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Not in my name Mr Morrison: compassion and public policy, a case study of Australia and asylum seekers

By Noel Preston - posted Monday, 21 July 2014


The purpose of this essay is to advance the view that, difficult though it may be, it is essential that moral principle and intention be kept at the forefront of the development and application of public policy. In particular, I want to examine the possibility of practicing politics with compassion. The catalyst for this essay is the current policy the Australian Government is implementing toward asylum seekers who seek refuge in Australia.

Minister Morrison and the Abbott Government, have been condemned by a wide range of eminent Australians and international human rights groups for their so called border protection measures. They are administering one of the most shameful and cruel public policies ever operated in the name of the Australian nation – perhaps rivaled only by aspects of government policies toward indigenous Australians in past eras. Regrettably, the present government's approach to the vexed human rights question of dealing with asylum seekers has been generally supported, to their shame, by the Opposition Labor Party.


The Case Study

The Minister's profession

(Archbishop) Desmond Tutu, Nobel laureate and one of the heroes of the struggle against South Africa' apartheid, reportedly once declared:

... we expect Christians ... to be those who stand up for the truth, to stand up for justice, to stand on the side of the poor and the hungry, the homeless and the naked, and when that happens, then Christians will be trustworthy believable witnesses.

Why do I quote these words?

Because, in his maiden speech to the House of Representatives on Thursday February 14, 2008, Scott Morrison MP, currently Australia's Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, invoked these words as testimony to his personal beliefs and philosophy as a new member of parliament. He also cited Abraham Lincoln's wisdom, not to claim 'God is on our side' but to consider 'whether we are on God's side'. Well may we inquire which or what 'God'? But the discussion here does not rest on theology. Interestingly, Mr Morrison prefaced his use of the Tutu quote by making the commendable claim: "From my faith I derive the values of loving-kindness, justice and righteousness, to act with compassion and kindness, acknowledging our common humanity and to consider the welfare of others; to fight for a fair go for everyone to fulfil their human potential and to remove whatever unjust obstacles stand in their way.....". Altogether it was a speech which would have given hope to Morrison's small 'l' Liberal predecessor as Member for Cook, Bruce Baird, a campaigner for compassion in politics – who must now be deeply disappointed! That said, Scott Morrison is not the first Australian MP, wearing faith on his sleeve, who has been compromised by the poisoned chalice of the immigration of desperate asylum seekers. Kevin Rudd and Phillip Ruddock come to mind.


Given Mr Morrison's application of the Abbott Government's policies which condemn thousands with traumatic pasts to fearful and uncertain futures, one wonders how he now views the moral claims of his maiden speech. Rather than look to Archbishop Tutu for a confirming text, perhaps he might have consulted Machiavelli (the medieval chronicler of political ruthlessness). It is all but certain that Archbishop Tutu would line up with scores of Australian religious leaders who have strongly criticised Australia's approach to this difficult issue.

Of course, the case against Australia's treatment of those seeking refuge is not just a moral argument. The real politik case includes the following:

  1. The current measures are not cost effective – for instance, the Commission of Audit Report issued just before the 2014 Budget estimated the annual cost of detaining a person in offshore centres such as Nauru at $400,000 per person whereas it is less than $100,000 to maintain an asylum seeker in the Australian community.
  2. Australia is not fulfilling its international obligations, is damaging its relationships with neighbour Indonesia, and exaggerating the burden Australia faces with boat arrival numbers which, in the case of Mediterranean countries, are five or six times greater.
  3. There are accountability issues: Australia's policy is being implemented with secrecy and has arrangements with nations where corruption of governance is a major question.
  4. As for the case to smash the people smugglers' business, desperate people fleeing persecution have always used such devices, as did certain German Jews under Hitler.
  5. Then we are told that many who seek asylum are "economic migrants". But surely those with means may also face persecution and the need for safe refuge.
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This year Noel Preston has published Ethics with or without God, Morning Star Publishers, Melbourne, and a 4th edition of, Understanding Ethics, Federation Press, Sydney. For a fuller account of the author's approach to political ethics readers may be interested to access the recent publications listed above: Ethics with or without God, ch.4 and Understanding Ethics, ch. 9.

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About the Author

Dr Noel Preston is Adjunct Professor in the Griffith University Key Centre for Ethics, Law, Justice and Governance. He is the author of Understanding Ethics (20O1, Federation Press, Sydney), and several texts on public sector ethics. His web page can be found here.

Noel Preston’s recent book is Beyond the Boundary: a memoir exploring ethics, politics and spirituality (Zeus Publications).

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