Of course in the days to come questions were asked about what could have, or should have, been done to prevent this tragedy as society angrily sought someone to blame. Was this due to Government policy? Where was the Navy? So on and so on, the questions kept coming.
Now, in an apparent act of compassion (I'm sure some would argue it was an act of political point-scoring) from the Australian government, and at a cost of around $300,000, the survivors of that tragedy were flown to Sydney to attend the funerals of their loved ones. In an act that I consider to be even darker than the original tragedy, and a move which they have now backed down from, members of the opposition, including the opposition leader Tony Abbott, suggested that such an expense was excessive and unnecessary. I don't think we should be surprised, given that Abbott's election rhetoric dehumanised asylum seekers when he proposed a policy to "stop the boats". Not people... just boats. When you choose to ignore the fact that there are actually human beings (men, women, children and babies) on board those boats, the logical next step is to wonder why we should fund funerals for... "boats", since there are no people on them... apparently. Perhaps the images from Christmas Island on Dec 15 need to be played to the opposition to remind them just how real those people are. Even better, perhaps they should attend the funerals, watch the grieving families cry just as any other family member would. They're more than boats.
But let's try and consider this somewhat rationally, if we can. Let's consider the decision that the Government faced. Of course, we can't consider ourselves a "Christian" nation any more, and our Prime Minister is openly atheistic, so the decision must have been made from a humanist perspective. For me, that makes me think the decision was even more difficult. There is not solid ground to base such a decision on. Do we or do we not pay for the costs involved in burying the dead, and transporting the survivors to the funeral? We don't pay for ordinary Australian's funerals, so should we pay for those who have attempted to enter the country illegally? It certainly must have been an ethical (and no doubt political) dilemma.
I'm reminded, though, of the words of former Governor-General Sir William Deane
The ultimate test of our worth as individuals and as a community is how we treat our disadvantaged and vulnerable. (William Deane, "Prologue" in Sue Williams, Mean Streets, Kind Heart (Sydney: Harper Collins, 2003), xiii)Deane is, of course, a Christian and so his comments stem from his faith. Regardless, I think he's right. I think Tony Abbott got this dead wrong, and the decision to fund the funeral costs was the right one.
Forget politics. Forget votes. We even need to forget our pride or long-term position on asylum seekers in Australia. The reality here is that disadvantaged and vulnerable people lost their lives. Disadvantaged and vulnerable people lost their loved ones. Disadvantaged and vulnerable people lost their brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers. We face, in this decision, the "ultimate test of our worth" as individuals and as a community. So, what is the right decision?
Fund the costs and do not expect repayment, and (more importantly) do not try to gain political points from it. Just do it because it is the right thing to do.