In a previous article
I discussed Robert Manne's exposition of the current state of Australian refugee policy and his advocacy for a realistic policy. This would accept that the government would never yield in its conviction that interdiction of boats and off-shore processing had halted the boats, and also the argument of its opponents that the treatment of people on Manus Island and Nauru is barbarous and evil.
Accordingly it would seek only the gradual repatriation to Australia of all refugees sent to Nauru and Manus Island, leaving interdiction and the facilities for off-shore processing intact.
Manne implies that the coolness of refugee advocates to this proposal is based on moral and legal grounds, on the mistaken or dishonest denial that the interdiction and off-shore processing were responsible for stopping the boats, and on a desire not to alienate their supporters or to abandon the high moral ground. In my previous article I suggested that the coolness towards the proposal shown by groups working with refugees also reflected their experience. Today I shall ask whether they ought endorse such a policy.
I should begin by stating the common ground between Manne and the refugee agencies share. Both are outraged by the deliberate harsh treatment of people on Manus Island and Nauru and want them brought to Australia. Both would ideally like a more generous reception of people seeking asylum. The question at issue between natural allies is whether groups working with refugees should endorse a political policy that accepts as legitimate the interdiction of boats and off-shore processing.
Manne describes his own journey to this position as surrendering the high moral ground. The metaphor is suggestive. It implies that those holding the high moral ground stand at a distance from the daily reality of public life with its necessary compromises and messiness. They choose to live in a world of universal principles that allow them to judge securely. The metaphor also suggests that to hold the high moral ground entitles you to the admiration of the footsoldiers encamped below for your consistency and integrity. These connotations are reflected in the motives that Manne attributes to those who decline to support the policy: the fear of alienating the support base or of disapproval by international refugee bodies.
Community agencies working with refugees would not see themselves as occupying the moral high ground. For them principles are rather the rock on which they stand. They articulate the basic convictions that lead their members to work with refugees and which shape the way they respond to others and act in the challenges and dilemmas they meet. They state what matters, and are the ground on which they stand.
People will articulate, ground and summarise these convictions in different ways, but will be united in recognising that each human being is precious, including the most disadvantaged. Each person deserves respect, and none may be ill-treated as a means for another's ends. Individuals, communities and nations, too, have a shared responsibility to care for people who are disadvantaged.
'A diversity of approaches and initiatives at different levels is advantageous, and any success in relieving human suffering and stopping toxic enterprises should be welcomed.'
These principles or orientations always press for an all-embracing view. If a refugee on Manus Island is precious, a refugee in Western Sydney and another in Italy will be seen as equally precious. A search for local solutions will lead to a search for national and universal solutions.
Seen from this perspective international law is important, not primarily because it is binding as law, but because it expresses the moral principles that undergird the respect owed to refugees as human beings. It enfleshes that respect in the treatment that refugees should receive from national governments. It rings a warning bell when it is not observed.
In a well-functioning organisation the decisions and responses of people will reflect consistently their basic orientations. If their relationships to one another, to the people for whom they work and with governments do not reflect them, the organisations are detached from their bedrock and fall apart.
The orientations I have described differ from the operative moral framework of the government, in which it is assumed that people may be treated as a means to a greater end, and so ultimately have only a functional and not an inherent value. This is clearly revealed in the treatment of people who seek protection and of those who plead their cause .
Because of these divergent value systems, the way in which community agencies working with refugees interact with government will inevitably be tense. The agencies will always ask more than governments believe they can give, but they will need to engage with governments to help the people whom they serve. They must insist that refugee policies respect the inalienable dignity of all people who seek asylum and draw on their experience to publicise the effects of the lack of respect shown, for example, on Manus Island.
At the same time they will need to advocate to government for particular asylum seekers or groups. They may have simultaneously to deplore the disrespect shown to people on bridging visas and be engaged in government programs in order to minimise the harm suffered by them.
These relationships are inevitably fraught because government refugee policy is founded on disrespect and it will naturally demand that those who cooperate with it participate in that disrespect. Refugee agencies will need to be reflective and adamantine in ensuring that they always act respectfully and are not trapped into being responsible for actions that are disrespectful. That would white ant their foundations.
On these grounds I would argue that community groups working with refugees should not endorse a political campaign that explicitly accepts those elements of a government refugee policy which are based on pushing back people who come by boat and excluding them from making a claim for protection in Australia. To do so would contradict the ethical orientation that led them to work with people who seek protection and inspires the way in which they carry it out.
This is not a matter of holding the moral high ground but of remaining grounded. They should certainly support campaigns to bring people to Australia from Nauru and Manus Island, but as part of a more universal and explicit commitment to respect people who seek asylum. Any political influence they have will flow from the match between their principled commitments and their public voice.
This is not to criticise Manne's proposal, still less his integrity in making it. As a public intellectual he has been a model for many of us for decades. My argument is limited to the role of community groups working directly with refugees. They are only a small part of the opposition to Australian refugee policy. People united in opposition to Australian refugee policy come from many different places and with different operative principles. A diversity of approaches and initiatives at different levels is advantageous, and any success in relieving human suffering and stopping toxic enterprises should be welcomed.