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Former chief justice tells Catholic principals of lost tolerance

Australians are losing their sense of tolerance and beginning to believe asylum seekers should be denied human rights, former High Court chief justice Gerard Brennan said yesterday.

"There was a time, in the not far distant past, when I and many others believed Australia to be a tolerant nation," Sir Gerard told a national conference of Catholic high school principals on the Gold Coast.

"But the asylum seekers debate has shaken that faith in ourselves and our sense of toleration.

"The proclamation of tolerance was easy, so long as those who are different were not confronting us with the difference.

"We have accepted, albeit with considerable dissent, the denial of the human rights of families, particularly women and children who have been kept in isolation from their husbands and fathers.

Justice Brennan, who is speaking out on the asylum seeker issue to a variety of audiences, is the father of Jesuit lawyer Fr Frank Brennan. Fr Brennan, based at the Uniya Jesuit Social Justice Centre in Sydney, recently spent two years in Dili as director of Jesuit Refugee Service East Timor.

"The wretched isolation of the asylum seekers, in Woomera, in Nauru and in Manus Island, has left this country divided, many Australians accepting the necessity for inhuman treatment as the price to be paid for maintaining our immigration policies and our boundaries."

Sir Gerard said Australia had allowed political catchcries to suppress tolerance and subvert respect for human rights.

"We find that tolerance wears thin at times when it is most needed," he said.

Sir Gerard said tolerance was needed to maintain a cohesive society.

But such tolerance should be based on strong reference points, such as the Christian view of God-given dignity, rather than political pragmatism.


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3 Oct 2002