Betraying our basic values


In the lead-up to the recent Federal election, I toyed with the idea of leaving Australia if John Howard were re-elected. I did not think I would be put to the test, but now I have to think about it seriously.

My naïve assumptions about our political leaders were first shaken when I saw, at close quarters, how in 1998 John Howard and other senior Ministers had conspired to breach the Workplace Relations Act in an attempt to remove the Maritime Union of Australia from the waterfront. To add insult to injury, they had agreed to underwrite Patrick Stevedores to the tune of $100 million to implement the plan.

But it was Tampa and what followed it that made me reconsider my affection for this country. A few facts about our refugee policy are clear:

First: we receive far fewer unauthorised arrivals in Australia than most other nations do. Our refugee ‘problem’ is a tiny one.

Second: boat people do not commit an offence by arriving here without papers.

Third: 90 percent of the boat people turn out ultimately to be genuine refugees.

Fourth: despite these facts, we lock-up boat people indefinitely in circumstances which drive many of them to despair, madness, self-harm or suicide.

Fifth: the Howard Government has strenuously (and successfully) argued in court for powers which no decent democratic government should ever seek, including:

(a) The right to hold a failed asylum seeker in detention for the rest of his life, if the Government is unable to remove that person from Australia;
(b) The right to hold children in detention regardless of age, health or other circumstances;
(c) The right to hold people in detention regardless how harsh or inhumane the conditions in detention may be.
(d) The right to send a failed asylum seeker to a place where death or torture is a certainty;

Sixth: people in immigration detention are often held in solitary confinement “ for days or weeks at a time “ but the use of solitary confinement is completely unregulated.

Seventh: people held in immigration detention are liable for the costs of their own incarceration. No other country in the world does this. The only precedents are Robespierre’s France (the Law of Suspects 1793) and Hitler’s Germany.

At the 2001 election, many voters would have been unaware of these matters; and the terrorist attack on America just two months earlier cast a shadow across the issues in that election.

This year it was different. Human rights abuses in our treatment of asylum seekers are widely known. This time we had the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission’s finding that our treatment of children in detention was ‘cruel, inhumane and degrading’; this time we knew the Government had successfully asserted a right to hold innocent people in jail for the rest of their life.

This year we also knew that Howard’s careless statements about ‘children overboard’ and confident assertions about weapons of mass-destruction were just plain wrong. Whether Howard lied or was misled matters little. Both possibilities are equally alarming: were we led into war by mistake or by deceit? Is our leader dishonest or incompetent? Which should make us more relaxed and comfortable?

More subtle elements were also in play at this election. Howard and his senior ministers are assertively Christian, yet their treatment of asylum seekers has been criticized by every Christian denomination and by the World Council of Churches. Their conduct is irreconcilable with Christian teaching. So we are led by hypocrites who trade on sanctimony and imprison children.

That is how it stood on 9 October and the people made their choice. That the electorate increased the Howard Government’s majority conveys an unmistakable message: lying is okay, as long as you achieve your objective – human rights matter less than a $600 family bonus; self-interest trumps everything else.

In the aftermath of the election, there has been a burst of right-wing triumphalism. I expect that many journalists will join the chorus: by publicly supporting Howard, tomorrow belongs to them. They will not be generous in victory.

For example, Andrew Bolt (Herald-Sun, 15 October) wrote a piece savagely attacking Robert Manne. His column is not really an argument so much as a series of insults. It includes the false assertion that Robert Manne has received a $180,000 grant to examine aspects of refugee policy. Don’t expect accuracy from Bolt. More worryingly, whenever the article refers to intellectuals, it encloses the word in inverted commas. Perhaps this is simply anxiety, a reflection of his own intellectual deficiencies, but I suspect a more malevolent intent.

Terry McCrann (Herald-Sun, 12 October) unleashed a full-blooded attack on those members of the press gallery who criticized Howard during the election campaign. He concludes, triumphantly, that the ‘Howard haters’ misread ordinary Australians.

He is right, and that is the tragedy. Those journalists did misread ordinary Australians. So did I and many others. Like them, I always thought we were better than this.

It is now very clear that my ideas about human rights are out of tune with the thinking of ‘ordinary Australians’. Those of us, like Robert Manne or Malcolm Fraser, are disparaged because we are concerned about human rights. In earlier times, we would have been branded ‘Communists’, but that would sound quaint these days, and implausible.

In order to marginalise us now we are called ‘intellectuals’ or ‘do-gooders’. Ordinary Australians today, it seems, consider it a bad thing to do good, or to think rigorously. Mr Howard’s government has encouraged them to think that way.

Do we have any right to keep offering an unwelcome message? Why stay where you are not wanted?

I can think of only two reasons for staying in Australia now. The more powerful one is inertia. The effort of selling up and moving to New Zealand or Canada and re-establishing a career is formidable.

The second is hope: a hope that this is just a passing phase, that we will recover the values we once took for granted. I fear it may take a long time.

This country has a proud history and vast potential. But our most basic values have been betrayed “ sold away for a $600 handout “ debased by a government which asks for trust and repays it with hypocrisy and deceit.

I want to say that Australia can do better than this. Does anyone care?

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