The following item was written with Pene Mathew following the revelation that Australia had purchased life boats to send back en mass asylum seekers trying to reach refuge in Australia by boat.


Minister Pyne professes concern that Australian school students are not learning enough about the ‘legacy of Western civilization’.  Instead of reviewing the curriculum yet again, perhaps the government of which he is part could show some leadership in “Western” values; Australian values of compassion, mateship, and respect for human rights.

It could start by abandoning its policy of turning back boats of desperate asylum-seekers.  This would show it has learned the lesson from the tragic case of the SS St Louis. The St Louis was a ship carrying refugees fleeing the Nazis. Refused entry by the United States, the ship was forced to return, leading to the deaths of many of its passengers. Since World War II, international law has established a fundamental principle not to return those seeking asylum to a place of persecution.

Australia should not outsource this obligation to countries such as Indonesia, which is not a party to the Refugee Convention. Rather, the government should ask Indonesian authorities how Australia could assist in achieving Indonesia’s stated goal of becoming party to that Convention. Unfortunately, the government’s policy of ignoring long-standing principles of freedom of the High Seas and the sovereignty of a flag state does nothing to enable that conversation.

The government should drop the idea of transferring asylum seekers to lifeboats and leaving them to fend for themselves. This would show that it understands the legacy of the Titanic, namely that all ships should have sufficient lifeboats to meet the immediate needs of their passengers for safety and that people in distress at sea must be rescued.  It is nonsense to maintain that the effective rescue of people in distress at sea is accomplished by putting them into a lifeboat and casting them adrift to save themselves.   That our government does so displays a twisted understanding of the basics of safety of life at sea.

A lifeboat is only a temporary solace.  People in lifeboats need to be taken to a place of safety.  Transferring people from leaky boats to lifeboats inverts accepted understandings of the principles of safety of life at sea. When Fletcher Christian put Captain Bligh into a lifeboat, it was only Bligh’s remarkable seamanship that saved him and his loyal crewmembers. Presumably, the boats will be left closer to shore than Bligh, but who will be left in charge?

The government would also do well to remember Jesus’ words as recorded in the Gospel of St Matthew: ‘I was a stranger and you took me in.’

If this is too much ancient history for the government, perhaps it could try something from the sixties counter culture, which is also a legacy of Western civilization. Instead of making war on boats and engaging in culture wars, perhaps it could make love.  At the very least, the government could listen to other voices and take a more conciliatory approach. A great deal of learning happens when we step outside our comfort zones and listen to others.

Professor Penelope Mathew and Professor Donald K. Anton
The Australian National University