Manne, Robert: How we came to be so cruel to asylum seekers

Manne, Robert

How we came to be so cruel to asylum seekers‘, The Conversation, 26 October 2016 updated

‘If you had been told 30 years ago that Australia would create the least asylum seeker friendly institutional arrangements in the world, you would not have been believed.’ So Manne commences this essay, an extract from a lecture delivered in Brisbane. (Robert Manne is one of Honest History’s distinguished supporters.)

He then looks at five possible explanations for this state of affairs: immigration absolutism (a partial throwback to White Australia); party politics; bureaucratic inertia; groupthink; the banality of evil. The last was a concept coined by Hannah Arendt to apply to the Nazi Adolf Eichmann. She meant that evil acts occur because people become blind to what is happening. Though Manne sees each of his five explanations as contributory, he particularly argues that the concept of the banality of evil applies in the present case:

They [the prime minister, ministers and senior officials] are willing to allow this to happen because they no longer possess, in the Arendtian sense, the ability to see what it is that they are doing, and because the majority of the nation has become accustomed to thinking of what we are doing as perfectly normal.

Meanwhile, columnist and commentator Waleed Aly published a piece in the New York Times, a paper which has recently taken a close interest in Australian policy. Aly refers to the mantra, ‘we stopped the boats’:

This is the great sedative of Australian politics: dulling our attention, rendering all else some indecipherable white noise we only vaguely register before we fall asleep. Then we can snooze through any bombshell.

In his piece, Robert Manne writes that one factor driving policy is an ‘irrational but consensual mindset that has Canberra in its grip: the conviction that even one concession to human kindness will send a message to the people smugglers and bring the whole system crashing down’.  Today (30 October) Prime Minister Turnbull announced a new element to policy:

The prime minister will seek to blacklist for life all asylum seekers who have tried to come to Australia on boats since mid-2013. They will never be able to enter Australia on any type of visa, including as tourists or for business reasons, even if they’ve been found to be refugees under the legislation going to parliament next week.

Update 31 October 2016: Sean Kelly in The Monthly Today on the proposed new legislation:

When a nation truly believes that anything can be justified, and that principles can always be jettisoned, provided the goal is sufficiently important, then it has reached a dangerous place. It is a place at which we stop asking “What type of a country do we want to be?” We are not there yet, but perhaps we are not as far away as we would like.

Michael Brull in New Matilda and Alex Reilly in The Conversation. Plus Christos Tsiolkas from 2013. And Dr John Nieuwenhuysen, former immigration researcher.

Update 7 November 2016: Robert Manne wonders if the latest government policy proposal (‘not get in ever’) might finally split off the Labor Party from the government on asylum seekers. ‘The government’s new legislation is an opportunity for Labor to end 15 years of bipartisan cruelty to asylum seekers.’

Update 8 November 2016: Labor Caucus unanimously rejects government’s proposal. Andrew Jakubowicz suggests Australian policies are the future for Europe, too.

Update 22 November 2016: John Menadue, head of the Prime Minister’s Department under Malcolm Fraser, comments on allegations about immigration policy at that time. (John Menadue is one of Honest History’s distinguished supporters.) Ian Macphee, Fraser’s immigration minister, on the same subject.

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