Dispatch from the Public Hearing Into Children in Australia’s Detention Centres

Published in VICE on August 25 2014.

The audience was tense. Parliament House security were on guard outside Committee Room 2R1 and threatened to confiscate cameras or expel anyone who tried to take a photo. We were ordered to turn off our electronic devices—a futile demand to a room full of journalists and keen observers, all determined to record and tweet the fourth and hotly anticipated public hearing into children in Australia’s detention centres.

The president of the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), Gillian Triggs, sat on one side of the hearing room and the Immigration Minister, Scott Morrison, on the other. Their tables formed a square like a boxing ring between them. Morrison, in the blue corner, began his opening statement as expected. He called the commission’s attention to the alarming number of children placed in detention during the years of the previous Rudd/Gillard government.

“This is an inquiry into children in detention as you have stated. However, it could be more accurately described as an inquiry into children Labor put in detention,” said Morrison. “The predominant reason why there are children in detention today is because they arrived on boats under Labor.”

Gillian Triggs before the hearing.

Until Friday’s hearing, the National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention had proved a PR nightmare for the current government, which has gone to great lengths to prevent the Australian public from knowing about asylum seeker arrivals and treatment. Then Morrison was summoned to appear. It’s not every day that a high profile minister is sworn to oath in such a public setting: a world away from the controlled press conferences held during Operation Sovereign Borders.

Earlier in the week, Morrison had announced a surprising policy development: 150 children and their families currently detained inside Australia’s mainland detention centres will soon be released into the community on bridging visas. It is questionable whether this decision represents a genuine, long-term softening of the Coalition’s asylum seeker policy or a tactical move to bolster its defence against the inquiry. Either way, refugee advocates have since criticised the policy’s exclusion of children held offshore on Christmas Island and Nauru, and the policy’s arbitrary restriction to children under the age of ten who arrived before July 2013.

The first three AHRC inquiries had already heard damaging accounts from witnesses, including a pregnant asylum seeker who decided to have an abortion instead of raising her child in detention centre conditions on Nauru. The former director of a mental health service provider to detention centres also alleged the Immigration Department was covering up the extensive mental trauma of children in detention.

Scott Morrison speaking to press.

These human rights violations were less of a concern on Friday, where the main question hounded by Triggs and assisting counsel Naomi Sharp was whether the detainment of children is purposefully being used as a deterrent to future refugees considering seeking asylum in Australia. This sticking point led to one of the more fiery exchanges between Triggs and Morrison, as the former tried to stop the minister from dancing around the question.

“Children being detained in facilities has been a consequence of the policies that more broadly have been effective in securing Australia’s borders, ensuring the integrity of our immigration program, and stopping children dying at sea,” said Morrison diplomatically. “Then I’ll take that as a yes,” replied Triggs. Morrison’s temper flared. “Madam president, I don’t think it is reasonable to put words in my mouth. I have said what I’ve said, and I’m happy for what I’ve said to be on the record as being my response.”

Diplomatic politispeak was a common theme of Morrison’s appearance. Fewer boats have arrived since the Coalition took office, which means that children in detention are, in a way, just collateral damage from policies that have achieved the government’s desired end. “The results speak for themselves,” said Morrison.

Inside the hearing.

Then came the most heated moment of the hearing, when Triggs labelled detention centres as prisons. “On any analysis, it is locked detention or a prison, whatever word…” she began, before Morrison took the offensive and attacked with some questions of his own. “You would have been in many prisons, so are you telling me that the Phosphate Hill compound on Christmas Island is the same as Long Bay jail?” he asked. “I have been a practising lawyer since I was 22 years old, and I have been to many prisons. I know a prison when I see it,” quipped Triggs.

Other interesting moments included when Triggs pointed out that it takes on 20 minutes to access refugee statuses while on ships, but takes 12 months when you’re the Immigration Department. But even these fiery exchanges were only as expected. And except for the occasional projector slide of statistics that threw Morrison off guard for a few seconds, and a couple of objections from the crowd to his use of the word “illegal”, the inquiry went to script.

Overall, Morrison said the government was stopping the boats and threw blame at the Labor party and Greens. Ultimately, the public didn’t hear much it hadn’t already learned before. After his hour in the boxing ring, Morrison left Committee Room 2R1, fended off questions from the awaiting mob like usual, and walked away looking smug.

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