Controversial political operative and Hobart Mercury columnist Greg Barns wrote a piece this week attacking our cynical and selective compassion, sparking a feisty response from World Vision CEO Tim Costello. Crikey’s Las Vegas division is happy to host the fight and presents both sides of the argument below.

Our cynical and selective compassion

Hobart Mercury, January 10, 2005

By Greg Barns

While Australians are busy congratulating themselves on their generosity to victims of the Boxing Day tsunamis, they might care to reflect on the fact that many of them are prepared to sanction the Howard Government’s human rights abuses towards asylum seekers.

And those Australians who take some sort of bizarre comfort from Australia’s joined-at-the-hip alliance with the Bush Administration might also care to consider that while the US is busying itself with aid to tsunami victims, it is contemplating locking people away for ever without trial.

And perhaps Australian business, particularly those corporations like Qantas, the Commonwealth Bank and Macquarie Bank that have been puffing out their chests in recent days so we can see their bleeding hearts, might also now consider making as much effort to raise millions for the starving and dispossessed of war-ravaged zones such as southern Sudan and the Congo.

Forgive my cynicism, but if the tsunamis had hit West Africa, one of the poorest areas of the globe, would Australians be digging as deeply into their pockets?

As The Economist magazine noted in its editorial this week, “the involvement in the disaster of so many resorts favoured by tourists from rich countries in the West and the richer parts of Asia has given it even more prominence in those countries than the sheer horror of the fatalities would have produced”.

Is there not something deeply flawed about a society that expresses its horror at the devastation wreaked by tsunamis yet is largely indifferent to the Howard Government’s draconian and inhumane eviction of a refugee family from its shores?

I refer here to the Bakhtiyari family, which Senator Vanstone sent packing last week. Is there not something deeply cynical about a society that applauds a government for sending billions of dollars in aid to the tsunami zone, yet shrugs its shoulders when that same government sends a bill for $1 million to the Bakhtiyari family for the cost of their quest for justice and freedom in Australia?

And why are Australians so generous to victims of the tsunamis yet happy for government to lock young children behind razor wire in detention centres, split up families and allow mental illness to run rife in those same hell-holes, all in the name of border protection?

And do Australians give a toss about the lives of the desperate people of southern Sudan who have been driven from their homes and slaughtered by a Sudanese government determined to pursue ethnic cleansing?

Or do they sleep less easily at night knowing that in the war-ravaged Congo the government of the young president Joseph Kabila is desperately trying to sow the seeds of peace in the face of widespread poverty and brutal military incursions by neighbouring Rwanda?

Then of course we have the Bush Administration, the most dangerous abuser of human rights in the democratic world. While Australians and Americans were organising their tsunami relief efforts, President George W. Bush has been outlining plans to lock away for life prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and other prisons – prisoners who have not been charged with any offence, let alone tried in the kangaroo court that passes for justice in the land of the free these days.

Are Australians marching the streets about this fundamentally inhumane and illegal conduct from its close ally? Unfortunately not.
But not only is the selective compassion of many Australians and Americans these days disturbing, so is the behaviour of one of the media’s favourite darlings, Tim Costello.

Mr Costello is the CEO of World Vision Australia and a prominent social justice campaigner. He has carved out a very favourable media image for himself in the past by being opposed to the high level of gambling in this country.

But Mr Costello has decided to accept a tsunami relief donation from a gambling group, Clubs NSW, because “this crisis is a humanitarian crisis beyond any differences, and even my well-known public stance on gambling”.

According to Mr Costello, the level of devastation he saw in Sr Lanka was worse than what he had seen in Sudan and other parts of Africa.
So one assumes that if there is ever – one dearly hopes there is not – another crisis that dwarfs the Boxing Day tsunamis, Mr Costello will take donations from armaments companies or even tobacco companies. Because that is the logic of his position.

The reality of the tsunami crisis is this: that humanity is always worth saving. Wherever abuse and suffering occurs, be it meted out by governments, humans or nature, we must not respond selectively. The Bahktiyaris, the prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, the people of southern Sudan and the Congo deserve our passion and commitment in the same way as the victims of the tsunamis.

But they are not getting it, and that is a real tragedy.

A profound realignment in the soul of Australia

Hobart Mercury letters, January 13, 2005

The timing of Greg Barns’ column (The Mercury, January 10) describing the recent unprecedented level of Australian compassion as “cynical and selective” evidenced curious timing.

Australians have moved a lot in the period between the last Boxing Day Test and Monday’s historic Rest of the World XI v the Asian XI.
Before the tsunami on December 26, no one would have thought it possible in a little over two weeks to bring together an Asian XI and Rest of the World XI. Many cricketers had been personally affected by the tragedy and some were involved in relief efforts in their own country. Yet, they crossed the planet to play for the hungry, the homeless, the injured and the orphan.

But this was one miracle among many.

The ground shifted on Boxing Day 2004 in more ways than one. One seismic shift produced the worst natural disaster in living memory. Another saw a profound realignment in the soul of Australians.

New Year’s Eve was a more sober, reflective time. Listing one’s needs in the post-Christmas sales came a distant second to meeting the needs of those who had lost everything in the Asian tsunami.

I visited the ruins of the Galle Cricket Ground in Sri Lanka 13 days ago, and witnessed the death and utter human desperation surrounding it. Outside the ground I saw corpses being thrown on to a trailer destined for a mass grave. Many of them were children.
And I know the recent outpouring of Australian compassion will touch the hearts of the residents of that particular city, and of the millions in Asia who have lost everything.

This historic level of community concern for our suffering neighbours in Asia should elicit pride rather than cynicism. Children have donated their life savings. Corporate giving has never been so prominent. Australian Government aid has radically increased.

At present, the response of Australians to the immediate suffering in the region is extraordinary. And it strikes me as counterproductive to suggest that this profound generosity to the victims of the Asian tsunami means they are somehow callous or indifferent to the rest of the world’s suffering.

Felix Adler believed that to “care for anyone else enough to make their problems one’s own, is the beginning of one’s real ethical development”. And I believe that what we have all witnessed recently is a significant sign of development in Australians’ understanding of our place in this global village and our responsibility to those most in need.

For Greg Barns to compare Australians’ response to the Asian tsunami with their response to atrocities in Darfur, US policies at Guantanamo Bay and the Government’s treatment of asylum-seekers, is to confuse a compassion focused on a natural event with a compassion focused on political reform.

Obviously, the latter requires more detailed explanations of what brings about true change, and how to accomplish that. And naturally, it is a harder message to convey, though the needs may be just as real.

But to make out the Asian tsunami response to be a cynical, backslapping exercise is unlikely to marshal the sympathy and compassion that Greg Barns so dearly desires for these causes.

The genuine compassion Australians have shown needs to be welcomed and encouraged. Because if you want political reform, you need all the compassion you can get.

Tim Costello
chief executive
World Vision Australia