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June 30th 2011 print

Peter Smith

Refugee Nation, why?

Conservatives need to get their compassion straight. Sometimes that means making choices between competing claims for compassion. It always means understanding all of the consequences of any action to the extent they can be discovered.


Compassion cuts more than one way


Conservative commentator Janet Albrechtsen wrote in The Australian this week that there “is a strong case for Australia to settle more than the 13,770 refugees” accepted in 2009-10. Why is there a strong case you might ask, which I do. There might be a strong economic case for immigration based on Australia’s need for more skilled workers but that isn’t the rationale for resettling refugees. The rationale for that is compassion. Australia therefore according to Ms Albrechtsen should display more compassion. Now I don’t want to pick on Ms Albrechtsen too much because I agree with most of what she writes. What I would like to do is to see where having compassion leads.

Compassion is good. It is on par with those other good things – love, charity, kindness, consideration, courtesy and so on. Not many people would disagree with the need to be compassionate as an abstract concept. It is when you get into the nitty-gritty of life that everything which seemed so clear and straightforward often becomes murky and complex.

For example, Ms Albrechtsen and Scott Morrison and Tony Abbott don’t think it is compassionate to encourage people to risk their lives on the sea in rickety boats by having inadequate border protection policies. Let us be clear about this. Imagine you have been in a refugee camp for five years with your wife and child. You have raised some money to pay for a risky life-threatening boat trip to Australia. Alternatively, you have the choice of remaining in the camp for ten more years, perhaps longer. You might die, as might your family, of some infectious disease or malnutrition.  

You decide to risk it. But you are told that out of compassion you are not allowed to take the risk. You ask, is it those paternalistic left-wingers at work. Not at all, you are told, these are all compassionate conservatives. You might say go stick your compassion somewhere uncomfortable. In fact, it is faux compassion expressed by conservatives who are embarrassed, apparently, to simply stand up for Australia’s interests. They twist and turn until they have a contorted position that they think might pass muster at a kumbaya Greens’ meeting or at the UN General Assembly. Well let me tell them that the Greens and the UN have a nose for conservatives.

Conservatives need to get their compassion straight. Sometimes that means making choices between competing claims for compassion. It always means understanding all of the consequences of any action to the extent they can be discovered. Let the Left behave like children and ignore consequences. They are better at it.

A resettled refugee is resettled somewhere. Some Australian lives close by. Would you like to live next to several refugee families whose culture is quite different to yours and who insist on you following some of their practices? Maybe they regard it as offensive for you to wash your car in the backyard baring too much flesh. Maybe they eventually congregate in such numbers that your local fast-food restaurant will no longer serve you bacon. Maybe you start to feel uncomfortable in the surroundings you have called home for many years. Does none of that matter? Does none of that deserve some compassionate consideration also?

Conservatives should want to know who the refugees are; what they can bring to Australia; how much they will cost taxpayers’; and where they will live and the effect that this might have in the short and longer term on the Australian families in the vicinity and on Australia’s cultural values. In fact these questions should be asked of all migrants and certainly refugees. Ostensibly refugees, in the first instance, are bringing nothing to the table. Australia is one of the most pleasant places to live in the world. Our Judeo-Christian culture has played an enormous part in this. We have a compassionate duty to our children and grandchildren and to their descendants to protect that cultural heritage which has given the world the best it has ever had or is ever likely to have.

I f we want to show real compassion for refugees without comprising our own  right to compassion, then we should concentrate our efforts on all of the present 44 million refugees and displaced people created by societies who appear to be incapable of governing themselves in a decent and civilized fashion. One essential step would be for the Western world to tie every dollar of international aid to the demonstrable preparedness of recipient countries to accept their own people back and guarantee their safety. This could be done progressively with each family being provided with a generous settlement allowance. It would be relatively cheap. Alone we could give each refugee $1000 by scrapping the NBN white elephant.

Left as it is the problem will just get bigger. It is plainly ridiculous that we are expected to continually pick up the pieces for dysfunctional, corrupt, backward, culturally-deficient societies that continually create chaos and despair for their own people. When is it going to stop? When is enervating palliative care to be replaced with something approaching a lasting solution? Never is the answer, if even conservatives (pathetically) ignore our own legitimate claim to compassion and say, without any kind of analysis or long-sightedness, that we should take in more refugees.

Peter Smith, a frequent Quadrant Online contributor, is the author of Bad Economics