Ends, means and refugees

Labor’s attack on Morrison hobbled by its history in government.

By Lyle Dunne

The boat people debate has taken a curious turn in the last week. The Greens are calling for Scott Morrison’s resignation, apparently because he has corrected the record on details of his earlier public statements on the recent tragic events on Manus Island that resulted in the death of Iranian asylum seeker Reza Berati.

Or possibly it’s because an inmate died on his watch – “murdered”, say the Greens, not troubling overmuch about legal niceties like proof and evidence.

Labor, who actually established the Manus facility, were initially a little more circumspect, merely hinting darkly that Morrison was not being completely up-front with the Australian people. This is a thin, third-order criticism – but they could hardly attack the substantive policy, since they initiated it. After a week dominated by reporting on the Craig Thomson story, Labor’s theme of the week is apparently glasnost, openness.

In recent days Labor has hedged its bets, with a couple of back-benchers calling for Morrison’s resignation, saying he has “blood on his hands”.

In effect, Morrison is under attack for providing too much information too soon.

Their Question Time strategy, however, still turned on Morrison’s having updated earlier public statements. Morrison, notwithstanding his earlier “need to know” approach on refugee boats, had announced that the riot had occurred outside the centre, but on Saturday announced that later information suggested that the reverse was the case.

The details of the incident remain unclear. But in effect, Morrison is under attack for providing too much information too soon, before it had been verified.

In the light of the ongoing left criticism of Morrison for not providing a running commentary on boats and arrivals, this is richer than Croesus.

It has been suggested that PNG officials were responsible for the violence. On the other hand, it was suggested that the violence erupted after asylum seekers were told they would not be resettled in Australia, which sounds like a provocation to asylum seekers rather than their captors.

At this stage, it is impossible to apportion blame. This may or may not change.

In the meantime, a couple of broad issues may be worth addressing.

Left Consequentialism?

Firstly, this idea that a Minister on whose watch someone dies should resign. Is this a sound principle?

How would it work for Ministers for Aged Care, Health, or Defence?

Clearly some activities are inherently riskier than others, and a mature analysis would consider whether the death(s) resulted from any kind of misbehaviour or negligence. (Admittedly, for Labor, this might be uncomfortably close to the process going on in relation to the Pink Batts scheme.)

But if you’re going to go with this pure consequentialist approach, then you also have to look at positive consequences of the present régime, such as the number of lives saved.

Best estimates are that around 200 asylum seekers a year drowned under the previous government. Morrison claims an 80% reduction in boat arrivals under Operation Sovereign Borders, and none for 60 days. Unless these claims are completely false – and no-one has suggested this – it’s clear that the number of additional lives saved under this policy will far exceed the additional deaths.

It may yet transpire that there were structural reasons Mr Berati’s death occurred, for which someone should be held responsible. But at the simplistic level of the Greens-Labor critique, if the present government is to be held responsible for all additional deaths occurring on its watch, then it should also receive credit for lives saved.

Right consequentialism?

Secondly, and again ironically, there is a criticism from the left that the present government and their supporters are themselves guilty of consequentialism, the belief that the end justifies the means. Michael Koziol, the Australian Spectator’s new token leftie, makes this argument in his “On the Contrary” column of 15 February, wherein he claims that the present régime is

…certainly not ‘working’ for those with the real problems – the refugees. And you might not care about that, and that’s your prerogative. You are entitled to feel, in your decidedly unbleeding heart, that the end justifies the means.

It isn’t clear what means he disapproves of, and what if any he’d allow. But he assures us of his own heart’s laudably haemophilic inclinations, despite the breathtaking throwaway line that his wish for the boats to stop (for essentially procedural reasons: they’re getting in the way of a rational debate) is not motivated by stopping deaths at sea

…which, though tragic, are a sad inevitability of the broken global refugee system.

In other words, some refugees drown; how many doesn’t seem to matter.

What really distresses him is the “heat and boredom” suffered by those incarcerated on remote islands.

So it’s clear that “those with the real problems – the refugees” excludes not only those who drown at sea, but anyone languishing in a camp without the price of a one-way voyage to Australia in a leaky boat.

I’ll leave it up to readers to decide whether this constitutes a well-founded claim to the moral high ground, and whether Mr Koziol’s confident assumption that anyone who disagrees with him is not merely wrong but morally inferior is justified.

Dangerous by design

Thirdly, and perhaps most controversially, the Manus approach is based on making life for asylum seekers so unpleasant that they won’t want to try to come here.

Some say this approach can’t work, because the life some asylum seekers are escaping is worse than anything we could do to them without destroying their human rights, our reputation, and our ability to look ourselves in the face. If they’re right, and they may well be, then the only real answer lies in holding our noses and working patiently on the relationship with the Indonesians, perhaps over generations, and certainly without expecting an outcome before their election.

But I digress.

The Manus idea, like the Malaysian idea, relies on the proposition that people who try to come to Australia uninvited by sea will be sent somewhere they do not want to go. Now one thing that makes PNG an undesirable destination is a perception of danger. And it has to be said that that perception has some basis in reality.

I am not for a moment suggesting that the previous government, in designing the Manus approach, intended or even anticipated that detainees would die. But if you devise a system with danger as a design feature, then you bear at least some of the responsibility if people do in fact come to harm under that system.

It will be interesting to see whether the enquiry Morrison has announced, which will look into the establishment of the Manus centre, addresses this aspect.

Leave a Reply