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The ethical consequences of making the ALP electable


Anti-turnbacks rally

It is not surprising that Mr Shorten wanted the freedom to adopt the Coalition’s policy of pushing back boats and maintaining punitive off shore camps. Nor was it surprising that the Labor Party approved.  After all it was a Labor Government that introduced mandatory detention and opened Manus Island.

I have some sympathy with the Party and its Leader. The Coalition policy of stopping the boats is strongly supported by a majority of Australians, and to oppose it would put lead in the Labor saddlebags. It would have been a courageous decision.

Nevertheless the decision does raise questions about the Labor Party. For policies are not merely pieces of paper. Vulnerable and desperate people experience in the flesh the consequences of this policy. The way in which we treat people under our policies, too, have consequences for ourselves. In adopting this policy the Labor Party has endorsed what Australian agents will do to people on the sea and in detention centres in our name.

The reasons given for the change are to make the party electable and to prevent people from dying at sea. Both these reasons rest on the principle that the end justifies the means – that it is right to inflict suffering and harm on innocent people in order to deter others from bringing harm on themselves or from harming the Party.

This infliction of pain for other ends is the maggot in the meat of the policy, simply concealed by the sauce of the harm minimisation measures that Labor has promised. The meat is blown and ethically inedible.  And experience says that the sauce added is soon made rancid.

The frank avowal of this ethical principle inevitably raises questions about the Labor Party. The key question is not about what the Party stands for, nor even about whom the Party stands for and against.

It is much more basic. It asks which groups of people the Party will be prepared to harm if they stand in the way of its electoral or other goals. Or put more sharply: whom, if anyone, will the Party not be prepared to sell out should it be in its interests?  And if there are any people whose human dignity is not expendable, by what criteria will their value judged to be non-negotiable?  We should all be interested in the answers to these questions because we may all potentially be consigned to the camp of the expendable.

The Coalition has made pretty clear its own answer to these questions during its time in government. For it, the wealthy and economically successful are not expendable, and their interests form a clear criterion for untouchability. Others are expendable, even if the targets of the government’s preferred punitive policies are occasionally saved by the demands of electoral success.

With the Labor Party the answer to the question is not so clear. It no longer represents a defined economic or social group, such as manual workers, whose interests might dictate which groups are expendable, as were people of non-European background under the White Australia policy.

When we look at the Party’s record when in office and in opposition, the answer is not reassuring. It introduced the punitive conditions on Manus Island and Nauru. It has not opposed legislation that deprives asylum seekers and those accused of aiding terrorism, mainly Muslims, of access to the rule of law.

In the face of this record it takes great faith to believe that the rhetorical values the Labor Party espouses, such as respect for the human dignity of all people, decency and fairness, will be the operative criteria when it is expedient to sell people out.

This is not to say that there are no decent people with integrity and high values in the Labor party, and indeed also in the Coalition, but only that their integrity and values are unlikely be reflected in action when it is expedient to treat people as means to electoral and other ends.

It follows that the challenge facing the Labor Party is not how to balance doing what is necessary for electoral success with their key values and commitments.  Electoral success will win hands down.

Its challenge, shared by an equally single-minded Coalition, is how to make plausible its claim to stand with the Australian people when it is so clearly prepared to sell out anyone who proves expendable. Plausibility will come even harder after last weekend.

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street. 


Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, ALP, asylum seekers, refugees, turnbacks



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Existing comments

Exactly right. And it was waved through by some people who would fight to the death to oppose injecting rooms and euthanasia for precisely the same reasons.

Michael Walker | 28 July 2015  

I was brought up in the great ALP tradition of a fair go for all and the Catholic tradition of loving my neighbour. The ALP's historic Catholic roots undepinned both of these values. That's why I was part of the demonstration outside the ALP conference last Saturday. Shame on the Labor Party and Shame on Bill Shorten who clearly does not have the moral compass to be leader of any party.

Robert Glass | 28 July 2015  

The environment, refugees .... the Greens are looking better and better, no?

Russell | 28 July 2015  

Such great use of metaphor! Yes, the policy of forcing refugees away is rotten meat and while it may be ethically inedible to those sympathetic to the cause of displaced and persecuted people, unfortunately the majority of voters now have stomachs made impervious to such putrid fare by cynical politicians who understand only too well that elections can be won or lost by governments that show even the slightest hint of mercy towards asylum seekers. It is difficult to pinpoint which came first, politicians responding to xenophobic electors or electors conditioned by cynical politicians. Notwithstanding how this cruel situation arose in the first place, I sometimes think that Australians of themselves are incapable of resolving it and that only some external force will bring us to our senses. Perhaps it is time for the United Nations to impose economic sanctions on Australia and make us live up to our responsibilities.

Paul | 29 July 2015  

I think both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition have proved again and again that they will do anything to gain office. Politics is indeed an amoral world. The only way things will change is by pressure from outside. Peaceful protesting and articles such as this may begin the process of change.

Edward Fido | 29 July 2015  

The $450 million contribution announced by the ALP is the largest by far contribution to UNHCR in its history. 27000 humanitarian visas places Australia close to lead, per capita, of OECD countries. No doubt the excesses of Abbott will be tempered - visa classes, children in detention etc. boat deaths have doubled this year in Mediterranean - over 4%. No reason why that shouldn't be mirrored in SEAsia. It's a strange form of humanitarian argument, an argument that tolerates and accepts the murderous business of people traffickers.

john | 29 July 2015  

Every day 44,000 people are being forced to flee their homes and John thinks that ''taking'' 27,000 of them a year by 2025 is awesome and will stop people being smuggled or trafficked. Not it won't, if things do not improve in various parts of the world 100,000 people a day will be forced to flee and every single one of them will have to pay bribes to cross borders, get transport, and arrive somewhere safe. We are importing people who are already safe and pushing away people who aren''t and that is ludicrous.

Marilyn | 29 July 2015  

John well said, the first logical and non-naïve comment seen for days on this subject

JIm Molan | 30 July 2015  

In making this decision the Labour Party - in a calculated and, more concerningly, in a calculating way - have declared thenmelves to be willing to do the wrong thing for what to them is the right reason - namely to be elected. They have made themselves unelectable rather than the other way round. Is it impossible in Australian politics and especially on the issue of asylum seekers, to do the right thing for the right reasons?

Fiona Winn | 30 July 2015  

Interestingly, in the process of making itself 'electable' Labor has simultaneously made itself un-supportable to many for whom the rationalisation of "saving lives at sea" is a thin rationale for stepping away from our obligations under the Refugee Convention and for human rights abuses associated with offshore detention centres and other aspects of punitive refugee policy.

Joan Beckwith | 30 July 2015  

It was similar thinking so well expressed by you Andrew that I gave up voting for Labor and now vote for the Greens.

Tim Collier | 30 July 2015  

In conscience I cannot vote for Labor because of their stance on abortion and gay marriage. How brave was Joe de Bruyn. Labor is not what it used to be - it is now an ideological party full of a lemming like political correctness. No boat policy can make up for the moral betrayals of Catholics who used to used to support them.

Alice Larkin | 30 July 2015  

That the ALP conference gave the next Labor government freedom to turn back boats is a fact. But to say that it has adopted the Coalition policy of maintaining PUNITIVE offshore camps is more than a stretch. The policy Richard Marles announced called for lifting the secrecy now imposed on operation of detention facilities and allowing independent oversight. And, most importantly, doubling the refugee intake and increasing funding for UNHCR will allow the beginning of real regional cooperation. All of that is a long way from what we have now.

Ray Cassin | 30 July 2015  

Andrew, do you not understand? Democracy means representatives (politicians) making decisions upon which they can gain election. It is unrealistic to expect any of them to behave otherwise. To get 'better' decisions we need 'better' citizens.

Des Byrne | 30 July 2015  

While I am critical of their failings, their pompous belief in themselves and their policies, I have a great deal of sympathy for the politicians who are faced with what is a "Wicked Problem" (See Wikipedia et al. for example https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wicked_problem). The problems with a Wicked Problem are that we do not know when it is solved ("no stopping rule"), solutions are not true or false, right or wrong, but may have both good and bad aspects, obvious solutions do not work, are damaging, or the planner has no right to be wrong, etc. etc. The problem with politicians is that, amongst other things, they perceive they cannot be seen to be wrong, they think they have THE one solution and they cannot admit they do not know. When faced with a wicked problem, I do not believe one should rule out any course of action, but rather look for other courses of action, as well. For example, as far as I know, no regional consultation and actions involving all our neighbours has been pursued. Whatever the solution, if any, surely involves those countries. So, I think the ethicists amongst us need to take this richer view of the problem we face with Asylum Seekers. It is not as simple as right or wrong, or the end justifies the means, though these are very important tools to judge potential solutions.

Peter Horan | 30 July 2015  

Another problem with politicians is that they only see one problem: how to be re-elected.

Peter Horan | 30 July 2015  

I get the impression that you believe refugees have a right to drown!

Angela | 30 July 2015  

Powerful metaphor, Andrew, but not really apt. Not so much a maggot in the meat as a bit of gravel in the rice – still inedible and a danger to good health, but not infectious, and the rice still makes a wholesome pudding. A close reading of the whole policy (recommended reading) reveals no argument anywhere that boat turnbacks are adopted in order to win an election – they are a necessary evil to avoid more deaths at sea. See the speeches of Tony Burke, Richard Marles, Bill Shorten on the Labor Herald channel of YouTube. To eschew boat turnbacks would greatly increase the likelihood of more boats setting out on the dangerous journey and, consequently, more deaths at sea. Surely a safe, supervised turnback, towback or lifeboat return is a lesser evil than the certainty of more deaths at sea. Drownings occur without boat turnbacks – 5 percent of the Africans trying to cross the Mediterranean in boats drown, despite massively generous rescue efforts. Is there any evidence of drownings AFTER a boat has been turned or towed back to Indonesia? Harm minimization is a good ethical principle, too.

Patrick Wright | 30 July 2015  

The ethical principle that it is wrong to punish some people as a deterrent to others is sound, and could be said to apply to Labor’s policy of punishing a boatload of refugees by turning their boat back, when it is safe to do so, as a deterrent to thousands of refugees in Indonesia. However, the principle applies also, with much greater force, to the present practice of the Coalition Government, as they punish the boatloads of refugees turned back, the refugees in offshore and onshore Detention Centres, and the 30,000 refugees and their families on community detention, TPVs or bridging visas in Australia. Two wrongs don’t make it right, but let’s have a little commensurate outrage here. According to the Labor Platform, they promise to stop punishing the last two of the three groups of refugees. They say that Australia should not harm people (208), they won’t punish anyone just because of their mode of arrival (219), they will provide asylum seekers with as much certainty as possible about applications for permanent protection (210), migration assistance and appropriate social services while their applications are being assessed (228), and will restore Government-funded legal assistance for them. And 12 other improvements.

Pat Wright | 30 July 2015  

if Mr. shorten does not have a moral compass to lead the country neither does Mr. Abbott and his sorry lot of. Cronies.

Irena | 30 July 2015  

Little point in supporting a political party if they are never in a position to enact legislation. We can stand on all the high principles we can dream up and let the conservative side of politics run the country for as long as Bob Menzies did or we can compromise yes compromise some of our lofty principles and get into a position where we can make a difference to many if not all of humanity.

Frank O'Neill | 30 July 2015  

In the current situation, I am considering not voting at the next election and dealing with the consequences of breaking compulsory voting laws on a conscientious point of view. Even if I vote for the Greens, who are the only party opposed to forcing refugees back on the high seas, my preferences will go to Labor whose policies I conscientiously object to. I will not vote and I will not pay any fine for not voting. And when I am taken to court, I will willingly go to jail for 3 days for not paying the failure to vote fine.

AURELIUS | 31 July 2015  

Labor’s proposed Border Protection system, based on not harming people (208), international cooperation, not unilateral action (209), assisting in the rescue at sea of vessels in distress (220), strong regional and international arrangements to increase the orderly flow of refugees (213), and improvements in living standards and protection outcomes both in countries of first asylum and transit countries (213) aims to keep boat turnbacks hypothetical. The chances of early success are remote, but worth a try. The first boats from Indonesia to Have a Go, as Hockey would say, to test a new Labor Government’s resolve, would be crucial. If turnbacks can be safely accomplished, the people-smugglers will lose their customers to the alterative – the orderly flow of refugees organized by UNHCR, thanks to its $450m funding from Australia and the progressive doubling of our humanitarian intake (216). In the longer term, a bilateral agreement with Indonesia to jointly police trafficking between Java and Christmas Island, and a multi-lateral agreement in the region to share the costs of resettling refugees would remove the need for a boat turnback policy for any political party. As Paul Ronalds of STC says, “We mustn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good”.

Pat Wright | 31 July 2015  

Aurelius - how can an alternative get off the ground if you won't support it? I really appreciate the people who over the decades have stood as candidates for the Greens - when they had no chance of winning. Imagine all that effort and exposure when you knew you would lose. But by standing they "kept hope alive" and the Greens vote has crept up and up. If you vote Greens 1, they will get the money for your vote from the Electoral Commission, not the ALP. At least vote for the Greens in the Senate, where perhaps it's more likely your vote will change the result.

Russell | 31 July 2015  

What a clear-sighted analysis. Thank you Andrew for identifying the real questions at stake.

Barney | 01 August 2015  

I have read through Labor Party documents now. The old principal of reading a lot to write a little applies. Labor clearly has intended to emphasise the global citizenship aspect of dealing with asylum seekers. The funding increases the UNHCR SE Asian budget over forty fold. There should be a whole range of new and innovative programs out of that body. Perhaps countries reluctant to resettle will be enticed to step up, with added support and incentive. This is putting that body in a position where it could be in a much better position. It could, with effort and good willed intentions, see the much discussed yet not not seen regional solution emerge. At least some groundwork laid. We know there are no global solutions - but Labor has made a real change here. Read the policy first.

john | 02 August 2015  

The asylum policy was not just waved through as some commentators have suggested. It was vigorously opposed and challenged by a number of delegates. The article below includes a video (9m43s) of the strong moral stance taken by the National Secretary of the Textile, Clothing and Footwear Union whose membership includes many thousands who came to this country seeking asylum. 'One Positive To Take From The Labor Conference'. Max Chalmers. 2 August, 2015. 'While the party’s position on refugees hardened, one voice calling for more humane policies managed to leave an impression - Michele O'Neil...leader of the textile, clothing and footwear union.... Before the ‘debate’, the Left faction had caucused, with the emotional meeting failing to reach a consensus. Sources said Michele O’Neil had been the most effective speaker putting the case against turn backs, and for the amendment. When she reached the podium to address the party as a whole she didn’t disappoint - See more at: https://newmatilda.com/2015/08/02/one-positive-take-labor-conference#sthash.VFKXgMrp.M9yBZZzu.dpuf

Maurene Grundy | 03 August 2015  

Sadly I am looking after another asylum seeker in a hospital in Melbourne (via Nauru). Once again I read a shocking tale of the cruelest and most barbaric treatment in line with government and Labor policy. It is unfathomable. Clearly any values of decency have been swept aside in the reach for electability by Labor. The Greens are now our only hope for humane treatment for the most desperate. Thank you for your article Andrew Hamilton. I am so pleased to read an honest piece and not another apologist piece for Labor's atrocious policy change. I fear my patient will become yet another statistic in this cruel game of race to the bottom. I pray this won't be the case. The situation these people are in is so unbearable. No Australian would ever tolerate it for their own neighbours, family and friends. Politics is not achieving just outcomes yet our only recourse seems to be to continue to protest. This is not an Australia we want for future generations we must change this.

Christina Coombe | 08 August 2015  

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