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What does our treatment of asylum seekers say about national character?

By Justine Toh - posted Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Some years ago the documentary The Corporation (2003) assessed the behaviours typical of profit-driven companies - single-minded pursuit of agendas, callous disregard for the feelings of others, repeated lying and conniving for profit - against criteria supplied by the World Health Organisation’s checklist for personality types. The exercise was both revealing and damning: if such a company was a person, they’d be a psychopath. You wouldn’t want them anywhere near you.

It was an interesting thought experiment that questioned why we tolerate, and even encourage, behaviour in business that we would deplore in an individual. And if that’s true of corporations, then what of nations? It’s a question worth asking in light of weekly reminders of just how morally bankrupt our system of immigration detention has become. There have been claims that successive Australian governments paid off people smugglers to turn back boats headed for Australia.

Then there’s accounts from medical professionals exposing the abuse and psychological damage wrought on asylum seekers in detention. Last year, Dr Peter Young, former head of mental health services for International Health and Medical Services (IHMS), the private contractor providing medical care to detention centres, likened the “toxic” conditions of detention to torture.


And this week Ryan Essex, a counsellor also previously employed by IHMS, testified to the long-lasting harm caused by a system that routinely covers up abuse and that is likely to become even more secretive now the Border Force Act effectively muzzles professionals from speaking out about conditions faced by asylum seekers. 

Is such a system that brutalises people pragmatic policy that avails itself of every method to stop boat arrivals, or something beneath us as a nation? Perhaps it’s worth considering what kind of person the nation would be if it were embodied in an individual. Would we even like them?

I suspect not. Especially once you run Australia-the-person’s track record against New York Times columnist David Brooks’ recent meditations on character.

According to Brooks, character turns on the distinction between what he calls “resume virtues” and “eulogy virtues”. The former are the skills and talents for getting ahead in the world. We spend a great deal of money, time, and resources achieving these and such virtues are the ones that attract public honour. But we all know, says Brooks, that in the end these “resume virtues” don’t matter so much as the virtues worth eulogising.

Would we be remembered as brave, kind and courageous? Were we, in Brooks’ words, “capable of great love?” These virtues speak to inner traits and the quality of our relationships with others. They point to a legacy that remains long after achievements fade away. No matter what our philosophy of life, whether we believe in ultimate meaning or not, says Brooks, we all wish to be remembered well.

I’d hazard a guess that such a desire isn’t only true of individuals but also applies to larger collectives of people—even, perhaps, nations. So what sort of legacy, given recent Australian history, is the country on track to leave?


Our resume virtues are too many to mention: we sailed through the global financial crisis relatively easily, thanks to sound financial management that made Australia the envy of the world.

According to the United Nations Human Development Index, a way of measuring how well people flourish in terms of living standards, life expectancy, educational opportunity, and gross national income, Australia rates second only to Norway.

Australia is also the best country in the world to grow up in, with consistently high measures across citizen participation, economic opportunity, education, health, and safety, or so says the Global Youth Wellbeing Index.

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About the Author

Justine Toh is Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity and an Honorary Associate of the Department of Media, Music, and Cultural Studies at Macquarie University.

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