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Pacific Solution sends wrong moral message


Earlier this year a group of Sri Lankan asylum seekers was picked up and sent to Christmas Island. The Minister for Immigration, Kevin Andrews, then announced the decision to send them to Nauru without hope of resettlement in Australia. He was criticised both for making a morally unjustifiable decision and for not acting in accordance with his religious beliefs. The first criticism was correct; the second, less reasonable.

Mr Andrews had justified his decision on the grounds that it was necessary to send a message to asylum seekers and those who arranged their boat travel. If this is the only justification for the Pacific Solution, it is morally unacceptable because it inflicts suffering on an innocent group of people in order to communicate a harsh message to others. It is like beginning class by beating a couple of boys at random in order to discourage others from playing up. It makes the suffering of the asylum seekers – their isolation, mental disturbance, anxiety and hopelessness – core instruments of policy.

But even if it is not conceived of as a deterrent the Pacific solution is unethical. It flouts the principle of human solidarity which any ethical public policy must satisfy. This principle states that human beings with the capacity to help are obliged to assist the desperate who make a claim on them. It also states that this responsibility is shared. Australia therefore is obliged to protect those who make a justified claim for asylum, and to share the burden of those in distant places who do not arrive on Australia shores. The principle is implicit in the Refugee convention which Australia has signed.

The artifices of excising territory from Australia’s immigration zone and of using naval vessels to prevent claims being made, simply attempt to evade a responsibility that Australia must bear.

If a policy is unethical, it is automatically inconsistent with Christian faith. Christian faith does not of itself make practices unethical. It offers grounds for recognising the dignity of each human being. It supports human dignity by appealing to God’s love for each human being.

It is reasonable to conclude that Mr Andrews administers a policy that is morally indefensible and is therefore inconsistent with Christian principles. But this conclusion does not justify the claim that when he administers this policy he personally is acting immorally and in a way inconsistent with Christian faith. This charge views too simplistically the responsibility of government ministers in a democracy.

Politicians, and particularly ministers, represent all Australians, and not simply those who share their moral and religious positions. They must act for the good of the whole nation. On particular moral issues on which there is no consensus, they may well have to preside over policies, agreed on in Cabinet, that include elements that they see as morally objectionable. They may, of course, resign. But if ministers with a delicate conscience resigned routinely, the ethical quality of governance would hardly improve.

One might expect Christian politicians to argue within their party for an ethically based policy and to be open about the grounds of their position. Mr Abbott has done this in his administration of the health portfolio. But when deciding on policy and implementing it, they must take into account the good of the nation in quite concrete terms. These terms include the attitudes of society as a whole and the consequences of legislating measures that do not enjoy popular support.

'Send a message' Pacific Solution rationale morally repugnantCritics of the decision to send the asylum seekers to Nauru should not focus on the minister’s character or on his sincerity but on the morality of the policy itself. This is not to argue that politicians may regard moral argument as irrelevant to politics, and so may without scruple focus on the business of governing.

St Augustine has something pertinent to say about this. When considering the case of judges who routinely had witnesses tortured in order to establish the truth of competing claims, he took a tragic view of public life. After arguing that torture never establishes the truth, he nevertheless saw it as self-evident that a judge would have to order torture. This was one of the necessities of public order. But Augustine then remarked that judges should never be envied, but pitied for the necessities in which they were caught.

When we think about the necessities which enmesh our political representatives as they administer unjust policy, we will also recognise that such policies corrupt. Those who devise and administer them fail to recognise the way in which they destroy other human beings. Human empathy, on which all morality depends, disappears. The Rau case brought to public notice the extent to which Australian refugee policy had eroded the moral sensitivity of those responsible for it. The policy is wicked; its victims, who include politicians as well as asylum seekers, ultimately invite pity rather than blame.



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Existing comments

A very good article, thankyou Andrew Hamilton.
Please send it to Mr Andrews...and Tony Abbott & any other Catholics in parliament.

Kate Maclurcan | 03 April 2007  

This seems to be qan example of jesuitical casuistry. If an act causes suffering to other human beings any person responsible for it should surely refuse to condone or take part

EILEEN O' NEILL | 05 April 2007  

Great article.
It has strengthened my resolve to struggle for an Australia of sensitivity and empathy to all.

Rom Hayes | 05 April 2007  

Andrew Hamilton's article (Pacific Solution...moral message) is so encouraging to read - closely and succinctly argued - putting the ethical position, and yet distinguishing the dilemma of the Catholic politician in public policy making.

He does a service in offering the wide perspective in our multi-faith / secularist society on ethics which can justly called humane and where it positions the Christian.

Gary Wilson | 12 April 2007  

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