Saturday, May 28, 2011

The ABC rejects criticism of political bias and as usual purports to be purer than the driven snow, but some of us know better!

I recently complained to the ABC about an interview between Chris Uhlmann and Abbott on the 7.30 show. It had Uhlmann popping up in Alice Springs to hear Abbott sermonize on the failings of the Govt (quelle surprise). My complaint went like this:

"I have commented on this problem previously. Tonight you featured an interview between Chis Uhlmann and Abbott, who is busily constructing political wedges to further his power grabbing agenda. The PM has just completed a successful trip to North Asia, which achieved considerable advances in our relations with each of the countries visited. Rather than focus on this important visit, we were regaled with a glad handled interview with Abbott roaming around remote communities pushing his fear campaign on the carbon tax and pushing an agenda on Aboriginal welfare that is hypocritical in the extreme. It came across as a political infomercial. I'm heartily sick of this overt bias and will take my complaint to the relevant Minister if this program cannot return to a balanced approach under your charter. Uhlman has been a serial offender in this regard and Sales is lightweight. Her interview with Lindsay Tanner was an opportunity lost and merely confirmed his take on a dumbing down of our media culture and a news analysis cycle pandering to people with little grasp of public policy processes & short concentration spans. It is demeaning our democracy and treating your audience with scant respect."

I received the following reply from ABC Corporate Affairs:

"Your concerns have been investigated by Audience and Consumer Affairs, a unit which is separate to and independent of program making areas within the ABC. We have reviewed the broadcasts, assessed them against the ABC’s editorial standards and sought and considered material provided by ABC News.

7.30 reported on both the Prime Minister’s visit to Asia and Mr Abbott’s trip to the Northern Territory. Both are highly newsworthy and both were adequately covered by the program.

Having reviewed the interview with Mr Abbott, we have not been able to identify a single instance where he was “glad handled” or any sense at all that the interview amounted to an “infomercial”.

Audience and Consumer Affairs has concluded that the interview is in keeping with section 4.1 and 4.3 of the ABC Editorial Policies. The questions put to Mr Abbott were based on news value and are matters of public interest. We believe the interview was suitably rigorous and questioning and Mr Abbott was afforded ample opportunity to state his views in response."

I have replied as follows:

"As with my previous complaints this has been handled with typical bureaucratic dissembling. The fact that Uhlmann was shadowing Abbott on his outback venture was proof enough of glad handling. Last time I looked we were not in an election campaign, although it is difficult to believe with the constant fawning after this Opposition leader. It may be the fact of a minority Govt that has the media in a constant frenzy of expectation but it is demeaning our body politic.

A myth has emerged that Abbott 'cuts through' and the Govt is weak and poor at communication. I suggest this is a media construct fueled by journalists such as Uhlmann. He aggressively interrupts Labor and Green politicians but will let Abbott get away with his self-serving line of hyperbole on the carbon tax, asylum seekers and the welfare of our first citizens. Why was 7.30 trailing after one of the most mediocre intellects to strut the political stage in several decades on a trip to nowhere in public policy terms?

Believe me, I am not Robinson Crusoe when it comes to negative perceptions of the ABC's handling of the political cut and thrust. The constant airing on ABC 24 of nonsense from extreme right commentators from organizations like the IPA is evidence enough of a nod toward extremist positions on the economy and society. The IPA is a voice for powerful groups that wish to shape our body politic to serve their commercial interests and was misnamed. It should have been called the 'Institute of Private Affairs'. Why are its spokespersons treated as if they were objective journalists?

Your news boards invariably are headed by stories highlighting the Coalition's constant fear mongering on the carbon tax and asylum seekers and personal attacks on the PM and her frontbenchers. Some of your political journos on ABC24 (for example Melissa Clarke), positively drool when the Govt is attacked for some confected shortcoming. On the more enlightened political blogs the ABC is now oft referred to as 'their ABC' - this is a sad state of affairs and reflects poorly on your performance as the national broadcaster. A quick glance at the legislative record of this Parliament should dispel any notions of a poorly performing Govt. It is about time your political commentators reflected reality and not the leadership fantasies of the Opposition."

Nuff said.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Coalition calls for a parliamentary inquiry into asylum seeker detention, when what was needed was a Royal Commission into the Pacific Solution

Those with any compassion for the plight of asylum seekers will be choking on their breakfast cereals, listening to Morrison bang on about the need for a Parliamentary inquiry into asylum seekers detention.

The treatment of asylum seekers is made worse by a constant beating of a fear drum by the Coalition and a conga line of media supporters that are busy constructing another political wedge on this issue.

If Abbott is elected the Pacific Solution and TPVs will be reinstated and we will be back to square one. Christmas Island was commissioned by the Howard Govt in response to the unsustainable expense of the Pacific Solution.

Where was the media support for an inquiry into the abuses at the heart of the Pacific Solution? Where was the media (apart from some brave souls in the Fairfax media) when the appalling violations under the Pacific Solution were bringing the human rights record of this country into the gutter?

I have posted many messages on the miscasting of aid to Nauru and elsewhere under the Pacific Solution and the alarming 'somnambulism' of the Australian people as these events unfolded. I have been critical of Australia's fourth estate for largely failing to expose and condemn the Howard Govt's approach to human rights. I had hoped the profound negative implications of the Howard experiment for the health of Australia's body politic would be the subject of much reflection in the coming years.

The tawdry misuse of official aid under the Pacific Solution and the downstream implications of the strategy, which was made up on the run by bureaucrats trying to engineer good outcomes from bad motives, have not been subjected to judicial inquiry. My published condemnation of aid to Nauru as "‘an unmitigated bribe’ to ensure the Pacific Solution continued" should have been subject to inquiry.

This blog called repeatedly for a Royal Commission into the immigration policies and programs of the Howard Govt.

It was necessary for the Labor government to investigate this dark chapter. My oft repeated call for such an inquiry to shine a light into the dark recesses of the Pacific Solution pork barrel was ignored. Now the chickens are coming home to roost for Labor. They should have exposed the whole grubby affair to bright light to put to rest any credibility the Coalition would have on this subject for at least a decade, and to provide an opportunity for a sensible public debate on this sensitive area of public policy.

I proposed a Royal Commission with Terms of Reference to include, but not be limited to, an investigation of:

1. implementation of the Pacific Solution (this of course should encompass the role and use of official aid)

2. wrongful detention of refugees and permanent residents of Australia

3. operation and financing of detention facilities on the mainland and offshore

4. wrongful repatriation of asylum seekers

5. influence of political staffers and Ministers in the determination of immigration decisions

6. role of the Prime Minister's task force on 'illegal' migration

7. influence of 'understandings' and 'deals' with neighbouring countries on the management of Australia's refugee policies and programs

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Abbott to outline broad vision for Australia - gulp!

Abbott's broad vision for Australia:

1. Punish asylum seekers by sending them to fly speck, Nauru, and putting genuine refugees on TPVs to punish them some more

2. Do not put a price on carbon

3. Send welfare recipients to latter day salt mines for character building

4. Do a lot of long bike rides to avoid family and work responsibilities

5. Punish some more asylum seekers

6. Give miners, polluters and media moguls tax free status

7. Divert huge amounts of govt revenue to people on $200,000 or more per annum as gesture of solidarity

8. Divert huge amounts of annual aid budget to Nauru to keep Nauruans sweet

9. Trash regional approaches to asylum seekers as we will decide who comes here and the manner in which they come (preferably by Qantas)

10. Punish some more asylum seekers, just to keep the dog whistle in tune

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Asylum seekers in Australia - Ken Parish writing for Club Troppo - In Praise of Gillard’s Malaysia Solution

This article in Club Troppo caught my attention today. It is a well reasoned piece which strikes a chord with me:

"It’s hard to deny that the Gillard government’s emerging asylum seeker policy represents a thinly disguised reversion to Howard’s Pacific Solution, although both Gillard and Stephen Smith are giving denial a good shot. The thing is that I suspect most “punters” will neither know nor care as long as it looks tough and stops the boats (as I’m pretty sure it will after a lag as those already in the people smuggler pipeline arrive). With the noteworthy addition of the Malaysia element, Gillard’s solution looks (and is) sufficiently different from Howard’s recipe as to avoid an appearance of craven political capitulation.

The Malaysia element adds a critical dimension to the visaless asylum seeker issue that Howard’s policy conspicuously lacked. As I’ve observed previously, Howard ultimately had no choice but to grant visas to asylum seekers on Nauru who were assessed as genuine refugees, because other countries simply weren’t prepared to take them (apart from a one-off initial deal with New Zealand). Howard’s “we will decide who comes here …” statement was a hollow, meaningless threat. Indeed so desperate was Howard to disguise this fatal flaw in his policy towards the end of his term of office that he entered negotiations with the US to swap Australian refugees on Nauru for American ones interned at Guantanamo Bay. Had that deal been finalised it would have borne a close similarity with the deal Gillard has now done in principle with Malaysia, a point Tony Abbott has so far managed to avoid mentioning. However Gillard’s gambit is manifestly superior at least from a border security viewpoint. Giving US residency visas instead of Australian ones to asylum seekers found to be refugees would hardly have sent a powerful deterrent message to those contemplating signing up with the people smugglers whereas sending them to the back of the “queue” in Malaysia most certainly does. If Tony Abbott were to experience one of his increasingly infrequent moments of disarming honesty, he would admit that Gillard’s Malaysia gambit is a policy masterstroke which a Coalition government would have adopted like a shot and proudly claimed credit for had it been currently in office.

The Malaysia element is predictably being assailed from both Right and Left. Abbott is trying to gain mileage and negate any kudos for Gillard by painting the deal as a negotiating loss for Australia because we are to take 5 UNHCR-approved refugees from Malaysia for every unprocessed boat person we return to them. However the reality is that Australia will almost certainly gain a huge border security win by stopping the boats, which is what Abbott has until now professed was his aim, while taking in return just 1000 extra approved refugees from offshore each year in a total migration program of around 170,000 is just a drop in the ocean and hardly a concession at all, especially if it eventually allows Christmas Island and other onshore detention centres to be closed.

The Malaysia element is also being criticised as a desperate and expedient “one-off” solution. But that was equally true of the Pacific Solution when first propounded. By definition all such policies are expedient reactions to immediate border security crises. Moreover, one would suspect that it will prove possible in due course to negotiate an extension of the deal with Malaysia, as long as it doesn’t result in significant adverse domestic political blowback for its government or serve as an attractant for an increased flow of hopeful asylum seekers into Malaysia. No doubt those concerns account for the initial limited scope of the deal. It may even prove feasible to negotiate similar deals with countries like India and Indonesia.

Criticism from the Left has focused on the fact that Malaysia is not a signatory to the Refugee Convention and has a poor record of treatment of the 90,000 or so asylum seekers within its borders (note the contrast with the tiny numbers Australians are whinging about having to cope with). However UNHCR is cautiously welcoming of the deal and apparently regards the undertakings of “non-refouler” and humane treatment that Australia has extracted from Malaysia as appropriate. The Refugee Convention does not forbid return of asylum seekers to non-signatory nations, it forbids “refouler” of refugees to their homeland or another place where they may face persecution. What will be required here is a credible regime of oversight of Malaysia’s treatment of returnees by UNHCR and Australian authorities. As long as that occurs, objecting to returning people from whence they transited in Malaysia in favour of taking a greater number of assessed genuine refugees from there just doesn’t make much sense except perhaps to woolly-minded Greens voters. However much the asylum seeker lobby may shrilly assert to the contrary, there IS a queue in Malaysia and Indonesia, albeit a very long and uncertain one. Asylum seekers can be assessed for refugee status by UNHCR and are able to apply offshore for an Australian humanitarian visa. Why should we not choose to assist both ourselves and our poorer regional neighbours by taking more of those who choose to remain in that long, uncertain queue and less of those who take the law into their own hands to gain visa priority by subjecting their families to an extraordinarily dangerous boat voyage, and in the process place serious (if disproportionate) pressures of community resentment on Australia’s extraordinarily successful non-discriminatory migration program?

PS Incidentally, the Gillard government’s emerging policy, if successful, might even provide a plausible basis for a sustainable reshaped international burden-sharing approach to refugee policy advocated by leading refugee law experts like James Hathaway and others. In return for being relieved of the obligation to accept ad hoc visaless boat people who arrive on their shores, countries with a significant migration program like Australia would agree to accept a greater number of refugees objectively assessed to be in need of permanent protection outside their homeland, while a much wider range of wealthy nations would shoulder the financial burden of assisting poorer countries of “first asylum” to accommodate those needing only temporary protection until conditions in their homelands improved."

I have commented on this article as follows:

"Thank you for this article. It is a well balanced analysis of the realities confronting the Gillard Govt. I have lately quoted Susan Metcalfe’s article in The Age, which cites me as a source for a critique of the Pacific Solution into which I became embroiled as an AusAID official. It is by no means a solution but it is a significant advance on the scenario projected by Abbott, which will be a return to a policy that has rights violations as its centerpiece. It is vital that people smuggling is disrupted, and it is equally vital that countries within the Bali process cooperate to address smuggling and refugee processing within a regional framework. The Pacific Solution did not provide a basis for a regional approach, but was characterized by a series of fairly tacky bilateral deals."

Monday, May 09, 2011

Asylum seekers in Australia: Susan Metcalfe - Age article - "Compassion goes overboard"

Following is today's article by Susan Metcalfe, author of The Pacific Solution, published in The Age. Ms Metcalfe quotes yours truly on the handling of the Pacific Solution by the Howard Govt.:

"How does dumping asylum seekers in PNG differ from Howard's Pacific Solution?

JULIA Gillard's announcement that Australia will forcibly return asylum seekers to Malaysia, and intends to re-establish a detention centre in Papua New Guinea, shows she is willing to compromise on the protection of vulnerable people when it suits her political agenda.

Malaysia is known for its harsh treatment of refugees. And we need only look at recent history to see what can happen in PNG.

Back in 2002, two pregnant women held behind the fences of Australia's PNG detention centre became so depressed that they ''verbally expressed their desire to abort their pregnancies''. Nine years later, as the Gillard government lobbies PNG to reopen the centre, it is worth remembering why the camp was such a bad idea in the first place.

When the Lombrum naval base in PNG's Manus province last housed Australia's asylum seekers, Australian taxpayers and Australian media were denied access. But in 2002 a number of journalists snuck into the country and talked to locals who gave witness accounts of detainees trying to escape over fences, of others who had deliberately cut themselves and of one man who tried to electrocute himself.

After just a few months, the International Organisation for Migration, which ran the camp, reported a prevalence of reactive psychoses, paranoid conditions and increasingly frequent confusional states among detainees. Problems of linguistic and social isolation, along with ''feelings of insecurity towards the local population'', were suggested as possible causes. Many were suffering from ''sleep disturbances, recurrent nightmares, chronic feelings of anxiety and depression, impaired memory and concentration, fatigue and lack of energy''.

One group of detainees transferred from PNG to Nauru in late 2002 was described by a psychiatrist as a ''special group at risk in the asylum seeker community''. Their symptoms included: lost hope in the future, nightmares of being captured by security forces in Iraq or drowning, short-term memory loss, constant ruminating or worrying, feeling abandoned and degraded and questioning if they were still human.

But although their detention had been difficult in PNG, many found the conditions in Nauru even harsher. One man said: ''It was very, very hard when we got to Nauru … In Nauru some people cut themselves, tried to hang themselves, jump from trees. That was the same in PNG, people broke down fences, lots of PNG army would come and tell them to go back inside the camp.''

In early 2002 a medical officer reported ''a level of complacency'' in protecting the camp population from the deadly plasmodium falciparum malaria and warned that ''the presence of a non-immune population in a high-risk endemic area must always be considered a dangerous combination''.

The International Organisation for Migration recommended to Australia's Immigration Department that the pregnant women and infants who were unable to take preventative medication should be transferred out of the area. But records show that the first transfers from PNG took place more than three months after the request was made. Numerous cases of malaria continued to be diagnosed throughout the life of the camp. One IOM report notes the case of an eight-year-old girl with ''malaria in relapse complicated with severe [urinary tract infection]''.

In 2002, Mark Thomson, who was involved in implementing Australia's Pacific Solution aid program, was asked to search for activities that AUSaid could support ''as a way of oiling the wheels of the Manus provincial government through small community-based aid projects''. Thomson describes the approach taken by the Australian government as ''under the table and pretty tacky''. He recently wrote that his experience with the Pacific Solution was ''the most corrosive'' of his career.

Thomson believes any return to the use of political agendas to shape Australia's aid policies would be disastrous.

Julia Gillard has assured us that a centre in PNG would not represent a return to the Pacific Solution. But if reopening the previously used centre is now being discussed and development aid is being offered in return, as the PNG government says it is, exactly how does this differ from past practice and policy?

We were told that the detention centre in PNG would remain closed. That promise should be honoured."

Friday, May 06, 2011

Australia accused of misleading UN on mandatory detention and Govt allegedly reprising Pacific Solution - the ghosts of Christmasses past !

It is a bad news day when the ALP finds itself backed into such a corner that it reprises the excesses of Howard's Pacific Solution. It is reported we are also dissembling before UN bodies tasked with monitoring human rights violations, which is also out of the Howard/Downer/Ruddock game book.

I was involved in the aid component of the Pacific Solution and it was the most corrosive experience of my career. I recently commented on an article by Robert Manne, who has advocated Manus Island be revisited as an offshore detention facility, as follows:

" I was involved in the first wave of the Pacific Solution, which offered aid 'incentives' to GoPNG to re-activate the military base at Manus as a detention centre.

I visited said centre and was tasked to explore Manus Island for community based activities in health & education that AusAID could support as a way of oiling the wheels of the Provincial Govt. Aid to these areas had not been considered until the centre opened. The whole approach was under the table and pretty tacky. I was far from comfortable with the strategy.

There were other sleights of hand in terms of expenditures kept off the books of costs that were facility-related. The aging facility is by the water, with a respectable mess for support staff and visitors, with conditions for the asylum seekers marginal at best in an extremely hot & humid place.

Manus is a relatively poor province of PNG, with high levels of youth unemployment. Doubtless the centre will be refurbished and substantial resources will be applied to its operation. This in itself can cause problems with surrounding peoples who are somewhat disadvantaged."

The Manus component of the Pacific Solution was marginally better than Nauru because the PNG Government is a signatory to the Refugee Convention, but the same issues that saw East Timor reject the concept of housing a regional detention facility also apply to Manus. The detainees will be housed in tiny 'dongas' and fed in open mess facilities. The place is hot, humid and malaria prone. It is a debilitating situation behind wire - why do we insist on treating people with claims to refugee status like prisoners of war?

Monday, May 02, 2011

Amongst the dross of daily polls, mindless media stunts and gotcha moments Lyndsay Tanner nails the question - what is wrong with our political media?

Crikey reports "former Finance Minister and Labor veteran Lindsay Tanner, who left politics at the last election, has written a scathing critique of modern political journalism and political practice Sideshow: Dumbing Down Democracy.

It takes aim at the Press Gallery, media companies, politicians and even voters themselves in a discussion of why the media and politicians seem caught up in a cycle of trivialization and spin."

Having bagged Bernard Keane in my last post for being a little too excitable in his critique of the ALP, here he is talking to Tanner about his book.

I have been banging on about the failings of our benighted media culture forever on this blog. Beacons of journalistic light do exist and occasionally pierce the lumpen gloom that covers the land. Commentary on asylum seekers and the carbon tax are the best examples. Abbott spruiks his fear nonsense in various outposts, honing his various wedge items, and gets glad handled at every turn by a bunch of mealy mouthed journalists who might have once had some integrity, but parked it somewhere and lost it, or are so young they never came to grips with the concept. Some brave souls in the Fairfax and public broadcasting stables tackle the issues head on, but they are drowned out by populist slogans and fear drums.

Abbott is a political shock-jock who thrives in a media landscape hungry for sound bites and cunning stunts, but is this what we need in a leader? The Rudd tactic worked for a while but his media manipulation was exposed as a cynical attempt to ride the beast, and it ultimately came unstuck. Let's hope the Abbott hoo ha is exposed well before he gets his budgie smugglers and lycra tights in the Lodge laundry basket.