Greg Sheridan, in The Australian, 1 August 2013, where the title reads “Bleeding hearts ignore the complexity of the asylum-seeker issues”
WHAT are the real ethics of boatpeople policies? Malcolm Fraser, Phillip Adams, Dennis Altman, John Hewson, Christine Milne and the entire refugee lobby have described the policies of both Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott in ways that make it clear they are to be regarded as immoral, unethical, bigoted, unfair, demonising and so on. Even the Catholic bishops, normally a sober body of men, have called for an end to mandatory detention of people who arrive illegally by boat. As it happens I knew both Rudd and Abbott for many years before they went into politics. Both are ruthless politicians, but both also are conscientious Christians and neither, I am certain, would ever pursue policies in relation to the disposition of human beings that they believed to be unconscionably wrong.
This is therefore a strange moment in our national life. Both major parties, and the overwhelming majority of the Australian people, believe in a policy approach that a significant section of the political elite regards as wickedly immoral. One of the disfiguring elements of this debate is that no one on the pro-asylum-seeker side will accept the moral goodwill of those arguing for the government’s or the opposition’s approach.
This is both unfair and intellectually the weakest way to argue a case. It also fails to do any justice to the genuine, deep complexity of the issue.
It is also morally immature.
For a start, genuine morality must deal with reasonably foreseeable consequences. One consequence of a lax approach to border security, which until recently has meant, in effect if not in design, that anyone who arrives illegally by boat gets to stay permanently in Australia, is more than 1100 deaths by drowning. It is right that the debate is now focused on these appalling human tragedies. They demonstrate the difficulty of the simple assertion that human beings must always be treated as ends in themselves, not means to influence other human beings.
Every human being is sacred and endowed with inalienable human rights. But if lax policy, or, if you like, compassion, towards one group of people encourages an ever growing cohort of others to engage in high-risk behaviour resulting in many deaths, that is a big moral mark against the lax policy, against what is false compassion. However, even if there were no drownings, I believe a hard line is ethically just and in policy terms necessary. Any such policy must always observe the basic human rights of the people it deals with. But Australia has a right to determine who comes here and a positive ethical obligation to provide procedural justice in the way it makes the selection.
Australia is a very rich country. Being born in Australia is one of the greatest acts of good fortune any human being could ever experience. In my view, the illegal immigration problem essentially reflects a desire by people in poor countries to live in a rich country. There is nothing wrong with that desire. But that desire doesn’t entitle you to Australian residence. If you are an Afghan male, your life expectancy is probably something in your 40s. If you are an Australian, and you get past childhood illness, it’s in your 80s. The desire for another 30 or 40 years of life is certainly sufficient to produce a terrible desperation. The existence of such desperation, well chronicled in much literature about North African illegal migration to Europe, has very little to do with traditional ideas of persecution.
Part of the ethical divide on this question hinges on a divide over several central facts. The compassion advocates believe most of the boatpeople are fleeing persecution. This makes no sense for middle-class Iranians or contemporary Sri Lankans and is highly debatable for many other groups.
Most of those favouring a hard line believe the phenomenon is overwhelmingly illegal immigration. Similarly, most of those favouring a hard line believe that refugee assessment procedures, in Australia and elsewhere, have become so lax, so wide in their definitions and so easily gamed that they are all but meaningless.
Most advocating compassion as the basis of policy believe that everyone declared a refugee is a genuine refugee, this status is lifelong and possession of this entitles you to Australian residence. There is room for legitimate debate about the factual bases of these disagreements.
One of the chief ethical requirements is that participants in the debate be conscientious about investigating the facts. Our debate, though shrill, has contained minuscule serious interrogation of these facts.
What ethical obligations flow from being a rich country? I believe there are ethical obligations on the rich. First, we need to be grateful for our good fortune. Second, we need to husband it and propagate it so it continues, and use it to produce a reasonable and fair society within Australia. Internationally, I think our richness also brings obligations. One is of generosity. I have always supported a big immigration program, including a sizeable humanitarian element. I believe immigration is good for Australia, making us bigger, stronger, richer, better. But I also think it is ethically good because it allows us to share our good fortune in the best way with more people.
It is not remotely unethical to help ourselves and help others at the same time. It is reasonable that we predominantly choose immigrants who can readily contribute to Australia, but also have a humanitarian stream that contains people who will find it harder to contribute.
Given what an immense prize permanent residency in Australia is, our selection procedures should be transparent and fair. No one finds procedural unfairness a greater insult than those migrant families who have come to Australia legally. Simply allowing anyone who turns up by boat to live here permanently, indeed on more advantageous terms (instant access to welfare, etc) than other migrants, is procedurally unfair.
There is also an incredibly difficult, sensitive but real issue for liberal societies posed by Islam. That the vast majority of the 50,000 people who have come here illegally by boat since 2008 are Muslims with limited English skills, from societies with the most radicalised Islamic traditions, is a genuine concern. It’s wrong to demonise these people. It’s also dishonest to pretend there is no issue for Australia, except for racist rednecks, in this. The morality of this issue is complex. The debate from the compassion advocates is far too simplistic.