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Morality, politics and asylum-seekers

By Scott MacInnes - posted Monday, 21 February 2011

Ask any parent or teacher what values they wish to pass on to their children and you’re likely to get a list that includes: telling the truth, keeping your word, treating people fairly, not harming anyone, helping others in a crisis, sharing what you’ve got, thinking for yourself and assuming responsibility for your own words and deeds.

These are some of the moral values we continually appeal to when judging the rightness or wrongness of our conduct. They limit the manner and extent to which we are entitled to pursue our self-interests. They are the basis of our claim that the end does not justify the means. Indeed, our values judge not only the means but also the ends themselves: both have to be decent to avoid moral censure.

The origin of our most basic moral values may be open to argument: whether imposed by God, or inherent in the nature of our being human, or socially and culturally constructed. But for all practical purposes their authority depends on our ongoing commitment to them and the seriousness of our moral concern.


This is reflected in the importance we place in our lives on such values as truth, compassion for the suffering of others and respect for the inherent dignity and preciousness of human life. Such values have universal application.

In this regard, the greatest moral challenge of our time is to afford the same concern and respect for the lives of ‘others’ as we do for ‘our own’. It requires a heightened moral imagination to put ourselves in the shoes of strangers beyond our shores. To do so would dramatically affect the way we think about such things as our commitment to foreign aid, our continuing involvement in the war in Afghanistan and our treatment of asylum seekers.

However, we all know that when morality comes into conflict with national, political or self interests, these latter interests will usually prevail.

Thus the call from some of our politicians, following the recent floods, to slash the pitifully small foreign aid budget and use the money to help ‘our own’. While we should give priority to caring for our own, we can well afford to do both.

Then there is the justification for our involvement in Afghanistan based on the US alliance. Deep down, we know that it is not OK to sacrifice the lives of others simply to allay our general feelings of anxiety about potential terrorist threats and to keep our allies happy in the hope of future security and economic benefits.


Our treatment of asylum-seekers is another example of this kind of conflict and its resolution. Our moral instinct is to come to the rescue of genuine refugees. However our selfishness imposes the limits: it must not be to the detriment of our own interests. So we rescue asylum-seekers but do not welcome them. We incarcerate them as a deterrent to others, out of our sight and out of mind.

Indeed, our treatment of ‘boat people’ brings all of our most basic values into sharp focus. First, there are the lies - Tampa being the most blatant. Then there is the failure to keep our word - when we signed up to the Convention we promised to provide a safe haven for all genuine asylum-seekers irrespective of their method of arrival. We treat boat people both unfairly and cruelly through mandatory detention. Rather than accept responsibility for our own appalling response to the plight of refugees, we blame the victims.

On this issue we all have opinions but very few people think things through for themselves. So many opinions are based on prejudice, stereotypes, parroting of others and media manipulation. Regrettably, many people accept, without reflection, assertions that we have lost control of our borders and are being ‘invaded’, that boat people are potential terrorists and a threat to our security, that they are rorting our welfare system, etc. Such public opinion is often as vehement and unshakeable as it is irrational and contrary to the evidence.

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About the Author

Scott MacInnes has a background in teaching, law and conflict resolution. He is now retired and lives in Tasmania.

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