Tuesday, 7 September 2010

For Australia, asylum seekers offer a moral moment


By James Rose

If the asylum seekers who busted out of the Darwin detention centre had an advisor, he or she did their job. If ever there was a time to put the issue square back on the map of public policy, this was it.

The prescient timing refers not just to the fraught Australian political situation but has a global context, as asylum seekers in Ireland kick up in a similar fashion and as US President Obama sends in the dreaded drones and ups the national guardsmen numbers along the Mexican border.

Worldwide we are looking at a Moral Moment.

We have been here before of course: the Anti-Slavery Moral Moment; the Holocaust Moral Moment and so on, some marked by courage others by cowardice.

In the never-ending federal election of 2010, asylum seekers were one of those “small target” issues, which is hidden, by some unwritten, unspoken mutual agreement by the major parties behind economic gobble-de-gook and various process diversions. Cowardice mugged courage in August 2010.

But, even more than climate change, this is an historic fulcrum. It’s no time for cowardly ducking and weaving. While climate change offers a moment in time in which we must decide whether we are smart enough to build a future, the asylum seeker issue is about whether we are ethically evolved enough to imagine a future.

And, the absence of moral leadership is critical in such a situation. Without setting a direction and lighting a high moral ground, many will clutch at the dubious benefits of myopia and will elbow towards the lowest common denominator, a morass where no issue can breathe, where only fear, like a hardy bacteria, thrives.

Increments are important in human history. When Hannah Arendt wrote of the “banality of evil”, she was getting at precisely this fact. The descent into the mire of the Holocaust was undertaken via an ill-lit stairwell, not with trumpets blazing and diabolical voice-overs. It was a generally boring step-by-step process, passing through stages of denial, ignorance and defensiveness.

Jonathan Glover, in his Humanity: A Moral History of the 20th Century, writes, “People slide into doing things they would not do if given a clear choice at the beginning. Each of the early steps may seem too small to count, but later anxiety about the moral boundary may only suggest the uncomfortable thought that it has already been passed.”

Since before federation, Australians have not been given a “clear choice”. Parochial bigotry and fear-mongering actually drove the mechanisms of nationalism in Australia. Founding Fathers like Alfred Deakin and Henry Parkes whipped the colonies into a lather over fears of the Yellow Peril and manufactured concern over the weakness of isolated colonial outposts in the face of potential Chinese invasion to plump up their desire to become a federated fortress.

The enaction of the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901, one of the new federation’s first laws, was the embodiment of a devolution of an idea: from a strategic polishing rag to a noose around our moral necks.

The White Australia act sends a tracer bullet to the present, felling countless souls in its arc. As a result, using Glover’s perspective, we have already crossed the moral rubicon. Under the guise of “debate” we are orbiting around ways (soft or hard?) to ensure asylum seekers don’t see Australia as a place they should bother trying to feel safe in, rather than how we can find ways to take responsibility as a wealthy and democratic nation in a world where fellow human beings need a refuge.

Choice in this ersatz debate is set within the ever-diminishing oscillations set by the country’s political and social leaders (such as media). Various facts, about which many Australians would be shocked, are left to stagnate on the margins.

What do Australians make about the fact that since 1945, Australia has accepted a total of 700,000 refugees, whom, if they were all still alive, would make up only around 3 per cent of the current population? Or that in January 2010 there were around 25,000 asylum seekers in Australia, representing just 0.1 per cent of the current population?

Or what about the fact that there is no law in Australia or internationally which disallows individuals being persecuted their right to apply for refugee status, or that Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that “no-one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality”, was part of a process led by Australia and that Australia was among its first signatories in 1948?

Or how about the fact that, relative to GDP, Pakistan has the world’s highest number of refugees (no doubt added to massively by internally displaced people post-floods), then Congo and Tanzania and that Australia’s GDP is more than five-times the combined GDPs of these countries? Or, that in 2008/09 some $7 million was spent by the government on particularly traumatised and vulnerable asylum seekers in Australia – a figure presumably troubling to some – while Australians happily spent $111 million on kitty litter in the same year?

Such facts must be known and considered for Australians to have the choice to decide. No democracy can survive without information. This is a Moral Moment that future generations will look back on. We are being watched by future generations.

Those who accept that a peaceful demonstration by asylum seekers in Darwin should elicit a surly police cordon and ill-conceived whinges from punters over delayed traffic and unacceptable expressions of opinion will be scrutinised just as harshly as those whose conscience was similarly unmoved while stepping over the shards of Kristallnacht.

The coming period in Australian politics will confirm the power of policy over polls, of leadership over lies. Without doubt this a moment when we decide what kind of nation we are. We might thank the Darwin Breakout for helping take us here.

James Rose has written and directed a short documentary on asylum seeker policy and attitudes.

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