Federal Politics

License article

Detention deja vu as victimising begins anew

The setting was uncanny when Angus Houston's panel trotted out the latest asylum seeker inquiry report in Canberra on Monday. Six years ago, almost to the day, the former prime minister John Howard and his then immigration minister, Amanda Vanstone, also trotted out pre-scripted apologies, through gritted teeth, to my sister, Cornelia Rau, and her detention compatriot, Vivian Solon, in that same room.

Then, it was in response to the five-month Palmer report. Nothing's changed. Palmer remains silent. Most other public figures are doing an ostrich. Now it's yet another committee advocating not much at all, just - let's face it - to placate the rednecks in marginal seats.

Julia Gillard is right. Australians are heartily sick of this debate. The only trouble is, the debate's managed to dance deftly around many core issues.

I live in one of the western Sydney seats so hotly prized by all political contenders. I can tell you bluntly that all the palaver about asylum seekers losing their lives on leaky boats has no resonance whatsoever among my neighbours. Nor do the politicians rabbiting on about lives lost while advocating harsher and harsher deterrent policies - which have never been proven to work, anyway, not while the cycles of conflict ebbed and flowed.

The voters around here are simply suspicious about a perceived escalation of ethnic strife, given that around here is where the ethnic enclaves go to war, far beyond the decision-makers' leafy homes. That attitude is often amplified in people who are themselves immigrants. It's enough to drive one to cynicism and to understand the misguided angst that fuelled the 2005 Cronulla riots.

The politicians, better educated and with better access to information about how the mandatory detention system really works, should hang their heads in shame because they have all the information they choose not to see at their fingertips.


How long has it been since anyone raised the point that a private and overseas prison corporation, Serco, runs our detention centres? How long since any politician gave reliable figures for the cost of detention, the sheer waste of shipping goods and services back and forth from Christmas Island - closer to Indonesia than to Australia - and the profound lack of healthcare for people detained for the legally valid motive of seeking refuge from torture and trauma?

How long since the Minister for Mental Health and Ageing, Mark Butler, visited a detention centre to see for himself what mental state the ''inmates'' were in? He spoke eloquently on Q&A on Monday about how the conflicting facets of the detention debate ''bear heavily down on all of us''.

But what bears down more heavily? The possible economic cost of providing an electoral sop via Nauru and Manus Island, or the complex service provision being outsourced to five layers of companies?

Let me tell you something the opposition spokesman on immigration, Scott Morrison, won't: anyone who thinks this ''solution'' (the soul shudders at that word) will only cost $2 billion is dreaming.

Recall that it cost a cool $1 million for a year during the Howard era to house one - just one - detainee on Nauru. Multiply that by quite a few hundreds, the contractual costs of the prison guards, caterers, transport personnel, under-qualified healthcare providers, cleaners, builders and bottle washers.

It's easy to pillory the minority in the schoolyard, the Greens, for sticking to their moral guns and insisting offshore processing is wrong. ''Offshore processing'' sounds like something out of a fish factory. But what it really means is shoving people out of sight and out of mind, which is what we already have done for several decades, to be told by faceless Australian Security Intelligence Organisation bureaucrats that the country that tortured and traumatised them has now critiqued their ''character'' and found it wanting. Of course, these critiques are never aired.

We preach pious paeans to our teenagers not to encourage it when they see someone kicking someone who is down. But that is exactly what Australia is doing. It's deja vu, all over again.

Chris Rau is a freelance journalist and author of Dealing With the Media (UNSW Press, 2010).

Follow the National Times on Twitter