Morality in a spin
Andrew Hamilton questions the direction of public
policy and the use of power in Australia.
In July, Australian public values found expression in two stories. The
first was Mr Downer's advocacy of Australian participation in any US operation
against Iraq. The second was the return to Woomera of two Afghan boys
who had escaped to Melbourne. They were put on the plane from Melbourne
even as their distraught father was coming there to visit them.
The most apposite comment on these events was written 2500 years ago by
the Greek historian, Thucydides. When offering the people of Melos the
choice between alliance and destruction, the Athenian ambassadors remarked:
When these issues are discussed by practical people, the standard of
justice depends on the equality of power to compel, and on the fact
that the strong do what they have the power to do and the weak accept
what they have to accept.
What the two traumatised boys returned to Woomera have to accept is clear:
further incarceration, distress, depression and worse. What the children,
women and men of Iraq have to accept is also clear. A people who already
suffer politically from a brutal regime, and whose health and sustenance
are already affected by trade sanctions, have to accept bombing, invasion,
and all the physical and social ills that are the lot of those against
whom war is waged.
These things the Afghan boys and the Iraqi people must accept because
they do not have 'the equality of power to compel'. So, from Australia
as ally of the powerful and as powerful in its own right, they can expect
a lesser standard of justice. Practical people in Australia, as in Athens,
do not object.
But for Thucydides, the Melos incident was not only an example of political
realism. It also marked a stage in the corruption of Athenian public life.
The people of Melos, who strangely preferred freedom to security and so
were slaughtered, lived by the ideals that had once inspired Athens. The
practical people who had come to power in Athens had lost the compass
that could protect them from subsequent miscalculation and practical disaster.
Later theorists would identify the corruption of public life with disregard
of the moral dimension of policy.
Judged morally, Australia's participation in a war against Iraq and its
treatment of asylum seekers are alike indefensible. If the military action
against Afghanistan was morally ambiguous, the grounds that may have supported
it are lacking in the case of Iraq. The sole defence offered is the removal
of a tyrant. There is no evidence that he supported the terrorists involved
on September 11. Nor does his possession of biological and chemical weapons
establish grounds for war. It is difficult to see how a war against him
could be described as legitimately authorised or as conducted with a right
intention. Finally, the sufferings that will come to the Iraqi and other
peoples as a result of the war seem totally disproportionate to the gain
expected in removing Saddam Hussein. The imprisonment of children who
seek asylum is also morally obnoxious, because detention is so injurious
to human dignity, especially to that of vulnerable children. Moreover,
even if the policy of deterrence were itself not immoral, its goalthe
integrity of Australia's borderswould be achieved without detaining
But moral considerations are irrelevant to practical people who know that
'the standard of justice depends on the equality of power to compel, and
on the fact that the strong do what they have the power to do and the
weak accept what they have to accept'. They see moral considerations as
no more than a matter of spin to be imparted after decisions are taken.
In Australia, as in imperial Athens, there are also those who believe
that a morally reasonable public policy is a condition for building a
humane and prosperous society. If called on to participate in the incarceration
of asylum seekers or in war against Iraq, they will consider whether they
can be complicit in forcing the weak to 'accept what they have to accept'.
Andrew Hamilton SJ is Eureka Street's publisher.