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A moment of compassion and solidarity that nurtures hope


The Prime Minister's announcement that Australia will accept 12,000 refugees from Syria, in addition to the capped intake, deserves an unqualified welcome. It is a generous decision and a welcome demonstration of leadership.

For those of us who are concerned with people who seek protection from persecution and violence it has been an amazing fortnight. A fortnight ago political conversation about asylum seekers had to do with turning back the boats headed for Australia, the links of terrorism with ethnic and religious identity, exporting our Stop the Boats policy to Europe, the seductive dangers of compassion, and attempts to wedge other parties on the basis of their softness.

During the last fortnight the photographs of refugees in Europe, and particularly of Aylan Kurdi, the opening of Germany to refugees and the enthusiastic welcome offered them by ordinary people in Europe transformed the tenor of the public conversation from fear and loathing to compassion.

And now in Australia. People around Australia have donated money to the people who seek protection, have demanded that Australia accept Syrian refugees and have asked that they can welcome them in their own towns.

And now the Prime Minister has made a decision that breaks with what we have come to regard as business as normal. He ignored the demands made by some of his backbenchers for a religiously selective policy, for a minimal acceptance of refugees and for priority be given to budgetary considerations.

In the announcement, too, there has been no trickery with numbers — the refugees will come as soon as possible over a short period of time. Nor has the financial cost been seen as deciding the basis for accepting refugees. The question put to the financial people is not whether we can afford to receive the refugees, but how we shall pay for them now that they are coming.

In this decision, too, the Prime Minister did not consider only narrow Australian interests in shaping Australian policy. He recognised the crisis as one facing the whole international community. He saw the acceptance of refugees and the small donation to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees as part of Australia's global citizenship.

And finally, the Leader of the Opposition did not attack the decision on the ground of cost, but supported the Government, expressed delight that his own proposed target was exceeded, and refrained from focusing on the effect on the surplus. He too deserves our thanks.

For many of us this change has been like watching the rains fall after a ten year drought. It does not mean, of course, that the local streams will flow for long. Narrowness and nastiness may continue to dominate Australian refugee policy and political life, and making war may triumph over saving people in the Middle East.

But this moment of compassion and solidarity nurtures hope that things can be other. And for that Mr Abbott deserves our ungrudging gratitude, whatever side of politics we stand on.

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, asylum seekers, refugees, Tony Abbott, politics, stop the boats, Syria



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Existing comments

Whatever our PM's faults, and like the rest of us he has more than a few, I've always felt that he is proud to be our leader. He displayed compassion and care in listening, and dealing quickly with this issue. People are thinking about, and praying for, those caught in this crisis and our welcome will be warm, I'm sure.

Pam | 09 September 2015  

I never really thought I'd see it, but well done Mr Abbott. Following on from Andrew's comparison of this with the first fall of rain after a long drought, let's hope that 'the filmy veil of greenness... thickens as we gaze'.

Ginger Meggs | 10 September 2015  

"But this moment of compassion and solidarity nurtures hope that things can be other." I could not agree more. There is ever some sign of hope.

RB | 10 September 2015  

How curmudgeonly am I? (Rhetorical question.) As I saw it then and now, it took Abbott so long to make the decision he did because it took him that long to wake up that a significant number of Australians had changed, that, finally, the majority of votes were not flowing in an anti-refugee direction.

MargaretMC | 10 September 2015  

As another curmudgeon I agree with Margaret but only up to a point. I am suspicious that ‘a significant number of Australians have changed’. Admittedly, of the more than twenty million people living in Australia I only mix with a handful, but that handful are well educated, thoughtful people who are excellent citizens and generous to friend and stranger alike; delightful people who would thrill anyone’s heart. How disappointing, then, to find so many of them, while not denying that Australia could ‘do something’ to alleviate the plight of the refugees, still ask why they must come here, still ask why they don’t go to ‘wealthy’ Arab countries like Saudi Arabia. After all, the thinking goes, such countries are Muslim where they would be sure to receive a welcome. (Doesn’t that say a lot about the political nous of educated Australians?) I hope I am wrong, I hope my circle of acquaintances is not representative of the rest of the country and that the drought really has broken with tall grass and overflowing tanks to follow, but I still remain sceptical.

Paul | 10 September 2015  

There is no doubt that the leaders of both major political parties should be applauded for their change of attitude, if only because such praise will help cement them in in their new position. But like Constantine's decree for the toleration of all religions (not just Christianity), the motivation seems to be largely political. Most credit is due to grass-roots opinions, which could no longer be manipulated by censorship, spin or obfuscation, and would have affected votes if ignored.

Robert Liddy | 10 September 2015  

Dear Andrew, thank you for this beautiful piece and Margaret, no matter what you second guess are the political motives I am sure the people we bring into our arms will forever thank us and Tony Abbott.

Martin Loney | 10 September 2015  

Abbott's much-publicised compassionate decision to take 12,000 Iranian refugees is to be applauded. At the sam time, we must also congratulate ourselves for forgiving him for the way he's been leading a divisive government. Of course, he's in the invidious position of being damned by many of his critics whatever he does. In short, for the moment at least, we must take him for his face value. The fate of those wretched asylum seekers should be paramount in our minds. Even with the help of our proverbial political devil. And may God help those among us who still demonise those who seek refuge on our shores.

Alex Njoo | 10 September 2015  

I'm with MargaretMC. Abbott was forced to do it: once the mass media changed, Abbott had to make a concession, just for political survival. We know this man - we have seen his attitude, and decisions taken over years. How far does his compassion extend to the refugees being tortured in our off-shore concentration camps? Not at all. The only thing Tony Abbott is interested in is power.

Russell | 10 September 2015  

i agree with Russell. And the last letter i received from an asylum seeker on Manus Island mentioned his emerging insanity ... I wonder what it must be like to hear that others, but not those despairing in detention centres, will receive compassion and support by the Australian Government. It's almost unbearable to imagine ...

mary tehan | 11 September 2015  

Martin Loney: " I am sure the people we bring into our arms will forever thank us and Tony Abbott."......... But what will those others think, who were in exactly the same dire need, and are now imprisoned , denied a hearing, and condemned to never be accepted by us? They may well be family members of the lucky ones we are accepting.

Robert Liddy | 11 September 2015  

Russell, you have taken the words from my mouth "how far does his compassion extend to the refugees he transfers to our off-shore concentration camps. Not at all." I think he is hypocritical and praising him will only encourage him to keep going as he is.

Kevin | 11 September 2015  

abbott knows which side His bread is buttered on next elections he will brag. Forgetting he was dragged Kiciny and screaming sorry one swallow does not a summer make

Irena | 11 September 2015  

12,000 people grudgingly accepted if they suit us while be bomb millions of others and keep 30,000 refugees here in limbo hell for life for no reason.

Marilyn | 11 September 2015  

Andy you are more generous than I . I believe that what turned the tide in Australia for Syrian Refugees was the European media. Confronting images of 'people like us' trudging across EU , pouring out of boats resembling pool toys and fathers and mothers with babes in arms awakened the decency and compassion inherent in Australian hearts. We are not allowed to see the people coming off the boats at Christmas Island some after weeks on a boat. We are not allowed to see them herded onto vans and queued for hours by bureaucrats when they can hardly stand from exhaustion. If we did I believe that the decent compassionate hearts of this country would be just as open to our refugees as to those on screens in faraway Europe. Abbott and Co had no option when the people of the nation demanded a decent response.

pamela curr | 13 September 2015  

Well written, Fr Andrew, on PM Abbott finally accepting on Australia's part, 12,000 Syrian refugees. A welcome change of heart ! Like other people who commented to Eureka Street earlier, I suspect his decision is pragmatic (based on public media responses) as much as (or more than) from the heart. However, still a positive & welcome change. Both LNP & Labor policy on the cruel & inhuman camps on Nauru & Manus Island are a continuing travesty inflicted in OUR name on innocent victims. Hopefully Bill Shorten & Tony Abbott (or his replacement from LP) will see this & change their anti-UNHCR policies. The coming election campaign needs to have humane refugee policies demanded from the 2 major parties - by all people of goodwill in Australia.

John Cronin, Toowoomba Q | 13 September 2015  

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