Lest We Corrode Our Souls
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Lest We Corrode Our Souls

Lest We Corrode Our Souls

There is perhaps no issue which in its totality is so grey and morally ambiguous, so capable of inflaming passions and stirring up both the sense of justice and compassion innate in our people but also stirring up the ugliest side of our prejudices and fear of those who are different. But it is an issue that cuts to the heart of our national conscience and in the current climate, the issue has become highly politicised. Thus the political stakes are high and the rhetorical shots fired and no one wants to be seen to back down. Yet in this moral morass, there must be a moral way forward.

Because of the passions the debate stirs, people on apparently opposing ends with reasonable, indeed highly moral concerns, fail to hear one another. Those who come down supporting the stopping of boats and offshore processing are accused of either being heartless pragmatists at best or cruel bigots at worst. Those who oppose the government’s stance are caricatured as naïve do-gooders at best and people who have more sinister intentions to undo our social fabric at worst.

But there is something to be said about the moral necessity of compassion and welcome to those in need as well as the moral nature of stopping the boats and a fair and ordered system of intake into the country with rigorous checks; both ends of which are not being heard and for which our public policy is all the poorer. While I am no moral relativist, the reality is that we must contend with complex realities that stretch our thinking process in determining what is a morally correct course of action.

I will say from the outset that I have always supported stopping the boats. The Rudd Gillard experiment was an unmitigated disaster. A nation cannot have an unconditional open doors policy. We must necessarily discriminate regarding who is allowed into our nation in the interests of national security. So people arriving to our shores without documentation should be detained and investigated thoroughly. As well as this, the common sense reality is that the Commonwealth Government has finite resources and cannot possibly deal with the over 10 million refugees around the world, as much as we wish it could. A limit to humanitarian intake must necessarily be set and many will necessarily not get a place in Australia.

Indeed, a policy that encourages people to take the dangerous journey by sea, putting their lives in the hands of people smugglers in the belief that our door is unconditionally open is cruel.

However, lately we have seen a race to the bottom that has made even the staunchest supporter of offshore processing, temporary protection visas and turning back boats very uncomfortable. The latest uncomfortable example is the processing of claims via teleconference at sea: surely inadequate by any decent standards. And we continue to detain more than 1000 children and adults indefinitely in unacceptable conditions for a civilised nation to fathom, despite widespread knowledge of the detrimental health impacts it has on the detainees, many of whom have already suffered much in undertaking a desperate journey. The operation patrolling our maritime approaches itself is shrouded in secrecy, so that even with announcements that the boats have stopped, a concerned public wonders how many have actually been intercepted and what is to be the fate of those who are genuine refugees. This is unbecoming of a country that values transparent government and human dignity. We have moved beyond a policy of merely being able to secure our maritime entry points and deter people taking the dangerous option at sea to taking punitive measures toward asylum seekers, treating them like criminals; guilty before being proven as legitimate.

Yes, it is our right as a nation to decide who comes to this country. But often we cannot decide the circumstances in which they come. While we must be vigilant in processing claims and while it is right to discourage people taking the dangerous journey by sea, how can we claim to care about human life when our policies by the day show little concern for the health and fate of the outsider? Any society can show concern for its own. However, it is the mark of a civilised society to show respect for the rights of those we see as other than us, especially those who seek our assistance directly. And if we want to be judged as a civilised society, we must take a good hard look at the policies we pursue when they affect the very lives of the weakest.

Such compassion I believe is central to who we are as a society; ‘Do unto others as you would have them do to yourself.’ Ruthless pragmatism without a heart cuts against the grain of our humanity and every time the government cuts the refugee permanent resettlement and protection visa intake, every time conditions at detention centres are revealed to be sub par and insulting to our notions of human dignity and to those who have had traumatic experiences, then one wonders whether our actions are only centred around a compassionate stopping of drowings at sea, or whether they only serve to entrench the populism of fear and prejudice.

And when no effort is made in public discourse to promote a culture of welcome but rather to stroke feelings of fear and demonisation of asylum seekers, when we become more punitive in our measures toward the desperate, then we chip away at our moral fibre and moral capital as a nation. We have attempted to create a political atmosphere where it is acceptable not to ask questions but to place out trust fully in government to carry out a goal; an atmosphere where as long as we can say the goal is met, we do not need to care about the human dimension. We are in effect telling the public to look the other way. But if we are true to ourselves as a compassionate people, if we are true to ourselves as Liberals who believe in the dignity of human beings, then how can we look away?

As a Liberal Party, we have a proud story to tell of a history of welcoming people from all around the world while promoting a cohesive society bound by shared values. We must stop and think whether that proud story will be overshadowed by our preference to do ‘whatever it takes’ with no regard for the human cost.

For the many who look to Australia, a land where all manner of people have looked to build a better life; can we who already have that privilege deny absolutely the possibility of such a life to any who are willing to contribute and share fully in the life of the nation, and then look ourselves in the mirror and call ourselves just? I do not think so.

It is clear that solutions that satisfy the government’s fiscal responsibilities, responsibilities to ensure social cohesion and justice and compassion for the truly vulnerable and weak are hard to develop. But digging our heels in and yelling slogans across the aisle is unbecoming of a nation such as ours. The current policy discourse is not good enough. And as a nation, we need to lift our game. May we stop and reconsider. Yes, may our policies be guided by the national interest, practicality and reason. But may they never be guided by giving in to popular fear and prejudice. We must as a Liberal Party take the high ground. And may that high ground be founded on what we have always prided ourselves in: our belief in the inalienable dignity of the individual.

We must stop and reconsider, lest we corrode our nation’s soul and conscience. For what does it profit our nation if we have strong borders but lose our nation’s soul? Indeed, what are we willing to give in exchange for it?

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