Thursday, 12 February 2015

Gillian Triggs Episode 2

Sometimes the pleasure I get from being right is far outweighed by the pain of wishing I had been wrong.  This is one of these times.

About a month ago I suggested that the media and government assault on Human Rights Commissioner Gillian Triggs over an obscure immigration case was merely a preliminary skirmish before the release of the Commission's report into children in detention.  I'm deeply sorry to have been proved right.


On February 11 the government tabled the Commission's report, The Forgotten Children, which it has been sitting on since November while it engaged in its initial softening up process.  I've only had time so far to read the summary and skim the rest, but it is not pretty reading.

Over an eight month period, teams of Commission staff and assistants, including experts in child health, interviewed over 1,000 children and family members in eleven Australian immigration detention centres.  The Commission also received a couple of hundred formal submissions and held public hearings.

Its purpose was not to determine if the indefinite detention of children was a breach of human rights.  The Commission has consistently held this to be the case for the past 25 years, even though neither side of politics is listening.  Rather, their intention was to investigate the effects of immigration detention on children's wellbeing.

The findings are as predictable as they are depressing.  Detention is extremely harmful to children.  Children in detention suffer high rates of mental illness (often severe), high rates of self-harm, poor general health and are frequently the victims of assault.  Children detained on Christmas Island were denied any access to education for 12 months, and a number of children born in detention are stateless.

None of this serves any useful purpose.  Both the former Labor Immigration Minister Chris Bowen and his Liberal successor Scott Morrison testified that detaining children does not have any deterrent effect on asylum seekers or people smugglers.

This problem is easily solved.  The children - and their families of course - should be allowed to live in the community while their applications for protection are assessed.  Easy to do, doesn't harm anybody, even saves money.

But I have long since given up expecting sensible policy from either side of politics on this question.  Instead Tony Abbott has gone on the attack.  The report is partisan, he says - why did it not take place when Labor was governing?  Ms Triggs ought to be ashamed of herself.  She ought to be congratulating Scott Morrison for his astonishing human rights achievements.  And in any case there are now fewer children in detention than there used to be so this is not an issue any more.

Lets slow down and take these one at a time.

1. The report is not partisan.  It is quite clear that children were detained under both governments, and the period it examines straddles the most recent election, interviewing families detained during both Bowen's and Morrison's tenures.  Both ministers were grilled in public hearings.  Neither came out smelling of roses.  However, the Commission does point out that while both governments detained children (and in fact the Labor Government detained more) the periods of detention have become considerably longer since the Coalition took office and it is only on their watch that children have been detained indefinitely.

2. Ms Triggs has nothing to be ashamed of.  She is doing her job as Human Rights Commissioner, examining the actions of the Australian Government and its agencies and identifying human rights abuses.  The government should be ashamed of itself for knowingly and indeed stridently perpetrating and defending such abuses.

3. Scott Morrison does not deserve any congratulation for "stopping the boats" or for reducing the numbers of children in detention.  For a start, it is not at all clear that the boats have stopped.  Only that they have stopped landing in Australia, and this was achieved by the simple and brutal means of intercepting them and either forcing them to turn around or detaining their occupants at sea and then taking them back to where they came from.   Has any refugee's life been improved by this proceeding?  It seems unlikely.  Have there been any improvements in Australian community life as a result of having fewer asylum seekers reach our shores?  There is no evidence of this.  Meanwhile, people (including children) are being traumatised by the steadily increasing level of inhumanity of our detention regime.

4.  There are indeed fewer children in detention but they are there for much longer and in much harsher conditions.  Part way through the inquiry Morrison made the decision to release all children under 10 who had been detained prior to July 2013.  Perhaps we can thank the inquiry for this strategic reduction in numbers.  Even if we can thank Morrison, it is a very partial measure.  There are still over 300 children in immigration detention and the average length of detention has risen to more than a year.  There should be none.

What's is missing from all this bluster from Abbott is any attempt to actually respond to the issue.  Not a single thing he has said so far even attempts to refute the report's findings.  By his silence he is effectively admitting that they are correct.  Instead of addressing these findings (which would require a change in policy) he has resorted to character assassination and blaming his opponents.

I guess in a sense Ms Triggs is fortunate that she is doing her job in Australia.  In countries with worse human rights records than Australia (and there are still many although fewer than there used to be) someone who highlighted official abuses in this way would be imprisoned on trumped-up charges, or murdered in the night by an anonymous death squad.  Triggs will only be subject to vilification and character assassination.  It just serves as a reminder that standing up to the powerful is never easy, even in a country that is supposed to be democratic.

Meanwhile, it seems that those children still in detention have little to hope for from our government.  The Prime Minister's belligerence is both shocking and frightening.  He implicitly accepts that his government's policies directly harm children, and is determined to keep doing it.  He is even proud of it.

After he nearly lost his leadership, Abbot promised that "good government starts now".  Still waiting.

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