Operation The Price Is Right

August 23, 2013

We’ve heard it thousands of times. It’s a three word slogan, a caricature, and recently, a shorthand way of describing Coalition policy both inhumane and in violation of our international obligations.

STOP THE BOATS.

By far, the aspect of Tony Abbott’s asylum seeker policy that has attracted the most criticism is the plan to somehow turn around boats holding asylum seekers and shoo them back to Indonesian waters. Apparently envisioning the Australian Navy and Coast Guard as little more than bully-boy escort ships, Mr Abbott’s always seemed confident that very little could possibly go wrong with his idea. Apart from the people smugglers possibly resorting to deliberately scuttling their ships. Or Indonesia refusing to let the boats land. Or, well, anything. Still, Abbott never seemed anything but serene. And today we found out why.

There’s another aspect to the Coalition’s policy. Abbott and his Shadow Spokesperson for Stopping the Boats, Scott Morrison, have been holding out on us. Such teases. Yes, they have a secret weapon up their sleeves – and it’s a doozy. They’re going to ‘smash the people smugglers’ business model’, and they’re going to do it with a combination of Orwellian public relations know-how and good ol’-fashioned capitalism.

They’re going to buy the boats.

Yep. With the help of the infallible intelligence that has already worked so well in stopping people smugglers, a Coalition government will identify which poor Indonesian fisherfolk have been offered money for their leaky boats, and … offer them more. Naturally, the aforementioned poor fisherfolk will want to take Australia’s money, and voila! – problem solved. No boats, no boat people.

You can’t make this stuff up.

Of course, this is a scheme with more holes than the boats the Coalition say they’re prepared to buy. For a start, it depends on identifying which fishing boats are, shall we say, up for negotiation. It assumes our intelligence is good enough – and so far, our record isn’t brilliant on that score. After all, if we were able to figure out who was cruising the docks around Indonesia inspecting boats for nefarious purposes, why not tap them on the shoulder and introduce them to the wonders of law enforcement? Not only would it take a people smuggler out of the picture, it’d be a darn sight cheaper.

Let’s say we don’t know exactly who’s making these offers. I don’t know, maybe they’re running around in Mexican wrestling masks or wearing bags on their heads. Anything’s possible, right? It still doesn’t prevent the transaction from being intercepted, much like a narcotics or drugs bust – and it doesn’t require us to buy a bunch of boats.

Just what are we going to do with these boats, anyway?

Offer them to schools as compensation for taking away the Schoolkids Bonus? Wow, think about it – one boat per child. We could offer VCAL training in boat-building and navigation, with electives in evading the Coast Guard. We could run excursions out in Port Philip Bay or Sydney Harbour – or, for schools further away from the coast, we could just kick out the rickety bottoms and hold a special Students Division of the Henley-on-Todd Regatta.

Or maybe it would be better to put those boats to good use directly combating people smuggling? We could string them all together in a long line and place them just on the border of international waters, so that any boats we couldn’t buy up won’t be able to get through. That’d be a great photo op for Prime Minister Abbott, straddling two fishing boats, one foot on each deck, gazing sternly into the distance. Think about that on a billboard in Indonesia.

Of course, it would be cheaper if we could just get the boats delivered to us, rather than pay for the shipping … oh, wait.

No, the Coalition have a better idea. They’re just going to destroy the boats.

Yup. Stop the boats, buy the boats, sink the boats.

I’m sure the parents of Australia will feel a warm glow knowing that the money they could have used to buy uniforms, textbooks and other school necessities will instead be heading off to another country to buy boats that are unseaworthy, and that will simply be scuttled.

And – what should be the most obvious problem – by saying we would be prepared to simply buy any boat that we were told was up for sale – we would be creating a market. For all the Coalition’s protestations that this would only happen where we had good intelligences, this is a scheme just begging to be exploited. It would be incredibly easy to set up a fake situation resulting in Australia buying a secondhand, rickety boat – and the fisher in receipt of this money now has the option to buy a better boat. Multiply that a few dozen times and you have the beginnings of a series of rorts, or even a boat-buying ring or six. Scott Morrison even acknowledged this during the policy announcement, when he refused to name exactly how much money the Coalition planned to set aside for buying boats.

Perhaps the scheme should be called ‘Operation Fishing Boat Upgrade’. Or maybe ‘Operation The Price is Right’.

Part two of today’s revelations involved the announcement that the Coalition wanted to set up a little something it called ‘Village Watch’. Put simply, this is a scheme whereby people would be encouraged to spy on each other, and ‘bounties’ would be paid if information led to an arrest or ‘disruption’ to people smuggling activities.

Nothing could go wrong with that idea, could it?

While they’re at it, the Coalition wants to put more members of the Australian Federal Police into Indonesia, and even give them some ‘vessels’ to patrol their own waters. (Presumably, these won’t be the same boats they plan to buy.) It’s all about a regional solution – but there was one crucial point missing from the policy.

Indonesian co-operation.

That’s right. This is all about what Mr Abbott wants to do. He wants to take Australian public money – from a budget he says is in such a state of crisis that he must cut entitlements to parents of schoolchildren and low paid workers – and spend it to set up a boat-buying scheme and a spy network in another country, without having even a provisional agreement from that country.

Scott Morrison described this policy as ‘commonsense’. I beg to differ. It could only be more ludicrous if Mr Abbott decided to ride into battle on a Zodiac, firing a glitter cannon at a people smuggler’s boat. It’s the very definition of a ‘thought bubble’ – it sounds impressive, looks shiny, has no substance and is suddenly created from nowhere.

Except it didn’t. According to Morrison, the Coalition didn’t just come up with these ideas while watching the last debate and playing a drinking game.

They’ve been working on it for four years.

Like I said – you can’t make this stuff up. And that’s what’s so dreadful about it.


Indecent, Inhumane, Unhappy – the Coalition’s asylum seeker policy

August 16, 2013

First there was Labor’s Papua New Guinea Solution. Then there was the Coalition’s ‘Pacific Solution 2.0′. Both were harsh, and both rightly attracted criticism from asylum seeker advocates, human rights organisations and the public. Now the Coalition’s one-upped itself, with today’s announcement targeting the approximately 30,000 asylum seekers currently in detention – or, as Liberal leader Tony Abbott called them, the ‘old arrivals’.

Here’s a sample of the preamble to this policy announcement:

‘Illegal arrivals … if you can’t stop the boats, you’re not capable of governing this country … stop the boats … stop the boats … 30,000 who have come illegally by boat … we’ve always said people who come illegally by boat will not be granted permanent residency … those who come illegally by boat will get Temporary Protection Visas … come illegally … people who are here illegally by boat’.

That was in less than three minutes.

Of course, none of that was news to anyone who’s ever heard Abbott blow this particular dogwhistle. The Coalition runs on the theory that a lie repeated often enough will be accepted as truth. Asylum seekers who come by boat are not ‘illegal’. They are referred to in both international treaties and our Department of Immigration and Citizenship as ‘irregular’ or ‘unauthorised’ maritime arrivals:

‘The preferred terms for boat arrivals as used by the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) are ‘unauthorised boat arrivals’ or ‘irregular maritime arrivals’ and, as noted above, people arriving by such means who then claim asylum are entitled to do so.’

Not that this has ever deterred the Coalition from pushing their lie. And yes, it is a lie. Coalition members, including Abbott, have been repeatedly informed of the truth, and deliberately choose not to speak it.

To return to today’s announcement …

The Coalition apparently decided that putting in place new policies to deal with further arrivals wasn’t enough. It announced retroactive strategies aimed at clearing out what it described as a ‘legacy backlog’ of asylum seekers waiting in detention centres for their claims to be processed. Kicking off with a paraphrase of former Prime Minister John Howard’s infamous slogan – ‘This is our country and we determine who comes here‘ – Abbott described what would happen to those 30,000 people (who, he asserted, were hoping for a Labor victory so that they could settle here permanently).

Their claims will be ‘fast-tracked’, under a ‘triage’ system. What that boils down to is that after a fast pass, anyone who might not be granted refugee status would be quickly processed, have their claim looked over and then ‘put on a removal pathway’. This includes anyone in community detention; if, during ‘triage’, they appear likely to be denied refugee status, they would be immediately returned to detention centres.

After that, ‘likely’ claims would be processed. Anyone finally granted refugee status would be given a Temporary Protection Visa for up to three years, assessed on a case by case basis. For the entirety of that time, TPV holders who were granted a welfare payment would be required to be in a Work for the Dole program. They would also be denied family reunion.

When their TPV expired, their refugee claims would be assessed again and if a Coalition government decided they no longer had any fear of persecution, they would be deported.

Almost as an aside, the Coalition’s Immigration spokesperson, Scott Morrison added that anyone even suspected of throwing away identifying documents would automatically be denied refugee status. ‘They won’t just go to the back of the queue,’ he said. ‘They won’t be in the queue at all.’

The final part of this ‘streamlined’ process would be the abolition of the Refugee Review Tribunal. Abbott noted that under the current system, 80% of those initially denied refugee status had their cases overturned on appeal. ‘That’s why Australians are questioning whether this a fair system,’ he said.

In response to questions, Abbott said he was confident that this plan, together with Operation Sovereign Borders, would see the number of boats drop to three per year by ‘well into’ his first term, certainly by 2016. He described this as ‘the happy situation that was brought about by the Howard government’.

Happy.

There is nothing, nothing happy about this.

This is a system designed to do only one thing; kick as many people as possible out of Australia. It’s not intercepting a boat and processing asylum seeker claims offshore, or even settling people offshore. It’s targeting people who are already here.

And why? Purely so that the Coalition can say it’s ‘fixed the boat problem’. Not only will they stop the boats, they’ll punish those who already got here by boat. Asylum seekers would be entirely at the mercy of a system for which there is no independent oversight, no independent review, no recourse to even the most basic of rights.

DIAC would not have to prove that someone deliberately destroyed documents; it would be enough to be suspicious.

The ‘fast-track’ process (which Abbott likened to the system under Howard) virtually guarantees that grievous mistakes will be made, potentially sending people back into situations that would endanger their lives – but neatly avoiding the accusation that we are breaking our non-refoulement obligations, because after all, it was a mistake. Oops.

Remember Cornelia Rau? OrVivian Solon?? They were just the high-profile ‘mistakes’ under Howard’s plan.

Even if someone is found to be a refugee, they would have no opportunity to build any kind of life here in Australia. Assuming they would qualify for welfare, they would need to work for the pittance they’d receive. (Funny thing – if you have to work for it, it’s hardly welfare.) It sets up a whole new lower class who would be dependent on relatives or charity organisations just to survive.

Perhaps they could serve in Abbott’s Green Army.

The Coalition knows what it’s doing. Morrison said, ‘We want to end the process where “no” becomes “yes” under an appeal’.

You read that right. The Coalition doesn’t want there to be any chance that a decision made by DIAC might be found to be wrong.

Morrison added, ‘The UNHCR says you don’t have to have both judicial and administrative processes’. The Coalition wants to go back to a pure administrative system; ‘it works better for us,’ said Morrison. ‘We’re not obliged to give [asylum seekers] the same rights as we are our citizens’.

There you have it. And while it’s possible there could be more inhumane asylum seeker policies, short of actually locking people up in the equivalent of Abu Ghraib, it’s hard to see how.

And yet Scott Morrison says the Coalition will deal with people ‘in accord with basic human decency’.

And yet Tony Abbott says the Coalition will ‘discharge its humanitarian obligations’.

This plan is neither ‘decent’ or ‘humane’. And for Abbott to describe it as bringing about a ‘happy situation’?

Words fail me.


Morrison and Nile – it’s just a lurch to the right

March 1, 2013

Some days, it doesn’t pay to log on and read the news.

It started when a 24 year old asylum seeker on a bridging visa was charged with sexual assault. It’s a serious offence, and not to be belittled or dismissed. Nor is it a situation where the facts are known, or a verdict obtained. Apparently the Opposition’s Shadow Immigration spokesperson, Scott Morrison, doesn’t care about that.

On the basis of this one arrest, Morrison launched into a speech full of deafening dogwhistles and rife with racism. Asylum seekers should have to conform to ‘behaviour protocols’ before being released into the community, he argued. Moreover, residents in the area should be informed before asylum seekers or refugees are settled there. While they were at it, there should be regular reports to police.

All on the basis of one arrest. No confession. No verdict.

It wasn’t long before Senators Eric Abetz and Cory Bernardi (infamous for his ‘halal by stealth’ comments) jumped in to support their colleague. Abetz thought it was all quite reasonable – after all, residents would find it hard to live next to someone who didn’t speak English well. In fact, he was prepared to go even further. We should make sure that police and health authorities be notified of an asylum seeker’s arrival into the community, just in case their ‘traumatised’ state led them to need intervention.

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott thought it was fair enough, and quickly pointed the finger at the government, using his patented ‘look-over-there-at-what-Julia’s-doing’ tactic. The media went along obediently. Even Malcolm Turnbull, who usually represents a voice of moderation in the Coalition, was silent.

Mind you, the government weren’t exactly quick to jump on the subject, either – not the Prime Minister, nor the Immigration Minister, nor even Kevin ‘someday-he’ll-challenge-again-you-betcha’ Rudd.

Of the major parties, only Opposition backbencher Russell Broadbent and Senator Doug Cameron spoke out against these sentiments, and they were voices crying in the wilderness.

Unable to contain her fury, Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young let fly at Morrison and those who supported his comments. Whether in the media (particularly when she held her own against some extremely provocative questions from Tony Jones on ABC1′s Lateline), or in the Parliament itself, she made it clear just how disgusting she found their ideas. She announced that she would be lodging complaints with ACMA, the broadcast regulator, and attempted to move a motion in the Senate condemning the vilification of asylum seekers.

Senator Sarah-Hanson Young

Senator Sarah-Hanson Young

Now, you might think that a motion like this would be a godsend for the government. Here’s a chance for them to get stuck into the Opposition, to paint them as completely heartless, and make even their own inhumane treatment of asylum seekers look better by comparison. Best of all, they didn’t have to bring it to the chamber. But no.

The major parties once more showed that – all evidence to the contrary – they are capable of bipartisanship – when it comes to silencing the Greens. The government joined the Opposition, and refused to allow standing orders to be suspended so that Hanson-Young could move her motion. They didn’t even allow the motion a full debate.

Later, one Coalition Senator in an Estimates Committee commented to Greens Senator Richard di Natale, ‘I suppose your colleague feels better now she’s had her say’. It was a blatant pat on the head to Hanson-Young, who frequently attracts criticism for being an outspoken, young woman.

So we’re left with this; a call for asylum seekers, who’ve committed no crime and are not even under suspicion of unlawful activity, to be treated worse than convicted sex offenders. Yes, worse.

You see, under Australian law, you can’t tell people if you know someone is on the Sex Offenders Register. Not even if that person is being asked to babysit your friend’s children. You can’t go door-to-door in a neighbourhood and tell everyone that a sex offender is moving in down the street. There’s no Megan’s Law here. But if Morrison had his way, innocent people would be subject to far harsher reporting conditions and invasion of privacy than those who commit sexual offences. Men, women, and even children.

All on the basis of one arrest. No confession. No verdict.

* * * * *

As if that’s not bad enough, New South Wales state politics took a sharp lurch to the far right of the Tea Party when Christian Democrat MP Fred Nile introduced a private member’s bill that would allow charges to manslaughter to be brought if the actions of another person caused a baby to die in utero, or be stillborn. It’s called ‘Zoe’s Law’ (Zoe was the name given to a NSW woman’s unborn baby who was stillborn after a car accident), and Nile claims it’s purely about protecting a baby from a third party – say, an abusive partner or a mugger. It’s not about abortion, he says: ‘This bill provides an exemption for medical procedures, which is the terminology for a termination or abortion’.

There’s just one problem with Nile’s claims. There’s nothing in the bill to prevent the pregnant woman from being charged. Nor is there any specification in the bill to say when a foetus becomes a ‘baby’. A woman who goes horse-riding and miscarries at 8 weeks could be charged. A drug-addicted woman who is in rehab, but even sober, cannot carry the child to term. A woman who falls asleep at the wheel. A woman on antidepressants or other medications that are necessary for survival, but which can pose a danger to a foetus. A woman on chemotherapy.

All of these women could be charged under the proposed ‘Zoe’s Law’. For all Nile dresses it up as some kind of compassionate protection for the vulnerable, this is no different to the tactics used by anti-abortion, anti-contraception, anti-choice groups in the US. There, a woman can be locked up in some states until she has her baby, and refused medication. It’s not a big step from charging a woman with manslaughter after the death of a foetus and deciding that preventative action is a ‘better’ option. It’s all hearts and flowers and cuddly babies.

And let’s just ignore the fact that this law would see women’s rights are abrogated to a completely unacceptable extent.

So, friends and neighbours, this is the double barrel we’re looking down. A Federal Coalition that – let’s face it – has a damned good chance of forming the next government. A notoriously conservative State government that, all too often, gratefully accepts Nile’s vote.

And a desire to criminalise the innocent in the name of ‘protecting’ Australians.

We’re supposed to be a society that enshrines the presumption of innocence. We’re supposed to protect the right to privacy and the right to live our lives. And we shouldn’t let flowery words and protestations of ‘compassion’ distract us from what’s at the heart of these proposals – racism, fear, and social control.


Seeking Asylum: The Punishment that Fits No Crime

October 22, 2012

Things are looking up for the government. The first study on the effect of carbon pricing indicates a related fall in carbon emissions, without the stupendous price hikes predicted by the Opposition. Australia comfortably won the vote to gain a temporary seat on the United Nations Security Council, despite Opposition pessimism, doubt, and what looked suspiciously like sour grapes. Prime Minister Gillard’s numbers are up, and the government has even started to fight back in two-party preferred polls.

Yes, things are pretty rosy – and you know what happens next, don’t you?

The Opposition shift the ground. There’s always another issue on which they can fall back. This time, it’s asylum seekers – again. Specifically, the Coalition decided to take aim at the government’s part-adoption of the Pacific Solution, detaining asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Island.

The Greens don’t want anyone on Nauru (or in mandatory detention at all, for that matter) – but are low on specifics as to how to implement their preferred ‘regional approach’. The government won’t tell us exactly how their ‘no advantage’ system is supposed to work – that is, how long asylum seekers on average would have to wait to be processed and granted refugee status. We’ve got some vague statements about making sure that those who come on boats don’t manage to get ahead of people ‘in the queue’ in refugee camps – never mind that the ‘queue’ simply doesn’t exist – but no numbers whatsoever.

Surprisingly, the one party who are giving us details is the Coalition. And those numbers are, frankly, horrifying.

Opposition Immigration spokesperson Scott Morrison announced that, under a Coalition government, asylum seekers should expect to be detained on Nauru for a minimum of five years. In what looked remarkably like a game of ‘Dare-You-Double-Dare-You’, he suggested the government adopt the same position, while Immigration Minister Chris Bowen countered by urging the Coalition to get on board the Malaysia solution. As usual, neither side wants to give an inch.

But let’s look at the Coalition’s proposal a bit more closely. Five years minimum mandatory detention. By anyone’s standards, that’s a long time to be stuck on an island with no idea whether you will eventually receive some certainty for your future. Add to that the fact that these are effectively stateless people, confined to sub-standard camps with poor facilities in a landscape devastated by phosphate mining, and sweltering in temperatures of over 30 degrees Celsius with very high humidity. Then take into account the fact that they can’t leave. They can’t decide to go for a walk, see a movie, have a picnic, or go shopping for a treat.

Looks a lot like a prison, doesn’t it? Of course, prisoners have an allowance, which they are allowed to spend. Asylum seekers simply cannot receive any form of financial assistance until they are out of detention – when they can apply for help from the Asylum Seeker Assistance Scheme. Generally, too, it’s a fairly straightforward process to visit a prisoner – you don’t need to find money for an international flight and visa, have a current passport, and jump through the bureaucratic hoops needed to gain permission to enter the detention centre.

While we’re on the subject of comparing prisons and asylum seeker detention centres, let’s look at that number again – at least five years. How does that stack up to sentences given to convicted prisoners?

According to a 2011 report prepared by the Sentencing Council of Victoria, of 228 people who received a custodial sentence for the crime of rape,
over 80% were sentenced to less than six years
. Half of those were eligible for parole in under four years.

Less than four years. Those who commit rape, a crime which our society regards as one of the worst outrages that can be inflicted on a human being, are imprisoned for roughly the same time it takes to complete a university degree – or hold two Federal elections. Under the Coalition’s plan, asylum seekers would be detained for at least a year longer.

Why such a long detention period? What have asylum seekers done, to warrant such strict conditions?

The short answer is: NOTHING.

Seeking asylum is not illegal. Despite the oft-repeated assertions of Morrison and his Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, people are absolutely entitled to seek asylum in Australia – and we have an obligation to process them, if not re-settle them in our country. We are, after all, signatories to Refugee Conventions. By referring to them as illegal, however, the Coalition plants the idea that something shifty is going on here.

It goes further. The Coalition suggests such people may not be ‘real’ refugees. Often they arrive without identification – what have they got to hide? They pay huge amounts (around US$4000) to people smugglers – why are they trying to get ahead of all those (real) refugees waiting patiently in camps around the world? If they’ve got money, why don’t they just leave normally? Any attempt to bring even a little factual evidence – or even logic – into the discussion is met with blustering rhetoric and accusations of being ‘soft on border protection’.

And make no mistake – Abbott knows exactly what he is doing. He knows that the official term used for boat-borne asylum seekers is ‘Irregular Maritime Arrivals’. He knows they’re not doing anything wrong by trying to get here. He knows that detaining people for long periods on remote islands, preferably ones that are not even part of Australia, tends to fade from the headlines if there are no faces to go with the protestations of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre. If he plays the waiting game long enough, there will only be a few voices speaking up against a xenophobic attitude that he has done nothing to counter, and everything to encourage.

It’s really no surprise, then, that the Coalition should be now insisting on what can only be called an entirely punitive sentence for people who have committed no crime, circumvented no process, and are simply trying to save themselves and their families. It’s business as usual – demonise the victims, while claiming to ‘protect’ them from evil people smugglers and risky boat voyages.

Oh, and that five years? Is the low end of what the Coalition thinks is appropriate for mandatory detention. Morrison gave no figures for the maximum time an asylum seeker could be detained. Given that even twelve months’ detention on Nauru under the Pacific Solution resulted in adverse mental health outcomes that afflict refugees to this day, the prospect of five, six, or even more years smacks of outright, deliberate cruelty.

Lest we let the government off scot-free, however, it’s worth repeating: the Coalition have given us a minimum number. The government have given us nothing. We have no idea how long the government would be happy to keep someone in detention, other than some vague mutterings about being equivalent to the ‘average’ time taken to process someone in a camp in our region. As the UNHCR pointed out, though, it’s impossible to even establish an average time. It’s a meaningless concept – and since there is evidence of people in camps waiting for ten years or more, that ‘no advantage’ test starts to take on truly horrifying possibilities. The government seems to think that if one person suffers terrible hardship and interminable delays in having their refugee claim processed, then it’s acceptable for others to undergo the same ordeal. So sorry, but you understand how it is – we have to be fair, after all.

It’s not ‘fair’. It’s coldly, calculatedly inhumane. Whether it’s the government’s ‘we’re-not-telling’ or Morrison’s ‘five-years-and-counting’ solution, the treatment of asylum seekers has gone way past a race to the bottom. The major parties know that this issue can be manipulated in an election campaign, and are only too eager to play to the xenophobic strain that seems to run right through Australian society (with the help of certain areas of the media) if it will gain them votes.

Now, maybe I’m doing Prime Minister Gillard and Abbott a disservice. Maybe they do care about the welfare of asylum seekers, and the way they deal with them is sacrificing personal feelings for the long-term gain of the ‘top job’.

That only makes it worse.

Whichever way the next election goes, asylum seekers lose. They will be packed off, out of sight, to Nauru (or Manus Island, or Malaysia), and treated like prisoners of war who have no idea who is winning, or if it will ever end. Sadly, this is the best outcome – because even if the boats don’t stop coming, and the current strategy proves to be an utter failure, neither party is likely to retreat from a hard-line stance. They’d lose far too much face, and give their opposition a great deal of ammunition. The alternative is to become even more punitive, more harsh – and given the appalling state of affairs that exists now, that possibility is terrible. Human lives would become less than pawns.

And we would all be culpable.


Paging Doctor Entsch – a new week of political shenanigans

March 19, 2012

It’s the start of a new Parliamentary week, we haven’t reached Question Time yet, and already the shenanigans are in full swing.

First, the hapless member for Dobell, Craig Thomson, was in the headlines again. Last week, Thomson was taken to hospital suffering abdominal pains. Initial reports said it was appendicitis, but that was not confirmed and tests would be carried out. He was released from hospital, but given a medical certificate for the week as he would be unable to take part in Parliamentary business – including votes.

You can see where this is going, can’t you?

Ordinarily, an MP who was ill would automatically be granted a pair. In fact, as Malcolm Farr pointed out today, no less than three Opposition MPs needed to take extended sick leave within the last year, and were readily granted pairs. None of them had medical certificates, nor were they asked to provide them. Which is all very civilised, and only to be expected.

Or so you would think.

Opposition Whip Warren Entsch announced this morning that Thomson would be granted a pair – but only for one day. The medical certificate was ‘vague’, he said, listing only ‘abdominal pain’ as the reason for absence. ‘It could just be constipation,’ he said. Manager of Opposition Business Christopher Pyne backed him up. It was ‘suspicious’. A more detailed certificate was clearly required before further pairs could be granted.

Paging Doctors Entsch and Pyne … oh wait, you’re not medical doctors?

It’s outrageous behaviour. Not only is it unprecedented to disallow a pair for an ill MP, to question the validity of that person’s medical certificate suggests that the Opposition regard Thomson’s doctor as either untrustworthy enough to falsify a diagnosis or too incompetent to make a correct one. Either way, it is an insult.

Doctors deliberately give vague reasons on medical certificates – most often, the stated reason for absence is ‘a medical condition’. This is to protect patients’ privacy, something that is taken very seriously here in Australia.

Oh … unless you happen to be a woman, have had an abortion, and had your records fall into Tony Abbott’s hands.

After that unpleasant beginning to the day, politics descended into pure farce.

We started off with Tony Abbott, holding forth on Queensland’s state Wild Rivers legislation. These laws limit development along certain river systems in northern Qld, to protect their environmental status. Abbott seeks to overturn that legislation via a private member’s bill. As might be imagined, that bill has run into its fair share of obstacles, not least being its blatant intent to abrogate state’s rights. It has gone to committee after committee, all of which have recommended further investigation and amendment – including those on which sit Opposition MPs. Undeterred, Abbott attempted today to bring the bill on for debate (and presumably a vote) before Parliament rises at the end of this week.

it was an extraordinary performance. With metaphorical hand clasped firmly on heart, his voice choked with emotion and perhaps even a teary gleam in his eyes, Abbott launched into a passionate appeal to ‘decency’ and ‘honour’. Someone must stand up for the indigenous people of Cape York, he cried! They are being strangled with ‘Green Tape’ (yes, you read that right, green tape, how terribly witty) when all they want to do is live their lives as they have always done!

How could the government allow this to happen to such good people, these ‘caretakers of the land since time immemorial’? And yes, that’s a quote. Does the government believe that the indigenous people are incapable of taking care of their land? How could they think such a thing? Surely these people had the right to use their lands for more than just ‘spiritual ownership’?

To say there was more than a whiff of the ‘noble savage’ argument about Abbott’s speech is wildly understate the case. This is the man who not two months ago argued that the Tent Embassy was probably ‘no longer relevant’ to today’s issues. The same man who argued the night before the Apology to the Stolen Generations against saying ‘sorry’ under any circumstances. And yet there he was this morning, extolling the virtues of the ‘wise’ and ‘respected’ indigenous peoples.

Of course, it’s possible Abbott had a change of heart. But sadly, no. This is no more than a continuation of a bun-fight that’s been going on for around a year now. The Cape York indigenous communities are split on the question of the Wild Rivers laws. Some, like the Carpentaria Land Council, have no problem with them. Others – notably, lawyer and economic and social development advocate Noel Pearson – see the laws as restricting the right of indigenous peoples to utilise their lands without government interference.

And who does Abbott count among one of his close friends? Mr Pearson.

It’s not the first time Abbott has attempted to make Pearson’s views stand as somehow representative of a united, homogeneous community. They’re not, and Independent MP Rob Oakeshott has called him on it before. Sadly, that doesn’t seem to stop Abbott trying, no matter how ineffectual his efforts are – or much it shows up his hypocrisy where indigenous peoples are concerned.

After that, we were treated to the spectacle of Shadow Immigration Spokesperson Scott Morrison trying to get standing orders suspended to bring on an immediate enquiry. It seemed to have something to do with Customs, and Glock handguns, and possibly Australia Post – although it was difficult to tell, given the speed at which he rattled out the wording of his motion. Unfortunately for him, he forgot to read the House’s procedures closely, and his motion was disallowed.

Undaunted, he tried it on again a little later, and we were treated to one of the nastier strategies available to the government. Within 30 seconds of Morrison rising, Leader of Government Business Anthony Albanese popped up to move a gag motion. Unsurprisingly, that one succeeded – the Independents have shown themselves to be notoriously impatient with attempts to hijack the House’s business. Having gagged Morrison, Albanese went on to gag Justice, Customs and Border Protection Shadow Michael Keenan – and with that, the motion was dead in the water and could not go on to a vote.

A disgruntled Coalition exited the Chamber, but not without a parting shot courtesy Bronwyn Bishop, Shadow Spokesperson for Ageing. She stopped by the Speaker’s chair and pointing an accusing finger at him, saying clearly, ‘Something will have to be done about this. It will not be tolerated’.

Frankly, if I’d been in Slipper’s chair at that point, I’d have named Bishop there and then. It’s bad enough to see the disrespect shown the position of Speaker during Question Time – to have a member effectively threaten the Speaker should be absolutely unacceptable.

It’s been a full morning – and we’re only just now getting to Question Time. I dread to think what’s coming up.

Any bets on how long until Abbott tries to suspend standing orders for a censure – the 49th since this Parliament was convened – today?

UPDATE:

It wasn’t Abbott who called for the suspension – it was Doctor Pyne, MD. Who, in concert with Deputy Opposition Leader Julie Bishop, took advantage of Thomson’s absence to engage in the kind of backstabbing we tell our children is utterly unacceptable. Bishop – as ridiculous as it sounds – even went so far as to suggest that Thomson, and the Health Services Union, was somehow connected to the Mafia.

All this aimed at a man who was not there to defend himself, who suffers from an illness that may very well be exacerbated – if not caused – by stress, who has been convinced of no crime and at worst faces an investigation.

Where I come from, we call that cowardice.


Daily Tele asylum seeker story is just rabble-rousing

February 17, 2012

Just when you think you’ve seen it all.

In a week where Deputy Opposition Leader Julie Bishop trivialised fear and suffering, Four Corners embarrassed itself with possibly the worst beat-up yet screened on the so-called ‘Labor leadership tensions’ and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott repeatedly ascribed apparent powers of time travel to the not-yet-implemented carbon pricing scheme, it was something of a relief when Parliament rose yesterday.

But then there was this.

In what might be charitably described as the most revolting and prejudicial piece of muckraking journalism since Scott Morrison was invited to complain about the injustice of letting refugees attend funerals on Christmas Island, today’s Daily Telegraph tried to whip up its readers into a frenzy of envy and righteous indignation. Its target? Asylum seekers. Specifically, the amount of money being spent on readying homes for community detention and helping families set up a new life in Australia.

The headline was a bit of a give-away, really. The article, written by Gemma Jones, was worse – thinly-veiled racist sentiment disguised as appeals for a ‘fair go’ for our celebrated ‘working families’.

You see, these asylum seekers are getting a big ol’ hand-out. They get places to live, beds to sleep in, medical treatment, and even food. It’s … it’s … outrageous! We’re doing it hard right now, on our $180,000 a year incomes, and soon we’ll have to pay for our own health insurance! Not to mention the evil ‘carbon tax’! No wonder there’s an armada of boats on our horizon!

Mike Stuchbery took on the racism in brilliant, scathing style, exposing the truly ugly face that lies behind the fake concern for ‘fairness’. I cannot recommend his article highly enough – but maybe have a soothing cup of tea to hand. You’ll need it.

I wanted to take a closer look at the claims made in the Telegraph, though. So here’s a reality check.

First the claims, and their nasty implications.

There are 97 homes scattered around suburban Sydney (Ashfield, Bankstown, Cabramatta, etc) that the government is in the process of setting up for community detention. The rent on these homes averages $416 a week. Phone and electricity connections will be covered.

The government’s spending around $10,000 to set up these homes, buying every from fridges to coathangers to plasma televisions.

Every family moving in will get a package of goods worth around $7100 (for a family of five). That package includes a hamper containing milk, bread, butter, cleaning products and ‘essentials’ (air quotes courtesy the Tele. If they’ve got more kids, they’ll get more money. And if they have a baby, they’ll get a $750 pack of basic supplies.

Along with all that luxury, detainees may ask to have certain other items considered: bikes, rollerblades, computers, internet access, iPods, etc.

On top of everything, they get a benefit, free medical, dental and pharmaceutical treatment, and free education.

All of which is paid for by you, the working taxpayer. You’re helping these people live high on the hog so they can kick back and watch DVDs while you struggle to put food on the table.

And now, a little reality.

The median house rental price in Bankstown as of July 2011 was $440. In Cabramatta this month, it’s $400. These houses do not belong to the detainees. The government holds the leases.

Let’s get to the ‘luxuries’. The Tele helpfully furnished us with a list, so I’ve done a bit of research on the government’s apparent extravagance, looking for mid-range items without bulk or commercial discounts. White goods mentioned in the article were sourced from the Good Guys. Furniture was source from Fantastic Furniture. And then I compared these costs with my own home. For the record, we’re a family of four earning approximately 50% above the average national wage.

A mid-range, 8 kg washing machine was $807. Ours cost us $1400.

A microwave oven was $207. It’s been a while, but it was around the same price for us.

A DVD player (or in this case, a DVD/HDD player/record) was $188). We don’t have one of these anymore – we upgraded to using a computer media centre.

A reasonably sized side-by-side refrigerator/freezer was was $1874. That’s about what we paid.

The article listed an alarm clock radio. I had to go to Harvey Norman to find that one – for a whopping $27. In fact, this is exactly the same model I bought for my kids last Christmas.

As for the plasma television, I had to look high and low to find a price on a television this size. Eventually I found this one for $369. It’s worth pointing out that if you’re reading this blog on a desktop computer, your monitor is probably the same size as this ‘luxury’. Our own TV is around 42 inches, and cost us nearly $1000 when we got it on sale.

And you can’t buy an old-style, CRT television for love nor money these days.

And now for the furniture, which the Tele helpfully tells us includes mattresses, lounges, coathangers and ‘containers for biscuits. I assumed that the government didn’t actually expect detainees to sleep on the floor, and included bed frames, drawers, coffee tables, and the usual accessories.

The most expensive queen bedroom package at Fantastic Furniture costs $1499; a comparable single bedroom package is $769). By contrast, my last mattress cost nearly $2000 and the bed frame $1000. So, even before factoring in the two bedside tables ($300 each) and the tallboy ($800), that’s twice the price.

I don’t really need to go into detail about my kids’ loft beds and mattresses, do I?

Moving into the living areas, the most expensive ‘home starter’ package costs $4999).

Now, we just bought a new lounge suite. It was an exciting moment in our house, since we haven’t had a new one since … well, ever. It cost us $2500. Add to that an entertainment unit, coffee table, side tables, dining table and chairs … you see where this is going, right?

Moving on to the heights of absurdity … we buy our coat hangers from Coles, and it usually costs us $12-15 for a box of 20 wooden ones. A biscuit container can cost anything from $10.00 for Decor plastic ware, to over $100 for specialist earthenware from a big-name brand. I’m guessing the government isn’t springing for Waterford Crystal.

Then there’s the welfare. As Immigration Minister Chris Bowen points out, asylum seekers are not permitted to work while their claims are processed. Some support is necessary, and this is on a par with pensions. Asylum seekers often arrive with untreated medical conditions, some quite serious. Is the Tele really suggesting they not receive care?

And let’s not forget the ‘welcome hamper’, which the Tele seems to think contains the rough equivalent of a magnum of Moet, pate de foie gras and caviar. The hamper actually contains the very basics of setting up a home, for goodness’ sake. We give more to our kids when they move out for the first time! I did visit Coles Online to source some prices – but honestly, it’s not worth it. The claim that giving people these items is in some way a terrible thing is just not worth dignifying with that much work. Ditto the baby supplies.

But hold up a second: none of that matters, because here’s the real kicker.

Almost all of the costs cited by the Tele are for the initial establishment of rental homes that will be used by multiple families. These people will be in community detention. They will have to move out when their claims are processed. Quoting Bowen, again: ‘People do not keep the goods, they remain in a house when a family moves out and are used by the next people who move in.’

And the rest of the costs? Are the least we can do. Is the Tele honestly suggesting that we shouldn’t pay for basic set-up supplies for people who arrive on our shores with nothing more than the clothes on their backs? That we shouldn’t buy nappies for babies?

The article is beyond misleading. It is vicious rabble-rousing guaranteed to stir up fear and resentment against some of the most vulnerable people in the country. A little basic fact-checking shows that this is not a case of wasteful government spending, pork-barrelling or any other type of mismanagement or corruption. Did no one think to do this? Or did they just decide that the sensation value outweighed any petty concerns like facts?

What sickens me is the creeping suspicion that this is exactly what the Daily Telegraph did. That they made the cynical, reprehensible decision to publish this article because they knew it would appeal to the most mean-spirited impulses in Australian people. And therefore make them money from sales and advertising.

And if the cries to ‘stop the boats’ get louder? If the already inhumane treatment of the majority of detainees becomes worse as a result of politicians grabbing for votes? If a few more asylum seekers are spat on in the streets, subjected to racist bullying and outright violence from those who feel they’re ‘getting it easy’?

That’s not the Tele’s problem, is it? They just print the news. And if something bad comes of anything they produce? That’ll be a good story. Of course, it won’t be their fault.

Well, here’s some breaking news for you, News Limited. You are not printing news. You’re making it up. You are not producing good journalism. You’re pandering to the lowest impulses in human nature. You are not informing the public. You’re taking advantage of people’s trust in news services (and yes, people do still trust the mainstream media, goodness knows why) to lie to them and encourage them to adopt a xenophobic mob mentality.

You’re a disgrace to news production. Gemma Jones is a disgrace to her profession. And every sub-editor, fact-checker or proof-reader who let that article go through is complicit.

And you won’t get away with it for much longer, if there’s any justice left in the world.


The evil of the Malaysian solution

June 3, 2011

WARNING: This article contains graphic descriptions of torture and links to videos containing graphic violence.

The Gillard government’s proposed deal with Malaysia to get rid of its asylum seeker problem just goes from bad to worse. It’s not sealed yet – and may never be, as Shadow Immigration Spokesperson Scott Morrison keeps insisting – but it looks a lot more likely than the East Timor processing centre idea ever did.

Bad enough that the government intends to dump 800 of its asylum seekers into a country that has not signed the UN Convention on Refugees – a country over which we have no possible influence (unlike Nauru, which is effectively dependent on our money just to survive).

Bad enough that the government wants to take five times as many people back – people who’ve already been processed in Malaysia and found to be refugees.

Bad enough, the ridiculous argument that this deal would ‘remove the product’ for people smugglers to peddle.

But now documents have surfaced that show some of the wheeling and dealing taking place away from public scrutiny. What those documents show is just how much the government is willing to entertain – and it’s appalling.

Gillard maintained absolutely that Australia would determine who was sent overseas, and who would be accepted in return. She said repeatedly in Parliament that Malaysia did not have any kind of veto in that respect.

Yet this is exactly what Malaysia wants – the right to pick and choose who they want to offload on us, while ensuring they get the best possible deal.

Then there’s the matter of children. One of Labor’s biggest sticks for beating the former Howard government over the head was the dreadful prospect of children ‘behind razor wire’. There’s no doubt that particular image did a lot to turn people away from the kind of open-ended detention policies that former Prime Minister Rudd vowed to abolish. And then there was the announcement in October last year that children in detention would be re-settled in the community and given help from social services.

But lo and behold, the government now refuses to guarantee that children won’t be sent to Malaysia. Unaccompanied children. To do otherwise would ‘send the wrong message’ to the people smugglers, and suddenly we’d see even more children turning up on boats without relatives, apparently.

Right. Because the idea that children will be processed exactly the same as they currently are will immediately cause people smugglers to go out and advertise.

This is nothing but punitive – and it will do nothing to deter parents whose choices are to risk their kids being one of 800 sent to Malaysia, or risk their kids being killed by staying where they are. All it achieves is to frighten already desperate people, and put them through yet more trauma.

Finally – and most disgustingly – the documents reveal that Malaysia wants to excise two words from the proposed deal. Just two words – that’s all. How much of a difference could that make? And just what are those words, anyway?

Human. Rights.

Yes. Malaysia, apparently, doesn’t want to be troubled by such pesky notions. They’re not signatories to any Conventions – so why should they be bound by any other agreement? They’ve got a good system going there. They can detain people for up to 60 days without charge or representation. They allow refugees to be in the community – but won’t allow them to work legally or protect them from exploitation and abuse. They turn a blind eye to police brutality.

And they can cane people – even tourists – for such serious crimes as drinking beer in public. Technically, only men can be caned, but it’s a custom more honoured in the breach than the observance.

Amnesty International calls caning a form of torture. We’re not talking about a whack across the butt with a ruler in the Principal’s office, either. Caning is carried out in a prison yard with multiple witnesses present.

The victim is naked except for an apron tied around the waist that exposes the buttocks. They are tied to an A-frame and the strokes – up to 24 with a length of rattan of varying thicknesses (depending on the severity of the crime) – are administered at full force. The official administering the caning must ensure that the tip hits the victim’s body – increasing the pain.

The initial stroke raises a welt. Typically, the skin splits and bleeds as subsequent blows land on the same area. The victim may convulse or shake uncontrollably, cry out and break down emotionally. Officials wearing gloves and surgical masks flank the victim, sometimes lacing their fingers behind his head to hold him closer to the A-frame.

Horrifically, those same officials may pat the victim’s head while the abuse is taking place. Perhaps they think they’re being kind.

The entire sentence must be carried out in one session – unless the victim passes out or suffers some other kind of medical crisis from the pain and shock.

But it’s not all bad – they do take the victim to the prison hospital afterwards.

This is the system Malaysia seeks to preserve. This is the system into which the government is committed to sending people already traumatised by war or persecution. People exploited, beggared and sometimes enslaved by despicable opportunists. People who risk their lives to escape to a better place.

This is the system into which our government is prepared to send children who may not even have a parent to shelter behind.

Sustainable Population Minister Tony Burke backed up Immigration Minister Chris Bowen in the media. It’s only a preliminary document, they insisted. It’s not the actual deal. There are lots of issues to work through.

But it’s what they didn’t say that made their performance utterly contemptible.

They didn’t say that children would be protected.

And they didn’t say that ensuring the preservation of human rights would be a deal-breaker.

The implications are disturbing, to say the least. That the government is prepared to even consider such revolting provisions shows just how far they are willing to go to grab back a few votes and appear ‘tough on asylum seekers’. It shows that they believe building up their image is more important than the safety, well-being and quality of life of the most vulnerable people.

There’s a word for this behaviour when it happens in the schoolyard. It’s called bullying.

Yes, Prime Minister – you are a bully. Your Immigration Minister is a bully. Your Population Minister is a bully. And every member of your party that doesn’t outright condemn you and fight to stop this terrible deal is guilty of hiding behind a bully rather than doing something to stop you.

What Howard did with the Pacific Solution was horrible, and his government should always be rightly condemned. He, too, was a bully.

But what Gillard proposes is far, far worse. In fact, it’s simply evil.

Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young was asked today why she wasn’t out there marching in the streets leading people in protest against this deal.

It’s a good question. Australians were traumatised by seeing evidence of the unbelievable cruelty meted out to cattle in Indonesian slaughterhouses. They mobilised – and now we have enquiries, bans in place, bills to ban live export of cattle entirely, and any number of other measures are beginning.

Are we going to have to see a young teenaged boy tied up to a post and caned until he cries, bleeds and faints before we’ll do the same for asylum seekers?

Are we going to have to show many more videos like this one?

What will it take?


A symphony of dogwhistling

February 17, 2011

Australian Federal politics hit a new low this week.

On February 15, funerals were held for victims of the Christmas Island shipwreck on December 15 last year. The media were right there to show us the terrible grief of the relatives, some of whom were detainees flown down to Sydney by the government. One was an eight-year-old boy who lost his entire family; only his father’s body was recovered to be laid to rest. It’s difficult to see how anyone viewing the footage, or seeing the pictures of a devastated woman wailing uncontrollably, could fail to be moved – and indeed, most of the commentary was entirely sympathetic.

And then there was Shadow Immigration spokesperson Scott Morrison. In a radio interview with Chris Smith on 2GB, he made it clear that he completely opposed the government’s decision to use public funds to fly the relatives down for the funerals, provide them with accommodation and then return them to Christmas Island.

He played the ‘waste’ card: ‘its only one of a litany of cost blowouts’.

He played the ‘lost control of the borders’ card: ‘as long as they will not stop the boats then these costs – whether its motels, or this incident, whether its excursions, whether it’s all the things that are taking place – none of that stops.’

He played the ‘community concerns’ card: ‘I think people would be, rightly from what they’ve heard, angry about this’.

And finished off with the ‘fairness’ card: ‘if people wanted to attend the funeral from Sydney, for example, who may have been relatives of those who wanted these funeral services, well, they could have held the service on Christmas Island and like any other Australian, who would have wanted to go to the funeral of someone close to them, they would have paid for themselves to get on a plane and go there.’

At every turn he was encouraged by Smith, who encouraged Morrison to ‘go hard’ to find out just how much taxpayer money was spent. In fact, Smith went even further, pointing out that no flood victim had been buried at public expense. Here, Morrison balked, but only for a moment. Together, they displayed an incredible amount of insensitivity and shameless exploitation of others’ tragedy.

The outcry was immediate from all sides. Yet the Coalition backed Morrison up. Fiona Nash said it was ‘entirely inappropriate’ to spend the money. Opposition Leader Tony Abbott refused to criticise, even going so far as to say Morrison had a point. Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey didn’t toe the party line, and even he didn’t directly address Morrison’s comments, saying only, ‘I would never seek to deny a parent or a child from saying goodbye to their relative’.

Even that mild criticism drew fire from within Coalition ranks, however. In an extraordinary attack, an anonymous ‘senior Liberal staffer’ charged that Morrison was only stating Coalition party policy, and that Hockey was guilty of manipulating the tragedy and grandstanding. The article went on to call for him to be sacked.

That’s right. Hockey, by saying that he would show compassion for bereaved relatives, committed an unforgivable act that should cost him his job. Morrison was entirely right to say it was a ‘waste’, and to insinuate some kind of special treatment that was denied to ordinary Australians.

Only Judith Troeth and Russell Broadbent – both of whom have frequently spoken out urging compassion and fair treatment for asylum seekers – actually distanced themselves from Morrison.

Eventually Morrison conceded that he might have erred – but not in the substance of his comments. He said nothing about his insensitivity, his shameless dogwhistling or his exploitation of a terrible situation. No, it was his timing that was at fault. This mealy-mouthed excuse for an apology was praised by Abbott as showing ‘a lot of guts’. And, lest anyone think there was an actual backdown happening, Abbott went on to say how important a ‘tough border protection’ policy was, even if they ‘went a little bit too far’.

A little bit?

That was just the start of a veritable symphony of dogwhistling this week. Senator Gary Humphries got his solo next, tabling a petition to Parliament calling for a moratorium on Muslim immigration and to give priorities to Christians. He hastened to assure us that he didn’t support the ideas in the petition: ‘Many muslims are my friends and I hope they’ll remain my friends’, he said. But he had an ‘obligation to fulfil or place before the Parliament points of view of citizens’.

Seems entirely reasonable, doesn’t it? It’s not that Humphries wanted to do it – why, some of his best friends are Muslims – but he just didn’t have a choice. After all, it’s important to make sure community concerns are brought to Parliament.

The petition was signed by three people.

That’s right. Three people are apparently enough to ensure that their views are brought to the attention of our highest elected representatives. What a wonderful democracy we live in, where even the tiniest of groups have such champions.

But it’s interesting how often this exact same petition, apparently the work of the Christian Democrats, seems to crop up – 48 times to date since 2007, according to the Canberra Times, by representatives from all sides of politics. Nor is it even the first time Humphries has tabled it.

Apparently Humphries thinks these three people have such an urgent and representative community concern that it warrants multiple submissions. And he has the backing of his leader.

The Coalition would have us believe they are just letting the voices of the community be heard, even if they don’t agree with the sentiments.

It begs the question – are the Coalition seriously suggesting that they table every petition they receive? When was the last time they tabled a petition calling for something they didn’t at least tacitly support? Let’s take same-sex marriage. There are dozens of petitions out there calling for marriage equality – yet a quick perusal of petitions presented to the House show that Coalition MPs (including Morrison) tabled only those opposing the idea.

So I suggest an experiment. Do exactly as the Christian Democrats have – get up a petition with three signatures. Call for the immediate release from detention of asylum seekers who are unaccompanied minors, either to extended family or fostering in the community. Send the petition to 35 MPs across the spectrum of Parliament. And see how many actually bother to table it.

The dogwhistling didn’t end with Humphries. Morrison got to make an encore performance, courtesy a suspiciously convenient leak to the Sydney Morning Herald. According to the unnamed source, at a Shadow Cabinet meeting last year, Morrison apparently urged his colleagues to ‘capitalise’ on anti-Muslim sentiments in some areas of the Australian community, particularly the ‘failure’ of Muslim immigrants to ‘integrate’. Apparently this drew sharp criticism from Foreign Affairs Shadow Julie Bishop and former Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock, who pointed out Coalition immigration policy was ‘non-discriminatory’. Ruddock, it seems, was particularly vocal.

Philip Ruddock. The man who oversaw the shameful conduct of Australia over the Tampa crisis.

Other attendees at that meeting agreed there was anti-Muslim sentiment, but thought it could be ‘misconstrued’ if they actively campaigned against Muslim immigration.

On the face of things, this looks like someone in the Coalition took advantage of the current situation to metaphorically hang Morrison out to dry. But then there’s Steve Ciobo’s comments on AM Agenda this morning. While he wouldn’t comment directly on the alleged leak – pointing out only that he wasn’t there so couldn’t say if it was true, he was more than happy to wax lyrical on the general question of immigration – and this is where the dogwhistles became deafening.

It was almost possible to play ‘dogwhistle bingo’ with what he said.

The Coalition are ‘listening to the voices of the community’.

There are ‘community’ concerns about migrants who apparently don’t want to ‘integrate’.

‘The Australian people’ have a genuine concern that people who come to our culture, which is ‘quintessentially Australian’, should ‘embrace Australian values’.

We have to remember that Tamil Tigers – terrorists who are known to target innocent civilians – came in ‘illegally’ on boats. And Labor made it easy for them to do it.

Well that’s my scorecard filled up.

At no time did Ciobo distance himself from Morrison’s alleged comments to Shadow Cabinet. Oh, he didn’t come right out and say he agreed, but then he didn’t have to, did he?

The ‘leak’ is convenient. It allows the Coalition to insulate the leadership and be seen to repudiate the most extreme statements against asylum seekers – and Muslims in particular – while clearly signalling their affirmation of the general idea. Morrison is a perfect mouthpiece for this; he’s already in trouble this week over his comments about the funerals, and is well-known for his hardline stance against boat-borne asylum seekers.

The fact that there’s no condemnation of Morrison is telling, as is the fact that so far, the only people to speak on the matter have been those who claim they ‘weren’t there’. Shadow Environment spokesperson, Greg Hunt, made the by-now familiar statement that the Coalition is all about fairness and equal treatment – but went on to say he endorsed the Coalition’s suggestion that government funding be cut to ‘Islamic’ schools in Indonesia. Why? Community concerns. ‘I think you’ll find that lots of people have very strong views,’ he said.

Interesting that the Coalition only seems interested in listening to those that are anti-Islamic and anti-asylum seeker.

This week’s events come on the heels of a slew of xenophobic comments from the Coalition. Kevin Andrews – the man responsible for the shameful treatment of Dr Mohammed Haneefwarning about the danger of ‘enclaves’ of Muslims who refuse to ‘properly’ disperse into the community, and force us to eat halal meat and we don’t even know it. Senator Mitch Fifield suggested Australia would become a nation of ‘parallel societies’ where sharia law reigned in some areas. Senator Cory Bernardi – the man who called for a ban on burqas because ‘criminals’ might use them to disguise their identities – thundered about the looming disaster of a ‘cultural divide’, and urged us all to do something ‘before it’s too late’.

‘I, for one, don’t want to eat meat butchered in the name of an ideology that is mired in sixth century brutality and is anathema to my own values,’ he said.

It’s worth noting that none of these comments received any criticism from the Coalition leadership.

Unbelievably, Fifield also went on to caution us against the danger of ‘rising ethnic hatred’ – which could be prevented, he suggested, by making sure that ‘everyone’ signed up to ‘mainstream values’. Presumably, these are the same values to which Ciobo referred.

And just what are these values?

According to Ciobo, they are: respect for the rule of law, tolerance, and equal respect for men and women.

Yes, you read that right.

Excuse me, I’m just going to check on the neighbour’s dog. I think her ears may be bleeding right now.

This is indefensible. It’s xenophobia of the most despicable kind – an inflammatory mix of lies, fear-mongering and appeal to the idea that someone else might be getting a better deal. As for the unmitigated gall of suggesting that immigrants are all basically bigoted, sexist criminals …

There have been calls for Scott Morrison to be sacked. But really, what’s the point? He’s just saying what most of the Coalition apparently believe (with the notable, and commendable, exceptions of Troeth and Broadbent).

If the Coalition claim otherwise, they should be pursued until they either completely repudiate the sentiments or admit that. This shouldn’t be allowed to die with the news cycle.

And they could do worse than actually practise their own avowed set of ‘Australian values’.

UPDATE: The article calling for Hockey to be sacked has been taken down from the Menzies House site. The editor claims this is because readers objected to the fact that it was published anonymously. And just who were these ‘readers’? According to Michelle Grattan, it seems that one of them was Cory Bernardi. Curious, that. It should be noted, however, that the original article was attributed to a ‘senior adviser to a shadow Minister’, and that the site had agreed to their request to remain anonymous.

Perhaps a copy exists out there, somewhere. In the meantime, thanks to @Andy_Downunda for finding most of the text quoted in the Ozpolitic Forum, about halfway down the page.


Tragedy at Christmas Island

December 15, 2010

This morning a boat from Indonesia, carrying perhaps 70 or 80 asylum seekers reportedly from Iraq and Iran, crashed into the cliffs near Flying Fish Cove on Christmas Island. At the time of writing, it’s not known how many have survived. Acting Prime Minister Wayne Swan confirmed ‘some rescues’ this afternoon, but the full extent of the tragedy is still unfolding.

Footage and pictures from the are shows how the boat broke up in the heavy seas until only debris was left. Christmas Island residents, standing helplessly on the cliffs above, described how they tried to throw lifejackets to the people in the water, only to have them flung back by the high winds. One woman broke down as she told Sky News how she heard screaming, and saw babies children falling into the water. A man who went out on the rocks to try to pull people to safety said he could see people being flung against the rocks by the waves.

The pictures don’t begin to encompass the horror that took place today – and it’s not over yet. Some critically injured people were airlifted to hospitals – but how many of those who survived lost loved ones?

I can’t help but think of the SIEV X disaster, back in 2001. Around 146 children, 142 women and 65 men lost their lives when a dreadfully overcrowded boat sank in international waters. These people, like those in the current situation, were heading for Australia to seek asylum.

Unlike today’s events, though, those deaths happened far away from any cameras. In fact, it was three days before Australia learned of a ‘certain maritime incident’.

Their deaths became the subject of a Senate Select Committee enquiry. They also became political capital in a Federal election that delivered John Howard’s Coalition a decisive victory. The question inevitably arises: just how will this terrible incident be exploited?

Swan stonewalled most media questions that dealt with the wider issue of asylum seeker policy. ‘The rescue is ongoing,’ he said, over and over. ‘The priority … is the rescue.’ Gillard, who was on leave, has cut short her holiday to return to Canberra.

The Coalition’s current spokesperson on Immigration, Scott Morrison, was remarkably circumspect in his comments. He confined himself to saying only that ‘worst fears’ had been realised, in his media conference this afternoon. He also stressed repeatedly that now wasn’t the time to discuss policy. Deputy Opposition Leader Julie Bishop was likewise very careful to avoid making political comments.

A generous interpretation of their behaviour would say that they are showing respect for the situation. A cynical one would point to how dangerous it is to politicise a tragedy before a decent interval has elapsed. For whatever reason, our politicians are currently keeping the focus firmly on the incident.

Much of the media are likewise treading carefully. Comment on asylum seeker policy has been largely restricted to fairly neutral recaps of the history of asylum seeker landings in Australia.

Would that columnists like Andrew Bolt could show a similar level of respect. This afternoon’s blog, entitled ‘Blood on their hands’ is a real piece of work. In Bolt’s mind, apparently, he was a voice crying in the wilderness for at least a year. ‘I told Julia people would die!’ is his refrain. He points his journalistic finger, trembling with indignation, at the Labor government and commands Gillard to resign. After all, these people were ‘lured to their doom by her laws’.

He also finds it necessary to point out that Gillard previously interrupted her holiday to appear with Oprah Winfrey in Melbourne. The implication is clear: she has time to deal with trivia, but it’s doubtful whether she’ll front up and take her lumps for this.

Of course, he prefaces all these remarks with a handy-dandy little graph to show everyone just how terrible Labor’s asylum seeker policy really is – helpfully adorned with a big yellow dot to mark the point when former Prime Minister John Howard instituted the Pacific Solution. Just in case his readers didn’t realise that this was all about denouncing the Labor government.

It’s disgusting. Actually, well beyond disgusting. This isn’t just politicising a tragedy – this is wallowing with morbid glee in death and trauma. Bolt’s one concession to the human beings at the centre of all this is to use the words ‘ghastly tragedy’. Everything else is schadenfreude and exploitation.

Of course, Bolt isn’t the only one quick to shove their heads in front of a camera or a computer in order to join in the political fray. Jonathan Green at The Drum chronicled some of the rush to judgment by both bloggers and commenters.

For once, our politicians are behaving better than those they represent.

Sadly, it’s pretty much guaranteed that this won’t last. All too soon we’ll see the pollies going head to head. The Opposition will probably give us a softer version of Bolt’s rhetoric – and it’s perhaps a blessing that Parliament won’t sit again until February, so we won’t get the full-blown hyperbolic rantings that usually characterise this debate. The government will defend its policies, perhaps conceding to a Senate enquiry that is likely to conclude – as with SIEV X – that there was little Australia could have done to save this latest boat. Of course, if the polls show the Opposition gaining traction, we might see new, ‘tougher’ policy – which would undoubtedly bring the Greens and the Independents into the arena.

All of that is inevitable. As much as we’d like to wish otherwise – that the debate can be sane, rational and above all compassionate – there’s little chance we’ll get more than each party’s message. If we’re very lucky, we might hear Andrew Wilkie deliver a stinging rebuke to both major parties – not that they’ll be listening.

We can shrug and say that’s the nature of politics. And in a way, it is. But it’s my hope – and, I believe, the hope of many Australians – that politicians would keep at the forefront of their minds the fact that many, many people died today in terrifying circumstances. That they listen to the stories of the survivors, and those who risked their own lives to save them. That they know the names of the dead and never forget them.

And above all, that they realise that they have no right – none – to exploit their deaths to make a political point.

Are you listening, Andrew Bolt?

I didn’t think so.


High Court win for asylum seekers

November 11, 2010

The Full Bench of the High Court handed down a unanimous decision today that has the potential to completely change how boat-borne asylum seekers have their claims processed. In this landmark ruling, the Court found that two Sri Lankan asylum seekers were denied ‘procedural fairness’, because – being incarcerated on Christmas Island – they had no access to the Australian court system.

See, that’s something not many people know, and no one talks about. If you walk off a plane and claim asylum, you are released into the community, assessed by the Refugee Review Tribunal, and have access to Australian courts to appeal an unfavourable ruling. If you come via boat, you get a ‘review’ process. That process looks like a court, but is not bound by Australian law. If the bureaucrats in charge of that deny your claim, your only hope is to pray that the Immigration Minister considers your case personally. Otherwise, you’ll be deported.

This is the ‘compassionate’ system put in place by the Howard government on Christmas Island and Nauru, and continued by the Rudd and Gillard governments even after the closure of the Nauru centre. In one of the most shameless and inhumane pieces of legislation passed by the Howard Government, Christmas Island, Ashmore Reef and other destinations commonly sought by asylum seekers were ‘excised’ from Australian jurisdiction under the Immigration Act. This made it possible to deny full access to Australian law, in much the same way the US prevented suspected ‘terrorists’ from seeking legal redress in the courts. Although the Rudd government introduced an Independent Merits Review Process in 2008 so that those whose claims were denied once could appeal, the reality is that outside contractors hold the fate of asylum seekers in their hands – contractors who are not required to have any experience in immigration law, and who are accountable only to the Minister.

The High Court found today that this system is completely unfair, that it denies the rights of boat-borne asylum seekers the right to a fair hearing under Australian law. It ruled that all asylum seekers were bound by the Migration Act and other Australian laws, regardless of their mode of travel. This means that the government now derives no benefit from funnelling asylum seekers through offshore processing – they can no longer do an end run around the law. As law firm Allens Arthur Robinson, the legal firm who handled the case on behalf of the Refugee and Immigration Legal Centre noted, the decision ‘has important legal ramifications’.

Scott Morrison, the Coalition’s Shadow Immigration spokesperson, seems not to understand this. Shaking his head in disbelief, he fronted the media to tell them that this was a ‘terrible’ decision, ‘the best day for people smugglers since the reappointment of the Gillard government’. This was ‘proof’ of Labor’s ‘policy failure of cack-handedness’, he said, and added that the government should now embrace the Nauru solution. The High Court’s ruling did not apply to Nauru, he said. I’d like to think this was some kind of political strategy, but in reality, I think he just doesn’t get it. Whether asylum seekers come to Tullamarine Airport, Christmas Island, or Nauru, if they claim asylum from Australia they must now have access to the Australian court system.

Immigration Minister Chris Bowen said he was getting legal advice from the Solicitor-General, and would make recommendations to Cabinet within a few weeks. He seemed keen to create the impression that the ruling did not affect the policy of offshore detention, or the excision of Australian territories from the Migration Act. To say he looked like he didn’t believe that himself is an understatement. He was extremely nervous, and not just because David Marr was standing behind his shoulder looking like the Ghost of Righteous Fury Vindicated. (Read the excellent Dark Victory, which he co-wrote with Marian Wilkinson, if you haven’t yet heard his views on Australia’s refugee policy.) At this time, 145 people have been denied refugee status. That’s a potential 145 appeals.

Unless the government moves to introduce some particularly dodgy legislation, the implications of this High Court decision are far-reaching. It may not end offshore detention – there are certain political benefits, disgusting as that may be, to having refugees ‘out of sight and out of mind’. The recent xenophobic rabble-rousing over the proposed new centres at Northam and Inverbrackie prove that unpleasant point. At the very least, however, boat-borne asylum seekers should now have access to the court system, and would no longer be subject to the whims of the bureaucracy.

The Refugee and Immigration Legal Centre, who were the main drivers of this High Court case, have not said whether they plan further legal action. It would be interesting to see whether the High Court would rule that incarcerating those who come on boats, while letting those who arrive by plane walk around freely, was an illegal two-tier system. Certainly, there are no good reasons for assuming that a sea-borne refugee is a greater threat to the community.

In the meantime, no matter what parliamentarians might be saying to the media, there is no getting away from the fact that this decision could change how Australia handles refugee claims – and change it for the better.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,880 other followers

%d bloggers like this: