Malaysia deal dead in the water – for now

August 31, 2011

The Full Bench of the High Court has ruled 5-2 in favour of the asylum seekers slated for Malaysia as part of Gillard’s deal.

The injunction prohibiting their removal from Australia is now permanent.

The High Court, expediting their decision, ruled that asylum seekers cannot be processed offshore unless the Minister for Immigration can demonstrate that human rights will be protected in accordance with section 198A of the Immigration Act. The Minister cannot simply declare a country has adequate human rights protections – he must demonstrate it.

By implication, this could rule out any country which is not a signatory to UN Conventions on Refugees – including Nauru and Manus Island. The Court did not specifically rule on this, however.

Unaccompanied minors cannot be sent offshore for processing unless an additional written consent is issued by the Minister.

No appeal is possible to this decision.

The Malaysia ‘one for five’ deal is, at this point, dead in the water.

A summary of the judgment can be found here and the full transcript here.

It’s a huge win for opponents of offshore detention, and a massive blow to the government. At every turn, it has been thwarted in efforts to ship the asylum seeker’ problem’ out of sight and (presumably) out of mind. Right now, the government is in a bind – but they have a couple of options open to them.

They can attempt to amend the Migration Act in order to water down s. 198A – effectively removing clause 3(iv), which currently requires that any proposed offshore destination ‘meets relevant human rights standards in providing that protection‘. (my emphasis)

In the current political climate, this would be an uphill battle at best. The Greens will vehemently oppose any attempt to remove human rights from the legislation, and it’s a fair bet that Independents Andrew Wilkie and Rob Oakeshott would do likewise. The government’s only hope, then, would be to enlist the Coalition’s support.

It’s a possibility. This ruling hurts the Coalition as much as it does the government, since the Opposition’s own asylum seeker policy hinges entirely on re-opening the Nauru detention centre built with Australian money under the Howard administration. It might well serve their interests to throw in with the government – although it would significantly weaken them, given their frequent declarations that no good policy or legislation has ever come out of the Gillard government. With enough spin, they might succeed in convincing the public that they’ve had to step in to ‘rescue’ bad policy, but it would be a very risky move.

The government’s other option is to return to the policies espoused under the Rudd government, processing asylum seekers either onshore or on Christmas Island. The Opposition consistently attacked these ideas, blaming them for a surge in boat arrivals. The night before he was forced to resign, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd cautioned against any ‘surge to the Right’ in this area. Julia Gillard’s actions since assuming the officer of Prime Minister, however, have taken Labor closer and closer to the Coalition’s hardline stance.

There is an opportunity now for the Gillard government to abandon the offshore system altogether, using the High Court ruling as a shelter against criticisms of ‘backflip’. Minister Chris Bowen could claim that his hand was forced by the judiciary. That, however, assumes that the government does not, in fact, wholeheartedly support offshore detention and similar harsh measures.

We’ve yet to hear from the government, and have no idea when it will make an announcement. At this point, it’s all speculation as to what they might do next. If you have a recommendation for them, I urge you to email your local MP, Minister Bowen and/or Prime Minister Gillard. You can be sure that certain groups on both sides of the issue are already doing so. Don’t let them give the government the impression they speak for you.

In the meantime, this is a decision worthy of celebration. The dreadful plan to send asylum seekers to a country where they would be completely unprotected by even lip service to human rights conventions is absolutely blocked. For now, at least, Australia has regained a little compassion.

It’s shameful that we needed the Full Bench of the High Court to force us to do that.


Department of dirty tricks

August 24, 2011

In Australian politics, there’s a little thing called pairing. Until this Parliament, it was confined to the Senate, but as part of negotiations to form minority government, all parties agreed to extend that arrangement to the House of Representatives. It was all very decent, and designed to ensure that government could function. At the time, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott stated he would ‘honour the agreement’, that he ‘made the agreement in good faith and will keep to the agreement’.

It’s a shame, really, that the agreement was threatened on the opening day of the 43rd Parliament. Two government ministers – Regional and Arts Minister Simon Crean and Home Affairs Minister Brendan O’Connor – were refused pairs. In O’Connor’s case, that would have prevented him from attending the National Police Remembrance Day services, a grave insult to law enforcement.

At the eleventh hour, after considerable pressure from media, the public and (reportedly) their own back bench, the Opposition relented and granted the pairs. Since that time, pairs have been routinely granted. In fact, it looked like the whole incident might simply have been a case of the Opposition testing the waters.

But wait.

Earlier this week Opposition Leader Tony Abbott announced that he would no longer grant the government a ‘pair’ under any circumstances during the upcoming debate over carbon price legislation. His objective was clear: to force the government to either delay the debate or to renege on its responsibilities to the country. No more appearances at the Press Club. No opening ceremonies for the NBN. No overseas trips to G20 conferences. In other words, to make government unworkable.

Ultimately, of course, Abbott’s aim is to have the government throw up its hands and consign the legislation to the ‘too hard’ basket. But perhaps it’s simply sabre-rattling, another shot across the bow like last year.

This time, though, the Opposition has already made good on its threat – and it’s worth nothing that this happened before any debate on carbon price legislation even started.

Crean was a victim again. He was granted a pair so that he and Malcolm Turnbull could attend the funeral of artist Margaret Olley AC, who died last month. The arrangement was made some time ago, in writing. Today the Opposition withdrew from that agreement.

It was a direct insult to Olley’s family, and to her memorial. As Leader of the House Anthony Albanese commented, ‘It was appropriate that the Australian government be represented … [and there is] no one more important than the Arts Minister to do so’. Not that this apparently mattered to the Opposition.

As if that wasn’t enough, Abbott also withdrew a previously granted pair from the Prime Minister. She was scheduled to meet today with the visiting President of the Seychelles. Protocol for these matters demanded her attendance, and as a result she had no choice but to be absent from the chamber and missed a vote.

And about that vote …

In recent days Member for Dobell Craig Thomson has come under fire from the Opposition over a convoluted series of events involving a mobile phone, one (or possibly more) escort agencies, a defamation suit and a legal defence fund. Basically, the accusations boil down to this: that Thomson, while working for the Health Services Union, misused his corporate credit card to splurge on sex workers, sued Fairfax newspapers for defamation about it and ran up such a huge legal bill that he needed the Labor Party to bail him out just so that he could avoid bankruptcy and stay in Parliament.

Never mind that Thomson is not charged with any offence. Never mind that the HSU isn’t looking to recover funds. Never mind, in fact, that Thomson has always claimed that others had access to both the credit card and the mobile phone in question. The Opposition think they smell blood in the water, and want Thomson gone so they can force a by-election.

Much of the pressure has come under the umbrella of Parliamentary privilege, which means that Thomson can’t stop the Opposition from stating as fact what amounts to little more than conjecture. Neither can the Prime Minister prevent the now-constant insinuations that she knew what was going on and may even have colluded in some wrongdoing. But that’s not all – Senator George Brandis, apparently acting in his capacity as Shadow Attorney-General, wrote to the New South Wales police urging them to open an investigation. He seemed disgruntled by the news that the Australian Federal Police had already said there was no grounds for such an inquiry.

Yesterday the NSW police said they’d assess whether it was worth opening an investigation. This is pretty much standard procedure when they receive a complaint. That didn’t stop Abbott claiming in Parliament that Thomson was ‘under investigation’, of course. Nor did it stop Leader of Opposition Business Christopher Pyne from attempting to force Thomson to front Parliament and ‘explain himself’.

That was the vote that Gillard missed. Fortunately for the government, the Coalition failed to get an absolute majority of 76 votes, which is required for such procedural motions. Nonetheless, Pyne claimed a moral victory because more people had voted for the motion than against it.

(Sound familiar? Remember Abbott’s ‘moral victory’ at the 2010 election, otherwise known as ‘we got more seats than you’?)

It was an exercise in blatant hypocrisy. Under the Howard government, the Coalition repeatedly refused to force MPs and Senators whose behaviour was in question to explain themselves to Parliament. Famously, this included former Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, who was saved from having to answer questions from all comers about his knowledge of the Australian Wheat Board Scandal.

Here are a couple of choice quotes:

Prime Minister John Howard, 2007: ‘The appropriate thing for me to do is to let the police investigation run its course’.

Senator George Brandis, 2007: ‘We’re entitled to the presumption of innocence.’

It seems that presumption doesn’t extend to a Labor Parliamentarian, however. Thomson has already been pressured to resign as Chair of the Economics Committee (although he is still a member), and the calls for him to resign from Parliament altogether are becoming increasingly shrill.

Meanwhile, Senator Mary Jo Fisher, currently the only Parliamentarian who is charged with a criminal offence, absented herself from her position as Chair of the Senate’s Committee on Environment and Communications, but retains it. That position earns her $12,000 per year.

She, however, has the full support of not just her party, but all sides of government:

Tony Abbott – ‘The party is right behind her and supporting her in this tough time.’

Senator Nick Xenophon – ‘The presumption of innocence is paramount.’

Anthony Albanese – ‘She’s entitled to that presumption of innocence.’

Craig Thomson, apparently, is not – at least according to the Coalition.

Really, it’s all about overthrowing the Labor government by any means necessary. If that means offering insult to visiting dignitaries or families of Australians, so be it. If it means hiding behind Parliamentary privilege in order to smear a man charged with no crime, that’s okay too. (But not, mind you, if it’s a case where the Coalition might lose any of its own Parliamentary influence.) The Department of Dirty Tricks is working overtime – and the tactics just get more and more questionable.

The Opposition have tried to excuse themselves at every turn, but the reality is that they have reneged on an agreement they signed in 2010, abused Parliamentary privilege and attempted to interfere with the work of the judiciary. Then there are the constant accusations of corruption in Treasury and the Solicitor-General’s Department.

Albanese commented today that Abbott appeared to think that the Lodge was his birthright.

It’s hard to disagree with that suggestion. And more and more, it seems that the Opposition isn’t going to let a little thing like democratic process get in the way of helping Abbott achieve his ambition.


This is not bipartisanship

August 22, 2011

I think we all owe Opposition Leader Tony Abbott an apology.

There’s been so much criticism of the Opposition for refusing to work with the government to pass significant reforms. As each bill comes up for debate, they propose a raft of amendments or try to push the bill back to a Senate committee. They push votes wherever possible, calling for divisions as a way of gambling on the reality of minority government to perhaps deliver them an unexpected win. At every turn, they’ve made it clear that they’re just not interested in co-operation.

And the government doesn’t exactly have clean hands on this issue, either. For all the talk of offering olive branches and a seat at the table for Opposition MPs, they’ve carefully manoeuvred to ensure that if this did occur, it would undermine policy positions.

But really, we’ve judged them too harshly. Last week we saw a heartwarming display of bipartisanship. Two, in fact, one right on the heels of the other. We saw what happens when major parties work together.

What we saw was the major parties banding together to kill two Private Member’s Bills on the second reading.

Just what were these bills, that they could prompt such a lockstep response?

One was from Independent Andrew Wilkie. The other was from Greens MP Adam Bandt. Both addressed the issue of live exports. Wilkie urged the government to – at a minimum – ensure that Australian standards of humane slaughter be insisted upon as part of contracts with other countries, while urging a permanent ban on trading with countries that did not meet these standards. Bandt called for the outright abolition of the trade, insisting that it made both economic and compassionate sense for slaughter to take place in Australia, under Australian standards.

The two MPs supported each other, which was why they were able to call for a division when the second reading came to a vote. It was a pitiful sight, however, to see Wilkie and Bandt sitting together to the right of the Chair, while the major parties crowded in to sit shoulder to shoulder on the Opposition benches. The scene wasn’t helped by an apparent technical problem which shut off half the lights in the Chamber, casting a rather dismal gloom over already depressing proceedings.

With less than five Members voting for the bills, there was no need to take a count in either case. Wilkie and Bandt got their names recorded in Hansard, but that was it.

A futile gesture? Perhaps. Certainly Bandt was well aware that the major parties had no intention of supporting his bill, and remarked on it in his second reading speech. Both he and Wilkie sat with rueful yet resigned expressions during the division.

But was it simply a waste? After all, this isn’t the first time that the major parties have joined forces to shut down the minority members. In the Senate, for example, the Greens suffer this on a regular basis. Just ask Senator Sarah Hanson-Young how often she’s tabled a bill on same-sex marriage, or protection for asylum seekers. In every case, Labor and the Coalition have killed those bills. In fact, it’s a wonder that Bandt’s motion calling on MPs to canvass their electorates on same-sex marriage was passed at all.

But then, that was a non-binding resolution. A toothless tiger, effective only to the extent that anyone felt like going along with the recommendation.

Minority government has the potential to open up Parliamentary proceedings. One vote can make all the difference, as we’ve seen a number of times (notably when Rob Oakeshott nearly provoked a crisis by voting against a Speaker’s ruling). Some feel that there’s an imbalance at work there, that these ‘balance-of-power’ Members wield influence far above their actual representation.

Yet no one provides commentary on a minority government where there is little difference between the major parties. For all the Opposition is out there trying to erode confidence in the government on matters as diverse as carbon pricing and plain packaging for cigarettes, they are quick to close ranks when a minority Member proposes a socially liberal or environmental policy. In fact, the major differences between Labor and the Coalition on such matters are largely a matter of detail. Both are committed to mandatory offshore detention; both are resolutely opposed to same-sex marriage; both have no interest in overhauling the live export industry. Ultimately whether one supports Nauru and the other supports Malaysia as an asylum seeker destination is irrelevant; both oppose the idea of on-shore detention, or even doing away with a mandatory detention system at all.

So when the Greens pop up with a bill challenging these essential statuses, the differences melt away to nothing, and suddenly we have a united Parliament. It’s arguable, in fact, that much of the Opposition’s obstructionist stance towards Labor stems from purely ideological opposition to the presence of the Greens and Independent support of the government. The rhetoric’s a dead giveaway at times – remember ‘Labor may be in government, but the Greens are in power’?

It says something about a government when bipartisanship is something that gets employed not for the good of the country, but primarily to silence minority voices. What we have now is a far cry from the united efforts of successive government to dismantle the White Australia Policy. ‘Opposition for opposition’s sake’ is not simply an accusation to be levelled at the Coalition; the government appears to enthusiastically embrace that stance when it comes to matters as diverse as gambling machine reform and live exports, despite a lot of high-flown rhetoric about caring for animal and human welfare.

But hey – on the bright side, at least we know the major parties are capable of working together. I’m not sure you can call it bipartisanship, though – more like bipartisan bullying. The equivalent of two schoolyard gangs banding together to make sure the little kids and the nerds don’t get to the canteen before the bell rings.

Wouldn’t it be great if we had real bipartisanship? If we had elected representatives that worked together for the good of the country instead of simply using their majority to silence minority voices?

Yeah, I know … tell her she’s dreaming.


Census Night and that pesky religion question

August 9, 2011

Tonight is Census Night. I’ve been to more than a few census dinner parties in my time, all of which were a good excuse for hanging out with friends and sitting on the floor after dessert with a wheel of brie and some crackers. One of us would be the designated census-taker, and the rest would call out responses to the various questions.

Recently, though, the Census has become something of a battleground. It entirely revolves around Question 19 – Religion. Interested parties make vehement pleas for us all to write a particular result. This year, that militant rhetoric erupted into outright conflict.

There are two major campaigns: a plea to mark your religion as ‘Christian’ in order to prevent the government building mosques in your neighbourhood; and a plea to mark ‘no religion’ in order to prevent the government privileging the religious over the non-religious.

(That’s by no means a comprehensive list. For example, the ‘Pagan Dash’ campaign is aimed at having ‘Pagan’ included as a category of its own rather than being filed under ‘Nature Religions’.)

Now, the religion question is flawed. Horribly so. For a start, if you practise a religion with very few known adherents in Australia, you’re confined to the ‘Other’ category. The wording of the question also suggests being a member of a religion is the default, or ‘normal’ state of affairs. Finally, if you enter your particular sect in the ‘Other’ category (say, Theravada), it doesn’t count towards the total ‘Buddhist’ number.

All in all, it could do with a serious overhaul, if only to make it more representative of the likely diversity of responses. But let’s examine the assumptions behind these two campaigns.

First the ‘Christian’ campaign. This is scare-mongering, pure and simple – ‘tick Christian or the Muslims will take over!’ And like most scare-mongering, it’s utterly without foundation. The government isn’t about to start building mosques willy-nilly based on census numbers (and wildly inflated ones at that: only around 340,000 people identified as Muslim on the 2006 census, and 2 million rather than 10 million marked ‘no religion’). In fact, the government isn’t about to start building mosques at all – any more than they’d build a church. Why? Because the government doesn’t provide religious infrastructure. That’s the job of private organisations.

It tries to panic people into providing a false response, and sweeps away any concerns that this may not be a true result. Even if you’re not Christian, you’d be doing the right thing by marking your ‘upbringing faith’ (and note the assumption that you were probably raised a Christian. Never mind that it is an offence to knowingly lie on the Census. The cause is too important to worry about such things.

Then there’s the ‘no religion’ campaign. This one starts with a false claim: that governments use census results to privilege the religious, at the expense of those who do not subscribe to a religious belief system. On the face of it, this looks like a strong argument: we have chaplaincies in our public, supposedly secular schools, and government funds are allocated for religious instruction (which is in reality little more than recruitment and indoctrination). But is this really because of the census?

Or is it a cultural blind spot based on the idea that Australia is a white, Anglo, Christian country – always was, always will be?

Never mind the wealth of religious tradition amongst indigenous peoples. Never mind the immigrant workers, especially the Chinese, who brought Buddhism, Taoism and ancestor worship with them. For that matter, never mind the atheists who eloquently defended their right to non-belief in English writings of the period. Early Australia suffered from ‘dominant culture’ blindness and that still hasn’t gone away.

If this were really about the census numbers, then the religion question would likely be compulsory, instead of the sole optional one.

If this were really about the census numbers, the government would be tripped up by a few basic statistics. Even a quick perusal of census results shows a steady decline in Christian religions – dropping almost 30% since Federation – and an increase of almost 600% in those who select ‘no religion’. Hardly a case of the government relying on numbers to justify their programs.

And again – the government doesn’t build religious infrastructure. City planners might look at census results to decide whether a proposed church is warranted in a given area, but they don’t pay for it.

What’s important to remember is that the census is a tool, and like all tools it can be wielded both well and inappropriately.

Census data on religion contributed to the abolition of archaic anti-witchcraft laws in Victoria. Those who identify as witches and pagans may now safely practise their religion without risking prosecution for vagrancy or fraud.

The proliferation of new religious movements (so-called ‘minority religions’) has brought about a serious blow-out in the ‘Other’ category. Although this is broken down into broad groupings in detailed results, strong arguments are now being made for rephrasing the question to be more representative of Australia as it is today.

For that matter, census data such as that quoted above forms part of the current argument against the near-total monopoly of certain Christian groups over school chaplaincies.

And then there’s the Australian Christian Lobby. They claim the right to speak on behalf of every person who nominated some form of Christianity on their census form. But the census isn’t what drives the ACL – it’s simply a way for them to represent themselves as more important than they really are.

The data is valuable. There’s no other way to provide such a comprehensive picture of religious belief and atheism in this country. And if we answer the question honestly, it’s a true picture.

With that data we can mount counter-arguments to the ACL and similar groups. We can demonstrate the diversity of Australian life. We can thoroughly shred the racist claims of those who see the spectre of sharia law lurking around every corner.

It’s in everyone’s best interest to answer the question without trying to frame our responses to serve an agenda. We don’t need to bring up accusations of ‘privilege’ or exaggerated fears of ‘a mosque in every neighbourhood’ (and I’m still not sure why people who think that was a bad thing, in any case). We should focus on the positive aspects and simply encourage everyone to answer honestly.

And if you truly don’t like even the idea of the question, or want to be completely private? Leave the question blank.

Nothing bad will happen. I promise.


High Court reprieve for Malaysia-bound asylum seekers

August 8, 2011

Last night David Manne, from the Refugee and Immigration Legal Centre, went to the High Court. He represented 42 asylum seekers, including six unaccompanied minors. Of that group, sixteen faced imminent deportation to Malaysia as part of the government’s ‘one-for-five’ swap deal.

Arguing that the asylum seekers were reasonably afraid for their safety and welfare, and had a right to have their claims assessed in Australia, Manne’s legal team secured an emergency injunction to prevent their being removed until after a further hearing this afternoon.

It’s just been announced that the High Court has upheld that initial injunction, extending it until August 22. This means that any asylum seekers slated for deportation now have quite a bit more breathing space to organise their legal responses. And when they do go back to court, it will be before the Full Bench – the highest court in Australia.

Given that the decision noted that there were ‘serious questions’ to answer regarding Australia’s legal obligations under international treaties, and concern for human rights, it also means that the government now finds itself effectively stymied.

It’s not giving up, by any means. Even before this afternoon’s hearing, Immigration Minister Chris Bowen was out talking tough. The government has no intention of changing its policy. Malaysia doesn’t need to be a signatory to the UN Conventions, it’s told us that human rights will be looked after, that’s good enough. After all, what’s important is that we send the right signal to the people smugglers.

Once in the court, the government didn’t get its papers in order, causing a delay in the proceedings. When the Justice indicated he wanted to extend the order pending a full hearing, the government argued that it should be as short an extension as possible, because otherwise it would – you guessed it – send a signal. Presumably, the wrong kind of signal.

Thankfully, the Court rejected that argument and delivered a slap to the government for being unprepared and then trying to rush things.

But take a look at how the government acted here. This is the same kind of contempt for the Courts that Howard’s government displayed during the days of the Tampa and the Pacific Solution. Worse, it’s an absolute contradiction. The most commonly repeated justification for not re-opening the Nauru detention centre is that Nauru is not a signatory to the UN Conventions. That, apparently, was a deal-breaker. Now it seems that it’s only a deal-breaker when it can be used to bolster a shaky argument. Not only is the government apparently happy for Malaysia not be a signatory to these Conventions – it doesn’t even feel it should try to press the issue. We can take Malaysia’s word for it.

I’m sure there are more blatant definitions of hypocrisy around – but that’s got to rank up near the top of the list.

Then there’s the government’s attempt to exonerate itself from blame for any future boat arrivals by implying that the High Court’s decision might encourage people smugglers. This is just the latest variation on the Coalition’s usual argument – that asylum seekers make their decisions based on obscure questions of policy rather than fear for their safety. Only this time the scapegoat is the High Court.

So there is finally no daylight between the Howard and Gillard governments on the matter of asylum seekers. Both readily ignore their legal obligations. Both are willing to jump through verbal hoops to justify themselves. Both appeal to ‘decency’ and ‘fairness’ even as they enact policies that can be described as at best punitive.

While Howard’s government was caught up in legal wrangling in the Federal Court over the Tampa Affair, it enacted the Pacific Solution, excising Australian territory from Australia’s migration zone and doing deals with Nauru to spend even more millions on propping up that country in return for dumping our asylum seekers there. It’s arguable that this contributed to that government’s eventual win.

What are the chances we’ll see something similar tried by Gillard’s government? Well, it’s not quite the same situation. We’re in a minority government, with the balance of power out of the hands of the major parties in both Houses. We also have a hostile Opposition that is unlikely to want to help the government find a way out of its dilemma.

And unlike the Federal Court back in 2001, the current High Court has already shown that it’s not afraid to balk the government.

It will all come down to August 22. In the meantime, let’s keep an eye out for under-the-table legislation or sudden changes to regulations, shall we?

Afterword: ‘People smuggler’. It’s an ugly phrase, isn’t it? We hear it and we think of criminals who deal in human lives for profit – why, it’s tantamount to slavery. But think about this: once we gave out medals to people smugglers, as Julian Burnside points out on ABC Unleashed today.


Fair game: the Opposition’s sustained attack on the public service

August 4, 2011

Last night, Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey appeared on Lateline. Among other things, that interview touched on the Coalition’s ‘Direct Action’ plan to tackle climate change. This is a policy that’s been held up as a viable alternative to the government’s carbon pricing scheme announced a few weeks ago – both cheaper to implement, and less damaging to household budgets. Tony Jones zeroed in on a problem with the figures, though – for all the Opposition’s claims, the Department of Climate Change identified that the policy would cost the average Australian household around $720 per year, with no compensation such as is planned under the carbon price.

Hockey’s response? You can’t trust that Department’s figures. They get things wrong.

But then there’s this:

TONY JONES: But are you saying they’re putting out false figures about your direct action plan?

JOE HOCKEY: Yeah, yeah, absolutely.

That’s a serious accusation right there. Hockey didn’t equivocate, or use any weasel words – he flat out accused the Department of Climate Change of deliberately falsifying their figures for the sole purpose of discrediting the Opposition.

Sound familiar? It should.

Remember back around the time of the election, when the Coalition dodged the question of getting their election promises costed by Treasury? Their stated reason for doing so was that Treasury couldn’t be trusted to do it right, or do it fairly. Back then, the accusations flew thick and fast. Treasury was ‘incompetent’. Treasury was ‘corrupt’. In essence, the Coalition did their level best to convince the public that the Treasury was little more than a political agent for Labor, willing to stoop to any level to keep them in power.

Remember Shadow Finance Minister Andrew Robb? At the time, he blustered that ‘It could mean that they [Labor] steal an election through the actions of a criminal act. We are not going to be patsies and be played off a break by people who are engaged in criminal activities to create a political problem for us’.

Then there was Opposition Leader Abbott’s sledge at the Solicitor-General. Upon hearing that the proposed minority government arrangement was all in order, Abbott did more than just hint that the Solicitor-General might well be both incompetent and corrupt. Again, the message was clear: that department is part of the public service, and – just like Treasury – should be viewed with at least a measure of suspicion.

Now, it seems, it’s the turn of Climate Change.

Understand, the Opposition are not talking about government ministers here. They’re not out there attacking Greg Combet or Robert McLelland. They’re saying that the Departments are engaging in corrupt and criminal acts – essentially, that major areas of the Public Service are so compromised by some kind of partisan loyalty to the Australian Labor Party that they simply can’t be trusted.

These are not party political organisations. They’re staffed by people who, in some cases, have held their jobs under successive governments from both major parties. To listen to the Coalition, though, you’d be forgiven for thinking these Departments do little more than give jobs to Labor’s mates.

As I said before, these are serious accusations – the kind that need to be backed up by strong evidence. If proven, there would have to be criminal proceedings, and that could potentially see the government – and the country – undermined at its very foundations. So what is the evidence?

The Coalition says so.

That’s right. They’ve offered no proof of falsified figures. They’ve secured no sworn confessions of wrongdoing. There are no memos discussing how best to help the government attack the Opposition. Just unsubstantiated bluster delivered in ringing tones of condemnation.

This is nothing more than the continuation of a smear campaign that started around the time of the election. It’s designed to deflect attention from shaky policy that doesn’t stand up under rigorous scrutiny. By casting doubt on the organisations whose job it is to catch these sorts of errors and omissions, the Coalition hopes to effectively get waved through the gate without a ticket.

It’s also designed to take advantage of a particular gap in most people’s education. We learn at school about how our government works, or at least we can grasp the basics. You vote, a party gets elected, and the one that doesn’t get in make up the Opposition. Then the government makes laws. What we don’t often learn about is the massive bureaucracy that ensures government can work at all. We see the Minister at the head of those Departments on the news, and we identify the organisation with the person. We don’t get told that Treasury, or Climate Change, or the Solicitor-General’s Department is made up of people who have nothing whatsoever to do with the business of winning elections – people who are experts in their fields, administration assistants with long years of experiences, accountants, legal advisors, etc. When the Coalition accuses Treasury of participating in criminal acts, or Climate Change of deliberately falsifying numbers purely to discredit rival policies, they’re hoping that we won’t realise that.

The Coalition is apparently so committed to tearing down everything even remotely associated with this minority government that they consider these people’s good names to be expandable. Moreover, they apparently have a complete disregard for the personal consequences to the people they’re so merrily disparaging.

That’s not clever strategy – it’s a calculated, callous decision to do whatever it takes, and never mind the collateral damage.

The important thing is that we do realise it. The next time Abbott, or Hockey, or Robb stands up in front of a camera and accuses a Department of corrupt or criminal acts, keep it in mind. It’s not the standard political tactic of discrediting a policy by discrediting the Minister in charge. It’s an attack on hundreds of largely unknown people whose only crime is to be working in government administration under the current government.

Those people keep the country working. They deserve better.

So, Mr Abbott, Mr Robb, Mr Hockey – here’s your chance. If you have proof to back up your accusations, deliver it to the Australian Federal Police. Right now. Put up or shut up.

If you don’t, why don’t you take your own advice to Prime Minister Gillard? Go down to those Departments and personally visit every single employee there. Explain to them why you decided that destroying their reputations and their peace of mind was an acceptable part of your campaign to bring down the Gillard government with baseless accusations. Why you decided that they were fair game.

Then apologise to them. Individually. Sincerely. Unequivocally.

It’s the least you can do.


Malaysian deal a test for us, not for the government

August 1, 2011

The government deal with Malaysia to swap asylum-seekers for refugees is all but finalised. We’re going to intercept 800 people on boats, do some quick-and-dirty health checks, put them on planes and send them to Malaysia within 72 hours. In return, we’ll get 4000 confirmed refugees from them. Of course, we’re not guaranteeing the safety and supervision of unaccompanied minors, Malaysia gets to have the final say as to who they’ll accept and who they’ll toss our way, and oh yes, we don’t even know if there’s decent accommodation for the people we send – but pffft, details. The deal’s in the bag. All we need now are some asylum seekers.

And who are our lucky first contestants? Well, it looks like the 54 poor bastards who hoved into view on our horizon Sunday morning might get that honour. They were intercepted and brought to Christmas Island – which, you’ll remember, is an Australian territory, but no longer part of Australia’s official migration zone. They’ve been offloaded and placed in temporary detention while the cursory checks are done. It might take a little longer than 72 hours, apparently – there’s still that nagging problem of them possibly not having any accommodation in Australia – but Prime Minister Julia Gillard assured us this was little more than a hiccup.

“When the system is up and in full operation those returns will happen in 72 hours,” she said.

Isn’t that good to know? We won’t have time to worry about this, because the bureaucratic machine will be so well-oiled that they’ll be gone before we know it. Even better, the Prime Minister confirmed that the Australian Federal Police are authorised to use force to shove any reluctant asylum seekers onto Malaysia-bound planes. Out of sight, out of mind.

There’s a lot of comment out there this morning about how this is a ‘test’ for the Malaysian deal, and – by extension – for Gillard’s government. It needs to go off without a hitch. It needs to have an immediate effect in deterring further people from trying to get to Australia (in the revolting words of Immigration Minister Chris Bowen, ‘to break the people smugglers’ business model). The Coalition are out there with their faux concern and the oft-repeated line that Nauru would be a better place to send these troublesome ‘boat people’. Government voices chant the ‘regional solution’ mantra. Commentators debate the relative merits of Nauru vs Malaysia, and how illustrative this whole situation is of Gillard’s need to follow through with decisive action.

What we’re not hearing (apart from Senator Sarah Hanson-Young’s lone voice on Sky News) is that is the MV Tampa all over again. This is the government bending rules and perverting its responsibility towards human beings in peril who seek nothing but a new start free from persecution. This is whisking away the ‘problem’ and talking tough while using human lives to win polls. (You know, the polls to which no one in politics apparently listens.)

What’s worse is the government’s blithe assurance that if those pesky asylum seekers actually have the temerity to object to their deportation to a country that is not a signatory to UN refugee conventions, then the AFP can ‘use force’. What does that mean? The government hasn’t bothered to elaborate, and that raises a lot of alarming questions. Can they yell at them? Shove them? Force them into handcuffs and shackles and carry them? Use pepper spray? Nightsticks? Tasers?

Any or all of these? On men, women, children and victims of torture? (Because let’s not forget that the government has already categorically stated that everyone will get the same treatment with this deal.)

Oh but wait, that would never happen, would it? Sure, we might lock up innocent people in remote locations in conditions guaranteed to produce lasting psychological damage. Sure, we might offload people to a country where they can disappear into a system that refuses to guarantee their safety and health and which regularly administers corporal punishment for the most trivial of offences. Sure, we might even consider letting boats sink before we decide to finally save people in danger. But surely there’s a line. We’re not inhumane, after all.

Except we are. We’re willing to let this happen. Even if we’re not actually out there applauding this kind of behaviour, we’re not preventing it. We acknowledge that something has to be done about asylum seekers, while wilfully closing our minds to the facts that there are so few of them, and that these are people in need that we not only can, but must help. We signed up for this – and we’ve been trying to weasel our way out of our obligations since August 2001.

And for no good reason. There’s no ‘Islamist’ conspiracy to flood Australia with militants who will rise up and institute Sharia law. There’s no ‘erosion of our values’ or ‘threat to our way of life’. No one’s being forced to eat halal meat, wear a burqa or attend a mosque. Our kids aren’t required to learn Arabic in schools so they can be compelled to read the Koran. Despite relentless fear-mongering to the contrary, what we’ve seen is that refugees are – shockingly – just like everyone else.

And yet we treat these people as though they are so dangerous that the mere pressure of their feet upon our soil will destroy our world.

Perhaps that’s because we’re afraid that what the sight of them will destroy are our illusions that no one is ‘really’ getting hurt, and there’s nothing we can do.

Yes, it’s difficult to get out to Christmas Island, and any whiff that someone might be going there to protest will see them turned around before they get out of the airport, but there is more we can do.

There’s talk of a court action to prevent the government from carrying out their plan to forcibly deport asylum seekers. We can support that.

We can find out who our local MP or Senator is, and contact them. A Just Australia has useful tips on keeping emails short and direct.

We can do the same for Immigration Minister Chris Bowen.

Prime Minister Gillard has a handy-dandy contact form on her website.

Then there’s Twitter. Many politicians now maintain Twitter accounts, and this is a good place to start looking Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd is particularly responsive to tweets – and is known to be openly critical of the Gillard government’s ‘lurch to the right’ on asylum seekers (to use his own words).

Don’t wait until the next election to send the message. It’s not a test for the government – it’s a test for us.

I’ve said all this before. In fact, looking back over this blog, I’ve said it over and over. Meanwhile the Coalition gets shriller, the government lurches further and further to the right, those who advocate for human rights are ridiculed or bullied – and the people caught in the middle of it all just continue to suffer.

So what’s the point? Why bother?

Because it’s the right thing to do. Because we need to put compassion before poll results, and human decency before pandering to fear. Because every person who doesn’t speak or act is one less voice that might make even a tiny bit of difference.

It’s a truism to say that those who have voices must speak up for those who don’t. Asylum seekers are locked up on remote islands, denied access to Australian society, and – now – about to disappear from our scrutiny altogether.

How much voice do they have?

And what are we doing with ours?


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