Countering the Kooyong breakout


Since the landmark speech in Federal Parliament on 9 February this year by the Member for Kooyong, Petro Georgiou, several front-benchers in the Howard government have been beavering away in an effort to control the damage. Regrettably the methods employed seem to be short on truth, honesty, parliamentary accountability, compassion and mercy.

Therefore the failure of this week’s negotiations between the Georgiou group and the Prime Minister confirm what was always going to be the most likely outcome, given what happened since Mr Georgiou’s first speech in the House.

The first move after Petro’s speech came from Immigration Minister Senator Amanda Vanstone. Georgiou demanded a release from the Baxter detention centre of all long-term and unsuccessful asylum seekers. He also demanded the granting of permanency for all of the 7- 8000 Temporary Protection Visa (TPV) holders living in the Australian community.

Thanks to Peter Nicholson

Thanks to Peter Nicholson

In the first response to Georgiou’s demands, Vanstone announced the Return Pending Bridging Visa (RPBV), available only by invitation from the Minister, to a limited number of long-term detainees in the Baxter detention centre. It could have averted further developments in the break-away group – but alas, it didn’t: within days refugee support centres and advocates alike condemned the visa, which, although it includes work-rights and Medicare eligibility, means being prepared to be deported at any time (an agreement to be signed by any person accepting the visa). But perhaps the biggest stumbling block was the clause that any further refugee and appeal claims or processing – including court action against the Australian government – would not be undertaken by the visa holder.

Next, fast-forward to 24 May – when Petro Georgiou tabled two Private Member’s Bills in the Coalition party room, bills resulting from collaboration between himself, Judi Moylan MP (Pearce) and Bruce Baird MP (Cook). When he announced them in a surprise move, Howard, caught out unawares, was furious and pre-empted any notion of a conscience vote on the Bills. Georgiou then held a party room meeting which lasted a record three and a half hours.

In the Senate Inquiry the next day, Vanstone announced more frequent psychiatric services would be available to the detainees in Baxter. Dr Louise Newman, fresh from an annual conference of the Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists, advised that psychiatrists may announce a work-ban in Baxter for members of the College because their ethics are seriously compromised. The next move came from Minister Vanstone.

During the evening of 30 May – just before the next day’s party room meeting – Vanstone issued a media statement saying she had made seventeen offers to long-term detainees in Baxter (ten) and in the community (seven). An avalanche of phone calls from eager journalists to refugee organisations began, asking whether anyone in Baxter or in the community had heard about Vanstone’s offer. Nobody knew anything, and by the following week, still nobody at Baxter knew about any such offer. Then Vanstone’s confirmation that Peter Qasim was not amongst the seventeen eligible asylum seekers, finally killed the story. It was a media spiel. Despite her press release, we are unaware of any officers going out to speak with any long-term detainees in Baxter or those released on Bridging Visas in the community, and to date there has been no further action.

The party meeting became a real worry for Howard. If Georgiou and Moylan could find another eleven members of the coalition in the lower house who would support the Bills and who would also be prepared to cross the floor, and if the ALP decided to vote with the Bills, Howard would face the worst case scenario of his political career. At the end of the day, the number of full supporters had risen from five – apart from Judi Moylan and Petro Georgiou, also Bruce Baird, Russell Broadbent and Senator Marise Payne supported the Bills – to seven coalition MP’s: Senators Gary Humphries (ACT) and Judith Troeth (VIC) declared their support, while three more – Christopher Pyne (Sturt), Patrick Secker (Barker), Paul Neville (Hinkler) – declared their support for The Act of Compassion Bill. Queensland Senators George Brandis and Brett Mason were uncovered as ‘maybes’ in supporting the Bills. So, there was a looming problem, and something needed to be done about it.

Enter Peter Costello, who said he supported mandatory detention but wanted to see the detention period of kids reduced, and the way to do that was to reduce the options open to asylum claimants of court appeals. Mal Washer (Moore) had already expressed the same sentiment on 31 May; suggesting new legislation should be introduced after 1 July, when Howard gains control of both houses. Washer’s statement, along the same lines as remarks by Malcolm Turnbull (Wentworth) shortly after the meeting, suggests that the line originated in the coalition party room meeting of 31 May. A week later Attorney-General Phillip Ruddock stated that he would introduce legislation to that effect after 1 July.

Thanks to Peter Nicholson

Thanks to Peter Nicholson

The anti-Georgiou camp had found a countermove as smooth to conservative voters as a plain omelet for breakfast. The line has been peddled to the public since Tampa, and you can hear it repeated right around Australia in conservative circles. But it is limp, deficient and downright manipulative if the facts are considered. Ask priest and lawyer Frank Brennan.

In August 2002, in a speech for Rural Australians for Refugees in the Bowral Town Hall, Brennan produced the results of some of his research into refugee assessments. Brennan said:

During this last financial year [2001- 02], the Refugee Review Tribunal set aside 62 per cent of all Afghan decisions appealed and 87 per cent of all Iraqi decisions appealed. This means that Afghan asylum seekers got it right 62 per cent of the time when they claimed that the departmental decision makers got it wrong. And the public servants got it wrong 87 per cent of the times that the Iraqi applicants claim to have been mistakenly assessed.

At the time Frank Brennan delivered his speech, a small army of pro-bono lawyers was gathering, and now, three years later, joined by hundreds of other pro-bono lawyers, migration agents and thousands of ordinary Australians, they have delivered conclusive refugee status to thousands of failed asylum seekers in detention. This is in spite of the court appeals by the Minister for Immigration.

After Merlin Luck conducted his mute and gagged FREE TH REFUGEES protest last year on live television (Channel Ten’s Big Brother), Vanstone had the audacity to spin the media by saying there were no refugees in Australian detention centres. Yet since last Christmas, through the work of these migration agents and pro-bono lawyers, the Minister had to release sixty Iranians from Baxter and about forty Afghans from Nauru and other centres after all these years.

For hundreds of these refugees, the price has been incarceration for three, four or five years and their psychological stability, not to mention the ongoing and usually degrading denial of the truth by guards since the initial grievous error of the single DIMIA officer who was in charge of their assessment. On appeal, denial of their status was affirmed by a single member of the Refugee Review Tribunal (RRT). According to the rules of the Migration Act a RRT member does not even need to be physically present in the room with an asylum seeker – they can hear the claim by video link.

Vietnamese refugees from the Hao Kiet. Nauru Wire

Vietnamese refugees from the Hao Kiet. Nauru Wire

The fifty-three Vietnamese asylum seekers who came to Port Hedland on the Hao Kiet boat two years ago were assessed in the usual way – one DIMIA officer – and the verdict was swift and complete: none of them were refugees. Now, after two years, forty of the group are refugees after their appeal to the RRT. That’s an error rate so far of 75 per cent for the Department of Immigration. The last thirteen received a blanket refusal from the same RRT member last week – but they not only came on the same boat, they are all from the one family group. Last year the Hao Kiet refugees filed a Federal Court appeal against the refusal of their claims, but just before it was due to be heard, the government admitted to the lawyer an error of law had been made, and invited them to return to the RRT.

On Sunday 5 June Vanstone went further than she had before, and launched for the first time an open attack on the Georgiou Bills, claiming that they would undermine the policy of mandatory detention. The full counter-offensive was preparing to go public just before the weekend of meetings of the Georgiou camp and the Prime Minister.

On Thursday 9 June Vanstone turned the first spade of the Villawood alternative detention facility. The Minister went on and on about the twittering birds, about glorious stands of wattle and about how terrific this type of detention for women and children would be – but within earshot was a group of middle class protesters: – a group representing ChilOut – the Children Out of Detention lobby – and the Refugee Council – chanting ‘Shame, shame’.

It was left to the Council’s chief Margaret Piper and ChilOut’s Alanna Sherry to tell the media about the guards, the video surveillance and the infra-red detection rays throughout the facility.

On the same day Vanstone announced Peter Qasim would be transferred to the Adelaide Glenside psychiatric hospital -another great and generous offer. In fact it was the man’s psychiatrist who had demanded his transfer to Glenside, and it was in no way a release: a demountable just outside the section in Glenside where the now nine broken detainees are held, houses eighteen guards – two per person – who probably do little else than play cards and drink coffee while we foot the gigantic bill. Of course entrepreneur Dick Smith, who visited Peter Qasim the next day, found him ‘more depressed than ever’. Smith received more media coverage than Vanstone and he reiterated his demands that Peter should be released.

News has just broken that negotiations between John Howard and the Georgiou group did not reap results that would avert the presentation of the two Bills in Parliament. The notes made above suggest that no common ground would be found during the talks in The Lodge.

First, the recent moves by the Immigration Minister and others who have shown a preparedness to undermine the intent of the Bills while at the same time manipulate information and present new initiatives amounting to nothing more than a new spin on old solutions.

Secondly, there is the Prime Minister who, given his record, was always more interested in suppressing what’s been growing for considerable time within coalition ranks, and who has shown a great deal of stubbornness in this policy area.

It is no wonder then that Howard made a crucial mistake this week. The Bills will lead their own life even if they get defeated in Parliament, if the number of MPs willing to stand with him fail the member for Kooyong.

Petro Georgiou and Judi Moylan are highly informed as a result of their strong links with the refugee lobby, and they would have been unlikely to give ground on such plain issues as no-compromise freedom for Peter Qasim. Their Bills were crafted with great care and devotion, clearly underpinned with highly skilled legal consultations, and they became only public after a very long preparation time.

The path into the next phase of Australia’s undoing of a shocking human rights endictment on our nation has been forged. We pray the path is short and swift.

Margo Kingston at her SMH Web Diary was the first reporter with her coverage of the party room meeting and kept a tally of the number of MPs who supported all or part of the Bills at Rebel Libs leap from five to nine: Howard gets more talks.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.