Imagine this. A disaster at sea, a lifeboat adrift, full of survivors, now despairing, now in hope, as land takes form through the mists ahead. A form is seen in the water. The boat comes alongside, the form is human and alive. The human extends an arm in supplication. Weary survivors take the limb and heave. The lifeboat, already heavily laden, tilts, takes water. The heavers persist in their heaving and the boat takes more water. A murmur within the boat swells to a cry: “Let him go!”
But the human is already aboard. The boat rights itself, the shouting subsides to a murmuring. The boat drifts on.
Imagine this: a second story. Australia prospers, confidence surges and trust becomes the settled order of things. Somehow Australia’s peoples lose their fears of difference, neither Sharia nor Tjukurrpa nor Kosher is imposed by any person upon any other person, but all are respected and all thrive. The leaders of the government decide to lead opinion rather than to follow it. They declare, “We who have plenty can take in those who have nothing more their need and their stories. Let us welcome them, let them come in!”
And so it comes to pass. Australia booms, its empty lands are claimed, cultivated and nurtured under the guiding hand of the first inhabitants. Australia feeds its peoples, feeds Asia, and prospers greatly. The seekers for asylum fulfil the promise that every newcomer brings. Australia accepts scores of thousands, who succeed in the new land and become part of the community. The community now takes in hundreds of thousands as History smiles upon the land and even the climate shows clemency.
The seekers for refuge are numberless, the land is vast, its resources seem endless. Eventually the land is filled. The flow of seekers for refuge slows to a trickle. It stops. All now are saved, all are safe. But wait! A boat. Aboard the boat are two persons. They extend supplicating arms. The peoples of Australia, accustomed to rescue, habituated and drenched in its ethos, wish to help. But their land is full. There is no room for newcomers. Australians squeeze up together, they wish to rescue those people who extend those arms. They make room, a little room: just one, one alone can be squeezed in. But there are two humans in the boat.
Imagine this: a third story. A lifeboat full of survivors of shipwreck drifts in an uncertain sea. This boat is full. Its gunwhales barely clear the calm surface. Whenever the seas rise all bail mightily to save the boat that saves them, and the boat remains afloat. The boat drifts on.
A shape is seen ahead in the water. As the boat comes alongside, the shape moves, cries, flings human words of thanks, raises an arm in supplication. All aboard the craft can see, all understand: “This lifeboat is barely afloat. If we take in this human his weight will sink us; every one of us – every human person – is lost.”
So much for my little stories. Readers of this blog are well acquainted with my pain, my outrage, my shame. All that old stuff. My eruptions of moral rage have brought a brief pleasure, a relief not unlike the visceral satisfaction of purging. But these explosions achieve nothing, convince no-one who is not already convinced, influence no-one in government.
A couple of years ago I spoke at an awards ceremony for defenders of human rights. I told my lifeboat stories. I pointed out Australia’s lifeboat is not full. I was grand in my flight of brave words and noble ideals. I carried the audience, which, led by two Federal parliamentarians, rose as one to applaud. Afterwards each of the parliamentarians, one a frontbencher in the government, requested a copy of my speech which they’d put up on their websites. One confided: ”You have said what we would like to say but cannot.”
What to do? What more to do? What can we – we powerless people do – beyond voicing our outrage, our shame, our grief? Firstly, we must continue to raise that human voice, to give human words to the suffering of fellow humans. That voice, those words, these are the marks of our being human. These words, the irreducible minimum:
Written in Pencil in the Sealed Railway-Car
By: Dan Pagis
here in this carload
I am eve
with abel my son
if you see my other son
cain son of man
tell him I
But what more? As my little stories suggest, ultimately we persons of good will – and I mean that to refer to my fellow Australians at large – sooner or later must face a terrible choice. At the end of all our rescuing there will always be one more supplicant, one too many for our resources, for our lifeboat. We will face a choice. This is Sophie’s choice, whereby we will chose one to be saved and send another – a human other – to perdition.
But Australia’s lifeboat is not yet full. So, what more, what wiser, what more potent act can we non-governors do? The answer cannot be simple, but our powers of imagination, of thinking hard and speaking softly, have helped in the past. Thus Petro Georgiou of happier memory, with Jozef Szwarc, softened the adamantine policies of John Howard. The image of a dead child floating in the shallows of Lesvos softened the policies of Tony Abbott.
I know of one small group in a faith congregation that has approached leaders of other faiths in an attempt to think hard together and to speak softly together to those who govern. State governors have spoken for their people, saying, give us the children; let them not return to offshore detention. Dr David Isaacs blew a whistle on his return from offshore that mobilised doctors and nurses at Melbourne’s Royal Children’s Hospital and now at Lady Cilento in Brisbane. The RCH refuses to discharge child patients to places of detention. We must understand that for what it is: the RCH is not some Marxist commune, not a place of sedition. It is rather an emblem in the state of Victoria. It stands for the highest skill and care. When the RCH speaks it carries Victoria. None gainsays its voice or its acts.
So, what to do? Think hard, confer, suggest, bring ideas to government. One idea, hardly original, strikes me as promising: let Australia progressively divert funds, currently used for offshore detention, towards a respectable, respectful supra-national staging and assessment process in south Asia. There we would maintain accessible, supportive consular representation. No-one would need to board a leaky boat, no-one would need to jump a queue, no human person would come to Australia and be called by a SIEV number. Our brothers and sisters would arrive with their own names.
We might save money, we might not. Neither governments nor we the governed see these issues in money terms: governments never count the cost when augmenting our cruelties; and we bleeding hearts never count beans. No, these issues are strangely unmonetised. The people of Australia hanker quietly to regain some self-respect.
Respectful policies will save lives. We might save our souls.
Do you have a better idea? Work on it, tell your minister of religion, your minister of the crown, the playgroup mothers, the neighbours. Governments need to follow. It is up to us to lead. We won’t save everyone, but we can hardly do worse than we do at present.