Let's Get Behind Our Ethical Politicians


Australia’s mistrust of its politicians is a common subject of media reporting. Voters are sick of "spin" and want to hear something "real" from candidates. They frown on the language of "non-core promises" and the prevalence of political backflips. 

Tony Abbott in particular is criticised for his entrenched and transparent politics of opposition while Julia Gillard is reportedly unpopular for hiding her true self. Such commentary places a spotlight on the question of ethics in politics.

If ethical political behaviour exists, which I like to think that it does, then what does it look like? It may be impossible to identify when particular political acts achieve objectives of power as well as being "the right thing to do"; however it is possible to observe situations in which politicians make choices of conscience or courage despite potentially negative consequences. The asylum seeker debate includes many such acts of courage. Yet the public and media’s willingness to recognise such acts is less common.

In 2005, the "band of four" — Petro Georgiou, Judy Moylan, Russell Broadbent, and Bruce Baird of the Liberal party — put their political careers at risk by opposing the Howard government’s proposed changes to the Migration Act, largely because children were to be detained.

The detention of children contravenes a number of Australia’s obligations under international Conventions and is, quite frankly, a morally repugnant proposition. There is a significant evidence base to illustrate the appalling mental harms detention does to asylum seekers. However, such laws were being introduced in the peak of fever about "illegal arrivals", "queue jumpers", the necessity to protect our borders, and a fear about the saturation of the country by "floods" of asylum seekers.

A deeper colonial, racist discourse underpinned government commentary, as former foreign minister Alexander Downer branded one group of boat arrivals who were summarily accused of throwing their children into the water "uncivilised". Much has since been written about Howard government language in the asylum debate, the misinformation it propagated (there are no queues for refugees in many countries, it is never illegal to genuinely claim asylum no matter the method of arrival), and the way in which that language was manipulated to drive public fear. 

In the face of this public and political pressure, the gang of four put their careers on the line and held out against the proposed Migration Act measures.

As Broadbent commented, "If I am to die politically because of my stance on this bill, it is better to die on my feet than to live on my knees". Moylan added, "I cannot believe that the citizens of this sovereign country would ever cease to wonder, nor would they ever forgive, were we in this house to acquiesce in silence to pressure from a neighbour on a matter so much at the heart of our principles of justice… I for one cannot remain silent."

Much of the media — and the public — recognised the innate ethics in these acts. So ethical did I consider Georgiou’s leadership that I wrote him a letter thanking him for his stand against the incarceration of children and other innocent people.

Kevin Rudd’s election also enabled a range of changes to harmful areas of refugee legislation. Any worker in the refugee movement will attest to the destructive nature of Temporary Protection Visas, which keep family members apart and require re-qualification for refugee status three years later. Bridging visas deny work and social security rights, effectively ensuring mental and physical impoverishment for their recipients.

Julia Gillard’s controversial elevation to the leadership transpired on the back of alleged policy failings by Rudd. Asylum was a core point of difference. But the Gillard government was faced with a conundrum: how to appear tougher and more practical on asylum than Rudd, without engaging in the nasty rhetoric of the Howard era.

After the horrific drowning of a boat of asylum seekers on 15 December 2010, government discourse on asylum seekers shifted from its previous focus on border protection to a new focus on the undesirability of drownings. Harsh measures were now explained in terms of their necessity to prevent drownings. Who could disagree with such an imperative? A survey of media coverage in the 10 years before this time, including the sinking of the SIEV X, reveals no such pervasive concern for drowning on either side of politics. The new concern may have been real; but its manipulation as a tool of rhetoric to achieve expedient political ends has been abhorrent and intractable.

Predictably the solution to drownings happened to include the same harsh methods proposed by Howard to protect borders, punish and deter queue jumpers, and dissuade uncivilised people from coming to our shores. There was little or no evidence to support the effectiveness of these measures.

Further, the new discourse was even more effective in marginalising those who opposed the harsh measures; political "idealism" was now cast as the catalyst for drownings.

Consideration of alternative solutions to a range of asylum issues was effectively shut down. The debate had been completely reframed and reoriented to consider only which of the harsh measures would bring about the end of drownings.

Those suggesting boat re-direction or offshore processing were characterised as doing something about the drownings. Labor proposed the Malaysia solution and a frenzy around asylum seeking was re-invigorated. The Liberals admonished the Malaysia solution, citing concerns that Malaysia was not a signatory to the Refugee Convention. The Liberals’ sudden concern for the convention smacked of political opportunism; Nauru had not been a convention signatory during the Howard era. Abbott’s about face suggested a desire to beat Gillard at any cost. Labor refused to support the Nauru solution. 

In a recent environment of more drownings Gillard forced another parliamentary vote on offshore processing. Readers of mainstream papers were "educated" about the Liberal and Labor options. Rob Oakshott was represented as the voice of compromise and reason because his proposal enabled redirection to both Nauru and Malaysia. Importantly, criticism of all parties to this debate centred on their lack of preparedness to endorse at least one of the harsh, offshore measures. That is, any action was said to be better than no action at all. 

The Greens opposed offshore processing, questioning its evidence base and raising concerns about Australia’s commitment to its various convention obligations. In tandem with a range of organisations that work intimately with asylum seekers, the Greens challenged the way in which asylum problems were being framed. For example, academic and empirical research has contested assertions that Australia is being flooded by refugees or that offshore processing will guarantee reduced drownings.

In particular, the Greens questioned the ethics of applying harsher punishments to groups of people who were already suffering and in distress. They drew on the evidence of academics and NGOs working with asylum seekers to argue that no amount of incarceration or threat would deter asylum seekers who felt desperate. The problem, they argued, needed to be understood and tackled differently.

The Greens’ position was not generally popular with the press; the party was accused of blocking a solution to the drownings. Enormous pressure was brought to bear on Adam Bandt and Sarah Hanson-Young during that week in parliament. They faced serious, sustained, and harsh analysis from the media and were accused of putting abstract human rights over the loss of real human lives.

The Labor party’s Sam Dastayari went so far as to claim The Greens were "bordering on loony", while union leader Paul Howes labelled them "extremists who threaten our democracy". Such hyperbolic language was notably absent when Labor struck a deal with the Greens to form government; its emergence during a debate about people who were drowning was utterly distasteful.

The extreme nature of these reactions is worthy of reflection. The Liberal gang of four had proposed softer asylum measures and even stood up to their own party. The reaction to their positions was mixed, however it did not attract the accusations of idealistic self indulgence or political ineffectiveness that the Greens did.

In the current offshore debate, I am reminded of a scene from Aaron Sorkin’s The American President, in which a young aide is upset at the incumbent (Democratic) president for not speaking out against the poison and vitriol of an opposition Republican candidate:

Presidential Aide: You have a deeper love of this country than any man I’ve ever known. And I want to know what it says to you that in the past seven weeks, 59% of Americans have begun to question your patriotism.
President Andrew Shepherd: Look, if the people want to listen to-
Presidential Aide: They don’t have a choice! Bob Rumson (Republican candidate) is the only one doing the talking! People want leadership, Mr. President, and in the absence of genuine leadership, they’ll listen to anyone who steps up to the microphone. They want leadership. They’re so thirsty for it they’ll crawl through the desert toward a mirage, and when they discover there’s no water, they’ll drink the sand.
President Andrew Shepherd: Lewis, we’ve had presidents who were beloved, who couldn’t find a coherent sentence with two hands and a flashlight. People don’t drink the sand because they’re thirsty. They drink the sand because they don’t know the difference.

I fear that the current debate on asylum seekers has cultivated a population of sand drinkers. People may be looking for ethical leadership in politics and, in particular, in the asylum debate — but will they know it if they see it? I agree with Adam Bandt that many voters (and opposition MPs) come to the asylum debate with a genuine concern for refugees who are drowning. However both media and the voting public appear to have accepted without question the proposition that any kind of policy which includes offshore processing is better than no policy at all.

This seems ethically repugnant to me; what if the solution proposed is at best ineffective and at worst harmful? Is it at all possible that NGO and academic experts working with asylum seekers might be right — that offshore processing and boat redirection will likely only hurt already injured people, and result in no fewer drownings?

These experts also ask a valid and insightful question about the shaping of the debate: is the prevention of drownings the same problem as the prevention of refugees reaching our shores? If the concern is to prevent drownings, then why are we forbidden from discussing, considering, or exploring policy alternatives that do not also facilitate the deterrence of refugees?

Perhaps the Greens get some political mileage from their asylum stance. Perhaps envious Labor party members consider the Greens to be in the luxurious position of being able to act on principle because they don’t have the realistic problem of having to hang onto power.

Even if the Greens’ efforts might be framed in terms of political expedience, it nonetheless strikes me as astounding that most political analysis did not seem to contemplate an ethical or courageous dimension to their actions. Rather than being characterised as the block to some or any kind of outcome, why were they not applauded for having the tenacity to stand up for a principled, human rights position in the face of overwhelming criticism from the major parties?

As the classic quote (commonly attributed to Burke) proposes, "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing". The boat issue has been a long and protracted one in Australia, and its use as fodder by political parties desperate for re-election has been extensively researched, documented, and analysed.

It is indeed disconcerting that while Australian voters complain about the dearth of ethical politicians and desert of ethical politics, they are so easily prepared to drink from the sand of a leadership which colludes on the harsh treatment of asylum seekers to ensure political survival.

One would think that those with a thirst for some idealism or ethics in politics would be heartened by a group of mostly young politicians in the Greens who have taken the courageous step of placing their consciences and the lives of people who are without voice, without family, and without country, ahead of a deeply flawed mainstream policy.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.