These are dangerous times in the competition for grand political ideas. Locking people up and throwing away the key does not help the case of liberal democracy, and its handmaiden, human rights.
The case of ‘Alex’, Australia’s incarcerated version of the Man in the Iron Mask, or Josef K, or Robinson Crusoe, is a reputational blight with a cost to Australia that goes far beyond mere squandered compassion for one man’s life. It weakens us, and runs against our own best interests. Moreover, it is simply a bad idea.
Sri Lankan ‘Alex’ has been imprisoned by Australia’s immigration system for 11 years. He’s never seen his child. Having failed the immigration character test, for a decade he has existed behind barbed wire with no sense of a future, at the pleasure of our governments. He serves as a deterrent to other boat arrivals, like a poisoned fox left on a country fence.
Beyond moral indignation that one of the world’s wealthiest nations treats people like this, and suspicions about what qualifies as “good character,” why is this against our interests? And why is it a bad idea?
Australia is spectator to the seismic shift in great powers. The wrestling match between the U.S. and China is in its first round. It poses a threat to our national wellbeing, as we try to find a balance between our security (the US alliance) and prosperity (our trade with China). Where should we place our bets?
The fact that power is bolstered by ideas is as old as communication. “Who will protect me?” is the most basic political question, one answered by village chiefs or national leaders who rally us to subscribe to political systems, those constructs that offer protection and predictability. The answer, then, is both physical and psychological.
The current physical arena includes protecting us from weapons of mass destruction, the pandemic, and the impact of global warming. It is also about guardianship of the global commons – our air, our seas, access to fresh water, the Antarctic etc. – and forfending territorial claims in disputed domains like the South China Sea through treaty and agreement. If agreement breaks down, sabres rattle.
The psychological arena is equally complex. The answer emerges from both the sense of security that we draw from physical protection, and from our sense of ourselves, including our values, national culture, and the vision of the society we’ve set ourselves to build as Australians, or Canadians, or Italians.
The U.S. feels closest to us because of our political and legal systems, and our melting-pot open societies. The ANZUS alliance has been the guarantor of our physical security for almost 70 years. Our values and societal psychology have been reinforced since the Second World War by a complex web of international agreements, exemplified by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
A regard for the sanctity of each human being is the basic building block of these agreements. It was elemental to self-determination and de-colonialisation, the expansion of civil rights and political rights, the economic empowerment of women, and the self-assumed moral imperative of wealthy nations to provide humanitarian and development aid for poor nations. It is a powerful idea that has brought a lot of good to the world.
But the sheer heft of China’s rising economic, military, cultural, and political systems is a powerful challenge to this idea. China knows that as much as it builds its economic and military might, it must also join and match in the battle of ideas. That’s why it has invested so heavily in ‘soft power’ initiatives like its network of Confucius Institutes throughout the world, to use just one example.
China suggests that a higher value, and a better building block, is whole-of-society sanctity. The interests of society trump individual rights, because a resilient society is better for everybody in the end. Imprisoning one million Uighurs for the greater good is a minor affair in country of 1.4 billion. Denying language rights to Mongolians is an afterthought.
This social and political cohesion eventually brought unparalleled wealth to China and, for now, mastery over Covid-19. By contrast, the U.S. seems in free fall, with an impoverished working class at the mercy of Covid-19 and a political class mired in contention to the point of dysfunction and stasis. China looks orderly, while the U.S. teeters on the brink of armed civil conflict, with a leader eroding the foundational values and core ideas of the Founding Fathers.
Values is one of the reasons Australia has reformed the test for immigrants. Narrow questions about Donald Bradman revealed nothing, except the parochialism of the test. Expansive questions about values – do you believe women deserve equal treatment? Do you believe in freedom of speech? Do you understand the concept of the rule-of-law? – encompass who we say are, what we are willing to fight to protect, and which team we want to bat for.
What societies are willing to protect is part of the seismic shift, reflected in the re-emergence of patriotic chauvinism. In pursuit of narrow conceptions of social cohesion and control, states like Hungary, India, or China, are restricting the idea of citizenship by winnowing what it means to belong. Dog whistling is easier in societies dominated by ethnic or religious or ideological majorities, because minorities have no effective voice, and are logical scapegoats. The state will protect most people, and will not protect others.
Conversely, in multicultural and open societies, the same tactics robs us of social cohesion, political purpose, and congruent values. The U.S. under Donald Trump is an example of the damage caused by chauvinism in a multicultural state. Stoking factionalism in a country that relies on precedent, negotiation, moderation, and consensus might cut a braggadocio’s swathe through deliberative bodies, but it leaves the polity in tatters. It creates pockets where people feel unprotected. They begin to rattle sabres.
In the coming decades, as the struggle between the U.S. and China intensifies, asserting the values of an open society, of liberal humanism, of the sanctity of the individual, and of the hard-won set of international institutions that have kept the world relatively safe and orderly for 70 years is in Australia’s interest. Protecting human rights – that amorphous and thoughtlessly wielded phrase – will be a key weapon in an armoury of values and soft power with an edge.
So why does ‘Alex,’ our Man in the Iron Mask, of such poor character that we would lock him up for 11 years and keep him from his wife and child, matter?
‘Alex’ is a Sinhalese Christian, a minority from a state with a narrowing set of values of what it means to belong. Sri Lanka is a parliamentary oligarchy effectively ruled by the Rajapakse family, Sinhalese Buddhist chauvinists with a well-mapped history of pragmatic brutality. Their values largely don’t accord with our own. ‘Alex’ sought sanctuary in a country that answered that most basic political question – “who will protect me?”
Most of us do not know what it is like to be kidnapped or mutilated, to witness executions at first hand, to have our family threatened with death, to see relatives raped, to have to bribe cops, steal, or sell out a friend to survive, or to organise an escape by boat and land somewhere ‘illegally,’ the last of which ‘Alex’ did. But hundred of thousands of high-functioning Australians (and millions in multi-cultural states) and their families have had these experiences. The experience of exposure to unbridled persecution, versus the protection of the state, is concrete.
Australia’s immigration history is a rogue’s gallery that contributed to our social fabric. Apart from our convict origins, my Soviet ex-wife bribed policemen to get her father freed from gaol. My step-father’s grandfather murdered a train conductor as he escaped Czarist Russia. My Czech father lied about his age to get accepted as a child refugee. A glamorous friend of mine was a Tamil Tiger. Many immigrant Australians will have committed crimes large and small to escape tyranny and despair. They arrive, and they build new lives as law-abiding, tax-paying citizens.
Making ministerial decisions over boat arrivals today is a classic political dilemma as defined by Max Weber, the German political theorist. Political decisions often involve good people making immoral choices to protect the integrity and wellbeing of the nation. The Rudd government fumbled it because they were dishonest in presenting it as a moral issue, instead of a political choice:
We need to protect our borders because Australians will not stand for open borders, and it’s a part of the definition of a sovereign nation. We need to abide by our international obligations in order to reinforce international order. We must fight the predatory boat trade in miserable refugees and economic migrants. We need to be compassionate, liberal, open, merciful, and just, in ways that accord with our values.
These are irreconcilable statements of fact.
The new immigration test is facile, but at least it goes to values – and character. Given a choice between a private school educated, privileged Harvard graduate, and a hard-scrabble refugee with the heart of a lion who had the courage to get on a leaky boat, I’d be choosing the former. In the years ahead, we will want to take in tens of thousands of Hong Kong Chinese, Mongolians, and Muslim Chinese who have broken laws and made arduous journeys to places that answer that fundamental question – “who will protect me.”
Besides humanist sanctuary to people who become devoted citizens, here’s another way to look at ‘character’, beyond the narrow conception our public servants are charged with. The case of ‘Alex,’ like a number of incidents involving our offshoring and interdiction programmes, has an international reputational cost that reflects our character and values as a nation. Our robust defence of human rights in the international re-ordering now under contest is a matter of national self-interest.
Give us your tired, your poor, those yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shores. For it’s these people, surely, who recognize what it means to be able to speak freely and to enjoy the rule-of-law, and who will defend these fundamentals of Australian society in the great international wrestling match of ideas that lies ahead in the 21st century.