Michael Gordon August 19, 2014
On the eve of a meeting with Clive Palmer, Scott Morrison has belatedly pledged to get young children out of mainland detention centres and into the community on bridging visas by year’s end. To what end?
The answer can be found between the lines of Tuesday’s announcement: the minister wants to make a deal with the PUP leader to re-introduce temporary protection visas for refugees who come to this country the “wrong way”.
Whether he succeeds may hinge on whether the new Senate crossbench is happy to abide a situation where the damage done to one group of children in detention eventually prompts action, while nothing changes for hundreds of others on Christmas Island and Nauru.
Implicit in the announcement of this latest, money-saving, “dividend” of stopping the boats is a stark admission of policy incoherence.
Those who happened to arrive before July 19 last year with children under 10 will be released into the community because the impact on their physical and mental health of remaining in detention is recognised.
But those who arrived after that date will be subjected to a policy a calculated cruelty offshore (because the adverse consequences are now extremely well-documented), in order to send a message of deterrent to others.
Morrison says it has been the intention for months to release more children, but acknowledges that “plenty of people have been putting the word on the government to get children out of detention and release them on bridging visas”.
He also volunteers that the issue of children in detention has come up in his “positive” discussions with the crossbenchers on what to do with that pre-July 19 caseload.
The minister has previously been frustrated by the Senate and slapped down by the High Court in his efforts to restore temporary protection visas, prompting him to introduce his own “national interest” test for individually assessing applications by refugees for permanent visas.
Now, it would appear, he is attempting to show some good faith in discussions with Palmer and Co that could result in him getting his way.
The problem is that the government is acting belatedly and that the unpredictable populist Palmer has, thus far, been a consistent opponent of consigning asylum seekers to indefinite detention here or overseas.
While brutal treatment of arrivals is proven policy when it comes to stopping the boats, Morrison has demonstrated that his policy of turn-backs can also be effective in this regard (except when countries such as India refuse to play ball).
But giving only temporary protection to those who have demonstrated a genuine fear of persecution if returned to their homelands remains highly contentious, even on the narrow test of whether it acts as a deterrent.
With TPV-holders not offered any prospect of family reunion, it served as an inducement for people to risk their lives on boats under John Howard’s Pacific Solution because this seemed the only way for people to join immediate family members already here.
To Palmer, the deal-maker, Morrison has made his play, with no guarantee it will prove persuasive. This raises another question: what more does the minister have to offer?