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It's time for a new sort of genuine leadership on the refugee issue

By Scott Phillips - posted Friday, 30 April 2004

We hear much, in the current debate about Australia’s role in Iraq, about our international obligations to defend the cause of freedom. Whether we "stay the course" (as George W. Bush would have us do) or bring the troops home by Christmas while contributing to continuing humanitarian efforts (as the Labor Party would have us do), we are agreed on one fundamental point: that Australia is not an island unto itself but part of the international community. Our actions impact on others, and these can in turn have consequences for us.

It is a pity that the same sort of logic is not applied to the way this country deals with asylum seekers. Our actions towards asylum seekers need also to be seen in the wider context of balancing our international obligations with our concerns about national security. Just as we need to care about the plight of the Iraqi peoples, so we need to care about those people who come to our shores seeking sanctuary from persecution. We need to re-learn how to balance our hard heads with our soft hearts. This requires a new sort of leadership.

Nearly four years ago, Professor Alice Tay (then the Human Rights Commissioner) rightly called for a fresh approach to be taken to the way our national community deals with asylum seekers. As she observed:


Some time in the past decade we lost our compassion towards asylum-seekers and became insular and hard-hearted. Australia’s refugee policy is moving from a humanitarian one to a punitive one: from a relatively liberal assessment of individual circumstances against our international obligations to preventing entry and punishing those who slip through the net.

Regrettably, the two main political parties in Australia have adopted this more or less punitive approach. And this has been done largely because political leaders have been concerned to calibrate their policy stances in accord with what they perceive as public opinion on the issue of refugees. The xenophobia associated with Hansonism and the One Nation Party, and more recently the S11 terrorist attacks, have had a lot to do with the way that the two major parties have effectively demonised asylum seekers and portrayed them as a threat to Australia’s national security. Being hard-headed was equated with being hard-hearted in the face of asylum seekers. That is, it was seen as necessary to send a clear message to asylum seekers and the people-traffickers who profit from assisting them in some cases, that asylum seekers would find no ready refuge in Australia.

But this is an issue that requires leadership on sound ethical principles appropriate to ensuring not only Australia’s future but its role in developing a just and sustainable global civil society. Leadership of this kind is not possible if the focus is only upon alignment of policies with popular opinion so as to secure national electoral ascendancy. As Alice Tay reminded us:

Sadly, the mandatory detention of asylum-seekers and others who arrive without visas is popular with a community more concerned about continuing to enjoy reasonable prosperity than sharing a little of it with the needy. It is also worth mentioning that the two main political parties are more or less in agreement on how to deal with the errant and desperate few who enter the country without authorisation. In balancing national security interests and individual human rights, the pendulum has swung too far in the direction of border protection and national security. There are times when one must turn away from the will of the people and swim against that tide; times when the humanitarian obligation should be paramount. Now is the time to rethink Australia’s policy of mandatory detention.

Alice Tay was not alone in calling for such a rethink of policy and leadership against the grain of popular sentiment.

Malcolm Fraser (the former Liberal Prime Minister) has called for a broad alliance of citizens from across the political spectrum to pressure the current government to develop a more humane approach to asylum seekers.


Greg Barns, a former Howard government adviser and the endorsed Liberal Party candidate for the 2002 Tasmanian state election, also called upon the government to reconsider its approach to this issue. He observed that "the problem with the current policy by the Howard government towards asylum seekers is that it actually devalues the humanity of asylum seekers through its characterisation of them as offenders against humanity". Barns noted that the British Conservative Party’s Home Affairs spokesperson, Humfrey Malins, remarked that mandatory detention of asylum seekers is unjustifiable because these "...people have not committed any offence. They are not criminals".

Justice Marcus Einfeld, a former Human Rights Commissioner and a legal activist, has been vocal in calling upon the government and the community to take a fresh and humane approach to addressing the needs of asylum seekers. Leaders of faith communities have also joined the chorus along with activists of varying political persuasions. The list could be extended.

The point to draw from these expressions of concern is surely this: a policy of mandatory detention of asylum seekers is inhumane and unjustifiable. It flies in the face of compassion and logic. It is out of keeping with the golden rule of treating others as we would want to be treated that underlies commonsense morality.

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About the Author

Dr Scott Phillips is Director of Kershaw Phillips Consulting a consultancy providing social research, program and policy evaluation and strategic advisory services to health, social sector and educational organisations. He is also an Honorary Fellow of the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation (Deakin University), and holds Non-Executive Directorships with Ermha Ltd (a mental health services company in Melbourne) and the Royal Society for Arts, Manufacturing and Commerce (Australia and New Zealand).

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