No moral limits to what Rudd will do to win

August 2, 2013

By Josh Bornstein

What, if any, are the moral limits of political affiliation? As a lifelong ALP voter, I have reached mine. Recent political events have provoked a moral crisis in me. The elevation of Kevin Rudd was met with jubilation by many. At the same time, it posed sickening questions of morality for many lifelong ALP members and voters.

After losing the support of almost the entire federal parliamentary caucus in 2010, Rudd aligned himself with the interests of the Liberal Party in the 2010 election campaign by his behaviour. It is alleged that he leaked confidential cabinet deliberations. His conduct guaranteed a hung parliament.

The perverse irony of this was that by virtue of the hung parliament, the ALP was unable to decisively deal with Rudd by expelling him. Instead, for a time great efforts were made to placate him. His behaviour was rewarded with his appointment as Foreign Minister. This did not halt his relentless, destructive campaign, which continued for three years until the ultimate reward was bestowed on June 23, 2013: the prime ministership.

Illustration: Andrew Dyson.

Rudd used all and any means necessary to return to the leadership. His return was too much for some. One-third of the cabinet quit. Among the casualties was one of the best and brightest, Greg Combet. Speaking about his decision on Meet The Press, Combet elliptically referred to the ”competing moralities” that the caucus had wrestled with over the Rudd issue. This was code for accepting the popularity of Rudd in the polls and rewarding Rudd’s behaviour or continuing to support Julia Gillard, notwithstanding her terrible poll numbers. Ever the diplomat, Combet resisted further invitations to expand on this theme.

If completely immoral behaviour is rewarded, the consequences are obvious. The same logic that Rudd used to return to the leadership has propelled his decision to appropriate John Howard’s terrible asylum seeker policy and politics. To be fair, the ALP has consistently failed to deal with the issue of asylum seekers either decently or strategically since 2001. Gillard’s record on asylum seeker policy was also unprincipled. Prior to the PNG solution, it had meekly, and with great inner angst, capitulated to punitive treatment of asylum seekers.

Now, Rudd has enthusiastically elevated the issue to a place it should never be: the foremost electoral issue for the electorate. Howard used the Tampa in 2001 to win a federal election, exploiting xenophobia, racism and fear. Rudd has not needed another Tampa to take the same low road and he may just win the election by doing so. By any means necessary. This strategy is also reminiscent of Howard’s crushing of One Nation. Move hard to the xenophobic right and swallow up the right wing support from your opponent.

That Rudd has written and spoken eloquently and at length about his Christian principles, his admiration for German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and his opposition to ”lurching to the right” on asylum seekers seems immaterial. What happened to the ”biblical injunction to care for strangers in our midst”?

In 2006, Rudd queried how Bonhoeffer might respond to difficult policy issues such as asylum seekers. He wrote, ”Bonhoeffer’s voice, speaking to us through the ages, would ask this simple truth-based question; what is causing this phenomenon? He would also caution against inflammatory rhetoric that seeks to gain political advantage, rather than respond substantively and find a way forward.”

Had Gillard indulged in such rank hypocrisy, she would have been pilloried by the Canberra press gallery. Instead many such journalists proclaim Rudd’s tactical brilliance. No one dares to ask, ”Who is the real Kevin Rudd?” The answer to that question is perhaps too daunting to confront.

Having adopted the PNG solution, there is no going back. Rudd’s action has the potential to condemn this country to decades of inflicting human rights abuse, including child abuse.

Both major parties compete to demonstrate that they can inflict greater trauma on asylum seekers. At the federal level, they compete to out-brutalise the persecuted from the world’s troubled hot spots: Afghanistan, Iraq, Sri Lanka, and so on.

I acknowledge that the issue is difficult and that not all asylum seekers who wish to do so can be accommodated in Australia. Indeed, there may be no neat, perfect ”solution”, at least for the foreseeable future.That said, both parties’ policies rely on inflicting human rights abuse, including child abuse, as a methodology to achieve a public policy objective. That cannot be justified on moral grounds. It is wrong.

The extent to which the federal government has aped John Howard’s political strategy is underlined by the recent statements of the Foreign Minister, Senator Bob Carr. In anticipation of the announcement of the new hardline position by Rudd, Carr sought to disingenuously frame asylum seekers as illegitimate ”economic migrants” and ”middle class”. This is known in the game as a ”softening up” exercise. It appeals to the darker realms of human nature, stoking the fires of hostility and prejudice in the electorate against a group that cannot respond.

Between 1996 and 2001, Philip Ruddock perfected the art of dehumanising refugees. He once repeatedly referred to a seven-year-old refugee who had suffered a catastrophic breakdown in detention, as ”it”. I will never forget that child. He has a name. He is Shayan Badraie. With help from Julian Burnside and my colleagues, I sued Ruddock and the Commonwealth on Shayan Badraie’s behalf. The case was settled for a substantial amount of compensation.

Academic Peter Mares has recently compared Carr’s rhetoric with that of Ruddock, who described asylum seekers as ”those who have the money” and ”so-called boat people … flying first class into Indonesia and Malaysia before boarding rickety vessels for Australia”.

Many Jewish refugees who fled Nazism were, of course, middle class. Persecution and violence have a habit of transcending class.

And so, is there a moral limit that can be drawn on political affiliation? Do I simply accept the ”least worst” principle? Do I grimace and turn the other way? I have done so before, but not this time. I cannot stomach voting for a government that treats other human beings in this way. A line has been crossed. Would a Rudd government revive a campaign to reintroduce the death penalty for political gain? The answer is absolutely clear. There are no moral limits.

In an interview with George Megalogenis in 2005, Paul Keating observed that Labor could never win the asylum-seeker debate if it tried to outflank Howard from the right. Keating said that Australia would pay a price for ”Tampa, for the detention policy, for the whole thing”.

It is small comfort to reflect that Keating might join with me in asking, ”What price will we pay for the PNG solution?”