Sunday, August 11, 2013

Crying Like A Refugee - My Submission to the DLP on the Question of Asylum Seekers

As Australia heads towards a Federal Election in the coming weeks citizens might be forgiven for checking their calendars to make sure they are still in the right year.  Strange as it seems, it is now 2013 and the major parties are still debating the question of asylum seekers who arrive in our country by boat.  Not only that, the issue has reached such a pitch of invective that it makes that by comparison Phillip Ruddock circa 2001 sounds more like Francis of Assisi.  The ALP is going to the coming election with a promise to those arriving in this manner that You Won't Be Settled In Australia.  The Coalition is repeating its promise to Stop The Boats.  These policies play well in marginal electorates, but is this hardline stance from both major parties the only choice that we as a nation have?  There are certainly many who think otherwise.  A good collection of perspectives on this issue can be found here.

One of the privileges that I have is as a State Chaplain to the NSW branch of the Democratic Labour Party.  The party has long had a compassionate stance towards refugees flowing from their strongly pro-life ethics.  When the asylum seeker issue was thrust into the spotlight a few weeks ago, however, I was at that time unable to find a clear policy statement on this particular issue on the Federal website - this is not an uncommon situation for many political parties as policies are frequently rewritten in response to changing facts and it is impossible to have every issue front and centre at all times.  Yet it seemed to me that it was important for the DLP's position to be understood clearly as there is a strong possibility that the party will hold the balance of power along with a few independents in the Senate for the next parliamentary term.  I submitted the following essay briefly outlining what I thought were important points in approaching this issue from a Christian perspective.  I am glad to say that the essay made its way to the Federal Executive and I understand was carefully considered along with a range of other information in the formation of the new asylum seeker and refugee policy which was launched publicly on Friday 9 August.  I reproduce the essay here in the hope of generating further discussion and reflection on the issue.

I would like to thank members of the DLP Executive including Federal President Paul Furnell, Federal Secretary Mark Farrell, NSW Secretary Anthony Craig and NSW Assistant Secretary Nick Williams along with Senator John Madigan for their timely, responsible, and compassionate response to this issue.  Your conduct and dedication makes me proud to be a DLP member.


In his essay on faith and politics in the October 2006 issue of The Monthly Kevin Rudd called on Australia to embrace a more humane approach to refugee policy than had been in place during the Howard years.  He evoked the image of the Good Samaritan as the framework for a humanitarian approach to the Outsider among and stated that Australian Christians should be concerned about their legal and social responsibilities to those seeking asylum.  It seemed, for a moment, as though a leader of the ALP was bold enough to pledge himself to a matter of Principle that might be worth more than any electoral victory.

The past few days have seen those illusions (already fractured in the public eye) shattered for good.  By his new PNG Solution, the Prime Minister has embraced the most punitive and conservative position on asylum seekers of any government in living memory.  He has effectively closed the door on an internationally recognised method of seeking asylum that is routinely used by those in the most desperate of circumstances to prove that he is Not Soft on this issue and take it off the table for the coming election.  Many in Christian communities who had supported Rudd’s earlier stand have been left appalled by the lack of Principle that has been revealed by this policy shift.

We in the Democratic Labour Party should have expected nothing different in the end.  Rudd is simply another in a long line of ALP leaders whose personal scruples (if any should exist) are subsumed beneath the aim of all major parties – Government Or Bust!  This is a party that has demonstrated time and again since 1955 that it will say or do anything to hold the reins of power.  Many of our fellow Australians had hoped that this had all changed and are understandably shocked and dismayed by Rudd’s about-face.  For us in the DLP this should not be a time for I Told You So, but for Let Us Show You The More Excellent Way.

This is not to say, of course, that the Coalition approach to this issue is any more constructive.  Mr Abbott’s proposal to tow any boats carrying asylum seekers back to Indonesia can be dismissed as mere sloganeering.  Even if the Indonesian government were to agree to accept such people back into their country (a situation they have already ruled out) the question remains as to what the fate of the asylum seekers would be in this situation.  Given the fact that Indonesia has a poor record of protecting the human rights of minorities, such as the people of West Papua who have endured decades of oppression, the prospect of asylum seekers being welcomed with open arms is rather bleak.  Realistically, the fact that Mr Abbott is a fan of the Just Tow Them Back approach is precisely so that he does not have to deal with such difficult questions.

There is, therefore, a great opportunity for the DLP in the coming election and the Parliament which follows to advance a new solution to the asylum seeker issue which affirms both our commitment to the dignity and care of all humanity, our belief in a consistent approach to imposing diplomatic, trade and cultural embargoes on regimes guilty of aggression, human rights abuses and breach of international law”, and our obligation to defend our own citizens through maintaining the integrity of our borders.  Developing an appropriate response in light of recent political developments will not be straightforward or simple.

The people smuggling industry has been successful in recent years through capitalising on national and individual weakness.  On the one hand, the Australian government must at least attempt the defence of its indefensible borders or it risks a key facet of political legitimacy.  At the same time it cannot bear the condemnation (local and international) that thousands of deaths at sea would prompt, so it has been forced to accept boat arrivals despite the fact that this particular class of asylum seeker is viewed with suspicion and hostility by the electorate.  On the other hand, those seeking to flee persecution and/or war may find the process of applying for asylum difficult due to the lack of nearby countries that would in fact be safe to seek asylum and the fact that documents such as passports and birth certificates may be hard to obtain (if they were ever issued). 

Enter the smuggler, who offers to take desperate families (for the modest price of their life savings) to a place which is legally and politically obliged to process them.  It’s a licence to steal money and serious attempts to close it down should be supported.  But even given the fact that Lives Are At Stake, does this mean that all options are equally permissible?  Is the option that will most severely restrict the criminal model the one which must be undertaken?

From a Christian perspective, any attempt to protect our sovereignty or to punish the criminal must be tempered by a high view of humanity that has been united to the divine through incarnation and resurrection.  The fact that a human being, Jesus Christ, now lives and reigns forever means that all who are in the image of this human being are partakers of a human nature that has been Eternally Affirmed.  All people have a future because the ultimate Person has a future.  This means that no person – from Conception to Final Breath – may be denied the embrace of community and the right to natural justice.  To deny these things would be to deny the key doctrines of Faith.  It would declare that God does not Live and that Love has not triumphed over Death.  To refuse to welcome the Stranger amongst us is to refuse to accept that God has brought all humanity into a common Relationship through Christ.  Therefore, if such a Relationship has been ordained, it follows that all have a common Responsibility towards those with whom we share this common future.  We do not have the option when we see a fellow human being in need at our gate to say, “This is not my problem.”  This does not mean that we do not have to be prudent in how we address the situation, but we cannot simply refuse to answer the question.  This, in my mind, is what both major parties in Australia are currently doing.  That both leaders can attempt to claim to speak as Christian leaders on this issue is hypocritical beyond all belief.

The development and articulation of an alternative vision for refugee policy, and boat arrivals in particular, is something which the DLP cannot afford to postpone.  For better or for worse this issue has been put on the table for the coming election and is of major concern in our communities.  I do not have the expertise to say what this alternate vision should be at this time, but the Party must seek the facts and come to a position consistent with our foundations.  Others will have much to contribute as to the legal and diplomatic realities and implications.  However, from a moral perspective, I firmly believe that if an alternative is to be put forward by the DLP it must meet the standards of an ethic that prioritises the dignity of our common humanity and opposes the exploitation of the poor, the weak, the vulnerable, the disadvantaged and the voiceless”.  Such a vision is one that I believe that many of our fellow Australians would share and be prepared to support.

Rev. Luke Collings
State Chaplain
Democratic Labour Party (NSW)

23rd July 2013

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