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Australians aspire to lift their climate game

Back in 2002, Bill Heffernan, a member of the Howard Government, explained his government's post-Tampa strategy starkly and simply. Having been a local councillor and being a lifetime farmer, he described the moral dilemma that confronts you during a major bushfire. You have to build a firebreak. You have to choose someone's property as the firebreak. In destroying their property, you will save the neighbourhood. 'It's not pretty. These are hard moral decisions. But you have to do it.'

The government's boast a year later was that the firebreak worked. The boats had stopped coming. The borders were secure and Australia could choose those refugees to whom it wished to offer places under its generous offshore refugee selection program. Our politicians finally responded to community pressure to alleviate the harsher aspects of the policy. A handful of government Members displayed fine conscience and great resolve. The ascendant Labor Party made a commitment to make the treatment of asylum seekers more humane.

Things are looking more humane onshore. But the situation offshore is more doubtful. Being an island nation continent, we do not share any land borders. We are not used to a steady stream of unauthorised arrivals. Our political leaders touch deep into our national psyche when they outdo each other with their anti-asylum rhetoric. First we had Kevin Rudd telling us that people smugglers, those who offer risky transport on the high seas for a fee, are the 'vilest form of humanity', 'the scum of the earth' and that they should all 'rot in hell'. While ever there are asylum seekers with initiative, dreams for their children, and a dollar left in their pockets, there will be people smugglers.

Now, the new Opposition Leader Tony Abbott talks about the need to turn boats back. He says, 'An Australian Government that doesn't have the option of turning boats back in the right circumstances is a government that is not doing enough. It's got to be part of your policy arsenal.'

None of this full blown political rhetoric helps to answer the question whether we are doing enough to take responsibility for the situation in Indonesia where many asylum seekers are awaiting refugee determination under processes much inferior to those used in Australia. Persons directly fleeing persecution deserve our protection and assistance.

Admittedly, we do not have the same obligation to asylum seekers who have already reached a country where they can be afforded protection and the processing of their claim. Who is to say that the protection and processing in Indonesia is adequate for Tamils, Iraqis or Hazaras from Afghanistan? We pragmatic Australians may be on the cusp of yet again making simplistic assessments of these people, presuming that they are anyone's responsibility but ours. We should be able to work through the complexity of these issues without simplistically demonising asylum seekers or people smugglers.

We Australians are very ready to leave hard issues to our politicians unless we are directly hurt by their decisions. We marched in our hundreds of thousands against the Iraq War. But once it started, we were far more accepting than were the British and the Americans of the rationales offered by our political leaders despite there being no weapons of mass destruction and no increased threat from Iraq to the United States and her allies. For us, it is now ancient history. We have just moved on. There is no point in raking over old coals.

Meanwhile next week in London Tony Blair will face more than five hours of questioning by a committee of Privy Counsellors chaired by Sir John Chilcot who has been charged by government with 'considering the UK's involvement in Iraq, including the way decisions were made and actions taken, to establish, as accurately as possible, what happened and to identify the lessons that can be learned'. The UK Government has told the public, 'Those lessons will help ensure that, if we face similar situations in future, the government of the day is best equipped to respond to those situations in the most effective manner in the best interests of the country.'

Is it just that we consider ourselves a small time player in such an alliance, contenting ourselves that the real strategic and moral thinking is done in Washington and Whitehall? Or do we too have things to learn before government commits our young men and women to war once again?

For a while we were out there leading the world on climate change with Kevin Rudd telling us, 'Climate change is the great moral challenge of our generation'. But once Copenhagen collapsed he felt the need to assure us that 'Australia will do no more and no less than the rest of the world'.

The lowest common denominator is not usually the solution to the great moral challenges. That's why they are great moral challenges. Given that our productivity and prosperity has been built, in part, on the quarrying and exporting of our not so clean energy resources, we need to do more.

I dare to suggest that most Australians want to do more. There are not many of us who are experts on the science, or on the economics or on the international relations required to forge an appropriate global response to the risks of global warming. But enjoying the natural bounty and prosperity we do, we hope that Australia will give leadership and not just be a follower, a lifter and not a leaner as Menzies would have said.

Frank BrennanFr Frank Brennan SJ is professor of law at the Australian Catholic University's Public Policy Institute. This is an extract from an article that first appeared in Insight in Melbourne's The Age on Saturday 23 January 2010.

Topic tags: human rights charter, indonesia, climate change, asylum seekers, tamils, iraq war, afghanistan, copenhagen



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Existing comments


Helen Tuckey | 25 January 2010  

Bob Brown's interim carbon tax is probably a good place to start, by transferring the 'burden' of taxation towards carbon-emitting activity ...
PROVIDED the revenue raised is used to help low-income Australians decrease their carbon emissions.

I'd direct you to the website to get behind, except that'd be too partisan. That said, the reason it's too partisan is that our major parties are failing the fundamental moral duty of acting to facilitate continued life on earth.

This is not 'just' a green issue anymore.

David Arthur | 25 January 2010  

Some people, not necessarily evil, not necessarily right wing, not necessarily uncaring, not necessarily out of self interest, not necessarily stupid, do not believe the greenhouse-global warming theory.

Kevin Prendergast | 25 January 2010  

To Kevin Prendergast.

Theories rise and fall on consistency with facts, not faith. Opinion and belief carry no scientific weight. The only valid attack is to expose inconsistency.

The claim that glaciers will melt by 2035 has been exposed as inconsistent. But this does not mean everything is inconsistent.

Peter Horan | 25 January 2010  

Frank, in regards to climate change, who said " you can fool some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time but you can't fool all of the people all of the time".

Ron Cini | 25 January 2010  

To Peter Horan
Who said anything about glaciers melting?

Kevin Prendergast | 25 January 2010  

It is very interesting to reflect back on our political and community responses to the Vietnamese boat people of the late seventies and early eighties [predominantly Christians and Buddhist] and then to look at our response to Afghan refuges presently coming to Australia via boat from Indonesia who are predominately Moslem. Both lots of boat people were and are escaping a war zone that we Australians are or were directly involved in.

Both parties were or are subject to persecution from the dominant forces within their country of origin. I certainly think that Frank is correct in suggesting that we are perhaps lacking moral leadership in this regard. It is time that we looked at the issues of boat people with intelligence and compassion rather than fear and loathing. As our great moral teacher Jesus would have, if this question were put to him during his time on earth.

peter Igoe-Taylor | 26 January 2010  

I brought up the "glacier issue" of recent notoriety as an example of inconsistency being exposed.

Peter Horan | 27 January 2010  

As is underway in the UK, the government in Australia should also be 'considering (Australia's) involvement in Irag, including the way decisions were made and actions taken, to establish, as accurately as possible, what happened and to identify the lessons that can be learned'. Former Prime Minister Howard failed to involve parliament before committing us to war. It was dictator-like behaviour. Many lessons need to learned.

Meg | 28 January 2010  

Well said Frank!
I support Meg's comments,lets have a Royal Commission into the Iraq War involvement. As a Veitnam Vet (Nasho) I obeyed my Government's directive to go. I only wish that we had an inquiry into that involvement. Maybe we would have thought twice about the Iraq Fiasco..not so sure about Afghanistan???

We did let the side down over Climate Change - hope we can learn from that slip down to the lowest common denominator too!

Gavin | 28 January 2010  

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