Last week, Fairfax columnist Jonathan Holmes wrote an article about offshore processing of asylum seekers who arrive by boat, deploring “the brutal reality of Nauru and Manus Island” and” the practical evils and the moral bankruptcy of ‘off-shore processing’”. Except, he added, “I don’t believe one should pontificate about a policy unless one has some vaguely practical alternative to propose. I have never had one.”

For his carefully worded thoughts, Holmes was attacked as a racist by the left clickbait’n’mansplaining site New Matilda and assailed on social media. The irony of that abuse was that Holmes, during his stint at Media Watch, did more to expose the media’s lies about asylum seekers than all of his critics put together (he also once labelled me “ridiculous” for attacking News Corp’s campaign against Julia Gillard, so I have no particular brief to defend him). The casual labelling of Holmes as “racist” looks more like moral and intellectual laziness than any sort of considered judgement.

And Fairfax gave comedian Tom Ballard room to respond, accusing Holmes of “solutionism”. What’s that?

“[W]hen decent folks see stories about people in our offshore gulags setting themselves on fire in desperation and are so bold as to suggest that might be an indication of something being horrifically wrong, they can expect to be greeted with a familiar response: ‘Well what’s YOUR solution then, smarty-pants?’… This is blind ‘solutionism’ and it is corroding our public discourse.”

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The views of an entertainer on a pressing moral issue wouldn’t normally be worthy of discussion, except that they happen to reflect a larger intellectual enfeeblement that large numbers of progressives have long suffered in relation to asylum seekers.

There’s no such thing as “solutionism” — or if there is, it’s a fig leaf for covering a failure to consider the consequences of one’s actions, or failure to act. All actions, positive or negative, have consequences, and far more so at a governmental than an individual level. The request for an alternative solution is actually a request to compare the consequences of the alternative to the solution currently being employed. Far from “corroding” public discourse, there’s far too little of it. It is that comparison of consequences that few progressives are willing to make. It’s the privilege of the powerless, to not have to weigh up consequences; for policymakers, however, there is no escaping consequences, whether they act or not. It’s intellectually feeble at best, and more likely outright disingenuous, to pretend that a concern for consequences can be dismissed as “solutionist”. It is by solutions, or their lack, that policymakers are judged, regardless of intention. Consequences matter.

It is Holmes himself who notes that solutions are hardly pure phenomena. He correctly explained that the emphasis by advocates of offshore detention, particularly in the Coalition, on the importance of saving asylum seekers’ lives is a very convenient and relatively recent development. Similarly, the professed concern on the part of hardliners for refugees unable to reach Australia by boat is another convenient cover for bigotry, elegantly demonstrated when Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison dramatically slashed Australia’s official humanitarian intake as well as commencing Operation Sovereign Borders to target maritime arrivals.

But the bigotry of hardliners does not render the issues they raise somehow moot. Nor does it make community concerns about the number of boat arrivals irrelevant. For whatever reason, the perception of asylum seekers forcing themselves on Australia by travelling here by boat generates an intense reaction among large sections of the electorate. And intense is not overstating it — a substantial proportion of the electorate, for example, still believe Australia is too soft on asylum seekers even now, despite the rape and child abuse camp we’ve established on Nauru, despite the murder of an inmate on Manus Island, despite rampant self-harm. For politicians who work in a democracy, that can’t be dismissed as of no consequence — unless you think the treatment of several thousand non-Australians should be more important for an Australian political party than the opportunity to improve the lives of 24 million Australians, in which case it becomes a point of principle to become, in effect, a single-issue party.

For policymakers, any decision that might encourage boat arrivals is thus both politically and morally fraught. Whether asylum seeker advocates want to acknowledge it or not, there are far more refugees, and economic migrants who try to pass themselves off as refugees, who can reach Australia than Australia can resettle; the Syrian conflict has maximised “push factors”, along with ongoing instability that we ourselves have created in Iraq. “Let them all come” is not a plausible option. Adopting policies that reward boat arrivals risks trading off the short-term good of ending the detention that causes mental health problems — not to mention rape and child abuse — for the longer-term evil of renewed attempts to reach Australia by boat. The latter will lead to drownings, a toxic reaction in the electorate to a surge in boat arrivals and harm to our broader immigration program and humanitarian intake when we have to deal, again, with a large number of boat arrivals.

But there are some better, or at least less-worse options. The camps on Nauru and Manus Island have been run by an Immigration Department that has adopted a policy of wilful neglect, with the intention of making the camps so hideous that they will serve as a deterrent in themselves. The litany of abuses and outrages on Nauru, in particular, is seemingly endless, and the department stands ever-ready to blame everyone else but itself — the contractors to whom it has outsourced detention centre operation and security, the governments of PNG and Nauru, the media and refugee activists. A policy shift that makes offshore processing less like a torture sentence and more like a place designed to minimise the impact on successful asylum seekers of long-term detention — i.e. safe, with quality mental and physical health services, proper education for children and training for adults — would do much to diminish the outright evil the Immigration Department currently practises in our name.

For good measure, replacing the Immigration Secretary, Mike “it’s all the media’s fault” Pezzullo and a judicial inquiry or royal commission into the behaviour of Immigration bureaucrats who have overseen deaths, rapes and injuries would also be a good start. Given New Zealand has offered to take some of those currently in detention, the government’s nonsensical refusal to allow people recognised as asylum seekers to be resettled there (while pretending that in fact it’s purely the decision of the Nauruan and PNG governments) could also be ended.

And given the government has been successful in turning back boats between here and Indonesia, consideration should be given to at least resettling detained families permanently in Australia. Consider the moral hierarchy of consequences here:

  • encouraging boat arrivals leads to deaths at sea, a massive burden on the budget (if we’re to invest in ensuring every arrival is properly helped to settle into Australia), unfairness for refugees unable to reach Australia by boat and electoral hysteria;
  • long-term detention leads to mental illness, self-harm, damaged children, and the kind of “banality of evil” phenomenon being demonstrated by Immigration bureaucrats; and
  • boat turnbacks risk, but don’t inevitably lead to, some deaths at sea (including of Australian service personnel), damage to relationship with Indonesia and intense and unhealthy secrecy.

Can a boat turnbacks policy by itself address the consequences of appearing to reward boat arrivals and therefore encouraging people to get in boats? Immigration would probably advise that it cannot, that it must be used in combination with a strict policy that no arrivals will ever be resettled here, but given the moral consequences, it is worth considering fully. The government’s policy of “stop the boats” has been successful — so can that success be used to ameliorate other aspects of its policies?

Then there is the need to work with other countries in the region to develop a comprehensive regional solution to refugees. This is the key component of the set of policies recommended by the Gillard government’s panel of Angus Houston, Michael L’Estrange and Paris Aristotle, which recommended offshore processing but only as, in effect, a stepping stone to a comprehensive regional agreement.

Since September 2013, the government’s commitment to such an agreement has consisted of Scott Morrison and Peter Dutton travelling the smaller countries of the region futilely offering bribes to take a few refugees, except Cambodia, where a wad of $55 million was blown on what turned out to be just one refugee.

There doesn’t need to be a binary let-them-come versus malicious punishment option here — as much as it’s in the interests of the Greens and refugee advocates on the one hand, and the Coalition on the other, to make us think there does. Neither side wants us to think through the moral consequences of the policies they advocate or implement, and whether alternatives are less worse in terms of consequences. It’s not “solutionism” to do that, it’s what any policymaker, and any mature human, must do.