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Cruelty is the worst policy

In general, it’s always seemed to me that when governments or individuals take an increasingly hard, harsh and inhumane stand on an issue it’s a clear signal that they’ve actually lost the battle, and are on their way to losing the war.

In a political sense, I’m thinking of the current situation in detention facilities on Manus Island. New Immigration Minister Peter Dutton is promising to maintain Scott Morrison’s “hard-line” against asylum seekers who have resorted to self-harm and protest, methods which are, in reality, their only means of expression, as the Australian government has virtually denied them access to legal process and natural justice.

This hard-line against asylum seekers protesting their fate began in Woomera and Baxter detention centres in 1999, at the instigation of the Howard LNP government. It was maintained by the ALP governments led by Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd. Sixteen years of both major parties taking a hard-line against waterborne asylum seekers has achieved absolutely nothing any of us can be proud of, and it won’t.

Similarly, the hard-line threatened by the Abbott government against the young unemployed that will see them starving and homeless as they are denied benefits for six months will achieve nothing any of us can be proud of, and will ruin lives for a very long time and likely permanently.

Taking a hard-line is very rarely necessary, and very rarely useful. A hard-line shouldn’t be the default position. Instead negotiation, mediation, conversation, and communication are civilised and humane methods of approaching difficulties. When all else fails, by all means try the hard-line, but to do this first is cruel and inhumane, and shows a lack of intelligence, imagination and skill.

Human beings have a tremendous capacity for good will and understanding. It’s a great shame our leaders don’t value this capacity, and instead believe our strength lies in brutality. It doesn’t. It never has and it never will. ‘All cruelty springs from weakness’, as the philosopher Seneca noted.

If governments and individuals are too weak and cowardly to sit across a table from other human beings in an effort to resolve difference and difficulty, they will inevitably resort to cruelty of one kind or another. Ignoring another human being in need is just as cruel as taking direct and punitive action against him or her. There are countless stories of asylum seekers achieving success and making considerable contributions to Australian society when they are given the opportunity. Instead we destroy them because our governments believe the destruction of human lives and human potential demonstrates political strength and determination.

Peter Dutton may well congratulate himself for emulating Scott Morrison’s abhorrent tactics against those legally seeking asylum in Australia. But emulating a bully is no great achievement. Australian governments have for sixteen years now proved themselves to be capable only of bullying behaviour towards human beings in the greatest distress and need, be they asylum seekers or their own citizens. Cruelty is not a strength. It is the most appalling, base and destructive weakness.

This article was first published on Jennifer’s blog No Place For Sheep.


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  1. Harquebus

    It riles me that every asylum seeker article I read never addresses the root cause of the problem. Not once do I hear about the oppressors and abusers of human rights that cause people to flee in boats nor how to combat them. Unless this is addressed, we will always have people in need of asylum.
    Caring for asylum seekers is the easy way out. Standing up for rights and liberties, now that would really be something.

  2. Kaye Lee

    Harquebus we have often written about those things. Cutting foreign aid is a big mistake. Giving warships to the Sri Lankan Navy, sending asylum seekers back to their oppressors, and engaging in yet another war on foreign soil – all of these things are things we are responsible for. The indefinite incarceration of people whose only crime is to ask for our help makes us human rights abusers. We have much to see to ourselves before we can call anyone else out.

  3. CMMC

    Abbott thinks exporting coal is the same as Foreign Aid, it raises people from poverty.

    Meanwhile, on Manus Island, PNG cops are continuing their thuggish behaviour toward refugee/detainee people. Dutton has described the very limited civil disobedience the prisoners can affect as a ‘riot’ and put on his sherriffs badge.

  4. The AIM Network

    It riles me that every asylum seeker article I read never addresses the root cause of the problem. Not once do I hear about the oppressors and abusers of human rights that cause people to flee in boats nor how to combat them. Unless this is addressed, we will always have people in need of asylum.

    Harquebus, although Kaye is right in that we have mentioned this in the past, you are welcome to submit an article addressing the issue.

  5. David

    Dutton is the puppet, Morrison is still the puppet master. There is no way he would throw all his handiwork to one of the most incompetent of Abbott’s Ministers, removed from Health because of his gigantic inadequacies. There is no way Abbott would entrust one of his signature portfolios stopping the boats in the hands of a pathetic fool.
    Morrison in my opinion is still firmly in control of border protection, Dutton is too weak to dare standup to the bullying sadist and is just the front for the real power..

  6. Helen in NQld

    We’re even being asked to believe that weak hunger-strikers are a threat! I would like to think it is a threat to the perpetrators’ conscience, but I fear they don’t have one. Re the no payments for six months – how on earth do they think that will work? Do they believe that a student doing their final exams can also be applying for jobs/going for interviews in different areas so they can go straight from school/uni to work? Do they simply expect that the parents will (continue to) support them and a maybe 29yr-old adult with a Masters and PhD can simply move back home? I can SORT OF understand how (being Libs) they might come up with the idea of cutting off payments at the end of six months but really what is to be achieved by their proposal, apart from
    hardship and conflict – except for the wealthy of course.

  7. wmmbb

    Thank you for the civilized discussion. I regard this policy together with neoLiberalism as fascism, or at least inhumane, unjust and illegal. It represents incarceration without the recourse to the writ of Habeas Corpus and is contrary to International Law. Those who are responsible should be indicted – and perhaps will be.

  8. stephentardrew

    It’s incredible we are supposed to believe that harming others and triggering autonomic fear pain, heartache and suffering is not going to have substantial negative consequences. These people will often suffer from PTSD and if they don’t they have now suffered serious emotional abuse in our care. We are making a huge problem for any society they are relocated to. So we mentally torture and emotionally eviscerate these people and expect other cultures to accept the results of our abuse. So we pay Cambodia to take them.

    When we need a much more caring and tolerant society we are treating others with cruelty and harm with intent. I cannot believe that this country is intentionally emotionally torturing people who are often victims of our military interventions.

    We have stepped far over the boundaries of what a democracy should accept as moral and decent and it is undermining the ethics of the society we live in. What a role model for our children.

    Australia is demonstrating how weak and fearful we are rather than proactive and proud of our humanism and promotion of justice.

  9. Gail Fewson

    I am currently being asked by the locals in Palampur India where I am from. When I say Australia I get the occasional “Oh lovely country/people”. My reply: not anymore it isn’t. I am no longer proud to admit to being an occasional inhabitant of Australia. I do not look forward to returning soon as I note nothing has changed, indeed it is becoming more cold hearted by the day. Fortunately I have the opportunity to return to India soon and help the same sorts of people who often make the perilous journey in the hope of a better life. Will I be in a hurry to return to Australia? No. The country as I knew it has gone.

  10. Poss

    This vile government should be sent to Manus, they wouldn’t last a day, they make me ashamed to be an Aussie

  11. rangermike1

    Dud Dutton is simply reading out of the same hymn book happy clapper Morrison read from.” I am a Christian therefore I must be”. These asylum seekers are NOT cattle, they are humans like you and I. Even cattle are looked after much better. I would say to Morrison (the Great Christian) and Dutton, walk a mile in these peoples shoes, once done, happy clapping will not come easy to you.
    BTW, Does Dutton ever smile ?

  12. John Fraser



    That what I thought.

    Same dirge different face.

  13. Harquebus

    @Kaye Lee
    This is the first asylum seeker article that I have read here. I have read plenty elsewhere.
    Give me a break, please.

  14. stephentardrew


    Try closing your eyes and stop the whining.

  15. Kyran

    Thank you for the article, Ms Wilson. I can’t help but note the similarity in the strategies for the unemployed and the asylum seekers. I suspect this is the spin doctors testing the waters for the wider implementation of policies that reduce government “responsibility”, to be replaced by communities and families picking up the tab for our most vulnerable. You say “hardline”, I say gutless and barbaric.

    The Gillard government convened one of those “expert committees” on asylum seekers, which has now become the norm for governments. I don’t have a lot of time for that particular process, as it seems to be a method by which the “answer” is predetermined and is “justified” by a very skewed series of biased hearings. Whilst I decried the process and most of the outcome, one of the “ignored” points was the use of the foreign aid budget, through the UNHCR, to create greater resources for a regional solution. From memory, it was to be implemented mainly through Indonesia and Malaysia with the intention of establishing a formal process for resettlement. One can only wonder if it would have succeeded in destroying the “people smugglers” “business” (?) model.

    My belief is that it would have been far more successful than intervening in the actual conflict zones, which seems to achieve little more than exacerbation of the problem.

    I saw on some facebook posts mention of a rally for asylum seekers to be held in Melbourne today at 5.00pm. I don’t expect it will be a huge crowd and also doubt it will be reported in any substantial manner. There are, however, many people who see this for what it is. Barbaric policy for political expediency. Take care

  16. David

    Dud Dutton best watch his hymn book, wont be long before his Lord and Master Morrison will have him signed up @10% to the happy clapper club

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