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

Jun 5, 2014

“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.


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