Dear Mr Turnbull,

We are writing about the Manus and Nauru detainees, to propose that you announce an end-date to their detention.

We urge you to give the detainees (or former detainees) a definite end-date, i.e. to make a public promise now that by a certain date in the not too distant future they will no longer be in PNG or Nauru (unless they freely choose to stay), but in some country where they can make a living and live safely with their human rights respected.

You would meanwhile continue to look for third-country settlement, but you would have set a deadline. If by that date no other country can be found some of them may come to Australia. You might leave this implication unspoken, but it would be better to acknowledge it. You should promise former detainees adequate support while they wait and ask them to cooperate with PNG and Nauruan authorities. There should be an end to the incidental cruelties that happen now (see here, here, here, here).

The deal first offered to you by Heather Higginbottom and reluctantly confirmed by Mr Trump, even if it holds, does not guarantee settlement for all detainees. There will be a residual group the United States will not take. The process will take a long time to work through, leaving detainees in a state of anxiety about their fate. It also leaves them open to threats and inducements from people who may claim to be able to advance or obstruct their applications. Harsh detention under conditions of such uncertainty results in suicidal behaviour and deaths from suicide (see Patrick McGorry) Those who do not suicide may suffer severe long-term damage. The longer you delay giving certainty to the detainees the more severe the damage.

Not long after you became Prime Minister you said: “I have the same concerns about the situation of people on Manus and Nauru ... as I think all Australians do”. This turned out not to be true. You have acknowledged that Australia’s treatment of the Manus and Nauru detainees is “harsh… some would say… cruel”—I would say, unjust.

The justification you have offered is charity or love: “We make no apologies for keeping Australia’s borders secure. That is stopping the people smuggling, stopping the drownings at sea. Our policy is compassionate, it respects the sovereignty of Australia, and as far as the people at Manus and Nauru are concerned—the people that Kevin Rudd put there, remember that—we have secured an agreement with the United States to enable them to be resettled in the United States and of course we will continue to work on other options, because they can’t settle in Australia, because that would simply start the boats again, start the people smuggling again, start the drownings again, and I tell you there is no charity, there is no love, in families drowning at sea. That was the consequence of not maintaining the security of our borders. Now on that note I wish you a very happy Christmas and I’ll get back to serving out lunch”, at the Wayside Chapel, December 2016. (My transcription from a webpage no longer available,

This is a travesty of Christian reasoning. Imagine the Good Samaritan saying: “These risky journeys from Jerusalem to Jericho must stop. Let us detain survivors and make sure they never get to Jericho. There is no charity, no love, in letting people fall into the hands of robbers”.

Indefinite or long-term detention under harsh conditions of a particular set of people is not the only way of stopping the boats, and even if it were it would not be just to the people made an example of. I have studied and taught political philosophy and ethics all my working life and I know of only one version of ethics that might support your argument, namely Bentham’s version of Utilitarianism, “the greatest good of the greatest number” (Andrew Leigh invokes this slogan to justify the Labor Party’s support of offshore detention, The Benthamite adds up the benefits and harms to the various people affected and does whatever produces the greatest net good. People who study ethics generally agree that Bentham’s version of Utilitarianism is not a tenable analysis of morality. It has no place for principles, it ignores the distinction between persons, and consequently has no place for individual rights and no concept of justice. According to Waleed Aly, “the utilitarian politics behind our brutal asylum seeker policy strikes at the heart of our civilisation”; in my opinion this is not an exaggeration.

You say “of course we will continue to work on other options” besides America. Setting an end-date will give a limited time to do that. Maybe New Zealand will take a few, perhaps some other countries may (it might be worth trying to negotiate with European countries for a swap), but when the time runs out the rest will be brought to Australia. For some time now there has been significant support for bringing them here. For example, in a Morgan Poll taken on 17-19 Feb. 2017 people were asked: “Do you think asylum-seekers on Manus Island and Nauru should be brought here to Australia or not?” Sixty-eight percent of Labor voters answered Yes, as did 23% of L-NP voters. (Clearly, to win the next election you need to increase your appeal to people currently intending to vote Labor.) Other opinion polls during the 2016 election (here, and here) also showed that many voters think that “harsh” treatment of detainees should cease. There is very widespread support for humane treatment among Church groups and others; see here and here. If you give a lead in this matter many people will strongly support you.

Yours faithfully,

John Kilcullen