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The grace of courtesy


Since the Federal Election one of the most refreshing features has been the new Prime Minister’s connection with people. Whether it is shown by riding a bamboo bicycle with the Indonesian President, expressing sympathy for the Nadesilingam family for their prolonged ordeal before returning to Biloela or agreeing with Jacinda Ardern, herself a model of public empathy, about the unreasonableness of expelling to New Zealand people who had never lived there, his actions displayed a readiness to listen and to enter the experience of other people.

The response of political commentators was also telling. They saw this gift for empathy, though risky for giving unplanned signals, as a useful political tool for keeping support. But they warned that he would soon have to get into the true work of a prime minister: to deal with the energy, economic and social crises facing Australia. These provided the true tasks and tests of leadership.

This perspective on political leadership is correct in emphasising the importance of making prompt and wise decisions about the economy, energy supply, climate change and other issues. But it fails to put sufficient weight on the need for leaders to relate in human ways to people and to model decency for the nation. This quality is essential to win trust in making decisions that will impose burdens on people and in shaping expectations of how governments will treat people.

Although such qualities as decency, community spirit and humanity are difficult to quantify as a source of economic growth, they are essential in hard times. If people are to accept policies that impose hardship on them they must be convinced that they are for the common good, and that the common good matters enough for them to cooperate and make sacrifices for one another. Government leaders must model decency and humanity in their personal relationships with citizens because these qualities are the seedbed of the participation and trust needed in hard times.

For the Prime Minister to reach out to the Nadesilingam family was a symbolic gesture. It carried a weight greater than its immediate effects. To sympathise with people who have been cruelly treated by the implementation of policies and regulations by government implies that each person matters. As a corollary also implies that government policies and their implementation should respect each person affected by them. Precisely because each person has a unique dignity, Government policies must leave room for discretion in the administration of their policies.


'The Prime Minister has shown how brittle are the premises on which the treatment of the Biloela family and of other persons who have sought protection rests. A humane policy administered in a human way can easily tolerate exceptions in hard cases.'


The Prime Minister’s response were experienced as a relief and as clean air because it revealed how fetid were the premises on which the treatment of the Nadesalingan family and of some of those deported to New Zealand. The principle that the grant of residence and citizenship in Australia to people born outside Australia should depend on public criteria and not on official whim is unexceptionable. In the case of people who seek protection, however, the grant of visas is marked by arbitrary judgment with limited possibility of judicial review, and dependent on the final and non-reviewable decision of a minister whether or not to make a decision. Those to whom a visa is refused are then liable to detention in harsh conditions, to re-detention without notice, and to transfer within or outside the Australian mainland at official whim.

The air is made even more foul by the doctrine of deterrence that underlies this treatment. It demands that people who seek protection should be treated harshly in order to deter others from attempting to come to Australia. That principle breeds the myth that any use of discretion to grant permanent residence in Australia to people seeking protection will undermine Australian policy and open the way to floods of boats. In the case of the Nadesalingam family this led to their arrival in Australia, application for bridging visas, their happy integration into the town of Biloela, their removal without notice to detention in Melbourne and later on Christmas Island, their being put on a plane for deportation only to be returned after an injunction, their return to Christmas Island where their child contracted a life-threatening disease, their return to Perth for treatment and community detention, lectures about Government policy from ministers and officials, and the grant of bridging visa restricted to Perth.

This miasma was dispelled by a simple humane gesture by the Prime Minister to respond to the family as human beings first and then only as objects of policy. It exposed the myth on which the policy of deterrence is built — its shibboleth that the exercise of discretion on compassionate grounds will white-ant policy — and revealed it for the nonsense that it is.

By doing so the Prime Minister has shown how brittle are the premises on which the treatment of the Biloela family and of other persons who have sought protection rests. A humane policy administered in a human way can easily tolerate exceptions in hard cases.

The practice of political leaders empathizing with people in hard situations, listening to them and leaving open the possibility of waiving prejudicial laws and regulations in their circumstances can be termed public courtesy. We normally see courtesy as a personal attribute by which we show respect to other individual persons by adapting our speech and action sensitively to their personal circumstances. Courtesy goes beyond what is strictly owed to people and enters the territory of gift. It is the lubricant in personal relationships.

It can also be embodied in public behaviour in the form of good manners. If, however, manners do not arise out of an inner respect they will be hollowed out and be a veneer over disrespectful relationships. In the last Parliament the lack of courtesy in relationships within political parties, between them and in the relationship of Government to people was evident and it spread to administration.

For that reason the example given by the Prime Minister of personal empathy with people who had been hard done by has a public as well as personal significance. It is a demonstration of public courtesy that establishes a model and a base level by which the policies and practices of government will be measured. 






Andrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writer at Jesuit Social Services.

Main image: Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese (L) greets his New Zealand counterpart Jacinda Ardern ahead of a bilateral meeting on June 10, 2022 in Sydney, Australia. Jacinda Ardern is the first foreign leader to be hosted by Australia's new Labor government. (Mark Baker - Pool/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, AusPol



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Existing comments

Fr Andrew you are correct.
Dutton was the architect of the detention policies on Manus and Nauru and by far the largest number of people sent to to those hell holes have been from Iran. The second-largest group of people were stateless. There were also large numbers of people from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Iraq.

Tamils for instance were treated quite differently to white South Africans.
The former Minister for Home Affairs was about as sensitive as hessian underpants.

Francis Armstrong | 24 June 2022  

The behaviour of some of our politicians reminds me of Patterson's line: 'the language uninviting of the gutter children fighting,'. Hopefully, we'll see improvement when parliament sits again.

Ginger Meggs | 26 June 2022  

our last prime minister squandered his education and his 2019 election what a pity because he was lazy and did not believe in hardwork

Stuart Lawrence | 28 June 2022  

Barack Obama is very courteous. He is also the first president to speak at a Planned Parenthood conference.

Courtesy is one of many ways, and often the best, to elicit truth. But, being only a mechanism in service of truth and not, like truth, an absolute value in itself, it is always subordinate to truth.

Advocacy of the truth needs to be unbending, courteously unbending perhaps, and as courteously unbending as Mr. Obama is in defence of abortion. Therefore, there is no conflict between courtesy and a decision of a bishop to reserve holy communion for any prominent Catholic who is, by virtue of that prominence, a scandal to the faithful.

roy chen yee | 29 June 2022  

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