Humble brag time! If you like the deep, smooth sounds of me forming patient (by which I mean ‘slow’) opinions about news events, you can hear me in discussion on ABC Radio National in conversation with Chris Berg, Van Badham, and Jonathan Green. The conversation took a sharp turn when I found myself trying to find the rhetorical footing for a question about the recent tragedy in Java.
As many as 50 people are feared dead after a boat loaded with asylum seekers sank off the south coast of west Java.
Indonesian rescue authorities, speaking on the basis of information provided by local police, say 22 bodies and 25 survivors have been found.
As many as 30 are still feared missing and without the capability to search at night, or in big seas, there was little hope of them being found before day break. [Source]
Van Badham — understandably, justifiably, entirely reasonably (I don’t want to suggest otherwise) — was upset about the loss of life, particularly of children. What becomes difficult is the transformation of this understandable, justifiable, and entirely reasonable response to a disaster into political language.
Here’s the CEO of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, for example:
The puzzle is how we construct the event in terms of what we expect of our Government and the international community, and in terms of what responsibility people have for themselves. In the process of analysing the issue clinically and methodically, there is a fear that we lose that authentic human response to the disaster.
The same people who have been braying that ‘turn back the boats’ is an infringement of Indonesia’s sovereignty seem to be the same people now saying that Australia should have gone into Indonesian waters.
In 2012, Australia and Indonesia formed an agreement that would allow Australia to enter Indonesian seas for the purposes of search and rescue, but that agreement has a few issues. It is important to be clear that the agreement is about cooperation rather than Australia policing those waters.
And this, then, divides the issue into manageable chunks. Why were the people on board calling the Australian authorities instead of the Indonesian? When Australian authorities received the call, how should the search and rescue cooperation agreement have been applied? Finally, regardless of what the current frameworks and arrangements are, what do we intuitively expect would be the response of Australia, Indonesia, and the regional community?
The last question is important because it seems that people who are outraged at the loss of life don’t actually care about the details. The language deployed by activists isn’t concerned with technicalities of law, they are interested in having their outrage satiated. They want something done and they don’t care about bureaucratic pedantry. There’s nothing inherently wrong about that, mind, but it makes for a difficult landscape in which to discuss policy options.
The old saying is ‘Hard cases make bad law’. In the policy world, a similar maxim is true. Translating anger and sorrow into policy requires care (in both senses of that word), and delicate tools are needed to ensure that we’re having a productive discussion. Leaping from outrage to blame and demanding various policy reactions further entrenches the toxic language dragging down the debate.
Declaratory statements about what does and does not work, what should and should not happen, and what is or is not ‘humane’ are not helping this discussion.
In short, my regret is that it seemed that I disagreed more with Badham than with Chris Berg, when the opposite is closer to the truth (even though I disagree with them both).