Paul Bongiorno: Government should heed calls on inhumane refugee and immigration laws

The High Court under its new Chief Justice Stephen Gaegler has smashed the ease with which our politicians can play fast and loose with the principles of fairness and justice that underpin our liberal democracy with its safeguards against tyranny.

That’s what the recent bombshell decision ending punitive, unlimited detention of people really did.

In our system, independent courts impose penalties that parliaments prescribe based on the rule of law, and not the unfettered whim of politicians.

The court three weeks ago upheld the human rights of detainees who may not be citizens, but still have rights that we like to think we hold sacred as a nation.

Australia has signed up to any number of international covenants proclaiming adherence to these values which sadly we too often ignore.

Later today (Tuesday) the High Court will release the reasons behind its decision for striking down the always controversial precedent set in 2004 by the Gleeson High Court which is sure to see the government scramble to pass new laws to “keep the community safe” in light of these new constraints.

The Independent Member for North Sydney, Kylea Tink, is hoping the Albanese government will seize the opportunity to undo the harm done to thousands of people who have sought our protection or who have fallen foul of our immigration laws.

Tink on Monday introduced a private member’s bill to ban the government from holding people in immigration detention for longer than 90 days, as well as holding children in detention.

Long wait

The crossbencher told Parliament that right now “the 70,000 people waiting for decisions, can expect to wait an average of 866 days (2.4 years) for a primary decision from the Department of Home Affairs”.

By comparison, it takes just 55 days for a claim to be processed in the United States and 14 days in Canada.

Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil blames the rundown in compliance resources under Peter Dutton’s stewardship as minister for much of the backlog, but the scandal goes much deeper than that.

The fact is ever since John Howard dramatically broke the bi-partisan compact on immigration and refugees in 2001 the issue has become a race to the bottom that engineers voters’ fears and prejudices for political gain.

Tink says it’s “reprehensible” and says the High Court’s ruling should not be used as a pawn in this cruel political game.

Reports at the weekend say the Australian Human Rights Commission is preparing a report damning the operation of private security company Serco for the way its staff assault and abuse detainees in their care.

It is all of a piece with a number of disturbing revelations about corruption in contracts and cruelty in offshore and onshore immigration detention.

A coalition of 14 human rights and refugee support groups have come to Parliament in Canberra this week to push for a royal commission into Australia’s immigration detention regime.

Lead contact for the group Julie Macken, from the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney’s Justice and Peace Office, says: “Australians have a right to know what is being done in our name to people who are seeking safety from violence and war.”

Newly independent Liberal Russell Broadbent, a longtime advocate for refugee justice, says a “stocktake of immigration detention is long overdue”.

Whopping cost of detention

The cost of this shameful operation should be reason enough for close scrutiny – to hold one person in detention for one year has a price tag of $421,673.

The cost for offshore detention alone in the nine years to 2022 was a whopping $9.6 billion.

Julie Macken says a royal commission would shine a light in very dark corners and put enormous pressure on politicians to radically overhaul their approach.

The Greens Nick McKim can’t see the major parties agreeing to break their cartel of cruelty. 

Senator McKim says Labor is only about “appeasing Peter Dutton” and is misreading the electorate willingness to accept a change of policy more in line with the party’s stated human rights values.

Mc Kimm says: “The more they appease Dutton the more he will demand.”

Kylea Tink believes the last election showed the electorate does want a change to business as usual and has been impressed with the cohesiveness of the Albanese cabinet, but says now is the chance for the Prime Minister to show some real leadership.

Fear mongering

That could take considerable political courage in light of the latest Newspoll showing the government has hit a midterm slump due in no small measure to Peter Dutton’s take-no-prisoners approach – more evident since he led an all-out successful attack on the Voice referendum.

No distortion or fear mongering is off limits for the Opposition Leader including now sounding the alarm that boatloads of asylum seekers are about to start a new invasion after 12 people were discovered three days ago on an isolated section of the Western Australian coast.

They have been whisked off to Nauru and shrouded in a cloud of “on water matters” secrecy straight out of the Morrison/Dutton playbook; the boats certainly slowed to a trickle on their watch but they were never stopped.

The lessons Labor has learned since 2001, it seems, is it has no wriggle room and has to be seen to be tougher than the Liberals.

It is hard to disagree with the coalition of groups calling for a royal commission, that the way we are going is dragging down the country.

Paul Bongiorno AM is a veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery, with more than 40 years’ experience covering Australian politics

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