Human rights

Trump gives in to 'compassion' but not Dutton

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Being asked to "guard against compassion for refugees" marks a new level of overt state-sponsored moral violence in Australia, writes Dr Jennifer Wilson.

IT IS NO COINCIDENCE that hard on the heels of U.S. public outrage at President Trump’s separation of immigrant children from their parents at the Mexican border – followed by the imprisonment of those children in cages – Australian Home Affairs Minister Dutton felt it necessary to warn Australians against similar acts of compassionate outrage for refugees.

The warning referred to asylum seekers indefinitely held by his Government, with the collusion of the Labor Opposition, on Nauru and Manus Island.

The U.S. outrage did cause Trump to halt separations, though this may well be temporary. The alternative he’s working towards is one initially employed in Australia by Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating, who in 1992 introduced mandatory detention of asylum seekers arriving by boat. This was later followed by an amendment to end the 273-day time limit, allowing for the indefinite detention that exists to this day. Keating did not separate children, rather the mandatory indefinite detention applies to whole families.

Trump is attempting to change legislation known as the Flores Settlement, which currently limits the detention of migrant children to 20 days. Australia’s long-practised indefinite mandatory detention of children will, if Trump is successful, become law in the USA.

We are, without doubt, world leaders in these matters.

Dutton, it would seem, experienced some degree of panic after observing the outrage expressed across the entire United States and many other countries – though not, of course, Australia – at Trump’s treatment of children and their families. His panic prompted him to issue urgent warnings to Australians about the perils of compassion.

In an interview with The Weekend Australian, only days after the U.S. story broke, Dutton claimed that:

Australians must guard against compassion towards refugees as it could undo the government's hard-fought success in discouraging people smugglers.

The boats are still coming and if the government were to relax its tough stance, such as by transferring refugees held on Manus and Nauru to the mainland, it would see the people-smuggling business restart, he told The Weekend Australian ...

"It's essential that people realise that the hard-won success of the last few years could be undone overnight by a single act of compassion in bringing 20 people from Manus to Australia,” the Minister said.

Please note that Dutton states we must guard against compassion for refugees. He doesn’t say "illegals", he says refugees — no longer bothering even to miscast them in order to arouse our contempt. Refugees, not illegal maritime arrivals, are now the enemy.

In reaction to the global uproar over cruelty to asylum seekers, Australia’s Coalition Government warns its citizens about the perils that await us if we act with compassion.

'We now have a Turnbull Government Minister instructing us on what emotion we must feel and the circumstances in which we must feel it.'

This is a new and disturbing turning point for Australia. We’ve crossed a threshold no country should ever cross. A Federal Government Minister warns citizens to withhold compassion from a very specific group of people — a group already entirely at our mercy, a group already subjected to years of unspeakable misery, torment and UNHCR-confirmed torture. Twelve members of this group have already died. The remainder, including children, live in appalling conditions in countries that do not want them but need the money Australia provides. Australia – under both Coalition and Labor governments – has systemically destroyed the refugees’ lives, leaving them without hope in what is justified as an act of "deterrence" necessary to thwart any other asylum seekers who contemplate seeking sanctuary in Australia, via boat.  

This ghastly litany of malevolence is what Dutton describes in The Weekend Australian as “hard-won success.”

Yet, even this much abuse is not enough for Peter Dutton and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. They cannot risk Australians feeling compassion for the abject plight of refugees, the majority of whom have been verified as unable to return to their home countries. They’ve seen what compassion, when aroused, can do. It stopped, albeit temporarily, the unstoppable Trump. No more children have been taken screaming from their families — although there is no guarantee that the 2,000 plus already kidnapped will be safely reunited. The children were not identified by name but by number — another technique used by Australia to identify refugee and asylum seeker children.

Although both major parties have acted for 19 years with a complete absence of compassion, this is the first time I can find that either party has blatantly instructed citizens to harden our hearts against that emotion.

“Australians must guard against compassion towards refugees …”

We now have a Turnbull Government Minister instructing us on what emotion we must feel and the circumstances in which we must feel it. Is it still small government when it dictates citizens’ feelings?

Compassion is a fundamental human capacity without which we quickly become depraved. Dutton is not even speaking about so-called "tough love" compassion, the variety that causes us to make hard decisions in another’s interests. The Minister wants us to strangle compassion for these particular refugees, not for their own good, but for what he claims is ours. The suspension of compassion Dutton calls for is a means to an end: a further abuse of people already so destroyed it is impossible and immoral to construct them as a threat to our well-being.

This is a new level of overt state-sponsored moral and instrumental violence in Australia.

The major parties’ commitment to moral, physical and psychological violence against refugees in off-shore detention is nothing new. What is new is that, now, our Government openly advocates that citizens reject compassion or risk an "invasion". Compassion, far from being a desirable human capacity, is recast as the enemy. Compassion is dangerous, except when extended to groups designated compassion-worthy by your Government. For example, White South African farmers, and only white South African farmers, are worthy of compassion and ought to be fast-tracked through the immigration process, Dutton has argued.

The Minister's preferences accord with those of Trump supporters Fox and Friends, who observed of the children Trump kidnapped:

“ ... these aren't our kids ... it’s not like they’re from Idaho and Texas … these are people from another country.”

In other words, they aren’t White and don’t deserve the care afforded to American children.   

Thus far there has been no comment from the Labor Opposition on Dutton’s weekend warning. Neither have we heard a word from prominent religious leaders, whom one would expect to speak out loudly and strongly about political recommendations against the practice of one of their most fundamental values.

Dutton’s fear-mongering does not stand up to even superficial scrutiny. The Minister must explain exactly how, if his “stopping the boats” strategy is as successful as he claims, showing compassion to even 20 refugees will derail Border Force efficiency to the degree that we will be inundated with waterborne asylum seekers. If all that is standing between us and inundation is compassion for 20 refugees, one has to question the fundamental efficiency and usefulness of Dutton’s Border Force.

One might hope that an Opposition worth its salt would pursue these questions. One would apparently hope in vain.  

There is some faint hope, however. According to an Australia Institute survey, 73 per cent of respondents opposed the bipartisan policy of refusing to allow waterborne arrivals to ever settle in Australia, saying that those found to have a valid claim for protection should be brought here. A majority of respondents also believe New Zealand’s offer to resettle refugees currently held in off-shore detention should be accepted.

Peter Dutton could well be out of step with the majority of Australians and, if this is so, his demand that we mistrust our feelings because a compassionate heart is our enemy may well cause him to lose more favour than he gains.

You can follow Dr Jennifer Wilson on her blog No Place for Sheep or on Twitter @NoPlaceForSheep.

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