The asylum seeker issue is never far from the headlines. And that has proven to be the case so early in the new year. Parliament has not even returned, and the full complement of political players have not resumed regular hostilities, yet refugee policy has again been raised in the media. On Friday we had Malcolm Fraser chastising both the government and the opposition over their treatment and demonisation of asylum seekers in an interview. And today we learned that the political opposition in Papua New Guinea launched a legal challenge on Friday to the immigration detention facility recently re-opened by the Australian Government on Manus Island.
There have been multiple challenges to elements of asylum seeker policy and practice over the last few years in Australia. But this is the first challenge launched overseas. The appeal was launched by Opposition Leader Belden Namah in the National Court and seeks to have the Australian immigration facility overturned on the grounds that it is unconstitutional.
In bringing this case, Mr Namah wants the imprisonment of asylum seekers on the island to permanently cease. While the case is being heard the leader of the opposition has also sought a temporary cessation of the transfer of asylum seekers to the Manus Island detention centre.
The PNG Opposition Leader has spoken out about the immigration facility before. He has made the point that asylum seekers have not broken any laws and as such, should not be imprisoned in the Manus Island complex. And so it follows that Mr Namah has brought this challenge because he believes the processing centre deprives asylum seekers of their personal liberties.
On this point, regardless of the legal outcome in the context of the legal system in Papua New Guinea, he is absolutely correct. Being detained and imprisoned for something that is not a criminal offence does deprive asylum seekers of their liberty. Such an act of unwarranted cruelty is in no way justifiable, especially when used as a political weapon by government.
Whether or not the challenge in a legal sense is successful is a completely different story and frankly irrelevant. Asylum seekers have been sent to Manus Island before, under the former Howard Government. This was not subject to a legal challenge from anyone in PNG so there is nothing to compare the present situation to.
And opinions on the merits of the case appear divided, though it must be noted that the probability of success appears more than even, with the Constitution of Papua New Guinea having a list of rights enshrined within it.
The government of Papua New Guinea has however said that the centre is being run within the laws of the country and that of international treaties. The former might be correct in terms of the asylum seeker issue and it may not be, but the latter most certainly is not.
But we know of course that the debate over the detention of asylum seekers involves more than just the deprivation of liberty and the breach of international law.
Detaining asylum seekers can both exacerbate pre-existing mental illnesses and create new ones. Why would we want to be known to endorse a practice which results in diminishing the welfare of already vulnerable people?
Unfortunately there is an answer to that question and it is a disgraceful one: fear. For some reason there is an underlying fear of difference for which some trace the genesis back to the White Australia Policy. With the right checks and balances undertaken in a sensible manner by authorities, we have nothing to fear from people trying to seek asylum in Australia.
There simply is no valid reason for Australia to continue to embark upon such a barbaric course of action in trying to tackle a policy concern which, despite that barbarity, is still and will continue to be an issue.
A date has not yet been set for the hearing of this case. But we do not need a court case to tell us what we already know, and that is that people being held in immigration detention are being deprived of their liberty, whatever the courts may say.
It’s a rare day in the Australian political discourse when asylum seekers in one way or another are not mentioned. Sometimes it’s to do with where or how to detain them or whether they should actually be detained in the first place. Sometimes it’s about whether the policy of the day is said to be “working”. Most of the time, unfortunately, the discussion is not about how locking them up is cruel and effectively criminalises seeking asylum which, newsflash, is not a crime.
Asylum seekers are again in detention on offshore locations. Nauru was re-established a matter of weeks ago and Manus Island in Papua New Guinea has just taken its first detainees, nineteen of them. The expert panel headed by former Chief of the Australian Defence Force saw to that, effectively making offshore processing the only option.
Over 7,500 asylum seekers have arrived in Australia since the government agreed to implement the recommendations of the Houston panel back in August. The immigration detention system is under huge stress and that includes both the domestic facilities and the offshore centres on Nauru and in Papua New Guinea.
Domestically, the government will re-open the Pontville immigration detention facility in Tasmania to try and cope with the influx of asylum seekers.
In this lies the first inkling of the smallest of silver linings. More asylum seekers than expected will be processed onshore and less out of sight, out of mind than if increasing offshore processing was the only way to go. It is always a lot easier to get access to information about issues facing asylum seekers onshore than it is for those on Nauru and Manus Island, so far away from Australia.
However, that is as far as the positive goes in relation to onshore processing of refugee claims. It is still cruel and degrading to lock up asylum seekers, no matter where they are.
They will and have harmed themselves both onshore and offshore. Trauma does not discriminate between Australian and overseas processing centres. All immigration detention locations are hotbeds for either creating or accelerating mental health issues that are costly to both diagnose and treat.
The second positive out of the massive numbers of people seeking asylum is that it has now led to the Gillard Government, through Immigration Minister Chris Bowen, announcing that some asylum seekers will be moved into the community for processing.
This is a big win for a small number of asylum seekers. They will enjoy what most refugee advocates have been calling for and that is relative freedom.
Community detention means less prospect of mental health issues as a result of being locked up for a crime that does not exist, though of course, many may already, through what they have been through, have trauma based disorders.
However, the plus side is that any pre-existing conditions will not be exacerbated by cruelty, nor will new mental health issues be created for those being processed in the general community.
Who knows, if processing the claims of asylum seekers in the community works well it might actually be expanded, but do not hold your breath. The only likely reason for either side of politics increasing the use of community detention is not because it will work well and be much safer to the health of asylum seekers, but because there are simply no more places to put asylum seekers behind bars.
Many might also say that there’s a silver lining in the failure of the politics of being cruel to be kind and that can only be a good thing. The trouble is, both sides of politics will be too pig-headed to realise that and change their ways on this issue.
Perhaps now our politicians might realise that there is a lot more to asylum seeker policy than domestic actions.
The scenario is too difficult to ever resolve fully, but we really need to try. To try requires stronger regional and international co-operation. Unfortunately, that too will be lost on many politicians.
Everyone grab your HAZMAT suits, batten down the hatches, go out an purchase earplugs or earmuffs. Yes, after a month and a half break that institution we call Question Time returns to our television screens and radios on Tuesday. The winter break has flown by and as promised by our politicians, there has been little let-up in the political to-and-fro with the carbon tax and asylum seeker issues dominating the debate during the winter recess.
That seems the way that things will play out in Canberra this week during Question Time with carbon tax and asylum seeker politics set t0 be responsible for most of the noise during Questions Without Notice.
Power prices have been the debate over the last week with both the federal government picking a fight with the states over power bills which also brought in the federal Opposition with varying contributions from different MP’s to the debate, but the main ones being tied back to the carbon price.
It’s hard to see that electricity prices as they relate to the carbon tax will not be the major political battleground this week from the Coalition. The Abbott-led Opposition have dug in on this issue and will likely continue to prosecute the case of electricity related to the carbon price.
It’s also just as likely that, failing an electricity price specific attack on the Gillard Government related to the carbon tax, that other price rises associated with the price on carbon will form the basis of Coalition questions to the government.
The Labor Party too, through the use of the Dorothy Dixer will likely continue to try and hammer home the message of compensation for the price on carbon which commenced just weeks ago.
The Opposition, fresh from a fairly wide victory over immediate asylum seeker policy recommendations will likely turn up the heat on the Prime Minister and her government over the issue with the recommendations arguing the need to establish processing on Nauru and in Papua New Guinea as soon as possible.
The government will likely be fairly silent on the issue having been told by the expert panel on asylum seekers that their deal with Malaysia requires further work, so questions from the government benches on policy in this area will probably be scarce, perhaps non-existent.
The only major opportunity the government would have taken to get on the offensive over this policy area would be if the Opposition were going to oppose the legislation to be introduced into the parliament during the Tuesday sitting.
It will be interesting to see just how fired up both sides of parliament are after such a long break and whether or not this leads to the Speaker sending out one or two MP’s for an early coffee and cake.
Rest assured it won’t be such a quiet affair.
The hostilities in the battle that is Australian politics have ceased for the week as our politicians rest and recuperate for the last sitting week until the May budget begins next week. It was a frantic week in Australian politics with plenty of vigorous and often over the top debate. Parliament this week welcomed (well mostly), Senator Bob Carr, the new Gillard Government Minister for Foreign Affairs, a former NSW Premier and more recently private citizen who brought some public commentary baggage to the role and created controversy with comments this week on Papua New Guinea. Our politicians, particularly Coalition, ALP and the Greens were engaged in fierce debate over tax cuts to big and small business related to the Minerals Resource Rent Tax (MRRT) before the Senate. There was also debate over the appointment of a new Future Fund chairperson and for a time, debate on customs and border protection.
Sadly, Saturday saw the passing of Margaret Whitlam, wife of former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam at the age of 92 not long after a fall which saw her hospitalised. Gough and Margaret Whitlam shared an enduring partnership, a testament to their undying love for each other which lasted almost 70 years.
Parliament House in Canberra saw the arrival of a person who Labor seem to be resting an amount of their hopes on, Senator and new Foreign Minister, Bob Carr. The Senator sat on the back-bench for his first day of parliament after being officially welcomed as a member of the Senate on the first sitting day of the week. Later that day Senator Carr was sworn in by the Governor-General, Quentin Bryce as a minister and member of the Executive Council.
It didn’t take long for the newly sworn minister to create controversy with comments threatening to impose sanctions on the PNG Government if their political woes are not resolved. This quickly drew rebuke from the government in Papua New Guinea and just as swiftly led to a political backdown of sorts with the Senator saying his comments were taken out of context.
The Minerals Resource Rent Tax, or MRRT for short again took a central role in the political debate of the nation, a part that it has played since the Gillard Government re-negotiated and re-framed. The MRRT, before the Senate has caused the Greens and the Coalition, according to the Labor Party at least agree that higher taxes for big business are the go, even though the Coalition have clearly stated that they oppose the tax and therefore the tax cuts associated with the package. The tax will go to a Senate vote next week.
The Future Fund has received a big focus this week through the Gillard Government selection for the role, businessman and recent education review chief David Gonski getting the gong. A government nomination for a public board is usually a political appointment so there is nothing new from this angle on the appointment of Mr Gonski.
What is different though about this is the utterly shambolic process entered into by the government and the fact that the ALP Government did not listen to the recommendation of the board. David Gonski was appointed to search for a replacement to the outgoing head of the Future Fund and to consult with other members of the board for their thoughts. The board wanted current member, Peter Costello, the former Treasurer and creator of the fund and the government then went ahead this week and announced that the man who was to search for the replacement, Mr Gonski himself would be appointed to the role, ruffling feathers.
Customs and border security earned a place in Question Time and political debate in Canberra this week and in the NSW Parliament after an Australia Post licensee in the Sydney suburb of Sylvania Waters was charged with importing and selling 150 Glock firearms since August 23 last year police allege. Both Opposition Leader Tony Abbott and NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell linked this crime to customs and border security.
Parliament returns again next week for the final sitting week before the budget is handed down by Treasurer Wayne Swan in May and looks set to continue to be a fiery affair. The Minerals Resource Rent Tax will face a vote this coming week in the Senate and looks set to be the focus of most debate in both chambers for the week and undoubtedly outside of the parliament. The Fair Work Investigation into Craig Thomson will surely share some of the focus at least as fair as the Coalition strategy goes. The only question remaining is what unknown issues will take up the remaining attention of our parliamentarians as they race toward the major fiscal announcement in May?
New Senator for New South Wales and Foreign Minister designate has used his first trip overseas to visit our long term ally in the far reaches of Earth, New Zealand. The incoming Minister for Foreign Affairs headed there this week to meet with parliamentary colleagues while he finds his feet in the crucial role.
But is it smart for our new Foreign Minister to visit New Zealand ahead of all other nations in the region, some of whom we share a strong or growing relationship with and others with whom we have struggled in recent years, think Fiji and Papua New Guinea, the latter with their own political strife in recent times.
Nobody doubts the importance of New Zealand to our defence interests in particular with our southern partners across the Tasman being a long-time ally, particularly since the ANZUS Treaty was signed, but harking as far back as when the ANZAC legend was born on the shores of Gallipoli.
New Zealand are our strongest friends but also the most stable of nations in our immediate international region and a growing trade partner with whom we share a great history in realms other than defence relations. This is precisely why the wisdom of New Zealand being the first port of call for Bob Carr above all other neighbours in our dynamic Asia-Pacific region.
There are multiple countries in our immediate vicinity where our diplomacy is required for reasons including political stability, security and action on people smugglers and asylum seekers.
Think most recently of Papua New Guinea, a country where in recent months and years there has been some very serious political instability at the very top tier of government, with former Prime Minister Sir Michael Somare at loggerheads with the parliament and his own party, aspects of the police and the military and even senior officials of the judiciary.
Thankfully there has not been a successful coup in the country over the power struggle, although a temporary “mini coup” of sorts by a small part of the security forces in one part of the country shows that the country is far from stable, even if tensions have been suppressed since that moment.
Fiji is another country requiring some serious attention from the Australian Government, even though this has been made all the more difficult by the expulsion of the acting Australian High Commissioner to Fiji.
The coup where Fijian Commodore Frank Bainimarama was just one in a serious of military overthrows of democratic government in the country over the last twenty plus years and has led to freedom of speech being completely overrun with foreign-owned media expelled, making it harder for reporting of human rights violations.
There are positive signs with consultations on a new Fijian Constitution initiated, to be completed in 2013, but it remains to be seen whether the deeds will meet the words of another Fijian dictator.
Further, the Commodore has stated that 2014 will be the year when democratic elections will return to the small multi-island nation in our region so our work in the region, through multilateral bodies and non-government organisations will be to help ensure, albeit from a distance, that this timeline will come to fruition and be met at the earliest possible opportunity, with 2014 still being too far away.
Indonesia is another nation in the Asia-Pacific that deserves our ongoing attention at an intense level with security concerns post the Bali bombings continuing to be an issue not just for Australians travelling to the country for holidays and business, but also for a regional response to people smuggling which runs rife in the country and the broader asylum seeker issue.
A large number of Australians travel to Indonesia, particularly the capital Jakarta and Bali for both business and leisure activities each year so this requires intense diplomatic efforts in mutual security support in an attempt to make sure that our two nations do all they can to stamp out terrorism activities in the south-east Asian nation.
Australian attention is also needed with our partner Indonesia, to ensure that people smuggling is combatted at the source in Indonesia in efforts to stem the flow of boats which can lead to the drowning of asylum seekers. This can be done on a bilateral basis, but also as part of the so-called Bali Process of nations in the region. This must mean that all nations in the region sign up to the UN Refugee Convention and agree to take on their share of asylum seekers.
In the broader Asian region there are other countries which need to become more open, democratic and free, such as Malaysia and Singapore, so focusing an initial trip on peace-loving New Zealand, whilst important must not neglect those nations in our region where there is much work to be done to ensure they enjoy the freedoms that both our nations have enjoyed.