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Robber bands in Parliament


Silhouette of a robber with a money bag and a crow barIn these times Augustine's mordant comment on the Roman Empire comes to mind. He wrote, 'Without justice, states are robber bands.' His line seems pertinent as we read of the human consequences of Australian asylum seeker policy and the continuing revelations of electronic snooping.

Augustine's comparison of states to robber bands is usually taken to be merely dismissive. That does not do justice to his thought. It is best taken as descriptive, pointing to the reality and dynamic of states which act in an ethics free zone. He is concerned to strip away the self-congratulatory rhetoric of empire from the reality of a Rome concerned purely with asking how to achieve desired goals uncontrolled by respect for human dignity. If we appreciate how robber bands work we can better understand what states do.

Such robber bands as the mafia or perhaps the triads, work pretty effectively within their narrow limits. They are effective at reaching their financial and organisational goals and generally moderate the violence used in achieving these goals to the minimum considered necessary. They can also survive for long periods since they are able to ensure silence and to win enough popular support by rewarding their friends and by opposing the central government. And they have a deserved name for carrying through what they propose.

So the mere fact that governments have no commitment to ethical principles in their pursuit of security or to preventing people from enjoying protection from persecution does not ensure that they will decline and fall. They may grow in esteem among the people and the commentariat, as happened in the Roman Empire.

But robber bands have always faced two challenges. The first is the desire that comes with success that their leaders should be respected as human beings and not simply as effective robbers. For their legitimacy they need people to respect them for those human values that they themselves regard as sentimental nonsense in their work. Without it the people whose tacit acquiescence they need will shrink from them.

The control of communications and willingness to use coercive power may allow this to be achieved. Godfathers can be seen as cuddly. And ordinary citizens saw even Stalin as the benevolent father of the people who was ignorant of the atrocities done in his name.

The second, and greater, challenge to robber bands follows when people pursue practical goals without justice. The absence of an overarching ethical compass leads them to act efficiently in ways that are well designed to achieve the desired small goals, but which conflict with the robber band's broader interests. A local capo will take out the mayor who is impeding his profitable work without realising he is related to the provincial leader on whose protection the organisation relies. The goal small achieved turns out to be an own goal.

This is also a risk for governments that act without respect for justice or an overarching ethical framework. In Australia, for example, the names and details of asylum seekers were briefly published on the Immigration Department website, and attention drawn to the list by a Minister angry at the impression of ineptitude this gave.

It is easy to see how it could happen. When ethical principles are irrelevant to achieving goals, officers of the department might well fail to reflect that publication of these details might lead to the death of asylum seekers when deported to the nations that persecuted them. Indeed, even if they did realise it, they might have argued that the goal of deterring would-be asylum seekers would be better achieved if they realised that their names would be made known to their persecutors.

But whether the publication occurred through the simple neglect of ethical reflection or by calculation of advantage, it shows the way unprincipled action can hurt the broader interests of government.

The Snowden revelations in the United States teach the same lesson. A government agency set out to protect national security by collecting private communications without concern for ethical or legal boundaries. But its single minded focus on the goal with no respect for confidentiality led it to allow a subcontractor access to confidential information. He published it, so ensuring that by its unprincipled actions the government agencies damaged the security they tried to protect.

Augustine would not have been surprised by this. He knew that ethical reflection is about teasing out human dignity, and that the proper business of governments is to serve and not to trample on that dignity. When they don't we are all the poorer.

Andrew Hamilton headshotAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Robber silhouette from Shutterstock

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, asylum seekers, Augustine, Edward Snowden



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Existing comments

On the most pessimistic view of Minister Morrison and the Abbott Government, where is the slightest evidence that the Minister was only angry at "the impression" of ineptitude of the Immigration Department, rather than, as he protested, the "unacceptable nature" of the "serious breach of privacy", something pointed out also by the head of the Refugee Council of Australia, who actually called it "outrageous"? The leak greatly increases the chances of those whose names were leaked being awarded asylum in Australia So, 1.) Why do you suppose Mr Morrison, who according to you detests ‘without ethical principles’ asylum seekers coming into Australia, would only oppose "the impression" of this ineptitude rather than the ineptitude itself which radically undermines his allegedly wicked strategies, and 2.) Why on the same ground should we not suspect a pro-asylum seeker Immigration Department public servant (there are one or two, you know) of deliberately leaking such sensitive information PRECISELY to boost the chances of those asylum seekers being awarded asylum (a rather obvious motive for leaking which you've inexplicably overlooked)? And in so leaking, betraying his/her role as a public servant, and at least on that account rightfully earning the ire of the responsible Minister?

HH | 26 February 2014  

Supplementary question. What is the proportion of E.S. articles critically micro-analysing the Abbot Government's treatment of asylum seekers, in which so far there has been one fatality in about six months (in a Labor established camp for mostly Labor/Green interns), compared to the Rudd/Gillard/Greens/Independents chart-topping record of 1100 asylum fatalities over about 6 years - ie about 90 fatalities every six months? Are we to take it that "all deaths are equal, but some are more equal than others"?

HH | 26 February 2014  

"Why on the same ground should we not suspect a pro-asylum seeker Immigration Department public servant...". I am sure Mr. No Name would be delighted to publish evidence for this - if he had any.

Simon Crase | 27 February 2014  

HH; "And in so leaking, betraying his/her role as a public servant."................ No matter what HH wants, the main duty of a public servant is to God, to Truth and Justice. And then to the people of Australia. And lastly ,provided there is no conflict with these, to the Government.

Robert Liddy | 27 February 2014  

So I'm challenged on the one hand for daring to suggest a public servant might leak to help asylum seekers, and on the other for implying that it was not his/her main duty to so leak. I think I might have hit a bullseye!

HH | 27 February 2014  

Why debate the the pros and cons of what happened at Manus when the question is why Manus, Naru and now possibly Cambodia? I don't give a fig for either Government's attempt to justify off-shore detention (concentration camps in reality). The shameful truth about the death at Manus is that it could have been avoided had Australia accepted refugees who come by boat as happens elsewhere in the world and processed them on-shore; perhaps the number of lives lost at sea would have been less had we'd been more welcoming. And before I am attacked by defenders of the indefensible, quoting "queue jumpers" and "illegals" to me, my defense is that I try to imagine how I would feel if I, or a member of my family, were persecuted in the way that many refugees/boat people are. Would I risk my life to save myself or them? Would I pay whatever was necessary for the chance of secure life? You bet I would! I don't buy the argument that people who do that are not deserving. They may have broken a rule or two but so would I if it meant I could secure a decent life for me or my family.

Jeff Kevin | 27 February 2014  

Mr. A. Nonymous, I challenged you to produce evidence, if you have any. Maybe you have hit something starting with "bull", but I doubt that it's a bullseye.

Simon Crase | 27 February 2014  

Andrew: " the self-congratulatory rhetoric of empire"................... The proposal of "Sovereign Borders" sounds very much like " the self-congratulatory rhetoric of empire." We don't OWN the land and its resources. They are there to share. We are more like the Squatters of our early days. We hear of the Age of Inherited Privilege being over. Unless we administer our responsibilities justly, when the teeming masses of desperate and despairing masses in the world find a common cause, they will doubtless do to us what 'we' did to Australia's original inhabitants.

Robert Liddy | 27 February 2014  

#Fr Hamilton your revisionist take viz "And ordinary citizens saw even Stalin as the benevolent father of the people who was ignorant of the atrocities done in his name". Such belies the millions who were victims or friends of victims of Stalin's massacres. Include also the Gulags[surely the worst kept Stalin Secret].Nobody could fail to miss 20 million dead[Ukrainians and Kulaks etc] Interestingly and contemporaneously the ever loyal Australian communist party[ACP] imitated Moscow with their own intra party soviet style,though bloodless party purges[Mark Aarons 'Family File' 2010] Stalin activity would be hard to miss frankly: http://rexcurry.net/socialism-red-flags-socialists1c.jpg

Father John George | 27 February 2014  

HH fails to recognise that Fr Hamilton's commentary is a critique of "government policy/procedure", which includes the Labor Party's previous government. We get enough boorish tit for tat politicking on 24 hour news shows - can't we step aside from that, put our own personal(economic/career/power) ambitions to one side and look at the HUMAN side of this? I am totally demoralised and depressed with the state of opinions in this country at the moment.

AURELIUS | 28 February 2014  

S.C. Not that it gainsays my point, but yes, I have no direct evidence, and never implied as much. But then, neither does Fr H (and that doesn't gainsay his point, either). And yet you challenge me for evidence, but not Fr H? Interesting.

HH | 01 March 2014  

Fr H, I do concede a new view of saint Stalin re purges[ such canonisation never possible through iron clad Vatican process of canonisation http://uareview.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/stalin.jpg

Father John George | 03 March 2014  

Th notion that we are saving people's lives by locking them up in concentration camps as a deterrent against fleeing persecution by boat will go down as the biggest political lie of this century. The Holocaust may have been great for German nation-building too, and even Pinochet's brutal dictatorship did wonders for Chile's economy. But the supporters of this policy in these comments often comment on religious matters too and I find that a disturbing conflict of interest. I guess that's why they don't publish their real names.

AURELIUS | 05 March 2014  

why do many comments descend so quickly to pompous "argumentum ad hominem" - focus on the issues.

PB | 13 March 2014  

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