent years. The legerdemain that gave the Australian government complete control over the lives of people on Nauru and Manus Island while depriving them of the protection of Australian Law, the refusal to process their applications for protection, the penalisation of whistle blowers and the withdrawal from court cases that were likely to declare government decisions illegal, are only some instances of this decline.

This restriction on the ability of courts to give persons relief from government oppression has spread to other jurisdictions. Examples such as detention without trial, mandatory sentences and punishment for membership of groups as distinct from criminal behaviour, all limit the rule of law.

These actions matter because each act of disrespect for the rule of law affects persons. They matter even more because they set in train a dynamic of corruption. Common compassion, the respect for each individual person that finds expression in respect for the law and the separation of powers, is injured with each failure to show respect. The injury leads in turn to greater readiness by governments to breach the rule of law and by people to accept it. The spiral corrupts the administration of justice, the relationship between government and the people it represents, and the relationships between groups in society. It makes for a coarser and more disengaged nation.

Common compassion is an aspiration more widely praised as a gift of Western Civilisation than accepted and practiced. But once government trash it with impunity we are all the losers.

Andrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.


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