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Politics

Jul 10, 2014

Razer's Class Warfare: asylum seeker policy not a moral question

Tony Abbott does have a moral reason for refugee cruelty. But it's not a question of morals -- it's a simple banal evil.

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To watch Australian television news these past 24 hours is to have been caught in an Oedipal trap. Between the Father Knows Best reason of a cold Tony Abbott and the warm tears of Holy Mother Sarah Hanson-Young, an electorate was bound to find favourites in a national family already split by news of an unusually cruel and cursory maritime processing.

Yesterday, Dad responded to reports, first published by Sydney’s Refugee Action Coalition, that detainees on Christmas Island had attempted suicide. His latest was a real clanger, even for a man who offered “shit happens” to soldiers whose brother had recently fallen. He did not deny that the heartbreaking act of protest had occurred on his watch; the truth of this atrocity would be minimised later in the day by Scott Morrison and Eric Abetz. Instead, he said, “I don’t believe any Australian, any thinking Australian, would want us to capitulate to moral blackmail.”

Mum quickly responded with: “It’s a little hard to succumb to moral blackmail when you’re already morally bankrupt.”

It was softly snarky and very social. SHY was shared everywhere, and everyone nice agreed that human rights and morality were important. Except, of course, that everyone on both Mum and on Dad’s sides already agreed that human rights and morality are important. We have done, in degrees, for centuries. All of us. Even, and especially, a neoliberal like Dad whose moral love of the market is practically priestly.

Dad’s is a stern love, but no less ostensibly compassionate for that. Defending a budget that would leave young job seekers skint, he said there could be “no compassion in having people start their adult lives on unemployment benefits”. Yesterday on Channel 7, he defended his human rights record, even in the face of the suicide it might have produced, by explaining that the most “humane and compassionate thing you can do is to stop the boats”.  This would stop deaths on unsafe boats and allow them to happen in a more stable setting, such as Manus Island. And yes, this is bullshit sophism cooed to excuse the sound of a dog whistle. But the point is: if you fight morality — even the feigned kind — with morality, we all remain at sea.

It doesn’t matter if Abbott is an ideologue or a cynic.  What does matter is that he is permitted to have any kind of morality at all, even if it is the kind you can condemn and fight. We can’t let Mum and Dad fight like this. We can’t let them claim morality. We need to claim its appearance from them.

We toddlers must cut the filial bond that demands we choose a political parent or a moral guide. We should, in this case, butcher an entire political family — especially one with crazy uncles like Bob Carr who say that there wasn’t “a single case” of persecution in all Sri Lanka. (Where did he come to this conclusion? During a reiki treatment at a Colombo healing spa resort?) We should ignore them all. We should even ignore Mum. The cleansing tears from SHY’s heart-shaped face might be affecting. They are not, however, much use.

No politician, not even a weeping one, is of any use in the end to this atrocious debate. Not when they believe that they might stand to gain from whatever position they adopt.

That politicians do stand to gain from taking a stand on asylum is in doubt. In a good election piece from last year, Tad Tietze suggested they only half believed in the power of the border protection position themselves. According to his analysis, polls moved little alongside increasing threats of disdain for the bodies of refugees.

Pessimistic idealists say that Australians are a terrible racist people and that politicians are merely turning the echoes of widespread bile into policy. Pessimistic realists say that western Sydney is a terrible racist place and that politicians are merely courting their votes. Tietze understands asylum more as kind of a bad electoral compulsion, and he contends, as I suspect: politicians did this. Not us.

The fact of polls does not excuse the political class from their foundational role in this banal evil. Polls, like social media, make opinions obligatory, analysis criminal and outcomes secondary to the exercise. Politicians did this. Not us.

Since Howard’s 2001 electoral win was delivered by fate’s hat trick of Children Overboard, Tampa and September 11, major political parties have played it safe and chucked in a policy on border protection as though it were a lucky charm. And it is this political impulse to which we must openly object.  We must not allow this to be a case of bad morality when it is, in fact, a bad political habit.

This is not to minimise the atrocities that have unfolded under four prime ministers. This is not to say that racism is not foundational to Our Way of Life. It is, however, to suggest that to argue along with Mum and Dad morality is to participate in a fragile delusion. To wit, that border protection policies of the last 20 years had moral, not political, necessity at their core.

The outcome of these policies is nothing less than instrumental evil. But that doesn’t excuse us from identifying, as we must, their basis as banal. Policy on asylum is not Australia’s political third rail, it is Australia’s political rabbit’s foot.

The passions of the Oedipal child who sees one parent as evil are eventually doused. As awful as it is to concede, there is no moral evil here to uncover. There is just banality.

Helen Razer — Writer and Broadcaster

Helen Razer

Writer and Broadcaster

Helen Razer is a writer and broadcaster whose work has appeared in The Saturday Paper, SBS Online, The Big Issue, and Frankie. She has previously worked as a columnist for The Age and The Australian.

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29 comments

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29 thoughts on “Razer’s Class Warfare: asylum seeker policy not a moral question

  1. David Hand

    Helen,
    When seeking engagement with politicians, if by “we” you mean the refugee activist lobby and their cheer squads in Surry Hills and Prahran, one idea might be to back off from labelling politicians who hold a different view cousins of Adolf Eichmann.

    The “deaths at sea” defence for stopping the boats is used because it is safest. If they said they were concerned about a mass movement of uncontrolled migration running to hundreds of thousands a year, we would most likely get wall to wall coverage on every ABC news bulletin for a week of Sarah Hansen Young tearfully accusing Scott Morrison of killing babies. (Actually, she does that now) All unbiased and “fact checked” of course.

    When you look at the trajectory of boat people that began to flow after Labor dismantled the Pacific Solution, 100,000 per year is not ridiculous number. We’ve already hit 17,000 in 2012 and 21,000 in 2013, easily taking every single space in Australia’s humanitarian migration programme (the queue that refugee activists continue to deny exists)

    The debate I don’t think we can have is about who the boat people are. Refugee advocates need them to be genuine refugees because this by definition limits the numbers. “It’s a tiny insignificant number” one activist recently told me. Bring processing onshore, welcome them with compassion and sympathy and the numbers will be manageable, is the refugee advocate view. We can get on with our lives in Paddington and once a year travel out to Blacktown for selfies with happy black children who we’ve saved from persecution.

    This is a solution that has no impact on us at all apart from the warm feeling we have when ABC runs a soft focus upbeat programme about how noble we all are.

    But if you think they are enterprising citizens of the third world seeking a better life for themselves and their families, as it seems the 41 Sinhalese Sri Lankans were, the numbers are essentially limitless. Provide a visa free channel to Australia and 100,000 would probably be a sad data point on an remorselessly rising number.

    I think you can engage with politicians if you stop being rude to them, such as Mike Carlton’s wank in today’s Fairfax press. Or Malcolm Fraser’s piece of wisdom, “Handing (asylum seekers) back to SL navy at sea redolent off handing Jews to Nazis in 1930s”.

  2. David Hand

    Let me tell you what is truly banal. Helen’s article is really and truly banal. Meaningless drivel.

    This whole debate is based on two conflicting beliefs.

    The first is that boat people are desperate refugees fleeing persecution and look to Australia as a safe haven, getting here by any means they can. Believing this as SHY does makes her look like a dupe; a soft touch for any anonymous stranger with a story.

    The second is that tens of millions of people in the third world have discovered a new emigration service via “people smugglers” who give them a pretty good chance of giving their families a better life in a first world country. To achieve this aim, one necessary measure is to masquerade as genuine refugees.

    To trigger Australia’s obligations under the refugee convention, they must actually set foot on Australian soil. This legal condition is why both sides of politics opt for offshore processing. Going to Manus Island does not trigger Australia’s obligations.

    The SHY types who argue that the “suicidal” mothers in detention on Christmas Island should be transferred to the “better facilities” in Darwin understand this intimately. So does Scott Morrison.

    So all the well meaning people comparing people smugglers to Qantas miss the point that boat people would never get a visa and therefore would never be allowed to board a Qantas plane. So they pay a people smuggler and come by leaky boat.

    It then just depends on what type of person you think is on the boat. All the evidence points to the latter.

    In the latest episode, it is the fact that the vast majority of the 41 boat people were from the majority Sinhalese in Sri Lanka.

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