Backing away from mandatory detention

by John Q on June 18, 2005

The big news from Australia this weekend was a relaxation of the policy of mandatory detention of asylum seekers, by far the harshest in the developed world. The changes were forced on Prime Minister Howard by a backbench revolt in his own Liberal Party. Four prominent backbenchers threatened to cross the floor, an event that is extremely rare in Australian politics.

This turnaround may have implications well beyond Australia

As Howard has pointed out on quite a few occasions, Australia led the developed world in devising and implementing harsh policies to deter and punish asylum seekers. Howard’s victory in the 2001 election, dominated by the Tampa episode, was a signal that these policies could be big political winners.

His British Tory namesake, Michael Howard, advised by Australian Liberal Lynton Crosby tried unsuccessfully to replicate the Liberals’ 2001 success in the recent UK election campaign, but this failure was due in part to the fact that the Blair government had already gone a fair direction along the path blazed by Australia.

In these circumstances, the fact that Australia is now backing away from the worst aspects of its policies is highly significant in international terms. Other countries and parties that may have been considering mandatory detention may now be less likely to take it up.

As Australian Democrat Senator and bloggerAndrew Bartlett points out, these changes are an inadequate compromise, which won’t for example end the detention of children or prohibit indefinite detention (see also this analysis from Chilout (group campaigning for the release of children from detention (Word doc)). They greatly increase the discretion given to the minister (Amanda Vanstone) and the Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs, both utterly discredited by their previous handling of these issues.

But what’s significant here is the turn of the political tide. For the first time, mandatory detention has clearly become a losing issue for the government. Howard may be overstating the extent of the reforms, but that fact is significant in itself. It’s an indication of the pressure he faces to do more.

This will have practical as well as rhetorical consequences. Instead of having incentives to be as ruthless as possible, Vanstone and DIMIA now face real pressure to act humanely. I hope and expect that discretion will be used to release more people (particularly, but not only, children and parents) from the evils of detention.

And having sat of the fence on this topic, Labor now has little choice but to press the government for more reforms. I hope and expect that Howard’s backdown on this occasion will be followed by further reforms.



Matt 06.18.05 at 7:18 pm

Thanks for passing this on, John- it’s good news, even if not as good as it might be. Those of us interested in asylum/refugee issues need all the good news we can get these days.


Billings 06.18.05 at 10:05 pm

Are the Australian detention centers also called “gulags”?


bi 06.18.05 at 11:53 pm

No, but Billings is called a “troll”, and rightly so.


Mill 06.19.05 at 9:53 am

Troll or not, they were and are often referred to as gulags by activists. Here’s a typical example:

“Very few staff who have been employed at Australia’s refugee gulags, have spoken out about the treatment meted out to refugees because of binding confidentiality agreements they are required to sign to obtain employment.”

Off-topic, but the real problem with the whole “Gitmo is a gulag” thing is not that gulag is too _bad_ a word for the place, but that the word “gulag”, like “fascist”, “nazi” etc., has been so wildly and hyperbolically overused over the decades that it no longer has any force at all.

Back on-topic: this is great news and it’s especially encouraging to see Liberal backbenchers pushing things over the edge.


Jim Birch 06.20.05 at 2:21 am

Funny who will take up political correctness when it suits.


bi 06.20.05 at 2:39 am

Jim Birch: pinko.


s0metim3s 06.21.05 at 2:31 am

There’s no hyperbole in calling Baxter, Port Hedland and other similar places ‘concentration camps’. This is the legally precise term for indefinite, extra-judicial internment. Those who wince at the apparent ‘excess’ of terms such as ‘gulag’ and ‘concentration camp’ are in denial about the legal conditions in which those camps are established and maintained.

And, btw, the Australian Labor Party have not ‘sat on the fence’ on this question. They introduced the policy of so-called ‘mandatory detention’ in 1992 (a move led by the Socialist Left faction of the ALP), and have consistently supported it while in opposition.

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