October 09, 2103
An assessment of Australia’s performance in areas ranging from asylum seekers to climate change has produced a mixed report card.
The report by the United Nations Association of Australia says the country has performed well on some issues, but failed by international standards on others.
The assessment covers Australia’s performance under the Labor governments between 2007 and 2013 in nine key areas.
Australia’s best mark was for its involvement in the UN Security Council and General Assembly, for which it received an A.
It also performed well in the areas of humanitarian assistance and aid, peacekeeping and human rights, receiving Bs.
However according to the report, Australia is not performing well in addressing climate change.
And on treatment of refugees and asylum seekers, the country has been given an F for fail.
UN Association President, Dr Russell Trood says both areas require greater work.
“The weakest area is clearly in relation to refugees and asylum seekers, which was assessed as having a fail in terms of overall performance and the other area which was rather weak was in relation to climate change which was assessed as a D+. So those two areas are clearly areas where further work needs to be done and where I think the general consensus would be that our performance overall has been weakest.”
The report is particularly scathing of policies implemented by the Labor government towards the end of its term in office.
It’s critical of the language used to describe asylum seekers, and the policy of sending them to overseas detention centres.
And it also condemns the practice of indefinite detention of people who have been found to be refugees, but who are still kept in detention because of adverse security assessments by ASIO.
Author of this section of the report, barrister Julian Burnside, says Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers and refugees has worsened since the previous report in 2007.
“The main change has been an increased hardening of political rhetoric against boat people and an increasing determination that we will deter people from seeking asylum in Australia by whatever mistreatment or cruelty we think is the most likely to be effective. What is interesting is that we look at a policy of deterrence without fully understanding that you only deter someone who’s escaping persecution if you make arriving here look less palatable than staying and facing your persecutors.”
Mr Burnside says he is concerned the new Coalition government will perform even worse than Labor on asylum seeker policy.
“It’s difficult to be optimistic, I would just hope that in some point in Australian politics, there will emerge someone who can fairly be described as a leader and who will be prepared to stand up and publicly denounce the Coalition for their dishonest rhetoric about boat people. Calling them illegals is plainly dishonest and it is intended to make the public fear or hate boat people and by doing that you can make it possible to mistreat them.”
A further area of concern, according to the report, is in the treatment of Indigenous Australians.
The report praises moves towards holding a referendum on the recognition of Indigenous Australians in the federal constitution.
However it also criticises federal intervention measures in the Northern Territory.
Lecturer in indigenous policy at the Australian National University, Professor Jon Altman says the assessment of the federal government’s treatment of Indigenous Australians is too lenient.
“I think that the rating of C+ is quite generous, but I don’t think they’ve told us much about the ugly things that have happened. And by the ugly things I mean the contravention of the Racial Discrimination Act in the Northern Territory Intervention. and the ongoing support of measures like income management and punitive measures if children don’t attend school by stopping people’s welfare payments.”
Professor Altman says the Stronger Futures initiative implemented in the Northern Territory to address issues of alcohol abuse and truancy should be reason enough to award a lower grade.
“The parliamentary joint committee on human rights in June of this year produced a report looking at Stronger Futures, where they basically say that the Stronger Futures measures certainly are highly problematic in terms of international human rights standards so on the basis of that report alone, I would be thinking a D or F for Australian government’s performance in Indigenous affairs.”
One of the most notable moments in the Labor government’s leadership over the past six years was Kevin Rudd’s apology to the Stolen Generation in 2008.
However Professor Altman says while the move was significant symbolically, it has had limited practical impact.
“Tied to the apology was the Closing the Gap policy framework, which has dominated Indigenous policy discourse and practice since 2008. Looking at the Closing the Gap, and looking at the statistics we get, from the 2006 and 2011 censuses, we find in fact that gaps are not closing, in a number of very important areas and in some areas, like employment, the gaps are actually widening.
Dr Trood from the United Nations Association says there have been several areas of improvement in federal government performance since the previous report in 2007.
“There has been a consistent support for improving the developmental aid over that period of time, the performance on the Security Council is much stronger which reflects I think a greater engagement with the multilateral system in international affairs, the human rights performance is, I think, rather stronger because w’ere now running for a position on the human rights council, which is the first time we’ve done that. and there’s been some significant improvements in relation to gender equality over this period of time.”
In practical terms, the actual effect this report will have is unclear.
The barrister Julian Burnside says he thinks it is unlikely to change government behaviour.
“Whether a report like this will have any influence on the present government, I rather doubt. In the past we’ve had judgements against us in the United Nations Human Rights Committee, condemning Australia for breaches of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, as well as other international conventions. Specifically, we have breached it in our treatment of asylum seekers. But the government looks at that and says ‘oh thanks very much for telling us’ and then they just keep on doing it.”
Professor Altman agrees the report may create some embarrassment for Australia internationally.
He’s hoping it’s enough to prompt at least some policy changes.
“I think that these sorts of reports and international scrutiny of the Australian government’s performance will be extremely important if we’re going to see a change in direction.”