Menu Close

Grattan on Friday: Abbott government needs to acquire an empathy gene

Immigration Minister Scott Morrison has been anxious to maximise his profile on border protection. AAP/David Crosling

What is offensive about this government is not that it is pursuing tough policies, but that it is trashing accountability and is so lacking in empathy.

The boats did need to be stopped; the budget does require fixing.

But an empathetic government would bring some humanity to the first and greater sensitivity to the second, while a less arrogant administration would show more respect all round.

The week-long refusal of Scott Morrison and Tony Abbott to give information (or confirmation) about asylum seekers reportedly being transferred at sea - with perfunctory process - and sent on their way to Sri Lanka shows extraordinary disdain for the public’s right to know.

It reeks of the masters-of-the-universe mentality.

Abbott would not go into the alleged incident on Thursday but just gave brush-offs. “I trust the professionalism of our naval and Customs personnel, I trust the professionalism and the integrity of every Australian official, every Australian staff member involved in all of this and I’m confident that everything that is happening is quite consistent with safety at sea and with our international obligations.”

Well, to test that statement would require a few facts.

He also said: “Sri Lanka is not everyone’s idea of the ideal society but it is at peace. A horrific civil war has ended and I believe that there has been a lot of progress when it comes to human rights and the rule of law in Sri Lanka”.

But what of the likely fate of specific returnees?

At a news conference on Thursday Morrison once again would reveal nothing.

Nor, incidentally, did the minister use the occasion to mention he was moving to get around a recent High Court decision that thwarted the government’s intention to deny permanent visas to refugees. Questions might have been asked.

Stopping asylum seekers getting on boats was always going to be an ugly business, and the signals to deter people have to be kept strong.

But this does not extinguish the requirement to pay regard to asylum seekers’ rights, to Australia’s international obligations, to the image of Australia abroad and to the importance of providing proper and timely information.

Morrison has been anxious to maximise his profile on border protection. The man who aspires to be prime minister never seems to have a parliamentary day without a question.

But he comes across as someone who would never, in his imagination, walk for a minute in the shoes of a detainee who’d got on one of those boats.

Asylum seekers are not criminals but the government, always referring to them as “illegals”, would like the public to believe they are (as did some in the previous government).

Here’s a “hypothetical” for members of cabinet: think of yourself living for a couple of years in a refugee camp – can you say you wouldn’t make a break for a new life if you could?

Budget issues could hardly be further from border protection policy, but the government’s lack of empathy (of a very different variety) is just as obvious. In this area, it is also politically highly damaging for the Coalition.

Convinced of its own correctness, high as a kite on its rhetoric, the government piled in the harsh measures. It added lectures about people needing to be “lifters” not “leaners”. It talked about everyone being in this together, but in pointing out how earners were paying all that tax to support those on welfare, was it feeling for the resentment nerve?

Cynical middle-income earners might ask what economic lifting Joe Hockey (who also wants to be the prime minister) has personally had to do any time recently. He often mentions his parents’ struggles, but he has been one of the privileged.

Treasury secretary Martin Parkinson has been strongly running the economic case for the government’s budgetary policy.

Parkinson used a couple of appearances this week to enter the debate about “fairness”. “It is one thing to argue that reform proposals should be designed with fairness in mind … It is quite another to invoke vague notions of fairness to oppose all reform.”

Economic reform is imperative, but it has to be tempered by political realities (including voters’ concerns about fairness) and, most important, an ability to relate to the circumstances and worries of the average person – and to properly acknowledge them.

Empathy is a vital political commodity; it can help buy support for difficult tasks. A government has to take people along with it. Let’s face it: politicians are held in such low regard that lecturing is not going to achieve results.

Speaking to a conference in Melbourne on Thursday night, Abbott took as his question “whether a reforming prime minister can succeed any more in this country given the decisive shift in the system and culture against reform?”

Of course he said yes and talked up the government’s book. He also said that “the only time reform has looked easy was under Bob Hawke and Paul Keating, because the only real opposition they had was internal”.

Hawke’s connection with the public helped that reform effort (which actually often looked more difficult than Abbott is claiming).

Governments are frequently accused of getting out of touch, but members of this government have broken some sort of speed record in becoming so removed from community thinking.

If they’d had more feel for the community, they’d have finessed the Medicare co-payment to better protect those who can’t afford the hit.

They wouldn’t have such a typecast view about the young jobless, which has led to the decree those under 30 shouldn’t get unemployment benefits for six months. They’d have pared back the number and harshness of other measures.

And they would have understood that people don’t like to be invited aboard the “trust” bus only to be dumped off at the first red light.

What’s so odd is that the government doesn’t seem to be even trying to address its sharp rhetoric and tin ear. It continues to wrap itself in its slogans and, despite the polls, can’t accept that a priority should be reconnecting with the public. Unlike what it apparently believes, this is not a task that can wait until election year.

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 181,800 academics and researchers from 4,938 institutions.

Register now