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Scott Morrison's conflict of interest

  • 04 August 2014

It was reported on Friday that a Human Rights Commission inquiry has heard that the Immigration Department instructed medical experts to suppress new statistics that show the majority of children in detention are suffering from significant mental health issues. Earlier in the week, Immigration Minister Scott Morrison dismissed as 'quite sensational', claims of Human Rights Commission president Gillian Triggs about the poor mental health of the 174 children in the Christmas Island detention facility. 

After a three day visit last month, Professor Triggs said 'almost all' of the children 'were coughing, were sick, were depressed, unable to communicate (and) weak'. Some of them were not leaving their cabins and were not eating. Triggs said there is 'no eye contact with some of them' and 'a lot of the younger babies are not crawling or not doing the things they should be doing at their age group simply because of the conditions'.

Under the Immigration (Guardianship of Children) Act 1946 — the IGOC Act — the Immigration Minister is the legal guardian of children who arrive in Australia without a parent or carer. That means Morrisonassumes 'the same rights, powers, duties, obligations and liabilities as a natural guardian of the child would have'.

A report released last month by the Refugee Taskforce of the National Council of Churches in Australia argues that Morrison is not fit for the task and that an independent guardian should be appointed. The report, titled Protecting the Lonely Children, is written chiefly by Anglicare Southern Queensland mission and social justice researcher Jennifer Basham.

It points out that the minister has a conflict of interest in his roles as guardian, judge and jailer of unaccompanied children. Immigration ministers are generally not penalised for failing to consider or act in the best interests of the vulnerable asylum seeker children in their care, even though 'under law they have this most serious of duties'. In the IGOC Act, and in practice, the minister's border protection role takes priority over his guardianship responsibility.

As it happens, this subordination of Morrison's duty to protect children means he is not subject to social pariah stigma generally attached to parents, guardians or institutions that wantonly neglect the children they're responsible for. The majority of Australians voted for a government strong on border protection. Morrison is delivering in spades, so it seems they're prepared to turn a blind eye to claims of child neglect, especially if they're dismissed with