12 November 2015

A royal commission into the mandatory detention of asylum-seekers

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.


  1. Too little too late for these stars. You're correct - Labor have form and history with this policy and they aren't going to change if the right faction have anything to say about it. It seems to be basic tribalism that keeps people deciding that their best bet is to send strongly worded letters to Labor in the hopes they'll change their tune. That or the hopes that somehow Albo will wind up in charge.

    It has to come back to the alternative parties. Although they are too fragmented to pull together, Labor bleeds votes to the Greens over this issue (and others they decide to be bipartisan on), and while neither the Greens nor any alternatives will get into power, the more strength they have the more likely they can push for a Royal Commission.

  2. "popcorn scrabbling"? How barbaric!


  3. Peter Dunne, New Zealand Minister for internal Affairs on the issue of detaining New Zealanders on Christmas Island


    1. Very strong [and very [pertinent] comment from a government minister.

  4. Is there any possibility of effective external pressure (UN or other countries imposing sanctions, or whatever) to make Australia at least ensure the living standards in these concentration camps are improved and the refugees are safe, with education for kids, decent health care?

    I agree that the press gallery seems to value bipartisanship above all and to whip Labor if it doesn't go along with most that the Coalition demands, although they didn't seem to do that to the Coalition when it was a Labor Government. I assume journalists like bipartisanship because they can socialise with politicians on all sides with no unpleasantness?

    1. Yeah, I know Andrew likes his thesis that the press gallery adores bipartisanship, but that doesn't show up when the ALP are in office. The press gallery adores the Coalition, and they get less twinges of conscience if the Coalition's policies have bipartisan support. If the press gallery love bipartisanship so much, they had a funny way of showing it when the Abbott Opposition refused to be bipartisan on absolutely everything and were lauded as a great opposition.

  5. I think that the ALP in government, with enough clear air to absorb a couple of hits, can take steps to improve conditions in the mandatory detention centers, but that's really only fiddling around the edges.

    I have said before in other places that, as a result of this policy becoming SO entrenched after the Tampa incident, because of what happened when Rudd relaxed the policy at all, because of the media AND THE PUBLIC REACTION (this can't be forgotten, this policy isn't in place over the misgivings of a majority but the misgivings of a minority), the struggle to relax mandatory detention policies is counterproductive. As long as this is a major issue in Australian public life, as long as this is perceived as a massive stick with which to beat the ALP if it deviates a hair from the Coalition's hard line, nothing will improve- continuing the argument is just a way of further entrenching established views.

    We can only focus on tinkering around the edges- trying to deal with the sexual assaults, the child abuses and so on going on within the system. Other than that, we're best off accepting the mandatory detention policy, letting it die as a front-of-mind issue, and revisiting it in a few years once people have other concerns (and perhaps when people feel better about Australia and the world generally; there's a definite connection between the state of the nation and how willing Australians are to care about things like climate change and refugees).

  6. This is an outstanding contribution on what has become Australia's most appalling conundrum. It is probably pointless trying to apportion blame for this impasse. Nobody gets a free pass, not even the Greens whose uncompromising opposition to all offshore and to Malaysia helped keep the xenophobia alive when it might have been defused.

    On that basis, a Royal Commission may help pave a way for a humane solution. Who to head it sets a real problem because it could easily descend into a party political type of blame game, when what we're seeking is a humane solution. The inhumane activities must be addressed just as they are in the child sexual abuse RC. But the most important desired outcome is to come up with a recommended set of actions which will allow all parties to retreat from this madness.

    It goes without saying that offshore detention centres, especially Nauru and Manus must be closed. Sub-contracting the work to the private sector must also end in the name of accountability.

    If some form of temporary detention is still found necessary, it should be in regional centres of Australia (not remote ones) where additional services in language, education, accommodation and employment training can be provided to the benefit of both asylum seekers and local communities.

    Selecting those to head a Royal Commission also presents a problem because of the attempts of one side to keep it all as a political football, which leads to the vitriol poured out onto those trying to protect human lives. The best-qualified on direct experience may be condemned as partisan before it has begun.

    Although they're from the past and getting on, I'd be inclined to suggest people like Ian Viner, Michael Kirby or even William Deane as being detached enough from the media circus over this issue since Howard's day.

    With the broad reach as shown in the Child Abuse Royal Commission it might eventually lead to a sensible outcome. It may have to come about through a public outcry such as occurred in the Vietnam Moratorium. None of the major parties are for shifting as you astutely point out.

    1. ...a by product of which is encouraging poor government in Nauru and to a far lesser extent PNG which needs no encouragement. $8000 visas, sacking of the judiciary, Chris Kenny...

      The Romans used to line the roads into major towns with the crucified, the English used to adorn bridges with heads on stakes. We're doing the same (and it's not hyperbole) with these poor innocents locked up in these shitholes. They serve a purpose.

      Labor are now wedge proof. It's Australia's new Labor under those unelectable, detestable buffoons Shorten/ Marles / Bourke / Fitzgerald. They are pathetic. Anything to do with "national security" or "border protection", actually anything now, Labor have no position or even better- the government's position. They are such a fucking waste of, of, everything. I suppose a small saving in newsprint and electrons which has a mild environmental payoff.

      But more than I hate "new" Labor, are the moronic iPad swiping, latte sipping fools that are breathing a sigh of relief that Turnbull has replaced Captain Chaos. "I don't even read the news any more, it's such a relief..."

      Hello! Brandis is still there (AG for fuck's sake), Dead-eys Dutton is still there, Peter Hendy for fuck sake orchestrated the coup! Drinks at Peter Hendy's house - Who the fuck would voluntarily go for drinks at Peter Hendy's? Can you imagine what Peter Hendy's is even like? Hello Annabel?

      There is no relief you dim idiots - he has you exactly where he wants you. His gloved finger right up your arse.

      Turnbull doesn't give a fuck about asylum seekers, the poor, climate change, modern broadband, the banks - the stuff you give a shit about. All he has to be is "charming" and they're all going gooey at the fork.

      Why the fuck the TRUC didn't do it's job and kneecap Shorten is beyond me. 80 million and you couldn't manage to knobble Shorten and do the county a favour? I guess that was the point. Why would the libs want him replaced? A bar of soap has a better chance of winning an election than Shorten.

  7. I like the mention of the Navy resisting the call to be harsh - real servicepeople who actually do put their lives on the line against the actual possibility of enemy action ie actual enemies, armed with navies like we are.

    And even if these enemies survive encounter with our navy in wartime, they are accorded Geneva convention treatment, which can be firm but not cruel and inhumane.

    Not poor sods in wooden boats though. The wannabee militias or paramilitaries with their silver badges on black shirts - it reminds us that in wartime, you will expect worse treatment from irregular militias or paramilitaries than from regular troops.

  8. Lachlan Ridge13/11/15 4:50 pm

    Wildly off-topic, but finally a journalist has unpacked what reform means:

    "Australians of all political persuasions understand that “reform” is code for harder work, lower pay and a more unequal distribution of income."


    I wonder why Mr Gittins couldn't get this article up at his nominal employer Fairfax?

    1. John Quiggin isn't a journalist as such; he is an economist and has a blog. He isn't employed by Fairfax as far as I know and publishes his work in many and diverse places.

      Always has something intelligent and worthwhile to say about issues as does Mr Elder.

  9. I don't recall that the Greens, churches, unions or advocates supporting Rudd and Evans when they reversed the harsher provisions of Howard; it was never enough. The current policies are supported by more that 70% of voters, How in a democracy is any major/minor going to be elected to bring in humane policies? It's been done before in respect of abolishing the White Australia policy, capital punishment, and to some extent abortion laws. But these policies were changed by politicians working together against community attitudes. Can the Greens, Labor, Liberals pledge to support another party moving in the proper direction?

    1. It's the curse of the current Australian Greens that nothing is good enough unless it's 100% their way. They would prefer to preach from their high horse than accept any compromise, which is how we ended up with a demonised carbon tax and then "direct action" rather than a widely accepted emissions trading scheme that could have been a starting point to build upon and would have been much harder to dismantle or repeal than the carbon tax. Being further to the left than most of the ALP I had a lot of time for the Greens once upon a time, but the emissions trading scheme debacle burned that away. We had a moment where Australians actually cared about putting the environment first, and the Greens flushed it away and made the whole issue toxic- and then failed to ever cop to their mistake.

  10. White on black? At least use a non–serif font that is readable as WoB! Ugh!

  11. +1 to the dislike of white on black. This isn't the 1990s and some of your readers may not have the stellar eyesight necessary to read this page. It doesn't look professional, either. A quick google on Blogspot / Blogger templates shows lots of current free black-on-white templates with multiple different layouts.

  12. ...Not to be negative, great content as usual. I just don't want visible barriers to that content :)