Friday 19 June 2015

Leadership All At Sea


Last month, an Australian naval vessel, HMAS Wollongong, intercepted a boat carrying 65 asylum seekers en route to New Zealand in international waters. It is alleged that an Australian official in civilian clothes boarded the asylum-seeker’s vessel and proceeded to pay US$6,000 to the captain and then $5,000 to each of five crew members to return the refugees to Indonesia in two replacement boats. When one of the boats ran out of fuel, the asylum-seekers transferred to the second boat. It eventually hit a reef, from where the passengers were rescued by local villagers. This week, an Indonesian police general provided photos of the cash and statements by the smugglers who described the alleged transaction.

As we have endlessly heard, the standard government response to that allegation, behind which the politicians of all persuasions have all been hiding, has been, “We do not comment on operational matters.” The Minister for Immigration, the Attorney General and the Foreign Minister all at first denied the accusation before ducking behind that smokescreen. The Leader of the Opposition was no different.  Mr Bill Shorten denied that the Labor Party, when in government, ever made bribes at sea. But when asked if they ever made such transactions on land, he went back into “no comment” mode.  All shunning accountability.

In the so-called Operation Sovereign Boarders, or any strategic or military operation, not to comment on strategies or logistics is understandable, if not condoned. Even if you do not agree with this policy, you could understand the government not making public where naval vessels were patrolling, or how they gathered intelligence data, or what communications they had with other nations along the paths taken by asylum-seekers, and so on. But this allegation?  Well, if it were true, I could appreciate the government not confirming that they had (as some wits described it) commissioned floating ATMs off the coast to hand out US$30,000 to any passing vessel of refugees. That is a strategy hardly likely to stem the refugee tide.

Our Pope Francis describes refugees perishing at sea, in what he calls “vehicles of death”, as “a thorn in my heart”. Meanwhile, on the other side of the globe, our political leaders are simply heart-less.  Heartless in their lack of compassion. And heartless in their lack of boldness to take the moral lead. Francis has been passionate in speaking of these abandoned people. He reminds us:

They are human people … remember that in tending the wounds of refugees, evacuees and the victims of trafficking, we are putting into practice the commandment of love that Jesus bequeathed to us when he identified with the foreigner, with those who are suffering, with all the innocent victims of violence and exploitation.

Experts in international law have said that if these current reports were confirmed then, under international protocols and Australian law, such activity would be tantamount to people-smuggling.  That is, the government would be complicit in the very crime it was claiming to eradicate.

The Prime Minister said the government would stop the boats “by hook or by crook”. “By hook or by crook” means “by any means possible” – legal means or illegal means. Moral or immoral means. It is hard to believe that the nation’s government embraces that phrase as a moral principle, as a way of proceeding. It is simply wrong to assert that “the end justifies the means”. I would expect that every ‘View boy would know that you cannot do evil to achieve good. That principle seems to have been lost by the policy-makers somewhere along the way.

There have been further disappointing observations. Former immigration minister Philip Ruddock, and so-called “Father of the House” (that is, the most senior member of the Parliament), justified the action, saying that the government would still be saving money if it did pay off the people-smugglers. I thought fathers were to be wisdom figures, people who taught values to the next generation.  It seems not. Mr Ruddock (who is also ‘Special Envoy for Citizenship’) went on to say, “The amount of money that was allegedly paid is nothing in comparison to the cost of processing the excessive amount of people who came to Australia as a result of people-smuggling activity.” Simply an economic calculus. Doing evil to achieve good.

In response to questioning, Mr Abbott asserted, “The only thing that really counts is: have we stopped the boats? And the answer is a resounding yes.” I would respectfully suggest that the only thing that really counts is an ethical and humanitarian response by our government.

Those asylum seekers struggle to come here in “vehicles of death”, with outmoded instruments to guide their journey to a new beginning. Yet here, it seems, our leaders have dropped their moral compass overboard. And they have little left to navigate by.


Fr Ross Jones, SJ