OPINION | Michael Jensen
Thursday 4 February 2016
You know, sometimes it simply is true that the law is an ass.
True: the High Court has thrown out the legal challenge to offshore immigration detention, with only one dissenting voice. That is the law.
And that means that Immigration Minister Peter Dutton will be able to send the 160 adults, 37 babies, and 54 children currently in Australia back to Nauru.
This was defended in parliament by the stirring words of the Prime Minister, much more convincing rhetorically then any PM since Keating. He defended his government’s stance with the usual motifs: ‘strong border protection’, ‘deaths at sea’, ‘helping 12,000 Syrian refugees’, and so on.
No one wants the 12,000 Syrians to come more than I do. And it has been so uplifting to see how volunteer communities, such as churches, have stepped forward to make a safe path for these escapees from a hideous atrocity. Australians do want to be compassionate and generous, given the chance.
But surely here’s another opportunity to display these virtues? Some of the women are here because they claim they’ve been sexually assaulted on Nauru. One five year old boy has allegedly been raped while in detention. And here’s the question, I must, as a theologian and a Christian pastor ask: is sending them back in the arms of their abusers even remotely in keeping with the idea of loving one’s neighbour as oneself?
Oh yes, the law. The law says that we can, and we must uphold the law. If we have an exemption from the law, then the law breaks down, and we have no law. We have chaos; barbarity; the end of civilisation as we know it. Our borders will become porous. We’ll have people smugglers licking their lips at the prospect.
Let’s think about that for a bit. These are people that have tried to gain asylum in Australia, but have been sent to Nauru for ‘off-shore processing’ in order to prevent them from claiming asylum. The processing takes years. What do you know? Some of them have babies in the meantime. There’s sexual assault that takes place. It’s a difficult environment filled with traumatised and frustrated of people, and it isn’t very pleasant.
The government, quite rightly, has allowed some from Nauru to come to Australia for medical treatment and for childbirth. This was the only just and humane thing to do, and it was done. The attempt was then made to use law to prevent the government to return this group to the island detention centre.
This group is seeking refuge from the refuge we offered them. They are looking for a safe haven from our idea of safety. They want protection from our protection. They attempted to use the law, as well the might. Wouldn’t you have?
These are not people simply seeking asylum from whatever part of the war-torn globe they are from. They are quite specifically those who are the most vulnerable under our nation’s care.
That’s right: they are under our care. We have, through our government, a responsibility for them. This is quite literally the case with Minister Dutton, who has moral if not legal responsibility for these children on our behalf. ‘No-one will be put in harms way’, he said; but, they clearly were in the first place.
Why not simply say: we can do better than the law. We can display the generosity of the national spirit by not sending these children and their parents back to Nauru. We could, but we won’t. We have a right to, but we chose not to. We could, but because natural justice demands it, we won’t. We aren’t simply constrained by the law; we are advised by it, but we are free to listen to the demands of mercy and compassion and act accordingly.
It’s an idea that Western culture learnt from its Christian heritage, and it’s called grace. It’s surely not too late for us to awaken from our cultural slumber and relearn it. But grace is free, like a bird, a gift purely given.
Michael Jensen is rector at St Mark’s Anglican Church in Darling Point, Sydney and is a frequent Eternity contributor.