Australia's moral failure

Julian Burnside

The so-called refugee problem facing Australia is not a problem of national security; it is not a political or legal problem: it is overwhelmingly a moral problem.

It is a moral problem that has been driven by party politics and politicians in recent times. The law which creates the problem has been implemented by the parliament and validated by the courts (despite the best endeavours of some lawyers working in the area). More recently, and most disturbingly, it has been vindicated by the electorate in the overwhelming endorsement of Howard's policies in the November elections. Yet it remains a moral problem which we as a country are dealing with extremely badly.

I suspect that one reason we are dealing with it so badly is that the true nature of the problem has remained hidden for so long. It has remained hidden because it suits the politicians to dress it up as a problem of national security, a problem of border control, and a problem of sovereignty; so that in the famous Howard expression: "We will determine who comes into our country and in what circumstances".

The moral dimension of the problem has been disguised by the fact that the politicians have either deliberately or inadvertently elided three distinct elements of the matter: they are the questions of border control, immigration policy and the treatment of refugees. All are quite distinct, separate problems. All require quite different thinking, and all require separate solutions, and yet somehow our political masters have managed to run these problems together and use the ugliest bits from each.

I want to deal with three matters: the Pacific Solution and where it is leading; the system of indefinite mandatory detention and where that might take us; and the alternatives we have available to us.

The Pacific Solution The Pacific Solution was an immediate and astonishingly popular response to the Tampa case. I doubt that there has ever been a case that so innocently and inadvertently provoked such a savage legislative backlash. The Howard government won the approval of an unthinking electorate with its response to Tampa, but it forever sacrificed any claim to moral decency. History will condemn it.

The most insidious aspect of the Pacific Solution is that it preys on impoverished countries, who have no real choice about whether to lend themselves to the wishes of an Australian government willing to throw millions of dollars at them.

I heard someone not so long ago draw an analogy with prostitution. If a woman has no income and no way of supporting herself, then prostitution is an available, if undesirable, response. I think Nauru can be fairly regarded as one of the fallen women of the South Pacific. For this we don't blame Nauru, we must blame the Australian government.

Nauru's constitution bans detention without trial, with only limited exceptions. One of the exceptions, which comes nearest to the present circumstances, is detention for the purpose of deporting a person who arrived without the permission of the relevant authorities in Nauru. One might think that perhaps that justifies the fact that these people are being held entirely against their wishes on Nauru. But it turns out that the visa application for the Tampa people was a single bulk applica