February 13, 2015 | the age editorial
Prime Minister Tony Abbott yesterday attacked the Australian Human Rights Commission over its report into children in immigration detention, saying “the Human Rights Commission should be ashamed of itself”. No, Mr Abbott – it is you and your government that should be ashamed. By seeking to politicise the report and its findings, by seeking to demonise commission president Gillian Triggs, the government compounds its own failures and those of preceding governments. It has tried to shift attention to anyone and everyone, while accepting no responsibility, which only magnifies its own shameful behaviour.
There is no rationale for holding children in detention. Mr Abbott should have seen the report as a call to act – indeed, as an opportunity to do the right thing – not an opportunity to obfuscate and point fingers. The only humane response should have been: Children are suffering – what will we do about it?
The Triggs report was delivered to the government in November. Mr Abbott and his colleagues have had months to formulate an effective, dignified response. Instead, they sat on it until the last possible moment and then followed its release on Wednesday night with a remorseless attack – on the report, its author and the former Labor government.
In some respects the report could have been regarded as being supportive of current government policy. It says Operation Sovereign Borders “has prevented asylum seekers from reaching our shores. The consequence is that it has become possible to focus on those … asylum seekers who are currently detained in Australia and on Nauru and Manus Island.”
It also details how the government has succeeded in at least reducing the number of children held in detention.
Mr Abbott’s response to this report indicates that, despite his claims to the contrary following Monday’s leadership vote in the Liberal party room, nothing has changed in his approach to governing. His instinct is to attack, instead of taking a position based on decency and dignity.
He and his former immigration minister, Scott Morrison, have seen this important inquiry as an opportunity to deliberately and methodically disparage and undermine the Human Rights Commission.
That is shameful.
In May 2013, with Julia Gillard as prime minister, The Age wrote: “For as long as children remain locked up, Australian values remain sullied. This heinous practice is contrary to who we are.” There is a continuing humanitarian crisis taking place under the authority of the Australian government – according to its own monthly immigration detention report from January 31, 2015, there were 211 children under some form of mainland detention, plus 119 in offshore detention behind fences in Nauru, with no pathway to protection or settlement.
The Human Rights Commission inquiry that led to its report questioned both the former Labor immigration minister Chris Bowen, and Mr Morrison as the then minister. Both agreed on oath that holding children in detention did not deter asylum seekers or people smugglers.
No satisfactory rationale for the prolonged detention of children seeking asylum in Australia was offered.
The Abbott government has been handed an opportunity to act responsibly and with compassion. On behalf of all Australians, it should support the Human Rights Commission, acknowledge that the actions of successive governments have been shameful, and end the mandatory detention of children.