Hugh Mackay. Immoral acts – that’s one way to stop the boats.

“No boats have arrived for 36 days!” That was the recent proud claim of our immigration minister, Scott Morrison, delivered in a tone that suggested we should all cheer such a wonderful accomplishment.

In fact, given the strategies employed to achieve this result, we should hang our heads in shame. We are living through a dark period in our cultural history where politicians like Morrison are actively encouraging a dulling of our moral sense by appealing to that most dangerous moral principle of all: “The end justifies the means”.

It’s not just this government, of course: the stain on our national conscience has been spreading for years, through the life of several governments from both sides of politics. And an odd things about this situation is that our leaders – normally so timid in the face of the polls – are seriously out of step with the majority of Australians (who, according to two reputable national surveys, favour rapid, onshore processing of asylum-seekers’ claims).

We can tip-toe around this and speak of “human rights abuses”, or a lack of compassion, or a failure to honour our international treaty obligations. But why mince words in the face of the intentional brutality – psychological and physical – being inflicted on asylum-seekers imprisoned on Christmas Island, Nauru and Manus Island, by an elected Australian government? Why not call our asylum-seeker policy what it is: immoral.

It’s immoral because it treats people who have committed no crime as if they were criminals. It’s immoral because it fails to honour that most basic of all moral principles: treat others as we ourselves would wish to be treated. Even if we add the caveat “in the circumstances”, the principle doesn’t go away.

There are many situations in which we are bound to treat people more harshly than we would wish to be treated ourselves: we do it with criminals; we do it with enemies; we do it with people we’re retrenching, or lovers we’re abandoning. But even in situations like those, members of a self-proclaimed civil society are obliged to treat everybody with appropriate dignity and respect – two ingredients glaringly absent from life in an Australian detention centre.

Our asylum-seeker policy is also immoral because it involves bad behaviour in the pursuit of a “good” goal. Given the vast scale of the world’s refugee crisis, it’s arguable whether stopping the boats is, in fact, a morally praiseworthy goal, but let’s accept, for the moment, that it is (and stopping rapacious people-smugglers is undeniably good). Precisely because it is a good goal, everything done in pursuit of that goal must be good. If not – if we fall for the mad idea that we can behave badly in pursuit of a good goal – then we have compromised our own integrity and tarnished the very values we are claiming to uphold.

If you embrace the idea that the end justifies the means, then you’ll be stuck with accepting torture as a legitimate way of extracting useful information. You’ll accept that bribery and corruption are justifiable ways of achieving political or commercial goals. You’ll endorse assassination as a legitimate tool of the political struggle.

Is that us? Is that the moral framework Australians want our governments to adopt when dealing with hapless souls who arrive here, by whatever means, as asylum seekers? Are we so committed to the sloganistic ideal of “stopping the boats” that we think it’s morally okay to incarcerate such people – men, women and children – in conditions deliberately designed to dehumanise them, rob them of hope and destroy their faith in the future (including their faith in Australia as an honourable, civilised, compassionate society). Do we seriously believe this strategy can be justified on the grounds that it might discourage others from trying to come here?

Do we think it’s morally acceptable to condemn authentic refugees to the crushing uncertainty of temporary protection visas, and to deny them the right to work here? (Economic stupidity, as well: fancy deciding it’s better to support them than to encourage them to support themselves and, in the process, make a useful contribution to our economy.)

We have become participants in a tragedy that will attract as much opprobrium in the future as the “stolen generations” and White Australia do now. Having chosen to behave immorally, we are setting ourselves up not only for international condemnation, but also for massive compensation claims in the future and, no doubt, yet another hollow apology to the thousands of people we have abused because we adopted that tacky mantra “whatever it takes”.

If we really want to stop the boats, we should demand that our politicians, diplomats and aid agencies find morally acceptable ways of doing so. To pursue such a difficult goal in a state of moral blindness is hazardous in the extreme.

There’s an ironic little twist to this tale. Many Australians who support the present brutal policy seem to think they are defending “Christian values” against an invasion of infidels. But isn’t the very essence of those values that we should show kindness to strangers, offer support to the weak and disadvantaged, and succour to the poor, the hungry, the dispossessed who come knocking at our door?

Hugh Mackay is a social researcher and author.


Hugh Mackay AO is a social researcher, and the author of 13 books in the fields of social psychology, social analysis, communication and ethics, and eight novels.

This entry was posted in Human Rights, Politics, Refugees, Immigration and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

41 Responses to Hugh Mackay. Immoral acts – that’s one way to stop the boats.

  1. Avatar pamelacurr says:

    THANKYOU Hugh- yr Saturday wisdom is missed.
    Young women are being flown from Nauru to Brisbane
    to terminate their pregnancies. The woman do not
    think that their babies cant survive in the offshore
    Camp there because conditions are so bad
    They are requesting abortions rather than
    bring their babies into a place where
    there is no hope. Surely this is a damning
    indictment on Offshore Policy.
    They are flown to Brisbane and then back in 2 days.
    Two changed their minds when the moment arrived
    – they were angrily returned to Nauru.

  2. Avatar Milton Moon says:

    If one judged Australian morality by the number of unsolicited racist emails that appear on my computer screen every week we have a fair number of racist citizens in our midst.
    If one were to judge our so-called Christian morality by the actions of some from both sides of the political fence it would indicate the compassionate core of religion is either not understood, or is totally disregarded. We will be severely judged by history.
    Those of us, like me, who are now old can think back to the days when there was an influx of post-war arrivals from all parts of the world. Some resented their arrival, but the passage of time shows that they enriched our social lives and matured us in so many ways which we now accept as the norm. Why do some of us still resist what is there for even the most stupidly bigoted to see.
    Finally, it is shameful that the counting of votes determines our moral values. I am glad this article by Hugh Mackay has been re-posted.

  3. Avatar Pat Rayner says:

    Well said

  4. Avatar Jim Latta says:

    “Stupidity is on the rise in our age of enlightenment” Barry Jones
    The understatement of the decade?
    Great article Hugh … well done.

  5. Avatar Ruth Horsfall says:

    Beautifully said. This situation is an ethical abomination, a stain on our humanity.

  6. Thank you Hugh for such a strong article. I agree with all your arguments and only lament they are not reaching a wider audience. The increasing government interference in the ABC is sadly ensuring that. Scary times!

  7. Avatar Graham Scott says:

    A powerful, powerful piece of writing. As my daughter responded, it should be placed on huge billboards around the country.

  8. Dr Alex Wodak AM Dr Alex Wodak AM says:

    It seems tacitly understood nationally that the choice is between an effective but immoral response or a response which is ineffective but moral. And this framework will continue until a coherent Plan B is presented which is both more effective and more moral. That can only happen if the fraudulent basis of the fundamental analysis of the problem is revealed. Above all, denying the very understandable struggle for asylum sets up a market with providers and consumers. The more severe the punishment of providers, the higher the price demanded from consumers and thus the more lucrative the profits. It is so ironic that the champions of denial of asylum claim also to be the champions of the market economy. Yet billions are being squandered in this cruel but also futile exercise. Milton Freidman pointed out that so often when government policy starts failing, good money gets thrown after bad. I take some comfort from Herb Stein’s comment that ‘things that cannot go on forever don’t’. But it’s excruciating watching this.

  9. Avatar James Sloan says:

    Hugh McKay is a decent man. Unfortunately, we cannot say the same about the politicians who have inflamed this issue ever since August 2011 when John Howard decided the way to win an election was to demonise another decent man (Arne Rinnan, the Norwegian captain of the Tampa). The horrible state of affairs has continued ever since.

  10. Avatar Michael D. Breen says:

    Dirk and others commenting seem to corroborate a lot of what I was attempting to say. Obviously there are moralists, from Heraclitus to today including Sauls. I studied moral philosophy and ethics for about 8 years. However my point is that it is not the philosophers or philosophies which exist but which are adhered to, followed, pracitsed. There has always been a good book: but how was it used? Our nation is obviously one detatched from a moral framework, no matter how many say they have a morality, of their own. We have a Darwinian world where corporate dog eats little dogs. We have a government which is a group of existential ethicists, detached from their western christian tradition and servants of corporate greed unelected overlords. The challenge IMHO is to find some, any, moral principles we agree on and can use to have an effect on behaviour or government decisions. But what do we do about it? Seen any decent civil disobedience lagtely? Or moratoria? Just to say we are colluding with a government which is immoral in its ethos and decisions seems to me winging about the bleeding obvious.

  11. Avatar Gerri Devenish says:

    Well said Hugh,Thank you Simon Chapman for getting to a wider audience. I can barely believe that so many people do not seem to see how horrific this regime is and the depths to which a once reasonably fair country has sunk.

  12. Avatar Rosemary Drabsch says:

    A dark time for the so-called “Lucky Country” of fair and compassionate values. Now we are living under CORPORATE values.

  13. Avatar Merryn Carter says:

    It’s depressing to think that our country has become such a moral wilderness. We’ve really lost our way if we think it’s OK to treat human brothers and sisters this way. ‘Stop the boats’ will go down in our history as one of the low points, and the Abbott government will be remembered with shame.

  14. Avatar FromMe2Ewe says:

    Unfortunately many of the right-wing, red-neck racists out there DO believe the end has justified the means. Even if that means war and international condemnation. Vale to a decent Australia 🙁

  15. Avatar andrew evans says:

    A question for all the supporters.

    How many people dying is an acceptable number to those who see themselves as more compassionate?

    So i have food for starving people and instead of bringing it safely to them i make it difficult for them to get to but i feed those that make it and consider those that die trying collateral damage and marvel at my compassion at being willing to feed those who are starving.

  16. Avatar Marilyn says:

    There are no such thing as rapacious people smugglers doing anything, people are allowed by law to pay anyone they can to escape danger and travel anyway they can. There is no law on the planet that makes that smuggling or illegal. Another lazy piece of brainwashing in an otherwise good article.

    Let’s get this clear now once and for all -RUDDOCK INVENTED THE SMUGGLER LIES IN 1999, they did not exist up to that time.

  17. Avatar Bill P says:

    Well said Mr Hugh: Respect Respect Respect is what is missing, respect for fellow human beings, respect for ethical behaviour, respect for others’ situations; To fellow ‘oh so comfortable’ Australians, I say you have absolutely no idea how fortunate you are, and I urge you to let this piece make you very uncomfortable about the potentially very dangerous symptoms and signs for the society our grandchildren with inherit.

  18. Avatar David says:

    If I were an assylum seeker I would expect that a decent country like Australia should be would be taking as many refugees as it could (perhaps more than it could). I would understand that many many others may be in a worse off situation than I and that I should put those others ahead of myself. In desperation if I did make a bad choice and decide to catch a boat to Australia and seek assylum I would expect that yes the country may decide to not accept me and that I may be detained but in a humane way. I would accept that the ultimate reason for my terrible situation lay with the breakdown in my home country. I would expect decent foreirgn governments to bring pressure upon my home country and advise it on how to act in a better manor.

    I agree the means should not justify the ends, but I am unconvinced that the means in this case are immoral. The assylum seekers situation is terrible but opening the borders to potentially hundreds of thousands in some kind of a assylum boating challenge does not seem to me to be the solution.

  19. Avatar Barbara Drury says:

    Thankyou Hugh for expressing the issue so well. I am sure I am just one of many who can’t find the words for the depth of my outrage over what is happening in detention centres in our name.

  20. Since last night, my tweet has go to 58,000 accounts — a bit shy of a million, but hey, more than half the MCG!

  21. Avatar Carrol Brown says:

    Is our PM a Christian? He is a man who uses the name of the God to justify some of his actions but are his actions Christian? I think not as do most faithful Christians who follow Christ as opposed to nominal Christians

  22. An interesting look at the moral side of the issue. I don’t doubt that the Abbott government realises they are taking immoral actions (being a good Catholic Abbott must know what Jesus said about the poor and hungry of the world), but they seem to have decided that the ‘greater good’ is a political victory for the Liberal party. I think that “stopping the boats” is a means to an end for Abbott, that end being another election won.

  23. Avatar de Sousa says:

    True, benevolent, succinct and perspicacious. Oh to have leaders who aspired to these qualities! Thank you Hugh and John both.

  24. Avatar mludowyk says:

    I thoroughly agree. I am ashamed of my country and can’t believe a majority of Australians think this is OK. But how do we convince the racists among us and our politicians to change this awful situation? I feel like the good people in Germany must have felt during the holocaust. I keep complaining about but I feel powerless.

  25. Avatar Anne Holland says:

    Very interesting article

  26. Avatar Wallj says:

    Neil, just because a mouse lives in the cookie jar doesn’t make him a cookie. Our PM talks Christian values but doesn’t demonstrate much understanding of them. Great article, Hugh, thank you for speaking out.

  27. Avatar Paul says:

    “Many Australians who support the present brutal policy seem to think they are defending “Christian values” against an invasion of infidels.” Hugh Mackay

    You nailed that one Hugh enjoyed the article thanks.

    The real irony is railing against the other Abrahamic value systems. They all carry the ‘Rules Must Be Obeyed” domination principles of win at all costs altitude. Punitive thinking with punishment a godly. The worldview because of the altitude that cannot see ‘the forest for the trees’.

  28. Avatar Marian Spencer says:

    Thanks for posting John – these are dark days indeed

  29. Avatar Neil Carver-Smith says:

    Be Discouraged. Many christians do hold such skewed values and our PM is one of them.

  30. Wonderful piece Hugh. I have tweeted it, urging that we try to get a million retweets and send it viral, globally. It is going gangbusters! Will check tweetreach later tonight for data

  31. Avatar johno0910 says:

    Hugh Mackay again a beacon of light for a nation blinded by a generation of poor leadership.

  32. Avatar Dirk says:

    Michael Breen asserts that our challenge is to find a moral foundation on which solutions to the questions Hugh raises can be answered. The fathers of ethical theory in Kant, Rawls etc. have excellent theories can be applied in any context – I recommend anyone unfamiliar with them have a bit of a read into Kant and Rawls. The basic premise of any ethical theory is that we look after our fellow man, especially those who are disadvantaged. The Australian Federal government has no interest in ethical behaviour so we must raise our voices until they acknowledge that the Australian public does care about people, no matter where they were born.

  33. We’ll said, Hugh Mackay!

  34. Be encouraged. Many Christians don’t hold such skewed values. We agree with everything you say. I am one of them.

  35. Avatar Michael D. Breen says:

    To call our behaviour immoral implies that we know what is moral and what is not. But where is Australia’s moral compass? What is the basis of our moral principles or practice? Who is going to rise up against a decision because it is immoral? Who even knows what the ‘ends justifying means’ means?
    One possibility is that we are so comfortable that we don’t care what the politicians and companies do as long as they leave me alone and I can make a bob. A more worrying possibility is that we have become moral imbeciles. Just as there is a range of intelligence from genius to dullard so there is a moral scale from enlightened saint to an ammoral person( a moral imbecile). Our challenge is to try to discover a basis or foundation for any kind of moral or ethical thinking and decision making, especially in a post christian era. Immoral might sound like high moral ground but it is old currency, Hugh.

Comments are closed.