Red tape leaves Australia with compassion deficit


Woman caught in red tape

As if it is itself a virus, Australia’s compassion deficiency in connection with asylum seekers has spread. Our government is now unwilling to send health care workers or Defence personnel to join the fight against Ebola in West Africa.

It has its reasons. Officials have advised that a return flight to Australia would take 30 hours, long enough for a health care worker with symptoms of the disease to die. Australia has been unable to secure an ironclad guarantee from the US, UK or a European country that they would treat an Australian worker. 

But what does an ‘ironclad guarantee’ mean when the context is one of compassion between citizens of different nations? If these nations are willing to open their hearts and resources to West African victims of the Ebola crisis, why would they not be willing to also help Australian Ebola victims? The Government’s thinking defies the logic of compassion, which says that if there is a will, there is always a way.

Australia is prepared to risk the lives of Defence personnel by sending them to face danger and uncertainty in the Middle East, where the motivation is essentially border protection rather than compassion. Aside from any deaths or injuries, many members of the Defence forces will return to Australia from the Middle East suffering post-traumatic stress disorder and place a strain on mental health services for decades to come. 

This is a price Australia is willing to pay to put down threats to the existing system of international sovereignty. We label those threats ‘terror’ and are quick to wage war against them. At the same time, we are oblivious to what terrifies human beings elsewhere on the planet, when it comes to providing the help that is most needed. We have lost the ability to reach out to others in need. To use the obvious analogy from the Parable of the Good Samaritan, Australia is the priest who passed by on the other side of the road.

Upon assuming office, the Government announced that Australia was ‘open for business’ and that it would ‘cut red tape’ to ensure that international investors regard us as a good place to put their money. It’s all about making Australia – already one of the richest nations on earth financially – even richer. But when asked to reach out to people in need in other parts of the world, the Government is prepared to impose extra layers of red tape.

Other nations and non government organisations apply Australia’s ‘open for business’ mindset to humanitarian emergencies. For example the Jesuit Refugee Service emphasises flexibility and rapid response in the way that it responds to international emergencies. President Obama has acted quick to dispatch 3000 military personnel to West Africa. They will train as many as 500 health care workers a week, erect 17 heath care facilities in Liberia of 100 beds each, and much more. For its part, Australia is putting red tape in place to stop skilled individual volunteers who are willing and able to travel to West Africa.

Michael MullinsMichael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street.

Red tape image by Shutterstock.

Topic tags: Michael Mullins, Ebola, Julie Bishop, Tony Abbott, NGOs, compassion, Good Samaritan, health



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Existing comments

A 30 hour flight back to safety is a long haul and, as stated in the article, long enough for a health care worker to die from symptoms of Ebola. Asking for an iron-clad guarantee of help from friendly nations who are closer is reasonable in the circumstances. Lives depend on it. Clearly, there is a great need in West Africa and Australians have traditionally been eager to help - I don't think there is a compassion deficit, just more difficulties to overcome than nations who are geographically closer to West Africa.
Pam | 18 October 2014

This is the first time I respond to an article from Eureka Street. It seems to me that in the past, any kind of overseas aid in the form of sending personnel, including health emergencies, has always been met with no request for an 'iron clad guarantees' about the safety of those responding to it. This is no different. what is differet now is the 'in between the lines' message from this increasingly paranoid government is that OUR workers are not likely to get the treatment required if they get sick and that somehow they will get deficient treatment (for being Aide personnell??). That's the message - Of course people will get the treatment that's availalbe and THAT may be less than desirable as an outcome... this attitude underpins our ever increasing compassion deficit in ALL things that don't suit us, American litigation style, where we are only responsible for US and not for any one else. We live in a global villlage, not in fortress Australia, looking beyond our borders with a far reaching telescope to keep our finger on the pulse but not engaging just in case.
Bea | 20 October 2014

I totally agree with Pam. A 30 hour flight is hell in normal circumstances, let alone travelling with an Ebola infection. And how would you isolate them on the plane? Compassion deficit - what rubbish!
Peter | 20 October 2014

Sorry, but I cannot say anything respectful about the Abbott govt and its policies, especially its approach to providing aid to anyone, anywhere
Nedkel | 20 October 2014

You are free to join some friends and go to help in Africa. There are international organisations which would welcome your help.
Skye | 20 October 2014

Dear Pam and Peter, a 30 hour flight is nothing given the incubation period of this strain of Ebola and as we have seen in the UK and USA planes can be modified to transport infected persons.
Cam | 20 October 2014

Thanks for feedback Cam. I will admit I don't know the exact incubation period for this strain of Ebola. I guess I was assuming that once symptoms present then it's pretty important that isolation and proper treatment begin. Fitting out planes is an option but the logistics would be challenging, I think. And I'd never say a 30 hour flight is 'nothing' even under ideal circumstances. A co-ordinated international effort to help West Africa is the answer and I'd hope more talks could be held between Australia and other nations to find the best way to help.
Pam | 20 October 2014

Sorry Nedkel, I have the greatest respect for Tony Abbott. The extensive work, unheralded, that he has done for the community far and wide inspires me every day. As for some of the Gov. policies - yes some need fine-tuning. As for compassion - I find it around me every day with the people with whom I work and live. Millie.
Millie | 20 October 2014

If the ebola virus was invading european countries, particularly those which many Australians regard as their ancestral lands, such as Britain and Ireland, would there be any question of sending medical support? This unworthy thought has been lurking around my heart for a few days because the excuse of not having 'iron glad' assurances for evacuation seems dubious to me.
Caroline Ryan RSM | 20 October 2014

A couple of years ago I wrote my student essay on 'issues of the early church'. In researching for that essay I discovered that in the early church there were two significant epidemics that resulted in the majority of the population (mainly secular and wealthy) heading for the hills to escape its ravaging and death. The people who stayed were, in the main, Christians who stayed to care for the sick and dying. These Christians believed in a loving God who would support them through their daily lives, and their dying and death (if they succumbed to the epidemic) because it was a religion based on God's love, grace, and generosity of spirit. Over time others became Christians through this tangible act of love and faithfulness to God and each other. In Australia we have political leaders who seem to have a different understanding of Christianity to the one I aspire to. A compassion deficit, empty hearts and minds, and great ignorance is the pervading culture in Canberra. God help us all if this current epidemic is not contained ... a globalised world requires a globalised response. As a person also with an MPH (Latrobe) and a palliative care/end-of-life focus I note the above with grave (pardon the pun) concern. The book I refer to is: Stark, R. The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders History. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996.
mary | 20 October 2014

On the weekend I attended a talk given by a large international medical evacuation organization. There are currently limited planes capable of evacuating an Ebola sufferer. Those that exist have limited capability to move victims and require frequent refueling. Currently only two European countries Germany and Switzerland will consider accepting Ebola victims. There are multiple problems with currently available isolation booths for use in planes and the risk of aircrew, accompanying medical staff or ground staff contamination with the virus are high due to the nature of the virus and design flaws. Given the principles of legal culpability in Australia it would be impossible to defend any claim for failure to provide safe working conditions if Australian public employees were ordered to go. The history of international relief is full of examples where intervention from abroad was counter productive and often harmful. As a public health physician I think the government has made the right decision on personnel but we may need to increase the level of aid as the situation becomes clearer to support local health systems.
Gerard Gill | 20 October 2014

It is interesting that this Australian government seems to reduce the many nations and peoples of the African continent to that of "need" and whether Australia will or will not respond. This is disingenuous. There are over 200 Australian mining and extractive businesses making profits for Australian shareholders, superannuation fund members and the Australian government from African minerals. Some of those activities are in West Africa. What some West African nations now face is not just a health crisis but rather economic disaster. Australia could do more and be honest about what we already are gaining from Africa and the little that we are contributing.
Jack de Groot | 20 October 2014

I would guess various commonwealth departments (PM&C, DFAT, AG's, Health, Immigration & Border Protection) would have had input into a cabinet submission regarding what to do about the ebola crisis in West Africa. It is the job of each of these departments to put the pros and cons of any proposed action - from "Do nothing" to "Throw the kitchen sink at it". I would conjecture that in the current atmosphere of fear (partially contributed to by government commentary e.g IS terrorism, budget crisis, Russian grandstanding, Indonesian assertiveness etc) departments would feel obliged to make sure no fearful issue was left un-turned. And sure enough when the Ministers see the problems laid out in objective bureaucratic language the tendency is to choose "Do nothing" or action towards the "Do nothing" end of the action spectrum. And who can blame them? Or the public servants who advise them? Of course there is also a question that Cabinet takes into account - "What is the likely community reaction to the decision?" This is where PM&C usually has the last word. Go figure!
Uncle Pat | 20 October 2014

Does a "compassion deficit" really surprise? Look inward to our own society where homelessness is common, housing is out of the reach of so many, while the better-off can distort the market via negative gearing. Look to the many children who do not breakfast before school ,unemployed youth, and no and on. Compassion deficit is par for the course..
Laurie May | 20 October 2014


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