Thursday, March 5, 2015

Children in detention report is compulsory reading

One of the few Canberra residents allowed to visit asylum seekers on Nauru was approached by an eight-year-old girl last year. In a small voice the child asked: "Why am I in prison?"

She and her parents had been locked up on Christmas Island for nine months before being moved to Nauru where they had been for more than a year. They had been locked up for a total of two years. "Who can explain this to me?" she asked. 

Our government used to claim that its asylum seeker procedures harmed children unintentionally. Not any more.
After the release of the Human Rights Commission's Forgotten Children report last month the Immigration Minister, Peter Dutton, told the ABC that while he could release all the children who were locked up, if he did "let me tell you, the boats start up again, the detention centres will be reoccupied and that is not something that we are going to tolerate".

It was a telling statement. 

Just as telling was the admission by the Senate committee interrogating the head of the commission that he hadn't "bothered to read the report" because it was partisan. How could he know without reading it?

It should be compulsory reading. If you're short of time, look at the pictures. Preschoolers draw themselves crying. Others speak: "I am tired of life, says a 13-year-old. "Boat number has become like our first name," says another. 

Offshore detention is expensive (it costs $1.2 billion per year) but it's also costly later as children whose development has been stunted struggle to fit in to the community they'll eventually be part of.

But let's get some perspective. The Prime Minister says it's the Human Rights Commission that should be ashamed. Its crime was not to produce its report when Labor was in power, although the commission's website will tell you that it produced several on the treatment of asylum seekers under Labor and one on the treatment of suspected child people smugglers under Labor. Sadly, the outrageous attack on commission president Gillian Triggs has taken the focus off the report and its recommendations.

The report criticises both sides of politics. How did we move away from the explicit guarantee in section 4AA of the Migration Act that a "minor shall only be detained as a measure of last resort?" it asks. How did we reach the situation where then-prime minister Kevin Rudd declared that anyone who arrived by boat would never be settled in Australia?

Australia is the only country in the world that subjects asylum seekers to mandatory and indefinite detention.

What's getting in the way of a more generous political debate? It might be that – beyond frontier conflict with Indigenous peoples – we've had little experience of war. Many Australians don't get why people would want flee their homes.

Labor has been on the back foot ever since John Howard, Pauline Hanson and Tampa. It's allowed the Coalition to fan the flames of fear for political gain. It was, however, Paul Keating with bipartisan support who introduced mandatory detention in 1992.

Howard privatised the system, making it much harsher. It was Labor that adopted the rhetoric of saving lives at sea after the Christmas Island boat crash in December 2010. It struck a deal with PNG. 

I had foolishly hoped that on his election Tony Abbott would reach back into his early religious training and understand that if creatures are made in the image of God, God demands that we respect and protect them.

Bill Shorten wasn't Labor's leader when the decisions were made. He has a chance to remake Labor's policy as pro-immigration and pro-refugee. Although he will want to put the people smugglers out of business, he can say, at least, that Australia can afford to take many more refugees and ensure they have work rights.

Opinion within Labor is wide-ranging but change is under way. It will be driven by branch members empowered by new party rules and by backbenchers like Terri Butler and Melissa Parkes who are listening to their constituents who want Labor to be brave. The mood will be tested mid-year at the ALP national conference.

In the meantime, crossbenchers should be careful. They'll be thrown a bone here, a bone there, to appease them just enough to enable the government to keep doing what it is doing. (As was the case with Motoring Enthusiast senator Ricky Muir, whose vote passed a wide-ranging and controversial Migration Act after Scott Morrison promised to move children off Christmas Island by Christmas Day. The minister did not meet his own deadline.) 

Conscientised crossbenchers run after a bone and then realise it's just a stick. They must not be fooled by all the messaging around one bone or another. There will be other bones, thrown in isolation, which in time will be seen as sharp sticks. The policy of detaining people who have done nothing wrong under international law remains.