According to this year’s Lowy Poll 48% of Australians see asylum seekers arriving by boat as a critical threat to Australia’s national interest. It is somewhat ironic then, that the greatest threat currently comes not from refugees but the Minister who oversees the refugee program, the Minister for Immigration, Mr Scott Morrison.
Two things lie at the heart of a liberal democracy. First, liberalism, the conviction that the rights of individuals must always be respected, that no individual can be sacrificed on the altar of communal well-being or political expedience. Second, accountability, the belief that we should never simply take the word of those in power that they are doing the right thing, but that they should be accountable to us. This accountability comes not only by way of elections but by maintaining systems of government that are open and transparent, by insisting that secrecy can only ever be justified in the most extreme circumstances and that even then a third party in the form of our courts can be appealed to to test the claim that secrecy is necessary.
The approach of the current government to asylum seekers arriving by boat completely trashes both these core values of liberal democracy. First the human rights of asylum seekers are being sacrificed on the altar of an imaginary communal well-being. Second, the refusal of the Minister to inform the Australian people of what is happening on the seas constitutes a flagrant violation of the notion of accountability. I can see no justification for it, no benefit that justifies abandoning transparency. It seems the government is adopting an attitude of “trust us”. Well, I don’t trust them, and the health of liberal democracy depends upon all of us not trusting them, but demanding transparency.
Liberal democracy is rarely undermined from below. Rather the challenges usually come from those who possess power seeking to avoid transparency and accountability. They get away with it because it is rarely the majority who suffer from the breakdown of liberal democracy. It is minority groups that bear the brunt. They are demonised and their human rights are trampled.
The latest example is the report that a group of asylum seekers have been handed over to the Sri Lankan Navy after an interview-at-sea assessment process that by any measure is farcical. On face value we have violated the most fundamental principle of international law concerning the protection of refugees, that they not be returned to a place of danger. It is a dramatic and disturbing escalation in the government’s efforts to “stop the boats”. Yet the Minister for Immigration refuses to release any details, refuses to confirm or deny the existence of the boat, let alone the government’s response. If anything demands transparency, critique, and accountability it is this.
So when I see the face of threat to our liberal democracy I don’t see the face of a refugee. I see the face of Scott Morrison. By this I don’t suggest the Minister or any member of the government is disingenuous in their personal motivation; I’m not calling into question their personal character; I’m not arguing that they are seeking to create some kind of Orwellian state. They have difficult responsibilities, and in my experience politicians seek to discharge them to the best of their abilities. As people of goodwill, I trust that our leaders wrestle with the ethics of governing. What I am suggesting is that in seeking the end of stopping boats, the means that are being employed are sacrificing the very foundations of a liberal democracy. And that scares me.