: Signs of the Times
The Signs of the Times: Refugees? War on Terror? War on Iraq?
- Not in My Name
Social Justice Conference
"Harden Not Your Hearts"
The Christian Brothers St Francis Xavier Province
Fr Frank Brennan SJ AO*
18 April 2004
I am fortunate to have 21 nephews and nieces, some of whom have
attended Edmund Rice schools as they were not known in my day when
I was a boy in short trousers at Nudgee Junior College proudly proclaiming
the motto "Signum Fidei". I still do not know what was
the distinctive sign of our distinctive faith. Recently before one
of my long plane trips, a niece with precocious tendencies obviously
inherited from the other side of the family, made the observation,
"You haven't read any Harry Potter, have you? I think you should."
I asked what I should begin with. She thought in my case that I
should start at the beginning because that was a good place to start.
So I took off, armed with The Philosopher's Stone. I was touched
by the scene in which Harry Potter who had been separated from his
family looked into the Mirror of ERISED and saw himself with his
family. His ambitious mate from the school of witchcraft looked
and saw himself as the captain of the school and the king of the
kids. Look at the word ERISED in a mirror and you see desire. The
benign schoolmaster Dumbledore explained that you see your deepest
desires but not truth or knowledge when you look into this mirror.
When asked, Dumbledore said he saw himself with a pair of new woolen
socks because he always wanted more socks. Only later, did Harry
Potter muse that adults do not always tell the truth. If we are
not to harden our hearts when it comes to social justice we need
to be able to look into a mirror that reflects not only our deepest
desires, but also truth and knowledge. If we are to be advocates
for social justice we need to speak truthfully from the mind and
the heart so as to sustain and steady the hand for action.
In this first address surveying the state of our world, I want
to insist on the problem now posed to us by a world which is so
infected by the philosophy of utilitarianism. Whether the issue
be war or refugees, our politicians and our media are concerned
only with whether it works and whether the outcome maximises happiness
for a larger number of voters, regardless of the harm that might
be caused to others, who are identified as "other".
When we want to contest popular policies on moral grounds, we need
to be able to work in an atmosphere of trust. That trust is being
undermined in much of our public discourse at the moment. That trust
can only be maintained if public officials perform their correct
functions and do not over-reach themselves. Regardless of where
the truth lies with the complaints by Colonel Collins, it would
be a great tragedy if someone like General Cosgrove, the head of
the Army, could be perceived as a government spin doctor. People
in that sort of position should be no more open to that public perception
or role than, say, the Chief Justice.
We also need to be able to work in an atmosphere of respectful
dialogue. In Australia, it is getting more difficult to have a civilised
public discussion and disagreement. Even church leaders are attacked
by government at the drop of a hat.
If we are to contribute to more just social policies and outcomes,
we need to understand the rationale of government policy, especially
in its more utilitarian aspects. We need to be able to critique
the policy and then to offer constructive options which are more
moral, admitting the utilitarian costs of more moral action in causing
some inconvenience or harm to the majority.
We are stepping into an election year both here and in the United
States where the incumbents John Howard and George W Bush have led
the initiatives for countering the emerging terrorist threat revealed
and unleashed by the events of September 11, 2001. There is the
risk that any consideration or critique of these initiatives can
be seen to be party political or partisan. That is not my purpose.
I am quite agnostic as to whether Mark Latham or John Howard would
be any more solicitous of human rights and protective of Australian
identity in response to such a crisis. My agnosticism extends to
all other conceivable inhabitants of the Lodge in the foreseeable
future. Though it is important to examine the conduct of political
leaders in the past, my purpose is to see how robust our democratic
processes are for finding the right balance, and how informed and
committed we are in insisting that our politicians not cut corners
in the name of national security. This is an increasing challenge
in a society with an aging population who can be expected to be
worried about their security whatever the inconvenience to others
and with a group of youth who feel marginalised from the decision
making processes of the society.
At times of national insecurity, there is an increased need for
citizens to trust their political leaders and those leaders are
likely to feel very acutely any criticism of their discharge of
that trust. There are lessons for us, without our canonising or
demonising any particular political actors.
Jim Wolfenson, President of the World Bank, in an address in February
2004 on a return visit to Australia, his home country, gave us an
inspiring introduction to our seminar topic, A Fair Go in an Age
of Terror: Countering the Terrorist Threat to Human Rights and the
Australian Identity. He said:
I was fascinated today in my discussions with civil society to
learn that, in a poll of Australian society, eighty-five percent
of people were prepared to support development assistance, and
some fifty-three percent of them supporting it strongly. But when
asked the reasons why they supported it, it was not enlightened
self-interest, it was not protection against terror, it was because
it was morally and ethically right. I found that a remarkable
statistic and a great tribute to the Australian people, in terms
of what drives this country, in terms of its sense of equity and
We shouldn’t be afraid to say that a ‘fair go’
or a ‘fair share’ or a sense of equity is something
that drives us. Too few people in the world are doing that today.
Let's read the signs of the times in relation to a few of the big
political issues confronting us, and let's not harden our hearts.
Today we come to open our minds and our hearts to a better way of
shaping our changing world.
When are we justified in going to war?
The United States now claims the prerogative for unilateral action
not only in making pre-emptive strikes against imminent threats
but also in taking preventive action to destroy a prospective enemy's
capacity to become a threat. Bush claims a mandate for "deal(ing)
with those threats before they become imminent". The bottom
line for Bush with Saddam Hussein was: "the fact that he had
the ability to make a weapon. That wasn't right."
When should we join with the United States in such preventive
action, without endorsement from the United Nations?
The invasion of Iraq was consistent with the previously published
neo-conservative agenda of Mr Bush's key advisers. Regime change
in Iraq was a centre-piece of their agenda. Our own Defence Intelligence
Organisation (DIO) told our parliamentary inquiry into the intelligence
operations preceding the recent war: "We made a judgement here
in Australia that the United States was committed to military action
against Iraq. We had the view that that was, in a sense, independent
of the intelligence assessment."
When tabling the unanimous, all-party report, the government member
David Jull told Parliament of the Committee's conclusion "that
there was unlikely to be large stocks of weapons of mass destruction,
certainly none readily deployable." We did not go to war because
there was an imminent threat to our security. We went to war because
the Americans asked us to. The reasons they asked us to go to war
have become a movable feast. Before the war, Prime Minister Howard
insisted, "Our goal is disarmament." "I couldn’t
justify on its own a military invasion of Iraq to change the regime.
I’ve never advocated that." The problem was that George
Bush's advisers had and that is what they got. Howard told parliament
that Iraq's "possession of chemical and biological weapons
and its pursuit of a nuclear capability poses a real and unacceptable
threat to the stability and security of our world". Walter
Lewincamp, the head of DIO, said this "was not a judgement
that DIO would have made." They just weren't asked!
Even if the United Nations Security Council be not considered formally
to be the competent, relevant authority for deciding just cause
for war, it remains a suitable sieve for processing the conflicting
claims in determining whether there is "a real and unacceptable
threat to the stability and security of our world" and whether
or not war is the only realistic resort. The French and Germans
would have a mixture of motives for their stand, just as the English
and the Americans would have for theirs. Given the mix of motives,
the elusiveness of truth, and the now admitted unreliability of
the intelligence, it would be better in future to have decisions
made by a community of disparate nations united only by a common
concern for international security against terrorism rather than
a coalition of allies who either share or are neutral about the
strategic objectives of the US administration.
Our politicians have a difficult call to make when assessing intelligence
about the likelihood of weapons of mass destruction being developed
and handed on to terrorist organisations that have no respect for
western nations. In times of crisis, we need to trust our leaders.
But it becomes more difficult to grant that trust when the rationale
for war is changed after the event. The belated emphasis on the
humanitarian concern for the Iraqi people was rank hypocrisy coming
from the United States which had first given Saddam Hussein his
WMD capacity for countering Iran and from an Australian government
which had punished Iraqi asylum seekers who had the temerity to
seek asylum within our borders. Trust in government would be better
maintained if Mr Howard simply admitted that his public rationale
for war was the honouring of the US alliance no matter what the
doubts about the wisdom of seeking Iraqi regime change without UN
endorsement, and the concern about readily deployable weapons of
mass destruction no matter what the shortcomings in the intelligence.
Prior to the Madrid bombings last month, many Australians thought
our participation in the war was justified because the world was
now a safer place, we had won without any Australian loss of life,
and the murderous Saddam Hussein had lost power. Post-Madrid, we
have to question whether the world is now a safer place and whether
Australia is at no greater risk of being a special target of terrorist
What is the role of religious leaders in assessing the case for
In the lead up to the war, the church leadership in the US, UK
and Australia was remarkably united in its criticism of the public
rationale offered for war. However, there was a variety of views
about the margin for error to be afforded to government. When asked
about the clear opposition from church leaders such as the Archbishop
of Canterbury, John Howard told the National Press Club: "There
is a variety of views being expressed. I think in sheer number of
published views, there would have been more critical than supportive.
I thought the articles that came from Archbishop Pell and Archbishop
Jensen were both very thoughtful and balanced. I also read a very
thoughtful piece from Bishop Tom Frame, who is the Anglican Bishop
of the Australian Defence Forces. The greater volume of published
views would have been critical, but I think there have been some
very thoughtful other views and the ones I have mentioned, I certainly
include in them."
Once the war commenced, Archbishop Jensen said, "For my own
part I remain unpersuaded that we ought to have committed our military
forces, but I recognise the limitations of my judgment and the sincerity
of those who differ." In the month before the war, Bishop Frame
had said: "I am now inclined to believe a campaign against
Iraq during the next few months involving Australian Defence Force
personnel would be just." Three months after the war, Bishop
Frame said: "If it is established that the weapons did not
exist and the Coalition did or should have known this, the war will
not have been justified and must be deemed immoral. A case for war
against Iraq based solely on ‘regime change’ would have
been inadequate and I would have been obliged to share this conclusion
with those for whom I have a pastoral responsibility. " On
Palm Sunday 2004 Bishop Frame announced his "considered conclusion
that the war against Iraq was neither just nor necessary".
Let me give you a selection of quotes from his Palm Sunday address
to the ecumenical peace rally held in Perth:
My conclusion is simply that the war cannot be reconciled with
just war principles nor, in my judgement, are there grounds for
claiming it was strategically necessary.
One year on, it would appear that no-one now seriously entertains
the prospect that WMDs will ever be found in Iraq.
I do not agree with those who say it is still too early to make
ethical judgements about the war itself. Perhaps it is too early
for political and strategic assessments but there is sufficient
data to allow ethical determinations to be made.
As I look back on the events of the last twelve months I continue
to seek God’s forgiveness for my complicity in creating
a world in which this sort of action was ever considered by anyone
to be necessary. Even so, come Lord Jesus. Amen.
It is helpful to quote Bishop Frame at some length for three reasons.
He was the clearest public advocate for war in the Australian church
hierarchies before the war. He is a senior military chaplain who
was himself an officer in the services before his ordination. And
most significantly as he now tells us:
In the weeks leading up to the commencement of hostilities on
20 March 2003 I had direct dealings with the Prime Minister and
senior ADF officers concerning public anxieties over the prospect
of Australian involvement in a US-led campaign against Iraq. I
wrote two articles for The Australian newspaper concerning
the matter because I was asked by many ADF members to assess ethically
the case for war as it was presented by the Government.
Just last week, Bishop Frame spoke up again, telling the Canberra
Times that he no longer believed the war was justified. The newspaper
summed up Frame's analysis in these terms: "But one year on,
except that the war itself had been brief and civilian casualties
had not been unreasonably high, the case for a just war had failed
on all other just war criteria." Bishop Frame said:
I took the view the case the Government was putting was really
only a fraction of what was actually known and that the Government
was not in a position to disclose all it knew.
The many people I consulted believed once the campaign was waged
we would see the full extent of what Iraq possessed.
It was put to me including by some members of the Government
that Iraq was a reprehensible regime. We are not proposing to
take similar action against equally reprehensible regimes around
I have never and do not now believe the Government deliberately
misled or lied to the Australian people. The Government just assumed
the weapons would be there.
In future the public is going to be far more unconvinced about
threats to Australia's security than before. That may be no bad
Speaking on ABC Radio National on 14 April 2004, Bishop Frame said
in light of the absence of weapons of mass destruction and the absence
of means or motive for Iraq to have been a threat to its neighbours,
"It would be impossible for me to say now that the war in Iraq
was just….I could not and cannot take that view now and that's
something that sits very uneasily with me but it's the way my conscience
has driven me when I've considered what's at stake here."
Despite the Prime Minister's fudging of the issue, Cardinal Pell
has never given any public indication that the war was justified.
Pell did not make any clarifying statement once the war commenced.
He left stand his earlier caveat, "The public evidence is as
yet insufficient to justify going to war, especially without the
backing of the UN Security Council," as well as the statement
of the Australian Catholic Bishops' Conference to which he was a
signatory: "With the Holy See and many bishops and religious
leaders throughout the world, we believe that the strict conditions
of Christian teaching for the use of military force against Iraq
have not been met. In particular, we question the moral legitimacy
of a pre-emptive strike. Indeed, any action against Iraq without
broad international support and the mandate of the United Nations
Security Council would be questionable." The Prime Minister's
statements and the Cardinal's later silence left many Catholics
confused. Presumably the Prime Minister drew solace from the cardinal's
pre-war observation, "Decisions about war belong to Caesar,
not the church." Though Caesar makes the decision, the church
must discern and comment on the morality of that decision. Church
leaders must publicly help their people make the moral assessment.
It is not good enough to suspend the moral faculty and simply trust
the government of the day. If we do that with war, then why not
with any other moral issue? When it comes to war, Cardinal Pell
by his silence in response to the Prime Minister's spin is allowing
more scope for an unformed or uninformed conscience than most other
church leaders, including the Pope.
If it is not possible for our politicians to get it right every
time, what margin of error is there for religious leaders and the
leaders of civil society?
Church leaders like the Anglican Primate, Peter Carnley, have received
rough handling from government when they have publicly questioned
the morality and prudence of our strong alliance with the United
States in an Age of Terror. Two days after the Bali bombings in
October 2002, Archbishop Carnley promptly published a letter pledging
prayers and support for the victims and their families. A few days
later he then opened his annual synod in Perth, observing, "The
targeting of a nightclub, which is known to have been popular with
young Australians on holiday, suggests that this terrorist attack
was aimed both at Australia, as one of the allies of the United
States of America and, at the same time, at what is seen by militant
Muslims to be the decadence of western culture."
Does anyone now seriously doubt what Carnley was saying? Australians
were being targeted both because we are identified with the decadent
west by militant Muslims and also because of our close relationship
to the United States. There may also have been other factors, including
our intervention in East Timor. Carnley's remarks greatly upset
Anglicans John Howard and Alexander Downer. In the 2003 Playford
Oration, Downer singled out Carnley's behaviour post Bali as an
instance of "the tendency of some church leaders to ignore
their primary pastoral obligations in favour of hogging the limelight
on complex political issues." Ignoring Carnley's earlier pastoral
letter of support for the victims and families, Downer falsely stated,
"There was no concentration on comforting the victims and their
families, no binding up of the broken-hearted while a shocked nation
mourned." Two months before Downer's Playford Oration, the
government was arguing for an expansion of ASIO's powers in the
Senate. Government Senator Santoro told the Senate: "We know
from horrific experience that not only do Australians face the same
level of threat as any other people but also, as was the case in
Bali in October last year, they are very specific targets."
What Santoro said is quite consistent with Carnley's position.
So what was the problem? Are we not permitted to speculate on why
Australians are very specific targets? Or is that no role for reflective
church leaders? Our political leaders have readily conceded that
we are a target with terrorists because we are western. They have
also conceded that we are a target because of the fine things we
have done such as assisting with the restoration of peace and order
in East Timor. But they get very testy when there is any suggestion
that our closeness to the Americans or our commitment to coalitions
of the willing could heighten the risk to our security. There is
a downside to being identified as the deputy sheriff in your region.
There has to be room for informed and divergent debate without such
vehement government attacks on people such as Archbishop Carnley.
Trust and respect are a two way street even in times of crisis.
In the wake of the Madrid bombings, Federal Police Commissioner
Mick Keelty answered the question, "Could this happen here?"
in words reminiscent of Archbishop Carnley: "If this turns
out to be Islamic extremists responsible for this bombing in Spain,
it's more likely to be linked to the position that Spain and other
allies took on issues such as Iraq. And I don't think anyone's been
hiding the fact that we do believe that ultimately one day, whether
it be in one month's time, one year's time, or ten years' time,
something will happen."
Though there was spirited debate and cabinet resignations in the
UK because of Mr Blair's ready membership of the Coalition of the
Willing, Canberra compliance with prime ministerial directives was
complete. It was very troubling to hear the mixed messages back
then from Prime Minister John Howard and Tony Abbott about the increased
risks of terrorism to Australian citizens. Abbott, the Leader of
the Government in the House, told Parliament, "There is the
increased risk of terrorist attack here in Australia". Next
day, the Prime Minister told us, "We haven’t received
any intelligence in recent times suggesting that there should be
an increase in the level of security or threat alert." Regardless
of who was right, their contradictory statements provided incontrovertible
evidence that there was insufficient debate, discussion and discernment
within our Cabinet and political party processes prior to making
a commitment to war in such novel political circumstances. The thinking
was done in Washington. We signed on, presuming that our national
interest and the international common good would be served by Alliance
compliance. In these circumstances, there is a place for unelected
citizens, including church leaders, to speak out.
What now are the criteria for our participation in a just war
in this Age of Terror?
A post World War II settlement of the UN Security Council configuration,
including allocated seats enjoying a permanent veto cannot be determinative
of any moral assessment about war. However when prudential assessments
of threats have to be made on intelligence against a backdrop of
continual breaches of solemn undertakings by a rogue state, the
Security Council does provide a useful sieve for getting willing
combatants over the threshold of their own self-interest and ideology
to a publicly reasoned rationale for military engagement. If western
democratic members of the Security Council cannot be convinced of
the need for war, there are good grounds for citizens to suspect
that the conditions for a just war have not been fulfilled. If such
members voted for war, there would still be a need to scrutinise
the conditions for a just war.
There was a surprising unanimity of views amongst church leaders
opposing the Iraq invasion on the grounds that it did not comply
with the just war criteria. On the eve of war, Bishop Gregory, the
head of the US Catholic Bishops Conference said:
Our bishops' conference continues to question the moral legitimacy
of any preemptive, unilateral use of military force to overthrow
the government of Iraq. To permit preemptive or preventive uses
of military force to overthrow threatening or hostile regimes
would create deeply troubling moral and legal precedents. Based
on the facts that are known, it is difficult to justify resort
to war against Iraq, lacking clear and adequate evidence of an
imminent attack of a grave nature or Iraq's involvement in the
terrorist attacks of September 11. With the Holy See and many
religious leaders throughout the world, we believe that resort
to war would not meet the strict conditions in Catholic teaching
for the use of military force.
As early as September 2002, the US bishops had told the President,
"We fear that resort to force, under these circumstances, would
not meet the strict conditions in Catholic teaching for overriding
the strong presumption against the use of military force. Of particular
concern are the traditional just war criteria of just cause, right
authority, probability of success, proportionality and noncombatant
immunity." The bishops maintained that view.
The suspected capacity to produce weapons of mass destruction is
not itself just cause for an attack. Even if a state or a coalition
of states is able to claim that it is the right authority to make
a decision about war, that authority must be able to produce credible
evidence about the possession of such weapons and the distinctive
threat they pose to those states wanting to launch an attack. If
you cannot convince the western democratic members of the UN Security
Council that there is a real threat to world peace or a real and
distinctive threat to particular states, it is very likely that
you are not engaged in war for a just cause. Even if the coalition
of willing states be the appropriate authority, they still need
to demonstrate that all other avenues have been tried to disarm
the rogue state. If the coalition of willing states has provided
the incentive for renewed inspections by pre-deploying troops, the
coalition is entitled to put a reasonable limit on the terms of
pre-deployment or to demand that other states opposed to war provide
assistance with the pre-deployment simply to maintain the pressure
for verifiable inspections. Even if the US had established that
it was a competent authority to determine that there was a just
cause for war which was a last resort, there would still have been
a need to consider the consequences of such an engagement.
The nonchalance and belated show of humanitarian concern by the
Coalition of the Willing after they had failed to uncover large
stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction confirms the suspicion
that the Coalition's leader, the United States, had an alternative
agenda, namely regime change in Iraq, an attempted re-ordering of
the Middle East, and an experiment with a new American project premised
on preventive intervention. Those who oppose such ideological experiments
in the future will do better if they are able to articulate more
clearly the margin of appreciation afforded governments which are
privy to sensitive intelligence material. Even if such opponents
fail to agree on whether the UN Security Council is the competent
authority to determine the legitimacy of war, they ought put forward
a united view that the Security Council is the most appropriate
sieve for sorting the conflicting claims made by nation states which
may be the appropriate authority. The UN Security Council is well
qualified to sift out those claims of nation states based only on
ideology or national self-interest.
How have we come to harden our hearts against boat people with
a policy that is so morally flawed?
I have a thought experiment about our present refugee policy in
Imagine that every country signed the Refugee Convention and
then adopted the Australian policy. No refugee would be able to
flee from persecution to protection without being placed in detention.
If they wanted to avoid long term detention while their claim
was processed, they would have to remain in their country of persecution
joining the mythical queue for a protection visa. If anyone dared
to cross a border fleeing persecution without a visa, they would
immediately be held in detention (probably for a year or so) awaiting
a determination of their claim. All refugees in the world would
be condemned to remain subject to persecution or to proceed straight
to open-ended, judicially unreviewable detention. The purpose
of the Refugee Convention would be completely thwarted.
The government has its own thought experiment which is described
by Adrienne Millbank in these terms:
Imagine if every country did as Australia does, and after consulting
with its residents, takes in the per capita equivalent of our
12,000 annual humanitarian settlers , through similar managed
programs and with similar settlement or 'integration' services.
Imagine further that even half of what is spent on processing
and supporting asylum seekers in Western countries is redirected
to resolving the situation of refugees in camps. New refugee norms
would be developed, durable solutions would be found, and all
those refugees who need to be resettled in countries other than
in their region would be offered places. And the hypocrisy, misery
and conflict associated with the asylum system would be ended.
The Millbank thought experiment, like much of the government's
thinking, is posited on the presumption that Australia is not, and
is not likely to be, a country of first asylum. For me, this remains
questionable as a universal assertion of fact and as a legitimate
starting point for formulating a policy which may need to be applied
to a mass influx of persons fleeing persecution in a place like
West Papua or East Timor.
It is desirable that more resources be dedicated to the neediest
refugees in remote camps and that people smugglers not enjoy the
franchise on who may access the Australian queue for processing.
But there must be moral limits applied to government's novel experiments
in achieving these worthy objectives. The present Australian policy
is based on a utilitarian approach which violates some fundamental
moral norms. My fundamental disagreement with the Howard government
arises from government's assertion that the ends justifies the means
in the treatment of unvisaed asylum seekers.
The end is to stop unvisaed asylum seekers reaching Australia and
invoking our international obligations to process their claims and
to offer them protection if it is deserved. Given that Australia
has a relatively generous offshore refugee program, I concede that
this end is justified. Government then argues that the end cannot
be achieved except with very stringent measures because desperate
people will use any means to reach here, including the employment
of the services of unscrupulous people smugglers. I argue that the
means adopted must still be morally assessed. There can be no justification
offered in an open democracy for "upstream disruption"
programs whereby Australian taxpayers' monies are handed to Indonesian
officials to commission underhand activities on the understanding
that we are not to be told what has been done to stop the boats
It is not sufficient to argue that it is appropriate to treat X
in an adverse way thereby guaranteeing a better outcome for Y and
a more ordered situation for all. The government position runs:
if X arrives without a visa, we are entitled to place X in detention,
either here or offshore, so as to send a signal to Z and others.
If X is then proved to be a refugee, we are entitled to deny X the
right of family reunion so as to send another signal to Z and others.
My argument runs: if X is to be held in detention (especially if
X be a child), there must be a coherent rationale offered for the
detention other than using X as a means to an end, sending signals
to others. If there be no coherent rationale, the detention is unjustified.
The government's own statistics demonstrate a lack of proportionality
and unwarranted discrimination in the detention of unvisaed asylum
seekers while other asylum seekers are permitted to reside in the
community. Mandatory detention does not assist with the processing
of claims. It does not contribute to the more effective removal
of unauthorised overstayers. Detention of X without a court order
as punishment for an offence is justified only if X is a health
or security risk or if there is still a need to establish the identity
of X. Such detention as punishment does not even achieve the utilitarian
objective of deterrence. The largest wave of boat people came when
the mandatory detention regime was in place and well advertised.
If X is proved to be a refugee entitled to protection in Australia,
X and X's family members should not be denied the capacity to even
meet during the period of protection simply so as to send a signal
to Z and others. This is an arbitrary and discriminatory denial
of an individual's human rights simply to send a message to others.
Effectively government is saying, "We will continue punishing
X so as to continue sending a message to Z and others." X is
being used by government as a means to an end not just during X's
time of detention but throughout X's time of temporary protection.
If X has entered waters under Australian control, Australia ought
process X's claim and accommodate X during the processing of the
claim. If other countries emulated the Pacific Solution, we would
be setting up a first world system of people trading. If we would
not judge this an acceptable universal international solution, why
are we entitled to adopt the practice even as a short term measure?
For the moment, the boats have stopped coming and the people smugglers'
franchise has been undercut. These are legitimate ends for government
to pursue. But the means adopted continue to violate fundamental
moral principles. Government does concede that there are some people
who have no prospect of joining a queue to have their asylum claim
determined by Australia or any other country able to offer protection.
Some of these people have made it to Australia and we continue to
punish them. There is no evidence that we are redirecting resources
to resolving the situation of refugees in camps. There are no new
refugee norms being developed. And there is no prospect that "all
those refugees who need to be resettled in countries other than
in their region would be offered places". This compounds the
moral problem. The other laudable ends postulated by Millbank have
no prospect of being achieved but we continue to justify the ongoing
punishment of individuals with the assertion that some imaginary
and desired end justifies the means. It is bad enough to argue that
the ends justify the means; it is even worse to argue that desired
and unachievable ends justify the means. Our present policy can
be posited only on one of two options. Either we want to be so tough
that no other country will dare or be able to imitate us and so
we will maintain the advantage that asylum seekers will want to
try anywhere but here. Or we are happy to lead other countries to
a new level of toughness, leaving bona fide asylum seekers more
vulnerable in the non-existent queues.
I am left with three moral quandaries. (1) Like John Stone when
asked if he would do the same as the desperate asylum seeker engaging
the services of a people smuggler if it were his only chance, I
would answer "Yes". But I would not draw his conclusion,
"But that doesn't make it right." (2) There are some people
who are bona fide refugees unable to access any queue and unable
to find protection before their arrival in Australia. Why should
they be punished and penalised? (3) The United States insists that
there are two distinct tasks: the processing of onshore claimants
and the resettlement of an offshore quota. It is only by tying the
two groups that our government is able to argue that onshore claimants
take the place of more deserving offshore refugees. In the US, they
do not take anyone's place. Both groups are accommodated.
I am delighted that the government has been able to increase the
migrant intake in the coming year, including the increase to the
refugee component. I continue to applaud and take pride in Australia's
resettlement arrangements for offshore refugees coming to Australia.
I will continue to be troubled by a government policy posited on
treating some persons (including children) as pawns in a high stake
game with people smugglers rather than as ends in themselves. If
such persons are to be detained, there ought be a coherent rationale
for such detention which is then imposed by a court once there are
no longer any health or security concerns. Such persons should not
be punished in planning their future family life if there is no
realistic alternative for them and their families to find security
How can we have a rational discussion about the rationale for
ongoing detention of boat people in Australia and on Nauru?
The Catholic community in Adelaide has done a wonderful job in
supporting the Bakhtyari family, the asylum seeker family that the
Howard government loves to hate, using them as an emblem of their
harsh detention policy. At the moment, the father of this family
is held in detention at Baxter, three hours drive from Adelaide.
Mrs Bakhtyari and her newborn son are held in detention under 24
hour guard in an Adelaide motel. And the other five children are
under the care of CentreCare in Adelaide, attending Catholic schools.
I am proud to say that two of the boys attend our Jesuit school
in Adelaide. There is no morally justified and coherent rationale
for the treatment of this family. Consider the transcript of a recent
interview with the Prime Minister (ABC Radio Adelaide 18 March 2004):
JOURNALIST (Matt Abrahams):
Prime Minister, another local issue – a family in Adelaide,
the Bakhtyari children are being cared for in Adelaide by Centrecare,
they’re in one house. Their mother in not very far away,
she’s under effective guard in a motel with her baby. Their
father’s in the Baxter Detention Centre. So, how are you
able to allow that situation to continue? Do you feel uncomfortable…?
Well, I wish it were otherwise, I with the processes were a little
JOURNALIST: You can….?
PRIME MINISTER: No, no, not without compromising a policy that
we’re not willing to compromise.
JOURNALIST: But the policy may not be a good policy…
PRIME MINISTER: Well, I…
JOURNALIST: .. that you’ve allowed that to happen.
Well, I don’t agree with that. I think we’ve had this
debate, I mean, I’m happy to keep debating it, but obviously,
the fewer people there are in detention the more that it is satisfactory
to us, the more we like it. I don’t like people being detained,
but mandatory detention is part of the system.
How do you as an individual reconcile that? I mean, I don’t
know whether these things worry you. I would think they do.
A lot of things worry me, Matt. I worry about a lot of people
in refugee camps who are waiting to find a home to go to. There
are millions of people in refugee camps. I believe very strong
that an orderly settlement policy is the best policy and the more
we can prevent illegal arrivals the greater is our capacity to
provide places in Australia for people who’ve been waiting
in refugee camps for years.
I know, but when bureaucracy gets down to… when a policy
gets down to the human level like this…
Yes, but I mean, I can equally say there are… I could talk
about the plight of a family in a refugee camp…
And their plight is the product in part of the fact that places
may have been taken by less deserving cases and less meritorious
people. You can always reduce, on both sides of an argument like
this, you can always reduce it to human terms.
JOURNALIST: You probably need to, don’t you?
Well, of course you do and so you should. And I think about it
in those terms and that’s one of the reasons why I continue
to adhere to the policy that we have.
Recently two of the Bakhtyari boys met with a government representative
in the presence of their Headmaster. The Headmaster offered these
Hearing the younger Bakhtyari boy, I was quite moved. He made
two telling points in his request that his mother be allowed to
stay with her children. He mentioned the stolen generation and
the sorrow Australians feel at separating children from parents
in a previous generation.
You will recall that Mr Howard is unable to say sorry to the stolen
generation because we are not responsible for what happened to them.
Pray tell, who is responsible for the treatment of this family?
The headmaster continues:
He also mentioned that the Government defended the incarceration
of whole families in detention centres on the grounds of the need
to keep families together, and yet with the Bakhtyaris we are
deliberately separating the mother from the children. You might
recall how he said "it is very hard to say goodbye to my
mum every night", and being a family man that must have struck
a cord with you.
Church leaders like Archbishop Carnley, responsible civil servants
such as Commissioner Keelty, the courts, the Senate, an independent
media, and a robust civil society are entitled to express a contrary
view to the executive government of the day, even if the majority
are satisfied that the government will do and say whatever it takes
to protect "us" against "them" in tough times.
The morality of our engagement in the Iraq war cannot be left contingent
only on two self-interested outcomes: one, whether our special relationship
with the US bears fruit, and two, whether we are more immune from
onshore terrorist attack. And even if it were so contingent, the
jury is still out on both fronts. Truth and a more coherent morality
of war may yet be even in our own short-term national interest in
an Age of Terror. Let's take heart from Jim Wolfenson's homecoming
observation that there are so many Australians concerned to assist
with development, and presumably peace, not because of enlightened
self-interest nor for protection against terror, but because it
is morally and ethically right. Let's not harden our hearts. But
let's read the signs of the times and take a stand telling our government
when they do not speak and act for us.
* Fr Brennan is presently a Visiting Fellow in Research School
of Asian and Pacific Studies at the Australian National University.
His latest book is Tampering with Asylum (University of
Queensland Press, 2003).
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