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