Features Australia

The morality of mandatory detention

27 August 2016

9:00 AM

27 August 2016

9:00 AM

Last week on the ABC programme, the Drum, I confronted my unwilling conscience. The topic was the Manus Island immigration detention facility’s future after the Supreme Court of Papua New Guinea ruled the enabling agreement between Australia and PNG invalid. Immigration minister Peter Dutton confirmed the Manus closure and, other than me, the Drum panel welcomed this enthusiastically, hoping mandatory offshore detention would also be consigned to history as a cruel, inhumane policy targeting innocent asylum-seekers fleeing persecution and oppression. They were articulate and passionate in their advocacy for what they sincerely believe, as is their right. I could have simply agreed, but after agonising greatly beforehand I spoke my honest view, unpalatable as it may have been for the Drum panel and its progressive audience. I said that, like many ordinary Australians, I support keeping illegal boat arrivals in mandatory detention and, as far as possible, I avoid thinking about detainees on Manus and Nauru and, indeed, prefer to keep their plight out of sight, out of mind.

I also stressed that people-smuggling is a repugnant and morally-disgusting trade. Hesitantly and inelegantly, I said that while I’m not proud of staying deliberately detached about the situation and well-being of offshore detainees, stopping people-smuggling by making reaching Australia futile more than justifies the harshness. Stamping out that vile trafficking, and keeping people from boarding rickety death-traps and drowning at sea, must remain uppermost in Australia’s policy. Maintaining offshore detention remains essential, however unpalatable and however difficult for those detained.

Those passionately opposed to mandatory offshore detention find views like mine morally unjustifiable, and I don’t really blame them. Writing in the Weekend Australian days later, Peter van Onselen mounted a passionately eloquent contrarian case, effectively arguing there are none so blind as those who will not see. PvO described those in detention found to be genuine refugees as ‘human repellent’, stuck on Manus and Nauru as a warning to others. ‘It is the modern equivalent of mounting decapitated heads on pikes around a gated medieval city to ward off enemies. Any civilised society must repudiate such a strategy’, he wrote.


Van Onselen bitterly criticised the Australian government for not allowing assessed refugees to be settled in other Western countries like New Zealand and Canada, whose governments have expressed willingness to take some of them. He wrote that in the days of the Pacific Solution, John Howard ‘quietly resettled’ assessed refugees in Australia or abroad, and implied border protection policy as applied by the Abbott-Turnbull government is more callous and cruel than anything before. Refugee activists like Q&A QC Julian Burnside and perpetually holier-than-thou Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young would agree with PvO’s view, while demanding all detained asylum-seekers are allowed into Australia without question.

As for the wider Australian community, van Onselen asserted: ‘I do not accept that the silent majority is comfortable endorsing such a strategy. Not when it is brought to their collective attention’. He’s right on that at least. As I found when confronted on the Drum, you’d have to be a sociopath to not have your conscience pricked by the realities of detainees’ plights. Yet mandatory detention retains strong public support: if anything, activists and commentators loading collective guilt for Manus and Nauru onto the rest of us merely create more resistance to easing the policy, not less. No-one likes to be told what to think and activists – even social media favourite Father Rod of Gosford Anglican Church – conveniently forget they are themselves not morally pure. While I detest myself for pushing people in offshore detention to the back of my mind, I remain reluctantly convinced Australia’s tough border protection policies are vital and necessary. They represent a real-life application of ethicists’ so-called ‘Trolley Problem’: if a runaway tram hurtles towards five people facing certain death, do you switch it to a track where you know only one person will be crushed in its path? Surely making the switch does the greatest good.

The trolley problem helps justify mandatory detention and its harsh realities. Tough treatment of illegal boat arrivals, including those assessed eligible for refugee status, deters both people traffickers and those who board unseaworthy boats at the risk of their own lives. In six years following the Rudd government relaxing the Howard-era border protection regime, no less than 40,000 asylum-seekers arrived by boat and, while precise numbers are unknown, an estimated 1,200 people drowned in the attempt. Last month, however, Dutton announced there had been no successful boat arrivals in two years: in other words, no new illegal boat passengers moving into mandatory detention, numbers in detention gradually reducing and far, far fewer people even contemplating the dangerous journey across the Indian Ocean, let alone going to sea to drown.

If it’s a matter of crude economics rather than utilitarian morality, it’s still worthwhile. The Parliamentary Library estimates Manus alone has cost around $2 billion since re-established in 2012. Imagine, however, the bill had Tony Abbott not acted decisively to stop the boats, and asylum-seekers kept pouring in at rates comparable to the 18,000 who landed in 2012-13: perhaps double the cost, including building and manning extra facilities at Manus, Nauru and probably elsewhere to accommodate them.

Provided inmates of offshore facilities are treated humanely, with adequate food, shelter and medical care, mandatory detention works. These places are not meant to be paradises, and it’s conscience-troubling that people detained on Manus and Nauru suffer as they do. But surely it’s far better this than having a flood of human misery taking again to the boats, with its ghastly accompaniment of danger and death at sea. Unless opponents of mandatory detention can find a way for confirmed refugees to be resettled while not giving a green light for the people-trafficking trade to restart, we must leave the current system in place. It’s not pleasant, and sits uneasily on middle Australian consciences, but this ghastly trolley problem was solved when Abbott switched tracks in 2013. However reluctantly, we must persevere.

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