The small-l liberal tradition of brutal border control


Security camera beside a chain link fenceNot 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 life. This idea is powerful, but for the asylum seeker, economic migrant or displaced person it can be disastrous; not having been party to the 'contract' they can be cast as threats to our communal life. 

That's exactly what John Howard did in the late 1980s when he called for a slowing down of Asian immigration in his Warrnambool speech.

Expanding on this theme in the 1990s, Australian Liberal parliamentarians like Christopher Puplick said the state should act to 'promote and protect the physical, social and economic environment in which free men and women can exercise and enjoy their equal freedoms' and in which 'decency and civilised behaviour are fostered'. Here you have a vision of the state as the cradle of individual autonomy, decency and the realisation of human potential — but the corollary of this is the need to ensure the integrity of state borders within which the vision can be enacted.

And of course, underwriting it is the implication that migration controls are there to ensure that those allowed entry possess the cultural attributes deemed necessary to uphold this thing called 'decency'.

Compare this vision of internal 'decency' with the threats offered by the world beyond, at least as some Australian Liberals — even those who have claimed to be actual philosophical liberals — paint them. Look at the language Christopher Pyne used in Parliament during the debates on mandatory detention in the early 1990s: Western Europe was faced with 'a growing tide of illegal immigrants and refugees', the United States with thousands of Latin Americans 'stealing' across the border 'by whatever means they can', and Australia with 'a massive influx of refugees'. Internal liberal-democratic decency is contrasted with a vision of external chaos.

None of this is to say anything about the practical design of border controls or migration policies; it's merely to point out that restrictive border controls are not only a 'pragmatic' response to the increasing migration flows of the modern world, they are deeply embedded in liberal understandings of political community.

Many feel comfortable with the liberal political-philosophical tradition — it seems to be the 'tradition of the modern world' — but it rests on that idea of the bounded community where a liberal society might thrive if effectively safeguarded. And in Australia (and elsewhere) the concepts offered by the liberal tradition have been employed by both sides of politics to give a 'reasonable' varnish to inhumane migration control policies.

In the lead-up to another election, those looking for a shift in policy need to think about this hard philosophical reality that underwrites Australian border control policies. Kevin Rudd may not warm to the excision of the Australian mainland or to offshore processing, but he is faced with certain deeply embedded ideas that will be very hard to shift, and the political pressure will not let up.

In my interview with him, Ruddock told me that while in opposition in the 1990s, Liberal Party parliamentarians were making border control an issue politically and it was an issue the Government 'had to cure'. In 20 years not much has changed.

Benedict Coleridge headshotBenedict Coleridge is a Eureka Street columnist and until recently worked as a policy researcher in Brussels. He will begin graduate study in political theory in September 2013. He can be followed on twitter at @Ben_Coleridge 

Security camera image from Shutterstock

Topic tags: Benedict Coleridge, Brussels, Philip Ruddock, John Howard, Kevin Rudd, asylum seekers, border protection



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Existing comments

Maybe it is time the cowards were challenged though instead of being allowed to pander. Why doesn't even one person dare to ask the cowards where our borders are that we are defending from poor people? Millions of miles of ocean that we have zero control over is not our border. And why are refugees good if they are somewhere else and bad if they are here? I am sick to death of whining little selfish cowards in this country who would rather support and foster genocide than help the survivors.
Marilyn | 11 July 2013

Studying the theory of politics is vastly different from the reality of living the life. We have over 7000 homeless children in NSW, and countless numbers of just :homeless people. The taxpayer supports them to an extent but $16b to refugees and the priioritising of their entry into society, usually on their relgious terms, please, you need to get a better understanding of what working Australians are expected to put up with. My daughter is finding it hard to get Legal Aid.. if she were a refugee, it would be an automatic handout. How can one be unbiased?.
Shirley McHugh | 12 July 2013

splendid article! It is always good to get to the underlying philosophical/ethical basis or opinions one might (should?) find repugnant.
paul finnane | 12 July 2013

Thanks Benedict. I find this a thought-provoking article. I note that you've had no comments to date (Friday, midday). I wonder whether your thesis is so challenging that most people prefer to avoid thinking and instead subscribe to one or other of the simplistic polarities, the 'us and them' models where 'us' are 'God's chosen people', possessors of 'a manifest destiny', or 'the one true faith', and 'them' are the 'lesser breeds without the law', or the 'unclean', or the 'Philistine', or the 'Asiatic', all of which terms can then be used to de-humanise 'the other'?
Ginger Meggs | 12 July 2013

Shirley, the 'liberal political-philosophical tradition' that is suspicious of migrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers is the same 'liberal political-philosophical tradition' that denies your daughter access to legal aid. Your daughter and the asylum-seeker have that in common; they are both victims of same philosophy.
Ginger Meggs | 12 July 2013

$16 billion to refugees Shirley? REally and truly where does that sort of nonsense come from? WE are not spending $16 billion on refugees, we have created and expensive and illegal prison network that is making foreign companies very rich.
Marilyn | 12 July 2013

Thanks Ben for a thought-provoking, albeit discomfiting article. But many of your same arguments could have been and were used in the past to justify a White Australia policy which we now by broad national consensus reject. So there are clearly issues of community value shifts over time that i suggest need to be brought into your essay's frame of reference. If enough Australians should come to feel that we cannot have a ''good' society that excludes people in distress from joining it (we are in a minority still, it seems), I guess that would overcome the arguments set out in your essay ? In other words, we Australians have the right to choose who is "us" - and that is an ongoing debate in a democracy. Interested in your response to this.
Tony Kevin | 12 July 2013

This is a wonderful article. It might help to take us beyond simple revulsion at the words and deeds of the rogues' gallery of which Phillip Ruddock is a leading member, and which has now been joined by Julia Gillard and Bob Carr.
Jim Jones | 13 July 2013


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