Australian Politics

Human rights

Myopic compassion
What makes people driven by compassion support harsh refugee policies?

Photo by Wonderlane on Flickr

“Coming to a decision on this bill has been, without a doubt, one of the hardest decisions I have had to face – a choice between a bad option and a worse option.” This was how Senator Ricky Muir framed his decision to support the government’s migration bill just after 8 pm on the final parliamentary sitting day of the year. It was the beginning of a distinctly uncomfortable speech: Muir said he felt “forced into a corner”, a position he would not “wish on my worst enemies”; he reiterated that this had been “an extremely difficult process”.

He’d fielded calls that very day from people who work closely with detainees on Christmas Island. They’d “started to break down and cry as they were speaking about children who have been in detention since they were born”. Muir said those workers had told the detainees that they’d spoken with “the man whose decision it was to decide whether they would be out of detention before Christmas. That man wasn’t the Minister for Immigration; it was me”.

Muir wasn’t alone in his anguish. Palmer United Party senator Glenn Lazarus told the senate that “the sad truth is that we are a country that locks up defenceless children who have been washed up in our waters”. Lazarus and his PUP colleague Senator Dio Wang were voting for the bill, he assured us, so that the kids in detention would be out by Christmas. “We all should want children in detention to experience the joys of being a kid,” he said, “and experiencing a traditional Aussie Christmas filled with laughter, love and the excitement of opening presents.”

It’s tempting to dismiss Lazarus’ speech as sentimental – indeed, it’s all too easy to point out the absurdity of making Christmas an urgent deadline for kids who are predominantly Muslim – or to set aside Muir’s discomfort as insignificant in the larger context of asylum seeker politics. But to do so would be to miss an important thread running through the refugee debate in Australia.

There’s a tendency to caricature proponents of tougher asylum seeker measures as heartless political opportunists. Yet harsher policies are often ushered in by people motivated primarily by compassion. Back in 2012, Paris Aristotle, noted refugee rights advocate and member of an expert panel on asylum seekers convened by the then Labor government, explained to the Age's Michael Gordon that he was supporting the re-opening of detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island because of his concerns about deaths at sea. “I don't want to stay awake at night,” Aristotle told Gordon, “thinking about this issue and imagining how terrified a young kid or a woman would be in a violent ocean, slipping below the waterline with no one around to save them or protect them.”

The consequences of the bill passed by Muir, Lazarus and their colleagues in the senate may yet be worse than the horrors occasioned by the return to the Pacific Solution (including the deaths of two asylum seekers). Worse because the powers granted to the Immigration Minister are so wide-ranging and secretive that the Guardian's Ben Doherty has called Scott Morrison “the most powerful person in the Australian government”. They include the authority to detain people without charge, deport them to any country he chooses – including places where the person faces torture and persecution – and push asylum seeker boats out of Australian waters and leave them there.

That such morally vacuous laws can be passed with the assistance of those trying to act compassionately should no longer be a surprise to us. We’ve all heard about the road paved with good intentions. But it should be a lesson to us that compassion is not enough, not when the likes of Morrison are willing to leverage any advantage at all – including effectively holding children at ransom – to get what they want.

The problem isn’t a lack of compassion, but a lack of deep understanding. In his speech, Muir was anxious to reassure asylum seekers that the new fast-tracked system would not take away their rights to appeal to the federal courts. But that is only the right to judicial review, whereas the bill does in fact strip away rights to a merits review conducted by the Refugee Review Tribunal. That's only one example of many that have left refugee advocates dismayed at our lawmakers’ failure to understand the details of the complex legislation they are passing. And such miscomprehension isn’t helped by a debate rushed through thanks to the invocation of artificial deadlines: in this case the end of the parliamentary sitting year and getting asylum seeker children “home by Christmas”.

In many ways, the sentiments of Senators Muir and Lazarus on this issue are closer to the Australian public’s than we might think. They didn't pass Morrison’s bill because they’re racist (which is so often the easy progressive explanation for our obsession with stopping the boats); rather, they didn’t want to feel responsible for drowned kids, and nor did they want to feel responsible for locking them up. As Muir said in closing, he wanted to vote in a manner that “will be in the best interests of my fellow human beings”. The thing is, I believe him – it's just that compassion without profound reflection results in myopia: an incapacity to look past the immediate set of circumstances to see the bigger picture.

André Dao

André Dao is the co-founder of Behind the Wire, an oral history organisation documenting people’s lived experience of human rights abuses.


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