How Petro Georgiou, federal member for Kooyong, leads the quiet pack on a new trail of independence
“The new political situation means that it is Coalition backbenchers who will receive the overtures from interest groups which up to now have been directed at Democrats, Greens and independents holding the balance of power in the Senate.
One Coalition senator crossing the floor after July 1 will be enough to defeat a Government measure opposed by Labor. Added pressures will come from a large back bench and the frustrated ambitions of those denied promotion during a long period in office.”
14 June 2005: Countering the Kooyong breakout: Howard supporters and their anti-Georgiou camp strategies – Since the February speech in Parliament by Petro Georgiou, several front-benchers in the Howard government have been beavering away in an effort to control the damage.
12 June 2005: A summary of the Georgiou Bills – This is a copy of communication sent by Petro Georgiou MP to all MP’s in the Coalition government on 24 May this year. The communication summarises the two Bills tabled in the Coalition party room that same date.
8 June 2005: Debunking anti-Georgiou camp tactics – Myths are being peddled by A-G Phillip Ruddock, Hon Peter Costello, intended to influence Mr Malcolm Turnbull and others in the Liberal-National Coalition, in what we see as an attempt to discredit the Petro Georgiou Bills. Here are the facts that debunk those myths.
February 18, 2005
PETRO Georgiou is a Liberal MP with a big contribution to make to national politics.
At least, that is what his colleagues have long thought. In his 20s, he was a senior adviser to Malcolm Fraser as prime minister, going on to become director of the Victorian Liberal Party and since 1994 the member for Kooyong, the blue-blood Melbourne seat previously held by Andrew Peacock and Robert Menzies.
Eleven years later, Georgiou remains on the back bench, the high opinion of him among many Liberals apparently not shared by John Howard. Georgiou is a moderate or small “l” Liberal in a party which has grown increasingly conservative. Howard learned in his years in Opposition that it was not a good look to exclude moderates, and that is why Robert Hill, Philip Ruddock and Amanda Vanstone are in his cabinet. They have prospered roughly in proportion to the degree to which they have been willing to set aside their “wet” beliefs. Exhibit A is Ruddock, who in Opposition crossed the floor to vote with the Hawke government on a motion supporting a non-discriminatory immigration policy and who as immigration minister designed some of the harshest policies in the world against boat people.
Georgiou has remained true to his beliefs, though he has usually expressed them in the semi-privacy of the party room. It may be a sign of the times that last week he rose in the House of Representatives to talk about meeting the challenge of innovation and renewal for a party in office for a long period.
He commended the Government for doing so on economic, health and education policies but pointed to its failure onrefugees.
“Our policies towards asylum-seekers were premised on concern about vast numbers of undeserving and potentially dangerous people landing on our shores,” he said. “Today, unauthorised boat arrivals have all but ceased and the great majority of people they carried have turned out to be genuine refugees. There were no terrorists hiding among the asylum-seekers … If a crisis situation justifies severe measures and the crisis passes, on what basis can the severe measures be perpetuated?” Provided they passed health and security checks, the remaining several hundred asylum-seekers in detention should be released into the community while their applications were processed, he said.
Georgiou did not say, nor did he need to, that it was Howard and Ruddock who, in the fevered atmosphere of 2001 and with an election to be won, characterised boat people as terrorists and subhuman for being willing to drown their children. According to Department of Immigration figures, of the 9160 boat arrivals in the three years to June 2002, 8260 or 90per cent were found to be refugees — that is, people with a well-founded fear of persecution or death if forced to return to their homelands. In short, boat people were never a threat.
At a time when Cornelia Rau’s case is evoking widespread sympathy, Georgiou’s speech is a reminder of what we are doing to human beings who, like her, end up in detention centres.
He pointed out that some people had been locked up for more than four years and one, Mohammed Qasim, for more than six years — longer, he added, than the average jail term for robbers and rapists, even though his only crime is that he cannot find a country to accept him.
Georgiou also argued for a one-off amnesty for the remaining 6700 boat people who have been accepted as genuine refugees but remain on temporary protection visas. Following the relaxation of the rules last year, most of the Afghans are now gaining permanent refugee status — but only after a tortuous process which involves their applications first being rejected by the Immigration Department and then accepted, as long as a year later, by the Refugee Review Tribunal. Most Iraqi TPV holders are still waiting for their cases to be processed.
Many of these people’s lives have been in limbo for four or five years. With the number of refugees worldwide in decline and no boats coming to Australia, it seems pointless to extend their misery for the sake of some notion of looking hairy-chested overseas.
With control of both houses of parliament from July 1 and a rare degree of internal discipline, Howard now is in a stronger position than any prime minister for many years. But politics abhors a vacuum. Georgiou represents a small group of moderates in the parliament, and a larger group of voters outside, who feel strongly on issues such as refugees and Iraq. Their potency was evident in the swings against Liberals in inner-city seats at last year’s election, defying the national trend. His views already have been endorsed by two of his colleagues — Liberal Judi Moylan and the National John Forrest.
More broadly, the new political situation means that it is Coalition backbenchers who will receive the overtures from interest groups which up to now have been directed at Democrats, Greens and independents holding the balance of power in the Senate. One Coalition senator crossing the floor after July 1 will be enough to defeat a Government measure opposed by Labor. Added pressures will come from a large back bench and the frustrated ambitions of those denied promotion during a long period in office. That includes Peter Costello and his supporters. The setting up of a backbench group promoting tax reform and a revived group of women MPs are other signs of restlessness.
None of this is to say that large-scale revolts are likely, particularly not while the Coalition continues to travel well electorally. Big-ticket items such as the sale of Telstra are likely to be carried, despite the increased leverage of the Nationals in the Senate, though the concessions required may not come cheap.
But even at the peak of his power, not everything will be plain sailing for Howard.
Five steps to a more compassionate policy
By Petro Georgiou
February 18, 2005
For humanitarian and practical reasons, we should exhibit more tolerance.
Australia is a big, generous nation. Among our best traditions are compassion, tolerance and justice. These are exemplified in our policies towards refugees whom we select overseas and bring for permanent settlement. To asylum seekers and refugees who come uninvited, however, our response has been harsh. I have been deeply concerned that vulnerable men, women and children have been harmed by tough policies that were introduced because of the fear that vast numbers of people without valid claims to our protection would land on our shores.
The fear of a flood of bogus asylum seekers has not been realised. The atmosphere of crisis that saw the introduction of severe measures has passed. Yet two groups of people continue to be particularly affected by policies implemented during the past decade. One is asylum seekers in detention, of whom there are now only several hundred. The other is the approximately 7000 people who were individually assessed as being refugees and released to live in the community, but who have only temporary permission to stay. I believe there are strong humanitarian and practical grounds for an act of compassion towards both groups.
First, asylum seekers in detention should be released into the community while their applications for refugee status are assessed, except for those who pose a risk on health or security grounds or who are likely to abscond. Second, we should allow those who have been found to be refugees and who are living in the community on temporary protection visas, to remain permanently.
Some argue that boat arrivals have ceased because of our mandatory detention policy and that if we were to relax that policy there would be a flood of unauthorised arrivals. But the evidence does not demonstrate this connection. Very few unauthorised people arrived in the decade before the Keating government introduced mandatory detention in 1992. The greatest number of arrivals (4175 people) occurred in 1999-2000 after the policy was well established.
Mandatory detention did not deter unauthorised arrivals. The factors that have been primarily responsible for stopping the flow of boats and refugees include the changed political situation in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the actions of Australia and regional states to combat people smugglers.
Mandatory detention is also supported by some as being necessary to prevent asylum seekers absconding while their applications are being assessed. But international and Australian experience suggests that we don’t need to detain everyone who arrives without a visa to achieve this objective: we can assess whether and for how long individuals need to be detained on a case-by-case basis. If we have determined that an asylum seeker is healthy, not a danger to the public and is unlikely to abscond while their application is being assessed, there is no good reason why they cannot be released promptly into the community until their status is determined. Release can be subject to monitoring conditions to keep track of them.
There is an equally compelling case for an act of compassion towards the people who were found to be refugees and granted permission to live in Australia, but only temporarily: they should be allowed to remain here permanently.
The system of Temporary Protection Visas (TPVs) was introduced in 1999 to deter refugees from seeking asylum in Australia by granting them permission to stay for only three years, and by denying them significant rights such as family reunion. It now seems clear that many refugees who hold TPVs will continue to live in anxiety and fear of being returned to places of great insecurity, still separated from their families.
Finally, I believe we must change the system that allows people to be kept in detention indefinitely if they are not eligible for visas but cannot be deported because no other country will take them.
Such is the situation of Muhammed (Peter) Qasim who is in his seventh year of detention. Qasim and the Department of Immigration disagree about some facts of his case, but what is not in dispute is that Qasim is detained with no indication of when, if ever, he may be released, although he is neither a convicted criminal nor is he alleged to be a danger to the Australian public.
In a democracy committed to the protection of human rights, the executive’s power to deprive people of liberty should not be as unconstrained as it is at present.
In summary, I believe we should implement the following measures:
- While their applications for protection visas are being assessed, all detained asylum seekers should be released into the community unless it is necessary to detain someone because, for example, there is a real risk they will abscond.
- Replace the mandatory detention of all unauthorised asylum seekers with a targeted detention system under which we detain people if necessary on specified grounds such as a threat to national security, public health and safety, or likelihood of the applicant absconding. The necessity for detention should be subject to review by an independent authority.
- Allow the refugees who are on temporary protection visas to remain permanently and resume our traditional policy of granting permanent residency to those whom we determine are refugees.
- Appoint an independent person or panel to review the cases of long-term immigration detainees and determine whether it is necessary to detain them.
- Establish guidelines setting out grounds for detention and provide that decisions about detention should be subject to review by a judicial or other independent body.
Petro Georgiou is the federal Liberal member for Kooyong.
Liberal presses long-term detainee’s case
By Michelle Grattan, Meagan Shaw
February 17, 2005
The case of Australia’s longest-serving detainee is alarming Government backbenchers.
Liberal backbench concern is growing over the fate of Peter Qasim, Australia’s longest-held detainee, with Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone pressed at a Coalition migration committee meeting to consider his release.
At Monday’s meeting Victorian MP Phillip Barresi asked Senator Vanstone about Mr Qasim’s incarceration, now more than six years.
Mr Barresi expressed concern that the Government was detaining a stateless person indefinitely and said there must be some way of resolving the case without setting a precedent.
He and other Liberals are planning to visit the Baxter detention centre in the next fortnight.
The joint parliamentary committee on migration yesterday decided to visit Baxter in April.
Senator Vanstone told the backbench committee that Mr Qasim’s case, along with others, would continue to be reviewed, although she did not give the impression this meant he would be released.
Other MP’s at the meeting were worried by aspects of the detainee policy.
This follows calls by Victorian Liberal Petro Georgiou, West Australian Liberal Judi Moylan, and the Nationals’ Whip John Forrest for detainees generally to be released.
Senator Vanstone told The Age yesterday she would continue to re-examine the circumstances of each long-term detainee. “This does not mean re-running past requests for ministerial intervention, but it will mean considering what are the most appropriate arrangements for each individual”.
Mr Qasim is from Indian-occupied Kashmir but India will not take him back.
- with Andra Jackson
A letter to Petro Georgiou MP
Petro Georgiou is a Member of the House of Representatives, for the electorate of Kooyong, Victoria.
This is the letter sent by Project SafeCom in reply to his 9 February 2005 speech about refugees and asylum seekers in the Australian Federal Parliament.
Note: Mr Georgiou’s speech is also posted on this page, see below.
Thursday, 10 February 2005
To Mr Petro Georgiou
Member for Kooyong
695 Burke Road
Hawthorn East Vic 3123
Dear Mr Georgiou
It is with great admiration that I write to you today. As I write, I review your speech about refugees and asylum seekers in yesterday’s Parliamentary sitting, and for us at Project SafeCom, it’s not a speech that seems “extraordinary”: many speakers have voiced the same sentiments, and hundreds of articles, dozens of research papers, and some 20-odd books can be reviewed about the same issues.
It’s perhaps the simplicity and openness of your speech that determines its strength, but it’s not just the speech that evokes my admiration – and I think it may be shared by many of us at Project SafeCom: it is the fact that you spoke these words in the context of being a member of the current Howard government.
As you no doubt will know – much better than we do – you will not be thanked by the prime minister for the delivery of this speech, and as we also know, neither were you thanked by the treasurer the Hon Peter Costello, who was quick to point out this morning to the media in reaction to your speech, that the immigration and detention policies are fine as they are. In fact, we feel this immediate “closing of the ranks” is one of the deep-seated problems in the Howard administration.
Normally, the closing of ranks of a party would be a healthy sign of its workings, but in the kind of one-ness in the current government, we’re talking about policies and an administration that has created an situation where Australia is committing human rights abuses, and then tells Australians that what we do is perfectly legal, where – as some people keep pointing out to us – the Howard government is liable for prosecution under the Torture Convention, where we make a mockery of the intent of the UN Refugee Convention, and where, apart from all legalities, we create life-long traumas, psychological damage and mental illness to hundreds and hundreds of innocent people who came here simply to exercise their international rights under the UN Convention.
In terms of mental illness, just yesterday we learnt on ABC Lateline, how the government is happy to use our taxpayers’ money to get the work of three internationally renowned senior psychiatrists and researchers at the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists (Dr Louise Newman, Dr Derek Silove and Dr Zachary Steel) seriously discredited – but not only that, that the (virtually unknown) psychiatrist clearly also undertook actions that amount to an effort to undermining their careers.
That’s the ‘thank-you’ reserved for you if you dare speak out about the fact that Baxter now is a de-facto psychiatric institution.
We are of the view that we have lived in a serious national human rights emergency since the Tampa affair of 2001, and nothing in the dealings and further legislation of the Howard government since that time has eased this emergency. You will be well informed that as a result of the Tampa legislation, tens of thousands of Australians stood up and started to act, many of them full-time or in addition to their normal full-time occupations, as a result of what they saw as a severe manipulation and erosion of the rights of asylum seekers to arrive on Australian shores unannounced.
Just this week the Sydney Morning Herald opinion writer Miranda Devine, who we do not at all count amongst our usual friends, called the refugee movement “the most potent lobby group in Australia”. At Project SafeCom we organised ourselves as one of these groups at the time of Tampa, and our voice has not diminished since those days – the work we needed to do required more than the equivalent of a full-time occupation.
Now that both the High Court and the Family Court have been unable to undo laws that may well be entirely legal, but nevertheless are inhuman and that amount to instruments that legalise torture, there are no further methods left to our avail that can undo the raft of laws and regulations that we see as the very cause of the ongoing injustice and nullification of human rights, now so entrenched in Australia – unless the politicians themselves seek changes to those laws.
Lately the image of the Iranian government comes to mind when I consider the situation in Australia. I mean, that Iran is a country with an elected government. Iran is a country, which is a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention. Yet the power of the Mullahs and the Iranian Religious Council is unflinching in its implementation of Sharia Law, reserving more than 70 forms of torture for those “who trespass”.
Last year, some time before the Iranian election, a Human Rights Bill was due to be discussed in Parliament – for the first time in modern Iranian history. For a while the news made headlines around the world. But alas, the pressure and influence of the Mullahs prevented the debate from ever taking place. But, remarkably, within this context, a handful of elected reformist parliamentarians conducted a sit-in on the floor of parliament – from memory it lasted three days.
I greatly admired those parliamentarians, because their courageous actions may well have resulted in a “blacklisting” of them as well as of their families by the Religious Council when the time came for this year’s election.
And sadly, the memory of reading about those events in Iran brings me to think that parliamentarians who do not want to shirk their conscience or compromise convictions about human rights issues, that should not be compromised in the current Australian government, may now need to start considering the use of new and more unusual methods of being seen and heard, of reaching significance in the media or on the record of parliamentary proceedings.
I also ponder about the well-known “crossing of the floor” by the Hon Phillip Ruddock on 25 August 1988, then in opposition, joining with the Hawke government, opposing a motion by the Hon John Howard over a commitment “not to use race or ethnic origin as a basis of immigration policy”, and I wonder whether a strategic crossing of the floor may be an option some members in the coalition government may need to consider.
There have been some notable examples from the backbench since Tampa, such as the fact that the Hon Judy Moylan declared herself absent from Parliament when the Tampa Bills were rushed (or manipulated?) through the House. Notable examples, but to force more changes, stronger methods may be needed.
When the Dutch government reported on its army’s failure to maintain a safe haven in Kosovo as instructed by the UN, was released in the 1990′s – resulting in the preventable deaths of many residents in the area – the government bowed its head in shame and resigned, yet when psychiatrists, thousands of refugee advocates, international human rights bodies, the UN, churches and Amnesty International brings out reports pointing at the serious failures of the Australian government, the team of players in the Howard administration goes into “spin mode”, manipulates the information that goes out to the Australian public, and discredits all the bringers of the bad tidings, and it feels just fine about using hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of tax payer dollars to keep its shocking policies standing up.
This is a grave situation. We ask for your help and commitment, fiercely, and in an unwavering way.
I ask you to consider this letter, and I ask you to consider the creation of a strong group in the coalition government that opposes, loudly and clearly, many of the issues I have touched on in this letter – perhaps a group under the broad banner of “parliamentarians for human rights”. Perhaps even a private member’s bill could be presented about a Bill of Rights.
For Project SafeCom Inc.
Jack H. Smit
- A copy of this letter has also been sent to the following members and senators in the Liberal/National Coalition: Hon Bruce Baird, Member for Cook, Hon Jackie Kelly, Member for Lindsay, Mr John Forrest, Member for Mallee, Hon Judi Moylan, Member for Pearce, Mr Patrick Secker, Member for Barker, Marise Payne, Senator for New South Wales, and Mr Greg Hunt, Member for Flinders.
Georgiou revives the liberal conscience in Parliament
(Old SMH) Web Diary
February 10, 2005 12:53 PM
Petro Georgiou (Liberal, Kooyong) has become the first Liberal to speak out in Parliament against government policy under the Howard regime. Here is yesterday’s speech calling for a rethink on demandatory detention.
… As I have said, innovation and change are important. I want to raise one area where I believe innovation and change are necessary and possible, and that is in the area of refugees and asylum seekers.
Our policies towards asylum seekers were premised on concern about vast numbers of undeserving and potentially dangerous people landing on our shores. Today, unauthorised boat arrivals have all but ceased and the great majority of people they carried have turned out to be genuine refugees. There were no terrorists hiding amongst the asylum seekers.
Globally the number of refugees has nearly halved during the last decade. Of particular significance to Australia is the fact that refugees have stopped flowing from Afghanistan and Iraq, two of the main source countries of asylum seekers coming here without visas.
If a crisis situation justifies severe measures and the crisis passes, on what basis can the severe measures be perpetuated? In brief, I believe that we need to release asylum seekers in detention, of whom there are only a couple of hundred, who have passed health and security checks and place them in the community until their applications have been processed.
I believe that thousands of genuine refugees who have temporary protection visas should be given permanent residence in a one-off amnesty.
But today I want to focus, albeit briefly, on the policy of indefinite detention. The average prison sentence for people convicted of rape and other sexual crimes in Victoria and New South Wales is just over four years and it is between two and three years for offenders guilty of robbery, abduction or kidnapping. In Australia’s immigration detention centres there are people who have been locked up for more than four years, the longest being for more than six years.
These people are detained indefinitely, potentially for life, because they have been found to be ineligible for an Australian visa and we cannot find another country to accept them.
In the US the nation’s courts have recently drawn upon the bill of rights in the constitution to question the government assertion of complete authority to indefinitely detain immigrants who cannot be deported. The Australian Constitution has fewer provisions for the protection of human rights. In 2004, by a 4-3 majority, the High Court decided that the government had the legal power to indefinitely detain people it wished to deport even if it is in practice impossible to deport them. In the relevant case, Al-Kateb v Godwin, Mr Justice McHugh, one of the majority, said:
- “As long as the detention is for the purpose of deportation or preventing aliens from entering Australia or the Australian community, the justice or wisdom of the course taken by the Parliament is not examinable in this or any other domestic court. It is not for courts, exercising federal jurisdiction, to determine whether the course taken by Parliament is unjust or contrary to basic human rights.”
The result of this policy is illustrated by Mohammed, or Peter, Qasim, who has spent more than six years in immigration detention and may be imprisoned for life. Mr Qasim and the department of immigration disagree about some of the circumstances of his situation.
But what is beyond doubt is that Mr Qasim is not detained because he has been charged or convicted of any crime, nor is he suspected of terrorism or is in any respect alleged to constitute a danger to the Australian community. Mr Qasim has been detained for a period longer than the average sentence of imprisonment for robbers and rapists because he is ineligible for an Australian visa and we cannot find another country to take him.
To put it simply, I believe that the policy of indefinite detention of people who have committed no crime – and I think this is a position actually supported by both sides of the parliament – and who pose no threat to the Australian community should not be sustained.
Glenn Milne: A downhill slope for PM
February 21, 2005
The phone lines have been crackling between Liberal MPs since Parliament got up last Thursday for a two-week break.
The subject has been John Howard’s performance. And they are conversations the Prime Minister would not have liked. For the first time in the party room there is a genuine – as distinct from self-serving – discussion about whether Howard has begun to lose his political touch; straws in the wind, admittedly. But worrying ones.
The angst over Howard’s political “feel” was also driven home physically by the news that the Prime Minister had installed an amplification system in the cabinet room in order to hear his colleagues at the other end of the cabinet table. While Howard has suffered from hearing problems since childhood, the reports of the appearance of the “black box” in the cabinet room inevitably prompted talk about his advancing age and the prospect of his serving another full term.
But what’s concerning Liberal MPs more than the issue of the Prime Minister’s hearing has been his performance inside the party room. It began last week with a question to Howard at the joint party meeting from the National Party member for Mallee, John Forrest. The normally reticent Forrest was angry about the behaviour of immigration department officials inside his electorate.
Mallee, as the name suggests, is a rural seat in the northwestern corner of Victoria, butting on to the South Australian Riverland. One of its big industries is fruit and vegetable growing. The growers rely heavily on itinerant labour at picking time. As a result the orchards and market gardens are a honey pot for illegal migrants who can’t find legitimate and permanent work. But, Forrest told Howard, the immigration department had now overstepped the mark in attempting to crack down on these “illegals”. He accused immigration officials of going on to properties and making arrests without proper warrants. It was not policing so much as harassment.
Within the spectrum of the Coalition party room, Forrest would not ordinarily be classed as a bleeding heart. Although, like many rural MPs who’ve witnessed first-hand the positive contribution refugees make to country communities, he’s becoming an increasingly vocal critic of Australia’s detention system. What happened next raised eyebrows. Howard gave Forrest something of a lecture. He defended the immigration department against Forrest’s attack describing them as “front line” officers doing their duty to protect Australia’s borders. But he then went further, likening them to Australia’s soldiers in Iraq. MPs were bemused. The comment later was that the analogy was simply over the top and inappropriate. Forrest was complaining about bureaucrats exceeding their powers. To elevate them to the status of Australian soldiers in Baghdad was just unreasonable and irrelevant.
MPs simply didn’t know what Howard was on about. Subsequent conversations centred on the fact that two years ago the Prime Minister would have thanked Forrest for his observations and promised to refer the matter to Immigration Minister, Amanda Vanstone, for investigation. The party room meeting didn’t get any better for Howard. Two of his most ardent supporters are Jackie Kelly and Warren Entsch. When Howard goes into political battle, Entsch carries his shield and Kelly is his flag bearer.
But both used last week’s party room meeting to criticise Howard’s handling of the Cornelia Rau affair. Kelly said the federal Government had put far too little money into mental health. In particular, she cited schizophrenia, which she had been dealing with as an issue for 20 years. Entsch, a former crocodile farmer from the northern tip of Queensland with a hide to match, said Howard and the Government should have apologised to Rau. This left the Prime Minister to repeat his legalistic defence that he would not pre-empt the findings of the Palmer inquiry into the Rau case with any public apology. Again, MPs were left shaking their heads.
Many, if not most in the party room, believe Howard has completely misread the public mood on Rau. That misreading was only underlined when Costello did what Howard would not. The Treasurer said “sorry” on behalf of both himself and the Government. It was a stance later vindicated by opinion polls showing 70 per cent of respondents thought that was exactly what was required.
Two additional points have informed MPs’ judgment of Howard’s miscalculation; the first is that Rau’s family have said publicly they are not litigious and will not be pursuing compensation. The second is that on any reading of the available facts – regardless of the findings of the Palmer inquiry – the federal Government is already illegally liable. It’s an open and shut case – a mentally ill woman was locked up by the immigration department at a detention centre for four months. End of story.
For MPs concerned about Howard’s party room performance, there was no encouragement either in Parliament. The Prime Minister has been constantly at his backbench about the need for humility in the face of the Coalition’s July takeover of both the Senate and the House of Representatives.
Yet last week when faced with repeated questions from a newly resurgent and recycled Kim Beazley on allegations from a former senior defence officer that Australians had been involved in interrogating Iraqis, Howard chose to stonewall. Defence Minister Robert Hill could take care of such detailed questions, the Prime Minister told Parliament. It looked, and sounded arrogant.
Again, the judgment has been from Howard’s own backbench that two years ago the Prime Minister would have been across the issue with answers at the ready. In the words of one NSW Liberal MP: “Howard’s now like the skier at the top of the slope. Inevitably he’s going to have to go downhill.” But as with all things in politics, it’s a question of timing. And right now Howard can take solace from the fact that Labor’s still struggling to get its ski boots on.
Bracks Government supports release of asylum seekers
From the Minister Assisting the Premier on Multicultural Affairs
Friday, 11 February 2005
The Bracks Government welcomes Victorian Liberal Petro Georgiou’s call for the release of asylum seekers into the community, the Minister Assisting the Premier on Multicultural Affairs, John Pandazopoulos, said today.
“The Bracks Government has long been a strong supporter of refugees and asylum seekers and we congratulate Mr Georgiou for breaking ranks with the Howard government and calling for an overhaul of the immigration detention system in Australia and certainty for people on temporary protection visas,” Mr Pandazopoulos said.
“There are obviously serious problems with the Commonwealth Government’s policy towards refugees and asylum seekers. It’s time to end the unacceptable system of indefinitely detaining people with unresolved cases.
“Any detention should be short-term to allow identity, health and security checks to be completed. The asylum seeker process works far too slowly and it’s outrageous that some people spend years in detention.
“Mr Georgiou is absolutely correct in stating that the thousands of genuine refugees who have temporary protection visas should be given permanent residence.
“This is something that the states have been pursuing whole-heartedly, and it is encouraging to see that there are some members of the Howard Government who recognise the absurdity of the current system.”
Mr Pandazopoulos said in May 2004 the Bracks Government received the backing of all Australian states and territories for a resolution calling on the Commonwealth Government to grant permanent residency to Temporary Protection Visa (TPV) holders who had settled within the community and wished to remain in Australia.
“TPV holders are a valuable asset to our community and to our economy. In several locations they are filling jobs that are suffering from skill shortages and are vital to the local economy, especially in rural communities,” Mr Pandazopoulos said.
“Clearly it is now time for the Commonwealth to apply a more humane policy to those in immigration and detention.”
The Bulletin: Detention dissenters
By Paul Daley
The PM has weathered a backbench revolt on asylum-seekers, writes Paul Daley.
John Howard has called for a government rethink of the indefinite detention of asylum-seekers in response to potentially embarrassing Liberal backbench moves for a private member’s bill against the policy.
In a sign of acute internal unease at the government’s conservative social policy drift since 1996, Liberal MPs told The Bulletin it was made clear that a private member’s bill would be moved in defiance of the contentious government policy if federal cabinet did not reconsider the detention system.
A private member’s bill would force Liberal backbench and cabinet conservatives to defend the current system, whereby some asylum-seekers have remained in detention for many years while their cases are assessed. Other government MPs would be forced to abstain from debate or argue against the status quo with the Opposition.
While such a bill might fail in the lower house, it would be a government public relations nightmare and an open threat to the PM’s largely unquestioned authority. It would further highlight an ideological fissure in government ranks and in the community over Australia’s internationally recognised hardline stance on asylum-seekers.
A growing number of Coalition backbenchers and frontbenchers have privately and publicly agitated against indefinite detention. But three government MPs have taken the fight to Howard’s door. It began with a discussion in early March between Howard, Judi Moylan (WA), Bruce Baird (NSW) and Victoria’s Petro Georgiou, who has long been an outspoken public and parliamentary critic of his government’s detention policy. A series of follow-up phone calls ensued.
Government sources maintain it was clearly conveyed there would be little option but to move a private member’s bill focusing on the injustice and inhumanity of the system, unless the policy was reconsidered.
Cabinet then had a lengthy debate about overhauling its detention and immigration systems. While the debate was held on the pretext of using migration changes to redress Australia’s pressing skills shortage, concern about public and backbench anger over indefinite detention was an underlying factor.
Ministers couldn’t agree. They decided on more meetings and were likely to resume discussions this week. An imminent cabinet decision now seems likely.
Frontbench and backbench sources say they are confident the policy will be changed but not on the basis of its injustice or inhumanity.
The PM has faced considerable pressure on this issue, a frontbencher said. Any change he’ll make will be purely pragmatic.
Moylan told The Bulletin she would not canvass her discussions with Howard. I will only say he makes himself available to those in his party who want to discuss policy, she said. The PM is always available.
Moylan said she hoped Howard recognised that the indefinite detention of some asylum-seekers including children was neither anticipated nor desired when the asylum policy was designed. She said the policy lacked compassion and humanity.
I don’t think anyone foresaw the outcome of this policy: that some people could be held in detention centres for an indefinite period, she said. There is a growing feeling in the community … that the policy of indefinite detention is unjust.
Baird said he did not want to jeopardise any likely policy change by discussing his lobbying efforts. He would not discuss whether a private member’s bill was raised with Howard.
At a Liberal Party room meeting on March 8, Georgiou, Baird and another Victorian MP, Phil Baressi, raised concerns about the mental and physical health of some long-term detainees. They spoke after recently visiting South Australia’s Baxter Detention Centre.
Smith’s ‘worthwhile’ revenge
March 26, 2005
Critics ask if Dick Smith’s detention campaign is payback, writes Elizabeth Colman.
THE telephone call came from one of the nation’s best-known entrepreneurs. “Prime Minister, it’s Dick Smith.”
After being dumped from a key aviation role four months ago, John Howard might have expected the call to be about air safety.
Instead, the adventurer and former Australian of the Year said he was moved by the plight of detainee Peter Qasim, a stateless detainee for seven years.
Speaking to The Weekend Australian Smith explained why he has taken up Qasim’s cause.
“The Government’s decided not to give me a job, you’ve got to understand,” Smith said.
“By leaving me without any job I’ve said to the Prime Minister I’ve got time, I don’t have a proper job at the moment, give me a job where I can do something worthwhile for Australia — well, he hasn’t done that.”
“So because of that I am out there and I am going to do things which are worthwhile for Australia.”
After a small victory last week with the Government announcing a new visa category, critics of Smith were asking whether his campaign for Qasim’s release — something which had already captured media attention and reinvigorated Liberal moderates — was motivated by revenge.
“I spoke to the Prime Minister and said ‘look, John, I’ve been to meet this person and I believe he’s telling the truth and I believe there’s been a terrible stuff up’,” Smith said.
“The Prime Minister … was certainly open to the fact that locking this young 24-year-old up was wrong … he said he was going to look at (it) and I was to contact Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone.”
Qasim’s case has been the focus of intense lobbying by Liberal moderates quietly working behind the scenes for a change to the law to allow his release.
Smith’s phone call and his capacity for capturing public attention may have been the final catalyst for last week’s announcement.
At first the new visa seemed like the breakthrough Smith and the Liberal backbenchers wanted. But Senator Vanstone later admitted the change would only apply to about a dozen detainees.
And Qasim would not be among them.
A Government source told The Weekend Australian the group felt “conned” — believing that any measures introduced would do more to bring party policy away from mandatory detention.
Smith’s chequered history with the Howard Government over his push for reform to airspace rules has raised questions about his deeper motivations for taking up the Qasim cause.
After clashing with Deputy Prime Minister and Transport Minister John Anderson over airspace rules, Smith went public with a warning to avoid flying “unsafe” skies.
“I’m devastated by John Anderson and the fact that he’s never done any aviation reform,” Smith told The Weekend Australian this week, comparing Anderson to former British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and dubbing him the “Minister for Qantas”.
When, during Smith’s telephone call with Howard, the Prime Minister referred the concerns to Vanstone, it brought back bad memories.
Howard had listened well, Smith said, but that did not stop him making an unflattering comparison to the leadership style of former Labor Prime Minister Bob Hawke.
“I’m amazed that I’ve communicated over the last five years to the Prime Minister (about concerns over aviation) and he’s never done anything about it, he just says I should talk to John Anderson,” he said. “I must admit when it came to (the Qasim) issue he said I should talk to Amanda Vanstone.”
“I think John Howard is a very different Prime Minister to Bob Hawke … (Hawke) was very happy to direct his ministers.” Qasim’s plight shocked Smith — a self-described supporter of Australia’s mandatory detention policy.
“I’ve spoken to lots of Australians, they support strong border protection, but I’ve not spoken to one Australian who believes what happened to Peter Qasim is fair,” he said.
Qasim, who says he is from Kashmir and as such stateless and reliant on citizenship from India to ever leave Australia, was an “adventurer” much like himself, Smith said.
“I’m a very proud Australian — all countries have border protection laws but we can’t do what we’re doing,” he said.
South Australia’s notorious Baxter detention centre, where Qasim has spent the past four years is, said Smith, “truly horrific, it’s the most horrible place I’ve ever seen”.
Smith is most appalled by Vanstone’s revelation this week that her department had information which could portray Qasim as a liar, but would not release it to the media, or Qasim, for “privacy reasons”.
Through Smith, Qasim responded: “I have no secrets at all, I don’t know what they’ve got but I’m happy for it to be on the front page of The Australian.”
Smith is not alone in finding Howard’s tinkering with the policy concerning long-term detainees unsatisfactory.
The new bridging visa offered to long-term detainees hinges on a contract to leave Australia as soon as it can be arranged, and does nothing to address the ongoing stain of children in detention.
The Weekend Australian has learned that the moderate Government backbenchers who have been quietly lobbying in the partyroom, in private and occasionally in the lower house, have not been placated.
Within the Coalition, it is generally believed that Vanstone is disturbed by many detainees’ experience in immigration facilities.
There is also a view that the Cornelia Rau episode — where a severely mentally ill Australian was detained for 10 months by immigration officials, with a stay in Baxter’s punishing isolation wing — shook Howard more than any lobbying. Victorian MP Phil Barresi visited Baxter and Qasim months ago with NSW MP Bruce Baird and Victorian MP Petro Georgiou.
Barresi, who said he received “a lot of flak” from within his electorate over the treatment of detainees in the lead-up to the election, has met privately with Howard and Vanstone to discuss the issue.
West Australian MP Judi Moylan joined Baird and Georgiou in a meeting with Howard in March.
Barresi said that he was not silenced on the issue by other party figures but he was conscious of the need to be discreet, “work within the system” and, most importantly, to wait until after the election.
“I didn’t want to be seen to be bowing to (the) pressure”, he said. The Weekend Australian has learned that a proposed private members bill — contemplated by Liberal MPs as they awaited cabinet’s moves to reform the detention centre — has not permanently moved off the table and could yet be revived.
When it is, Smith would like to be there. “I will be long-term involved in this now, because I’ve done very well out of the country and I have an obligation to put something back in,” he said.
Vanstone under visa friendly fire
By Michelle Grattan
May 13, 2005
Failed asylum seekers who want to live in the community until the Government can send them home can only apply for new bridging visas following a written “invitation” from Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone.
The long-awaited regulations for the new visa, gazetted this week after being announced in March, have immediately come under fire from Liberal backbenchers. Petro Georgiou said yesterday they were “quite unsatisfactory” and Judi Moylan has pledged to take the issue up with Prime Minister John Howard.
The regulations applied to “a very limited class of people”, Mr Georgiou said. People with pending visa applications, or any court action afoot would be excluded, and it was “very unclear” whether those who had applied for ministerial intervention would be eligible.
Ministerial discretion would be absolute, with no provision for independent scrutiny, he said. Detainees would have only seven days to accept or reject the invitation to apply. “Why is there a limit?” he asked.
Mr Georgiou was one of several Coalition backbenchers who battled strongly within Government ranks to get failed asylum seekers out into the community.
Senator Vanstone will give some details today of the numbers of people she thinks eligible. She said yesterday she had started to go through cases and she indicated some required more to be done by those wanting a visa.
The visa’s conditions would not preclude new information about these asylum seekers being brought forward by MPs and others, she said.
Ms Moylan said the visa would be “highly restricted to a very small number of people who must sign their rights away within seven days”.
David Manne, co-ordinator of the Refugee and Immigration Centre in Fitzroy, said the regulations represented a “terrifying catch-22 situation”. People had to abandon genuine legal rights to get the visa, but this would be extremely dangerous for them, because it could put them at “real risk of removal to a situation of terrible danger and persecution”. This was particularly disturbing in light of the recent evidence that the system was out of control and had for some time “perpetrated systemic, scandalous abuse on innocent people in potentially perpetual imprisonment”.