Mr Abbott unveiled.

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Bruce Duncan. 

syrian refugees
Syrian Refugees in Vienna Trainstation, Josh Zakary, flickr cc.

No-one likes to see their prime minister humiliated and removed from office, or the resulting trauma for families and close colleagues. Tony Abbott is only the latest PM to be unhorsed, but his demise demands scrutiny, especially as he was a strong Catholic, indeed a seminarian, for some years, and claimed the Catholic stalwart B A Santamaria as a mentor and exemplar.

In earlier years, Abbott was lampooned as ‘Captain Catholic’ and for being close to Cardinal Pell, with the implication that he would use his political position to favour Catholic policies or interests. Abbott later carefully avoided giving such an impression and the moniker soon disappeared.

But what worried Catholics among others was Abbott’s apparent neglect of core Christian social values about care for the distressed and vulnerable, social equity, and justice. We wondered how his government could treat asylum seekers so cruelly. We were further confounded by the first Abbott budget which hit poor sections of the community hard while favouring the well off. What had happened to the principles of fairness and support for the underdog which figure so prominently in Catholic social teaching over the last 125 years?

We were again puzzled by Mr Abbott’s reaction to the social advocacy of Pope Francis, which is in deep continuity with that of his predecessors. In May, Francis issued his encyclical, Laudato Sí, calling for urgent action to redress climate change, for increased social equity and measures to reduce savage inequalities, and for support for global efforts to eradicate hunger and poverty. What was Abbott’s reaction? Stony silence, it seems. I have not been able to find any comment from him on the encyclical.

Did this ignoring of Pope Francis reflect Abbott’s own views, or was it because he was tied down by the hard right among the Liberals, especially those enamoured of the neoliberal economic views which Catholic teaching had long attacked?

refugee camp 2
Syrian refugees’ camp in Cappadocia Turkey, io Sola Penna, flickr cc.

An answer to this question echoed through Abbott’s talk at the Margaret Thatcher Lecture in London on 28 October. His first address as former prime minister on the well-paid speakers’ circuit positioned him in the heart of neoliberal-land itself.

Abbott lauded the conservative social and economic views of Thatcher, and claimed “at least a hint of Thatcher” for his government in “stopping the flow of illegal immigrant boats, because a country that can’t control its borders starts to lose control of itself; the repeal of the carbon tax that was socialism masquerading as environmentalism; budget repair, so that within five years the Australian government will once again be living within its means”, and so on.

Astonishingly, he then argued that “the imperative to ‘love your neighbour as you love yourself’… is leading much of Europe into catastrophic error”. It was “misguided altruism” for any country to “open its borders to all comers without fundamentally weakening itself”. “All countries which say ‘anyone who comes here can stay here’ are now in peril”, with perhaps hundreds of millions of people fleeing poverty or danger.

But wait, Mr Abbott. No country intended to take all comers; genuine refugees, yes, in manageable programs. End the destruction in Syria and Iraq, and most will return to their own countries. Yet Abbott takes no responsibility for the foolhardy invasion of Iraq in 2003, when Britain and Australia were the only two countries to join the United States, a decision he supported in the Howard government. Nor did he see any link between that invasion and the current turmoil in the Middle East.

Instead, Abbott lauded Thatcher’s response to the Argentine invasion of the Faulklands, and urged Britain and the West to “stand up for universal human decencies” and intervene on the ground in Syria to defeat the Daesh ‘death cult’ and the terrorists, and ward off the influence of Russia and Iran.

Abbott then extols Australia as a model for Europe in how to handle the wave of refugees: turn back boats and close the borders. If people come via third countries then they are by definition not refugees but economic migrants. We have no moral duty to accept them. Simple!

“It will require some force; it will require massive logistics and expense; it will gnaw at our consciences – yet it is the only way… too much mercy for some necessarily undermines justice for all.” Abbott sees this as “the moral duty to protect one’s own people and to stamp out people smuggling”.

No wonder retired Bishop Pat Power in Canberra was “absolutely astounded”, ashamed and “appalled” by Abbott’s “hard-hearted approach” to such vulnerable people, so at odds with fundamental Christian beliefs. Fr Frank Brennan concurred, adding that Australian cruelly treated some 1800 asylum seekers and refugees on Nauru and Manus Island, indefinitely detained in traumatic conditions. The end does not justify the means.

The refugee issue is indeed complex and difficult, but it is still morally repugnant to deter others and punish people who came seeking a safe haven. So much for the Last Judgment scene in Matthew’s Gospel: ‘When did we see you hungry, thirsty, naked…’. That was me you saw, God replies.

There is a glaring contrast between Abbott’s views and the social thinking of Pope Francis, who is calling not only for humane treatment of refugees, but also for major efforts to reduce huge inequalities, hunger, and poverty. Yet what was the Abbott government’s response? To slash overseas aid by two-thirds, and cut social spending sharply in Australia with the promise of tax cuts for the wealthy. It appears that political pragmatism trumps even the most basic moral principles common to all religious traditions.

One suspects Mr Abbott has done his reputation no favours in London. Not only Pope Francis, but also Bob Santamaria, would be appalled too.

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