Former governor-general William Deane has called on Australians to have more understanding and compassion for asylum seekers who risk their lives to come to Australia.
In a short address at Parliament House on Tuesday, Sir William told the story of how his forebears had come to Australia, fleeing famine on a wooden boat in 1851, which saw people die of disease and drownings along the way.
''We Australians should have understanding and compassion for the actions of those who subject themselves and their families to serious risk of disaster at sea to escape from violence or terror or unbearable hardship,'' he said.
Launching a collection of essays to provoke a different national conversation around refugees and asylum seekers, Sir William also argued that Australia was capable to dealing with the issue with justice and compassion.
''It's well to remember that other countries are facing much greater challenges as regards refugees than we are,'' he said.
Pointing to a recent UN Refugee Commission report that slammed Australia's offshore detention system, Sir William said ''one cannot but fear that at least some of the findings . . . are justified''.
He said that if criticisms were fair, the report diminishes Australia's ''hard won'' international reputation as an upholder of human rights and dignity.
''They give rise to questions relating to our decency and sense of fairness and justice,'' Sir William said.
The contributors to the essay collection include former Liberal leader John Hewson and Catholic academic Frank Brennan.
Father Brennan, who is a close confidant of Kevin Rudd's, did not hold back in his criticism of the former prime minister's Papua New Guinea resettlement solution.
In its last months, the Labor government ''dropped the bar too low'' when it came to the treatment of asylum seekers, he said.
Contributor and academic Jane McAdam said she thought that in years to come, Australia might see a national apology to asylum seekers for the way they have been treated.