As Australia celebrates Refugee Week, the Democrats are calling for a Bill of Rights to ensure that fundamental human rights are safeguarded. The willingness to ignore basic justice for many asylum seekers in Australia has consequently led to many other people being subject to gross injustices by an Immigration Department which has been given absolute power by our laws, with little by way of independent checks and balances.
People who have advocated for the rights of refugees are only too aware of the kinds of abuses that can occur because of the arbitrary misuse of power exercised behind closed doors.
Recent attempts by the Howard Government to sneak through a completely inadequate one week Senate Committee Inquiry into their planned new anti-terrorism law in order to prevent proper public scrutiny is just another example of the blasé approach to basic democratic and human freedoms. The fact the Federal Government has now banned the ACT Chief Minister from further talks just confirms how keen they are to push the laws through without people being able to adequately examine the contents of the legislation and its possible consequences.
This closed door approach will only lead to the sort of dysfunctional processes that have blighted the Department of Immigration. They are no strangers to the multitude of bungles and debacles that are a direct result of a system which has no accountability and a minister who is vested with too much discretionary power. There is no kind of accountability in a system where government officials and ministers are able to indiscriminately punish vulnerable individuals or groups without any recourse.
Australia receives over a quarter of a million temporary residents every year, as well as millions more coming into the country on visitors visas. Of these, it is estimated that there 51,000 are over-stayers. This is compared to the paltry few thousand asylum seekers that Australia has received over the years.
John Howard justifies a hardline approach of the hugely expensive, Guantanamo Bay style Pacific solution, plus mandatory detention as necessary to deter asylum seekers from reaching our shores, yet this same approach is not applied to the thousands of overstayers every year. Targeting and punishing the most powerless and vulnerable is an easy way for a government to look “tough”, but it not only harms innocent people, it fails to address the real issues because the focus is on using the soft targets to send a political message to the public that something is being done, rather than tackle the harder problems that have no easy solution.
Australians cannot afford to have a government that is willing to keep perpetrating abuses in our name. It is not only offensive to democratic values; it inevitably ends up severely damaging the lives of innocent people.
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About the Author
Andrew Bartlett has been active in politics for over 20 years, including as a Queensland Senator from 1997-2008. He graduated from University of Queensland with a degree in social work and has been involved in a wide range of community organisations and issues, including human rights, housing, immigration, Indigneous affairs, environment, animal rights and multiculturalism. He is a member of National Forum. He blogs at Bartlett's Blog.