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Advocating against the wind


The Queensland Government has recently decided to change the Youth Justice Act it introduced some years ago. It will abandon the central principle that detention of children should be the last resort. The advocacy and evidence-based research on which the Act was based had persuaded many Ministers and their Departments previously to enact it. It was hard not to feel both for the children and for those who had put such time and energy into the reforms embodied in it. The abandonment also invites reflection on what we should expect when we are advocating for a cause, ranging from climate change to perceived injustice, and how we should evaluate our efforts.

The Queensland decision called to mind a public forum in the aftermath of Tampa and the harsh treatment of people seeking protection which followed it. Much of the conversation lamented the reversal of previous reform. A hard-headed cynical journalist then asked those advocating for refugees why we had failed to persuade the Australian public. His intervention implied blame, perhaps deserved, but also prompted wider refection.

I asked myself two questions. First, if those of us in favour of an ethically based policy were to do everything right in articulating and advocating for it, should we expect that we would win over public opinion and significant people in governments and political parties?  And, second, should we expect that Government policies and the legislation and regulations that flowed from our research and advocacy would become progressively more just?

These questions do not call into question the value of well-researched advocacy but only what we might reasonably expect of it.  Regardless of the success of their work, ethically based institutions should certainly engage with government officials and Ministers, advocate publicly for just policies, and base their engagement and advocacy on research-based evidence for their effectiveness. Respect for the truth, which must ground all efforts to persuade, demands this engagement regardless of its success.

Both public opinion and political decisions, however, are moved by considerations other than concern for what is evidence-based and ethical. History suggests that when the good boat Australia flies an ethical and evidence-based flag, it might make steady and incremental progress through calm seas.  But when storms of public anxiety and prejudice blow, and particularly when the ship is blown close to the rocks of elections, the masters of the ship predictably lower the flag, throw overboard the weight of principles, and reverse course.

This seems regularly to have been the case in the treatment of people who seek protection in Australia and of children who have broken the law. In the former, the compassion that marked the Fraser Government’s refugee policy was followed by the introduction of mandatory detention of asylum seekers under the Labor Government. Increasing numbers of people arriving by boat and misinformation about parents throwing children overboard close to a Federal Election led to the punitive treatment of asylum seekers by a Liberal Government.  Its Labor successor initially softened the harshness, but in the face of a surge in boat arrivals introduced off-shore processing and the brutal reign of the principle of deterrence practice under Coalition ministers. A similar succession of mitigating change and draconian legislation looks likely to mark the present Government.

Recent decisions concerning children who commit criminal actions in  Queensland, Victoria and New South Wales display the same pattern. Strong advocacy supported by evidence led to some reforms in the treatment of children.  Public anxiety fuelled by aggressive reporting, however, has led to withdrawal from previous commitments and to hardening policies that limit bail and extend the use of  detention. Children are seen as criminals and not as children.


'The more disadvantaged and marginal are the persons whose cause we plead, the harder it will be to make their treatment more just and the more likely improvements secured will be washed away. We should see this less as failure or as defeat but as confirmation that the people whom we represent remain most in need of our continuing support.'


This sketchy account suggests that advocacy for evidence-based policies may be effective in changing attitudes in Government and lead to good policy when they are supported by public compassion and not subject to public controversy. But at times of crisis  and public controversy, and particularly close to elections, they are vulnerable to exploitation by the opposition parties. Any humanitarian and reasoned policies may then be removed in favour of more brutal policies, despite their private support by many Ministers and public servants.

To avoid this cycle of gradual reform followed by abrupt and harsh regression in any area of policy, the public as a whole must own the cause. That will prevent the issue from being politicised, and remove any incentive to cancel reforms of poor policies. Where the groups targeted in public controversy, however, are vulnerable and relatively powerless minorities, they will be much less likely to enjoy continuing protection.

That has been the case with refugees, Indigenous Australians and children. The language used by politicians to describe people who seek protection has been designed to see them as different and lesser human beings than genuine Australians. Children who behave badly, especially Indigenous Australian children, are seen as unlike our children, and being unlike our own children, they need tough love and locking up far from their families. Laws and policies that treat them as children are highly vulnerable to reversal.

What are we to make of this? First, we should not judge the value of our advocacy and research by its success in bringing about lasting change. That is a goal to seek. But the more disadvantaged and marginal are the persons whose cause we plead, the harder it will be to make their treatment more just and the more likely improvements secured will be washed away. We should see this less as failure or as defeat but as confirmation that the people whom we represent remain most in need of our continuing support.

Second, the challenge we face in our advocacy for refugees or children with disadvantage is to change public opinion. Influencing the adoption of good policies and laws is a necessary part of change, but it is not sufficient. The deeper change necessary is to change personal attitudes so that people who are marginalised will overwhelmingly be seen as ‘us’ and not as ‘them’. This change comes through building and encouraging personal relationships, a slow and incremental process.

Third, advocacy and policy must be guided by ethical principles, and particularly by respect for the human dignity of each person that forbids seeing them and their treatment as means to another end. In advocacy we must not compromise those ethical principles, even if we need to work for people in an unjust world. 

Finally, research and advocacy are essential in organisations working for marginalised groups. They are indispensable in encouraging authorities to respect the humanity of the people who are disadvantaged. They are also important in helping the organisation reflect on its understanding of what respect for human dignity entails in practice. 




Andrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writer at Jesuit Social Services.

Main image: (Getty Images)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Health, Hospitals, Rights, Care



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Existing comments

Fr Andrew, when these teen gangs are roaming our streets at night, balaclava-clad, armed with machetes, breaking into homes and cars, stealing motorcycles, jewellry, iPhones, the armchair discussions about the disadvantaged and legislative reform take a back seat to self preservation.

One can't tell if these offenders are under the influence, sober or able to listen to reason. When the police take at least an hour to respond, and all one can do is fight fire with fire. Saying a prayer for these guys is likely to get your throat cut.

Francis Armstrong | 18 May 2024  

Unless there's an unending supply of new young miscreants, recidivism must be the reason for the recurrence of last night's rampage tonight. Recidivism means that the supposedly enlightened policies have failed.

Perhaps, instead of stealing a generation, we can borrow them and apply some offshore processing. Send them to Timor Leste. There's nothing there to steal (besides it's harder to misbehave when you're out of your depth), the weather's nice, you can swim in the sea, the locals are kindly and can teach patience because patience is what the poor have in spades, and the Salesians can provide the vocational education and proof of earning capability that the Australian authorities will want to see before they let you home.

The kids are on the street because there's nothing for them at home. Give them a home and a chance. The tares can always be burnt later. And if the parents complain, well, do what they're doing in the US concerning shooters and the Second Amendment. If you can't get the shooter, you can get the parents for negligence because ... well, it is their fault. It can't be too hard to prove that dad is a deadbeat or that mum seems to be accumulating many fathers but no dads.

The problem with the so-called enlightened policies is that they seek to turn the miscreants around by adverting to hypothetical consequences - "this could happen if you continue like this". Real consequences work better. And kindness is making the first tranche of real consequences an easy yoke and a light burden in laid back Timor Leste.

And the human rights of the kids and the stuff about their being created in the image of God and all that? No, we haven't forgotten that. That's why we're not doing what Jesus told us to do and use our money to buy us friends. If we really wanted to use our money to buy some useful friends (and cool down the international political climate), we'd be striking a deal with North Korea which, I'm sure, would happily be our friends if we paid them enough.

roy chen yee | 19 May 2024  

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