Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Catholic compassion and asylum seekers

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Could the asylum seeker issue give the Catholic Church a way to establish itself as a force for compassion and save Australia’s politicians from themselves?

In 1795 Samuel Taylor Coleridge gave a series of lectures on ‘Liberty and Truth’ that so incensed the fury of the aristocrats and triggered the unruliness of their press gangs that he found himself fearing whether “the good I do is proportionate to the evil I occasion”. He persisted regardless, and in the Bristol lecture said this about the benefits of privilege and abundance:

The purifying alchemy of education may transmute the fierceness of an ignorant man into virtuous energy, but what remedy shall we apply to him whom plenty has not softened, whom knowledge has not taught benevolence?

Seven years before Coleridge gave the Bristol lecture, in 1788, a fleet of British boats arrived in Australia, and were followed by more boats for many years as those in power unburdened their cities of uneducated and impoverished trouble-makers by sending them to a far-away place.

Today, many of the world’s boat people flee their homes to seek freedom from poverty, starvation and brutality. In one of many northern hemisphere incidents last month, as the weather improved and the seas calmed on the Mediterranean, the Italian navy rescued 1,100 people in leaky boats off the coast of Lampedusa, at a time when boats coming from Africa were reported to have increased ten-fold. Thousands of desperate people have died at sea in recent years, attempting the trip to Italy. If such a thing as a queue existed, most would not have had time to look for it.

A relatively small number of people on boats seek refuge by taking a less well-worn but distant and dangerous voyage south to Australia. For those that take the southern option, no safe haven awaits. Instead they risk everything to attempt arrival in a country riven by a different type of desperation. For more than a decade now, the two major political parties have frantically striven to outdo each other in displays of pathological aversion towards outsiders arriving by boat, including outsiders escaping from regimes whose conduct Australia officially denounces. Australians are being told, and many tell themselves, that we are being over-run by boat arrivals because we’re a soft touch. But the issue is not new and we are just one of many destinations.

How does a misunderstanding of such proportion come about? Governments of civilized nations tend to become repressive by iteration. Hubris develops step by step and often must astound those who exercise unhindered power, as much it does those who groan under it. The powerful might wonder at times how they get away with it, but as they do, they become bolder until no lie is too big to tell.

When Hannah Arendt wrote Eichmann in Jerusalem in the 1960s she asked whether evil arises from fanatical extremism or is the product of mere thoughtlessness. In the end, she leaned to the latter view. If ordinary people tend to conform to mass opinion, readily obey orders or are passive when unspeakable things are happening around them, then Adolf Eichmann could rightly defend himself by claiming he was just an ordinary citizen doing his job. While Arendt entertained that defence and lost friends for doing so, she also agreed that Eichmann’s refusal to share the earth with fellow human beings, Jewish and others, was reason enough to justify his conviction.

There are those for whom a defence of ordinariness does not work. The Pope in Rome is one of them, as are his cardinals and archbishops who are looked to around the world for moral and spiritual guidance. Cambridge historian Eamon Duffy recently revisited the vexed issue of Eugenio Pacelli, known also as Pope Pius XII. Causing unease to this day was Pacelli’s silence when Jewish refugees were being rounded up around Europe and taken away in trainloads to unknown locations. An authority on the history of Christianity, Professor Duffy reluctantly accepts that Pacelli was a sophisticated diplomat and that he judged, with some justification, that a papal denunciation would have made matters worse for those detained, little knowing at the time that on the scale of savagery that secretly prevailed, matters could not have been made much worse.

If the present running sore of boats and refuge-seekers in Australia can be traced to the Tampa incident in 2001, the decade that followed has been marked by escalating iterations to such an extent that the only way one of the two major political parties can now demonstrate it is more resolute than the other is to display greater degrees of pitiless insensitivity than its rival.

Maybe the recent Manus Island incident will be a turning point, maybe it will now be clear to all that we are on journey of no return and it’s not a journey a civilized nation wants to be taking. Against such a view are the cheerleaders at News Corp, such as Greg Sheridan, who helpfully reminds the nation that “the Manus Island disturbances are part of the serious battle of wills that the Rudd and Gillard governments so dismally failed”. Therefore, to preserve its manhood, “the Abbott government must mobilise whatever level of resources is needed to make Manus work”. You don’t have to believe that News Corp is calling the shots on this to conclude that the present Government is determined not to blink, or at least not to be seen to blink.

In a virtually all-male cabinet, rather than act as a circuit breaker Manus Island will be a test of strength. There will be no one to say, “We’ve gone far enough. Let’s go back to first principles and look for another way.” The impulse will be to show some balls, to turn the screw another notch.

To fulfil its purpose, escalation must take things to a new brink. The last escalation required boat arrivals to be called ‘illegals’ by their handlers, who were also to call them by number and not by name. Whatever the next escalation might be, it would likely be taken, secretly at first, with the ostensible purpose of deterrence – a supposed higher good - and require the enlisting of a compliant tabloid press and a continuous monitoring of the public appetite for brutality with each turn of the screw.

The Australian government is well aware that that the vast majority of boat arrivals are found to be genuine refugees, yet research last year reveals that nearly six out of ten Australians think people arriving by boat are not refugees and should be treated more severely. Neither the Government nor the Opposition attempts to correct such misunderstanding. On this issue we have a bi-partisan agreement to fail the test of leadership.

The US provides an instructive contrast to Australia. Successive administrations offer amnesties to immigrants who have entered the country illegally through the heavily guarded southern borders. Like Australians, the popular view among American citizens is that these immigrants should be treated mercilessly. But the country’s leaders take the view that people who demonstrate the degree of determination, courage and resourcefulness to succeed in gaining entry are the type of people that have made America great. Accordingly, and against popular opinion, America’s leaders from both sides of politics grant regular amnesties.

By contrast, the failure of secular leadership on boat arrivals in Australia is a toxic stain on our polity and reputation. Itcan be traced through successive leaders in Howard, Beazley, Rudd, Gillard and now Abbott, the latter having made audacious promises, militarized the issue, aggravated our powerful neighbour, Indonesia, and dug the nation into a hole.

Business leaders largely keep out of it, and media outlets are methodically kept in the dark. There is no reason to suppose that anything will change unless both political parties, and the Government of the day in particular, were to come under considerable pressure from a key constituency.

In recent times the Catholic population in Australia has not been tested, or not at least since the hey-day of B.A. Santamaria and Daniel Mannix. There are roughly 5.3 million Catholics officially living in Australia, or about 25 per cent of the population. They include the leaders of both political parties and a significant proportion of the Abbott cabinet ministers, 47 per cent of whom are nominally Catholic.

While the official Catholic Church has so far remained mute on the boats question, the Pacelli defence of silence is becoming increasingly incongruous. Although the question has an insistent spiritual and moral dimension, the national secular debate, to the extent there is one, is framed around the merits of functionality and capability, and so increasingly focused on ‘operational matters’.

Under the present Pope, there appears to be a more enlightened and compassionate papacy in Rome that may look favourably on an apostolic intersession for a worthy cause on an issue with far-reaching international implications. And in the wake of unremitting sexual abuse allegations world-wide and its disturbing complicity in child stealing as revealed in the movie Philomena, the Church could do with involvement in a cleansing cause.

Australia’s Cardinal George Pell is a case in point. Although the Sydney Archbishop does not head up the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference and is about to become a resident at the Vatican, he is presently the most senior Catholic prelate in the country, and the one most closely identified in the public mind, rightly or wrongly, as the church’s Australian spokesman. Could the Australian Catholic Church rehabilitate its standing as a voice of compassion and in so doing save our politicians from themselves? It might be a long shot but it’s a chance. No doubt, it would take vision, courage and ingenuity to find an effective voice that speaks with authority on the humanity of boat people. But it’s worth a shot. As a parting gesture to the standing of Australia as a civilized nation, what about it, Cardinal Pell?

Paul Begley

Paul Begley is an Australian Catholic who works in public affairs. The views expressed here are entirely his own. Follow him on twitter: @yelgeb