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The small-l liberal tradition of brutal border control

  • 12 July 2013

Not long ago Judy Moylan announced her retirement from politics. Throughout her career she was one of the few Liberal parliamentarians who resisted her party's embrace of stringent migration control policies. Pace Judy Moylan, those who think that Liberals can be persuaded to another approach on the borders and boat arrivals issue need to think again. Moylan was a rare breed and we all need to face the implications of Liberals being 'liberals'.

Australian Liberals, of both conservative and actually 'liberal' persuasions accept the liberal conception of the state as both sovereign and limited — a bounded community with clearly defined borders. Borders and their maintenance — and the exclusion or detention of those who attempt to cross them on their own terms — are embedded in the liberal tradition. As are a series of concepts that point towards exclusionary migration control; the idea of restricted membership is as much a part of liberal philosophical and political tradition as is freedom of expression.

Two years ago I interviewed Philip Ruddock about the emergence of the policy of mandatory detention of irregular migrants in Australia. Ruddock said he believed in 'the liberal principles of opportunity, of freedom provided you don't do some sort of evil to others'. But his conception of freedom had very clear limits: 'you know, you can have a view about freedom but I don't believe in freedom that entitles people to ignore borders and simply decide, well I don't care what you think, I'm going to live amongst you'.

Here Ruddock appealed to John Stuart Mill's conception of the limits of individual autonomy, the principle that the individual should have complete autonomy in 'self-regarding actions' and be subject to interference only in actions that may have an impact, possibly adverse, on society at large.

Many on the left or those who campaigned against mandatory detention might shudder at the mention of Ruddock or think that his views on migration control were extreme and 'illiberal'. But here you can see that his views rested on mainstream liberal ideas of limited freedom — he wasn't a blunderbuss, he was echoing Mill.

Most liberal political philosophy assumes the political community will be clearly delineated, and that there will be some way of determining who can claim membership. Any liberal contractarian philosophy from Rousseau to Rawls rests on an imaginative picture of people coming together to form a contract, through which they establish rules for their common