Not so difficult

Greg Sheridan (“Bleeding hearts ignore the complexity of the asylum-seeker issues”, The Australian, 1/8) defends mandatory detention and other punitive treatment of asylum seekers on the ground of its purported deterrent effect on others who may contemplate dangerous boat journeys. He speaks of “the difficulty of the simple assertion that human beings must always be treated as ends in themselves, not means to influence other human being”, implying that this assertion is not always true.

The only real difficulty is defending this founding principle of the rule of law from the morally corrosive utilitarianism Sheridan advocates.

Breaching the bases of our own polity is not the only way to prevent deaths at sea; nor is a petty focus on repelling refugees from our own back yard without concern for what happens to them next. A good start would be for the world’s rich countries to cooperatively empty the refugee camps as enthusiastically as they helped fill them, a least until the average wait is reduced to months instead of decades. Until we do this, desperation will continue to drive people across the world, and Sheridan’s complaints about “procedural unfairness” and Islamists-under-the-bed will continue to sound like weak excuses for cruelty.

Get your story straight

Can anti-asylum-seeker tough-guys please get their story straight? Is your problem that boat arrivals are economic refugees fleeing poverty not persecution, or is that that their ability to pay for passage means they are too rich to be refugees? If the former, can you explain why we receive no asylum seekers from many of the world’s poorest countries, except those affected by war? If the latter, can you explain how this supposed wealth protects them from persecution?

Smoking: the final solution

Adam Creighton (“Butt out of individual choices”, The Australian, 2/8) employs a reductio ad Hitlerum argument against public efforts to reduce smoking. While he graciously allows that “[g]overnment interference that restrains individuals from inflicting harm on others is not fascism”, he sees checks on private smoking as worthy of the Third Reich because they restrict “individual choices”. But smoking is not a true choice, it is a harmful addiction, like many others which are uncontroversially subject to controls, and one from which tobacco companies profit. Checks on smoking restrain corporations from inflicting harm on individuals. That is not fascism either.

Mr Creighton bases his further claim that “smokers are in fact public benefactors” on a creative recalculation of the social costs of smoking. He achieves this by dismissing lost productivity as “personal” and the costs of loss and grief to the loved ones of those who die from smoking as “rubbish”. He also subtracts from the cost “any personal benefit smokers might derive from smoking”, although what that may be, he doesn’t say.

But Creighton’s accounting masterstroke is to factor in the aged-care savings windfall brought by so many early deaths. Instead of taxing and curbing the tobacco industry, it seems we should be thanking them for providing the final solution to the problem of an aging society.

Marketing operation

The Coalition’s absurd militarisation of refugee policy is capped off by its grandiose title of “Operation Sovereign Borders”. Following the example of “Operation Iraqi Freedom”, code names aimed at keeping military campaigns secret from the enemy are replaced by marketing labels aimed at promoting them to domestic audiences.

However, the resemblance ends there. The illegal Iraq invasion was nonetheless a genuine military event, while the Liberals’ thought-bubble is the result of taking too literally their own hyperbolic rhetoric of “border security” and “sovereignty”. Those terms properly refer to military invasion, or at the very least, some kind of clandestine incursion. Australia’s response to people openly seeking asylum here belongs in neither category.

Righters’ festival

Michael Sexton (“Writers festivals an echo chamber of opinions”, The Australian, 24/7) laments the undeniable predominance of left-wing viewpoints at Australian writers’ festivals.

In believing this to be a recent phenomenon, he seems to have fallen prey to a cognitive bias, common especially among conservatives, whereby one’s own gradual drift to the Right is mistaken for a drift in the opposite direction by the rest of the world. In fact, the progressive nature of creative people in general has been evident at least since the Enlightenment. Mr Sexton may as well bemoan the lack pacifists at a military conference.

There is a possible solution. Writers could be selected not on merit, but on political stance, favouring the conservative minority sufficiently to achieve a fifty-fifty mix. However, such social engineering may not sit well politically with its beneficiaries!

Sub lapidem

Nick Cater (“Still waiting for the Left’s condemnation”, 23/7) must have been living under a rock if he missed the criticism of the “PNG solution” from the Left – from refugee advocacy groups to the Greens to parts of the ALP, it’s been all over the news. You know, papers, radio, TV, the internet, stuff like that.

What has been notably absent is praise for the PM’s plan from the Right, or even just Mr Cater, who after all have got more than they could ever have dreamed of – just not from whom they they wanted it.

Carr plays to the peanut gallery

Bob Carr’s criticism of the High Court’s “Malaysia solution” decision  is clearly playing to the peanut gallery in the hope of pre-emptively shifting blame for any future failure of the “PNG solution”. An experienced legislator like Senator Carr would be well aware that Australian courts are bound to interpret legislation consistently with relevant international obligations – in the absence of clear words to the contrary. 

The senator points out that “it is the executive government…that ought to make the final decision on whether people be processed on Australian soil”. But if that decision breaches our obligations, then the supporting legislation must explicitly abrogate them, and its authors must then be prepared for the international and moral consequences. Unless Senator Carr is willing to do that – and let us hope he is not – he should let the courts do their job.

 

Comforting stories

Apocryphal stories of fake beggars who secretly buy mansions with their takings are popular, because they allow passers-by to feel relaxed and comfortable in the face of destitution by choosing not to believe it is real. Never mind that almost all who beg are in fact very poor.

Increasingly common assertions that asylum-seekers are “economic migrants” (for example, The Australian’s editorial, 8/7) are similarly untrue of the vast majority, but serve to soothe any discomfort caused by by our ongoing breaches of human rights obligations and the rule of law.

Blind audition

When US orchestras introduced ‘blind’ auditions in the 1980s, the proportion of female musicians hired rose from 5% to 25%. Prior to that, no doubt the auditioners sincerely believed that they were judging on merit alone – just as many are convinced that their condemnation of Julia Gillard’s performance is objective. Ancient prejudices are buried deep, and often are not conscious.

Fear, favour, or both?

Ben Macintyre (“Reporting the news without fear or favour”, The Australian, 6/7) is surely right to assert that fiercely independent former Times journalist William Howard Russell would have been “shocked … by the politicians and lawyers now swarming to control and regulate the press by law”. But it is equally likely he would be appalled by corporate or proprietorial interference in press content. A case in point: the recent secret recording of Rupert Murdoch, which has been a prominent and ongoing news story across the globe – except in media outlets he owns.

The Australian, for example, buried a small story in the Media section (“Murdoch dubs hacking probe a ‘disgrace'”, 4/7) which failed to canvass the key issue that the recording revealed the insincerity of Murdoch’s contrition before the Leveson Inquiry. Instead, it reproduced News Corp’s official line that Murdoch was motivated by “empathy” for his staff. Other News Corp outlets carried the exact same story, and not a single opinion piece on the subject.

Was this a result of fear, favour, or both?