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A Clash of Ideals

This article originally appeared at www.julianburnside.com.au. Reproduced gratefully with permission from the author.

The second series of Go Back To Where You Came From has highlighted a familiar clash of ideas and ideals. As Jonathan Green noted in The Drum on 30 August, the encounter was unlikely to shift either camp into the arms of the other. In those circumstances, it seems useful to try to identify what lies beneath the two stark positions. What is the bedrock which supports the views of Anderson, Reith and Smith on the one hand and Asher, Bailey and Deveny on the other hand.

The views of each camp seem to rest on unstated propositions which are worth exposing.

For Anderson, Reith and Smith, the basic propositions seem to include:

  • Some people are unlucky enough to be born into difficult circumstances
  • Australia cannot help all of them
  • While Australia is a generous nation, those who seek our help should do it the right way. We do not have to help illegal queue-jumpers
  • The end-point of their reasoning is that boat people are toying with us and should be sent back (or to the back of the queue if a queue can be found)

For Asher, Bailey and Deveny the fundamental propositions seem to include:

  • Australia can and should do more
  • The misery of individual suffering places an irresistible obligation on each of us
  • Those who do not meet that obligation are bad people
  • The end point of this reasoning is that every boat person should be welcomed with open arms, and anyone who thinks otherwise is a heartless person

Of course, each of these propositions will have varying degrees of influence on the thinking of each of the Go Back participants, but I think they are propositions without which it is difficult to understand the various attitudes of the participants. In addition, I have exaggerated the endpoint of both lines to help tease out the real problems.

The stand off is a familiar one. It flared up in 2001 when MV Tampa sailed into Australian politics and again after Tony Abbott became leader of the Opposition and saw a stick to beat the government with. (Incidentally, although I disagree with Abbott’s position and tactics in relation to refugees, he is right to be opposing the government: that is the role of the Opposition.)

The problem with the debate is that most of the propositions have a proper foundation in fact, so that each side feels unassailably right. As a person trained to argue cases, I know I could argue either side of this one. The fact is that the propositions can be shaded to allow an argument that suits you.

The fundamental question is: what argument do we want to make, and why?

A couple of the competing propositions deserve a closer look:

Australia cannot help all of them.

Of course it can’t. But there is no suggestion that it will ever be called on to do so. Boat people come here from a limited range of countries, at least for reasons of geography. To say that we cannot help them all does not advance the argument at all: but it raises a frightening spectre, which helps the argument along.

While Australia is a generous nation, those who seek our help should do it the right way. We do not have to help illegal queue-jumpers.

This is based on two falsehoods. First, the blunt fact is that boat people do not break any law by coming here. In international law they have a right to seek asylum in any country they can reach. Second, there is no queue where they come from. Given that a majority of boat-people in recent years have been Hazaras from Afghanistan, it is worth noting that the address of the Australian embassy in Kabul is a secret, for security reasons. Not much of a queue if you are not allowed to know where it is.

The ‘queue-jumper’ argument, although based on a falsehood, appeals to our Anglo notion of propriety, with its insistence on doing things the right way, but in relation to refugee movements it is unrealistic and provides a convenient shield for selfishness or vindictiveness. Refugee movements have always been messy, because people in extreme circumstances will generally place survival ahead of good manners.

To insist on rigid rules for refugee arrival betrays a complete failure to grasp the seriousness of a refugee’s situation. This probably explains the obvious discomfort of Anderson, Reith and Smith when confronted with the harsh realities of life in Kabul or Mogadishu.

The misery of individual suffering places an irresistible obligation on each of us.

This is psychologically true, but does not translate into workable policy: it would have us trying to help them all (or trying to help all the sympathetic ones, or the cute ones, or the ones who appeal to us individually). Connected to this, but much more compelling is the ethics of proximity: our obligation to help depends on how close the person is to us (both in relationship and geographically). The child who comes to the door pleading for help has a more pressing claim for help than a similarly distressed child on the other side of the world. Refugees who wash up on our shores have a greater claim on our care than the undifferentiated masses in another country, even though their claim for protection is equally valid.

Direct exposure to the misery of refugees in African camps or Kabul streets does not impose any obligation on us: but according to our psychology it may increase our will to help. The empathetic response is a necessary precondition to the shift from the ‘send them back’ camp to the ‘welcome them in’ camp.

Those who do not meet that obligation are bad people.

This is a proposition which is hard to justify, and is generally a visceral response which reflects the passions of the protagonist. Of course, some people who are able to remain stone-hearted in the face of another’s misery probably is a bad person, but the obligation to respond is a very subtle thing and the reasons for not meeting the obligation might or might not reflect something about the moral worth of the person involved.

Not surprisingly, reconciling these various propositions is ultimately a matter of personal philosophy and ethics.

It is true that there are people on this earth whose circumstances are desperate. It is also true that Australia is rich enough to be able to take many more refugees than it presently does. The government’s decision to significantly increase our annual refugee intake is tacit recognition of that obvious fact.

It is difficult to understand why we feel the need to ‘stop the boats’ given that the arrival rate of refugees they represent is comfortably within our capacity to deal with them. The mantra that we are concerned that they will drown trying to get here is at best a fig-leaf: a person killed by the Taliban is as dead as one who drowns. The fact that our conscience is less troubled if they die at home explains why the argument is made, but does not support it.

As a matter of ethics, it can never be right to treat innocent people harshly in order to influence the conduct of other people. Using harsh measures against innocent people as a deterrent is morally reprehensible. That is an ethical proposition few would contradict, and probably explains why the ‘send them back’ camp readily adopts the language of ‘illegals’ and ‘queue-jumpers’: this denies boat people the protection which innocence otherwise gives them.

What Go Back demonstrates is that, if we are to respond appropriately to the arrival of boat-people, we have to want to. Plainly enough, I place myself in the Asher, Bailey and Deveny camp, without necessarily embracing all their arguments. Their discomfort is the result of frustrated empathy; the discomfort of the Anderson, Reith and Smith camp seems to spring from an empathetic response, possibly unwelcome and certainly inconvenient, which runs headlong into their declared position. That is why they have to fall back on the key propositions above: propositions which in my view don’t take them where they need to be.

What Go Back shows, in what it reveals of the 6 participants, is that Australia really could do better in its handling of refugees. Practical and ethical arguments all point consistently in that direction. But we have to want to, and there’s the sticking point; an enduring legacy of the Howard era. ◾

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