Fortress Australia alive and well
POLITICAL hostilities in Canberra never truly cease, even after a parliamentary year comes to a close. So it was in December last year, with the Christmas break in sight, that the two major parties continued their intense wrangling over the offshore processing of asylumseekers. The new year began with the Gillard government and the opposition still in stalemate. The unedifying debate about refugees is unlikely to end unless there is bipartisan consensus to lower the political temperature. Then again, there are many who believe that public anxiety about asylum-seekers reflects a deep-seated cultural insecurity — the Fortress Australia mentality of an insular island nation.
That this is the tenor of much commentary in the national media may actually reveal the deep parochialism in our debate about asylum-seekers. Parochialism isn’t confined to those who exaggerate the trickle of boat arrivals into a supposed tsunami. It is also present when the asylum question is automatically transformed into a battle in the long-running culture war being fought between progressives and conservatives.
From the perspective of the Australian debate, Andy Lamey’s Frontier Justice provides a welcome corrective to all this. It reminds us Australia is far from unique in having to grapple with asylum issues. As an introduction to the global story of refugees, combining philosophy and reportage, the book does an admirable job in exploring the political and policy dimensions of debates in the US, Europe, Canada and Australia. The story across all the Western democracies is much the same, as Lamey shows. There is an ‘‘ organised hypocrisy’’ in how liberal democracies trumpet their adherence to human rights, if not also lambasting less enlightened places about their records, all the while denying them to those refugees not fortunate enough to be Western citizens.
It would be misleading, however, to give the impression that Frontier Justice is merely another book about human rights cataloguing the misdeeds of Western democracies. Nor is it a book that seeks to offer simple solutions to the complex problems raised by refugees to liberal nation-states.
If anything, there is a sobering ambiv- alence. Lamey takes his lead from philosopher Hannah Arendt. According to Arendt, a refugee from the Nazi regime in the 1930s, the very notion of universal human rights is meaningless. The ideal breaks down at the first instance its adherents are confronted with people who had nothing except ‘‘ the abstract nakedness of being human’’.
Of course, any sovereign liberal state must retain the right to exclude — what matters is how they go about doing so. In the Australian context, appeals to sovereignty have always been married to arguments about boat-borne asylum-seekers being determined illegal immigrants or economic migrants who are free to pick and choose their destinations. Much of political debate is now shaped by the idea that any softening of refugee policy would amount to a ‘‘ pull factor’’ for boat arrivals, an incentive for asylum-seekers and people smugglers.
Lamey highlights the problems with an incentives-based approach to asylum. Migration patterns are also influenced by ‘‘ push factors’’. There are also global consequences when Australia and other countries introduce severe policies. When refugees then choose to go to countries with more reasonable asylum systems, ‘‘ the result is a race to the bottom, in which governments create incentives for each other to make their systems ever more unwelcoming’’.
Lamey proposes a ‘‘ portable-procedural’’ approach, which seeks to ensure that ‘‘ human rights can be enforced without being pitted against national sovereignty’’. Drawing on Canadian case law, he argues asylumseekers should have a right to an oral hearing about their claim for refugee status. This right may be portable and exercised in a third country, provided there are the same procedural safeguards in place.
This thoughtful and rewarding book’s attempt to reconcile human rights and national sovereignty is well worth consideration. There is, though, a slightly dissonant note in Lamey’s suggestion ‘‘ sovereignty has changed before and can change again’’, to the benefit of refugees. History shows we shouldn’t cling to such optimism too tightly. Tim Soutphommasane is a political philosopher at Monash University and the Per Capita think tank.