Three years ago Kevin Rudd favoured us with the first of his now regular communiqués via the medium of The Monthly — a practice that has only recently come to resemble the news from Pyongyang. In it he spoke of the influence on his life of the German Lutheran priest, theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was executed by the Nazis weeks before the end of WW2, for his small part in the plot to assassinate Hitler.

Though I don’t doubt for a moment that Rudd is sincere in being inspired by Bonhoeffer, I don’t believe for a moment that he has been a pole star in his life, in the way he was for his most famous disciple, Martin Luther King. Shortly before his death, King made the decision — condemned by many of his associates — to denounce the Vietnam War. For the struggling civil rights movement, already accused of being a Communist front, arguing against the War was simply giving proof to all who needed it that every lunch counter sit-in was being run from Moscow. But for King there was no choice — the war was not merely mistaken, but evil. To ignore that in the belief one was protecting one’s own movement was the deepest error possible.

Whatever that is, it’s not being a team player or an organisation guy — and Rudd has always been both of those. He entered the diplomatic service after university, and whatever diplomacy is, and however much it is necessary, it is not the path of ethics before all. Bonhoeffer’s dissent from his own supine official church had begun long before the start of the Second World War. Indeed his acute understanding of what was happening in Nazi Germany came primarily from years spent in the US, where he saw how racism could become institutionalised and fundamentally reshape an entire culture.

Though he is most famous for being part of the 1944 assassination plot, Bonhoeffer had actually been arrested for helping Jews — the assassination plot was a departure and a challenge, since it meant participating in killing. For someone who’d studied with Ghandi that was a break, demanded by the situation.

The challenge for Bonhoeffer’s most famous Australian follower is vastly smaller, but no less real. Having successfully overcome and bypassed the culture wars so successfully, the re-appearance of boat-borne asylum seekers is obviously his worst nightmare come true. It’s a messy, fag-end sort of thing, with all sorts of people who may be chancers or worse, it’s an interruption to the bigger game of making a better country, it’s some terrible apparition from the early 2000s, like hearing Madonna’s American Pie all over again.

But whatever it is, it can’t be ducked. Not again. Rudd’s use of “people smugglers” as hate figures to deflect attention away from actual asylum seekers is the same sort of smart, effective politics that he employed in his argument about Howard’s Hayekian “brutopia”. It’s no substitute for the main game — the deep-seated and irrational Australian fear of boat-borne immigrants — and the way in which it has hitherto been used to license evil acts and sentiments. This has to be talked back to and talked down by a leader who interprets their role as something other than getting in front of whatever parade happens to be passing by at the moment.

That the coalition appears to be getting no purchase from the issue is no reason to minimise the issue — nor should it be taken as a sign that the right thing to do can be pursued safely. The decision has to be made separately from any of those (dis)incentives. It’s because, not despite, the fact that the numbers of people are so small and the whole issue is so marginal to the main game, that it has to be brought, morally, to the centre of debate, by the leader of the country.

Such an approach will be dismissed by the usual suspects — the wearying cynics who present their own fear of taking a moral position as anti-elitism. They’re the Austrian social democrats of the 1890s who wouldn’t speak back to anti-Semitism because it had a following in their base; the US Democrats who wouldn’t challenge Jim Crow racism because it had the support of poor whites; and many others. Doubtless there was as much snobbery and self-satisfaction in the opposition to those earlier institutions as there has been in the apparently inexhaustible supply of refugee drama projects over the last decade.

But that is of no importance whatsoever. Ghandi was probably unbearably smug, but the anti-colonialism movement was right, as was the anti-slavery and anti-racism movements. As was the anti-mandatory detention movement. If we were the Roman Empire we could slaughter boat-borne arrivals on the beach and march their children through Martin Place in chains and feel great — but our society and we as individuals are not constituted on that basis. To act against the values that found our sense of what being human is, simply corrupt us, as the increasingly sadistic and nihilistic acts and remarks around the 2001 election proved. The numbers engaged in this sort of error is irrelevant.

There is no moral force to the idea of a fairer Australia, for working people in particular, if it does not express an idea about how we treat people in general. How else would it even be possible to say that there is something wrong with the market red in tooth and claw, if it did not also dictate a rejection of indifference to the plight of people on the high seas who might be about to become a real problem?

So Rudd, as a leader and a human being, will stand or fall on deciding that this is the moment to explicitly talk back to the myriad of half-conscious fears that hit Australians whenever they see a ship on the horizon — even if those fears have diminished over recent years, even if the are not much in evidence now. The government’s response so far has been consonant with the basic humanity they were elected to implement (and makes the Howard years seem even worse in retrospect). But now he has to go further. It’s his Vietnam (in the Martin Luther King sense).

If he ducks then not only does he do party and country a disservice, but he renders most of what he appears to have believed about himself mere chin music. The only time a belief in clear ethical action matters, or even exists, is when there is every good reason not to act on it. Bonhoeffer said, in his Letters From Prison, that he was becoming more comfortable with the company of atheists, and couldn’t bear the empty prating of self-proclaimed believers. Rudd, who has spoken extensively about bringing religion back into public life with a progressive twist, will have to decide which side of Bonhoeffer he is on.

Oh, and if not for the 1944 plot, how did Bonhoeffer get arrested? Well, he was helping Jews escape to Switzerland (who were none too happy to get them, the poor ones anyway). In the end, Rudd’s hero was a people smuggler.

Peter Fray

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