The Politics    Friday, April 10, 2015

Finally, some honesty

By Sean Kelly

Image by Manymeez (Flickr).
The prime minister comes clean on cruelty

Yesterday, a lone voice of honesty sounded in a debate blighted for too long by sloganeering and bland dissembling.

That voice came from our prime minister. In Queensland, he made a simple declaration: only the Coalition could stop the boats because any other Australian government would “succumb to the cries of the human rights lawyers”.

Finally, some truth in the asylum seeker debate! At long last, a politician willing to own up to the moral calculus that drives him!

The importance of the PM’s words yesterday was that he finally made clear the line that divides the asylum seeker debate in Australia. The government has decided that on one side lies the ability to stop the boats. On the other side are fundamental protections for all people, as enshrined in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Many of us have argued before that this is what a policy of deterrence means in practice: inflicting as much cruelty as possible on those who come by boat in order to deter other people from coming by boat.

Why couldn’t the government just admit it? If the prime minister was being honest, we said, he would simply concede that our country’s policy on boat people was the equivalent of whipping jaywalkers.

Until now the government has refused to admit the reasoning behind its approach. That impetus was implicit in the Abbott government’s actions, and in its blithe acceptance of horrible abuses – as when Abbott responded to a review into allegations of sexual assault in the Nauruan detention centres by saying “occasionally . . . things happen”, or in the allegations outlined in this letter – but it was never said out loud.

Now it has been. What has driven asylum seeker policy has finally been made clear, in the PM’s own words: we can have human rights, or we can have stopped the boats, but we can't have both.

Of course, a genuine public debate would require honesty from all sides. Labor could admit that they agree with much of the Coalition’s moral algebra, though not all of it. The Greens could admit they are prepared to accept some asylum seekers drowning at sea in order that others escape certain death at the hands of tyrants.

But of course it won’t happen. Because the truth is that none of the parties really believes they have anything to gain from being more honest in this discussion.

And while that debate continues on its facile course, doomed to superficiality by politicians who refuse to name the facts as they stand, asylum seekers are still suffering in detention, sexual abuse goes unpunished, and a mental health crisis builds.


Richie Benaud passed away today. His commentary was beautiful and intelligent, informative and enlightening. Listening to him, you always felt that you had learnt something. He will remain a role model for all commentators, in any field, including this one. One of many great tributes here.

Opinion wrap: Katharine Murphy argues gay marriage shows that citizens are setting the national agenda – but politicians have yet to catch up, continuing to kowtow to the institutions they mistakenly believe control debate. Mark Kenny is sick of businesses calling on politicians to show courage while showing absolutely none themselves. And Peter Jean says politicians should have to appear at the start of negative ads attacking their opponents.

Over on Twitter, @pollytics ran a brief tweeted masterclass on effective robopolling last night. Check out his twitter feed and scroll down to about 5pm yesterday. For example: “If you tell respondents in the intro that the poll will only take 2 minutes, watch your engagement rates go up dramatically.”

We don’t even know how much money we’re losing from multinational companies shifting profits overseas.

For the first time the US military is seeking to assassinate an Australian citizen fighting in Syria. (He would not be the first Australian Al Qaeda target of the US military though.)

Meanwhile get set for the $4.1 million asylum seeker telemovie. You won’t be able to catch it on Foxtel, but you’re in luck if you live in Syria, Iran or Afghanistan. It will be funded by the federal government, include storylines about asylum seekers drowning at sea, and is aimed at deterring asylum seekers coming here by boat.

Three polls show Labour moving ahead of the Conservatives in the British general election.

Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly is a columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, and was an adviser to Labor prime ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.

@mrseankelly

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