29 Jul 2013

How We Justify Our Cruelty

By Liz Conor

Why on earth would an asylum seeker put their children at risk on a leaky boat? It's a good question - but with the wrong emphasis. Defensive cruelty is distinctively Australian, writes Liz Conor

Over the last week Australians have formed opposing camps on the question of asylum seekers in response to Kevin Rudd’s resettlement deal with PNG. The jingoism of the main political parties has confused intentions between "stop the boats" and "stop the drownings".

Between the refugee advocates and their adversaries debate has raged over the definition of terms. The legality and accuracy of captioning the plight of asylum seekers with coercive language such as "queue jumpers" and "illegals" has been rightly disputed. Our obligations under the UN Convention on Refugees have been correctly restated.

Yet something more that confusion reigns, arguably something far more inflected with emotion and affect, and beyond even invoking a threat through the language of border security and invasion. There is something else in play that is difficult to acknowledge in such a sharply divided debate; the disquiet Australians feel about the drownings, sinkings and violent landfalls.

Because the fate of drowning refugees has been misappropriated by the major parties and deployed to justify their inhumane policies, it has become difficult to even raise the question of unsafe passage without being identified with the anti-refugee camp. Yet if we skirt over the question it becomes further entrenched by the demand, as Rudd said, for "radical" policy.

Gathered on the salt hem of this continent we perhaps know better than most that drowning is a horrific fate. We know you don’t slip under the water and drift off to sleep, but rather you claw for oxygen as your lungs riot with pain. For over 800 people to be left to such a fate, some knowing their children were suffering the same death with them, is simply unimaginable.

Rudd will be able to introduce his policy not because Australians are heartless –  though some clearly are. Most Australians are profoundly disturbed by the drownings, but are defensively inverting the causality of asylum. If people loved their children they wouldn’t place them at such risk of drowning, the argument goes. Never mind that people perceive drowning as a lesser risk to the children they love than the persecution they fled in the first place. There can be no purchase for deterrence under such a scenario and it’s doubtful PNG can proffer a worse deterrent than drowning.

Australians have a peculiar history of this kind of behaviour, very often arising from their own defensive witnessing of the suffering of others. Causality was inverted with the very visible suffering of Aborigines on the frontier and in its aftermath. Rapid depopulation was attributed not to the impacts of colonialism, but the "barbaric rite" of infanticide which, like "children overboard", was never substantiated. It was a defensive shrug, an alibi for massive child mortality, just as "children overboard" was an alibi for Australia’s failure to rescue people from capsizing boats.

The legacy of colonialism for non-indigenous Australians comes from our disputed origins of "home" and belonging. We will ever be constitutionally unsettled in those foundational meanings of identity, not only arising from dispossession, but from forced transportation and deportation. It has made Australians unusually defensive, and more likely to succumb to the inverted causality we see written through the asylum seeker debate. It has made so many of us cruel.

We assign to vulnerable, desperate people blame for circumstances they did not create. A string of causal factors drop out of the picture. Australians, for instance, were part of the forces invading Iraq and Afghanistan. We contributed to making many of the places people are fleeing uninhabitable, either by failing to act advisedly, or acting inadvisedly. What we are doing to asylum seekers is simply vindictive, and like so many pitiless policies, it says more about our own unsettled identities than the needs of asylum seekers.

People who are at risk of drowning need our help. People who perceive that risk as lesser than the fate they are fleeing really need our help. Until we acknowledge that we can never fully feel at home here and find ways to resolve the paradox at the heart of our national identity, we will go on blaming, demonising, even punishing vulnerable, traumatised people who turn to us for asylum. The PNG deal is as great a wrong as this nation has perpetrated and will only add to our unsettled feelings.

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Posted Monday, July 29, 2013 - 15:48

I like New Matilda, but lately it feels like its become only about asylum seekers, boats and not much else...can we have some variety please...?!

Posted Monday, July 29, 2013 - 20:09

If all Refugee's were just familys I would agree with u 100%, but I can't because a fair percentage are young man looking for Glitz and Glamour, the good life.

Australians are not against children, women and Husbands coming here that way, its the rest , the young men, that a lot of people object to, the women & children get caught in the cross fire. In the same way the women and children get bombed in Iraq, Afghan. by American Bombs because a few Men flew some planes into the Trade centers. We went to fight a war and now we have refugee's because of the war on so called terror. Yet we kill thousand due to Medical negligence and nobody seems to care.

There is all kinds of Hipocracy and stupidity because thats what we are as humans.

we have killed each other for 12000 years or at least sense Kane Killed his Brother Able and we have gone form throwing rocks to dropping Nukes, now thats progress. what progress have we made when it comes Breeding. it still only takes 3.5 to 10 minutes for the 2 idiots and a life time of misery for the accidental kid. why do u think whity is here and why do u think they want to come here too. we all breed too much. killing is the only way to get rid of us. nothing else will. thats why we have always done it. sad, but its time we told a few truth about being human. Historians have been a Joke and that goes for Economists too.


Get out of the M.E, stop killing, stop medling and they won't want to come. they won't have to. 

Their probably only persecuted because they stupidly supported the Yanks, because they thought the Yank hero's were going to save them. B.S.

The only thing Yanks care about is oil and whether or not the Yank dollar remains the worlds trading currency or Petrodollar.


Posted Monday, July 29, 2013 - 20:20

I say bring the families in and all the single blokes can bugger off.

We helped to create the mess in the M.E and now we don't want to be reminded every day by having to look at them and see that they are just like us. when we went they were just over there.

they were un human, now their human, now their is guilt. Face it. Howard took us into that mess, take em all around to his house and the rest of those Liberal party we want to be a bunch of Churchilion Yank arse lickers. Somebody wanted Globilisation, well we got it.

We should have been more careful about what we wished for. well we didn't get cheaper oil, looks like we are getting a lot more cheap labour, the Libs must surely love that.



This user is a New Matilda supporter. thomasee73
Posted Monday, July 29, 2013 - 21:09

Single young men who can't offer single young women a glimpse of glitz and glamour are rarely selected as husbands and not only are thereby unable to start families comprising of close kin who love and respect them, they are also treated with derision, suspicion and social outcasts. Males might still be rule our patriarchal societies, but single young males with limited economic opportunities are willing to take great risks in a bid for glory or death. It's not an enviable position to be in. 

Posted Monday, July 29, 2013 - 21:26

Sorry Liz Conor, I meant to say damn good read, just the same..


You didn't pull any punshes, so that has to be good.


This whole episode in our sad and sorry history need not have happened.

We have had 15 wars in 143 years, its a joke, only England beats our record in war mongering.

And now we whinge because the consequences are coming home to roost, again, last time it was a boat load of German Jews, we told them to bugger off too. They all perished. Hence the U.N convention.

What the hell is the good of history, nobody listens to it and most historians are nothing but lying toe rags, like James Bryce. "The Historian who sold out".

What hope for the rest of us.

Que Bro
Posted Monday, July 29, 2013 - 21:42

Positing some sort of colonial guilt complex for our treatment of asylum seekers is nonsense.  Liz Conners should spend a few weeks taking her tea and lunch breaks amongst blue collar workers and listening to their views instead of lunching with her peers in their academic ivory towers  It is my experience that she would learn that 90% (at my estimate) are post WW2 immigrants or their descendants and they carry no colonial psycho-social complexes.

They or their parents have immigrated to Australia through official channels.  They have a strong belief in the “fair go” and reward for hard work.  They are supportive of giving others the same chance.  They believe that asylum seekers arriving by boat who destroy their papers are rorting our countries Humanitarian Immigration Programme.  They may not have Liz Connor’s education but they are a lot wiser!

Posted Monday, July 29, 2013 - 21:53

Well thats 2 articles from Monash that dare to go to the heart of the issue.

I thought the heading was a bit blunt and might have been better as a question.

But I do agree that more than anything else the boats issue shows up a National Identity Crisis.

One thing I would like to offer that is prevalent in all the posts and articles including my own is that Australia was and to some extent still is a swimming nation and we were taught in high school, 

You cannot save someone from drowning by drowning with them.

Most people can see that we are lucky compared to other nations/places and are I think understandably defensive about this issue, particularly in the way it is presented to them.

I for one would like to see the focus of the presentation in a different light, and the government pay more heed to the all of the other issues people feel are being sidelined.

Posted Tuesday, July 30, 2013 - 07:20

"Most Australians are profoundly disturbed by the drownings, but are defensively inverting the causality of asylum."

"Defensive on causality"; without doubt, but while out of sight it's a case of "out of mind" and to say that we are "profoundly disturbed by the drownings" is frankly grossly overstating our group humanitarian concern.

"We contributed to making many of the places people are fleeing uninhabitable, either by failing to act advisedly, or acting inadvisedly. "

You're too kind; there's one other scenario you haven't offered for consideration of our "aggressive war";
That the attacks on Iraq and Afghanistan, as 2 just for starters, were planned well before the events of 911 as the "motives" which were presented to us at that time.
So perhaps "we" through those "our leaders: who represent us, did act advisedly and even with malicious forethought.
Our act was planned, calculated for maximum effect to throw the whole nations into disarray and thereby ensure that those countries will now not be self determined and autonomous and a threat to energy supply and a threat to the US petrodollar monopoly . In that sense, the Iraq invasion at least, was a complete success; which is why Bush regime boasted "Mission Accomplished".

Dumping Uranium with the use of "depleted uranium projectiles" on people is NOT "failing to act advisedly, or acting inadvisedly.".
Any teenager could have predicted the effects on births.
Bombing water filtration, milk powder factories and power plants is NOT "failing to act advisedly, or acting inadvisedly." Any one knows that these are essential infrastructures for a people to merely get up and walk again.

"We Justify Our Cruelty" by presenting our motives as noble, some even claim they were "anomic".
In reality we're self interested and self self serving, much like the rest of humanity, and we're lying Aussie Mongrels about it too.

Posted Tuesday, July 30, 2013 - 09:42

This is a really great article from Liz Conor.  Fightmumma, as much as I agree with much of what you say, I think the deep issues that allow Kev-got-to-zip-Rudd and Tony-the-boats!-Abbott to get away scott-free with abusive treatment of refugees, do need to be teased out, and put starkly in front of as many Australians as possible.  What Labor, with Coalition acquiescence, is proposing, is quite simply abhorrent.  It is good to understand why so many Australians buy it all.  Liz's article explains it very well.  Australians who read this and understand ought to be appalled at the ease with which they can be manipulated by political sloganeering. The refugee issue is important enough on its own to demand serious analysis, but the implications for other issues that affect Australians are equally concerning. If we just allow the government (Labor or Libs) to simply get away with horrific asylum seeker treatment without a murmur, why would it stop there?  

Sadly, these particular issues are glossed over in mainstream media, although some fabulous articles are starting to appear.

Another sadly - the Sarah Palin and theTea Party representatives/trolls who simply rant in the New Matilda comments pages don't have the capacity to understand.  (Bring on better education!)


Posted Tuesday, July 30, 2013 - 10:18

The ever worsening refugee "solutions" are specially concerning when we see that around 61% of surveyed Australians in an Essential poll (see the Age, 30/7/2013) actually APPROVE. 

Posted Tuesday, July 30, 2013 - 14:08

hlewers - yeah, I just feel sometimes what more can be said?  The posts on NM will be the same as they've been since this issue first became a political football and a media consumer item...everyone has their one view and doesn't change or adapt it to new information, not to mention the political discourse about it.  Perhaps once a set decision has been made we can move on from limbo towards new policies/practices that have more tangible and immediate outcomes for these people...rather than for all the associated groups who, let's face it, all benefit from the unenviable situations of asylum seekers...whether that be the human rights groups, government groups, advocates, researchers or suppliers/construction/medical...everyone has vested interests often based upon undisclosed values/beliefs/motives...and our system of government is not "up-to-it" for dealing with such issues.  Big change is needed but our systems of government seem immune to change, antagonistic to innovation and oppositional towards welfare oriented principles...there's no atmosphere at all for this situation to improve til the whole shebang improves.  So what's the point to it all?

peter hindrup
Posted Tuesday, July 30, 2013 - 17:19

jackal012: ‘We have had 15 wars in 143 years, its a joke, only England beats our record in war mongering.’

Sadly England are pikers.  According to ex pres Jimmy Carter the US has interfered in over a hundred and forty countries since the second world war  with the intention of destabilising or destroying their legitimate governments.

 William Blum in ‘Killing Hope’ documents 50 odd of them.

‘If all Refugee's were just familys I would agree with u 100%, but I can't because a fair percentage are young man looking for Glitz and Glamour —‘

Not so, families scrape up the money to hopefully save one of the family, so they typically send a son.

Married men come, leaving their families, in the hope that they can get settled, get the money together to bring the rest of the family, later.  Imagine the level of desperation needed to make such a decision! 

It also gives the lie to ‘come for the social security benefits!’

Liz, this is a great piece.  Regrettably too few will read it. Few of them would understand it if they did.

The fact is that Australia is not only a signatory to  the Universal Declaration, (of  Human Rights) 

Australia was a founding member of the UN and played a prominent role in the negotiation of the UN Charter in 1945. Australia was also one of eight nations involved in drafting the Universal Declaration.

This was largely due to the influential leadership of Dr Herbert Vere Evatt, the head of Australia’s delegation to the UN. In 1948, Dr HV Evatt became President of the UN General Assembly. That same year he oversaw the adoption of the Universal Declaration.

How far Australia has fallen!

Posted Tuesday, July 30, 2013 - 18:40

Peter, although I don't necessarily disagree with you, it is also important to highlight that changing social contexts changes the nature of social problems and the nature of the solutions to those problems.  The Universal Declaration also has a number of critics...particularly along the line of that it is very difficult to create homogenised sets of values/standards that are culturally sensitive and that voice the interests of all cultural/ethnic groups around the globe (ie that they are Eurocentric and have a narrow, exclusive set of definitions).  1948 is a heck of a long time ago. 

When we place something like climate change and neoliberalism into the frame, that greatly changes the nature of the beast we are discussing.  After the war I reckon those making the Universal Declaration thought they could solve all problems with their might, power, control, production, wealth etc.  The countries that designed said HRs were still (and are still) abusing HRs themselves, indigenous populations being sad examples.  Stick new industries, competition for energy, multinational corporations, electronic finances into the frame and the world has changed so much that old rules/values may not serve the interests/needs of current social problems. 

Even the death of the values of the welfare state, (social justice is actually the enemy of freemarket believers too), and the ageing babyboomers into the equation and what our governments want to do, will do, are able to do, or are constrained by myriad factors from doing...and the expectations contained within the Universal Declaration become highly unrealistic and unhelpful.  

We can't make people identify with and conform to values and norms from an era that is long-gone - we need to have a better social conscience, collectively and individually...but how do you do that in a society that hero-worships self-interest, "it's not personal it's business", "win at all costs", and "creative destruction"?  That's like expecting a tiger snake to curl up and act like a hot water bottle for your 3 month old baby...not gonna happen.  I actually believe that Australians DO still care - I fear that what is happening, is our "leaders" and political processes have such poor efficacy with social-type problems - that our "solutions" become impotent and bureaucratised to the point they are completely and tragically removed from anything associated with the human form, respect, focus.

Posted Tuesday, July 30, 2013 - 19:51

fightmumma, very nice.

peter hindrup, can't argue with ur wisdom, not going to, great comments.

hlewers, yes 500 words or less for a great many of us, does that make us cannon fodder to be ignored, NO. The world was never and never will be perfect, thats why the democratic Ideals are prefered but not insured.

As a nation it should be one for all and all for one, it won't happen but we can try.

My above posts are scathing I suppose, but we must relise that, that is how it was, hind sight is a great thing. Our problem is we don't learn, haven't, won't.

Like I said 15 times in 143 years, on average war every 9 years, when u live to sixty + 

Welcome to the human race.

This user is a New Matilda supporter. O. Puhleez
Posted Wednesday, July 31, 2013 - 08:29

There has been a widespread sympathy for the underdog right across Australian history, which comes forth in expressions like 'fair go, mate' when it is clear that a fair go is not what is being received or given. But in writing this article, Liz Conor has ignored the main reason why Australians support immigration control.

There are about 25 million official refugees on the UNHCR books, and tribal/religious wars are generating them faster than they can be resettled. Throw in a leavening of economic migrants as well.

Australians are only too aware of what happened to Aboriginal society, which had no immigration controls to speak of in 1777.

A successful boat person lands, gets processed, waits a few years, then gets accepted for temporary or permanent residency, applies to bring the rest of his family out, succeeds, gets a job, settles in, puts down roots in the community, and becomes increasingly difficult to export or resettle elsewhere under the terms of the UN Convention.

Thus, he serves as a shining example to the other 25 million re what can be achieved. They in turn inspire others. 25 million is a hopelessly low estimate of the number who would like to have a go.

I do not believe that Australians are heartless. They are just realists, and for very sound historical reasons.


Que Bro
Posted Wednesday, July 31, 2013 - 11:29

O. Puhleez

Good point.  If the Refugee Action Coalition and other refugee advocates had been around in 1788 they would no doubt have been telling the aboriginees that they had a moral responsibility to allow the 504 "persecuted" convicts on the first fleet to settle on  their land and they weren't doing enough vis-a-vis other countries who were being colonised.  


Posted Wednesday, July 31, 2013 - 18:35

"I do not believe that Australians are heartless. They are just realists, and for very sound historical reasons."

Exactly right, here, here.

Although we know we've taken bread from some of heir plates, or "bombed it" as the case may be,
But we can't let Just any old Tong Dalil or MataHari into here when we know everyone wants to; we want to keep this place sweet.

When it's down to spoiling our own nest, we need to be more certain not to have failures of intelligence, so to speak.

This user is a New Matilda supporter. O. Puhleez
Posted Wednesday, July 31, 2013 - 20:34


Exactly right, here, here. [sic]

Good to see that at least we agree on something.

Posted Wednesday, July 31, 2013 - 21:30

That's right,
Australians aren't heartless; we're just not warm of heart; sometimes we slip and admit it.

Posted Wednesday, July 31, 2013 - 22:59

And we certainly won't be saying sorry for the said bombing of bread from their plates, as that would imply a moral obligation above the obligation to any old other signatory to a refugee convention.;;;
even though it's common in our parlance to bandy the word "sorry" around dozens of times a day.

In other words "sorry"' is generally disingenuous when it comes from us anyhow; it's more of a faux expression of empathy, often offered to placate an injured other and even offered with a firm expectation that the expressed "sorry" be accepted by the other as full recompense for any wrong suffered or loss incurred.

On top of that; should the other react by rejecting our disingenuous "sorry", we can even spontaneously feign a violation of our honour and quickly shift to genuine indignation for the rejection of our over, yet hollow, display of humility.

Yea, we're all heart like that.

Stop the boats, stop the boats!!!
When we goin'a liberate Iran and Syria ?

Posted Wednesday, July 31, 2013 - 23:01

make that " OVERT, yet hollow, display of humility"

This user is a New Matilda supporter. O. Puhleez
Posted Wednesday, July 31, 2013 - 23:23

Don't get too worked up.

Posted Thursday, August 1, 2013 - 08:54

Worked up over the lives and deaths of "boat people"????
Nah mate!

This user is a New Matilda supporter. O. Puhleez
Posted Thursday, August 1, 2013 - 09:29

You mean the queue jumpers?

Spare then a thought for the 25 million or so poor bastards left in the camps, outflanked.