Forced to do good

It is hard to comprehend how outrageous it is that a shameful political standoff on the offshore processing of asylum seekers has forced the Australian Government into a position where it has no choice other than to dump a harsh and punitive policy in favour of its own more just and humane policy.

Despite their best efforts, the Government and the Opposition have both failed to prosecute their preferred agendas. The Government painted itself into a political corner and the Opposition gave it no room to move, even at the expense of its own commitments.

To say that those of us who had long been advocating for justice, compassion and the human rights of asylum seekers were relieved and excited by the Rudd Government’s announcement in July 2008 of its ‘New Directions in Detention’ policy would be a gross understatement. The Immigration Minister at the time, Chris Evans, launched this policy in a self-congratulatory mood. The Government had ended the ‘Pacific Solution’ by closing the detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru, launched a review of the case of long-term detainees and abolished temporary protection visas, among other things. In his speech Evans said,

Labor rejects the notion that dehumanising and punishing unauthorised arrivals with long-term detention is an effective or civilised response. Desperate people are not deterred by the threat of harsh detention – they are often fleeing much worse circumstances. The Howard government’s punitive policies did much damage to those individuals detained and brought great shame on Australia.

Highlighting the devastating effects of long-term detention on vulnerable people and the “dehumanising” and unnecessarily punitive policy of indefinite mandatory detention, the Minister signalled a new era – that of “risk-based detention policies”.

A risk-based system sees people held for brief periods of time while health, security and identity checks are carried out. These can be done in most cases quite easily within thirty days. If an asylum seeker is assessed as not posing a risk, they are released into the community while their claims are processed. This is consistent with what happens in other developed countries. Indefinite mandatory detention is a system all our own. But the new Labor Government was committed, Evans said, to “reforms (that) will fundamentally change the premise underlying detention policy” – a policy that saw people detained “even though the department assessment is that they pose no risk to the community”. Detention, he said, was “too often the first option, not the last.”

An entire bookshelf could be filled with the multitude of published opinion pieces and commentaries having a stab at explaining how on earth the Gillard Government found itself in such an appalling situation with an area of public policy that they had been very clear about. They most obviously panicked – the reasons why they did have been more than adequately canvassed. My concern is to see them do the right thing.

I am so relieved that the Government is now forced to uphold its own policy. I am angry that it has come as a result of the Opposition’s appalling politicisation of asylum seekers and the Government’s inability to stand their ground in the face of it. The public debate has been shameful and ugly. It is entirely appropriate that the base politicking and the fear-mongering rhetoric have found their ultimate conclusion in a dead-end for those who have lead the charge.

How well a decent and humane policy can be implemented by those who have been forced to do it remains to be seen.