Opinion

John Hewson
On shame and politics

It is most disturbing how genuine compassion has been lost from our national government. Even worse, they seem so shameless about it. Concepts of government responsibility, integrity and accountability are increasingly downplayed, even ignored.

A sense of shame is essential to an effective moral compass. Shamelessness is a real threat to our democracy and to the rule of law.

The upshot of declining compassion has been increasingly punitive outcomes for those most vulnerable, for those in genuine need. This does considerable damage to the overall trust in our politicians and our political system. Without compassion there is little chance of empathy, of members of the government attempting to put themselves in the shoes of those they are elected to serve.

A major reason for this loss is that government has become mostly about politics. It is now a very short-term game, characterised by point-scoring and blame-shifting, rather than developing evidence-based policy or solving problems or meeting challenges.

In this process, human needs and humanitarian issues and developments are treated more like obstacles to be dealt with. Compassion is to be shown only if it is possible to extract some short-term political advantage, or if it is necessitated by the weight of public opinion, mostly perceived from polling or focus groups.

Scott Morrison’s sole focus is on winning the next election. He seeks to dominate the daily media with his political agenda – with the big announcement or stunt, backed by tightly controlled press appearances, generally suppressing scrutiny.

In terms of policy, he is “reactive” rather than “proactive”. If events or policy issues break against his political strategy, his initial response is to do nothing – let the issue run; it might even solve itself. If in the end he must respond, he accepts as little responsibility as he can and does as little as possible to get by.

For Morrison, responsibility is to be ducked and blame to be shifted. It is getting to the stage where the government will use any spurious argument to spin and obfuscate, even lie, rather than accept responsibility or the need for redress.

There is a long list of worrying examples of the absence of compassion, and of the shameless political behaviour that it produces.

Perhaps the most defining is the failure to give proper and complete recognition to First Australians, in the constitution, as a Voice to Parliament, and to fully address their continuing disadvantage. How is it compassionate to continue to defer and neglect a complete response, after 230 years, especially in light of the Uluru Statement from the Heart?

While it can be conceded that the health and medical response to Covid-19 has been compassionate, being mostly based on “medical advice”, the implementation has often passed through a political prism. For example, the early limits on crowds were delayed to allow the prime minister to attend his rugby league game and for his church to hold a large convention.

This is part of a trend in which Morrison is becoming increasingly arrogant and entitled in his personal activities – taking a Hawaiian holiday while the bushfires raged; searching for convict roots at the G7 when others can’t travel or reunite with family; not wanting to be responsible for his staff, and so on.

Where is the compassion in the vaccine rollout, with uneven vaccination of front-line workers, the aged and the disabled? Indeed, the rollout is extremely slow, and has become basically a mess, mostly because the government has not been able to deliver against its initial, shameless boast that it was leading the world. This just wasn’t true.

Where is the compassion in the government ducking its constitutional responsibility for quarantine, and failing to build fit-for-purpose facilities outside major cities, then attempting to push it off to the states, which had to rely on ineffective hotel quarantine?

Where was the compassion, and in turn the shame, in the robo-debt scandal, when the government persisted with the scheme against increasing evidence of its inaccuracy and ineffectiveness, and upwards of 2000 reported deaths from those who received robo-debt letters?

Where was Morrison’s personal compassion or shame having presided over the scheme as minister for Social Services, and as treasurer, and finally as prime minister?

Where is the compassion in increasing the JobSeeker payment by a miserly amount of less than $4 a day, after 25 years of no real increase, leaving the unemployed well short of the poverty line, and now facing a compliance system with worrying echoes of robo-debt?

How is it compassionate to duck the national responsibility for aged care? Specifically, to fail to fully address the recommendations of the aged care royal commission, especially in relation to the wages of carers and nurses, after decades of neglect?

Where is the compassion in also neglecting the urgent need for childcare reform, in a sector that is struggling, being the first to lose JobKeeper, king-hitting women and families struggling with affording workforce participation?

Similar questions can be asked about the lack of compassion in the funding and provision of mental health care, disability and domestic violence support and services. While more money will help, it is inadequate without reform, fuelled by compassion, to drive the improvement of service delivery.

Governments of both persuasions have never been held fully accountable for this country’s failed and inhuman refugee policies, in all their iterations, including the Tampa affair, the Pacific Solution, offshore detention, excising Christmas Island, using Manus and Nauru, boat tow-backs, temporary protection visas, medevac, and so on. Morrison, of course, was the minister for Immigration during the Abbott years – this is where he made his reputation.

There was little compassion in any of these “refugee policies” – indeed, they were often ruthless and violent, with the greatest weakness being the failure to have driven a regional strategy. The absence of such a strategy – as an agreement between source, transit, destination and resettlement countries – leaves refugees languishing in poor conditions, with minimal healthcare and other support, and no clear resettlement pathway. So much out of sight, out of mind, hiding behind slogans about our “right to determine who comes to our country”, with a sly nod to politics of race.

This policy has finally come under greater public scrutiny with the treatment of the Murugappan family from Biloela. Their experience is symbolic of the thousands of lives that have been seriously disadvantaged by the refugee detention system.

Even though they are not refugees, and this has been confirmed in some five court proceedings, their treatment has been extremely poor. This has included their ridiculous “banning” to Christmas Island, at unnecessary expense, simply because the government wants to make a point that boat arrivals can never expect to settle permanently in Australia.

The government’s argument – that to let them stay would encourage people smugglers – is nonsense.

Well over 1000 such people have been resettled, more than 900 in the United States, with no new boat arrivals. This government’s attitude sits very poorly against Peter Dutton’s quick approval of visas for au pairs.

At best, we still only see “creeping compassion”. The family is allowed to reunite temporarily in Perth. They have been granted three-month bridging visas. The government ignores public opinion, which clearly wants the minister to grant them clemency and authorise them to stay.

Alongside this list of shamelessness and lack of compassion, perhaps the most surprising recent instance is in the government’s approach to a series of so-called “women’s issues”, stretching from the handling of Brittany Higgins’s alleged rape, through various examples of bullying and intimidation in the parliamentary workplace, of both staff and female members of parliament, to domestic violence.

Not only was there little compassion shown in specific cases, but the delays in response were unforgivable. When action was taken, it was often only to see these issues pushed off for “review”, which in turn means further delay, “findings” from which are not necessarily made public, resulting in very little real change.

Government should be “of the people, for the people”. Compassion is fundamental. Unfortunately, our adversarial politics encourages a drift away from this. It should not be about how “clever” our leaders are in saying or doing whatever it takes to win – rather how thorough and compassionate they have been in improving the lives and wellbeing of the people. Shameless neglect of this responsibility by our government representatives needs to be called out, and the system should hold them accountable.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 26, 2021 as "On shame and politics".

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John Hewson is a professor at the ANU Crawford School of Public Policy and former Liberal opposition leader.