Tim Blair


New Criterion



Monday, May 17, 2004
AS YOU MIGHT HAVE PREDICTED the treatment by Robert Cudgels Manne of the HREOC report on the treatment of children of illegal arrivals is rich in story and poor in policy discussion.

Manne is hoping for a re-run of Ronald Wilson's Bringing them home report, the source of all subsequent stolen generation rhetoric, but he fears "a large part of the nation could barely stifle a yawn".

Let's hope it's a case of once bitten, twice shy.

This is Manne's choice of a story to represent the substance of the HREOC report:
Midway through its 925 pages it tells, for example, the story of a boy who was sent with his family to Woomera in April 2001. At the time he was 12. After a year in detention, the boy, on many occasions, threw himself onto the razor wire or tried to hang himself. He explained his action like this: "We came for support and it seems we're being tortured." According to a psychiatrist, the boy heard voices inside his head telling him to kill himself. His story is extreme but by no means unique.

How many of the detained children were schizophrenic or otherwise distressed Manne can't tell us, although he implies they were numerous, because HREOC didn't tell him, because they didn't seem to know either.

Manne tells us how children in detention were stressed in the passive voice, a technique for which Don Watson would brand him an enemy of truth if Manne and Watson weren't both enemies of the same truths.

The children were affected not only by what they saw. Frequently they were caught up in violent disorders. Some were temporarily blinded by tear gas. Some were battered by water cannons. ...Older children were severely affected by seeing their parents become dysfunctional, sobbing inconsolably or overcome by rage. The inquiry heard about "role reversals" where, to their cost, young children assumed the parental role.

What Manne's use of the passive does here is disguise all questions of responsibility behind the actions of the camp managers.

How were children "caught up in" violent disorders and "blinded by tear-gas" and "battered by water cannon"? Did the camp guards and police march in to the detainees accommodation, or did, perhaps, the children's parents take them a-rioting with them.

And when parents took other extreme action, often to avoid the consequences of the fact they were not refugees, like sewing up their and their children's mouths, all responsibility is placed on the camp managers, the Government, and the electorate that supports detention as a policy.

The nearest Manne comes to policy is endorsing the HREOC recommendation in favour of immediate release of all children (and implicitly, of their parents). He doesn't say so in simple prose. Instead he describes the government's rejection of that advice as "self-evidently immoral".

To support his rejection of mandatory detention, Manne comes up with this amazing twist of the recent history of illegal arrivals in this country:
There is no evidence the system of mandatory detention, established in 1992, had any deterrent effect. Despite mandatory detention, more asylum seekers arrived between 1999 and 2001 than in any period in Australian history. It was through military repulsion after August 2001 and not mandatory detention that asylum seekers were deterred.

Any of his readers who also read news reports at the time will see what a concoction that version of history is.