Mandatory detention must go!

Green Left Weekly
June 1, 2005
By Sarah Stephen

At least 10,000 unauthorised arrivals have been through Australia's immigration detention centres since July 1999, including 3899 children. Thirteen people have died in detention. At least four asylum seekers have been killed upon being returned to their country of origin. Many more have disappeared. Indescribable human suffering has resulted from the unjustifiably brutal policy of mandatory detention.

Now, 13 years after it was introduced, it looks possible that the mandatory detention policy might start to unravel through widespread public dismay at its consequences. May is the month it really started to come unstuck.

It began with Cornelia Rau's media conference on May 23, where she demanded compensation and called for the detention centres to be closed. That same day — after sustained media exposure and public pressure — the government released three-year-old Naomi Leong and her mother Virginia from the Villawood detention centre.

The next day, Prime Minister John Howard overturned an immigration department decision to send a Vietnamese couple and their newborn child back to detention on Christmas Island.

On May 24, government backbencher Petro Georgiou went public with his plan to introduce two private members' bills to soften the mandatory detention policy. Howard was reportedly ‘‘very, very angry''. He insisted Georgiou defer the bills until May 31 when the Liberal Party caucus will hold a full-scale debate on the issue.

Georgiou's ‘‘bill for an act of compassion'' proposes releasing long-term detainees, and those held in detention for 12 months or more with the proviso that security and character issues are considered by a judicial assessor. It proposes releasing women and children from detention, and granting permanent protection to stateless people and those on temporary protection visas (TPVs).

His second bill calls for reform of the mandatory detention system, to turn it into ‘‘a targeted system of detention subject to judicial scrutiny''. The bill's a 90-day limit on detention seems a clever way of publicly reminding the Labor Party of its own policy position (90% processed in 90 days), but it remains to be seen whether any Labor MPs will cross the floor to vote with the dissident Liberals if and when these bills go to a vote.

Mandatory detention remains a firm bipartisan policy, despite increasing disquiet among the ranks. Labor leader Kim Beazley reminded us — almost proudly, it seemed — on May 25 that the ALP ‘‘invented'' mandatory detention, and announced that there would be no conscience vote for ALP members.

Labor immigration spokesperson Laurie Ferguson told ABC Radio's AM program on May 25 that the ALP caucus hasn't sorted out yet whether it will support Georgiou's private members bills. ‘‘There are issues such as the danger of [asylum seekers] absconding, alright?'', Ferguson quipped.

In a letter to Beazley and Ferguson, NSW Labor for Refugees member Jenny Haines wrote: ‘‘With at least five Liberal dissenters now finally standing up to Howard in the federal Liberal caucus, you would think that Labor would be jumping at the opportunity to embarrass the federal leadership as much as possible ...

‘‘Why not, in the current circumstances, where these Liberal dissenters are handing it to the Labor Party on a platter, go for what they are offering — the end of mandatory detention and the end of TPVs? That is certainly the policy of Labor for Refugees, and is supported by the policy adopted by a number of the state branches of the Labor Party. Take a jump to the left, and grab what they are offering! Another opportunity may not come for some time!''

Georgiou's supporters say he is intent on exercising his right to move the two private member's bills, regardless of whether or not he has his party's approval.

The next blow to the government came on May 25, when Lateline announced rumours that Mick Palmer planned to quit from his role as the lone investigator of unlawful detentions after handing down his findings into the Rau case at the end of June. He reportedly told the government that he believes these matters should go to an investigator with judicial powers like the commonwealth ombudsman.

Immigration minister Amanda Vanstone admitted to a Senate estimates hearing on May 25 that things needed to change. Then she proceeded to publicly scapegoat a department — her own — which has, according to Sydney Morning Herald journalist Margo Kingston, ‘‘too faithfully obeyed its master's orders and looked after its master's interests''.

It's not the government's policy that's the problem, Vanstone argued, it's the culture within the department. But how could one possibly thrive without the other?

The fact that neither Vanstone nor immigration department secretary Bill Farmer have yet been forced to resign means the pressure will only continue to grow on the government to change its policy. Howard may well resort to sacking the minister and senior immigration department figures in the hope that rolling heads will satisfy an angry public that justice has been done. But justice won't be done until the whole rotten system of mandatory detention is abolished.



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