Your Child, Our Prison Island: Bill Shorten Is Here To Save The (Non-Refugee) Children

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As New Matilda national affairs correspondent Ben Eltham noted yesterday, Labor has a rather impressive education plan it’s currently hawking, to little fanfare.

Undeterred, leader Bill Shorten ventured to the bellwether seat of Eden-Monaro this morning along with his Shadow Education Minister Kate Ellis, spruiking the party’s promise to have 95 per cent of Aussie tots make it all the way through to a year 12 education by 2020. The name of the plan? ‘Your Child. Our Future’.

The problem for Bill was the media assembled at St Gregory’s Primary School weren’t interested in hearing it: they were more keen to hear the Leader of the Opposition’s take on the pending High Court challenge to offshore detention.

The case, which the High Court struck down later in the morning, had seen refugees moved from Nauru to Australia for medical reasons kept in the country as it progressed through the court system. Its completion means 267 people now face a return to the island nation, not least among them a five-year-old boy alleged raped on Nauru. Once again, doctors have risked jail to bring his story to light.

So what, asked one journalist, was Shorten’s message to the government about the children facing removal.

“I think Mr Turnbull has to do something about the inordinate delays in terms of processing people who are on Manus and Nauru. It’s wrong. The times have blown out under this current Government,” Shorten said.

“And we’ll have to see what the High Court says and obviously read that decision. But in the meantime, I do think that Mr Turnbull and his immigration spokesperson have got to explain why things are taking so much longer than they should.”

That’s right. Don’t worry too much about returning a child to the environment where their abuser continues to live. Never mind the fact their life will continue in a state of limbo even if they are not overtly harmed again. Don’t beat yourself up about sending traumatised children back to an underdeveloped tropical island instead of settling them in a wealthy nation capable of handling their acute health and educational needs.

No, these are not the issues that trouble Bill Shorten, who could only point to a minor administrative criticism when framing his response.

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Labor re-established offshore processing on Manus and Nauru in its last term in government and has continued to support the policy ever since, so Shorten’s refusal to criticise the policy of sending children there hardly comes as a surprise. Since becoming Leader of the Opposition he and Shadow Immigration Minister Richard Marles have declined to look too closely at the gross abuses in offshore detention, instead insisting they would run them better if returned to government.

But even by Bill’s standard this response seemed cold. He was in a school, after all, trying to bottle the hopes and dreams of the children of St Gregory’s and distil them into the headier brew of political capital. If ever there was a time to think of the children it was surely now.

After declining to answer questions about the High Court case, the presser moved on until a journalist brought things back to immigration towards the end.

“The doctors that have spoken out about conditions on Nauru on the ABC last night,” they noted. “Should they face jail time under the new Border Force Act considering Labor supported those changes?”

No, replied Shorten, they shouldn’t face jail, before noting Labor supports whistleblower protections… despite helping pass a law that criminalises whistleblowing on immigration detention with a two-year jail sentence.

“Last question thanks,” he added.

If the ‘Your Child. Our Future’ tag didn’t sound a little creepy at the outset of the press conference it certainly did by the conclusion.

Slow processing is indeed a problem. So too is the ongoing documentation of sexual assault, violence, and self-harm both inside and outside of offshore detention centres. Maybe it wouldn’t hurt if the Opposition asked the government to explain that.

“Rural and regional Australia needs a defender and Bill Shorten is that man,” Eden-Monaro candidate Mike Kelly told the gathered media.

The children in Australia facing return to Nauru are still waiting for theirs.

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Max Chalmers

Max Chalmers is a former New Matilda journalist and editorial staff member. His main areas of interest are asylum seekers, higher education and politics.

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