Saturday, July 05, 2014

A debate poisoned by what we know

This is a recap of a previous post, but I think it's worth reiterating.

Australia is being manipulated and poisoned because politicians can now exploit what we know, and didn't know in an earlier age. 

In the 1970s – as I once confirmed with a researcher – Australia had no idea about the refugee boats that didn't make it.

That meant the refugee debate could be framed in terms of the boats that did make it. They were made – at least by sympathetic journalists like Ita Buttrose – into personifications of bravery, people who were so fearless, and Australia such a beacon, that of course we should accept them.

Australia back then crafted a policy to stop the boats by getting people here without the boat. Not by blocking them: by trying to process their refugee status quickly, and bring them.

Australia now has this burden of knowledge, which becomes a burden of guilt, which becomes the burden of political speech, which becomes the burden of atrocity.

Now, the world knows that some boats don't make it. The cynical racists among our politicians – of both sides – have used that knowledge against us, which doesn't make sense.

Think about it: if you tend to the Right, you're supposed to believe in individual agency as a core article of faith. Fretting about dangers is hypocrisy: the individuals leaving wherever they're leaving are doing so of their own free will.

When the Right witters on about deaths at sea, they do it solely to wedge the Left: because, forty years later, now we know that refugees might die on the trip, we agonise about it.

They – the Right – don't agonise. They don't care – any government that can send refugees back to their torturers is a cynical liar when it talks of preventing deaths at see.

It's the Left that cares, agonises, and lets itself get wedged by the idea that we can prevent the deaths at sea.

Here's the cold equation: we can't prevent the deaths. Preventing arrivals, transfers at sea, three-word slogans, “Border Force”, no-comment press conferences – these things do nothing to prevent people leaving, and some of them will be in boats that sink.

(Remember for a moment that mandatory detention was an ALP idea that must live in infamy forever).

And it's the ALP's mandatory detention plus the “Leftist” concern about deaths at sea creates the opportunity for the wedge: if we make Australia sufficiently odious the boats won't leave, goes the argument, when actually the Monsoon is the only thing that seems to change the boat departures.

And if we didn't know at all – if, as in the innocent 1970s there were no satellite phones, no call-for-help – our moral choices would be both simpler and, in local political terms, so much more wedge-proof. We would only have to concern ourselves with arrivals, not departures.

There is my solution to The Left's dilemma. We can't stop the departures. What people flee is too much beyond our ken. Stop being caught in the “stop the boats” question and instead, insist that we deal humanely with those that arrive.

Don't let the political debate be poisoned by our knowledge that some don't survive the voyage. Honour the dead, but give our efforts to the living refugees.

After all, they are heroes.

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