Sacrificing refugees to win the election

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Bill Shorten at ALP Conference (Image via video)

Has Labor's voting down of motion to ban boat turnbacks reduced Australia’s moral integrity and turned the lucky country into a meaner one? Lyn Bender comments on Labor's new suite of refugee policies.

BILL SHORTEN'S proposal to adopt Abbott’s turnback the boats policy has been accepted at the ALP conference. With surprisingly little public outrage, this moral retreat has now slipped gently into the harbour of the Australian psyche. It is more sinister than any leaky boat carrying desperate refugees seeking to cross our borders for sanctuary. The emphasis has been on Australia’s right to protect its borders and claims of saving lives.

But what of our moral borders? Turnbacks have been smuggled in under a raft of sweetener measures. (These include increased humanitarian intake to 27,000 annually by 2025, and $450 million to UNHCR.) But the right to turnback boats is a sinister testimony to our enduring white Australia identity that refuses to go away. Would we turnback any other boats? Would we do the same to ordinary white people, whose boat was at risk? Wouldn't that be unlawful?

I rallied with hundreds outside the Melbourne Convention Centre. They had come to influence the policies that were to be decided in that glasshouse. But the atmosphere was not hostile. It was unlike the frightening Reclaim Australia Rally that I had found truly threatening.

On South Wharf, the Knitting Nannas sat benignly knitting beneath their banners. 

There was no violence and no blind rage. These were the party faithful, and many who had hopes that justice and social good could best be served by an ALP election victory. The rally was threefold.

It was a rolling series, with each group having an hour of speakers devoted to its cause:

  1. Support for the proposed target of fifty per cent renewables by 2030.
  2. Calls for welcoming refugees and denouncing the turnback of boats.
  3. Support for marriage equality.

These are important causes and link to social justice. However, my focus was the proposal to include turnbacks as part of the ALP suite of solutions for looking strong on border protection. When bipartisan policy endorses inhumane treatment of refugees – who are largely perceived to be Muslim – it lowers the bar to zero options and makes racism more “normal". It emboldens calls to ban halal food and head scarves. It is not surprising that there are increasing reports of incidents of harassment of muslim women and girls. They are the most vulnerable and easily identifiable.

I’ve sat in the dust of Woomera Detention Centre.in 2002 with muslim refugees who cried: we just want to live in a peaceful place. The plight of refugees is a gargantuan humanitarian disaster.

Refugees are the expendables who can be imprisoned indefinitely in remote prisons, or pushed out to sea, or returned to the places from which they are fleeing. No matter how this is dressed up as safe and humane, it is not. This is not done as is sometimes claimed – to save lives – it is pure political expediency. It is a dog whistle to a racist tinged malcontentment of the disenfranchised and the fearful. But for those of finer sensibilities, there is the claim of stopping drownings at sea.

The Tony Abbott slogan of stopping the boats is now bipartisan. Although the Shorten version includes only the routes between Indonesia and Australia for pushbacks, this is cold comfort.

The horror offshore detention also remains. The policy overall implies that the government will protect its citizens from “invading hoards” and keep Australia “Australian”. Oh — and save lives.

These claims are being refuted, such as by human rights lawyer Sarah Joseph.

The boats after all carry people fleeing, so they may continue to flee on other seas, or by land to other destinations. To stay or flee is always dangerous for genuine refugees, of which there are now more than 60 million worldwide.

Joseph writes:

More than 90 per cent of the asylum seekers who have arrived by boat in Australia have been recognized as refugees. At the risk of sounding trite, it is really dangerous being a refugee. Drowning by boat is drowning while fleeing. But it is very dangerous to flee via land. And it is very dangerous to not flee.

And it is very dangerous to go to a refugee camp. There is crime, violence, death, disease and even disaster. They are chronically underfunded.

So in stopping the boats in our seas, the current government is only literally pushing the problem out to sea.

The ALP hopefuls, with whom I have spoken, argue that they will not have to use the turnback provision. The boats have been stopped — except for a stray one or two that might appear. But that is an age-old deterrence argument that can pave the way for atrocities. These include torture and the death penalty — a line that we have thankfully not yet crossed. Some might argue – as does the UN – that we have crossed over the torture line when it comes to indefinite offshore detention of men women and children.

Their only crime has been to flee persecution. We have locked them in hellholes at Manus Island and Nauru in order to deter others from asking for our help. It's a cynical utilitarian argument at its worst. It is the sacrifice of the few, purportedly, to save the many.

This style of argument could justify horrendous public execution by saying it would prevent others committing crimes and therefore other executions, such as occurred in the Elizabethan era.

Moral decline can be a slippery slope, as history attests. Select groups have always been used by regimes to enhance their perceived strength, to play to the lowest urges of the populace, or as scapegoats.

These groups have included but are not limited to:

  • Christians
  • Jews
  • Palestinians
  • Indigenous people
  • Armenians
  • Rohingya
  • Muslims
  • Black Americans
  • And a vast array of ethnic minorities.

It is a cheap mechanism of control.

The groups are commonly targeted as:

  • Not like us
  • Not fitting in
  • Not assimilating
  • Causing disunity
  • Taking our jobs
  • Undermining our nationality
  • Taking our women
  • Dressing weirdly
  • Destroying our society
  • Queue jumpers
  • Illegals

The list is almost endless. It relies on stereotyping, inaccuracy and ignorance. It is a way of displacing grievance and gaining allegiance. It has, historically and globally, provided the basis for persecution, genocide, and imprisonment without trial, disappearance and discrimination.

Australia has a guilty history in its treatment of its first peoples, which remains incipient and, at times, barely below the surface. We don't like conspicuous minorities. They must lay low and be compliant.

Waleed Aly argues in response to the booing of Indigenous footballer Adam Goodes.

'Australia is generally a tolerant society unless its minorities demonstrate that they don't know their place.'


'The minute an indigenous man stands up and is something other than compliant, the backlash is huge.'

Adam Goodes is suffering such a backlash.


Any discrimination sullies us all. That is why boat turnbacks and our largely bipartisan refugee policy are entirely the wrong signal. They call to our worst selves, while crushing our better angels. Worse yet, they crush people and destroy lives.

Tragically, the adoption of Abbott’s boat turnbacks and retention of offshore detention has reduced Australia’s moral integrity by yet another notch. The lucky country has become the mean country.

You can follow Lyn on Twitter@lynestel.

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