HUGH MACKAY. It’s time for a national conscience vote

Jun 24, 2016


Whatever this ill-conceived double-dissolution (double disillusion?) election is about, it is clearly not addressing the issue that, more than any other, is redefining what it means to be Australian.

To judge by our asylum-seeker detention policy, Australians are the kind of people who would willingly and knowingly dehumanise those who have legitimately sought asylum here. It is part of ‘the Australian character’ to inflict prolonged mental torture on people who have done no wrong. And Australians – poor things – are apparently incapable of separating two quite distinct issues: the first, how to stop people smugglers from exploiting the most vulnerable people on the planet; the second, how to treat people who have already sought our protection.

Of course, most Australians are not as brutal, or as thoughtless, as that. And yet, at some time in our future – perhaps not far away – we will have attracted such opprobrium from the international community, and the voices of reason and compassion in our own midst will have been so clearly heard, that we will experience national shame to rival our response to the scandal of the stolen generations of Aboriginal children. There will be a national apology from some future government with a bigger heart – and a greater capacity for moral leadership – than the present one. There will be compensation payments.

More or less everything is wrong with the current policy, whether viewed from a humanitarian, a moral, or an economic perspective.

First, it fails, utterly, on humanitarian grounds. Do we not understand our international human-rights obligations to asylum-seekers? All but a very few (and they are easy to identify) are fleeing intolerable persecution and exerting their perfectly legal right to seek asylum here. They have the law on their side; we do not. But, regardless of the law, does anyone with a pulse seriously condone the treatment we are meting out to these hapless souls? Does any of us think that what is being done in our name on Nauru or Manus Island expresses the values we Australians claim to hold dear – respect for others, kindness to strangers, the need to treat people (yes, even criminals) with dignity, a commitment to the ‘fair go’ for all? Is a single one of us proud of what we’re doing to these fellow-humans? And can any of us claim – as we have about some other scandals in our past – that we don’t know what is going on?

Second, it is a moral disaster. You would have to be blinded by prejudice not to see the moral outrage involved here. Leaders on both sides of politics have repeatedly argued that the more harshly we treat people who have sought asylum in our country, the less likely others will be to seek asylum here. Just repeat that sentence in your mind a couple of times, and see where it takes you. It takes you, inescapably, to the proposition that the end justifies the means. This is the most slippery and ultimately indefensible moral principle of all, because it proposes that we can behave in a morally repugnant way in order to achieve a desirable objective. Oh, so bribery, corruption, torture and murder are justifiable, are they, if they are committed in the service of some higher purpose? Sorry to throw a spanner in the works, but the only defensible moral principle here is that everything we do to achieve a morally praiseworthy objective must itself be morally praiseworthy.

Third, it is economic madness. Just do the sums for yourself. Instead of encouraging asylum-seekers to be net contributors to our society by equipping them for gainful employment in the promised land of “jobs and growth”, we continue to throw away billions of dollars, year after year into an indefinite future, to keep them out. And we are supposed to be in a budget crisis.

Yes, we can be rightly proud of our official refugee program. Yes, it was the right move to take 12,000 Syrian refugees, especially as our very own air force has contributed to the mayhem and misery in that broken country. (Where are the 12,000, by the way? No one is saying.) Yes, we want to stop refugees drowning at sea – though you do that by diligent patrol and rescue, not by torturing those who have made it here. (Perhaps we should consult the Italian navy for advice.)

There was a telling moment, early in Malcolm Turnbull’s prime ministership, when he conceded that our asylum-seeker detention policy is harsh, ‘some might say brutal’, and it almost seemed as if he was about to say ‘so we must change it. We must address the people-smuggler problem some other way – by more regional co-operation, for instance, including better intelligence and policing – but we must treat those who have already sought our protection with dignity, respect and compassion. That’s the kind of people we are.’

But he didn’t say any of that. Instead, the following day, almost as if he had been taken aside by someone like Scott Morrison, he announced that the asylum-seekers now in detention will never come to Australia.

It’s a dismal situation. Lack of imagination; lack of conscience; lack of compassion; lack of leadership … on both sides. No wonder the Greens are set to pick up a chunk of the nation’s conscience vote.


Hugh Mackay’s new book, Beyond Belief, is published by Macmillan.  

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