Triggs champions common compassion



I was recently struck by a resonant phrase attributed to a Jewish Australian in the 1930s. He was trying to bring to Australia a Jewish family who were in grave danger in Austria.

Gilian Triggs addresses the XSJN dinnerAsked by an immigration official what made him want to bring the family of his daughter's pen friend, none of whom he had ever met, he replied, 'Common compassion.' The family could not come, and most were later killed. His phrase lives on.

The story was told by Gillian Triggs in a talk on human rights given to the Xavier Social Justice Network in Melbourne. When president of the Human Rights Commission, she reported on the human rights abuses on Manus Island and Nauru. The jackals of the ruling party and its media supporters then hunted in packs to tear her down.

Common compassion can have many meanings, pertinent to public life as well as to personal virtue. It can name a compassion that is not special, is not based in strong emotion, but in respect as the bottom line in all human relationships. In the same way, we might speak of common decency.

It can also designate a compassion that pervades all human relationships, one that in this case links the applicant, the beneficiary family and the immigration official. It recalls to the official the humanity he shares with the threatened family.

Common compassion might also refer more broadly to a principle that grounds the commons and is the basis of public order and the relationship between rulers and people. It recognises the worth of each person and the respect that is owed to them by governments, prohibiting them from treating persons as things. In particular it is expressed in the Magna Carta, a document foundational for English and so for Australian polity. Par 39 is central:

'No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land.'


"Common compassion, the respect for each individual person that finds expression in respect for the law and the separation of powers, is injured with each failure to show respect."


In the context of the conflict between King John and the barons, these words limit the king's power over individuals by interposing courts and the law. The later doctrines of the separation of powers between executive and judiciary and respect for the rule of law in democracies give expression to the principle.

Though abstract in form they are practical bulwarks against tyranny. They are also easily eroded if a fearful or inattentive people fails to resist when a government intent on control appeals to national security. Whenever a government strips away people's access to legal appeal against their ill treatment, the rule of law is corroded, common compassion suffers, and with it the humanity of public life.

Triggs is one of many people who have pointed to the erosion of the rule of law in Australia in recent years. The legerdemain that gave the Australian government complete control over the lives of people on Nauru and Manus Island while depriving them of the protection of Australian Law, the refusal to process their applications for protection, the penalisation of whistle blowers and the withdrawal from court cases that were likely to declare government decisions illegal, are only some instances of this decline.

This restriction on the ability of courts to give persons relief from government oppression has spread to other jurisdictions. Examples such as detention without trial, mandatory sentences and punishment for membership of groups as distinct from criminal behaviour, all limit the rule of law.

These actions matter because each act of disrespect for the rule of law affects persons. They matter even more because they set in train a dynamic of corruption. Common compassion, the respect for each individual person that finds expression in respect for the law and the separation of powers, is injured with each failure to show respect. The injury leads in turn to greater readiness by governments to breach the rule of law and by people to accept it. The spiral corrupts the administration of justice, the relationship between government and the people it represents, and the relationships between groups in society. It makes for a coarser and more disengaged nation.

Common compassion is an aspiration more widely praised as a gift of Western Civilisation than accepted and practiced. But once government trash it with impunity we are all the losers.



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Gillian Triggs



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Existing comments

"Common compassion might also refer more broadly to a principle that grounds the commons and is the basis of public order and the relationship between rulers and people." I'm not sure that common compassion is some sort of everlasting natural resource of goodness ... I'm thinking of Italians who are now turning away boats. Italy has taken so many of these people, and some other European countries, none, that eventually compassion dries up. So compassion isn't just the basis of public order, but also needs public order, if it is to endure.

Russell | 13 June 2018  

Russel. If you have not read it, can I recommend Douglas Murray's book published last year, THE STRANGE DEATH OF EUROPE, which deals with Italy's role in the compassionate acceptance of Muslim immigrants in mind boggling numbers and the influence of this throughout Europe and Scandinavia - a real eye-opener which reveals the downside to unrequited, unquestioning compassion. Respect and common compassion are unfortunately not two way streets as Murray's account so dramatically illustrates and in their sometimes naivety are easy prey .

john frawley | 13 June 2018  

The crux of compassion is not what to do about the man with no coat when you have two but when you have one. Emmanuel Macron’s “France cannot take in all the misery of the world”, applicable also to Australia, is an empirical hypothesis, refutable only by case-study arithmetic, not by aspirational allusions to moral philosophy. Much of today’s abundant Catholic Left commentary on people movement would not exist if the Pope still had his Papal States, geographically open to irregular immigration by land and sea, and was forced into the same daily practicalities as Macron, Merkel and Keating/Howard/Rudd 2/Abbott/Turnbull.

Roy Chen Yee | 14 June 2018  

The priority for demonstrating common compassion in Australia must be given to our Aboriginal families. Only when every Aboriginal man, woman and child is adequately housed, educated. afforded the best health care available and provided with non discriminatory income support or a full range of training and career opportunities should we even start to think about spending our limited resources on others seeking refuge and our compassion. We have a moral and economic obligation to provide compassion backed by comprehensive financial support to the biggest group of refugees needing our help, our Aboriginal families who just happen to own the country that the majority of us enjoy living in every day of our lives.

Chris Begley | 14 June 2018  

Too many people seem to think 'the Christian thing to do' is compassion ... Well yes it is fine to see it that way ... But dangerous if one needs a god or some 'higher' reason to show compassion ... Than sheer simply humanity. I need no god to care about whether someone else is suffering ... There is not a just approach to "pray for them" it is our duty to help them. When we think 'their God' is different from 'our God' this also raises resistance to compassion ... We need to get the Gods out of the picture, as sheer irrelevance. It is not OK to look at the mass genocides and starvations etc and raise eyes to heaven ... We are responsible! No God is needed , for us to be HUMANITY TOGETHER. Humanity is all there is ... All else is fabricated ideology. Work with what is in your power to do ... Leave gods to their own affairs and stick with your own business and duty. Humanity is everyone's business and inhumanity is all of our responsibility ... It is not 'over there' it is in our lives here and now ... Who do you choose your nation to be? I choose caring. I vote humanity over profit, and people before ideology.

Ade | 14 June 2018  

Thank you for this clear call for compassion for those refugees suffering in Australian detention--here or on off-shore islands. It is distressing to read all these comments which argue against accepting those relatively few people to whom we ought to be extending care and compassion. The idea of common law and common compassion applying to all people who come has been so trashed in this country that our national soul has been corrupted. it will be difficult to make the journey back to a real welcoming compassionate response to kpwople displaced by war or terror.

Ellen O'Gallagher | 14 June 2018  

Chris Begley' comment, "The priority for demonstrating common compassion in Australia must be given to our Aboriginal families," strikes a chord with me. But I cannot agree that overdue constitutional recognition, support for Aboriginal programs, designed and operated by Aboriginal people for their communities, and a just treaty with these First Peoples of Australia, is a matter of compassion. It is a matter of justice. Justice and compassion are not bargaining chips any more than is compassion for A against compassion for B. Our tight-fisted control of programs established for the benefit of Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders should never be regarded as an either/or alternative to timely due processing of refugee-claims by people seeking asylum, and supported settlement in Australia of people found to be refugees.

Ian Fraser | 14 June 2018  

Thank you for this article, Andrew Hamilton. Like many Australians who believe in a "fair go", I have become a great admirer of Gillian Triggs because of her devotion to "common compassion". Her respectful persistence in advocating for asylum seekers while facing a barrage of hostile barbs from an extremely conservative government and its allies in the media was a great inspiration to many. Her story about the Australian Jewish family trying to save a family from persecution and death in the early 1930s reminded me of the story of Egon Kisch who had a great impact on progressive Australians at the time. Kisch was a socialist Jew who worked as a journalist in a German language newspaper in Prague and was a very strong opponent of Nazism. In 1934, he was invited to Australia by the Australian League Against War and Fascism to speak about the Nazi threat. The Lyons Government, another, reactionary government denied him entry to Australia from the ship he sailed on, the Strathaird, at Fremantle and Melbourne. Because of his commitment to human compassion, he jumped off the ship and broke a leg. Kisch was then taken back on board to Sydney, where authorities tried to fail him through a language test. He passed the test in a number of languages, so to fail him, he was given a test in Scottish Gaelic - a rarely spoken language! There was a successful appeal and the courageous and determined Egon Kisch was able to speak to thousands of Australians about the dangers of Nazism and fascism. I think we should value much more highly the human compassion of people like Gillian Triggs and Egon Kisch.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 14 June 2018  

This is a very thought provoking article, but I have to admit that I find Ms Trigg, as a commissar of the so-called progessive-left, frequently difficult to take. What this conversation needs is the extra dimension of the important Christian virtue of "prudence", i.e discerning the right thing to do in the circumstances taking into account all the factors involved, as well as the more emotional reaction of "common compassion". This can prevent over-reach of the response into all sorts of unforeseen outcomes. A good example is the trivialisation of newly invented "rights" (such as avoiding being "upset" by some comment ) against other established and vital rights such as freedom of speech or association.

Eugene | 14 June 2018  

Dear fellow travellers , as a follower of the Master of compassion I must take His Sermon on the Mount seriously for this is the credo for Christians with all the authority of the Creator.

David | 14 June 2018  

"The jackals of the ruling party and its media supporters then hunted in packs to tear her down" - a terrible but accurate description of what happened.

Peter Hanley | 14 June 2018  

For all who pour cold water on this article for lacking pragmatism “ask not for whom the bell tolls” - it tolls for you. Of course Australia’s political leaders are not alone in facing the dilemma of what to do in the face of some 60,000.000 people regarded as refugees in our world. Nor are Australia’s political leaders asked to embrace all who seek entry to Australia. But when people have been denied their human rights after being assessed as genuine refugees; or denied their lawful entitlement to seek asylum in Australia - then our Australian political leaders merit every criticism levelled at them.

Ern Azzopardi | 15 June 2018  

I deeply thank Andy Hamilton for his as ever wise words. I note the diversity of the comments. I would only add that it is not an either-or between relieving the grave distress of the less than 2000 people illegally and cruelly detained for years on Pacific islands and putting the first priority of common compassion on our First People. We can do both at the same time.

From my previous work on boat people, I am used to the device of generalising the issue to ‘we cannot help everybody, there must be limits to our compassion’. Of course, and for years now, the victims on Nauru and Manus are well within those limits. And - to anticipate the next common argument against compassion in this instance- the existence of an efficient and compassionate maritime border protection strategy since 2012 makes the exercise of common compassion risk-free in terms of the fear expressed by some of ‘opening the floodgates’’. It just won’t happen, given the good model of maritime interception and return we now have. Australia will never go back to the cowardly political washing of hands and hypocrisy of the Howard, Rudd and Gillard years.

Both Turnbull and Shorten know this. Both profess to be believers in a religion that values common compassion. They could end this misery over a cup of tea and a gentleman’s handshake to make this change together. In three years they have not done so.

I have moved to a different area of work now, I gave boat people my best shot for ten years. Now my writing focus is Russia-West relations where I find the expression ‘common decency’ equally relevant. It is a concept the Russian government understands well and tries to practice, e.g. in supporting peace in Syria and over the Skripal Affair.

Tony Kevin | 15 June 2018  

Roy, compassion can't be quantified and measured numerically. And compassion is not merely an aspiration and it's not restricted to left or right political ideology. Lack of compassion in this instance not only goes against our Christ-centred ethos, but in the case of the treatment of asylum seekers in Australia, it also goes against our secular legal principles (as Fr Andrew pointed out in his reference to the Magna Carta).

AURELIUS | 17 June 2018  

As we are witnessing with Nauru and Manus and the imprisonment of children in the US ;common compassion is not so common. We who are not refugees can only reflect there but for t grace of God go I. If my parents had not been accepted by Australia in 1937/38 I would not exist. Nor would my children and grandchildren. Many fleeing Hitler were rejected world wide. Millions perished.Refugees are all of us given the circumstances.

Lyn Bender | 20 June 2018  

Great essay, Andy! God love and strengthen the hand that wields your pen on behalf of those denied a say in this obscene debate and who are the victims of our collective selfishness and myopia. My daughter has just left to work in refugee resettlement in Scotland, one of the many remote regions of Europe with a rapidly depleting population. These include very wealthy countries across Scandinavia, as well as North America, where population is depleted and opportunity extensive. Australia, in one of our better moments, has successfully resettled Hmong refugees in Tasmania. Seen in context, the supposedly unstoppable inflow of asylum seekers, greatly exaggerated by John Frawley and Roy Chen Yee, is but a drop in Europe's vast ocean of resources and infrastructure, but also of complacency and an absence of compassionate will and empathy. Such carping as their's gives succour to the post-Christian extremists, especially among the young, who have no recollection of the Nazis, and who have gained respectability and daring from the cowardly abuses of human rights by the self same jackals that have tried to run the likes of Gillian Triggs and Julian Burnside down in this country. Their's is a perverse rejection of humanity.

Dr Michael Furtado | 26 June 2018  

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