Peter Whiting.

walk together. PROLouisa Billeter. flickr cc.

This must surely seem an odd way to frame a commentary on conscience, but I am having great difficulty reconciling the Australian Government’s position on the refugees on Manus and Nauru and any notion of conscience.

On 31 October, the Australian Government closed the Manus Island processing centre, requiring the 600 men detained inside it to relocate to replacement accommodation at nearby Lorengau, a town with a population of some 6000. The refugees, with good cause, given their experience to date, are refusing to move, citing fears for their safety.

The spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has called on the government to end the “unfolding humanitarian emergency” and allow the men to be transferred to Australia. The New Zealand Prime Minister has offered to assist Australia by taking 150 of the refugees. The insistence by the Government that accepting the refugees will be an invitation to people smugglers rings hollow, with the recent movement of refugees to the USA and Cambodia not resulting in a new wave of asylum seekers coming by boat.

The UNHCR comments are damning. They remind both Australia and PNG that they are responsible, under international human rights law and the 1951 Refugee Convention, to provide access to shelter, water, food, and sanitation; the comments repeat previous concerns that Australia’s offshore processing centres “are unsustainable, inhumane, and contrary to its human rights obligations”.

Russell Broadbent’s challenge to the Coalition

Long-serving Liberal MP Russell Broadbent has criticised the policies of his own party, arguing that we are at a T intersection, and that a change of policy is necessary. He reflects the view of many in the community when he says, “If you believe this country is what I believe this country is, this situation is unacceptable. The situation on Manus is unacceptable…”.  Reviewing the recent book by Tony Ward Bridging Troubled Waters , Tony French in our October newsletter concluded that there are signs that we can bridge the community divide between those who would “keep them out” and those who want to “let them in”.

I sincerely hope he is correct in that observation, but it seems to me that achieving a change of policy in this area will require a reawakening of conscience among our commentators and politicians. We should never have allowed these people to be demonised as they have been, and we must in all conscience recognise their human rights and extend to them the care and protection to which they are entitled. To continue the current policy stance is surely to deny the relevance of conscience in public policy.

Bruce Duncan, in his article in this newsletter “Pope Francis under attack”, refers to some Catholics alarmed by the appeal of the Pope to personal conscience, and “have insisted on conformity to a strict set of rules and regulations, a law and order approach, drawing a line in the sand to determine who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’”. Surely we have already been following such a juridicial approach to determining who is “in” and who is “out”.  It is this very approach which has given rise to the unacceptable issues now unfolding dangerously on Manus Island. Equally, surely, the Pope’s call for the extension of mercy is also most apt to our considerations in finding a solution to the refugee situation.

The other articles in this newsletter place before us matters of conscience each of us should be addressing. Some 200 scientists have written to the Prime Minister about the twin perils of climate change and nuclear weapons, asking why the government remains committed to fossil fuels, and why it has decided not to sign the nuclear weapons ban treaty.

John Ferguson draws our intention to the World Day of the Poor and asks are we ‘fair dinkum’ about encountering the poor.

In similar vein, Australian historian Henry Reynolds, delivering a lecture for the recent International Day of Peace, challenges not only our historical perspectives, but also our collective conscience, when he poses the question “Why has Australia been almost continuously at war?”.

Of course the options posed at the outset are incomplete. Pope Francis has issued an invitation to consider the defence of private conscience, as well as roundly to reject the refugee policy approach which seems to be ignoring the whole question of conscience. There can be no ignoring conscience issues. The humane response to them helps to define who we are as people and societies. By all means defend the notion of conscience, but, equally importantly, let us respond to the calls of conscience!


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