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Cry if you want to as mandatory detention turns 25

  • 03 May 2017


Friday 5 May is the 25th birthday of the introduction of mandatory detention in Australia by the Keating government. It is by no means a 'happy birthday'. Rather it is a sombre reminder of how control, power and political vilification can be used for political ends.

Mandatory detention was initially described by the then Labor Minister Gerry Hand as an 'interim' measure. One wonders how long a medium or long term measure would be! The change was introduced into parliament at 4.06pm, and voted through by the evening.

There was a hearing scheduled for two days later in the Federal Court seeking the release of some Cambodian asylum seekers from Port Hedland detention centre into the community. One of the aims of the change of 5 May was to stifle the chances of such a release.

Minister Hand stated: 'I now wish to foreshadow major government amendments to the bill ... The government is conscious of the extraordinary nature of the measures which will be implemented by the amendment aimed at boat people. I believe it is crucial that all persons who come to Australia without prior authorisation not be released into the community.

'Their release would undermine the government's strategy for determining their refugee status or entry claims. Indeed, I believe it is vital to Australia that this be prevented as far as possible. The government is determined that a clear signal be sent that migration to Australia may not be achieved by simply arriving in this country and expecting to be allowed into the community.'

In the next 25 years, we have seen the policy unsuccessfully challenged in the High Court, which is clearly troubled by it, and found to be arbitrary detention by the UN Committee for Human Rights. Yet it remains in place, and extended to offshore centres in Nauru and Manus Island. It is paid for entirely by the Australian government, yet we are told that responsibility for those detained in those offshore centres is a sovereign issue for the governments there.

Another development during the past quarter-century of mandatory detention has been the increased use of statutory bars to prevent asylum seekers from lodging any application, unless the Minister personally intervenes (literally personally) to permit it.

This statutory bar was first introduced by Minister Ruddock in 2001 with the creation of 'excised offshore places' such as Christmas Island, which meant these territories were 'outside' the migration zone for the purposes