Despite it being a blatant lie, since 2007, successive Labor Immigration ministers have publicly declared that no children were in detention.
They hid behind the technicality that detention facilities were not actually gazetted as “detention centres”. They were “Alternative Places of Detention” or “APODs”. If you call the Leonora detention centre, staff even answer the phone with “Leonora APOD.”
But Phosphate Hill, where children and families are held on Christmas Island is a detention centre. Leonora is a detention centre. So are the misnamed Transit Accommodation Centres in Brisbane and Melbourne and the fenced off motels in Darwin and Brisbane.
So October’s announcement that Labor will release families and minors from detention was astonishingly brazen, even for the masters of spin. Labor was pushed into the announcement to head off the possibility of The Greens moving a resolution in parliament allowing them to claim credit for getting children out.
Equally astonishing is Labor’s claim that they had been in negotiations with welfare groups to arrange community-based accommodation for families since the middle of last year, but said nothing about that in an election characterised by disgraceful refugee bashing.
But tragically, despite the hype, Labor’s proposal will not actually mean that families and minors will no longer be held in detention. A look at the fine print shows that some of the families—Chris Bowen says “most”—presently in detention will be released into community-based accommodation by June 2011. That means up to another nine months detention. And like Labor’s “detention is last resort” declaration in 2008, there is no intention of enshrining the announcement in law. In reality, Labor’s announcement at best takes us back to 2005.
Decisions about which families will be released, and the conditions under which they will be released (including possible curfews, stipulation of residential address, etcetera) will rest on the Minister.
Despite the greater freedom this may allow, asylum seekers under so-called residence determinations are still in immigration detention.
What is worse is that Gillard is also moving to dramatically expand the detention regime across Australia. She announced two further detention centres: one for 1500 single men in Northam near Perth and another for 400 belonging to family groups at Inverbrackie in the Adelaide Hills.
Leonora, the motels and the new centre at Inverbrackie will continue to be detention centres for families and minors.
Curtin is being expanded and 300 asylum seekers have already filled the Scherger detention centre near Weipa in far north Queensland since the election.
Labor’s announcement has produced an ugly racist backlash in both Northam and Inverbrackie where public meetings have rejected the idea of detention centres built in their area.
The community backlash, too reminiscent of the kind of overt racism on display in the Cronulla riots of 2005, is a reflection of the racism that has been driven from the top by both Labor and Liberal.
During the election campaign, Abbott spoke directly to the racist sentiments when he declared he would “stop the boats”. Gillard talked about understanding why “hard-working Australians” do not want asylum seekers to enjoy an inside track to “special privileges” (although there aren’t any). She said Australians should be able to express their concerns about asylum seekers without being called rednecks. It was just as much a dog whistle to racist sentiment as Howard’s call for “understanding” the opinions of Pauline Hanson in the mid-90s.
Meanwhile in a disgusting development, Tony Abbott is putting the Coalition at the head of the racist backlash. Abbott has just addressed a Town Hall meeting in Inverbrackie. He met a round of cheers and applause when he announced that “the first thing we have to do is stop the boats”. He has said the Adelaide Hills detention centre is “a postcard for people smugglers”.
Small groups of people are already setting up “welcome refugee groups” in both Northam and Inverbrackie to counter the myths and stand up to the racism of the politicians. They are going to need the support of the refugee campaign across Australia. With its facts sheets, leaflets, meetings, and demonstrations, the grassroots refugee movement pushed back the racism driven by the Howard government last time around—it must do it again.
The initial response of The Greens to Labor’s announcements was to enthusiastically (although not quite uncritically) welcome Labor’s announcement.
Senator Sarah Hanson-Young’s press release congratulated Minister Bowen and declared, “This points to a maturity of the political process”. She continued, “This is broadly in line with what the Greens have been pushing for, about the need to get children, unaccompanied minors and families out of detention.”
But Bowen’s announcement does not guarantee that children will be released from detention.
To their credit, The Greens pointed out that Labor’s announcement needed to be made law to ensure that getting children out of detention did not rely solely on the “goodwill of the Minister.”
Within days The Greens announced that they would put a bill before parliament that would change the law to guarantee that children could not be detained. But the bill leaves a lot to be desired. Firstly, it would not actually end mandatory detention of minors or families. It stipulates that the Minister must make a residence determination with 12 days of arrival. But a residence determination is still a form of immigration detention.
This would leave open the possibility for the Minister to determine that families and children could be confined to the places now called APODS—Leonora, motels, or the Transit Accommodation Centres.
Secondly, the bill gives the Minister up to 30 days to determine if there is an adult who is a parent or carer who the Minister thinks is required to reside with the minor.
Thirdly, having made the determination of the relationship with the minor, the bill only says the Minister must make a residence determination for the adult to reside with the minor “as soon as practicable”.
This seems to allow for families to be separated and to give wide discretionary powers to the Minister over who will be released and when.
The bill has been further blunted by The Greens’ strategy of trying to get support for the bill from either (or both) Labor and Liberal. In fact, the first call from The Greens was for people to contact Scott Morrison to urge the Liberals to support the bill.
The focus on parliamentary manoeuvres has made The Greens’ too timid. It has diminished the possibility to push forward the political debate about the limits of Labor’s proposal and the need to end mandatory detention altogether. The opportunity of building support for proposal is weakened by the fact that the bill is limited to the terms of Labor’s announcement.
The bill could have insisted on an absolute limit on the time children can be detained and insisted on judicial review of any detention. In Sweden, a minor can be detained for 48 hours before the first review and for no longer than six days.
Confronted with the reality of actually voting for a bill that put anything about detention in law, the Liberals quickly ran a mile. Shadow Immigration Minister Scott Morrison went from proclaiming that “children out” was actually Liberal policy to declaring that children and families should be put on Nauru (as certainly happened under the Howard government). Morrison joined Abbott at Inverbrackie to stir up community opposition to asylum seekers’ families. The Liberals will never be allies in the fight to free the refugees.
It is unclear if or when The Greens’ bill will actually be put to the vote. The Greens say that there will be another bill to end mandatory detention. But a great opportunity has been missed. And it has left some confusion in its wake. The people asking if Labor’s proposal is good enough or not will not get straight answers from The Greens.
The campaign has been through this before. In 2005, the Howard government announced that children and long-term detainees would be freed from detention but the law was left unchanged. In 2008, the Labor government declared that detention was a last resort—and went right on detaining.
The campaign should settle for nothing less than the end of mandatory detention. A greater connection between The Greens and the grass roots movement could strengthen both.