Backing away from mandatory detention (crossposted at Crooked Timber)

Having had part of the weekend to think about the changes to mandatory detention laws, I realise that it will take quite a few posts to get through all the questions I want to think about. The first is to assess how significant these changes are.

As Andrew 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 (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 on 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.

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. 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 are now less likely to take it up.

The change in the political climate has obviously been assisted by the decline in the number of refugees and particularly the end of arrivals by boat. This raises the question of whether we could have handled the whole problem differently from the start. I plan to address this in a subsequent post.