Politics, Power and Children in Detention

Politics are all around us, playing out in national, local and even domestic governance. Politics have to do with the polis, the people who make up groups of any kind. In that sense, politics are unavoidable. Our relationships with others always contain a political element. Party politics are a subset of politics in its broad sense. Party politics are partisan, ideologically informed patterns of thought and action that suggest how politics should translate into governance in a way that is consistent with a set of underlying values. They condense around different beliefs in power relationships between governors and governed, in the rights and statuses of the different groups that make up the polis, in the control and dissemination of information, and in the responsibilities of government and individuals towards one another.

Accommodation in the Nauru offshore processing facility.

Accommodation in the Nauru offshore processing facility.

Party politics is made up of what Gallie termed ‘essentially contested concepts’. No one, for example, disputes the existence of the multitudes of people fleeing poverty, instability, persecution and fear. Nor do they dispute the reality of the moral and practical problems they pose for the countries to which they try to flee. But the agreements end at about this point. Some interpret this mass movement as a challenge to their sense of humanity and to their obligations to observe human rights. Others, while acknowledging the human problems of displacement, feel that local territorial rights and laws take precedence, and that the welfare of the host countries is paramount. Turning unregistered and unscreened refugees (“illegals”) away is, in that ideology, a better and safer and fairer alternative to dealing with them by taking them in.

Australia has been foremost among western countries in ‘turning back the boats’ and in making off-shore detention inevitable for those who do manage the journey, pointing to the success of that policy in preventing drownings and restricting the numbers of refugees who reach Australian territorial waters. By contrast, Italy has done its best to rescue enormous numbers of people fleeing North Africa, and to find some kind of accommodation for them. Neither side can be said to have found ‘the’ answer to a massive humanitarian crisis. Italy’s resources have been overstretched. The Australian mode of management appears to contravene United Nations conventions on refugees.

Party-Politics & the Report into Children in Detention

Into the middle of this dilemma, which is partly political in the broad sense and strongly party political in a narrower sense, came the Report into Children in Detention, chaired by the Australian Human Rights Commissioner, Gillian Triggs. The Report found more than 200 children to be in off-shore or Australian detention under conditions that harm their development and infringe the UN statements on human rights. The Commission’s findings seem to be supported by doctors who have visited the detention centres, and by various leaks from people who have worked in Nauru and Christmas Island. The Australian Government’s response has been to deny the accuracy of the report, to attack Triggs’s integrity, to accuse her of partisan reporting, and to call for her resignation.

The report calls for the early release of children from detention, and for proper acknowledgement of their rights, particularly their rights to grow into reasonable adulthood, equipped with education and some sense of identity and stability. It makes many comments about the suffering of adults, but its focus is on children and the overwhelming impact that violence, insecurity, uncertainty, heat, lack of space and lack of hygiene will have on their lives.

The report does not deal so much with the original party-political decision to turn back the boats. It does take issue with both political parties’ decisions to enforce mandatory detention, and it does so predominantly in the context of the impact of that policy on children.

Triggs & the Ruin of Party-Politics

It makes disturbing reading. Presumably that is why it has provoked such extreme responses from both sides of party politics.

On the right, party politicians and right-wing newspapers have belittled Triggs and accused her of bias against them, of dishonesty and inaccuracy. They question the timing of the inquiry, which began soon after the election of the LNP in 2013. They have recommended imprisonment for anyone who leaks relevant information to the media, such as those who supplied some of the information that Triggs relied upon.

On the left (and in the centre), politicians, commentators and media have called for the report to be taken seriously, for secrecy to be lifted and for legislation to protect refugee children. For these people, the timing of the report is irrelevant because its contents demand some major response. At the same time, those who oppose the present government’s theories and practices have used the report as a lever to destabilise the government’s refugee policies more generally, pointing out that what happens to the children is a consequence of what happens to “illegal” refugees at large.

All these conflicts of interpretation and accusations of dishonesty signal the presence of an essentially contested concept. The big concerns for us are:

  1. That politics in the broad sense have been confused with a much narrower party politics;
  2. That the present government’s refusal to allow access to the detention facilities effectively disables any public debate;
  3. That the punishments threatened against anyone who reveals ‘classified’ information about the centres are Draconian;
  4. That the government’s vigorous attacks on the report and its author suggest that they had a pre-formed notion of what the report should say.

Essentially contested concepts make up a significant part of our ‘political’ lives – they always have and they always will. What is important is the way in which these contests are handled. A totalitarian government will settle them one way; a liberal democracy will try to find another.

Ignoring the Real Issue

What is at stake in this confrontation is not Gillian Triggs’s credibility, but the public perception of its preferred mode of government. Apparently, more than 50% of the population approve the present government’s approach to refugees or believe that it should be more extreme. We can only hope that they understand that Triggs, in her appointed role as Human Rights Commissioner, was writing about children in detention, and that government decisions to discredit her well-supported findings by political force majeur raise serious concerns about the reality of our much vaunted participatory democracy.

Emeritus Professor Miles Little, University of Sydney

Miles was the Founding Director of the Centre for Values, Ethics and the Law in Medicine (1996-2003). He was also the Foundation Professor of Surgery at Westmead Hospital in 1978 and a Co-Founder of the World Association of Hepatic, Pancreatic and Biliary Surgeons (1987). Since 1996, Miles is an Emeritus Professor of Surgery at the Sydney Medical School. At the VELiM, he continues to teach and is directing the Cancer Survivorship Project. Miles interests include Medical Sociology and Biomedical Ethics. He is also a published poet.

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