Asylum backflip ends false moral purity

The Federal Government's decision to reinstate offshore processing for asylum seekers signals the end of Labor politics based on a false moral purity, and the return to political pragmatism, according to a University of Western Sydney political expert.


The decision to pursue the Pacific Solution and reopen the detention centers on Nauru and on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea comes after the Federal Government accepted the findings of its expert panel investigating the issue.

Dr Burchell, from the UWS School of Humanities and Communication Arts, is the author of "Western Horizon: Sydney's Heartland and the Future of Australian Politics".

He says the decision by the Labor government to accept the agenda laid out by the Houston report – and the strikingly muted criticisms of it for doing so – marks the decisive moment in Australia's ten-year old culture war over asylum-seeker policy.

"This decision brings to an end a long period of nastiness and acrimony during which Labor has been political wedged from the Right and Left simultaneously, and as a result of which it has become almost impossible to fashion any public policy in the area which was both responsible, politically practicable and reasonably humane," says Dr Burchell.

"Finally, the Houston Moment marks the final and complete failure of what The Age's Michelle Grattan describes as the 'humanitarian' approach to asylum-seekers."

Dr Burchell says Labor's decision to end the Howard government's policy of automatic detention for people who arrive to Australia without visas was bound to fail, especially given the escalating number of asylum seekers drowning at sea.

"A view which is morally absolute and refuses to compromise with other people's views or the messiness of politics can only survive in a position of virtuous isolation," says Dr Burchell.

"The moment humanitarianism became associated with mass loss of life as sea – as has happened over the last year or so - this moral purity became irremediably tarnished."

"Hence the whole sorry and tragic episode marks a rite of passage in Australian public debate: the moment when a certain style of moral absolutism, dominant in certain social and political circles ever since the late 1960s, finally ran its course."


15 August 2012

Contact: Mark Smith, Media Officer