Unsettled in Australia

In our streets, men are setting themselves ablaze. One is dead, another hopelessly burnt. On Christmas Island, women are reportedly attempting suicide in the hope their orphaned children might be given refuge. These people have fled one terrible regime, only to find another.

Tony Abbott calls this a “moral barrel”. He will not be held over it. His empathy will not be extorted. “I don’t believe any Australian would want us to capitulate to moral blackmail.”

Perhaps not. Some, however, might expect compassion.

On sea, 153 Tamils are floating in the hold of a Customs vessel. They have been there for weeks, and will be there for weeks more. It was only in the High Court – where a challenge was brought this week – that the government would confirm their existence. Until then, it had hedged and lied. Another 41 Tamils have already been handed back to the country they were fleeing. Those who worry over such things have been swiftly acquainted with the term “refoulement”, the forced return of refugees to the nation of their abuse.

That we have broken international law is not in question. The quibble is with our constitution, with the government’s executive authority. Australia has the powers to turn back a boat, but not necessarily to ferry asylum seekers to the shores of other lands. Respected lawyers have asked whether this might equate to piracy. The United Nations has raised its concerns. Legal academics have warned that holding asylum seekers in this manner “amounts to incommunicado detention without judicial scrutiny”. The shameful days of the Tampa have been invoked.

In Sri Lanka gifting patrol boats to a regime accused of war crimes, the immigration minister did not waver. “The resolve of the Australian and Sri Lankan governments to stop people smuggling is stronger and greater than the people smugglers,” Scott Morrison said this week. “To anyone here who may think of getting on a people smuggling voyage to Australia: don’t believe the lies that the people smugglers tell you.”

There is nothing new about this. Hawke gave it a go. And Keating, too. Howard made an art of it – of the grim political calculus that says one can be endlessly cruel to those wretched souls who arrive here by boat and the public will largely thank you for it. The polling is with them. Demonising asylum seekers wins elections. It persuades voters to blame queue jumpers for the things over which governments more correctly have responsibility, for being unable to find jobs or waiting too long in hospital lines. The language of this is fanciful – the queue – but the meanness is wholly drab. It’s simple. It lacks imagination.

It leaves our migration act nibbled at and patched up. Occasionally – indeed, with increasing frequency – the high court will peel off one of these Band-Aids. But governments don’t stop. In Parliament House offices, amendments are readied. Elements of law are considered under the euphemistic title “exotic”.

And the country, mostly, continues untroubled. Before these last awful events, polls returned saying most Australians thought we could be tougher on people seeking asylum by boat. As if the desert camps were not enough. As if the devil islands and caged children were not enough. As if the madness caused by temporary protection were a salve. As if these dark and damaged figures were here out of anything but desperation.

This is the logic that says refugees come both to take jobs and bludge welfare. It is the logic of moral barbarism. It is the logic of a polity that is coarse and hateful.

The boats have stopped. The cruelty has not.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 12, 2014 as "Unsettled in Australia".

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