The Golden Rule
One of the few philosophical precepts which is practically universal is captured in the Christian teaching: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. In its original Biblical expression it says: “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.”.
Described in the West as the Golden Rule, it is found in many religious and secular philosophies. It is found in Brahmanism: “This is the sum of Dharma [duty]: Do nothing to others which would cause you pain if done to you”. In Buddhism: “…a state that is not pleasing or delightful to me, how could I inflict that upon another?”. In Confucianism: “Do not do to others what you do not want them to do to you”. In Islam: “None of you [truly] believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself”. And in Taoism: “Regard your neighbor’s gain as your own gain, and your neighbor’s loss as your own loss”.
The foundation of the idea is reciprocity and, in this setting, reciprocity is an expression of enlightened self-interest. Little wonder then that the idea is widespread. At its least, it tempers our basest impulses; at its highest, it produces acts of extraordinary altruism.
But the principle of reciprocity, and the Golden Rule which springs from it, sits uncomfortably with selfishness, which is a near-universal human characteristic. Human infant are near-perfect parasites: their every instinct is directed at self-preservation. It is a necessary characteristic in creatures which remain dependent on others for a very long time, unlike the infants of other species.
So: self-interest has been naturally selected because it helps us survive to adulthood. But as we grow up we learn that the way we behave now may have consequences later. We learn that it is often strategically wise to postpone or subordinate our immediate interests in favour of others.
The tension between these forces is everywhere to be seen and especially at times of stress. There are three areas in which I want to examine this tension: in relation to global warming; in relation to our treatment of boat people, and in relation to marginalized groups within our society.
The attempt of world leaders in 2009 to reach agreement at Copenhagen on dealing with the impact of climate change provided a useful illustration. The stakes at Copenhagen could scarcely have been higher. Depending on your view of the science, the leaders of all the world’s nations were deciding whether human existence on the planet would still be viable for the grandchildren of infants born today. The same issues are still in play: right now in Paris. Who knows what the result will be.
In the tension between selfishness and enlightened self-interest at Copenhagen, enlightenment did not get a good run. The problem, of course, is that enlightened self-interest is simply selfishness deferred or subordinated in the hope that greater rewards are to be had for ourselves by accommodating the reciprocal claims of others. Our willingness to accommodate the interests of others dissolves quickly when circumstances cast doubt on whether we can collect on the promise. So as time runs out, developing nations see continued CO2 emissions as their last chance to catch up to the living standards of the developed world. And the developed nations look askance at China and India and complain that their total emissions exceed those of the West, even if the West’s per capita contribution tops the charts. Ultimately, selfish considerations triumph because no one is confident that they can collect what the principle of reciprocity promises. Where the circumstances suggest that the other side will not reciprocate your altruism, enlightened self-interest aligns with unalloyed selfishness.
Establishing a generally acceptable refugee policy faces the same tensions. It inevitably involves striking a balance between the same, mutually incompatible human sentiments: selfishness and enlightened self-interest. At its foundation, our willingness to help others in distress springs from the fear that we may ourselves be in like distress some day, and would wish to be treated kindly. Or else it springs from a sense of guilt that we have somehow permitted another to suffer in ways which conscience cannot justify. It is no accident that the Refugees Convention was the product of World War II and, especially, the horrors of the Nazi death camps when they were exposed to the World’s gaze in 1945. Although most people in most nations must have reckoned as slight their prospects of ever being refugees in like circumstances, the enormity of what had happened persuaded them that they should be charitable. Many countries, including Australia, had avoided doing anything to help Jewish refugees before the war. A combination of guilt and fellow-feeling persuaded the world community to do better in the future, or at least to promise to do so.
Having signed the Refugees Convention, Australia was in the happy position of being geographically remote from most of the places which have, typically, generated refugee flows. We created a modest off-shore resettlement programme, under which a fixed number of refugees would be identified in refugee camps overseas and would be offered resettlement in Australia. This had the dual benefits of instilling a sense of our own virtue and, incidentally, enabling us to select refugees in accordance with our current demographic needs and social inclinations.
But it was still, ultimately, about numbers. Clearly enough, after the War, Australia set out to increase the population. “Populate or perish” was the catch-cry. The objective was helped by migrants and refugees.
Of course, some refugees managed to arrive here apart from the resettlement programme, but in such small numbers as never to present any difficulty or, let it be noted, provide any great opportunity for political exploitation. We were, without having to say so, able to decide who came into Australia and the circumstances in which they came.
After the Vietnam war things changed. Large numbers of Indo-Chinese boat people headed this way and – unlike the position in previous wars – the point of displacement was not very far away. The Coalition government of Malcolm Fraser took a stand of clear principle: we had been involved in the Vietnam war; our involvement was part of the reason people were fleeing; we therefore had a moral responsibility to receive them. And we did, in substantial numbers. They arrived at a rate of about 25,000 a year, but they were absorbed into the community with relatively little fuss. Their children are now doctors and engineers and scientists; their cuisine is now an embedded part of our way of life.
Our response was very different during the Prime Ministership of John Howard, even though the arrival rate was much smaller. During the whole of John Howard’s time as Prime Minister, the total number of boat people who came to Australia was about 15,000: a smaller total in 11 years than came in the first four years of the Fraser government.
What the Howard years showed is that the public can quickly be inflamed to fear and hatred of refugees if that course commends itself to the government. There are three main approaches which will achieve this result: emphasize their ‘otherness’; call them criminals; and create the spectre that they are coming in large numbers. The Howard government used each of these devices. Each of them affects the balance between selfishness and enlightened self-interest. If they seem to be very different from us, we will have more trouble getting used to them; if they are criminals, we need to be protected from them; if they come in large numbers we will not be able to cope. With attitudes like these, enlightened self-interest suggests that we should discourage or repel them. What good can come of it? And of course if they are ‘illegals’ then they simply do not deserve our charity. [Please note: boat people are not “illegal”. It is not an offence to arrive in Australia without papers and seek protection from persecution. Would someone please tell the tabloid journalists this simple fact. And then tell the politicians.]
The Rudd government also came under pressure about refugee policy. Rudd’s first Immigration Minister, Senator Chris Evans, abolished the shameful Temporary Protection Visas and announced a new philosophy of immigration detention. A key element of this was that immigration detention should be for as short a time as reasonably possible, and children should not be in detention at all, except as a last resort. This did not cause any grief when it was announced in July 2008, perhaps because very few asylum seekers were arriving on our shores. (Australians are capable of great generosity, especially if it is not called on).
But by the start of 2009, things had begun changing. Afghanistan had convulsed again, with the Taliban’s brutality causing a new wave of terrified Hazaras to flee. And in Sri Lanka the ill-fated attempt of the Tamil Tigers to establish their own homeland was finally crushed. Refugee boats began arriving regularly. By the end of 2009, about 2,800 boat people had come to Australia, most of them being taken to Christmas Island for processing. Newspaper headlines emphasized the number of arrivals, and the Federal Opposition, led by Tony Abbott, began taunting the government with the suggestion that refugees were arriving in Australia as a result of the Rudd government’s “soft line on border protection”. It seems that Christmas Island was used as a place of detention and processing for political and strategic reasons. But Christmas Island is tiny, and its detention capabilities were eventually overstretched, creating an artificial crisis of sorts.
The public reaction was not quite as it had been in 2001 when the Tampa rescued 438 Afghan asylum seekers from a sinking boat. But the Tampa episode happened just two weeks before September 11, and refugee policy elided with border control and swiftly morphed into border protection. Suddenly we needed to be protected from refugees. This time the reaction was simply a reaction to the numbers.
Under the leadership of Tony Abbott, the Opposition started talking up the numbers, creating a climate of panic in the tabloid media in which the numbers could be deployed to poison the public mood. The argument – sometimes explicit, sometimes just conveyed by impressions – was that we must not receive refugees in large numbers because we are a large, but dry, continent; we must conserve our precious resources, especially water; we cannot take all the world’s refugees, so we must adopt a firm stance: people smuggling is a ‘vile’ trade, and we must not be soft on people smugglers. If we are seen as a soft touch, we will be overrun. It is worth noting that Kevin Rudd responded to Abbott’s fear-mongering by criticizing people-smugglers and (in his second reincarnation as PM) revived harsh treatment of boat people as a deterrent measure.
It is at this point that the tension between selfishness and enlightened self-interest is tested. Selfishness inclines us to keep this country to ourselves, and to share it only with people who can benefit us. Enlightened self-interest tells us that refugees, and migration generally, have benefitted Australia in countless ways and it tells us something more subtle about the idea of being true to your values. But concerns about climate change and environmental sustainability of finite resources are readily harnessed as a rational basis for resisting increased numbers of refugees. After all, it is argued, the carrying capacity of this fragile continent is finite and limited. Millions of refugees are on the move, and we cannot take them all. It sounds respectable and rational, especially as we consider the need to take into account the prospect of environmental refugees in the near future. But there are several answers to this which present, and future, governments will have to take into account.
First, the number of boat people getting to Australia at present is still tiny and is likely to remain so. Looking at global refugee flows misses the point that very few of them come here. If numbers are a concern, here are some to consider:
- Australia’s population: 23 million
- Number of visitors arriving in Australia each year (for tourism, business etc): ~ 4.5 million
- Number of permanent new immigrants each year: ~185,000
- Refugee/humanitarian quota per year: 13,500
- Number of asylum seekers who come to Australia by air each year: ~5,000 (it varies)
- Number of asylum seekers who came to Australia by boat in 2009: approx 2,800 (equivalent to 5 days’ migration intake)
It is hard to understand why anyone can be much troubled by an unauthorised arrival rate of 2,800 per year. Or 8,000 or 28,000. In the abstract, it makes sense to be concerned about the number of unauthorised arrivals each year: but as a matter of practicality, there can be no rational basis for concern unless the numbers are demographically relevant which, in Australia, they clearly are not. The Australian situation is very different from that in other countries: some Asian and African countries receive millions of unauthorised arrivals each year; Europe receives hundreds of thousands of unauthorised arrivals each year.
We have never had that problem in Australia, nor are we likely to. The arrival rate of asylum seekers in Australia is never likely to be very great, largely because the voyage is difficult and dangerous. Our geography insulates us, as our history demonstrates.
The largest number of boat people to arrive in Australia in any one year was just on 25,000. That was in 2012. Before and since, the numbers were much smaller. But even 25,000 people arriving in one year is not a large number, when considered in context.
Australia’s treatment of boat people came in for intense criticism by more than 100 countries at Geneva in November 2015. Because of the large number of countries who wanted to comment on Australia, each nation had only 65 seconds in which to comment on Australia’s human rights regime. It should be a source of major embarassment to us, but went largely unnoticed.
An Alternative Approach
If I could re-design the system, it would look something like this. Boat-arrivals would be detained initially for a maximum of one month, for preliminary health and security checks. That detention would be subject to extension but only if a court was persuaded that a particular individual should be detained longer.
After that period of initial detention, boat arrivals would be released into the community on an interim visa with a number of conditions that would apply until the person’s refugee status was decided:
- they would be required to report regularly to a Centrelink office or a post office, to make sure they remained available for the balance of their visa processing;
- they would be allowed to work;
- they would be entitled to Centrelink and Medicare benefits;
- they would be required to live in a specified rural town or regional city.
A system like this would have a number of benefits. First, it would avoid the harm presently inflicted on refugees held in detention. Prolonged detention with an unknown release date is highly toxic: experience over the past 15 years provides plenty of evidence of this.
Second, any government benefits paid to refugees would be spent on accommodation, food and clothing in country towns. There are plenty of towns in country areas which would welcome an increase in their population and a boost to their local economy. According to the National Farmers Federation, there are about 90,000 unfilled jobs in rural areas in Australia. It is likely that adult male asylum seekers would look for work, and would find it.
But let’s look at some hypotheticals. Let us suppose that the unprecedented spike in arrivals seen in 2012 becomes the new normal: so, we will expect about 25,000 boat people to arrive here each year. And let’s suppose all of them stay on full Centrelink benefits for the whole time it takes to decide their refugee status.
If these very unlikely possibilities come about, it would cost the Federal Government about $500 million a year, all of which would go into the economy of country towns. By contrast, the current system costs about $5 billion a year. That’s an unimaginably large amount of money. If you need another measure, each year our detention system costs about one million Geelong Chopper Rides. By adopting this alternative approach, we will not only stop causing great harm, we will save about $4.5 billion a year, and we would be doing good rather than harm.
The Need to Deal with These Problems
It is vital for the future of Australia that we understand these matters clearly, because there is another predictable source of quasi-refugees in the foreseeable future: people from Pacific Island nations which become uninhabitable because of climate change. Global warming is a fact. Only contrarians and the lunatic fringe are putting up any real opposition to the idea that the IPCC reports are accurate, but possibly conservative.
Whether or not we manage to co-operate globally to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the polar ice-caps are melting, glaciers are retreating, and the Greenland Ice Shelf is at serious risk. Apart from regional effects on arable land and the consequent effects on world food supplies, population in low-lying areas will be profoundly affected by rising sea levels.
A sea level rise of one to two metres, coupled with the effect of tidal surges and storms, will displace tens of millions of people around the world. Displaced populations in the coastal areas of continents and large islands will likely move inland. Depending on the continued viability of coastal cities, the movement is likely to be slow – it will likely happen over a number of decades. Abnormal weather events, like Hurricane Katrina, may cause sudden displacement of large populations, although they will probably not be permanent displacements.
Pacific islands present a different challenge. Many of them already have fragile economies. Many of them are low-lying. As a matter of certainty, a number of them will disappear or become unlivable if sea levels rise between one and two metres. Their inhabitants will look to Papua New Guinea, Indonesia and (especially) Australia.
Although we think of them in prospect as ‘environmental refugees’, this is not accurate as a matter of law. A refugee is a person who meets the criterion in the Refugees Convention of 1951, that is: a person who, being outside his or her country, is unable or unwilling to return to it because of a well-founded fear of persecution on grounds of race, religion, nationality, politics etc.
Environmental refugees may be unwilling to return – and if their country has disappeared, they certainly will be unable to return – but not for fear of persecution. They are not refugees within the Convention definition. But we refer to them as refugees because of the obvious analogy between their position and that of other refugees.
Environmental refugees may turn out to be the greatest challenge facing Australia in the domain of refugee policy during the next generation. What will we do to prepare ourselves to meet the challenge? And what is the right response to the challenge? For reasons set out later, I do not think the demographic challenge associated with environmental refugees is terribly difficult. What may be more difficult is the ethical challenge. Put simply, will we turn them away and let them drown? Or will we receive them and treat them humanely?
The Copenhagen Conference ended in failure. What was seen by many as an opportunity for the human race to respond in a united way to a global threat which has no equivalent in recorded history has generated no agreement, no united front: it was dominated by national selfishness. There seemed to be general agreement that the problem is important and real, but the response brings to mind the unhappy image of a philosophical debate between the pilot and the navigator as the 747 heads spectacularly towards a mountain. The seriousness of the matter was well expressed by Christina Ora from the Solomon Islands. She published in The Age newspaper an account of the speech she gave at Copenhagen. She said:
“I am 17 years old. For my entire life, countries have been negotiating a climate agreement. My future is in front of me. In the year that I was born, amid an atmosphere of hope, the world formed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change to solve the climate crisis.
In the Solomon Islands, my homeland, communities on low-lying atolls are already being displaced by rising sea levels. Communities have lived on these atolls for generations. Moving from one province to another in the Solomon Islands is not just like moving house. Your land is your identity. It is part of your culture. It is who you are.
I am scared, and so too are the people from these atolls about what this means for our culture, our communities and our identity …”
There are great technical questions involved in our response to climate change, and great political questions involved in responding in a way which will be effective. But Christina Ora got directly to the heart of the moral problem when she wrote those words. Her home and her identity are threatened in the most fundamental way. What are we going to do about it? At present, the answer seems to be: nothing useful.
The civilized nations of the world need to recognise the fact that environmental refugees are human beings who deserve a place to stand and a chance to survive, because they, like us, are members of the human race. But their claim for our help is stronger than that. The wealth of the developed world, the wealth we enjoy today in Australia, was created by the very activities which have caused global warming. The conditions we enjoy today came at a price to the environment, a price we have been able to recognise for at least the time since Christina Ora was born. We cannot decently expect the Pacific Islands to pay the price for us. The life we enjoy so much in Australia has had its impact on Christina Ora’s country: an impact which may prevent her from having a place to live. She wrote:
“Because of climate change, I am uncertain about what is to come. How can I feel that my future is safe? How can I be sure that my home village won’t disappear in 10 years’ time? How can I be sure that my community won’t have to find a new home? How can I be sure that I will be able to raise my children in the same place that my mother and father raised me? I am not sure. I am scared and worried.”
We owe her.
Apart from all the other steps which need to be taken, we need a new international treaty which recognizes environmental refugees as people who are entitled to protection. It is a global problem and calls for a global response. This is no revolutionary idea: it is a matter of simple decency. It is the Golden Rule in action. Unfortunately, apart from trade and commerce, we are not good at global co-operation. Australia can, and should, develop its own framework for the protection of environmental refugees who arrive on our shores. Ideally, it should be done in co-operation with our Pacific neighbours.
Australia is well placed to take constructive steps to help protect environmental refugees from the Pacific. It will certainly need careful and sensitive planning, because environmental refugee flows are likely to have features which are not shared by traditional refugee flows. In particular, their escape to safety is likely to be more planned, and much less hurried, than is typical among those fleeing persecution. The threat can be seen long before it hits. Entire communities are likely to move. Resettling them should take account of that reality. This brings with it an increased need to help preserve their cultural integrity as far as possible.
The prophets of doom will, of course, raise the spectre of Australia being engulfed by a tide of environmental refugees. In truth, the likely numbers will not be very great in demographic terms. For example, the population of all the islands comprising Micronesia is a total of about 575,000 people. The population of all of the islands comprising Polynesia is a total of about 662,000 people. The population of all of the Pacific islands, is about three million people. Even in the unlikely circumstance that all of those three million people had to be absorbed into the Australian population over the course of 10 years, it would be manageable, although it would have a significant demographic impact. On present trends, regardless of climate change, we are likely to receive, voluntarily, about two million permanent new migrants over the next 10 years.
Of course it is highly unlikely that the entire population of the entire Pacific would need, or for that matter choose, to move to Australia. So the numerical size of the problem will certainly be less than three million people. A more realistic way of looking at the matter is to consider which Pacific islands are most likely to become uninhabitable over the next decade. That restricts the range to the smaller islands. If we adopt a population of 50,000 or less as indicating smaller islands which are more likely to be inundated and made uninhabitable by rising sea levels, the picture becomes much simpler. There are 11 island nations in Oceania with populations smaller than 50,000. Their combined populations total 87,000 people. That number of people could be absorbed into the Australian community in a single year with no discernable difficulty at all.
As a matter of ordinary human experience, people are generally reluctant to leave the place of their birth unless they have to. If the population of low-lying islands in the Pacific are forced to move because their homeland becomes uninhabitable, the scale of the problem is one which Australia can manage, and the nature of the problem is one which Australia ought to manage. We should be prepared to recognise them as people who deserve protection, and grant it to them without resentment.
It may be objected that all of this sounds like a lot of trouble. Perhaps we will ask the rest of the world to shoulder the burden for us, as we did while we held Afghans and Iraquis on Nauru under the ‘Pacific Solution’, or as we did, even more brazenly, when we asked the rest of the world to take care of 78 Tamils held on the Australian Customs vessel Oceanic Viking in November 2009. But it is not as simple as that: it is not just a transient embarrassment that the international community thinks poorly of us for a time.
Our response to the legitimate claims of environmental refugees will define us. If we respond by shutting our doors, or by denying that environmental refugees have legitimate claims to our help, we declare ourselves to be selfish and thankless, just as surely as we showed ourselves to be callous and xenophobic when we embraced, for a time, the refugee policies of John Howard.
Given the scale of the major problems, it might be thought that individual goodness and national reputation count as trivial. But they are not. They go directly to a fundamental existential question: Do we think that we, as a nation, can survive while being true to our values? Do we genuinely believe the things we have for generations said about our ethics and ourselves? Or do we think that, when the crunch comes, it’s everyone for themselves? These questions involve much more than issues of presentation and packaging; they are matters of identity: Who are we?
If we take global warming as a reason to pull the drawbridge up, we will betray the entire accumulated legacy of human civilization which, with all its flaws, has always aspired to goodness even while falling short. We will betray the identity we have hewn for ourselves out of this tough country since the time of white settlement.
I had a conversation with Tim Costello some years ago which significantly changed my way of seeing things.
He told me of a time when he was running the Collins St Baptist Church. A guy who had been sleeping rough for quite a while had turned up at the Church wanting a feed. Tim was talking to him. The guy said that that conversation was the first time in two weeks he had had eye contact with any other human being.
I can scarcely imagine what that must be like. That man had, at least in his own mind, completely disappeared.
I have thought about that conversation often. The idea of such alienation haunts me. But there are many people in our society who have, at least in their own minds, disappeared. These are the people who, because of mental health problems, or simple bad luck, find themselves nursing a grievance that no-one wants to hear about. The more they complain, the more they are ignored; the more they are ignored, the louder they complain. The louder they complain, the more they are avoided, viewed with suspicion. And once that cycle sets in, their problems become more and more real to them, less and less real to those around them.
These are the people who ring late night talk-back radio and harangue the host until even the panel operators know to filter them out. They are the new outcasts.
My conversation with Tim came in useful during the first round of Australia’s recent panic about asylum seekers. Between 2001 and about 2006, a lot of Australians were persuaded to be anxious about boat people arriving here. After all, the Howard government had told us they were illegals; that they had thrown their children into the sea; that they had jumped a queue somewhere. And the struggle to prevent the country from being swamped by this tide of potential terrorists was paraded as “border protection”.
Howard recognised that there were votes to be taken from One Nation if only he could make us fear the alien horde and position himself as our protector. It worked.
There is a story that I have on fair authority which shows clearly what was going on. Howard was about to enter the House of Representatives to deliver his speech explaining the government’s response to the Tampa. Jackie Kelly approached him in the lobby. She said that a lot of her constituents were deserting to One Nation. Howard waved his speech in front of her and said “Don’t worry – this will fix it”. As most people thought at the time, the government’s response to the Tampa was purely political. Of course, Howard had a great run of good luck in 2001. His government refused to let the Tampa put its bedraggled cargo of rescued Hazaras ashore on Christmas Island; he cobbled together the Pacific Solution while the court case about Tampa continued. The judgment at first instance in the Tampa case was handed down at 2.15 Eastern Standard Time, on September 11, 2001. The result was not noticed in the newspapers next morning, because a group of Islamic extremists had attacked America.
From that moment, there were no terrorists, but Muslim terrorists; there were no boat people but Muslim boat people and, although it was never clearly stated, all boat people were suspected terrorists – our worst nightmare. For those who did not see through the political opportunism, boat people were aliens to be feared.
Of course, if the true facts were understood, our response would have seemed rather odd. it did not suit the politicians to acknowledge that boat people were not illegal, that there was no queue, that they had not thrown their children overboard, and that they were trying to escape the same extremists we were so frightened of.
For my sins, I became involved in the issue. I was regularly asked to speak, at public events and private, about asylum seekers. It seemed to me that the key to the problem was to explain the facts. Naively I thought that most Australians would recoil at the idea of wilfully mistreating men, women and children who had done nothing wrong but try to escape to safety.
A couple of unexpected things happened. First, I got a few death threats. It surprised me that, having done a few pretty contentious cases in my career, I should receive death threats for going to court pro bono on behalf of people who were, self-evidently, voiceless and powerless.
And whenever I was quoted in the media saying something outrageous like “It is wrong to imprison innocent children and drive them to suicide”, I would receive a torrent of hate mail.
The anger and intensity of the hate mail astonished me then, and it still does. It struck me as remarkable that people would write to a complete stranger in such bluntly abusive terms. And the mail I got was seriously, vigorously abusive.
Since I had set myself the goal of converting all of Australia to understanding the facts, I decided to answer all the hate mail. After all, these people had self-identified as disagreeing with my views. My reasoning, flawed as it looks now, was that if only the people who disagreed with me could understand the facts, then they would come around to my way of seeing things. If enough people changed their views, the government policy would have to change. Clearly I did not know what I was dealing with.
Still, I resolved to answer all the mail I could. Mail that came by post was impossible to answer because, as a rule, people who use the postal service are a forgetful lot who did not include a name or address. But most of it came by email and, even if I did not know the sender’s identity, I could respond by simply hitting the reply button.
I sat up late at night answering emails: thousands of them, mostly abusive. Some of them all in capitals; lots of exclamation marks and lots of very rude words. I am no shrinking violet, but I was astonished by the rudeness of many of the emails I got. Unpopularity brings strange rewards.
Since their complaints fell into a few recognisable patterns, I had a few standard responses. Typically I would grit my teeth and say something like “Thank you for your email. I gather you do not agree with me. But did you realise that … “ they do not break any law by coming here asking for protection; there is no queue… etc
If I was surprised by the rudeness and vehemence of most of the emails, what followed was even more astonishing. Nearly all of them responded to my reply…and every response was polite. The responses fell into a few patterns, but typically they said “thank you for answering me, I did not expect to hear from you. The facts you sent me are all very well, but …” and then they would set out other objections. I replied with more facts to answer those objections.
Over the course of thousands of bits of hate mail, I estimate that about 50% ended up saying, in substance “Thank you for discussing this issue with me. I agree with you now”; and about 25% ended up saying, in substance “Thank you for discussing this issue with me. I don’t agree with you, but it is good that you stand up for what you believe”. The other 25% remained entirely unconvinced and, I assume, continued to vote for Mr Howard.
What struck me in all this was the story Tim had told me. I guessed that the people who wrote to me – and who did not expect a reply – were so alienated from the community that their only means of expressing their anger and fear and resentment and confusion was by writing to someone mildly prominent.
It occurred to me then that the passion which drove their initial hostility was the mark of people who were alienated from the community: they were accustomed to being ignored, so they fall to shouting abuse as a way of getting attention. Just once listen to them, and they quickly fall back to observing the ordinary rules of civil behaviour.
This is not just an argument for good manners: I think it goes much deeper. Too many people in our community feel alienated from it and that alienation is unstable: it tends not to self-correct, but to amplify itself.
We are a prosperous country: most of us are genuinely lucky. But we are not good at sharing our luck, and we have a strange habit of thinking that those who are less lucky must be, in some way, responsible for their own misfortunes.
There are many reasons why members of the community become alienated from it. They may have been dealt a bad hand: they have been born poor, they have been badly educated, they have a mental or physical disability, they have bad luck in employment, they make bad choices which lead them into a hopeless life. Any one of these disadvantages can lead to a cascade of events which leave a person at the bottom of the pile. And when compassion turns to vindictiveness these people suffer twice for the disadvantages they could not avoid.
Because everyone, it seems, knows my name, address and occupation I get a lot of unsolicited requests for pro bono help. It has been interesting, not to say distressing, to see the sort of troubles that plague people in our community. I get a large number of requests for help. I make it clear that all I can do is offer pro bono advice. I have a group of talented interns who help me deal with the problems.
What is distressing is that the majority of people who write to me this way do not in fact have a recognisable legal or human rights problem. Typically they are people who have had some bad luck, have made some bad choices, and find themselves trapped in a spiral of disadvantage, distress, unemployment and mental instability. At that point, anything that looks like a legal or human rights problem prompts them to reach out for help. I imagine that medical clinics have a similar experience.
When I write to them with further questions, or with advice about what to do, it usually becomes clear that they have already been to just about every imaginable place for help: Legal Aid, a Community Legal Centre, government departments, their local doctor or MP. No-one can help them, because they have no single, clear problem apart from the fact that they feel alienated from everything. Part of their distress is caused by feeling so isolated.
The most distressed, and distressing, group are people who are probably paranoid schizophrenics. One person who writes to me quite often is convinced that the police, and other government agencies, are spying on him all the time and that they have a secret control order against him. He is intelligent and well-educated. He sends video footage of ordinary street scenes, at the traffic lights, in shopping centres, in suburban streets and he asserts (and no doubt believes) that various people captured on his videos are in fact plain clothes operatives – stalking him, watching him, keeping him in a kind of open prison. He points out, rationally enough, that such conduct is a serious breach of his human rights. And if the innocuous scenes he sent showed what he sees, he would be right. But they do not show what he sees. They prove nothing at all. He insists that the Commonwealth government have a secret control order against him: but he can offer no explanation how a control order can work, if it is kept secret from everyone.
The difficulty with people like this man is that they cannot be convinced that their view of the facts does not line up with reality. And it is hard for a lawyer to tell a would-be client that he needs psychiatric help.
The end result is that people like him get pushed from pillar to post but rarely if ever get the help they actually need.
There are only a couple of bright spots in this dismal tale.
The first concerns a lady who turned up in my chambers one lunchtime, quite distressed and wanting to see me. We chatted for a bit, but the long and short of it was that she had been receiving treatment for paranoid schizophrenia, her treatment had been interrupted; she became convinced that her treating doctor was trying to kill her with the medications he had prescribed, so she decided not to take it any more. She wanted me to take possession of the diary she had been keeping because she was confident that she would soon be killed and she wanted me to have the evidence which would identify the guilty party.
We spoke for some time. Somehow I managed to persuade her to go to a new doctor – someone who could not possibly know or conspire with her treating doctor – and agree to take whatever medication he prescribed. In the meantime I would protect her diary.
About two months later she turned up again. She had been to another doctor. She had taken the medication he prescribed. She was feeling a lot better, and realised that she had misjudged her original doctor. In the circumstances, she did not need me to look after her diary any more.
How odd that one of my few successes in the field of human rights should result from a modicum of medical knowledge and a bit of common sense.
The second bright spot is this. Most of the people who write asking for pro bono help have simply not got a legal problem. While they may have had a genuine legal problem in the past, typically it is buried in history and statute barred years or decades before. The real problem is that their lives have gone off track, and they no longer feel any connection to the society which has let them down so badly. A surprising number of these people seem to benefit from having their problem taken seriously, from getting a written advice in response to their letter, or from being listened to for half an hour.
The message is clear: in our Society there is a large number of people who feel alienated. They feel, with some justification, that the show is being run for the benefit of others and not for them.
A decent concern for our fellow citizens says that we should notice these alienated ones and help them know that they belong with us. And if simple human decency will not impel us to do it, then enlightened self-interest should: once there is a large enough group of disaffected individuals in our midst, the chances of some of them taking steps to damage the rest of us increase. And who is to say they are wrong? Who among us would long tolerate being excluded from the goods Society has to offer?
The moral rebranding of a nation goes to the heart of inter-generational justice, just as surely as our environmental legacy does. But this is easily overlooked. It involves more than issues of deceptive packaging. We are handing over to the next generation a world beset by problems which are unique in human history and which do, without exaggeration, involve challenges for civilization as we understand it, and perhaps for the continued survival of the human species. We should avoid saddling the next generation with a tarnished national reputation to add to these burdens. But more than that, we should try to hand over a country which has had the decency to be true to its declared values.
Individuals and groups have faced equivalent tests before this. Many people have seen the film Hotel Rwanda. It is set against the backdrop of the genocide which occurred in Rwanda in the first half of 1994, when Hutu rebels slaughtered 900,000 Tutsis in the space of 100 days. The central figure in the film is Paul Rusesabagina.
Paul is a Hutu married to a Tutsi woman. He is manager of a hotel in Kigali. When the Hutu uprising begins, the world turns its back on the slaughter. Paul turns the hotel into an ad hoc refugee camp for almost a thousand people, and keeps them safe at immense personal risk. He calls in favours, he bribes corrupt officials and he witnesses unspeakable horrors. There is a key moment in the film where he has a chance to escape to safety, but decides, on the instant, to stay at the hotel until the refugees are safe. We see it immediately as an act of heroism but also of madness – Who in their right mind would risk taking on the Hutu mob?
The remarkable thing is that the film is entirely true. Paul Rusesabagina commanded personal resources beyond imagining. He succeeded in saving the 1,000 refugees who crowded into his hotel; with them, he escaped to safety; he now lives in Belgium. He has been given Amnesty International’s “Enduring Spirit” award, and in 2000 he received the Immortal Chaplain’s Prize for Humanity.
He brings to mind Primo Levi’s friend Lorenzo, in Auschwitz. Levi wrote of him:
“… he constantly reminded me, by his presence, by his natural and plain manner of being good, that there still existed a just world outside our own … a remote possibility of good, but for which it was worth surviving…”
The events in Rwanda developed with astounding speed: no-one recognised in advance the direction things would take; no-one imagined in advance that the Hutu uprising would be so swift and so savage.
It is not possible for any of us to know how we would respond in similar circumstances. It is undeniable however that some people have the strength to recognise that there is a time to say, regardless of the cost, “this cannot happen”.
We are mistreating boat people, out of a misconceived fear that they are criminals: a fear provoked by political lies.
We are denying the reality of climate change.
We are increasingly disinclined to notice those of our own citizens whose luck has dealt them a bad hand.
And all the while we cherish the belief that, as a nation, we are generous, decent people.
Paul Rusesabagina held true to his principles at the point when it mattered most; in Auschwitz, Primo Levi’s friend Lorenzo did the same. Most of us would like to think we could act with similar decency, even if we had not the same courage.
But we are failing the test with refugees, and soon we will be tested again. The circumstances will not be as dramatic; it will not be the occasion for epic heroism. But our choices will decide whether our neighbours in the Pacific have a chance of living, or will be left to drown as their islands disappear. We will choose between selfishness and decency. Our response to the plight of climate refugees will tell the next generation of Australians who we were. Will we be true to them? Will we be true to ourselves?
If we had to answer that question right now, as the Federal Government shows by its conduct that it does not believe global warming is real, then the answer would be disappointing. So it is time to stand up and declare ourselves. Australia can cope with the predictable number of climate refugees likely to seek a home here. We like to think that it is in our decent and generous nature to help those who need our help. We can do it. We can do it and survive.
For the sake of future generations of Australians, let us hope that we will we be true to ourselves when it counts. If we are to be led by enlightened self-interest, we need to recognize minimal cost of living up to our ideals, and the immense value of doing so.
 King James Bible, Matthew 7:12
 Mahabharata, 5:1517
 Samyutta Nikaya v. 353
 Analects 15:23
 Number 13 of Imam Al-Nawawi’s Forty Hadiths
 T’ai Shang Kan Ying P’ien
 “What you would avoid suffering yourself, seek not to impose on others.”
 “May I do to others as I would that they should do unto me.”
 “Do not do to others that which would anger you if others did it to you.”
 “Treat your inferiors as you would be treated by your superiors.”
 “Act as if the maxim of thy action were to become by thy will a universal law of nature.”
 If This is a Man Primo Levi.