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Abbott blinded by Howard's brutal immigration principle


Abbott urges more migration, compassion for boat people (Adelaide Advertiser)Tony Abbott's recent speech on immigration policy provides helpful material for Australia Day reflection.

He simultaneously argued for a larger immigration policy and for strict controls over asylum seekers who arrived by boat. Although he expressed some sympathy for asylum seekers who had to leave their country, the heart of his speech was his claim that 'John Howard's declaration about Australians controlling who comes to this country resonated because it struck most people as self-evidently and robustly true.'

This recalled Mr Howard's own statement of principle, 'We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.'

Abbott was criticised in some circles for inconsistency between his immigration policy and his asylum seeker policy. But the real problem is not that he separates immigration for asylum seeker policy, but that he fuses them. This flows from the Howard principle, and saddles him with a policy towards asylum seekers that is necessarily inhumane.

John Howard's single-minded insistence on the Australian right to decide who enters the country and how they do it is plausible at first hearing, and remains an effective debating point. At one, trivial, level the statement is true. Provided that Australian supervision of entry points is reasonable and admission to citizenship is orderly, no one will enter Australia against the will of the government. That is a simple statement of fact.

The Howard principle, however, implies more than a simple statement of fact. It implies that Australia can rightly make arbitrary and inflexible decisions about who enters the country based only on its perceived self interest.

If we apply this principle to domestic situations we can see its weakness. Imagine the father of a household saying, 'We will decide who comes to our house and the circumstances in which they come'. The insistence on will and self-interest alone would not be enough. If, for example, an aged aunt walk up to the front door, half-frozen in a storm, the father could decide to send her away. But his appeal to the Howard principle would not convince us that he had acted rightly. We would expect him to give reasons for making the decision.

Nor would we be convinced if he showed us the list of conditions that visitors needed to meet before they were allowed to enter his house. He might say that only people who rang first, who were known to him, who came in the front gate would be allowed in the house.

We might regard such principles as generally helpful. But if the householder turned away a girl who came to the back door, fleeing from a man trying to assault her, we would regard his behaviour as unreasonable and inhumane. If he then expressed sympathy for her plight while justifying his decision to allow her in, we would regard him as hypocritical.

These examples show that the right to decide according to principles based on our self-interest are not adequate to establish a humane or decent policy. They need to be complemented by considering the need of the person who wishes to gain entry. People in dire circumstances make a claim on the householder that he cannot discharge simply appealing to his self-interest.

It is on the basis of need that immigrants are distinguished from refugees, and so demand a distinct policy. From the point of view of Australia's self-interest and its power to accept or refuse them, immigrants and refugees are identical. But they are differentiated by need.

If the householder were renting out rooms, for example, he would be entitled to allow general principles based on his self-interest to guide his practice. But they ought not guide his response to some in desperate need. Indeed, even in some of the decisions he made about boarders, he might have to take into account people's need. If one of the boarders fell ill and needed care, it would seem unreasonable if he refused to allow the boarder's mother to stay in a room that was available for rent.

So there is a clear distinction between the claim that immigrants and asylum seekers make on us. This difference makes the Howard principle inadequate in the case of asylum seekers because it appeals to power and to self-interest alone. It ignores need. It fails to recognise that many immigration cases also involve need.

Certainly, the Howard principle is neither self-evident nor true. It is less robust than brutal. On Australia Day both the Coalition and Australian people deserve a better basis for policy.

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is the consulting editor for Eureka Street. He teaches at the United Faculty of Theology in Melbourne. 

Topic tags: tony abbott, john howard, immigration policy, asylum seeker, boat people, refugee



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Existing comments

Howard was not the first to use the statement 'We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.' They were originally used by Billy Hughes in the context, if I remember correctly, of non-white immigration.

Ginger Meggs | 25 January 2010  

John Howard was not the first to use the statement "We will decide who comes to this country" Millions and millions of Australians in the privacy of their homes, have said "We should decide who comes to our country".

Ron Cini | 25 January 2010  

John Howard was on the right track, a lot of boat people are very undesirable,alas the writer of the above article, will not take responsibility for any law breaking they do.These people will not try and come legally, so why should they change once here?

John Honner | 25 January 2010  

I am a refugee from Uganda and have no quarrel with a decent Australian Govt deciding who comes to Australia. The methods Howard used, demonizinig the children overboard, the incarceration of people for years in Nauru and Manus island, bellittled and demeaned us all. Abbott and his Immigration Spokesperson are dog-whistling from the same sheet,-the onus is on them to detail how they mean to act.

B S Braganza | 25 January 2010  

Thirty years ago the Fraser gevernment could have taken a Howard-like stance in relation to the pressing need for re-settlement of Indo-Chinese people. To their everlasting credit, they entered intentionally and resourcefully into major multilateral agreements in complete co-operation with the UNHCR and many major settlement and community-based agencies within Australia.

Following this lead, many many Australians changed their minds about Asian immigration'.Fraser and his immigration minister won positive bi-partisan support from the ALP opposition. Consequently, about 250,000 Indo-Chinese settled here over several years as part of the Orderly Departure Program. What's the difference between then and now? It begins with moral compass - and a government willing to do principled leadership. Let's learn and act.

Wayne Sanderson | 25 January 2010  

Thank you Andrew. I found your article very insightful. I would suggest that it is compassion that is required. Then, when we see a need, we might be lead to do something about it.

Patrick Kempton | 25 January 2010  

Very well argued, Andrew. I am sure there are many in the Government who agree with you, probably including Mr Rudd. But where are the statesmen of today? Who is prepared to stand up for a principle rather than poll watching. There is an abundance of politicians willing to wear their Christianity on their sleeve, but not many willing to enshrine it in their hearts. I read recently that the hard right of the Liberal Party was trying to get rid of the Jesuit trained Catholics in their midst. I was raised, and remain, a non-Catholic, but the more I read Eureka Street, the more convinced I am that rather than being a negative, being a Jesuit trained Catholic should be a qualification for membership.

Malcolm Wallace | 25 January 2010  

John Howard was surely affirming/exercising a fundamental political principle: ie. maintaining national sovereignty by asserting the inviolability of national boundaries. How that principle is, then, to be applied in practise is a matter for the prerogative/discretion of the government. A principle is not to be taken literally as a mandatory rule of action: it does not exclude flexibility and modification in application.

Hugh Michael Laracy | 25 January 2010  

Once more Andrew thank you for a clear statement of the moral issues. It seems to me that we have to continue to urge our politicians to speak and act based on moral principle rather than have them promote policies that pander to the fear of others who are different from us in culture, race and religious belief.I particularly value your distinctions between migrant and refugee made on the basis of need. Thank you again.

Ern Azzopardi | 25 January 2010  

One major problem with Australia's refugee program is that the vast majority of refugees, on arrival, are settled in safe Labor electorates. Labor knows it will never lose these seats: Liberals know they will never win them. Consequently, neither party, in government, devotes adequate resources to helping the new arrivals adapt to their new circumstances. The pre-existing residents of these areas are not always qualified to render all necessary assistance; many problems emerge. How many readers of Eureka Street live in these electorates?

Peter Ryan | 25 January 2010  

While I agree with the theory, I'm not convinced with how you can carry it out in practice. How do we stop the 'People Smugglers'? Should the 'Queue Jumpers' get first preference to the people in camps? Do we let ecconomic refugees in as well as political? The list goes on. These are the hard decisions a government has to make, and not everyone will agree with them.

Flanno | 25 January 2010  

The 250,000 Indochinese that settled in Australia were genuine refugees. They escaped from communist persecution.Current asylum seekers travel through many Muslim countries to reach Indonesia where they pay large amount of money to people smugglers to come to Australia. They do not seek asylum, they choose to come to Australia.

Ron Cini | 26 January 2010  


brian | 26 January 2010  

Andrew Hamilton's metaphor of a suburban house to critique the Howard doctrine on asylum seekers is spot on.

I'd go one step further in exposing its illogicality and moral blindness however. If Howard had said 'We will decide who enters this country and the circumstances in which they enter' he'd be only saying what was already a known fact. As Andrew Hamilton points out, Australian governments have always decided who enters the country.

Rather Howard tried to make out that any country or suburban house can decide who comes to the country or house. Who in Australia can decide who comes to their front gate? How? Set up a road block at the end of the street? Obviously no one can. Any person is free to walk down any street, i.e. "come" to any address and no owner of any house can prevent them coming. Of course the owner can stop them entering, once they’ve come to the front gate, and made their case for why they should be allowed to enter. But this self-evident fact was not what Howard was saying (probably because he didn’t want to be accused on stating the bleeding obvious).

Howard's phrase is nonsense, but good dog-whistle politics, as Abbot knows full well.

Rex Graham | 26 January 2010  

Australia has always decided who comes and will come to this country, nothing new and no need for this to become a political `war cry` with ugly and divisive social consequences. Over 2000 years ago there was `no room in the inn` and a certain refugee family was fleeing to Egypt. Let us connect with the depth of the Gospel message/s. there are so many and over and over again,all pointing in the same direction.

lucia | 27 January 2010  

"Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" are not only words that sound nice but are a code for a life of peace and compassion. How would we and people like Tony Abbott want other countries to treat us if the tables were turned.

The qualities that make a good leader are compassion, love, tollerance and wisdom. Let us look to leaders who show these qualities rather than those that just quote them, and then inspire us to live under their concepts of Christian virtues.

Thank you Andrew for your most welcomed article.

Michael Scanlon | 28 January 2010  

Dear John Honner, It's been around three years since you posted your comment and I really hope you do not hold the same view now as you did then. I am a pro-refugee activist and I know for a fact that when seeking asylum in another country there is no illegal way to enter another country, you could get to that country riding a purple unicorn and the government would have no choice but to accept you, as long as you could prove you were a legitimate refugee fleeing from your home. The united Nations also say that someone is allowed to enjoy in the asylum of another country so long as your life is in legitimate danger because of your: religion, social group, political opinion, race or nationality. Therefore those people cannot be illegal so long as their life is in legitimate danger for any one of those reasons and our government is turning it's back on both the United Nations but also all those who are genuinely fleeing from people who are trying to kill them.

Tom Riddle | 21 October 2013  

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