Saturday, September 17, 2011

Asylum seekers in Australia - Open letter to the Prime Minister

Prime Minister, I'm one of those rusted on Labor supporters who let my membership lapse prior to the last election because of disillusionment with the drift away from core Labor values in the 'business' of politics.

Under the Howard government mandatory detention of asylum seekers evolved into a tragic farce. Australians were alarmingly sanguine about the travesty. Its worst manifestation was the Pacific Solution, which I became embroiled in as AusAID Director of the Nauru aid program. Of particular concern to me were the tawdry misuses of official aid under the Pacific Solution and the downstream implications of the strategy, which was made up on the run by bureaucrats doing their level best to engineer good outcomes from bad political motives. The perfunctory official approaches adopted toward self-harming detainees were another disturbing aspect.

As the Party responsible for the legislative framework (in particular 'mandatory detention') within which Howard evolved his refugee 'house of horrors', it is appropriate that a Labor Govt put Australia's human rights compliance at the top of the international agenda and put our domestic laws ‘house’ back in order."

Tragically, the failure to shine a light on the true mentality behind the prosecution of these earlier policies saw the ghost of the Pacific Solution and the shop of horrors that was the Howard Govt's refugee program continue to linger in the corridors of power.

As an erstwhile member of the Howard Government's task force on 'illegal' migration I am completely cognisant of the issues surrounding the Bali framework process. I am supportive of a regional approach that stops boats but does'nt breach the UN convention on treatment of refugees. Your current brinkmanship is no doubt good politics, but it fails to satisfy the requirements of a progressive charter in this area.

The mandatory detention regime opened a Pandora's box of opportunities for low rent political agendas, which politicians like Howard and Abbott have exploited ruthlessly. Labor is continually playing catch up, rather than biting the bullet by re-examining the rationale for long-term mandatory detention and changing the tenor of the whole debate.

The unedifying sight of Labor politicians jumping on the xenophobia bandwagon was one of the key reasons I left the party, as I saw defenceless people used as betting chips in a nasty bidding war.

Labor could re-capture the high ground by reviewing mandatory detention and off-shore processing policy and wring the necessary changes? A public information program to explain the reasoning behind the changes, including Australia's obligations under international refugee and human rights instruments, could usher a new awareness of our collective standing and responsibility as a defender of human rights.

This would be attractive to the progressive side of the Labor support base and small 'L' Liberals. Maybe its time to make our general decency something Australians can be proud of again! A sensible, humane and orderly approach to offshore processing, which involves regional partners to their benefit, could be a crucial element to stymie the smuggling trade, whilst enabling on-shore processing within the community after mandatory health checks are completed in short-term detention.

Arrangements with key community groups to manage welfare, work-for-allowance strategies and language training could be developed to integrate asylum seekers in the larger society soon after their arrival. Regional areas with labour shortfalls could be targeted for short-term settlement in this respect.

The UNHCR, IOM could be brought in as partners in the process to lend their mandated legitimacy to the exercise. Isn't it time to stop playing to the reactionary's game book? I for one would rejoin the ALP if this approach was followed.

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