Thursday, May 26, 2005

Some Thoughts On Mandatory Detention

The November 2001 federal election was a watershed for the Liberal Party in many ways. Liberals had to face new political and security realities arising from September 11. Australia was about to join its allies in a direct assault on al-Qaida in Afghanistan. There was a genuine fear of Taliban and al-Qaida cells slipping into Australia via people-smugglers. Border protection and security became top priorities.

The Liberals had to be tough on these issues. They could not afford to take the ‘flip-flop’ attitude of the Beazley camp. At the same time, they could not allow these issues to become a war cry for supporters of Pauline Hanson.

The strategy was clear. The Liberals had to adopt policies that protected Australian interests. A tough border protection policy coupled with mandatory detention would achieve these goals, whilst stripping Pauline Hanson of her support base. The best way to destroy Hanson was to somehow look like her.

Candidates in that election (including the writer) were briefed on this and understood the message clearly. Even in hard-luck seats like Reid (which takes in Auburn, Granville and other suburbs in the geographical heart of Sydney), a seat with substantial populations of current and former Afghan refugees, there was strong support for the policy.

Indeed, many voters were surprised to find Afghan Australians volunteering to hand out ‘how-to-votes’ for the Liberal Party on the day. One of these volunteers said to the writer: “We don’t like seeing our people behind bars, but it is better than keeping the Taliban who murder us in power”.

Mandatory detention was a policy right for the time. But that time has now passed. Pauline Hanson is busy with a career outside of politics. Her most trusted advisers are now her worst enemies. As a political force, she is gone.

The Taliban have been overthrown. Our biggest concern with the current Afghan government is their lax approach to narcotics. As for al-Qaida, though they are still dangerous, it will be any day before bin Ladin joins his comrades in a Pakistani prison or American custody.

The political and security reasons behind sacrificing liberty and human rights concerns in favour of strict mandatory detention are no longer present. At least 3 Liberal MP’s know this. And anyone who has visited a detention centre will admit that keeping women and children behind barbed wire creates more problems than it solves.

Mandatory detention as practised in Australia is not just bad for the detainees. It can have disastrous consequences for staff. Numerous guards have suffered serious physical and psychological injuries resulting from facilities being understaffed thanks to government contractors more concerned with the bottom line than occupational health and safety concerns. Paramedical staff have also been pressured to stay silent on what they know are severe conditions which make Silverwater Gaol seem like a picnic.

Staff morale is low even in metropolitan facilities in Sydney and Melbourne. The writer has acted for a number of staff in relation to occupational health and workplace injury issues, and has seen evidence that could only lead one to conclude that detention centre staff responsible for implementing the policy are finding it unpalatable.

And on a political level, it baffles many Liberal Party members that a party with a proud tradition of multiculturalism and humanitarian action could continue with such a policy. Liberal governments welcomed Vietnamese and other Indo-Chinese refugees with open arms during the 1970’s. The Howard government gave temporary sanctuary to Kosovar Albanian refugees, and over $1 billion has been pledged to assist Indonesia in its reconstruction efforts following the tsunami.

That such a government could claim political support for such an inhumane policy speaks volumes for its changing support base. It perhaps explains why the National Young Liberal President has been actively seeking to enlist support of the Religious Right and One Nation.

Ironically, the only hope for supporters of mandatory detention is the same ‘flip-flopping’ of Mr Beazley. At the time of writing, Mr Beazley said he would not allow a conscience vote on any Private Members Bill on the issue. Perhaps by the time of publication, the Labor leader may have flipped his flop. A day is a long time in politics.

(The writer is a Sydney lawyer. He was Liberal candidate for the seat of Reid during the 2001 federal election, achieving a swing of over 5% on a 2-party preferred basis. He was a delegate to the Liberal Party State Council from 1995-2000, and chaired its Multicultural Affairs and Law & Justice Committees. He also edited 2 conservative publications and hosts a conservative e-mail discussion forum and a blog

© Irfan Yusuf, 2005