It is wonderful to see the news that the federal government plans to finally scrap mandatory indefinite immigration detention and adopt the common sense (and much cheaper) approach that people should not be locked up for extended periods just because they are without a valid visa, unless there are compelling reasons to do so.
Immigration Minister Chris Evans’ speech outlining the changes is available here. It is worth reading in full. It is pleasing to see that he is developing changes in values as well as the legislation itself, and that he is doing so in conjunction with the Ombudsman and the Human Rights & Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) – a key shift from the previous government who barely bothered to hide its contempt for HREOC.
Chris Evans’ core point about the new system is that “The key determinant of the need to detain a person in an immigration detention centre will be risk to the community.” In other words, you can’t keep someone locked up unless you can show there is a good reason.
Quite rightly, this statement makes no reference to any impact on unauthorised arrivals or spurious links to ‘border protection’. That’s because mandatory indefinite detention never had any impact on such matters, despite all the misleading mythology to the contrary.
Whilst there have been some gradual improvements in recent years, the provisions for mandatory detention have remained in the law, and hundreds of people have still been in detention for a year or much longer. One should always check the detail of what the actual legislative changes will be, as will as keep an eye on how they are administered, but there is no doubt Minister Chris Evans is genuine on this.
Chris Evans actually makes a point of emphasising that Labor remains committed to mandatory detention, which might seem strange seeing he is emphasising the importance of letting people out as quickly as possible. Partly this is political – the need for Labor to protect itself against claims that it’s gone ‘soft’ on ‘border security’. If the new system is as he states, it will not be fully mandatory, in the sense that there will be a presumption towards people being released unless it can be demonstrated there is clear risk to the community in doing so. But it is true that people without a valid visa will still be subjected to being detained initially. The key difference will be the removal of the core problem, namely that that detention continued indefinitely, replaced by a new presumption towards people being free unless there is a good reason to do otherwise rather than the previous approach of people being automatically locked up as a matter of first resort.
The Department will be required to demonstrate every three months that continuing detention of a person on these grounds is justified. An important factor which is not yet clear is what sort of right people will have for review or appeal against an unfavourable decision. The lack of any accountability and scrutiny of the reasons for ongoing detention is a key reason why people ended up in detention for years and years, as well as how debacles like the Cornelia Rau incident occurred.
These changes are long overdue to a law which should never have been introduced in the first place. It was first introduced under the Labor government, and has been supported by both major parties since then. It is a classic case of politicians having too little courage, too little compassion and too little conviction to stand up for what they know is right - instead hiding behind a mechanism which they know didn’t work but which was politically beneficial.
There has never been a single shred of evidence to back up the regular assertions that detention served as a deterrent to people trying to enter Australia without a visa, whether they were claiming asylum or otherwise. All it was was a very expensive, immensely harmful mechanism for politicians to look like they were doing something about an issue and to look tough in the process. I’ve never been able to figure why it is seen as tough for powerful people to brutalise vulnerable people, but there’s no doubt that it works for some.
ELSEWHERE: Many of the comments left on the Courier-Mail’s report on this issue show there is still plenty of bigotry and determined ignorance around for any unscrupulous politicians to tap into and encourage, should they wish to. John Howard’s legacy of making it acceptable to be offensive and obnoxious clearly lives on. It also shows why Labor is still apprehensive about being politically burnt on this issue and thus are maintaining the terminiology of ‘mandatory’.
- Tim Dunlop also posts on the topic at Blogocracy.
- A piece at Webdiary.
- John Quiggin’s response.
- Paul Kidd’s view.
- Andrew Norton has an interesting post examining whether or not Australians are likely to be supportive of the new detention policy.