Holy Saturday Vigil for Asylum Seekers – Love Makes a Way

On Holy Saturday of this year (April 19, 2014), more than 100 people came together for a peaceful, public, Christian prayer vigil for asylum seekers, outside (Minister for Immigration and Border Protection) Scott Morrison’s office in Cronulla Mall.

The event—organised by a group called ‘Love Makes a Way‘—included elements of lament, confession, a statement of faith, readings from the scriptures, and prayer. Below is the text of the short sermon I delivered as part of the proceedings, reflecting on what it means to stand in solidarity with asylum seekers with a ‘Holy Saturday faith’.

Image sourced from the 'Love Makes a Way' public Facebook page.
Image sourced from the ‘Love Makes a Way’ public Facebook page.

That first Holy Saturday was a time of confusion and shattered hope. The disciples, having walked with Jesus for three years, had now seen their expectations—their dreams—come crashing down around them.

Would God—could God—still come through? Somehow? Some way?

This is what a spirituality of Holy Saturday looks like.

On Holy Saturday, there is nothing to do but wait. Holy Saturday is “…the day of waiting, without knowing what will come next.” It’s a time of waiting in patient hope for the miraculous in-breaking of God’s love and justice.

It’s when we sit—and wrestle— with unanswered, uncomfortable questions.

It’s a day when we allow ourselves to think about the situation of asylum seekers—trapped between death and life: between the death that forced them from their homes and the possibility of a new life; between the despair of a perilous journey on a leaky boat—surrounded by death on all sides—and the life that awaits them on the other side; between the hell of being indefinitely trapped in an off-shore detention centre and the possibility of life that comes with resettlement.

It’s a day for us to hear their voices; when we hear—and acknowledge—the fear, and the desperation, and the despair, and the confusion as to why they are being punished for committing no crime.

It’s a day when we ask why our political leaders seem so intent on dehumanising vulnerable people, and why we allow them to do it.

And we wait. And we pray.

But Holy Saturday is not a day when nothing is happening.

It’s the time when God takes into Godself the pain and the anger and the sadness and the violence and the godforsakenness of the world.

It’s the day when the Creator of all stands in full solidarity with broken humanity.

And so today we stand, with God, in full solidarity with asylum seekers; our brothers and sisters.

In the words of N.T. Wright, “Our part, then, is to keep Holy Saturday in faith and hope, grieving over the ruin of the world that sent Jesus to his death, trusting in the promises of God that new life will come in God’s way and in God’s time.”

Today we keep Holy Saturday in faith and hope, grieving over the ruin of a nation that sends asylum seekers away to Nauru and Manus Island, trusting in the promises of God that change can come in God’s way and in God’s time.

But in the present, there is something we can do.

We live in faith and in hope, but especially in love.

We must love. We must do love. We must be love. We must welcome the stranger. If ever there was a time for the Church in Australia to stand up and to embody an alternative, it’s now.

And we cannot fall into the trap of dehumanising those who dehumanise, for to do so is already to have lost.

Though we stand today in Holy Saturday, we look back to Good Friday and Jesus’ magnificent words on the cross: “Forgive them, Father, for they do not know what they are doing.”

Forgive us all, Father, for we do not know what we are doing!

We seek redemption, then, for all; for Scott Morrison (who is responsible for the current policy measures) and our other political leaders (of both sides—this is not a partisan issue!), as well as for asylum seekers…and for ourselves.

We seek to recover our own humanity, which is being marred in this process of dehumanising the other.

 

So we need to remind ourselves today that it’s ok to live in the tension, as we seek to be faithful as we wait for our faithful God to break-in to the current situation.

We can’t run ahead to Easter Sunday and the fullness of the resurrection, but rather we need to embrace what it means to live in the unresolved reality of Holy Saturday. Like the confused disciples running to the tomb of Jesus (but not yet having encountered the risen Lord) on that first Easter Sunday morning, we’re not quite sure what it all means, what God is up to.

But, as Christians, we do live on the other side of Easter Sunday. And so we allow ourselves a sliver of hope. We look back to the ways in which God has been faithful in history, and we dare to believe that somehow, some way, God will come through once more.

We urge ourselves to believe that, though it looks hopeless right now, it’s not the end of the story. We dare to believe that the broken rose can give bloom through the cracks of the concrete.

Help us, faithful Father, to wait for your victory, and in the meantime to serve you—and all those made in your image—in faith, hope, and love. Amen.

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There are a couple of direct quotes in this short sermon that I need to go back and reference correctly. I apologise for any unreferenced quotes in the meantime.

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Asylum Seeker Policy, Miroslav Volf, and the Will to Embrace

A few weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to attend a conference headlined by Miroslav Volf.

The man is extraordinary.

It’s not only his piercing insight and profound wisdom, but also the way he models the message that’s so impressive. The conference, in particular, was about public faith, and I have never before seen someone so fully articulate and embody the art of speaking in an ‘authentic voice’ from a faith perspective in the public domain.

Professor Volf is, I believe, one of the most important theologians of our time. His book Exclusion & Embrace, I would argue, is possibly the most important theological work in the past 100 years.

I don’t say that lightly.

In that book, Volf outlines a profound vision for true reconciliation, which he pictures as  ’embrace’. I want to pick up on just a couple of aspects of that vision in this post and the next, specifically in regards to how it might be useful for Australian Christians—and, indeed, Australians in general—when thinking about the political process and specific public policy.

In this first post, I want to focus specifically on Volf’s articulation of the will to embrace, and to think about what it could look like in regards to Australian policy towards asylum seekers.

In Exclusion & Embrace, Volf suggests that:

The will to give ourselves to others and ‘welcome’ them, to readjust our identities to make space for them, is prior to any judgment about others, except that of identifying them in their humanity. (p. 29)

This is, no doubt, a challenging thought.

For Christians, however, I can’t see any way in which we can get around the idea. The essential core of Christian belief is that this is precisely what God has done, and indeed is central to who God is. The Christian God, as demonstrated most fully in the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth, is a self-giving God who always makes the first move towards reconciliation. It is God who makes space in God-self for humanity, long before humanity makes room for God. It is God who extends an eternal ‘welcome’ to broken humanity as a prior act to any movement of humanity towards God.

As such, if Christians are to make the claim that they are truly following the God of Jesus, this must be a central element.

For Australian Christians, then, the question needs to be asked what this might look like in regards to issues like policy towards asylum seekers.

Asylum seeker policy in Australia is a complex, disputed area. Both major parties seem to have concluded (admittedly rightly) that the majority of the Australian public are willing to allow—and even to vote for—harsh, punitive measures designed to ‘deter’ asylum seekers coming to Australia.* As I’ve previously argued, Australian political leaders have even callously co-opted the language of compassion, arguing that ‘stopping the boats’ is the truly compassionate response as it stops people dying at sea on the dangerous journey. It is conveniently ignored, however, that our policy measures do nothing at all in regards to dealing with the ‘push’ factors, which see many people without any other viable option but to flee their countries of origin. Current Australian policy simply pushes the ‘problem’ out of sight, out of mind, and cares not whether these vulnerable human beings die somewhere else, as long as they do so quietly, or at least out of our view.

I want to ask the question, then, as to whether or not this view is compatible in any way with a Christian understanding of the world. The issues are complex, to be sure, but I believe the question needs to be asked whether ‘deterrence’ measures, on their own, have any redemptive qualities whatsoever.

In the interests of full disclosure, I am not convinced that it is possible for a Christian truly to support a policy of ‘deterrence’ alone—without a significant level of cognitive dissonance, at any rate.

Some may argue that this is precisely why ‘religion’ and ‘politics’ should be kept separate (in the interests of keeping religious belief from meddling in ‘necessary’ policy measures). I would suggest, however, that it is not possible for a Christian to approach the political process in any other way than as who they truly are (in precisely the same way as any other person—religious or otherwise—approaches the whole of their life from a certain philosophical frame of reference, whether they are conscious of it or not). The focus should not be the impossible task of trying to divorce one’s ‘religious’ outlook from their political decision-making, but rather to learn to speak in one’s own voice in the task of working towards true and full human flourishing in the context of multiple other voices (with each having the same right to speak into the public space and truly to be heard).

For Christians, then, as Volf notes:

A genuinely Christian reflection on social issues must be rooted in the self-giving love of the divine Trinity as manifested on the cross of Christ. (p. 25)

As such, there is no (authentic) way that I can see of escaping from a theology of embrace—even when it comes to such tricky issues as asylum seeker policy. Whatever specific policy measures Australian Christians decide to support in regards to asylum seekers, this point simply cannot be ignored.

Once asylum seekers are recognised as human,** Australian Christians have no other choice but to ‘welcome’ them, and “to readjust our identities to make space for them”. This is necessarily prior to any form of judgment, whether it be in regards to reasons why someone is seeking asylum in the first place, or in regards to certain social or cultural issues which could be viewed as ‘threatening’.

But this is not the end of the story.

Some may be convinced, at this point, that I am arguing for a naïve policy of ‘open borders’. While it is true that I have significant problems with the idea of hard nationalistic boundaries (in light of the Gospel message that seems to subordinate ‘identity markers’ of every kind to the idea of the fullness of humanity made ‘in the image of God’), I am not arguing here for Australia simply to accept any arrivals uncritically.

As Volf notes, though the will to embrace is necessarily prior to everything else, the fullness of embrace is a little more complex. The will to embrace is unconditional; the embrace itself (full reconciliation) is conditional on truth and justice (p. 29).

As such, I believe that there does need to be some clear process of determining the refugee status of asylum seekers, as well as measures to ensure the health and security both of asylum seekers themselves, and of the Australian public. In addition to this, a certain consistency is necessary in regards to responding to asylum seekers and other displaced peoples around the world, not just those who are able to make it Australian territory for the processing of their claim.

For what it’s worth, this is why I personally back increasing funding to UNHCR facilities throughout our region, which would help create some sense of order and the possibility of a safe pathway for asylum seekers to attain refugee status in a reasonable timeframe, and for claims for asylum to be reasonably (and impartially) assessed. I also argue, in the interests of justice, for Australia to increase its asylum seeker intake, both from our region and from refugee camps around the world, to ensure that asylum seekers can see that there are other viable (and much safer) options than getting on a leaky boat and setting out on the perilous journey to Australia. Finally, it’s why I also back a limit of 1 month for reasonable on-shore detention of irregular maritime arrivals who do make it to Australian territory (to determine security and health status), before being released into the community while their request for asylum is processed.**

The specific policy measures are not so much the point, however, as the framework that underpins it. That framework, I have suggested, must include the will to embrace as an essential initial step, and then a pathway of truth and justice towards the fullness of embrace. None of these steps may be ignored.

In Volf’s words:

There can be no justice without the will to embrace. It is, however, equally true that there can be no genuine and lasting embrace without justice. (p. 216)

In summary, then, I would suggest that, for Australian Christians, the constant and necessary stance towards asylum seekers must always begin with the will to embrace. This sort of ‘welcome’ is precisely the sort of thing that is embodied so well by Welcome to Australia. This initial stance doesn’t deny the necessity for truth and justice to follow, however it always precedes them.

The fullness of embrace, however, follows the necessary process of truth and justice. There does need to be ‘right judgement’ in regards to the determining of refugee status. Once that process is completed, the fullness of embrace is made possible (and, perhaps, required).

This, I would argue, must be the necessary basis for Christian reflection on asylum seeker policy in Australia. Whatever the final form of the policy measures might look like, this framework is non-negotiable. If Christians in Australia implemented such a framework, it is my belief that public discourse concerning asylum seekers would be changed dramatically. Australian Christians, by embodying these principles, could substantially alter the sickening course of asylum seeker policy in this country.

But I don’t think the framework is only applicable for Christians.

The framework itself is rooted in what it means to be human. Human flourishing is best and most fully achieved in healthy relationship with the other, rather than the fragmentation of society, the enforcement of arbitrary markers of exclusive group identity, and the victory of self-interest above everything else.

As Volf notes:

We are who we are not because we are separate from the others who are next to us, but because we are both separate and connected, both distinct and related; the boundaries that mark our identities are both barriers and bridges. (p. 66)

There is not only the possibility of humans finding the fullness of their own identity in the other, indeed the fullness of one’s own identity can only be found in the self-giving (and other-receiving) of relationality. It is worth noting that this fullness is not found in the erasing of all difference (and the assimilation of all into a faceless nothing), but rather in the receiving of the (distinct) other in embrace, and the growth that comes from making room in oneself for the other, and vice versa.

It is my belief that Volf’s articulation of this framework could lie at the heart of significant reform of asylum seeker policy in Australia and the tone of discussion about these issues, and that the framework is workable for Christians and non-Christians alike. It is my prayer that this would be so.

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* It’s worth noting that this is not some passive recognition of the mood of the Australian public. I would argue that there has been a deliberate attempt by Australian political leaders to manipulate precisely this situation.

** This sounds like a silly point, but the deliberate dehumanisation of asylum seekers has reached extraordinary levels. This is precisely why, I would argue, the majority of Australians currently support not only harsh policy measures towards asylum seekers, but many are in favour of even harsher measures(!).

*** I can’t understand, though, why it is seemingly only those who arrive by boat who need to be ‘locked up’, rather than the tens of thousands of visa over-stayers each year (who usually arrive by plane). I would suggest that it is largely an issue of blatant racism, but I’m not sure that it would be helpful for the discussion at this point.

Asylum Seeker Policy and Christian Nonviolent Civil Disobedience

Yesterday (Friday, March 21, 2014), a couple of my good friends were arrested in (Minister for Immigration and Border Protection) Scott Morrison’s electoral office.

As people of deep Christian faith, they held a prayer vigil in Mr Morrison’s office (as an act of nonviolent civil disobedience), praying for asylum seekers (and asylum seeker policy), and for Scott Morrison personally. When asked to leave, a number of them (peacefully and politely) refused and were subsequently removed by police officers. You can read about the action in this SBS article, or in this article from the Bible Society. Greg Lake (former Australian Immigration Officer and whistleblower) wrote an excellent blog post about the action that you can find here.

I wonder how you feel about it all.

I make no claim to speak on behalf of the group—I was not involved in the action on the day, and have not been appointed as spokesperson—but I wanted to offer a couple of reflections on what happened on Friday.

Firstly, I’ve noticed a little bit of commentary emerging asking the question as to why these protesters popped up now and not while Labor was in government.

The truth is that they didn’t just ‘pop up out of nowhere’; they’ve just not gained as much attention until now.

I know a number of people in the group very well, and I know for certain both that they opposed Labor’s harsh policy measures towards asylum seekers while Labor was in government, and that the plans for nonviolent direct action began well before the 2013 federal election. In regards to the first point, these people have been perfectly consistent in opposing bad asylum seeker policy from both major parties. They do not have a chip on their shoulder against the Coalition specifically (or Mr Abbott or Mr Morrison personally), but have consistently opposed dehumanising policy no matter from where it emerges. In regards to the second point, I know that planning for nonviolent direct action on this issue was in process well before the election because I was personally present at meetings where it was discussed. (As just one example, a group of us ran an information evening [‘From Despair to Action’] at Paddington Uniting Church in April, 2013, discussing many possible responses to attempt to fight against the ever-growing despair about asylum seeker policy, including a discussion of NVDA possibilities.) Though it could very well be argued that asylum seeker policy has hit its lowest point ever as a result of the 2013 election, it has been suggested that nonviolent direct action on this issue has been justifiable for quite some time now.

The line being run here (that they must be partisan hacks who fail all measures of consistency) is simply not true.

Secondly, I wanted to note that the action, at its core, was intended to be redemptive.

The action, from the outset, was specifically (and stringently) nonviolent , and the pray-ers/protesters were not only praying for vulnerable people caught in these harsh policy measures, but they also prayed for Scott Morrison himself. This was not done in a condemning or judgmental way, but as Christians praying for one of their elected leaders as well as praying for the redemption of their brother. Scott Morrison has consistently spoken of his Christian faith (including in an extraordinary maiden speech in parliament), and these pray-ers were praying for him too. The dehumanisation of others has the effect of dehumanising us all, and Scott Morrison is directly responsible for the dehumanising policy on this issue. As I have previously suggested, nonviolent action in this area must include a redemptive focus on Scott Morrison himself, and this action certainly included that idea as a central element.

Thirdly (and finally), I wanted to speak about the ‘success’ (or otherwise) of the action.

It is too early to tell how ‘successful’ the action has been. There has already been a few predictably negative reactions, but I have been pleasantly surprised at some of the favourable endorsement/soft endorsement of the action.

In regards to any action regarding asylum seeker policy, I guess the true measure of ‘success’ is as to whether or not it changes things for the better for the people caught up in the harsh, dehumanising measures. (This must be the goal, rather than media attention for the sake of media attention—or, worse, for nothing more than the self-seeking promotion of people involved.)

This could either be direct change (as in, making life better for asylum seekers through direct contact and/or direct measures), or indirect change (through ‘changing the conversation’ or helping move attitudes towards a more compassionate place, which ultimately leads to better treatment of asylum seekers in a ‘direct’ sense).

Obviously, the aim of Friday’s action is the latter.

As I noted above, it’s too early to tell what the outcomes will be, but there are some good early indicators that it has been reasonably well received in many quarters. This was the first act of civil disobedience on asylum seeker policy in Australia in a long time, and it has made its point in a firm but gentle way. There was no violence. There were no angry people yelling and screaming. There was no personal condemnation of Scott Morrison. In addition to this, the people involved have been consistently seeking to keep attention very much on the issue, rather than themselves.

It’s also important to note that the strategy of nonviolent action is not to convince everyone of the position. The aim is to shine a light on an unjust situation (allowing people to see the crisis for what it is, perhaps for the first time) and, hopefully, to move people from where they are to being a little bit closer to a more just position. Some people will never be convinced but, again hopefully, the majority of people of good will can recognise injustice when it is in front of them and adjust their own position, perhaps only slightly, to a more compassionate one.

Single actions on their own cannot really do this is full, but many small actions might, over time, work towards achieving this goal.

The action may have ‘succeeded’, then, at one level, simply by making space for many conversations this week about how best to resist the evil that is our current asylum seeker policy while not dehumanising those responsible for the (dehumanising) policy. There are moral and strategic questions that need to be discussed in order for change to happen, and at least some space for those conversations to happen has been created due to the action of those on Friday. Interestingly, there have been at least a few reasonably positive affirmations from people who have not previously been in the ‘NVDA camp’.

Finally, in regards to the issue of the ‘success’ of the action, I’m reminded by one of my mentors in the spirituality and practice of nonviolence that

We are called upon not to be successful, but to be faithful.*

This in no way undercuts the fact that strategy and outcomes need to be very carefully considered, but it is good to hold the two in firm tension.

Perhaps this action has opened up (even in a small way) the possibility for more people to see that something must be done, that ‘regular’ people can do something, and that Christians (I believe) have a significant responsibility to stand alongside the vulnerable in our world. Perhaps it will ignite many more small movements towards shining a light on the current dehumanising policy and inspire creative acts of justice and human kindness towards vulnerable people. Perhaps these small movements, over time, can see policy change for the better.

This, at least, is my prayer.

If you have been inspired by this action and are wondering how you might get involved, I list just two of many opportunities here:

1) If you are interested in Christian nonviolent direct action, there is an opportunity on Easter Saturday (2014) to join with other Christians and people of goodwill for a peaceful prayer vigil outside Villawood Detention Centre (in Sydney), which will include an ‘act of prophetic witness’ which may include civil disobedience (though you certainly don’t need to be involved in the civil disobedience part to nevertheless join with the peaceful prayer vigil). You can find the details here. ***Update: Due to developments concerning the Villawood Detention Centre, it has been decided that this action will not go ahead as planned. Please see the link for more information.***

2) If you are interested in getting involved ‘directly’ with making life better for asylum seekers and refugees in Australia, see the wonderful work of Welcome to Australia. For churches, see the Welcome to My Place for Dinner website for how this might look for a church or for individual Christians during Refugee Week 2014.

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* Often attributed to Mother Teresa.

The Nonviolence of the Strong: Responding to Scott Morrison

I have been genuinely struggling of late in regards to how to engage with (or respond to) Scott Morrison MP. For those who don’t know, Mr Morrison is the Liberal Party’s Federal Member for Cook, in Sydney’s South, and, with his party being elected to Government in September, is now Australia’s Minister for Immigration and Border Protection.

Mr Morrison also claims a strong Christian faith, which he has suggested plays an important role in every aspect of his life (including, obviously, his politics).

The basis of my struggle with Mr Morrison, in a nut shell, is because I think what he has done and continues to do in regards to asylum seeker policy (and public discourse on the matter) is evil (and, yes; I chose those words very carefully, in case you were wondering). It seems to me that he has deliberately been fostering an attitude that seeks to dehumanise those people who come to Australia by boat, and that this has been something of a central focus of his for some time now. I find his politics disgusting and, to be perfectly honest, it sickens me when he then claims a Christian faith.

I feel quite a bit of anger towards Mr Morrison. At some level, I want to make him feel what he makes other people feel (I recognise that I am not a recipient of Mr Morrison’s inhumane policy and rhetoric, though I feel that the humanity of us all is tarnished in the process of dehumanising asylum seekers). I want him to feel just some of the fear and trauma that his rhetoric and his harsh policies inflict on vulnerable people. But most of all, I feel quite a bit of resentment towards his church for staying silent on this issue and, therefore (as far as I am concerned), sharing in his evil works.

It’s at this point in my thinking that I am then gripped by the unmistakable rebuke of the Spirit.

I am still convinced that Mr Morrison’s actions are, in fact, evil. I am still convinced that we—that I—must respond (and this certainly includes his church!). But I am also convinced that the means by which we respond to Mr Morrison must be consistent with the message, for to buy in to the cycle of retribution and ungrace achieves nothing but the perpetuation of hate. As Gandhi noted, this sort of ‘eye for an eye’ mentality leaves the whole world blind.

I have been reading Walter Wink’s excellent short book, Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way, and I’d like to reproduce here a rather lengthy quote which, I think, sums it all up perfectly (and which issues a hell of a challenge!):

Gandhi distinguished between the ‘nonviolence of the weak’, which uses harassment to break the opponent, and the ‘nonviolence of the strong’ (what he called ‘satyagraha’ or ‘truth force’), which seeks the opponent’s good by freeing him or her from oppressive actions.

[Martin Luther] King [Jr] so imbued this understanding of nonviolence into his followers that it became the ethos of the entire civil rights movement. One evening, during the turbulent weeks when Selma, Alabama, was the focal point of civil right struggle, the large crowd of black and white activists standing outside the Ebenezer Baptist Church was electrified by the sudden arrival of a black funeral home operator from Montgomery. He reported that a group of black students demonstrating near the capitol just that afternoon had been surrounded by police on horseback, all escape barred, and cynically commanded to disperse or take the consequences. Then the mounted police waded into the students and beat them at will. Police prevented ambulances from reaching the injured for two hours. Our informant was the driver of one of those ambulances, and he had driven straight to Selma to tell us about it.

The crowd outside the church seethed with rage. Cries went up, “Let’s march!” Behind us, across the street, stood, rank on rank, the Alabama State Troopers and the local police forces of Sheriff Jim Clark. The situation was explosive. A young black minister stepped to the microphone and said, “It’s time we sang a song.” He opened with the line, “Do you love Martin King?” to which those who knew the song responded, “Certainly, Lord!” “Do you love Martin King?” “Certainly, Lord!” “Do you love Martin King?” “Certainly, certainly, certainly Lord!” Right through the chain of command of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference he went, the crowd each time echoing, warming to the song, “Certainly, certainly, certainly Lord!” Without warning he sang out, “Do you love Jim Clark?”—the sheriff?! “Cer … certainly, Lord” came the stunned, halting reply. “Do you love Jim Clark?” “Certainly, Lord”—it was stronger this time. “Do you love Jim Clark?” Now the point had sunk in, as surely as Amos’ in chapters 1 and 2: “Certainly, certainly, certainly Lord!”

Rev. James Bevel then took the mic. We are not just fighting for our rights, he said, but for the good of the whole society. “It’s not enough to defeat Jim Clark—do you hear me Jim?—we want you converted. We cannot win by hating our oppressors. We have to love them into changing.”

Wink continues, a little further on:

King enabled his followers to see the white racist also as a victim of the Principalities and Powers, in this case the whole ethos of the Southern Way of Life. Southern racists also needed to be changed. This provided a space and grace for transformation. While much more remains to be done in [the United States of] America than any of us like to think, change has occurred, datable to events like these, when the tide of racial fury was channeled by the willingness of a few people to absorb its impact in their own bodies and to allow it to spread no farther.

I find these words incredibly challenging, but it doesn’t stop there. Quoting Narayan Desai, Wink affirms that

Nonviolence presupposes a level of humanness—however low it may be, in every human being.

I cannot fight against Scott Morrison’s dehumanisation of asylum seekers by dehumanising Scott Morrison. To do so is to fail from the outset. Instead, my concern for those who Mr Morrison is dehumanising needs to be coupled with a genuine desire to see Mr Morrison transformed by grace in the process.

It might help to conclude with one last quote from Walter Wink:

In the final analysis, then, love of enemies is trusting God for the miracle of divine forgiveness. If God can forgive, redeem, and transform me, I must also believe that God can work such wonders with anyone. Love of enemies is seeing…oppressors through the prism of the reign of God—not only as they now are but also as they can become: transformed by the power of God.

May it be so.

Asylum Seekers, Foreign Aid, and Climate Change: A Failure of Strategy and the (not so simple) Way Forward

Australia has elected to change its government. Tony Abbott, once popularly derided as being ‘unelectable’, has become our new Prime Minister, and the fractious Labor Party has been left to lick its wounds while it faces, it would seem, a lengthy (and many would say deserved) stint on the Opposition benches.

At one level, there’s really not much to say about this. Australia has a system in place where its citizens have great freedom to vote as they choose, and the system itself is pretty good (despite some need, it seems, for a few minor adjustments in regards to how members of the Senate are elected). Australians don’t change government often, but when we do we leave no doubt about our intentions. This election, like those in the past where the government has been changed, was a decisive outcome.

Though I, personally, voted otherwise, I’m happy to concede that this is what the clear majority of Australians did vote for. Trying to pretend otherwise is ridiculous. In addition to this, we can reasonably expect at least 6 years under a Liberal-National Coalition government (given Australia’s general reluctance to throw out a first-term government), so it’s something that simply needs to be accepted.

Of course, this is not good news to the ears of those of us who care about asylum seekers, foreign aid, or the environment, for in each of these policy areas an Abbott-led Liberal-National government represents an ominous threat.

In regards to the environment, it is well-known that Tony Abbott himself is no true believer in the science of climate change (famously calling it ‘absolute crap’ at one stage). Though he seems to have softened his rhetoric over time, a significant part of his campaign for the election centred around ‘scrapping the carbon tax’ (and ETS, towards which the former Labor government was moving). Once this market-based mechanism (which he, at one point, seemed to indicate was the most efficient way to deal with emissions) is dismantled, he plans to implement a ‘direct action’ plan which has largely been panned both as less efficient and unable to actually meet the emission reduction targets. At this stage, Prime Minister-elect Tony Abbott has indicated that, even if the targets were not met, no more money would be going into the program.

In regards to foreign aid, the Coalition (rather cynically) released details of significant cuts to the ODA budget less than 2 days from the election, and after the ‘media blackout’ was in place (the time when paid political advertisements cease in the lead-up to election day). Though Mr Abbott himself had previously pledged his full support for increasing Australia’s aid budget to 0.5% GNI and for the Millennium Development Goals, and though being critical of the former government at times when it did not meet its pledges on aid (or when it siphoned off aid money to meet the costs of asylum seeker processing in Australia), the Coalition now plans to slash increases to the aid budget (which include actual cuts to programs for this financial year, which have not yet been identified).

In regards to asylum seeker policy, of course, the Coalition has relentlessly campaigned on the slogan of ‘stopping the boats’. With the Labor party engaging in a game of policy leap-frog on this issue—with each new leap towards harsher punishments for vulnerable people—the Coalition has landed at a point of almost unfathomable cruelty. Scott Morrison (who had been the Coalition’s spokesman for Immigration, and who will presumably be the new Minister for Immigration) has indicated his intention to remove funding for legal advice for asylum seekers (which will mean that more and more genuine refugees will be rejected due to the difficulty in following a complex legal process correctly without assistance), to remove the right for asylum seekers to appeal decisions, and to ‘fast track’ the removal of people out of Australia’s system (and, likely, in many cases, straight back to persecution, violence, or exploitation).

On each of these issues (and at least a couple more), a Coalition government is going to be bad news. But I’m not going to use this post to try to argue against the Coalition’s policy in these areas (as terrible and destructive as I think it is and will be). They won the election fair and square; they are not going to change these policies now. Though it breaks my heart to admit it, these policy directions are pretty much unstoppable in the short-term.

I’m also not going to use this post to berate the Australian public for their decision. As much as I do think that it was a bad decision (due to the policy areas I outlined above, plus a few others I won’t go into here), it is a decision that has been made—and one that’s been made decisively—and there’s no going back now (and no point whingeing about it). It’s a decision that does make quite a bit of sense, it has to be said, given the bizarre behaviour of the Labor Party and their shambolic leadership instability. The former government lost the trust and respect of the public, and they paid the price for their puerile behaviour.

What this post is about, then, is where we went wrong. What follows are a few of my reflections about how those of us who care about the issues outlined above lost the fight, and lost it convincingly.

I’ve been discussing this point for a while now with some of my friends, reflecting on what I see as an almost complete failure on behalf of those of us who have been working towards more humane policy on asylum seekers, a more generous approach to Australia doing its ‘fair share’ in regards to foreign aid, and stronger action in combatting climate change. We have lost on each of these fronts. But, more than this, I think we have actually allowed things to get worse.

It’s not just that we are seeing regressive policy in each of these areas; it’s that we have allowed these issues to become grouped with other ‘bleeding hearts’ causes. Progressive attitudes on these issues, as far as I can see, have now been grouped in the minds of the majority of the Australian public as either irrelevant, as the idealism of young or naive people who don’t know how things ‘really’ work, or as some sort of communist conspiracy to erode our ‘freedoms’.

We have failed. We have failed almost completely.

And I think it’s because we just haven’t been able to wrap our heads around the political situation.

Many of us laughed at the idea of Tony Abbott becoming leader of the Opposition in 2009. But he did. Many of us laughed at the idea of Tony Abbott turning the tables on Prime Minster Kevin Rudd (who had thus far convincingly seen off former Prime Minister John Howard, and former Opposition leaders Brendan Nelson and Malcolm Turnbull). But he did. Many of us scoffed at the idea of Tony Abbott leading the Coalition to victory after just one term in Opposition. But he very nearly did. And many of us laughed (admittedly nervously) at the idea of Tony Abbott ever being Prime Minister. But he is.

Though it has been common place on the progressive side of Australian politics to mock Mr Abbott’s intellectual abilities (Paul Keating famously called him an ‘intellectual nobody’), he seems to have devised and implemented a cunning strategy that has ‘worked’ in a way that few could have imagined.

It’s a strategy that caught former PM Kevin Rudd off guard. Tony Abbott didn’t play the game like he was meant to, and it cost Mr Rudd his job. It’s a strategy that overwhelmingly frustrated Julia Gillard’s time as Prime Minister. The government that she led could not gain any traction with the Australian public, no matter how much policy they passed in a very difficult parliament, or no matter what that policy was. And it’s a strategy that has seen what many of us regard as incredibly important issues safely quarantined away from actual discussion.

It’s been brilliant! It’s been, as far as I’m concerned, opportunistic, devious and deceptive, but there’s absolutely no denying that it has worked, and worked extremely well. I thus doff my hat to Mr Abbott, who has done what so many thought was impossible. Well played, sir. Well played!

What Mr Abbott seems to have realised right from the very start is that this game of politics is all about perception. ‘Facts’ simply don’t matter as much as perceived reality. With this in mind, Mr Abbott went about setting up a framework of perception that has seen him gain the Prime Ministership.

He brilliantly(-but-deceptively) framed the issue of ‘budget crisis’, for example, playing on the seemingly ingrained belief of Australians that the Labor Party are just not ‘economically responsible’. This is almost completely ignorant of the facts, however, considering Australia’s extraordinary economic position under the previous government which set it up as one of the strongest OECD economies. But facts are not nearly as important as perception.*

He framed the asylum seeker issue as one of battling invading hoards, who were, perhaps, seeking to undermine ‘the Australian way’. Playing on the bizarre(-but-seemingly-inherent) xenophobia of white Australia, he and Mr Morrison were able to set up the perception that asylum seekers were flagrantly disregarding the ‘rules’ of seeking refuge; if they were willing to disregard those rules of ‘law and order’, what others would they disregard? In an extraordinary move, they were even able to co-opt the language of ‘compassion’, arguing that it could not be compassion that invited people to their deaths on the open seas (by not having strong enough punishments in place for those who did arrive by boat).

On foreign aid, he managed to exploit the tension between ‘helping them’ and ‘looking after your own backyard first’, as well as situating giving to foreign aid in opposition to the budget getting back to surplus (even while spruiking a vastly more expensive maternity leave scheme that well and truly favours the richer end of town). Thus, we might be able to do something in the future ‘when conditions allow’, but there are, seemingly, much more important issues to tend to.

On the environment and climate change, he managed to shift the conversation to one about ‘trust’ of political leaders and to a constant focus on ‘cost of living pressures’. The perception created was that all and every cost of living increases were to be blamed on the price on carbon, and that this was ‘unfair’. Discussion about future generations and the extraordinary ‘cost of living pressures’ that will inevitably come due to current inaction on climate change were completely ignored.

He also managed, in all of these areas, to isolate Australia from its international context. Discussions about the economy and public debt were divorced from the GFC and the international situation, setting up the Labor government as ‘reckless spenders’. The discussion on Foreign Aid (or what little discussion there was) was divorced from wider international ramifications. Discussions about asylum seekers were limited to what it meant for Australia, completely ignoring international ‘push’ factors and the fact that these issues are faced far more directly by many, many other nations around the world. And discussions about action on climate change were reduced to what it meant for my back pocket.

It has been incredible to watch! It has been extraordinarily effective!

And, all the while, those of us who care about asylum seekers or foreign aid or action on climate change have been trying to use facts.

We sought meetings with MPs to discuss these issues, and to present them with the information they would need to help make good decisions. We created and shared countless infographics and memes with accurate information about the reality of the situation. We started ‘mythbusting’ sites and other information sites to try to educate both politicians and the general public on these matters. We spent countless hours entering into debates and seeking to bring change through the distribution of ‘accurate information’.

Nearly all of this was done on the assumption that most people, when presented with this accurate information (on any given topic), will have the ability and desire to change previously uninformed positions, make better decisions, and their actions would follow accordingly.

We were wrong.

We didn’t appreciate how much stronger perceptions of reality are than reality itself, and how vitally important emotion is in all of these discussions. We also misjudged how deeply ingrained self-interest is in our society. On any one of these topics, if it can be reduced to an argument where self-interest is pitted against doing something ‘because it’s right’, self-interest will win  pretty much every time. Self-interest, it seems, has become an enormously powerful force in Australian political discussion. To underestimate its power is to lose the argument from the outset.

Tony Abbott (and the Coalition) did not misjudge any of this. In fact, they understood it all perfectly.

So where does this leave us?

Well, I think it leaves us with a decision to make. Are we going to admit that we got our strategy wrong, or are we going to do something about it?

To try to play the game the same way will be to continue to lose ground on these issues. We will continue to face crushing disappointment when we realise that, once again, the things we are so concerned about are effectively ignored. We will continue to wonder how we have ended up so far from the centre of the discussions, playing our hearts out but getting no closer to a match on centre court. Though I do believe that what we have been saying is ‘right’, I must admit that, as a strategy, it has been totally ineffective.

So we need a new strategy, but this is where it gets a bit tricky for two good reasons.

1) Having done the same thing for quite some time now, it’s hard to change tactics without feeling the crushing weight of overwhelming defeat. To admit that we need to change our approach is to embrace the loss that such an admission entails. It’s like someone deciding to realise losses in the stock market, once they see that the ‘wait and see’ approach has not been working and that things are not going to get better. Taking it one step further, it’s like the gambling addict who, after feeding all their money into the slot machine, has to face up to the facts that the ‘big win’ is not going to come and they must go home empty-handed.

It’s depressing. It’s easy to fall into despair at the thought. But, if we are going to move forward on these issues, we need to embrace the mistakes and make sure we don’t repeat them. It’s time, somewhat ironically, to face the facts. Admit it, suck it up, and move on.

2) The other reason as to why this is difficult is that the method is just as important as the message. I am convinced that Tony Abbott and the Coalition, as clever as they’ve been, have relied upon some devious tactics, and even outright deception. As much as I feel the desire to ‘give them a dose of their own medicine’, there are some things that I just can’t do. To use exactly the same tactics as someone like Scott Morrison, even if they are used against him, is, as far as I’m concerned’ to share in his evil. I simply can’t go there. To defeat evil by using evil is impossible.

What this means, then, is that we need to be creative. We need to understand the situation—to understand that perception and emotion are far more important, at least in the initial stages of the discussions, than ‘facts’—and to build strategies that speak to that situation all the time without resorting to deception and untruth. We need to be conscious of the ‘story’ we are telling (with our words and actions), paying excruciating attention to the detail so that we don’t fall into the trap of using trigger words or actions that simply confirm underlying frames of thinking.

It’s going to be tricky! It’s going to take a lot of effort, and it means embracing the complex reality of seeking to change social structures. We need to get it in our heads that reality is far more complex than we might like to admit, and that it may not be a straight line to our goals.

I watched the movie Lincoln recently, and there is a quote that really stuck out to me. I have no idea as to how accurate it is, but the scene with Lincoln and Thaddeus Stevens (played by Tommy Lee Jones), where they are discussing the ‘compass’, is one that has not left me.

In discussing the way towards the end of slavery in the context of the Civil War, Lincoln gives the following example:

A compass, I learned when I was surveying, it’ll… it’ll point you True North from where you’re standing, but it’s got no advice about the swamps and deserts and chasms that you’ll encounter along the way. If in pursuit of your destination, you plunge ahead, heedless of obstacles, and achieve nothing more than to sink in a swamp… What’s the use of knowing True North?

I believe that what we have been saying in regards to asylum seekers, and in regards to foreign aid, and in regards to action on climate change is ‘true north’, but we seem to have fallen into a swamp that we didn’t see coming. We are right; what we are saying is ‘true’. But we’re now completely bogged in a swamp, and I’ve come to realise that most people don’t really pay too much attention to what swamp people have to say.

The road ahead is not going to be straight. We will need to take notice of the (many) obstacles in our way. It will be a zigzag rather than a straight line, and a marathon rather than a sprint. But, if we are clever, we can begin to present our message in a way that is actually heard (through the clanging symbols of public discourse in Australia at this time), all the while not losing our integrity in the process.

It’s going to be hard, but since when did we think it was going to be easy?

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* Having won the election, the Coalition seems to have cooled much of this talk. Even their policy costing didn’t seem to treat the issue as quite the ‘budget emergency’ they had been insisting on. In speaking to a friend about these issues, and raising this exact point, I was met with the answer that, of course, things aren’t quite so bad now that the Coalition is in. Despite there being no substantial change in the underlying situation, the perception that the economy is in a ‘safe pair of hands’ has been enough, apparently, to remedy the situation.

Asylum Seekers and the Redefinition of ‘Compassion’

I’m going to talk about the practicalities of debating/challenging/protesting against official asylum seeker policy in a future post, however I wanted to use this post to challenge the redefinition of the notion of ‘compassion’ that’s going on before our eyes in regards to these issues.

It seems to me that the concept of ‘compassion’ for those who are seeking asylum has been hijacked by people who understand its potency and who wish to harness the emotion that is attached to it, all the while re-inscribing the word with new meaning leaving it, ultimately, void of any real meaning.

For years now, those of us who have found this bizarre obsession with ‘boat people’ distressing—and who object to the dehumanising policy that has grown out of this irrational, fearful fixation—have suggested that we need to inject a little bit more compassion into the mix. The point is reasonably straight forward: vulnerable people, fleeing often horrendous situations, need to be embraced with gentle, caring, open arms rather than clobbered with an iron fist (you know, that whole ‘treat other people like you’d like to be treated’ thing?). Whether or not this is a useful strategy for speaking into this issue (or whether it, rather, speaks to a frame of thinking that automatically associates such notions with naive ‘bleeding heart’ syndrome) is for a future post. The point here is that is has been a fairly common call.

This has been challenged, however, by those who would suggest that ‘allowing’ people to get on the boats in the first place is to encourage dangerous behaviour, and is therefore implicit support for asylum seekers dying at sea when boats sink. “How is this compassionate?”, it is asked. And many people are left without an answer. Surely it’s not compassion that encourages people to risk their lives on a dangerous voyage! Surely it would be ‘compassionate’, rather, to make sure that these dangerous journeys across the oceans on leaky boats are not embarked upon in the first place!

Of course, from this point, we have a direct line to support for idiotic mantras like ‘Stop the boats’.

I must admit, it’s been brilliant insofar as i’s been a very effective strategy for disarming the force of the argument. It’s worked well!; this I cannot deny.

However, it’s total nonsense.

It works out of the premise that the desire to treat asylum seekers with dignity and respect and at least some level of care—to treat them as human, in other words—is tacit approval for the method in which they arrive. Support for ‘boat people’ is deemed support for ‘boats’.

It’s a pretty stupid argument, when you think about it.

No one I know actually supports people having to get on leaky boats to make a perilous journey across the ocean. No one! The thought of being so desperate that the decision to do so looks like a good option is quite frankly horrifying to think about. I, and the people I know who are most vocal about support for vulnerable people who are seeking asylum, would not ever suggest that this is a great idea. It’s dangerous. It’s a recipe for disaster. It’s deeply saddening that people would feel like they are left with no other choice.

What we’ve consistently suggested (apparently not very effectively…) is that it is precisely because people feel that they have no other choice that they take this option in the first place. The ‘queue’ that so many people insist these people are jumping just doesn’t exist. There is no appropriate framework in place in these areas to be able to manage the situation, and so the option of ‘going through the correct channels’ is quite simply not on offer much of the time.

What many of us are calling for, then, is not a free-for-all on boats, but rather for funding to be directed to establish an appropriate framework throughout the region which is able to better deal with the situation. Let’s at least help in setting up adequate regional processing centres before we complain about people bypassing ones that don’t currently exist.

It would be a heck of a lot less expensive than the billions that we currently spend on ‘deterrence’ measures, and it has the added benefit of allowing us to meet our international obligations as well as not being evil. Everyone wins!

But where this co-opting of the language of compassion in support of deterrence policies is really exposed in all its ugliness is when you look at what is offered as the ‘solutions’.

‘Compassion’, it is argued, is making sure people don’t get on the boats to start with. And that’s where it apparently also finishes. Truly caring about these men, women, and children is not, it seems, about doing anything in regards to making sure they have other options; it’s simply about making sure they don’t get on a boat that’s headed anywhere near us.

This sort of approach does nothing by way of really grappling with the causes of the situation, but is rather aimed solely at treating the presenting symptoms. The ‘problem’ doesn’t exist, apparently, if we don’t see it. Out of sight, out of mind, as they say.

Let’s call this what it is: blatant hypocrisy.

This co-opting of the language of compassion is merely a disgusting cover for making sure that we don’t have to deal with it, even though we know others still will. We don’t want to have to abide by our international obligations, but we’re happy for others to have to (who don’t have a colossal moat surrounding their countries).

Asylum seekers will still take desperate measures, because they’re in desperate situations. They’ll still die in the process. But, apparently, this is fine as long as we don’t have to see it.

The whole argument is breathtakingly abhorrent! It’s truly despicable!

But it’s even more despicable that it’s wrapped in the co-opted language of ‘compassion’.

Don’t be fooled: the current ‘solutions’ to the asylum seeker ‘problem’ have absolutely nothing to do with compassion.

How to Vote at the Federal Election(???)

We Aussies are now in the midst of a federal election campaign. The date has been set, the arrangements are being made, and pretty much all hell is breaking loose as our politicians seek to overwhelm us  with trite slogans, empty promises, and the nauseating machinations of party politics.

vote

I’ve been wanting to write about what’s been going on in Australian politics for a while now but, to be perfectly honest, it’s all been doing my head in a little bit.

The extraordinary last three-and-a-bit years of Australian politics has been (extraordinarily!) capped off by the events of Ruddivivus (that is, former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd becoming, well, plain old ‘Prime Minister Rudd’ once again), and what was looking like a landslide victory for the Coalition has become a proper contest once more. Somehow, the incumbent Prime Minister has been able to position himself as the underdog challenger(!), while the Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, has had to reframe his own position (due to the fact that Kevin Rudd basically took many of Mr Abbott’s key policy positions swiftly out from underneath him) as the guy who can do what the Prime Minister says he is going to do, only better (all without giving those pesky details about how he is going to pay for it).

It’s all a bit bizarre!

It’s also very disheartening.

This has not been good news in a number of policy areas, perhaps most significantly in the area of asylum seeker policy. The last dozen-or-so years has been really nasty when it comes to asylum seeker policy, and both major parties are now seemingly vying for the most soul-destroying ‘solutions’ their twisted minds can conceive. It’s truly horrible.

I know many people who are totally disillusioned by it all, and who are having a very hard time trying to work out if they will vote, let alone how to vote.

While I am not going to try to tell people who to vote for here (and don’t recommend listening to anyone who does tell you who to vote for), I do want to offer a couple of thoughts that might be helpful to keep in mind as we move forward in this election campaign and edge towards voting day.

1) As a Christian, I must remember that none—not one!—of the parties or candidates on offer represents the fulness of my belief system and the hope to which I hold.

It’s so easy for us Christians to divide ourselves along the familiar lines of ‘right’ and ‘left’, ‘conservative’ and ‘progressive/liberal, and forget that the Christian message of hope stands quite distinct from any particular party platform. As someone who more naturally identifies with the [libertarian-]left of politics, it’s quite easy for me, in the face of what looks like a win for the ‘right’ of politics either way(…), to become wrapped up in the ridiculous notion all the problems in the world would fade away if only a true left–of-centre party was elected. For my friends who more naturally identify with ‘economic-rationalist’ approaches to fiscal policy (and the parties that embody such ideas), it’s easy for them to be convinced that, if only we had a Government that could essentially get out of the way and ‘free’ companies from all that pesky regulation (and responsibility), ‘the economy’ would be transformed and wealth (and therefore happiness) would trickle down to all and create a rising tide of prosperity and rainbows and unicorns and…

Ok, that’s a cheap shot, but you get the idea!

And, of course, it’s all nonsense.

No party is going to magically fix everything that’s wrong with our beautiful-yet-corrupted nation (let alone the world). No merely political movement is going to heal human hearts and end the greed and fear and hate that divides us. No politician is able to ‘save us’ from…ourselves.

As such, when (or, indeed, if) I vote, I need to remember that I am taking part in something that allows me to have my voice heard in the way I think the country could best be run, which is great and all, but it’s not everything. Most of all, no matter what happens on election day, I need to remember that I, as a Christian, am called to embody the hope to which I hold, demonstrating an alternative way of being human through transformative love and grace. To read more on this idea, see my friend Matt’s excellent post here.

And this leads me to my second point (which needs to keep this first point in mind as a kind of context for what I will say next).

2) Taking part in the political process is, nevertheless, an important responsibility.

The first part of this point, as I see it, is that we Australians are privileged to live in a nation where we get to vote, and indeed where our elected representatives are required to meet with their constituents. I have been very fortunate to be able to meet with the federal member for the electorate I live in numerous times over the past five years and, though he and I certainly don’t see eye to eye on certain (well, perhaps ‘most’) issues, he nevertheless takes the time to meet with me and groups that I’m a part of and does actually listen (to some degree) to what we have to say. Compared with so many places around the world, we in Australia are privileged to live in a country where we have such direct access to the political system. As much as the system can still be very frustrating sometimes (and, as I noted in the first point, certainly isn’t the answer to all life’s problems), it is still a relatively good one. It’s certainly not perfect, but it’s not bad by world standards.

As such, I’m of the opinion that we, as Australians, should not take it all for granted. We should at least have some idea of how it all works, as well as some idea of which party stands for what. So many people I speak to simply don’t understand how our political system works, and vote for a given party for reasons that have little to do with the party’s actual policy platform. We should know where parties stand on the big issues that effect us as a nation (and, of course, the rest of the world…), and we should take the time to work out which parties best reflect (in the limited way they can) the things that we each consider to be important. We should seek to understand the parties as a whole (not just the individuals who represent them), and we should also look into how each party distributes preferences in elections.

‘Vote Compass’ is a tool recently developed to help people figure out where they most naturally ‘fit’ in the Australian political landscape, and can be found on the ABC website. It’s not a perfect tool, to be sure, and it’s not designed to tell you who you should vote for, but it does use your own answers to important questions to help you figure out just how closely you stand to each of the major parties. I would recommend at least giving it a go.

The second part of this point, as I see it, is the question of whether or not to vote in the first place. There has been a lot of discussion lately from people I interact with on social media suggesting that they are considering not voting at all, or are going to sabotage their own vote by either casting a ‘donkey’ vote on election day or, more likely, leaving the ballot paper completely empty. Of course, in Australia, those who do refuse to vote face the prospect of a fine, because voting is compulsory for all Australians over 18 (and I know my North American friends find this amazing!).

In the light of recent policy decisions, I have actually considered refraining from voting at all, and accepting the fine that necessarily follows, as an act of civil disobedience. The trends in asylum seeker policy, for example, have so disgusted me that I have felt, at times, that I am not able to take part in the system that is used to legitimate the ‘mandate’ those elected feel to pursue such dehumanising policy.

I am a fan of nonviolent action, and I am a fan of (well thought-out) civil disobedience, to make a clear point. Though a couple of people not voting is not likely to have much of an impact, I don’t underestimate the point that could be made if enough people were to refuse to enter polling places and instead came together in peaceful demonstrations against such policy, or even, perhaps, holding open events of welcome for all who make up this wonderfully diverse bunch we call ‘Australians’.

From my comments here, I can see at least a couple of responses.

Someone might suggest to me that I have here completely contradicted myself in the space of one blog post. Earlier in the post I described how we shouldn’t take for granted the ability to be part of the political process in our country, and thus suggesting the possibility that I might refrain from voting altogether would be ridiculous. To this, I would suggest that, though I am reasonable ‘happy’ with the political system I find myself in (at least comparatively), I am under no illusions that it is perfect. There are times when the system itself needs to be challenged, because there are times when taking part in the system as it is amounts to complicity in what I consider to be ‘evil’. With both major parties (that is, the only parties who will actually form Government after the election) pursuing horrific, dehumanising policies in regards to asylum seekers, I have entertained the possibility that it would be better, on this occasion, to break the law, in order to highlight what I consider to be unjust, inhumane policy. If I were to take this course of action, I would be happy to accept responsibility for my action and face the consequences. For me, it may actually be worthwhile, on this occasion, to stand outside the system in order to highlight the brokenness of the system as it is. It would, however, need to be done in the right way, and this brings me to the second point.

Someone (else?) might suggest that my apparent idealism here is totally outweighed by my pragmatism. Will I only take part in the dissident action of deliberately refraining from voting if enough people do it with me, rather than just doing it because it’s the right thing to do? In some senses, the answer is, quite simply, yes. I despise ‘stupid’ protest, which is why I think the idea of casting a ‘donkey’ vote is ridiculous. Going through all the effort of looking like you are voting, only to waste that vote on technical details, is, I think, pretty dumb. It doesn’t actually do much. Likewise, leaving the ballot paper empty is, to my mind, a way of seeking to make a protest without having to face up to the consequences. I am of the opinion that I always need to be able to take responsibility for my actions, so the thought of this kind of anonymous protest, for me, seems like a bit of a cop-out.

In addition to this, if only a handful of people were to refuse altogether to enter polling places and, rather, stood outside with placards (or whatever) protesting asylum seeker policy, I can’t see how the message would cut through. Instead, I think the more likely outcome would simply be that those who care about asylum seekers would be the only ones to refrain from voting (leaving their important voice relatively unheard), and the major parties would still consider their victory to be a ‘mandate’ for such cruel policy. For me, it would be far better, in this instance, to use my vote to place a minor party first on the ballot paper, and then allocate my preferences according to the major party that is least worst over a range of policy issues. At least this option could see the minor parties’ vote increase (which the major parties take more seriously than they let on), at the same time as recognising the fact that parties represent more than just this one issue (no matter how important I consider it to be). At this point in time, this is my default option, unless someone can show me how we would be able to rally enough people together who had chosen to refrain from voting as a form of protest.* I’m guessing we’d need to have somewhere over 100,000 people take part in such action for it to be taken seriously. If you have any ideas, please let me know : )

Anyway, these are just a couple of my thoughts as we head into the election. I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments on the matter.

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* I need to make it clear here that I am not (at least at this stage) encouraging anyone to either completely refrain from voting in the federal election, or to lodge an ‘informal’ vote (of whatever kind). It has been said that to do so is an offence, though I cannot (at this point) find information relating to such action in the Commonwealth Electoral Act.