Side stepping the politics of cruelty

Sep 15, 2023
Razor wire, barbed wire and wire mesh fence.

Anyone who has spent time in a National Labor Conference will understand the way ideas, propositions, policies and platforms swirl and merge and disappear, only to reappear in a whole other form just hours later, often without anyone quite tracking the process. The most recent Conference held in Brisbane was a study in this form of political morphic resonance, particularly in relation to the demand for a royal commission into immigration detention.

About a year ago, I began working with a number of Catholic organisations, services and professional organisations to build a coalition of voices calling for a royal commission into immigration detention. We were not the first such group to do so. In 2016, former Human Rights Commissioner, Gillian Triggs said nothing less than a Royal Commission could investigate these darkened and dangerous places and with every new revelation of abuse, the call has become more strident.

The reasons for this call are three-fold. Firstly, people don’t trust politicians, they trust Royal Commissioners. Secondly, only a Royal Commission or judicial commission has the power to compel corporations to produce commercial-in-confidence documents – something made very necessary by the privatisation of this detention regime. Finally, only a Royal Commission has the power to protect those giving evidence – former employees, asylum seekers and whistle-blowers.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, these reasons make sense to most Australians as evidenced by polling conducted by The Australia Institute. The Australia Institute surveyed voters about recent allegations of potential corruption and bribery in relation to the management of Australia’s offshore detention network and asked their opinion about potential referrals to the National Anti-Corruption Commission or the establishment of a Royal Commission just days before National Labor Conference.

The results are quite staggering.

  • Nearly four in five Australians (79%) would support a Royal Commission into Australia’s offshore detention policy. Less than one in 10 (9%) oppose.
  • Five in six Labor voters (83%) would support a Royal Commission, while only 6% oppose.
  • Establishing a Royal Commission into offshore detention is popular with voters of all parties, with 83% of Labor voters, 75% of Coalition voters, 89% of Greens voters, 67% of One Nation voters and 74% of independent voters in support.
  • Large majorities of voters of all parties support a National Anti-Corruption Committee inquiry into corruption in Australia’s offshore detention system.
  • Eighty-five per cent of Labor voters support an inquiry, and a majority of Labor voters (51%) are in strong support.
  • Fourteen times as many Coalition voters (84%) support an inquiry than oppose one (6%).

The result was a shock to Noah Schultz-Byard, SA Director at the Australia Institute. “Australian voters, and especially Labor Party voters, want to see the potential corruption and mismanagement of offshore detention investigated by a Royal Commission,” said Noah Schultz-Byard. “Australia’s offshore detention regime has wasted billions of dollars of public money, damaged Australia’s international reputation and caused untold suffering and harm to the people who have been detained there,” concluded Schultz-Byard

This brutal policy exists because it has a social license to do so. And given the last two decades of propaganda, secrecy and Othering that has passed as a policy, no one should be surprised by that.

The Coalition and Labor do not have this policy, this policy has Labor and the Coalition.

So back to National Conference and what happened when Minister Andrew Giles heard the Left faction would be pushing for a vote on a royal commission into immigration detention. Minister Giles told Labor for Refugees and the Left faction folk that he would agree to a parliamentary inquiry into immigration detention – not a royal commission.

This would be parliamentary Inquiry No. 89 and as a former Nauru employee told me that night,

“If he thinks we are going to keep fronting up to their inquiries, tearing ourselves apart remembering what happened only so they get their political fix and nothing changes, they can think again. We will not be turning up for their tactics.”

Federal Labor fails to understand the true value of a royal commission into immigration detention for them; such a commission would get this policy out of the political arena and put it back in the policy frame. That is a commissioner would take the evidence, in public, allow the stories to be told, they would then reflect on the evidence and as a result of that, they would produce a series of recommendations. This gives Labor the cover they obviously feel they need to change a cruel, expensive and inhumane policy. And finally, it also gives people in the UK, EU and the US a very clear idea of what this policy really costs before they implement it in full, with all its attendant horror.

For these reasons the coalition I am a part of will continue to demand a non-political way out of this shameful business and that path leads through a Royal Commission Minister Giles.

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