Articles index

Boat-people facts expose preachers’ folly

The holier-than-thou pontificators are as impractical as they are morally confused

The Age, 27 Nov 01


Assertions are continuing that Australia's policy on illegal boat people is immoral, damaging to our relations with Asian countries, and against Australia's national interests.

Those assertions come from a self-selected group of public pontificators - preachers rather than thinkers - who form a foreign policy commentariat. They like to tell the rest of us, whether Government or citizen, where we have gone wrong in foreign affairs.

What their sermons say is that Government and Opposition acted immorally in treating the illegal boat people as a problem - because "we are dealing with people, not a problem" (Neville Wran); are wrong to regard them as intentional violators of Australia's sovereign right to determine which foreigners to accept as permanent residents - because they were simply poor, bewildered, and in distress through no fault of their own; and wrong to listen to the Australian people - because this simply gives way to dark "barbarisms" (Richard Woolcott), including xenophobia.

The trouble with those warm inner glows of the imperceiverant preachers is their practical consequences and moral confusions.

Why is it moral and humanitarian to let in illegal immigrants ahead of the 60,000 legal applicants already on our books? If, in response to the commentariat's censure that 20 million refugees are out there, we were to raise our immigration target and virtually double the refugee quota to 25,000 (Anglican Archbishop Carnley), why would we stop being immoral at that level? Would morality be achieved if, as one British commentator suggested, we multiplied our population six times to reach 120 million?

The commentariat claim of xenophobia is manifestly untrue. Australia's annual net migration is as large as our natural increase; those Australians born outside Australia and their immediate children account for 42 per cent of our population; represented in that population are 151 countries and 202 nationalities.

The depiction of the illegal boat people as benighted and bewildered is also seriously overdone. They have deliberately put themselves in peril to force their way into Australia, many destroying their papers to avoid subsequent deportation. Moreover, most are plainly not genuine asylum seekers, having already escaped the peril of persecution - many three times over, by making it to Pakistan, then Malaysia, then Indonesia.

Most surprising of all, perhaps, is the commentariat thesis that our policy and actions have been badly received in Asia; that we have "lost the momentum to regional acceptance" (Rawdon Dalrymple); that Asians will now "sullenly bed down for the long term in their dealings with Australia" (Paul Keating); that Asia will now trade with us less and invest in us less; that for all these reasons Australia has severely damaged its national interests.

But no evidence of an Asian revulsion of feeling or descent into sullenness has been produced - not surprisingly, since Asian countries are not silly, and particularly since none has an open borders policy. Indeed, a reduction in our attractiveness to illegal entrants means for the transit countries fewer unwelcome transients.

The Indonesian Government (though not all Indonesia's immigrant-descended commentariat) has been notably practical and sensible in its response. This despite what, according to our sermoners, it and other Asian Governments regard as the aberrations of Howard's three election victories.

And no Asian country is cutting off its nose to spite our face by threatening a trade or investment strike against Australia. Indeed, the Howard Government’s Asian policies have scarcely been failures in practice, given the 62 per cent increase between 1996 and 2000 in exports to ASEAN countries and the 26 per cent increase in South East Asians studying here.

So the commentariat have no grounds for claiming the loss of "regional acceptance" and its sister "good relations". But even if they did, to ache for approval is a psychological condition, not a foreign policy. And to go about being deferential and truckling is to treat good relations and acceptance as ends to be pursued almost regardless of cost - including one's own national interests.

Rather, good relations and acceptance should be treated as by-products, either of the happy circumstance of having overlapping national interests with others, or of the mutual adjustment of clashing national interests. Of course, some national interests are not adjustable, anyway by peaceful means. Bad relations ensue; but are the result, not the cause.

The commentariat preachers indulge a final perverseness. Many, though so unself-confident as to crave the liking of others, which makes them ready to have our policies effectively decided by others, perversely preach that Australia lacks (though it doesn’t) a self-confident and independent foreign policy.

But then, as a cleric wrote 400 years ago, "God calleth preaching folly".

(Note: Words in italics were omitted by the Editor from the published version).