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Our cynical and selective compassion

By Greg Barns - posted Thursday, 20 January 2005

While Australians are busy congratulating themselves on their generosity to victims of the Boxing Day tsunami, they might care to reflect on the fact that many of them are prepared to sanction the Howard Government’s human rights abuses towards asylum seekers.

And those Australians who take some sort of bizarre comfort from Australia’s joined-at-the-hip alliance with the Bush Administration might also care to consider that while the US is busying itself with aid to tsunami victims, it is contemplating locking people away forever without trial.

And perhaps Australian business, particularly those corporations like Qantas, the Commonwealth Bank and Macquarie Bank that have been puffing out their chests in recent days so we can see their bleeding hearts, might also now consider making as much effort to raise millions for the starving and dispossessed of war-ravaged zones such as southern Sudan and the Congo.


Forgive my cynicism, but if the tsunami had hit West Africa, one of the poorest areas of the globe, would Australians be digging as deeply into their pockets?

As The Economist magazine noted in its editorial this week, “the involvement in the disaster of so many resorts favoured by tourists from rich countries in the West and the richer parts of Asia has given it even more prominence in those countries than the sheer horror of the fatalities would have produced”.

Is there not something deeply flawed about a society that expresses its horror at the devastation wreaked by tsunamis yet is largely indifferent to the Howard Government’s draconian and inhumane eviction of a refugee family from its shores?

I refer here to the Bakhtiyari family, which Senator Vanstone sent packing recently. Is there not something deeply cynical about a society that applauds a government for sending billions of dollars in aid to the tsunami zone, yet shrugs its shoulders when that same government sends a bill for $1 million to the Bakhtiyari family for the cost of their quest for justice and freedom in Australia?

And why are Australians so generous to victims of the tsunami yet happy for government to lock young children behind razor wire in detention centres, split up families and allow mental illness to run rife in those same hell-holes, all in the name of border protection?

And do Australians give a toss about the lives of the desperate people of southern Sudan who have been driven from their homes and slaughtered by a Sudanese government determined to pursue ethnic cleansing? Or do they sleep less easily at night knowing that in the war-ravaged Congo, the government of the young President Joseph Kabila is desperately trying to sow the seeds of peace, in the face of widespread poverty and brutal military incursions by neighbouring Rwanda?


Then of course we have the Bush Administration, the most dangerous abuser of human rights in the democratic world. While Australians and Americans were organising their tsunami relief efforts, President George W. Bush has been outlining plans to lock away for life prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and other prisons - prisoners who have not been charged with any offence, let alone tried in the kangaroo court that passes for justice in the land of the free these days.

Are Australians marching the streets about this fundamentally inhumane and illegal conduct from its close ally? Unfortunately not. But not only is the selective compassion of many Australians and Americans these days disturbing, so is the behaviour of one of the media’s favourite darlings, Tim Costello.

Mr Costello is the CEO of World Vision Australia and a prominent social justice campaigner. He has carved out a very favourable media image for himself in the past by being opposed to the high level of gambling in this country.

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About the Author

Greg Barns is National President of the Australian Lawyers Alliance.

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