Jon Faine – the Alan Jones of the Left?
In a Coalition government the Immigration portfolio can be a career-enhancing opportunity. A Minister with a bleeding heart reputation like Philip Ruddock can prove that he’s just as capable of ruthlessly opportunistic bastardry as anyone in the party’s right wing, and so achieve elevation to Attorney-General.
In the ALP by contrast, Immigration has mostly been looked on as a “hospital pass”, as we old rugby types love to say. It was so much of a poisoned chalice under the Hawke/Keating government that a tradition developed of always giving the portfolio to a member of the Left faction.
That tradition seems to have been superseded under the Rudd/Gillard regime, with the Right’s Chris Bowen now handling the portfolio with increasing aplomb following another member of the Right in Senator Chris Evans. Bowen won plaudits the other day for a speech lauding multiculturalism, apparently signalling the end of several years of poll-driven, tongue-tied silence by the ALP. But on the more immediate Immigration front Bowen finds himself in one of those situations that reminds us again why the portfolio really is the political equivalent of a parcel bomb. For the Opposition and right-leaning media Bowen has been excoriated for approving a $300,000 charter flight so that surviving close relatives of those killed on the SIEV that foundered on the cliffs of Christmas Island in December could attend the funerals in Sydney, while for lefties Bowen has been demonised for failing to instantly release these people (especially a 10 year old orphan) into the Sydney community.
Jon Faine was probably the most egregious of the latter group. Faine is a Melbourne ABC radio “personality” who, like his right-wing commercial shockjock equivalents, seldom acknowledges shades of grey or any possibility that he might be wrong or (heaven forbid) not actually know all the facts. Hence his interview with Bowen partially reproduced by an approving Barrie Cassidy:
Faine: “It’s a no-brainer, that this boy’s better off with his family than back in the care of the department.”
Bowen: “He’ll definitely be released into the community, there’s no question about that.”
Faine: “But right now, today, tomorrow.”
Bowen: “Well Jon the initial psychological advice to me was that it’s best to keep these people together as a group on Christmas Island… you don’t just open the gates and say, ‘Off you go’.”
Faine: “Minister, you can, you’ve got the power.”
Bowen: “And I do…”
Faine: “His cousin has spoken to us this morning and they wanted to take him from the funeral, if possible.”
Bowen: “Jon, it’s a very sensitive and difficult case, as they all are.”
Faine: “No it’s not, it’s a really easy one…”
Bowen: “No Jon…”
Faine: “It’s the easiest of cases you’ll ever get.”
In fact, as Bowen explained in a later interview where he was at least allowed to get a word in edgeways, it actually wasn’t such a straightforward situation at all. The child concerned already was in the care of members of his extended family on Christmas Island and had been ever since the sinking. Arrangements were being finalised to allow the whole extended family group (as well as two or there other extended family groups in similar circumstances) to be released into a community care situation as early as next week. Bowen had advice from departmental psychologists that the child’s welfare would be best served by continuity of care, not really a surprising conclusion for anyone with any knowledge of grief, trauma and their effects on young children. Shunting him from pillar to post and releasing him in a large, strange city into the care of other relatives he almost certainly didn’t know from a bar of soap was not self-evidently in the child’s best interests at all.
Nor was the decision to convey the extended family detainees from Christmas Island to Sydney for funerals as wasteful as cynical Coalition mouthpieces like the appalling Scott Morrison tried to paint it. As I understand it, the bodies of the deceased SIEV passengers had previously been conveyed to Perth for autopsies and other necessary processes. At least for those who accept the proposition that basic compassion required that surviving relatives both in detention and in the general Australian community be assisted to attend the funerals (as Australia has done with just about all major disasters in the past), then the choices lay between Bowen’s decision, or conveying detained relatives from Christmas Island to Perth and non-detainees from Sydney to Perth, or conveying the non-detainee relatives from Sydney to Christmas Island and the bodies from Perth to Christmas Island. It isn’t obvious that either of these options would have been substantially cheaper than what was actually done. But why bother with facts or logic when you can inflame naked community prejudice to shore up the “Howard’s battler” vote?
In terms of pure political management, Bowen would probably have been better advised to postpone the funerals for another week until these families’ processing and release into the general community was complete. But it’s easy to be wise in hindsight. I still think Bowen is one of Labor’s more impressive performers and possibly even a future leader.
In my view the fiasco serves to underline why the Labor government should revisit the entire policy of universal mandatory detention and look at abolishing it and replacing it with a more sustainable regime that still deters illegal arrivals but does not rely on keeping families and traumatised people generally in prolonged quasi-criminal detention. As I argued, such a policy might paradoxically be less politically damaging for Labor than trying to outdo Tony Abbott in the “tough guy” stakes, because it would deny the Coalition the large stationary target of overflowing detention centres where regular incidents of various sorts are inevitable.
Accommodating boat-arriving asylum seekers in the community, just like the somewhat larger group who arrive with valid tourist or student visas, would make them as effectively invisible (and therefore perhaps as uncontroversial) as this latter group. That is, unless adoption of such a policy were to stimulate a significant increase in the flow of boat arrivals. However, I suspect that rigorous enforcement of the sorts of policies canvased in my previous post would in fact inhibit growth in boat arrivals.
It would also save taxpayers significant money. It appears from recently announced budget increases that the cost of accommodating asylum seekers in mandatory detention is in excess of $100,000 per person per year for each of the 6,000 or so currently in detention. Community care is much cheaper as well as much more humane. Certainly, experience in the UK and elsewhere indicates that a certain proportion of unsuccessful asylum seekers in those circumstances may abscond into the illegal economy. But tracking bracelets would reduce the risk, and in any event a certain amount of absconding wouldn’t really be a significant problem in either security or economic terms. No-one suggests that asylum seekers should be released into the community until they have at least passed basic health, security and criminality checks, and illegal absconders would not be a drain on the budget because they couldn’t access Medicare, social security or other benefits available to people with a valid permanent resident visa. In fact they’re likely to be hard-working (if ruthlessly exploited) contributors to Australia’s economy because they don’t really have any other choice.
I find it quite depressing that, despite the fact that asylum seekers are a perennially popular topic in both the tabloid and “serious” media, we never get any debate about these deeper policy aspects. Surely there would be at least some level of public interest in them? Maybe the blogosphere should take up the challenge and look at developing a capacity for “televised” serious debates on policy issues, a bit like the US Bloggingheads. Interested readers are invited to get in touch.