When I was in Canberra today I watched some of the Senate Estimates where non Government Senators queried the actions of the Minister and the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs (DIMA).
Both the Minister and Department are very much on the defensive. The tendency of DIMA has been to ignore criticism, react against it, and single out those whose case gets publicity for adverse treatment.
However, the cases of Cornelia Rau and Vivian Alvarez have shown very clearly that reform of the mandatory detention system is politically needed. Something has to change. How far will the government go in easing the system of mandatory detention that won them the election in 2001?
Change is happening. How much? Will it go far enough to reaffirm the liberal values of basic freedoms defended by Menzies? Will the ALP affirm these principles?
I did see Bill Farmer, the Departmental Secretary of DIMA, make the following apology:
"We profoundly regret what has happened in some cases. We are intensely conscious that our day to day business affects the lives of people and it is distressing, and unacceptable, that our actions have in respects fallen so short of what we would want, and the Australian people expect. We are deeply sorry about that."
From what I saw the Department officials continued their old habits at Estimates: they prevaricated, obfuscated and played loose with the facts and language. Not once did they, or the Minister, acknowledge that the current policies----prolonged incarceration of refugees behind barbed wire, locking up children for years, and deporting Australian citizens on the false assumption that they are illegals----trashes the Menzies tradition of liberalism. Beither had any concern about the way that basic freedoms are undermined and denied.
The political pressure continues to mount on DIMA. It was announced that the Palmer inquiry into the immigration fiasco has suddenly grown exponentially to cover more than 200 people in detention, even though they are lawfully entitled to be in Australia. The head of the inquiry, the former federal police commissioner Mick Palmer, will not take on the extra load:-he has recommended that his investigation be handed over to a judicial power, such as the Commonwealth Ombudsman.
This indicates that a ham-fisted, out of control, and anything goes DIMA is becoming a political liability. The coupling of its harsh treatment of children and mothers and its dirty linen will be a potential source of political embarrassment and scandal in the months ahead. Even so heads will not roll, as mandatory detention will remain locked in. Howard and Ruddock are the two architects of mandatory detention and the rheotric of the 2001 election campaign launch about "we decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come". They gave DIMA the signal that a tough approach to refugeees and asylum seekers was not just acceptable but imperative.
These two architects are immune and they have ensured that Amanda Vanstone is left holding the poisoned chalice. It is probable that a "can-do DIMIA" will be finally forced to become "user-friendly" and treat detainees and critics with greater care. However, nothing is said about the dumping of the Menzies liberal tradition by the conservatives, or the trashing of the rule of law.
At the moment everybody is now trying to look compassionate and pressure DIMA to change its anything goes cowboy culture. That is the Howard Government's strategy. Will this political strategy work?
Consider The Age's good editorial on mandatory detention. It says that what has gone wrong:
"...is not simply a case of overly harsh application of policies - although the Government's repeated public condemnations of "illegal immigrants" certainly set the tone. The policies themselves are harsh and wrong, as Mr Georgiou's bill recognises. Ms Vanstone's confirmation of more than 200 cases of possible wrongful detention is part of an emerging picture of a profoundly flawed system, which strengthens the case for an open, independent judicial inquiry."
However, Petro Georgio's private member's bill aimed at modifying mandatory detention, won't pass despite widespread concerns about DIMIA. There is no chance that Liberals will defy Howard on a policy that has been politically exploited so successfully.
Now The Age calls for the end of mandatory detention system:
"The ostensible justification for mandatory detention is that it is a deterrent, but this practical justification was always arguable. It makes little sense now that the boats have all but stopped, while the case against the policy is stronger than ever. Liberal MP Judi Moylan, who supports Mr Georgiou, this week summed up the policy's moral inconsistencies: "What are we doing locking up people who are innocent to set some sort of example to people smugglers in another country?" Asylum seeking is not a crime, but an internationally recognised human right. Mandatory detention should be abandoned."
It is true that the policy of mandatory detention is beginning to unravel, and attempts are being made to make it more compassionate or humane. However, only a minority of Australians support The Age's call for the abandonment of mandatory detention.
The ALP, for instance, says that it will continue to support mandatory detention. So there is bi-partisan consensus on the basic policy. The ALP appears to assume that many of the asylum-seekers Australia has let in are not really refugees, and so should be shipped back to Iraq and Afghanistan. Hence it will continue to support policies that put "queue jumpers" in the detention camps, but oppose DIMA's tendency to incarcerate children in the barbed wire camps; or grab people who seem a bit odd and can't find their passports, throw them in jail, and then abuse them.
A lot of cracks are going to be needed for the walls of mandatory detention in Australia start to crumble.Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at May 25, 2005 11:57 PM | TrackBack