Minister Morrison, assisted by the Secretary of his department, continued his aggressive ways at the hearing on August 22.
He said that his policies discouraged asylum seekers risking their lives at sea. He described himself as the champion of the voiceless, ‘the ones that are at the bottom of the ocean’. He clearly wants to occupy the high moral ground.
But was it really concern about deaths at sea which motivated his campaign against asylum seekers arriving by boat? Wikileaks reported that ‘a key Liberal strategist told the US Embassy in November 2009 that the boats issue was “fantastic” for the Coalition and ‘the more that came the better’ (SMH 10 December 2010).
In Opposition the Coalition did not want the boats to stop. It did its best to ensure that the Labor Government did not stop the boats. That is why the Coalition sided with the Greens to block the agreement with Malaysia. The collapse of that agreement set in motion a dramatic increase in boat arrivals that ultimately led to Manus and Nauru.
Scott Morrison’s concern for deaths at sea was not reflected in numerous comments he made in opposition to demonise asylum seekers. He told us that asylum seekers bring ‘disease’, everything from TB and hepatitis C to chlamydia and syphilis. He told 2GB that boat arrivals bring ‘wads of cash’ and large displays of jewellery. He urged his parliamentary colleagues to ‘ramp up the question to … capitalise on the anti-Muslim sentiment’. He described as a ‘government-funded junket’ Commonwealth government assistance for an 8-year old boy whose parents had been drowned off Christmas Island. He complained about the cost of holding funerals in Sydney for asylum seekers who had died off Christmas Island.
That was not the moral high ground. But If Scott Morrison now feels a sense of moral responsibility that is to be welcomed.
At the Human Rights Commission Scott Morrison avoided answering the question whether detention of children, or adults for that matter, deterred boat arrivals. He should have said, but didn’t, that there is no evidence that mandatory detention deters boat arrivals. We now know very clearly that what has deterred boat arrivals was not mandatory detention but government policies denying resettlement in Australia for any person who come by boat. It was the Rudd Government that started taking us down this path. That is why boat arrivals stopped and not because of mandatory detention.
Both Scott Morrison and the Secretary of his department took exception to the President of the Commission, Gillian Triggs characterising the detention centres as prisons. The detention centres may not have armed guards, but they are worse than prisons. First, the detainees are not convicted criminals and they are not illegals. They are overwhelmingly vulnerable people seeking freedom from persecution. Over 80% of boat arrivals have been found to be genuine refugees. But not being criminals or illegals, we put them in hell-holes where many of them go out of their minds. For innocent people the result is worse than being in prison.
Second, we locate these detention centres in remote places with the clear intention of making it very difficult for detainees to have contact with friends, family or advisers. We are frightened that if the community hears their true story, we will show more concern and compassion. So we lock them up in remote places where we cannot hear their cries. Inmates at Long Bay are treated better than that.
There is a major problem when the Minister for Immigration is both gaoler and guardian of children. A sensible start to winding back this appalling situation in the detention of children is for the minister to separate his roles.
More importantly we need to quickly wind back mandatory detention for almost all asylum seekers. It punishes but does not deter. The evidence is quite clear on that. Unfortunately a succession of Immigration Ministers have pretended they are political tough guys by locking up both adults and children.
What is more there are large savings to be achieved in winding back mandatory detention. Immigration detention costs over $3b per annum. Over $2b could be saved instead of filling the pockets of Serco, Transfield, the Salvation Army and others. The Commission of Audit pointed to the enormous differences in the costs of detention. For offshore detention it was $440,000 per head in 2013-14.; for on shore detention it was $ 239,000 and for community detention it was$ 90,000. The most cost effective and the most humane is release into the community on bridging visas which cost $22,000 per head. In 2013-14
Humanity and cost saving points to ending mandatory detention. Few comparable countries mistreat asylum seekers the way we do.
Just as we now have a Royal Commission on sexual abuse I am sure that down the track we will have a Royal Commission on our treatment of asylum seekers.