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Passion has a place in border protection's age of reason

  • 07 February 2014

Former Australian navy captain John Ingram doesn't mince his words. In an interview for the ABC, Ingram, reflecting on his long career in the Navy and his encounters with asylum seekers at sea, described the policy of turning back the boats as 'morally corrupt' and 'absolutely abhorrent'.

It's easy to imagine some readers brushing aside these comments as fanciful and unreasonable. The Australian debate on border control has for two decades been structured such that 'practical' language is presented as the field for 'reasonable argument', while overtly 'moral' language is cast as the domain of 'do-gooders'; and by extension, as irresponsible, because such language is seen as assisting the 'people smugglers'.

Concepts like 'sovereignty' and 'integrity of borders' have become established as 'reasonable' in the context of the Australian discussion — words like these are now decisive in discerning 'good' from 'bad'. Just think of the way asylum seekers are positioned, as infringing liberty — our liberty. We think of our liberty in terms offered by John Stuart Mill: as long as our actions don't infringe other people's rights then we can proceed, but the state can intervene against those whose actions adversely affect the rights of others.

In the Australian debate, political agents like Phillip Ruddock and Scott Morrison have effectively positioned asylum seekers as a group of people whose very existence, in its challenge to the 'harmony' of our politics, is an inimical 'other regarding action' against which the state has the right to intervene.

The historical reality of states controlling borders can be used to shut down conversation about the moral relationship between those who maintain borders and those who seek to cross them. So one academic commented to me recently that he was a little confused by the philosophical literature that focuses on border controls: 'I don't understand the point of this ... states have always sought to control their borders'. The implication was that discussion about the rights and wrongs of stringent border controls was literally nonsensical.

Of course most people wouldn't accept that there is no further fundamental moral discussion to be had about border controls — but it is a challenge to maintain in public view the ethical difficulties that arise at borders, places where people sometimes die, and sometimes in great numbers. Language, including concepts like 'integrity', can be used to restrain different kinds of discussion, to normalise one particular form of speaking.

In the Australian migration control