If only there were an opportunity to cut through the politics to name what Australia needs to do to address the harm to children in long-term detention. Perhaps it may look something like this …
Thank you gentlemen for attending the meeting today. As you know, we are here to address the protection of children, the regrettable damage that has been evidenced in relation to children being held in long-term detention, and the way forward.
When I say ‘address the issue’, that is exactly what I intend to do. This is not a discussion.
Let’s start with the finger-pointing that has been going on. Since the Human Rights Commission report was released, there has been nothing but accusations, character assassinations, and appalling distraction from the reality that lies before us. That is, for the second time in ten years, we have before us unconscionable evidence that Australian governance has damaged young children and created enormous suffering by holding them in detention centres for an extended period of time.
No, Tony, I don’t want to hear about Gillian Triggs right now, because, regardless of who headed the report or when it was written, it is blatantly obvious that both sides of government are culpable for the damage and suffering evidenced in the report.
And no, I do not want to hear any more about how you inherited this mess, that it’s not your fault, and that you do not feel regret about the damage that has been done to children. Of course you have been working hard to release children, families, and adults out of detention recently, and this is evidenced by the diminishing numbers in detention – a laudable reality.
But let us not forget that, while you may have inherited over a thousand children in detention when you came to power, half of them remained in detention until December 2014, tripling the duration of held detention. This is despite having the power to release them, while you tried to have your TPV legislation passed.
And there is no point looking smug at this point, Bill, because, to a large degree, Tony is right that you and your party created this mess. Record numbers of people arrived by sea under Labor, and the Nauru and Manus ‘solution’ was instigated while Labor was in power, including placing children in these centres. And yes, I fully understand that you released thousands more children from detention into the community than the Coalition in the past year. But your policies led to so many children arriving by sea despite the 10,000 people you released into community detention that they were replaced in detention at a rapid rate.
What is abundantly clear is that children have suffered enormous harm under our watch as the Australian nation, and that neither of you is taking leadership on the issue. Yes, Tony, you should be taking leadership on this issue, not laying blame. No, again, I do not want to entertain the conversation about Gillian Triggs.
When the report came out, you could well have acknowledged the harm done to children as evidenced in the report. You could have noted clearly that it had been going on under Labor, that you had inherited the issue, and that you had struggled in the first year to act with haste. You could then have assumed leadership on the issue. You could have stood up, acknowledged that damaging children under Australia’s watch is not good enough for any government, and announced measures to strive for bipartisanship on the issue of harm to children in detention, so that it never occurs again.
And don’t think you’ve got away with anything, Bill, because you could have done exactly the same. You could have stood up, named the challenges you faced with record numbers of people arriving by sea, acknowledged that your policies created harm for those children who spent extended time in detention, and likewise offered measures to achieve bipartisanship on the prevention of harm to children in detention.
That’s called leadership, gentlemen, and on this issue you both need to remind yourselves of what it looks like.
Before you, I have placed a draft proposal of measures to move forward to achieve sustainable bipartisanship on the prevention of long-term detention of children in Australia. It’s fairly straightforward; it basically involves legislated minimum timeframes and alternative care arrangements in the community. Don’t tell me it can’t be done; other countries have adopted these measures and continue to do so. Now is the time for Australia to do it.
I’d like you to take it away and talk to the people you need to talk to before our meeting next week. Alternatives are welcome at the table in the spirit of achieving realistic agreement.
We can achieve this, gentlemen, and may I remind you that no one is leaving the room next week until we have agreement?
Caz Coleman is Director of the Melaleuca Refugee Centre Torture & Trauma Survivors Service of the NT Inc.