Marie Coleman. Human Rights Commission and the forgotten children.

In February 2015 the Royal Commission into Child Sexual Abuse found that Cardinal George Pell, the former Archbishop of Sydney, had placed the church’s financial interests above his obligation to a victim of childhood sexual abuse.

In February 2015 the Prime Minister of Australia, supported by his Ministers, has launched a blistering attack on a distinguished legal scholar and President of the independent statutory Australian Rights Commission, for a report which has found that both the Labor and Coalition Governments have failed to protect children in mandatory detention from abuse and mental and physical harm.

Professor Gillian Triggs has found that Australia has been and remains in breach of its international obligations- under both parties. Among other straightforward and completely nonpartisan recommendations she has recommended that “An independent guardian be appointed for unaccompanied children seeking asylum in Australia” rather than the current position of the Minister for Immigration being both the guardian of such children, and the Minister responsible for their mandatory detention.

The Royal Commission has been investigating historic instances of abuse, exploring the approaches which institutions responsible for such abuse have responded to reports of individual cases, as well as options for reparations.

The thrust of the AHRC Report, The Forgotten Children, is to explore and document what have been the outcomes for children placed in mandatory detention, and to develop future policies and legislation which will prevent such dreadful outcomes ever again being visited on children.

The Minister for Immigration, Peter Dutton MP, has asserted that the AHRC Report is irrelevant because any instances of maltreatment of children have been historical. The second leg of the Government’s response to the AHRC report seems to be that because Labor did it, then the Coalition’s actions, if harm has been done, are justifiable.

The Opposition has essentially mumbled.

The unpalatable situation is that neither Labor nor the Coalition has any way to escape from the fact that one outcome of their policies on immigration and refugees (stopping the boats) has been to put children through hell, and put Australia in breach of its obligations under international law.

No equivocations about whether for an adolescent girl to go mad and cut herself on Nauru is better than drowning at sea, no claiming that this wouldn’t have happened if the Coalition had allowed Labor to send refugees to Malaysia, will alter the fact that neither Labor nor the Coalition has been able to articulate an acceptable , transparent and  legal method of dealing with the inevitable pressures from populations moving from political anarchy, oppression, assassinations and starvation in home countries.

The cost of current off shore detention of refugees in 2014-15 was estimated by an Immigration Department official as $1 billion. Running the detention centre on Manus Island has cost taxpayers $632.3 million, and the operational cost of Nauru was $582.4 million, a Senate estimates hearing was told. That’s a billion dollars a year for the foreseeable future…without giving thought to the ultimate health costs for the treatment of health and psychological damages to the refugees. It doesn’t include other costs such as the role of the Australian Navy and Customs in ‘on water’ activities.

Surely it isn’t beyond the capacity of this nation’s leaders to develop alternative strategies?

Former NSW Premier Nick Greiner described as “awful” the fact that Australia was the only nation in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development that indefinitely detained children in mandatory detention.

“The principle that Australia … finds it necessary to be virtually the only civilised nation that does this, I think is just abhorrent,” he said….”we now ought to look at the humanity of what we do”, he said.

Last month NSW Premier Baird called on Mr Abbott, a close friend, to do more to accept refugees. Asked if children should be released from immigration detention, Mr Baird said “that’s something I’ve supported for a long time”.

In an interview with 3AW, Mr Abbott said the commission should be ashamed of itself and that its report was a “blatantly partisan” and political exercise.

He said the commission should acknowledge the government for stopping the flow of asylum seeker boats and dramatically reducing the number of children in detention.

“I reckon the human rights commission ought to be sending a note of congratulations to Scott Morrison saying well done, mate,” Mr Abbott said, referring to the former immigration minister.

Asked if he felt any guilt about the remaining 200 children still in detention, Mr Abbott was blunt: “None whatsoever.”

“The most compassionate thing you can do is stop the boats,” he said.

He said the only way to ensure there were no children in detention was to ensure there were no boats arriving.

Numbers of children in immigration detention peaked at nearly 2000 in mid-2013 under Labor. There are now only about 200 children still detained.

The Australian Human Rights Commission report wants actions taken to prevent such a situation ever developing again.

“The human rights commission ought to be ashamed of itself,” Mr Abbott said, when asked about the report.

So that’s all right. The Prime Minister thinks his policy is tops. A great policy in fact.

As the distinguished PUP Senator for Queensland, Glenn Lazarus might put it ‘you can polish a turd, but it’s still a turd’.

Marie Coleman AO PSM is a former senior Commonwealth Public Servant with a background in social policy.

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