Former Labor Immigration Minister Chris Bowen has defended his legacy and stood by the previous Labor government’s decision to settle children offshore and detain them on Manus Island and Nauru.
At today’s fifth Australian Human Rights Commission’s (AHRC) public hearing into the detention of children, Bowen told President Gillian Triggs that refusing to send children to the Papua New Guinea-based centre would have incentivised people smugglers to send more children on boats.
“It was my view a minister is doing a very dangerous thing if they announce an exemption publicly,” Bowen said.
“Having said that, with no alacrity did I want to send children to Manus Island or anywhere else.
“There were others saying I hadn’t sent enough children, including the current minister.”
Children were later removed from Manus Island and the camp is now used exclusively for male asylum seekers, two of whom have died in detention, but 183 children remain detained on Nauru.
Curiously, Bowen was not asked by Triggs to comment on allegations made by former senior Department of Immigration figure Gregory Lake, who told a previous hearing that while Bowen was Minister he was instructed to send “children who looked the youngest” to Manus Island first, to send a warning to others.
Asked in a presser after the hearing if Lake’s account was accurate, Bowen said: “certainly from my perspective, no”.
Bowen’s appearance before the Commission came as a surprise, after journalists had been informed Morrison’s Canberra testimony would conclude the inquiry’s public hearings.
The former minister told the Commission that he visited Christmas Island just one week after becoming minister and was personally moved to order the release of all children from detention, an order that he subsequently stepped away from.
Counsel Assisting the Commission Naomi Sharp said that by April 2013 there were still 1,600 children in closed detention, and Triggs asked the former Minister why releases had been so slow.
While refugee advocates have accused Bowen of being selective and dragging his heels on releases, the now Shadow Treasurer said the release of children was undertaken “as fast as the system could bear”.
Before attention turned to Bowen, Triggs took the opportunity to defend the Commission’s inquiry, which Morrison and conservative pundits have consistently derided as partisan, questioning why similar proceedings were not held while Labor was in office.
Triggs said the Commission had in fact decided to undertake the inquiry in the final day’s of the previous Labor government but opted to wait until after the election so that it would not coincide with the campaign or the handover during caretaker government.
Triggs said under Labor the AHRC had “consistently and persistently” made submissions to parliament on the issue, and had undertaken a review of the practice of performing wrist-scans to determine the age of asylum seekers, which had successfully changed government policy on the issue.
Under questioning, Bowen also revealed that during his time as minister he asked the Department of Immigration to investigate the possibility of removing the Minister as legal guardian for unaccompanied minors, a move many submissions to the inquiry have already called for, and one supported by the Greens.
At a previous hearing, current Minister for Immigration Scott Morrison said he saw no conflict of interest in the minister holding the role, despite evidence later in the day revealing unaccompanied minors had been subject to “unnecessary” force in detention.
Though expressing ongoing support for hardline measures, including offshore settlement, Bowen told the inquiry that detention of children onshore should not be used as a deterrent to stop others trying to come to Australia.
Asked if he acknowledged the “devastating impact” detention has on those held, Bowen said no refugee camp anywhere in the world was “nice” but that “how a detention centre is run is very, very important”, apparently contradicting evidence given by doctors at previous hearings, who told the Commission that no level of service tinkering could bring Christmas Island and Nauru to a suitable level of care.
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