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How Labor lost its moral edge


Perhaps there is no way to reconcile the conflict between the universalist ideal of a world community based on the sense of common humanity, and the narrower idea of a bounded national community as expressed by Philip Ruddock: 'I don't believe in freedom that entitles people to ignore borders and simply decide, well I don't care what you think, I'm going to live amongst you.'

As Benedict Coleridge recently commented in Eureka Street: 'the liberal political-philosophical tradition ... rests on that idea of the bounded community where a liberal society might thrive if effectively safeguarded. And in Australia (and elsewhere) the concepts offered by the liberal tradition have been employed by both sides of politics to give a 'reasonable' varnish to inhumane migration control policies.' This is where we are today, after Kevin Rudd on Friday cut through the Gordian knot of boat people policy dilemmas with which his party has been wrestling since 2007.

One thousand one hundred fellow human beings have drowned since 2009, trying to come to Australia in small unsafe boats without our government's permission. They did not break any Australian laws, but were intensely resented by some Australians: how dare they try to join our bounded community? This national anger has played out symbolically in a subtle story of delayed rescues and avoidable deaths at sea, and in prolonged punitive administrative mistreatment of the 97 per cent who survived the perils of the journey.

In a thousand hurtful bureaucratic ways, we made clear our national desire to punish people who dared breach the borders of our national community. But finally, reluctantly, we have allowed most of them to settle among us.

This was always the Australian way of immigration: an initially narrow Anglo-Celtic community gradually, at times unwillingly, allowing a widening of the definition of what it means to be an Australian. It happened with the Chinese who came during the Gold Rush; the Jews and Greeks who came from Europe in the 1920s and 1930s; the East European displaced persons who came after World War Two; the Vietnamese and Cambodians who came after 1975; people from Middle Eastern countries who came in boats since the late 1990s.

Gradually, the idea of what it means to be Australian has widened. We became a successful multicultural country.

Now Rudd, with a cruel but politically brilliant stroke, has ended this bigger and more noble national idea of ourselves. We are firmly back in the bounded national community.

The United States became what it is today — in many ways the world's most successful multicultural country — by allowing essentially free immigration. Immigration controls at Ellis Island were limited and perfunctory. But Australia makes immigration control into an art form. No, we are not racist. We carefully balance our tightly controlled intakes from different ethnicities and different parts of the world. But we cannot bear to allow people the freedom to choose to live among us. We cannot let ourselves be a safe refuge for those who dare to flee.

We will now tell damaged, fearful people who try to come here: Go to PNG. Wait in fever-ridden tent camps for years to be processed. If accepted as refugees, you will stay there for life: you have no other options. Australia has used its economic power over a small impoverished and fairly unstable country to say to its political class: we will bribe your country to accept as future citizens groups of people who have no affinity with or respect for you, and for whom you have no affinity or respect either. It is a cynical, cruel and dangerous bargain for all concerned.

But it gets Rudd off a political hook. A hook of his own making, because he did not have the courage to inspire and lead Australians to a better place.

Australia's border protection and maritime rescue agencies and their personnel have since 2009 carried the burden of government policy irresolution over what to do about increasing numbers of irregular boat arrivals. Our government asked these agencies to defend the maritime borders. It wanted them to deter boat people and keep their numbers down, yet it wanted them to do so in humane and legal ways. These agencies bore the brunt of governmental timidity and indecision.

Our maritime safety authority had to torture the language of its rescue codes, inventing bizarre new definitions of boats in distress and new ways to pass rescue responsibilities to a country ill-equipped to handle them. Our agencies had to claim they knew nothing. Drownings were always the people smugglers' fault: never ours. Now, that phase has ended. Rudd has defined a new order. it will probably save lives at sea, because I believe it will curtail the demand for voyages.

But it is a solution that shames us. People who had hoped to become Australians will find other strategies for survival in a hostile or uncaring world. With the PNG solution, Labor loses whatever moral edge it had over the Coalition. The idea of a bounded national community has won. A lot of vulnerable people's lives will be blocked and blighted: people with whom I would have liked to share my country. It will be their loss, and ours.

Tony Kevin headshotTony Kevin's most recent book is Reluctant Rescuers (2012). His previous publication on refugee boat tragedy — A Certain Maritime Incidentwas the recipient of a NSW Premier's literary award in 2005.

Topic tags: Tony Kevin, PNG, asylum seekers, rescue at sea



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Existing comments

It saddens me to admit that these are indeed the facts of the situation despite how the media or politicians like to interpret reality.

john bartlett | 21 July 2013  

I was dismayed, and am still a little disbelieving, that a Labor PM has taken this horrendous step to solve a complex problem that called for courage and compassion. To use power and money to 'persuade' a neighbouring country, struggling with issues of lack of basic medical care, violence towards women, corruption and crumbling infrastructure, to accommodate people fleeing from persecution is breathtakingly cruel - for both PNG and refugees. It is indeed our loss - our humanity has diminished because of this shameful conduct.

Pam | 21 July 2013  

Is it any greater crime than, by our inaction, encouraging "damaged, fearful people" to risk their lives and their children's lives in unseaworthy boats. Labour tried doing the right thing and received nothing but abuse from all quarters. What will satisfy you? Perhaps a pontoon bridge built direct from Indonesia to Perth? And while you are being so sensitive to the feelings of PNG citizens, why should our Government say to Australians "accept as future citizens groups of people who have no affinity with or respect for you, and for whom you have no affinity or respect either". We have to acknowledge the facts that, unlike previous waves, these migrants are not finding employment and are not interested in assimilating.

Solange | 21 July 2013  

As a former boat-person and economic refugee I'm reluctant to criticise Tony Kevin whose passion I respect. But like Julian Burnside in The Age (18 July) he ignores a point that troubles me greatly.
Mr Burnside wrote that ‘those with initiative and courage’ make the journey. No. It’s those with initiative, courage and cash.
The asylum seekers coming by boat aren’t just the ‘damaged fearful’ as Mr Kevin says – they’re the damaged fearful with enough money to pay the smugglers. Asylum only for those who can afford it.
This is clearly unfair. The poor need equal access to asylum and we should be giving them support.
If their real goal is safety in a convention country, then PNG meets their needs. Does it matter that the country is ‘impoverished’? They may well bring skills and ideas that will help lift the nation’s economy. I also doubt that all asylum seekers heading for Australia come with ‘respect and affinity’.

Duncan Graham | 21 July 2013  

I disagree with you, all you are thinking about are the boat arrivals. What the Govt. is trying to do is to stop the people smugglers charging and overcrowding innocent people on unsafe overloaded fishing boats. Lives being lost in the open seas. Talk about that and try to come up with something that is positive, and not always Govt. bashing. Look at the damage that has taken place in the refugee camp. Millions of dollars damage, I thought they wanted to come to a safe place to stay. If it's not what they want, they have demonstrate and destroy the medical center and tents etc. surely it's worth while waiting for their clearance, as you know it takes time to process etc.
Or do you want the boats to be turned back Tony, like Tony Abbott wants? is this your angle??

Julie Aherne | 21 July 2013  

Solange, I am dismayed by the level of ignorant xenophobia you display in a few short sentences. I have close experience of no less than 3 waves of push-factor immigration, including post-WW2 reffos, wops and wogs, 70's slant-eyes and 90's middle-eastern terrorists, and I am absurdly pleased to observe that many of them are numbered amongst our community and business leaders. The unassimiliable presently include Usman Khwaja, a wearer of the baggy green, Hazem El Nazri, a record-scoring NRL player and Ed Huzic, a Federal front-bencher. Can't get better integrated than that, Solange!

Michael Nelson | 21 July 2013  

And every day 20,000 kids die of starvation while we pretend that the only people who die are the few who die when we let them.

Trading and trafficking and invading the neighbours so we can pretend we are protecting our own border which happens to be 2,600 from the mainland while the entire 26,000 km of actual coast is unguarded is beyond madness.

Marilyn | 22 July 2013  

To be brutally realistic, I think Kevin Rudd was responding to a crisis of his own creation. John Howard's policies had very effectively stopped the boats. The USA, like Australia, but unmentioned by Tony Kevin, has a major problem with illegal immigrants from its southern border with Mexico who come from all over Central America seeking a better life. This illegal immigration is also masterminded and controlled by criminal gangs, some affiliated with the drug cartels. The loss of life here is also large. Ironically, many of those working to prevent and return these immigrants come from the same backgrounds as they did, their ancestors just arrived a generation or two earlier. I must say I found TK's piece highly emotive, selective and morally judgemental, if not prescriptive, in terms of what Australians should think and do. It is getting to the stage where he is almost preaching. Despite this being a Jesuit publication he has no religious endorsement to do so and does not represent any religious organisation. It is public opinion which has led both the Government and Opposition to take the line they have. If Tony Kevin and those of his ilk wish to change Australian public opinion I think they will have to work at grass roots level with ordinary Australians. That is a difficult task. Whether they have the inclination or ability to do so is a moot point.

Edward F | 22 July 2013  

“it gets Rudd off a political hook. A hook of his own making, because he did not have the courage to inspire and lead Australians to a better place“……... No matter how much courage a person has, an unwilling people cannot be easily inspired to overcome their self-centred attitudes. The problem is a World problem, and a World parliament- one with teeth- is needed to deal with it. Most refugees would prefer to live in their own country, if they could do so without fear of persecution, violence, or starvation. Despotic regimes or programs need to be checked if they provoke displacement of vast numbers of their peoples. “Sovereign Nations” need to be accountable. If crises occur from natural events, World solutions need to be applied. One man, or one nation cannot do it alone.

Robert Liddy | 22 July 2013  

Why do people still fixate on being able to pay their own way as if that is a bad thing? By the criteria of fools in Australia in the fat selfish lives the 6,000 Syrians who flee each week are selfish because they don't stay home and be slaughtered like the 5,000 others.

Marilyn | 22 July 2013  

John Howard stopped the boats. And in doing so, prevented deaths at sea that Kevin Rudd re-initiated when he foolishly, from a self-defined high moral ground, overturned Howard's policy - with predictable results. Kevin Rudd owes John Howard, and much more profoundly, the families of dead asylum seekers, an apology. I commend Tony Kevin (and, eg Marilyn) for at least consistently castigating Rudd in the same terms as they castigated John Howard - unlike the vast bulk of the hypocritical leftist commentariat, which has two standards: one for Labor, the other for conservatives. But let’s face it. For many decades, the world outside the West (i.e. those nations who have benefited from the Judeo-Christian heritage of freedom, market economies, the natural law and the rule of law) has been basically a world of failed or failing states. So it's perfectly understandable people are voting with their feet, oars, or whatever, to flee to the West - for reasons of persecution AND economics. I can't blame them at all. I'd be doing exactly the same thing, by hook or by crook! The paradox is that if the West knew, cherished and boldly proclaimed WHY it was so uniquely humane a civilization, it could absorb and integrate a huge number of non-Western asylum seekers. Plus educate the regimes they flee from as to the principles of good religion and government. As it is, “the shadow of the Valois is yawning at the Mass” as Chesterton put it in “Lepanto”. So that a sufficient influx of untutored refugees, together with the home-grown self doubters and self loathers, will bring our enfeebled nation to its knees, to the demise of all.

HH | 22 July 2013  

The new frenzy towards treating refugees like lesser beings creates a moral abyss for both Liberal and Labour....a sad spectacle. This behaviour from our politicians seems to be linked to the media War of Terrorizing News......Comparing Australia's geographical distance from the world's s 40 million refugees, compared to places such as South Africa, Turkey, Italy - one can just sadly wonder at Australia's self-seeking stance.....Einstein's life was saved by compassionate people in Belgium and Britain, helping him to flee from Hitler. How poor would the world have been if they did not do act? How poor are we for waiting for Abbott and Rudd to act like statesmen? Who will lead with a strong moral base, with humanity, into the challenge of a real solution?

Liellie McLaughlin | 22 July 2013  

HH he did not. 9 million kids under 5 died every year since 2001 and are never mentioned.

Marilyn | 22 July 2013  

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