Scott Morrison's conflict of interest


Child behind barbed wire fence

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 such confidence by a rock star minister.

It's this suppression of information that is most significant, along with the repudiation of eyewitness accounts from erstwhile authoritative figures such as Triggs. Australians who voted for border protection are prepared to buy it, but for how long? The stories of the vulnerable children can't stay hidden forever. Their hope is that the increasing weight of evidence of the neglect will swing public opinion in their favour. After all, it's this kind of momentum that led to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

Michael MullinsMichael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Michael Mullins, Gillian Triggs, Scott Morrison, children's rights, immigration, asylum seekers



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Existing comments

Can anyone suggest why I should not call this approach by the current government an example of vindictive idiocy? They certainly seem to me to be making life for many nasty brutish and most-probably short. And not even with finesse!!
john Cranmer | 01 August 2014

Fascinating that the Human Rights Commission harrumphs away the instant a conservative government is operation, when during the Labor/Greens administration it simply ignored, the welfare of children in detention. Not worthy of remark, E.S.?
HH | 02 August 2014

It's got nothing to do with border protection, it's just about votes.
Marilyn | 02 August 2014

And it would be pleasant to see a cessation of ad Hominem attacks by some bloggers on this site.
Brian Larsson | 04 August 2014

500 years ago, Niccolo Machiavelli was judged to be guilty of conspiracy and obliged to withdraw from public life. He then devoted his life to literature. In his most famous book, 'The Prince', he promoted the idea that any means can, or even should, be used to maintain authority. Recently a Middle Eastern Government announced it would use "whatever it takes to 'protect its citizens'." Another, closer to home, is demonstrating the same policy to assert its authority and promote its agenda. Machiavelli would be proud.
Robert Liddy | 04 August 2014

There is a lot of information about the terrible conditions of the prisoners in the various camps leaking out through word-of-mouth from medical and other staff working in them for brief periods under contract...and even when subject to the Official Secrets Act, which is sort of keeping an unstable lid on it for the moment.. There is a huge humanitarian scandal building up pressure here which will eventually sweep away Morrison.
Eugene | 04 August 2014

State sanctioned child abuse. We Australians don't want this and we must speak out. In the future people will recognise this for what it is.
George | 04 August 2014

There is, in many ways, a sense of deja vu about all this. An apt parallel would be the plight of the Rohingyas from Burma, whose plight, both in their own country and in legal and illegal refugee camps in Bangladesh is something almost everyone everywhere has turned a blind eye to, as chronicled so well in A.A. Gill's article in the last Weekend Australian magazine. Scott Morrison always reminds me of an inept colonial governor who keeps saying the situation is "well under control" when it is manifestly not so. I do not consider myself a bleeding heart nor do I consider everyone who seeks refugee status in Australia is absolutely 100% genuine. However, I think there are ethico-legal standards we need not just to conform to but be seen to be conforming to. In the current situation I am not sure this is the case. This is a matter of national integrity.
Edward Fido | 04 August 2014

An excellent article ---emotive subject -- very emotive caption ---- Scott Morrison has been confronted with this matter – to which he also expressed emotive concern . He resolved -- 1 Investigations are in place to test the veracity& good faith of the information you highlight in your article --- 2 << the health of the children when they came into custody and on going medical & general care --- 3 <<< the critical good faith intentions & legal status of the accompanying adults >>> --- Morrison also proffered the long term strategy required to prevent catastrophic future boat loads -- people smugglers influence on immigration !!!!
Placid Pete | 04 August 2014

Unaccompanied children, whichever way they arrive should certainly be given refugee status by our nation and suitably cared for. Even if there parents have sent them on a people-smuggler boat, they should never be passed on to another nation and they should not be put into detention. Then, there parents should be sent for to and given refugee staqtus as well.
Fr Mick Mac Andrew | 04 August 2014

Will we ever learn. What are we teaching these children. Lessons in how to hate. Where is the compassion the love Jesus talks about. We are Christians. How can we set an example when we treat children this way. Shame on the catholic leaders of this country.
Irena | 04 August 2014

Michael's final point is cogent. It took us decades to find the courage to uncover and address the child abuse cover-up so widespread in our society. Once again with the asylum seeker issue we see suppression of evidence, ignoring the needs of innocent minors and an electorate too concerned by fears of loss of border integrity or too disinterested to act. When can we again feel proud of our nation's standards?
Anne | 06 August 2014

Any one who has an obligation under Mandatory Reporting (e.g Nurses, Teachers, Religious leaders, Lawyers etc) need to report Morrison to the Department of Human Services for Child Abuse. All those children should be taken out of his care and cared for in the community with their own parents. All of whom no doubt will need years of treatment for PTSD.
Bernadette McPhee | 08 August 2014


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