John Menadue. Saving lives at sea!

To justify its harsh refugee policies, the government has been telling us that their policies are designed to save lives at sea. What hypocrisy!

And only last week we saw at the ALP Federal Conference, former Labor ministers justifying their ‘turn-back’ policies as a means to reduce drownings at sea.

Please spare us this charade.

The objective of our inhuman refugee policies is overwhelmingly political, to be seen to be tough on boat arrivals and win electoral support as a result. The object of the present government has been to deride the Labor party for its alleged softness on refugees and to parade its own toughness on boat arrivals, and particularly towards Muslims. It has been overwhelmingly playing to our fears of the foreigner. It is not about stopping drownings at sea.

John Howard led the breakdown of bipartisan policy on refugees and deliberately sought to divide the country by the promotion of fear. Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison followed even more unscrupulously. This promotion of fear of the outsider and the person who is different has been exploited to the full and it has paid off politically, to our great shame.

Boat people were no longer people in great need and distress. For political purposes they have been demonised. They were ‘illegal’ and akin to criminals. Scott Morrison told us that they brought diseases and wads of cash. We were told that they were so inhuman that they would even be prepared to throw their children overboard.

To justify these disgraceful policies we are now told continually that their purpose was to stop the drownings at sea.

If the objective was to stop the drownings, we would have been sending ships to rescue distressed people at sea. That is what the Italian navy has been doing. But we send out our ships to stop arrivals, return asylum seekers to Indonesia or detain them off shore almost indefinitely. It is not designed to save lives at sea.

During the Indochina outflow in the late 1970s and early 1980s there were tens of thousands of refugees drowned at sea. We will never know the number. Thousands were thrown overboard, raped or robbed by pirates on the high seas. But we did not turn away from the plight of desperate people by suggesting that if we helped it would only encourage more risky voyages and more drownings.

If we were seriously committed to a genuine policy of stopping drownings at sea, one would expect Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison to be nominated for humanitarian awards – perhaps a Nobel Prize each. But when they are honest with themselves they will know that this argument about their policies being designed to stop drownings at sea is disgraceful and dishonest nonsense.

And by what moral authority have we a right to say that we should stop desperate people taking risks for freedom. If a family is fleeing the Taliban or that death cult IS or fleeing persecution and facing death in Iraq or Syria have we a right to say that they should not risk their lives in flight either by land or sea. Surely it is for them to make the calculation that the risks in flight are less than the risks of staying in their homeland and facing persecution or worse. How can we honestly say that it is up to us to make the moral decision about whether other people should take risks for their own survival?

The whole campaign against boat arrivals is to politically exploit our fear. It is not to stop drownings at sea.

Let’s be honest with ourselves.

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John Menadue is the publisher of Pearls & Irritations. He has had a distinguished career both in the private sector and in the Public Service.

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