Progressive Asylum policy: social justice triumph or god-awful mistake?

NICK CATER

From The Australian, July 23, 2013

IT is tempting to conclude that the decision to abandon the Pacific Solution brought nothing but wretchedness, anguish and affliction, but that would not be entirely true.

Chris Evans, the last immigration minister but two, found the whole thing rather pleasurable, or so he told the Refugee Council of Australia in November 2008.

“Labor was committed to abolishing the Pacific Solution,” he said. “It was also one of my greatest pleasures in politics.”

It was a candid acceptance of the warm inner glow that sometimes seems the only objective in contemporary public policy. The first Rudd administration’s asylum-seeker policy represented the triumph of feel-good gesture politics over common sense.

The Pacific Solution might not have been pretty, but it was pretty effective. It would be interesting to know if the retired government senate leader has come around to that conclusion, now that the fishermen of the developing world have been deprived of 670 or so boats and his former boss has been re-incarnated as John Howard without the soft bits.

In a court of law, Evans might argue that he was not entirely responsible for his actions.

Society made him do it. Evans is merely a product of his times and his place.

He would have been an impressionable 13-year-old when the New Seekers recorded their hit I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing (In Perfect Harmony).

Like many late-term baby boomers, he may well be carrying the scars of being subjected to that anaemic anthem on constant rotation 42 years ago.

Certainly, its saccharine lyrics bear more than a passing resemblance to the first Rudd administration’s asylum-seeker policy: “I’d like to build the world a home; And furnish it with love; Grow apple trees and honey bees; and snow white turtle doves.”

Modesty forbade the former senator from boasting about his 33 months in the immigration portfolio when he delivered his farewell speech to the Senate this year, leaving the question hanging: Does he regard the arrival of 46,000 asylum-seekers and the death of 1100 others as a triumph for social liberalism? Or does he, like the rest of us, see it as a god-awful, avoidable disaster?

Either way, the nation is unlikely to get the humble and forthright apology it so richly deserves. The rules of progressive politics mean mistakes can never be acknowledged, since it would destroy the illusion that constant social improvement is the one true path to civilisation.

A mea culpa, even a small one, requires abandoning the moral high ground.

In the Rudd government’s defence, it clearly had little choice but to repudiate the Howard administration’s policies if it wanted to calm The Age’s editorial writers and avoid a shellacking from the pontiff of progressivism, David Marr.

A government that wishes to remain holy in the sight of Fairfax cannot afford to ignore the hallelujahs emanating from inner-city coffee shops, as beret-wearing patrons read the latest encyclical.

As the shepherd of the flock declared in December 2011, “too many politicians are willing to advance their careers in this good-hearted country by making the rest of us afraid. Hearts are hardened. Terrible things are done in the name of protecting the nation.”

We must forever be on our guard, for Beelzebub and his agents – “Piers Akerman, young Andrew Bolt and the indestructible Alan Jones” – never sleep. “Old fears recycled work their magic over and over again.”

We tremble as we await Marr’s denunciation of Rudd, now that the devil has taken hold of his tongue and his policies. Mighty will be the sword of righteousness that is about to smite this fallen cherub.

Verily, they will withhold fellowship from he who walketh on a path abhorrent in the eyes of the righteous ones, seated around the table in a fair-trade bakery in Annandale. Brethren, let us cast out this backslider, who once took his lessons from the parable of the Good Samaritan, and wrote about it in The Monthly.

“The biblical injunction to care for the stranger in our midst is clear,” Rudd wrote in an essay entitled Faith in Politics in 2006. “The so-called Pacific Solution should be the cause of great ethical concern to all the Christian churches.”

To spare the Prime Minister’s blushes, we will leave it there, before his invocation of the horror of the Holocaust, and his plea to learn from the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was executed on Hitler’s orders because he dared to speak truth to power.

We must recognise too that the shift in policy has come at enormous cost to Rudd, who in his first term thrived on the applause from gallery, where the invective is no doubt being sharpened now.

Or perhaps not, since in the past, progressive commentators have been somewhat selective in the delivery of opprobrium. Why waste ammunition on a politician on the Left when it could be far more pleasurably deployed on one from the Right?

When a famous public intellectual of the Left (let’s call him Bob) was asked at the Byron Bay Writers Festival two years ago why he was not condemning Julia Gillard’s Malaysia solution he replied: “I am not willing to fight for a cause – or not anyhow for this cause, if it’s going to help the Coalition.”