As someone who grew up in a church community that welcomed refugees to our country from places as far afield as Vietnam and South Sudan, I have always been supportive of people seeking asylum and I welcome Australia’s policy of accepting refugees.
My support of refugees continues, and I have visited refugee facilities in South East Asia and as leader of the government in the Senate promoting our strong border protection policy. What’s more, my understanding of the issues is informed by my Christian faith.
So, it was with disbelief that I received a letter from Dr Brian Douglas, the Rector of Manuka Anglican Church, inviting me to a service of “repentance”—later this month—for our treatment of asylum seekers on Manus Island and Nauru. The purpose of this service is to:
Reflect on the morality of our conduct in the light of the Gospel, seek forgiveness where our conduct falls short, and seek guidance as to how we may better respond to the Gospel message.
Although I had another engagement on that evening, I sent Dr Douglas an apology and raised with him an issue I had with the purpose of the service. I said that if he were truly serious about our national guilt then why could I never recall receiving an invitation to a similar service of repentance for the policies involving other moral issues that should weigh heavily upon our national conscience. For example:
- The abortion of now millions of unborn Australian children;
- The more than 1,000 people drowned at sea whilst encouraging criminal people smugglers;
- After our nation turning its back on traditional marriage; and
- The child sexual abuse which is rife in our communities, both in broader Australia and especially in indigenous communities.
It seems that Dr Douglas is very selective as to what he thinks our elected representatives should say “sorry” for, and indeed, for which to repent. Even more significantly, the rationale for the proposed ‘service of repentance’ shows that he has little understanding of the issues, and misrepresents how refugees are being treated by the Australian Government. He does this in three distinct ways.
First, no one on Manus Island or Nauru has experienced a ‘deprivation of liberty’ as he falsely asserts in the letter. Refugees are, in fact, able to move about freely in their communities. What’s more, they also have the option of being resettled—with Australian Government assistance—in Cambodia, the USA (subject to their approval) or, in the case of Manus Island, within PNG. Furthermore, in Nauru, they have the opportunity to be given a twenty-year visa. And all of them are also free to—with government assistance—to return to their country of origin if they so desire (an offer some have accepted).
Second, when Dr Douglas asserts that refugees are only being ‘detained’ so as to discourage the criminal activity of others he is being equally short-sighted. As I have already pointed out, no one is being legally ‘detained’. However, when the Australian government denies asylum seekers automatic entry into Australia, this not only puts criminals involved in ‘people smuggling’ out of business but has also stopped the more than 1000 known drownings at sea. Surely, he could acknowledge this. What’s more, it has allowed Australia to accept refugees based on need – such as Syrians – as opposed to those rich enough to pay criminals to advance their cause. I have little doubt that Christ would not support those who have been rorting refugees and causing more than a thousand of them to die.
Third, those seeking asylum are not being treated in a way that ‘is difficult to reconcile with the Christian Gospel’. Instead, the Australian government treats the people on Manus and Nauru in a way that is well and truly above standards in refugee camps elsewhere in the world. In fact, I believe that refugees elsewhere would be envious of the opportunities for resettlement and provision of food, education and assistance enjoyed by those on Manus and Nauru.
Clearly, we should be treating asylum seekers with care and compassion. I believe that the Australian Government is following this policy. What’s more, we should also be grateful for the generous and just way that refugees are being treated, as well as the initiatives that are being taken to restrain criminal activity and prevent loss of life. This is precisely the current policy of the present Liberal government.
As such, Dr Douglas should drop his proposed ‘service of repentance’ and consider a “service of thanksgiving” for Australia’s:
- Compassionate intake of refugees (per capita);
- Generous provision of services to refugees (probably the best in the world);
- Determination to put criminals (people smugglers) out of business;
- Success in stopping more than 1,000 drownings at sea;
- Initiative not to prioritise those with money and criminal support; and
- Policy to take refugees based on need.
Dr Douglas needs to realise that compassion and common-sense are not mutually exclusive. Nor is Christianity and strong border protection.
Eric Abetz is a Liberal Senator for Tasmania, former Howard and Abbott government minister and served as leader of the coalition in the Senate from 2009 to 2015.
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