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Why no compromise on Manus and Nauru? Pt 2

  • 04 October 2018


In a previous article I discussed Robert Manne's exposition of the current state of Australian refugee policy and his advocacy for a realistic policy. This would accept that the government would never yield in its conviction that interdiction of boats and off-shore processing had halted the boats, and also the argument of its opponents that the treatment of people on Manus Island and Nauru is barbarous and evil.

Accordingly it would seek only the gradual repatriation to Australia of all refugees sent to Nauru and Manus Island, leaving interdiction and the facilities for off-shore processing intact.

Manne implies that the coolness of refugee advocates to this proposal is based on moral and legal grounds, on the mistaken or dishonest denial that the interdiction and off-shore processing were responsible for stopping the boats, and on a desire not to alienate their supporters or to abandon the high moral ground. In my previous article I suggested that the coolness towards the proposal shown by groups working with refugees also reflected their experience. Today I shall ask whether they ought endorse such a policy.

I should begin by stating the common ground between Manne and the refugee agencies share. Both are outraged by the deliberate harsh treatment of people on Manus Island and Nauru and want them brought to Australia. Both would ideally like a more generous reception of people seeking asylum. The question at issue between natural allies is whether groups working with refugees should endorse a political policy that accepts as legitimate the interdiction of boats and off-shore processing.

Manne describes his own journey to this position as surrendering the high moral ground. The metaphor is suggestive. It implies that those holding the high moral ground stand at a distance from the daily reality of public life with its necessary compromises and messiness. They choose to live in a world of universal principles that allow them to judge securely. The metaphor also suggests that to hold the high moral ground entitles you to the admiration of the footsoldiers encamped below for your consistency and integrity. These connotations are reflected in the motives that Manne attributes to those who decline to support the policy: the fear of alienating the support base or of disapproval by international refugee bodies.

Community agencies working with refugees would not see themselves as occupying the moral high ground. For them principles are rather the rock on which they stand. They articulate the