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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.


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.


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

  1. Altakoi

    Oh thank heavens for an appeal to pragmatism. Basically the only question worth debating is “This is what it will take to stop people wanting to come here, are you up for that or not?”. If not, then stop the wailing about boats coming and get some policy about dealing with new immigrants from traumatised backgrounds. Quite possible, quite ethical, quite OK. If not, then stop pretend that we have some deep care for maritime safety and do it. But be ready for the world to say we are awful people because we probably will have to be. Decisions on actions, not decisions on feelings should be the stuff of democratic debate and process. I just don’t care if people care deeply for refugees or not.

  2. Peter Tertis

    What if the boat people declared Terra Nullius upon arrival?

  3. Altakoi

    Thats worked before. Of course it helps if you have a (then) superpower backing up your claim.

  4. puddleduck

    Ummm. Where is the second part of this piece?

  5. klewso

    Do you think it’s all right, to leave the kids with Uncle Ernie Labor?

  6. Peter Murphy

    puddleduck: I think the intention is that “we” (the people) are meant to fill in the gap, as it were.

  7. David Hand

    I’m not in your intellectual division Helen.

    I get that both Abbott’s “we are doing it out of concern for deaths at sea” and SHY’s “we are morally bankrupt” positions are inadequate and easily challenged.

    But the movements of millions of people across the world seeking a better life for their families and our policy response to it is banality?

    I don’t understand that at all.

  8. Greybeard

    Surely the moral arguments are just the beginning. We’ve allowed Abbott to turn the issue from “What should the Australian people do to help refugees” into the banal “Stop the boats!”. Stopping the boats should be one of the many consequences of good policy, not the policy itself.

    Hearing the moral justifications politicians use is interesting so we can try and work put where they are coming from. All sides might agree that we have some sort of moral obligation to refugees, but we have to ask the right questions in the first place, and try to understand each other’s moral priorities (wherein lies the real argument I think).

  9. Dianne Longson

    At last someone who actually says it like it is. These decisions are not moral ones. they are decisions based on political expedience and it has to stop.
    Your 3rd to last paragraph is the key paragraph for me in the whole essay. And I do love the Mum and Dad analagy even if I don’t agree with your interpretation of Dad’s position.

  10. klewso

    It did take them a while to eventually settle on the “humanity – to stop the drownings” excuse.

  11. Gratton Wilson

    Why do we have this aversion to “people smugglers”? These are people who benefit from selling a commodity – a place on transport to a safe haven – QANTUS does exactly the same thing and we admire its enterprise. Where there is a market,you will find traders. If we think the smugglers charge too much or their vessels are unsafe then we should encourage competition, there are lots of Australian fisher folk with sturdy boats who could fill the need. We could bring in refugees by plane or pay their way on luxurious ocean liners like we did with the economic refugees – the ten pound Poms(Abbott’s & Gillard’s families). Our politicians don’t give a stuff about people drowning at sea, they are pandering to racism and fear to get votes.

  12. Buddy

    Yep, alright Helen. We are in complete agreement this week. I do love a pragmatist.

  13. AR

    934 words in search of a subject. As usual,the main deficit was VERBS!

  14. Liamj

    Yes, apt analogy, and good call generally on dispensing with the pretensions to moral decision making. Wont happen of course, because colour-by-numbers drama is what fills our infotainment universe, but nice to imagine. Coherent refugee & immigration policy would require discussion of unpopular topics like carrying capacity & resource depletion, invasion of Afghanistan, land seizure & (tourist) development in Sri Lanka, economic blockade of Iran, etc. Never happen, cos daddys daddys wouldn’t like it.

  15. Jonathon

    Helen, thanks for juxtaposing Lakoff and Arendt alongside a touch of Freud. But the Sovereign is here to stay, in one form or another, and there will always be strangers. While it’s tedious and tiresome that politicians and certain media outlets seek mileage out of ‘these people’, the clichéd frames (Lakoff) have no limits. We are all caught in them. The shibboleths make your head spin and I appreciate your effort to find a point of focus. I think the warehousing of surplus people (Arendt) is the greater crime which has become Australia’s misguided practice resulting in well known mental health trauma. But subterranean service providers have plied their trade among desperate people and broken the refugee business model.

  16. Ken Lambert

    Onya David Hand

    I think Razer wants Abbott to put her across his knee and give her a good banal metaphorical spanking…

    Tony could then teach her that the moral position is to let in to Oz 20000 inmates of camps around our region who don’t have a razoo, rather than those more enabled ones who can get $10000 to pay corrupt officials and smugglers.

    Maybe Razer would agree that the $10000 ticket buyers are just the types of refugees we need…bit of intiative and not afraid to step in front of the other poorer souls striving for a better life…..now that is a morally Darwinian position which has some surprising adherents…mostly from the children of a previous generation of refugees who did that themselves.

  17. 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.

  18. Chris Hartwell

    Evidence, David. Evidence is King. In the absence of evidence, a just nation presumes innocence. Are we a just nation?

  19. Helen Razer

    David. The moral debate is false. Of course cruel detention is a terrible idea. To argue that it is not a terrible idea gives credence to the assertion that it is a good idea. Which nobody believes. The debate with people urging for compassion and morality cannot be had with politicians who devised and maintain this bullshit in the mild (and not even certain) hope of maintaining power. Stop arguing morality with politicians.

  20. David Hand

    Evidence, Chris. Evidence is king. In the absence of any identifying documentation from asylum seekers who have destroyed them before being intercepted by Australian border protection boats, a just nation presumes it’s being rorted. We are a just nation.

  21. David Hand

    Your view only really applies to Labor.

    Politicians on the left adopted a hard line when it became clear to them just how much they had alienated the voting public to the extent that they faced electoral annihilation.

    The lot we have now actually believe strong borders are the right policy for Australia and most of the country agrees with them.

    I agree with you that detention is a bad idea. That is why Australia should withdraw from the refugee convention. That will open up many more policy options to cope with this recent phenomenon of millions of people trying to migrate from the third world to the first.

    We need a new convention that fits into today’s conditions.

  22. Helen Razer

    Okay. I am talking about the debate and how we cannot engage with politicians. Of any kind.

  23. Chris Hartwell

    False equivalence David. Claiming refugee status is a protestation of innocence. Prove their guilt. Else we are unjust.

  24. Ken Lambert

    David Hand

    I notice Helen does not want to engage in the central moral issue of the refugee situation viz:

    “Tony could then teach her that the moral position is to let in to Oz 20000 inmates of camps around our region who don’t have a razoo, rather than those more enabled ones who can get $10000 to pay corrupt officials and smugglers.

    Maybe Razer would agree that the $10000 ticket buyers are just the types of refugees we need…bit of intiative and not afraid to step in front of the other poorer souls striving for a better life…..now that is a morally Darwinian position which has some surprising adherents…mostly from the children of a previous generation of refugees who did that themselves.”

    Beneath the faux compassion of the soft, and in Razer’s case the incoherent foul mouthed left: lies the fact that supporters of the $10000 asylum seekers are really advocating the social Darwinist position that entitlement to a refugee place in Australia goes to the fittest who can access the money and pay smugglers and corrupt officials.

    No decent Government, religion or welfare organization could espouse such a position without universal opprobrium, yet that is what the Left and its running dogs are effectively screaming at a jaded and disbelieving public.

  25. David Hand

    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”.

  26. paul carter

    Crikey! This analysis doesn’t make sense.

  27. AR

    PaulC – it’s a Razer article, the point is that there is no point, apart from therapy – paid for by our subscriptions.

  28. James

    Thoroughly agree with the comments from David Hand. I was once firmly on the side of the refugee advocates but I came to see the naivety of my position after spending a few years living in a bonafide third world country (ironically).


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