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Could compassion in politics be making a comeback?

Daniel Andrews' offer to accept refugees due to be returned to Nauru has touched a nerve, says Liam Byrne.

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews' offer to the Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, to accept refugees due to be returned to Nauru in his state should not be an extraordinary action. It should not amaze. It should not make people, like me, read his letter twice to make sure I had read it correctly. It should not be extraordinary, but it is.

What should be extraordinary is violations of the UNHCR's Refugee Convention, returning vulnerable people to a place of harm. This should be extraordinary, But it is not.

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Thousands gathered at the steps on the state library on Monday to protest the High Court's decision on asylum seeker families facing deportation. (Courtesy ABC News 24)

In twenty-first century Australian politics, bipartisan cycles of 'tough action' on our borders have delivered increasing acts of callous inhumanity. The Coalition and Labor have been implicated in this chain reaction. The reflex of both to criticism from the other has been to harden their stance, to normalise harsher methods, to transform more of the extraordinary into the ordinary.

Daniel Andrews' offer has hit a nerve among many who feel completely disenfranchised by the current discourse on asylum seekers and refugees, not just in Victoria, but all across Australia. Spurred by the High Court's decision last week, this is evident in the offer of Churches to grant sanctuary to refugees. In protests and vigils thousands of people are calling for refugees not to be returned to Nauru. The hashtag #LetThemStay has trended on Twitter as people vent their opposition to the proposed return.

The decision of the Victorian Government has transformed the situation, because it is the act of an elected government. Premier Andrews has made a very simple statement with his letter to the Prime Minister: compassion still has a place in politics. This is something that too many of our political leaders, on all sides, have forgotten.

It may appear that acts of compassion have no place in politics. After all, the practice of governing is a tough business, where difficult decisions need to be made. But an over-reliance on toughness has led to a callousness within the body-politic. There is an inability to consider issues by their impact on the real human beings, rather than their implications for future polls.

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Real political courage comes not by exercising inhumanity for short-term expediency, but acting out of genuine empathy and compassion in spite of it. Like any other nation, there is a contest in Australia over who we are, what we are, what we believe in. The decision of the Andrews government is part of this. As he writes, to send 'these children and their families to Nauru is not the Australian way.' No doubt, there will be a negative response to this move. It will almost certainly be branded as opportunist, and a political manoeuvre. But this, if anything, will only show how far removed from the realm of basic human reactions this issue has become.

Maybe compassion is rare in Australian political history. But look at how much compassion has added to our history, and to our sense of self, when a political leader has had the strength to be moved by that basic humane instinct.

How defining it was when Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser decided that whatever the political cost, Vietnamese refugees must be able to come and find safety here. How important it was that Paul Keating declared at Redfern that white Australia must own up to the history of dispossession and violence against Aboriginal peoples. Neither act was instantly popular, and both required great political courage. But it is with such acts that a modern, open, and compassionate society can identify itself.

Can such a society identify itself with the callousness and coarseness of the current policies of both parties towards refugees? Despite Deputy Leader Tanya Plibersek's branding of the refugee debate as 'toxic', Federal Labor has shown no determination to oppose the downward spiral in this area. In fact, it has contributed to it.

All this makes Andrews' offer all the more extraordinary. We should welcome it. But the responsibility now lies with all of us to ensure that compassion lifts our political life so that the extraordinary becomes just a little more ordinary.

Liam Byrne is a PhD Candidate at the University of Melbourne researching the history of Labor's political culture.

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