Fortress Australia alive and well

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Tim Sout­phom­masane

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.

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