Howard's policies toward refugees wrought immense change in my life. The alarming shift this country took in 2001 left me angry and dispirited. I felt the moral and ethical basis of our commitment to protect human rights had been compromised, and that vulnerable human beings in need of help had become pawns in a ruthless political agenda.
After Rudd's election Australia continued to disregard human rights in the treatment of asylum seekers. The government detained new arrivals on Christmas Island, which was commissioned by the Howard Govt when it became abundantly clear Nauru was a failed option.
Throughout the decade since 2001 the usual suspects have branded irregular boat arrivals as 'queue jumpers' to justify their treatment as criminals or 'illegals'. With the latest High Court decision it has become painfully clear that the government must be required to treat new arrivals humanely and to counter attempts by politicians, media and other commentators to demonize them for political and other purposes.
When Rudd came to power I wrote to the then Immigration Minister, Sen Evans, as follows:
"Under the previous government mandatory detention of asylum seekers evolved into a tragic farce played out under the gaze of key UN watchdog bodies. In Australia, apart from refugee advocate groups, the general population was 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. Thankfully, one of the earliest actions of the Rudd Govt was to abolish the Pacific Solution. However, I think the Govt has to go further...
The Howard Govt thumbed its nose at the 'UN Committee against Torture' in 2005, standing by its asylum seeker policies as ‘just & fair’. In fact Howard et al thumbed their noses at international human rights instruments throughout their tenure and actively sought to undermine the credibility of the UN committee process.
Thankfully this dark chapter is over. To signal that the change wrought by the Rudd Govt represents more than window dressing, and to keep faith with UN and other international processes, I suggest a thorough judicial review is needed of the asylum seeker policies and programs of the previous Govt. The review Terms of Reference should 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 (taking account of the previous reviews and the report of the Commonwealth Ombudsman)
3. Operation and financing of detention facilities on the mainland and offshore
4. Wrongful repatriation of asylum seekers (a particular concern of the UN Committee against Torture)
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
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 that put in place 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 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.
Will Labor now bite the bullet and review its mandatory detention 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.