By Greg Jericho
Last week before the Joint Select Committee on Australia’s Immigration Detention Network, the Secretary of the Department of Immigration and Citizenship did something rather bold for a public servant – he suggested politicians question current policy.
How bold was Andrew Metcalfe? Here are some of the questions he posed:
How do we manage reception? By this I refer not only to the policy of mandatory detention, but refer to the broader issue of how we manage unauthorised arrivals at our border, and indeed how we manage our detention network? Does immigration detention facilitate case resolution? What range of facilities should be utilised? For how long is an immigration arrival and status determination process in a detention centre environment required? There are many questions for you, as parliamentarians, to consider.
So it was not like Metcalfe was entering the hairdressers and asking for a bit of a trim. Nope he went in, sat down and said, “I’m in the mood for something new – surprise me”.
And how did the politicians respond? Did they surprise anyone? Well that’d be a no.
Here was the Opposition Immigration spokesman, Scott Morrison:
“It is not in Australia’s interests for there to be any further confusion about the Government’s policy on asylum seekers.”
Minister for Immigration and Citizenship Chris Bowen was also quick off the mark, a spokesman saying:
“The Government’s position is clear: mandatory detention is an essential component of border control and we make no apologies for detaining unauthorised arrivals for checks of health, identity and security risks to the community.”
Whew, that’s good. No need for debate, then. Even better is that we finally found an issue on which the ALP and Liberal Party are able to display some of that old fashioned bipartisanship. Here again is Morrison:
“Mr Metcalfe last night I think simply echoed the terms of reference for this inquiry.”
And Chris Bowen? A spokesman again:
“Mr Metcalfe was clearly referring to the inquiry’s terms of reference in relation to mandatory detention.”
Ah, so we have an inquiry but we are not to answer any of the questions posed because they are not really questions – merely echoes of the terms of reference. It rather makes you wonder about the whole point of the terms of reference, given they state the committee has been “appointed to inquire into and report on:
(g) the impact, effectiveness and cost of mandatory detention and any alternatives, including community release”
If “reporting on” and “inquiring into” means automatically rejecting doing anything, it rather reduces the degree of difficulty in the whole exercise doesn’t it?
Mandatory detention was of course brought in by the Keating Government in May 1992 in response to the massive flood of asylum seekers arriving by boat in the previous year. How many are we talking about? Try six boats and 214 people.
Yep – panic stations.
The passing of the bill didn’t really do a great deal. In 1992 there were another 216 people, down to 81 in 1993 and then nicely up to 953 in 1994. You can read about it all in the Parliamentary Library’s excellent Background Note: Boat arrivals in Australia since 1976.
Now you would think that one of the Key Performance Indicators of mandatory detention would be to halt the influx of asylum seekers – it must be otherwise Scott Morrison wouldn’t suggest that changing it “can send very significant messages to the people smuggling trade”.
However, if we have a look at the four years prior to mandatory detention going full scale, 624 asylum seekers arrived by boat. In the four year period afterwards, there were 2,182.
There’s nothing like seeing a policy meet a Key Performance Indicator is there?
But hey, I know you can prove anything with statistics, so I guess when the numbers increased to 921 in 1998-99 that was just another indicator of mandatory detention doing a bang-up job of halting asylum seekers coming by boat.
I know – it’s all just part of a bigger scheme and the introduction of Temporary Protection Visas in October 1999 did the trick. So the 4,175 that came in 1999-2000 or the 4,137 that came in 2001-02 was just another great example of a policy working well.
Ahh yes, but it was the off-shore processing that did the trick I hear you say. And yes it did knock the stuffing out of the numbers – but why would anyone think it would work again? Here was Tony Abbott describing Nauru in Parliament on June 16:
“I have seen where boat people will be accommodated—and well accommodated. I have seen where boat people’s children will be educated—and well educated. I have seen the police headquarters which will deal with security issues involving boat people in Nauru. And I can tell you this, Mr Speaker: there are no rattans in Nauru and there are no whipping posts in Nauru.”
Well accommodated, well educated, secure, no whipping posts.
Yep, a real deterrent.
But “off shore processing” is not mandatory detention, and while yes the public is firmly in favour of the policy – the latest Nielsen Poll on the issue showed 64 per cent of voters were in favour of mandatory detention – to think that politicians can’t even debate the issue for fear of looking “soft” is a bizarre reaction, when you consider that detention has been pretty comprehensively shown not to be any deterrent whatsoever.
Add to this, the president of the AMA, Dr Steve Hambleton also stated:
The AMA believes that the system of mandatory detention of asylum seekers is inherently harmful to the physical and mental health of detainees. The harm is especially acute in the case of children.
Did this provoke a need for either the Labor or the Liberal Party to “inquire” into mandatory detention? Err no.
Not debating issues has become the norm for contentious issues in recent times. It is part of a tactic which plays nicely into the standard media “gotcha” type questions.
We saw this in great occurrence earlier in the year on the carbon tax. Wayne Swan was asked about petrol and the carbon tax. He responded that it was inappropriate for people to suggest anything is included or excluded from the tax, given that it was still being formulated. The headline?”
Wayne Swan refuses to rule out petrol tax in proposed carbon tax.
When it came to dealing with the “tax forum” in October, Swan was much better prepared, and was ready to rule out anything that might actually ensure the tax forum discusses anything remotely like fundamental tax reform:
Negative gearing? Hell no.
GST? What – why on earth would you discuss at a tax forum the third-biggest tax in this country after income and company tax? That would just be silly and so Swan came out straight away when announcing the forum, stating:
I’ve made it abundantly clear what the Government’s position on the GST is – we are not touching its base or its rate. If people want to talk about it at the forum they can, but the policy of the Gillard Government is not to touch the base or the rate of the GST.
So yes – you can talk about it, we just rule out doing anything.
Unfortunately for Swan the tax forum discussion paper did include a congestion tax on the agenda. And so we got on the front page of The Daily Telegraph:
Second Wave of a Tax
More levies on horizon could add to carbon woes
STILL reeling from the announcement of a carbon tax, drivers could be hit by another wave of green-induced financial pain.
A string of new taxes are on the agenda, with the federal government exploring more options to hit taxpayers where it hurts. A road congestion tax, designed to limit the use of cars on city streets.
This was despite Swan actually having already ruled it out (even ruling things out isn’t enough at times).
It is thus no surprise that politicians have become too scared to even enter into debate on an issue. Rationality is discarded even before the conversation has begun – talk of any contentious issues quickly becomes an intention to implement.
Interestingly, even sections of the media have caught this disease. When at the National Press Club in July, Julia Gillard said in response to a question about a media inquiry that she would “be happy to sit down with the parliamentarians and discuss that review that people are contemplating”. The Australian responded the next day suggesting “This is no time for PM to bow to Brown”, with Dennis Shanahan writing:
Media inquiries into convergence, ownership, market share, service delivery, public-private control, ethics and its very “role” are messy, disruptive and difficult enough to conduct in a calm atmosphere with a stable and mature government.
Ahh so they’re messy. Best not inquire then – especially when we have editorials, opinion pieces and front page stories all telling us that there is nothing to see, move on.
I guess while The Australian can write:
When bureaucrats complain about being held to account the rest of us start wondering what they have got to hide
such a sense of wonder does not apply when media organisations complain about being held to account…
And so the tactic of no debate has a strong hold over political and media discourse (or lack of it). No debate means no possibility of change – especially if such change may be unpopular for a Government, or (even worse) may lead to a conclusion the Government, or opposition, or media organisations want.
This however is not the only tactic for stopping conclusions and decision. The other is that of constant debate. And for the issue that most sees this tactic employed climate change and a price on carbon has no peer. Yes small things will be ruled out but for those opposing a carbon price, the debate must continue – for the time is not ripe, the Government needs to discuss things with the premiers, with industry, with farmers, with the electorate (or God help us with a community forum), the science is not settled, we need another election, we need to wait for America, for China, for the next UN summit.
But at some stage you need to stop talking and act.
On the weekend I read this interesting statement about pricing carbon:
By far the most efficient and effective way to spur conservation is to raise the cost of fossil fuels. Current prices fail to reflect the very real environmental costs of pumping carbon dioxide into the air. The answer is a tax on CO2 emissions – or a CO2 user fee, if that is a more palatable term. The fee need not raise a country’s overall tax burden; it could be offset by reductions in income taxes or other levies.
Now I know such a line does not seem all that interesting – after all it essentially mirrors what Julia Gillard and Greg Combet have been saying all year. What is interesting is that quote came from Time Magazine in January 1989. Twenty two years ago.
Debate is good and we need to move past the reflex fear that even discussing an issue means implementation and change. But at some point you need to call time and make a decision.
Otherwise we might as well save everyone a lot of time and rule out everything now.
Greg Jericho is an amateur blogger who spends too much of his spare time writing about politics and not enough time watching all the DVDs he buys each weekend.