The recent review into the events on 16th-18th February at the Manus Island Regional Processing Centre that led to the death of 23 year old Iranian Asylum seeker, Reza Barati, raises several questions about the responsibilities incumbent upon the Department of Immigration and Border Protection and its minister, Scott Morrison.
But, more importantly, it also raises questions of political leadership generally.
Commissioned as it was by the Department, the report has been criticised as short on detail and containing little that had not been reported already by New Matilda, the ABC, the Guardian and Fairfax. According to Max Chalmers of New Matilda, the report by former Robert Cornall is a farce.
Despite acknowledging serious deficiencies in the treatment of detainees including the overcrowded conditions, failure to process claims and failing to give adequate answers to questions raised by detainees as to their future, the report offers little by way of corrective action. It does, however, demonstrate a direct correlation between the tension, anger and frustration which led to the riots and the Australian Government’s asylum seeker policies.
Those policies include being sent to Papua New Guinea in the first place and having no chance of being resettled in Australia. It also cites the length of time taken to determine their status as refugees, the length of time spent at Manus and information concerning their resettlement in New Guinea as contributing factors. “Cornall’s most recent review indicates that the frustration and uncertainty faced by asylum seekers awaiting processing, as well as their despair at the prospect of never being resettled in Australia, led to protests and an antagonistic relationship between asylum seekers and locals employed in the centre,” Max Chalmers writes.
Let us consider that prior to the riots, not one of the 1340 detainees’ claims had been processed. Consider that detainees had no idea how long they would be kept in the overcrowded compounds. Consider the heat, humidity, inadequate hygiene, the mental anguish, the depression and the likelihood of racial tension both within and outside the camp. Consider the lack of information being provided. Any one of these factors was enough to cause disquiet. Put together, they became a ticking time bomb about which warnings were issued to the department.
Cornall’s review is disturbing on several levels. It confirms earlier media reports of the involvement of GS4 staff, PNG Police, PNG nationals and Australian expats. It confirms that detainees not involved in the riots were dragged from their beds and beaten. Eyewitness reports confirm Reza Barati was set upon by up to ten people including one PNG Salvation Army staff member and beaten mercilessly. The PNG police are still conducting their own investigation into the riots and now claim they are hamstrung by a lack of cooperation “from all involved.”
The role of the previous government in this tragic event cannot be ignored. Kevin Rudd’s decision to reopen the Manus Island detention centre was political. He acted in a manner consistent with a leader trying to deflect criticism from an opposition that smelt blood. He was trying to deny the opposition traction on a highly toxic issue in an upcoming election. He decided on the policy to permanently deny asylum seekers who arrived by boat, settlement in Australia. That decision was also political. But the then opposition, now the government, were happy to go along with it. They would have done it themselves anyway. The transfer of the first detainees was swift and poorly prepared. It was a failure of moral leadership.
This was not the first time Rudd acted in haste. The present government is conducting a Royal Commission into the pink bats fiasco which led to the death of four workers. That earlier decision to set up the roof insulation programme was also poorly prepared. The present government is now spending millions of dollars designed primarily to embarrass the previous government.
The parallels between the Manus Island riots and the pink bats fiasco where four young men died cannot be ignored. Former ministers Peter Garrett, Mark Abib and Kevin Rudd have been called to account at that hearing. Similarly, a man has died while under the protection of the Immigration minister, Scott Morrison. Why is he not being called to account? The best ‘mean culpa’ Scott Morrison has been able to offer is his ‘great regret’. Morrison added that it was, “terrible, tragic and distressing.”
By any reasonable measure, ministerial responsibility demands Scott Morrison’s resignation. In his statement following the release of the Cornall review he acknowledged the delay in setting up CCTV, better lighting and fencing that he had approved in November last year. Even here, he could not resist firing off a broadside at the previous government who he claimed had done nothing. He too, was playing politics. He has given no explanation as to why, as late as February, still no asylum seekers claims had been processed. Why was there such a long delay? Was the Department of Immigration and Border Control deliberately delaying the process? Were they deliberately leaving detainees to believe that they could be in detention for years as a means of encouraging them to return home? Are not the actions of the department worthy of an inquiry that puts them under the spotlight? This too, is a failure of moral leadership.
Each of the recommendations that have been made in Robert Cornall’s review begs the questions: Why is it there? Why has it not been shut down? Why do we have offshore processing?
For a government so obsessed by waste and so keen to save money, the economics alone should tell them this is bad policy. The inhumane treatment should tell them this is immoral. History will record this period as one of our lowest, rivaling our treatment of indigenous Australians over the last century. Media attention on the pink bats Royal Commission will eventually subside, regardless of the outcome. It is a cheap political exercise. The issue of asylum seekers in offshore detention will not subside. It will remain a ticking time bomb.
Those in the broader community who have supported the policies of both governments should also accept their share of the responsibility. Politicians are weak and feeble people who thrive on what they perceive to be the mood of the people. They are opportunists ever ready to seize upon, and exploit, issues they believe will further their interests. The people who support offshore processing should hang their heads in shame. They, along with John Howard, Kevin Rudd, Scott Morrison and Tony Abbott are all indirectly responsible for the death of Reza Barati. Bill Shorten’s failure to raise one question this week in parliament about Robert Cornall’s review indicts him as well.
They have all failed in moral leadership.
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