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Disclaimer: Please note that this is an article by Judi Moylan published in various media including Newmatilda. It is not about Italy, Norway, Sweden or Holland nor about Gerard.

Asylum Policy A ‘Vortex Of Political Posturing’

By Judi Moylan

The Abbott government’s Operation Sovereign Borders is unduly provocative, writes former Liberal MP Judi Moylan, as she concludes her series on the history of Australian border policy.

This is the second in a two-part series about the history of Australian border policy. Read the first part here.https://newmatilda.com/2013/10/21/echoes-white-australia

The Gang Of Four

When Parliament resumed in 2005, four Liberal Party Members of Parliament, Petro Georgiou, Russell Broadbent, Bruce Baird and I, met to discuss concerns about indefinite mandatory detention and its impact on children.

Petro Georgiou had commenced drafting a Private Members Bill to amend the Migration Act. Once the drafting was complete, the group met with then prime minister John Howard to advise their intentions. To avoid the embarrassment of a split on the benches, the prime minister asked for time to speak to his cabinet colleagues.

During the hiatus, the mistaken and unlawful detention of two Australian citizens, Cornelia Rau and Vivian Alvarez Solon, aroused considerable public disquiet and sympathy. Cornelia Rau was erroneously held in immigration detention for 10 months and Vivian Alvarez Solon wrongly deported and “dumped” at the Manila airport in a wheelchair. Inquiries into both cases led to a damning exposé of inadequate care, lack of openness and scrutiny in the system and the pervasive culture of “denial and self justification” within the Department of Immigration.

Public alarm over detainees covertly held indefinitely heightened with the case of Peter Qasim, a stateless person detained for seven years. Qasim’s case became a cause célèbre when it was taken up by prominent businessman Dick Smith. The Sydney Morning Herald revealed the government’s decision to soften its hard line on mandatory detention. Under a headline ‘Free at last, but a prisoner still of his tortured mind’, it disclosed that Qasim would be one of 50 people locked up for more than two years, who would now be summarily released on bridging visas.

Churches, non-government organisations and a growing number of web-based social media commentators exerted growing pressure on government to change the policy. The threat of a private members bill was a crucial element in the government’s turnabout. The government announced that “a child shall only be detained as a matter of last resort”.

The Ombudsman was to review cases of detainees who had been in detention for more than two years and make recommendations about their release. The minister was required to report the recommendations to Parliament within 15 days, but could not be compelled to act on them. Other elements of the changes forced by the backbenchers included an agreement to place time limits on the processing of protection visa applications and offer the existing 4000 refugees on Temporary Protection Visas (TPVs) permanent protection within 90 days.

Winding Forward, Winding Back

In 2007 the Rudd Labor government was elected. As the boats slowed, the new government made good its election promise to dismantle the “Pacific Solution”. It ended TPVs and abolished detention charges. Mandatory detention and ‘excision’ of the migration zones remained firmly in place.

Two years later, boat arrivals bounded from seven in 2008 to 60. A deepening sense of panic gripped the government. A withering attack was unleashed by the Opposition accusing the government of not protecting the borders and encouraging smugglers.

The government suspended processing refugees from Afghanistan and Sri Lanka claiming that the situation in both jurisdictions was evolving and that the “Taliban’s fall, durable security in parts of the country and constitutional and legal reform to protect minorities’ rights have improved their circumstances.” This led to increased periods of detention, overcrowding and outbreaks of violence. Incarcerated children became a resurgent issue.

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