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A royal commission into the mandatory detention of asylum-seekers

November 12, 2015 - 11:56 -- Admin

The system of mandatory detention of asylum-seekers began in 1992, when Paul Keating was PM and Labor Left inner-city Melbourne MP Gerry Hand was Immigration Minister. Since then, Labor has been in power for 10 years and the Coalition for 13. Both parties have been implicated in human rights abuses involved with mandatory detention, and with the rorts that have seen foreign governments and multinational companies paid billions of Australian taxpayer dollars to treat people badly and mess with their heads. These people are kidding themselves. Labor has committed itself to continuing mandatory detention until the next election, and afterwards if it wins. It cannot back down, or even change that policy significantly:

  • The Shadow Minister for Immigration, Richard Marles, is a factional ally of the current Opposition Leader. While he might go through the motions of challenging headline-grabbing events like deaths, riots, or cost blowouts, he is not going to challenge the fundamentals of the policy.
  • The Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs, Tanya Plibersek, has said repeatedly that we should work more closely with countries in our region to build a system where asylum-seekers don't have to take their chances on the Arafura Sea, and are treated humanely within Southeast Asian countries and their asylum applications are processed and, um, whatever happens to refugees at a time where they number in the tens of millions worldwide happens. I had expected Plibersek to travel a lot throughout the region, talking with political leaders at or below the ministerial level, but apart from a content-free trip to Kiribati she hasn't done nearly enough.
  • The Leader of the Opposition, Bill Shorten, is adopting a strategy of differing substantially with the government on a few key issues - and this is not one of them. At Labor's federal conference earlier this year, he twisted arms and worked the system enough that the entire party reaffirmed its historic commitment to mandatory detention. If Labor were to change policy direction before the election it might need a new leader.
  • Chris Bowen and Tony Burke are both former Ministers for Immigration. Both are likely to be senior members of the next Labor government. Any measures Labor may direct at Peter Dutton, Scott Morrison, or Philip Ruddock would rebound on them, too.
  • State politicians Eddie Obeid and Bernard Finnigan had very little to do with mandatory detention, but they show Labor can't get out of its own way let alone reform vast national policy.

You used to be able to vote for moderate liberals to curb the excesses of a Coalition government. Philip Ruddock helped kill that. Mandatory detention is bipartisan.Tony Abbott tried to wedge Shorten by making mandatory detention worse than the conditions from which asylum-seekers fled. Abbott is gone from the Prime Ministership but Dutton remains the relevant minister. Shorten and Marles and Plibersek kept their jobs, too. Mandatory detention isn't a wedge when it's a platform.Labor and the Coalition are locked in to mandatory detention. They're not just "committed", or "sending a signal" that has gone to every corner of the world for more than two decades, a signal received and played back to us by the United Nations. The outsource providers of those centres can and do charge what they like, knowing the Australian government has no choice but to pay. This also applies to the governments hosting them: they breach formally-defined human rights and basic human decencies minute by minute, knowing that the Australian government dares not define standards without tacitly accepting that it breaches them, and that breaching those standards is bad.Consider those costs in light of current debates about taxes, deficits, and cutting benefits.Press gallery journalists can't tell whether a policy is good or bad, right or wrong - they can only tell what's controversial. At different times when Labor was in government, under both Rudd and Gillard, they flinched before full support for mandatory detention. The press gallery belted them hard and unanimously for deviating from bipartisanship.Nobody in the media, nobody in the major political parties, examined asylum-seeker policy from basic principles. The media shut down rather than facilitated public debate, because it values bipartisanship over debates it cannot control. All major-party MPs got a free pass from the press gallery when they wept in Parliament over the boat that hit the rocks on Christmas Island, and they all kept their free pass when they voted to tighten the screws still further. There's been a bit of discussion on this blog about what is or isn't an informative interview, or a hard-hitting one. It seems that every interview involving Peter Dutton is hard-hitting, regardless of who interviews him or how. He could have the softest interview ever and he would still come off looking like a goose. There is no point "popcorn-scrabblingly" hoping for a tough interview on Dutton, because:

  • there have been plenty and they make no difference, in terms of policy outcomes and conditions in the camps; and
  • they make Dutton look resolute and tough, with a touch of martyrdom, which feeds his rightwing support base; and
  • a Labor government would be no better. At all.

So much for partisanship being the only basis for criticising political coverage (and for brushing off any/ all criticism as though it were).Intrepid journalists who actually get over to Nauru and Manus Island put the entire press-release-chewing gallery to shame. Their descriptions of what we do to those people is more important than all the journo-fetishising of bipartisanship. The broadcast media are culpable for reinforcing mandatory detention and deserve no credit when the policy changes, as it must. The public debate to develop better policy will have to exclude the major organs of the broadcast media. They can trail along behind the debate in bewilderment, as they do on most issues, or they can step up once they have stood down the long-serving "Canberra insiders" who have clogged their pages/airwaves with bad judgment calls for too long.A royal commission (or whatever replaces this mechanism under a republic) into Australia's mandatory detention system will be necessary. It will not be pretty, and all the worse for justice denied and injustice compounded. It would only take place when a future Labor/Coalition government is over a barrel and has no choice but to agree to a measure that could damage them and their major opponents. It might be forced on them by Greens or independents; it will have far-reaching effects on this country's established politics.Sexual abuse against children within those detention centres should be referred to the existing Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. Decisions about how those camps operate are made in Australia, with the Australian government as their client. The idea that they are under the effective jurisdiction of foreign states fails under actual examination of how the camps work.No religious entities have stepped up. The scriptures of the major monotheistic religions in Australia are full of instructions to be generous to unfortunate strangers who turn up at your door. The performance of religious organisations against the scriptural standards they set themselves is patchy at best.The belief that the current system can't continue cannot usefully flow through to faith and prayer: religious organisations and their leaders are more strongly committed to covering up and avoiding than resolution through exposure.It can't be resolved through high-quality journalism because Australian political journalism is mostly useless fetishises bipartisanship over all other considerations. The odd telling story will be uncoupled from policy change through set-piece interviews that fool both journalists and politicians into thinking they have done their jobs.The Navy resisted government instructions to be as harsh as possible, so the government militarised the Australian Federal Police and Customs.This can't be resolved politically because both major alternatives are stuck in the same policy. Neither has sufficient standing with the community to start a conversation about how things might be different/better. There are alternatives to the major parties but nationally they are piecemeal, community-based and fragmented.It can't be resolved legally for much the same reason; an injunction here or a judgment there won't invalidate the whole mandatory detention system, and even small wins will almost certainly be reversed by rushed legislation. Royal commissions aren't as impeccable as they might have been, but they are all we have as tools both to expose systematic malfeasance over decades, and to avoid both the silly press gallery and you-scratch-my-back bipartisanship that will ensure injustices and inefficiencies continue. They only arise under specific political circumstances though, so you have to hope and be alert to things political journalists can't understand, let alone explain.You can only do what you can with what you have. Some will tell you that what you have is all you'll get, but they're wrong about that too.