Two essays on Australia’s treatment of asylum-seekers

1.Never Walk Away (a slightly different version was published on the Independent Australia website, 27 July 1917:,10526)

Ursula le Guin’s powerful short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” first appeared in 1973, more than 40 years ago. Yet, it offers us an opportunity to reflect on Australia’s treatment of asylum-seekers. The story depicts a happy, prosperous city, marred by one barbaric practice: it always keeps one young child locked away alone in “a basement under one of the beautiful public buildings.” The people of Omelas all know the child is there. “Some of them understand why, and some do not, but they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, …. depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery.” Many are disgusted at what Omelas is doing to this child – Often, when they have seen the child, “the young people go home in tears, or in a tearless rage, …” – yet most of them appear to accept it as an disagreeable necessity. Omelas has made a Faustian bargain in which happiness must be balanced by misery: the “terms are strict and absolute; there may not even be a kind word spoken to the child.” Others who don’t accept the bargain simply walk away. They appear to have despaired of their fellow citizens: “Each one walks alone [as they] leave Omelas … and they do not come back…. it is possible that [the place they go towards] does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.” End of story!

Science fiction writers – le Guin prefers to be called a novelist – rarely aim at prediction. Sometimes they propose a possible future or, as in Margaret Attwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, a plausible alternative present, with an alternative history leading up to it, but in both cases the imagined world serves as metaphor. It raises questions about the present. Ursula le Guin’s regards her imagined futures as safe, sterile laboratories for trying out ideas: in The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) she invites readers to imagine a society without gender as we currently understand it while in The Word for World is Forest she reflects on the impacts of European colonialism and less directly on what America was doing in its destructive war on Vietnam and its SE Asian neighbours. The Omelas story depicts neither an imaginary future nor an alternative present but a fragment of another reality that could plausibly belong to either. Its partial portrayal of a different society performs a similar function to le Guin’s imagined futures.

There is no exact parallel between le Guin’s imaginary Omelas and today’s Australia. Omelas like le Guin’s America has no hereditary ruler and no slavery and while Australia also has no slavery or none that is legal, it does have an hereditary monarch, at least for the moment, but she is widely thought to play no active part in government. The Omelans, like today’s Americans and Australians appear to govern themselves but, unlike us, they have no stock market, advertising or secret police. Le Guin insists that the people of Omelas are different, but not less complex than us. We would not contemplate keeping just one solitary child locked away in a basement just to benefit the rest of us, although we do lock far too many non-Australians away in immigration detention, a practice that outrages many of us – not to mention the many indigenous people we incarcerate.

Australia’s disaffected citizens, unlike those of Omelas, do not have the option of walking away: whether we walk, drive or take public transport, we still find ourselves somewhere in Australia. Instead of walking away, all we can manage is to retreat into our heads: we can tell ourselves and anyone who will listen that our Government is not acting in our name.

Nor, it seems, does Omelas have any politics. Le Guin tells us there is no King. Otherwise she tells us nothing about how Omelas is governed. Perhaps it is ruled by a few powerful families or by what we now think of as democratic means. Those who despair and finally walk away are not described as engaging in protests, signing petitions, attending demonstrations or joining political parties in the hope of change. They despair, not only of their leaders but also of their fellow citizens.

Omelas’ leaders, like Australia’s, appear to believe that there is no alternative to their barbaric policies. They believe also that most of their citizens do not understand why these policies are necessary. Omelas sticks to its Faustian bargain and we hold fast to the view that penalising several hundred strangers will protect us from the world’s rising tide of refugees. No matter, most citizens are content to leave such issues to their leaders.

While le Guin’s Omelans can walk away, albeit to an uncertain destination and, with some effort, disaffected Americans could walk or drive to another country (Mexico or Canada) without being entirely sure of how they would be received, disaffected Australians can walk away only in their minds. If disaffected Omelans take the risk of not knowing where they will end up – it could be somewhere worse – something similar holds for disaffected Australians who mentally walk away but physically remain – our heads might end up in a worse political space.

The risk of a worse political space is particularly acute for anyone tempted to use the ‘dog-whistle’ metaphor to explainr why many Australians support our asylum-seeker policies. What is going on when we accuse John Howard or some younger Coalition politician of dog-whistling? Obviously, we accuse the dog-whistler of appealing deliberately and indirectly to racist sentiments. But the metaphor also points to those who respond, comparing them to trained sheep-dogs who hear the whistle and follow the command it contains. To use this metaphor is to compare many of our fellow Australians to trained animals – smart enough to follow commands but not to think for themselves. The risk here is the temptation to see those who follow the whistle as lesser beings – not a good headspace for anyone on the left to occupy.

Finally, if disaffected Omelans despair of their fellow citizens – why else would they walk away alone, not in groups large enough to make others notice? – there is no good reason for disaffected Australians to despair of our fellow citizens, although there are reasons to despair of our political leaders. Sure, there have been polls purporting to show majority support for our brutal treatment of asylum-seekers, with a significant minority appearing to follow the dog-whistle script, but we all know that poll results turn on the wording of the question and the context in which it is asked – and there have also been polls showing just the opposite.

If we cannot walk or drive away from Australia except into the sea and we should not retreat into the attractive seclusion of our heads, there is no alternative to the hard slog of engaging our fellow Australians politically.

2 A Comment on Paul Muldoon’s ‘Contesting Australian Asylum Policy’ (final version forthcoming in The Australian Journal of Politics and History)

The core of Paul Muldoon’s ‘Contesting Australian Asylum Policy’i is a subtle and sophisticated reading of Plato’s tale of the last days of Socrates which he uses it to throw light on the dilemma facing Australians who despair of their government’s asylum-seeker policy. While I do not dispute his commentary on Socrates, its bearing on the position of those who reject Australia’s asylum-seeker policies is less straightforward than Muldoon suggests. I argue first, that the parallel he draws between the situations of the latter and Plato’s Socrates is too big a stretch, and second, more specifically that, while both the Athens of Plato’s Socrates and contemporary Australia present their citizens with dilemmas of democratic citizenship, the two dilemmas are so radically distinct as to render problematic any attempt to draw lessons for one from the other.

From opposition to Asylum-seeker Policy to Plato’s Socrates

Ever since Schiller’s 1795 ‘On naïve and sentimental poetry’,ii Western commentators have derived lessons for their own time from simplified accounts of Western classical antiquity.iii Paul Muldoon performs a sophisticated variation on this manoeuvre, taking classical Athens more seriously than most. His argument begins by identifying opposition to Australian asylum-seeker policies with a kind of cosmopolitanism and noting that cosmopolitans may be tempted by an irresponsible abandonment of political engagement, both of which lead him to focus on Socrates’ engagement as an alienated citizen with Athenian laws and other Athenian citizens. His paper ‘explores how “we cosmopolitans” [among whom he clearly includes himself] might make effective use of our citizenship in circumstances where our views about “aliens” … put us at risk of being treated as enemies of “the people”’. He questions, in particular, ‘the way humanitarians,’ [i.e. cosmopolitans], have distanced themselves from government policy [through] acts of moral dissent’, acts that ‘incline towards irresponsibility and are no substitute for an ongoing interrogation of the ethos of the democratic community.’ In effect, Muldoon ‘calls for an explicitly political philosophy which… seeks to isolate and amplify those strains within the local political culture that open out to general moral claims.’iv

I agree that it would be a mistake for those opposed to Australia’s asylum-seeker policies to withdraw from political engagement but would not invoke responsibility in the Arendtian sense to make the point.v

Arendt’s political thinking draws on an idealised image of the Greek polis, as governed by the collective action of its citizens, to argue, inter alia, that the citizens are collectively and individually responsible for its Muldoon endorses her view ‘that citizens remain “collectively responsible” for things done in the name of the political community [and further that] for the future generations who stand in judgement, it will not be the moral stance we take as individuals, but the political action we undertake as a collective, that will really truly matter.’vii Here, two observations are called for: first, for many of those who object to what our Government is doing to asylum-seekers today the judgement of future generations is a secondary concern; and, second, if what matters is our collective action, it seems perverse to treat one individual, Socrates, as an exemplar

Moreover, while it is easy to understand why many political theorists might wish to frame their opposition to offshore detention in universalistic terms, we might wonder how far Australians who oppose such policies are motivated by ‘general moral claims’ of the kind Muldoon has in mind rather than by more straightforward feelings of sympathy and disgust – i.e. by principles that are both particularistic and strongly held.

Some might even appeal to ‘general moral claims’ of a different order than those Muldoon cites – claims that apply, for example, to states rather than to individual humans. A case in point would be the claim that states should abide by rules they have voluntarily agreed to follow – like the rule contained in the 1951 Refugee Convention and many subsequent Conventions that individuals seeking asylum should not be penalised for doing so – or else publicly withdraw from the agreement. Some of us have been angered by the sight of political leaders – who, in other contexts, seem happy enough to criticise others in the name of a rules-based international order – complaining about UNHCR rules-based criticisms of Australia’s treatment of asylum-seekers as if it were some kind of interference in Australia’s internal affairs. Such criticism could easily be avoided by our withdrawal from the Refugee Convention.

Muldoon’s appeal to ‘general moral claims’ introduces the topic that takes up the bulk of his paper concerning ‘one of the greatest exemplars of moral individualism in the Western tradition: Socrates …. [whose] example helps to clarify the stakes of principled dissent and to provide an insight into the role that universal moral philosophy can play in relation to local democratic politics.” Muldoon portrays Socrates as both exemplary individualist and conformist, who stands against the customs of his community, yet still follows its laws. The final step leading up to Muldoon’s principal focus is to portray opposition to asylum-seeker policies as acts of moral dissent against the ethos of a ‘general public [that] has either willingly followed or actively encouraged this hard-line approach to asylum-seekers,’ thereby establishing a parallel with Socratesviii

This last point deserves more careful consideration than I have space for here. Suffice it to say first, that media representations of popular opinion are normally less than entirely reliable and second, that, while Muldoon cites evidence to support his negative view of Australians’ perceptions of asylum-seekers,ix it is not hard to find evidence to the contrary, that Australian attitudes towards outsiders may be more welcoming and the ethos of its general public more complex than Muldoon’s opening discussion suggestsx

We should be wary of reading opposition to Australia’s asylum-seeker policies as a courageous act of moral dissent from majority opinion – a reading that serves to legitimise Muldoon’s treatment of Plato’s Socrates as a pertinent exemplar. On June 29, 2016 The Guardian reported a poll purporting to show that a majority of Australians at the time believed that refugees arriving by boat should be allowed to settle in Australia.xi Dissent from Government asylum-seeker policies cannot always be seen as dissent from the views of one’s fellow citizens – although this would not stop influential media outlets and senior politicians from portraying it as an anti-democratic elitism.

Democratic politics in Socrates’ Athens and today’s Australia

However, my principle concern is to dispute Muldoon’s use of Socrates to provide insights into the role Australian dissidents could ‘play in relation to local democratic politics’. If Socrates is hardly an appropriate role model for contemporary citizens who reject their government’s policies, neither is the Athens of Socrates’ time a fruitful model for understanding the Governments of contemporary democratic states. Australia and other contemporary democratic states have little in common with Socrates’ Athens apart from being open to awkward rhetorical appeals to popular rule & popular responsibility – appeals that are central to both Arendt’s & Jasper’s rather different discussions of individual & collective responsibility.xii

At first sight, contemporary democracies seem far removed from what we might understand as government by the people. They are, for the most part, governed by a mixture of elected representatives and unelected public servants operating, at least in part, within institutional arrangements – constitutional monarchy, a quasi-independent judiciary, police and military apparatuses that are nominally under civilian control – inherited from an even less democratic past. In today’s democracies, the people play an important part in their own government, mainly through electing representatives, but in what Madison calls ‘their collective capacity’, they are kept well away from the actual work of government.xiii

In practice, of course, something similar might be said about Socrates’ Athens.xiv Like Socrates himself, many citizens took no part in the activities of the Assembly or Council and the practical work of government was performed by slaves and by citizens chosen by lot, the latter ensuring that many citizens had the experience both of ruling and being ruled, and that democratic Athens was not a case of government by the one or by the few – although what remained of its aristocracy was more influential than those who regard Athens as an exemplary democracy would find entirely comfortable. It would be an exaggeration to say that the people of Athens in ‘their collective capacity’ actually governed themselves – or that they were collectively responsible for the actions of the polis.

Yet, if both contemporary democracies and Socrates’ Athens deviate significantly from the ideal image of the people acting ‘in their collective capacity’ they do so in their own ways and neither is a useful model for understanding the workings of the other. While the same ideal image underlies Arendt’s account – and also, I suspect, Muldoon’s – of collective responsibility, just as it underlies the long history of Western opposition to democracy,xv it has little to offer our understanding of the workings of contemporary democracies – or of Socrates’ Athens – or the role of disaffected citizens within them.

If today’s Australians hardly enjoy collective responsibility in Arendt’s sense for the conduct of their Government, neither are dissidents who, having despaired of their fellow citizens, give up on them exactly irresponsible although they do risk losing any chance of making a difference


1. Paul Muldoon, 2017, ‘Contesting Australian Asylum Policy: Political Alienation, Socratic Citizenship, and Cosmopolitan Critique’ AJPH: 63, 2, 2017, pp.238-253

11. F. von Schiller. “On Naive and Sentimental Poetry” in Walter Hinderer & Daniel O. Dahlstrom (eds.) Friedrich Schiller: Essays: (London, Bloomsbury 1993) pp.179-201. Schiller was by no means the first to return to the Greeks: cf E.M.Butler, The Tyranny of Greece over Germany (Cambridge, CUP 2012)

111. See my “‘The Greeks had a Word for It’: the polis as political metaphor”, Thesis Eleven 40, 1995: 119 – 132.

iv. Contesting…, p. 239 first emphasis added

v. As I have argued elsewhere:,10526

vi. The Greeks…

vii. Contesting… p. 242 Note Arendt’s distinction : ‘What I am driving at … is a sharper dividing line between political (collective) responsibility, on the one side, and moral and/or legal (personal) guilt, on the other’ (‘Collective Responsibility’, in James Bernauer (ed) Amor Mundi: Explorations in the Faith and Thought of Hannah Arendt, (Dordrecht, Martinus Nijhoff) pp. 43-50, at p. 46). In her view, guilt is a moral and/or legal category, whereas responsibility is political.

viii. Contesting…, pp. 239, 40

ix. Cf, Daniel Flitton, ‘Asylum seeker boat turn-backs supported by 71% in poll’ Sydney Morning Herald, June 4, 2014

x. See, for example, Andrew Markus, 2001, Race, John Howard and the Remaking of Australia (Allen & Unwin, Sydney) and his annual (since 2007) Mapping Social Cohesion Reports (Scanlon Foundation with Monash University & The Australian Multicultural Foundation, Carlton, Vic) and David Marr’s 2017 discussion in ‘The White Queen: One Nation and the Politics of Race’, Quarterly Essay 65, pp10f

xi. 2016 was a year of intense debate on the legitimacy of Australia’a offshore detention, culminating in The Guardian’s release of a huge cache of leaked incident reports from the Nauru detention centre, in August. Muldoon hardly refers to the journalism of this period & his last dated reference cites the Sydney Morning Herald, 13 February 2016.

xii. Arendt, “Collective Responsibility” ; Jaspers, Karl, 1961, The Question of German Guilt, E.B. Ashton (trans.), New York: Capricorn.

x111. Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay 2003 [1787] The Federalist Papers (Bantam, New York) #63. cf my ‘Representation Ingrafted upon Democracy’. Democratization 7 (2) 2000: 1-18

xiv. See Christopher Blackwell’s useful discussion, “Athenian Democracy: a brief overview,” in Adriaan Lanni, ed., “Athenian Law in its Democratic Context” (Center for Hellenic Studies On-line Discussion Series). Republished in C.W. Blackwell, ed., Dēmos: Classical Athenian Democracy (A. Mahoney and R. Scaife, eds., The Stoa: a consortium for electronic publication in the humanities])

xv. Jennifer Tolbert Roberts, 1997, Athens on Trial: The Antidemocratic Tradition in Western Thought (Princeton University Press)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s