n the asylum-seeker front, it has been a big week for expressive — as opposed to instrumental — politics. In Melbourne on Thursday morning, protesters abseiled from the Yarra Bend Bridge to unfurl a banner over the Eastern Freeway. It read “Let Them Stay”.
This was the most striking entry so far in support of the campaign that 267 asylum-seekers, temporarily in Australia, should not be returned to offshore detention in Nauru.
Hannah Patchett, a 22-year-old abseiler, posted a message on Facebook that read: “It’s outrageous that we even have to protest torture against children; we’re calling on the Australian government to uphold their obligations to international human rights conventions.”
Now, children in detention are not being tortured by the Australian government.
Nor is there any evidence that Australia has failed to uphold obligations to international human rights conventions with respect to asylum-seekers. It’s just part of expressive politics to engage in hyperbole, irrespective of the unintended consequences of such high-profile advocacy.
In fact, detention centres at Manus Island and Nauru provide a much higher quality of life than refugee camps in most, if not all, parts of the world. German sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920) used to distinguish between “the ethic of responsibility” and “the ethic of ultimate ends”. Those who embraced the ethic of responsibility understood that successful democratic politics was all about slow boring through hard boards. Outcomes are achievable, but only after a degree of compromise.
However, individuals who embrace an ethic of ultimate ends effectively declare: “Here I stand, I can do no other.” It’s a noble gesture, but one that rarely achieves pragmatic outcomes.
Frank Parkin, in his 1968 study of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in Britain titled Middle Class Radicalism, developed Weber’s theories in the context of 20th-century Western democracies. He distinguished between advocates of instrumental and expressive politics.
The former are “primarily concerned with the attainment of power to bring about desired ends, even if this means some compromise of principles”. Whereas the latter are “mainly concerned with the defence of principles, even if this means relinquishing power”.
Patchett and fellow members of the “Let Them Stay” movement are into expressive politics. What matters above all is the purity of the protest and the proclamation of a higher morality.
It was much the same earlier this week when 100 of Australia’s self-proclaimed “most prominent comedians” wrote an open letter addressed to “Rich White Men Who Are In Charge Of Things”, which was carried by Buzzfeed.
The likes of Adam Hills, Tom Ballard, Judith Lucy, Rod Quantock OAM (really), Chris Taylor, Tony Martin, Celia Pacquola and even Steve Vizard told Australian political leaders: “Come on, bros: we’re talking about 37 babies here. You politicians are supposed to kiss babies, not deport them.”
This is simply expressive politics. It’s not at all likely that Malcolm Turnbull and Immigration Minister Peter Dutton will read the petition and declare: “Yep; Ron Quantock OAM and his fellow funny bros are right. Let’s end offshore detention today.” But parading their collective conscience makes Australia’s “most prominent comedians” feel good.
Then there are the churches, which are very much in the “my-morality-is-higher-than-your morality” business.
Last week Peter Catt, the Anglican Dean of Brisbane, declared: “Many of us are at the end of our tether as a result of what seems like the government’s intention to send children (back) to Nauru. So we’re reinventing, or rediscovering, or reintroducing, the ancient concept of sanctuary as a last-ditch effort to offer some sense of hope to those who must be feeling incredibly hopeless.”
The concept of sanctuary, whereby Christian churches once provided asylum to people not guilty of major crimes, prevailed in parts of Europe from the 5th century to around the time of the French Revolution. It has no applicability whatsoever to contemporary Australia and, consequently, cannot resolve the asylum-seeker issue.
Misha Coleman, a member of the City of Yarra council in Melbourne, who also happens to be executive officer of the Australian Churches Refugee Taskforce, has supported Catt.
Interviewed on ABC 702’s Mornings with Wendy Harmer on February 4, Coleman railed against “state-sanctioned abuse” and advanced the cause of sanctuary. She did not indicate how such a proposal would work in Australia. And no one mentioned that Coleman was a member of the Greens Party.
Hills and his bros Patchett, Catt and Coleman are all into expressive politics. Which raises the question — what is the instrumental answer to the issue of those asylum-seekers who are in Australia as medical patients or family members of a medical patient?
Here’s a modest proposal. Get Patchett off the Yarra Bend Bridge, encourage Catt to go back to the pulpit, suggest to Hills that he is best doing stand-up and remind Coleman of her obligation to attend to dangerous potholes in Fitzroy North.
The truth is that neither the Coalition nor Labor wants to detain asylum-seekers offshore if there is a realistic alternative. When Kevin Rudd’s government announced a softening in border protection following the defeat of John Howard’s government, it put the people-smugglers back into business with resultant drownings. Neither the Coalition nor Labor wants to repeat this error.
As the Prime Minister indicated on Insiders last Sunday, any surrender to the “Let Them Stay” campaign could restart the surge in unlawful boat arrivals by asylum-seekers who are seeking a secondary movement to Australia from nations such as Indonesia and Malaysia.
The likeliest way to satisfactorily resolve the problem is for ethics-of-ultimate-end types to go silent for a while and leave the matter to those devoted to an ethic of responsibility in much the way that detention centres were essentially cleared initially by Howard and later by Tony Abbott. This is an issue that can be resolved only by instrumental politics.
Expressive politics, containing much exaggeration, delivers media coverage but rarely desired outcomes.