Countering the Kooyong breakout
Howard supporters and their anti-Georgiou camp strategies
Image: thanks to Peter Nicholson cartoons
"With this line, the anti-Georgiou camp had found a countermove as smooth to conservative voters as a plain four-egg omelet for breakfast. The line has been peddled to the public since Tampa, and you can hear it repeated right around Australia in conservative circles. But it is limp, deficient and downright manipulative when you're interested in the facts."
12 June 2005: A summary of the Georgiou Bills - This is a copy of communication sent by Petro Georgiou MP to all MP's in the Coalition government on 24 May this year. The communication summarises the two Bills tabled in the Coalition party room that same date.
8 June 2005: Debunking anti-Georgiou camp tactics - Myths are being peddled by A-G Phillip Ruddock, Hon Peter Costello, intended to influence Mr Malcolm Turnbull and others in the Liberal-National Coalition, in what we see as an attempt to discredit the Petro Georgiou Bills. Here are the facts that debunk those myths.
18 February 2005: The Kooyong Break-out: abandoned backbenchers and 'small-l liberals' revolt - how Petro Georgiou, federal member for Kooyong, leads the quiet pack on a new trail of independence. "One Coalition senator crossing the floor after July 1 will be enough to defeat a Government measure opposed by Labor. Added pressures will come from a large back bench and the frustrated ambitions of those denied promotion."
by Jack H Smit
Since the landmark speech in Federal Parliament on 9 February this year by the Member for Kooyong, Petro Georgiou, several front-benchers in the Howard government have been beavering away in an effort to control the damage. Regrettably the methods employed seem to be short on truth, honesty, parliamentary accountability, compassion and mercy.
Therefore the failure of this week's negotiations between the Georgiou group and the Prime Minister confirm what always was going to be the most likely outcome, given what happened since Mr Georgiou's first speech in the House.
The first move after Petro's speech came from Immigration Minister Senator Amanda Vanstone.
In his speech in The House Georgiou had demanded a release from the Baxter detention centre of all long-term and unsuccessful asylum seekers. Georgiou's demand for release of long-term detainees was for a great deal triggered by increasingly disturbing media reports of the fate of the 'stateless' resident from the border area of Kashmir, the shepherd son Mr Peter Qasim. Georgiou also demanded the granting of permanency for all of the about 7000-8000 Temporary Protection Visa (TPV) holders living in the Australian community.
The terms of the TPV exclude 'family reunion' - in itself a breach of the UN Refugee Convention - and as a result TPV holders can be men and fathers, whose wives are still back in Iraq or Afghanistan and other countries, or worse, locked away in detention centres on Nauru or Christmas Island after attempting to come here and join their husbands - there are even instances where wives and children have been refused refugee status by DIMIA, while their husband and father lives in the Australian community as 'an approved refugee'. Surely the TPV is an instrument of torture, with its implicit message: "You can stay here temporarily, but if you can't stand any longer being away from the wife and kids, you'll have to bugger off from our country".
In the first response to Georgiou's demands, Vanstone announced the Return Pending Bridging Visa (RPBV), available by invitation from her only, to a limited number of long-term detainees in the Baxter detention centre. It could have averted further developments in the break-away group - but alas, it didn't: within days refugee support centres and advocates alike condemned the visa, which includes work-rights and Medicare eligibility while being prepared to be deported at any time (an agreement to be signed by any person who would accept the visa), but perhaps the biggest stumbling block was the clause that any further refugee and appeal claims or processing - including court action against the Australian government would not be undertaken by the visa holder.
We wrote in our press release that the RBPV was a con-job to silence the backbenchers and that it curtailed basic human rights to the visa holders, we wrote to Mr Petro Georgiou - also suggesting a Private Member's Bill may be amongst possible strategies of parliamentary dissent - and within weeks Michelle Grattan wrote for The Age that government circles had confirmed that the backbenchers also called it a con-job, and both Grattan and Paul Daley in The Bulletin reported in March that Howard had been warned a Private Member's Bill may be on the way: Peter Qasim wasn't amongst the eligible detainees for Vanstone's new visa.
Next, fast-forward to May 24 - and Petro Georgiou tables two Private Member's Bills in the Coalition party room, bills resulting from collaboration between himself, Judi Moylan MP (Pearce) and Bruce Baird MP (Cook). When he announces them in a surprise move, Howard, caught out unawares, is furious and pre-empts any notion of a conscience vote on the Bills. Georgiou gets a party room meeting during the next week, which lasts a record 3½ hours.
In the Senate Inquiry the next day, Vanstone announced more frequent psychiatric services would be available to the detainees in Baxter. Dr Louise Newman, fresh from an annual conference of the Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists, advised that psychiatrists may announce a work-ban in Baxter for members of the College because their ethics are seriously compromised.
The next surprise move comes also from Vanstone.
During the evening of May 30 - just before the next day's party room meeting - Vanstone issues a media statement saying she had made 17 offers to long-term detainees in Baxter (10) and in the community (7). Even before I went to bed, the phone calls from eager journalists came in, asking whether anyone in Baxter or in the community had heard anything about Vanstone's offer; the phone calls kept coming until after the coalition party meeting had come to an end, and they had come in to advocates of Rural Australians for Refugees and also others in South Australia, Victoria and New South Wales. All to no avail. Nobody knew anything, and nobody would also later that week, or the next week, know about any such offer. The story died, just after the last flicker burnt up: Vanstone's confirmation that Peter Qasim was not amongst the seventeen eligible asylum seekers, killed it well and truly. It was a media spiel, and a lie. Contrary to her media release, no officers had gone out to speak with any long-term detainees in Baxter or those released on Bridging Visas in the community, and we still haven't seen any up till today.
The party meeting became a real worry for Howard, because if Georgiou and Moylan could find another 11 members of the coalition in the lower house who would support the Bills and who would also be prepared to cross the floor, and if the ALP would vote with the Bills, Howard would face the worst case scenario in his political career. At the end of the day, the number of full supporters had risen from the five - apart from Judi Moylan and Petro Georgiou, also Bruce Baird, Russell Broadbent and Senator Marise Payne supported the Bills - to seven coalition MP's: Senators Gary Humphries (ACT) and Judith Troeth (VIC) declared their support, while three more - Christopher Pyne (Sturt), Patrick Secker (Barker), Paul Neville (Hinkler) - declared their support for The Act of Compassion Bill. Queensland Senators George Brandis and Brett Mason were uncovered as "maybe's" in supporting the Bills. So, there was a looming problem, and something needed to be done about it.
Enter Peter Costello, who on the one hand said he supported mandatory detention but wanted to see the detention period of kids reduced, and the way to do that was to reduce the options open to asylum claimants of court appeals. Mal Washer (Moore) had already expressed the same sentiment on May 31; suggesting new legislation should be introduced after July 1, when Howard gains control of both houses. Washer's statement, along the same lines of remarks by Malcolm Turnbull (Wentworth) shortly after the meeting, suggest that the line originated in the coalition party room meeting of May 31. A week later Attorney-General Phillip Ruddock stated that he would introduce legislation to that effect after July 1.
With this line, the anti-Georgiou camp had found a countermove as smooth to conservative voters as a plain four-egg omelet for breakfast. The line has been peddled to the public since Tampa, and you can hear it repeated right around Australia in conservative circles. But it is limp, deficient and downright manipulative when you're interested in the facts. Ask Jesuit Priest and lawyer Frank Brennan.
In August 2002, in a speech for Rural Australians for Refugees in the Bowral Town Hall, Brennan produced the results of some of his research into refugee assessments. Brennan said:
"During this last financial year [2001-02], the Refugee Review Tribunal (RRT) set aside 62% of all Afghan decisions appealed and 87% of all Iraqi decisions appealed. This means that Afghan asylum seekers got it right 62% of the time when they claimed that the departmental decision makers got it wrong. And the public servants got it wrong 87% of the times that the Iraqi applicants claim to have been mistakenly assessed."
At the time Frank Brennan delivered his speech, a small army of pro-bono lawyers was gathering, and now, three years later, joined by hundreds of other pro-bono lawyers, migration agents and thousands of ordinary Australians, they have delivered conclusive refugee status to thousands of failed asylum seekers in detention. This is in spite of the court appeals by the Minister for Immigration.
Take the case of an Iranian journalist who fled Iran and came here after having been locked up in Evin prison for editing a Democracy magazine - this in itself already enough to be 'almost there' in terms of eligibility for refugee status. Yet his initial assessment by the single DIMIA officer failed his refugee status. Just one month ago, after having been locked up in four different Australian refugee jails over 5½ years, the Minister declared him a refugee.
After Merlin Luck on live television conducted his mute and gagged FREE TH REFUGEES protest last year on Channel Ten's Big Brother, Vanstone had the audacity to spin the media by saying he was wrong and that there were no refugees in Australian detention centres. Yet since last Christmas, through the work of migration agents and pro-bono lawyers and the army of Australians, the Minister had to release around 60 Iranians from Baxter, about 40 Afghans from Nauru and other centres, and admit they were refugees after all, and .... after all these years.
For hundreds of these refugees, the price has been incarceration for three, four or five years and their psychological stability, not to mention the ongoing and usually degrading denial of the truth by guards since the initial grievous error of the single DIMIA officer who was in charge of their assessment. On appeal, denial of their status was affirmed by a single member of the Refugee Review Tribunal (RRT). According to the rules of the Migration Act a RRT member does not even need to be physically present in the room with an asylum seeker - they can hear the claim by video link.
The fifty-three Vietnamese asylum seekers who came to Port Hedland on the Hao Kiet boat two years ago were assessed in the usual way - one DIMIA officer - and the verdict was swift and complete: none of them were refugees. Now, after two years, forty of the group are refugees after their appeal to the RRT. That's an error rate so far of 75 per cent for the Department of Immigration. The last thirteen received a blanket refusal from the same RRT member last week - but they not only came on the same boat, they are all from the one family group. Last year the Hao Kiet refugees filed a Federal Court appeal against the refusal of their claims, but just before it was due to be heard, the government admitted to the lawyer an error of law had been made, and invited them to return to the RRT.
Ruddock would know very well how asylum seekers need the Australian courts from the whims of the DIMIA officers and the bias of the RRT if he were to look into his heart as it was twenty years ago. But regrettably he is a Minister who clearly has lost the fluid in his soul that once made him a "wet" liberal, and he's only intending to safeguard the policy he helped to craft with his plan to reduce access to the courts. He is prepared to lie to his own conscience as he had it two decades ago.
On Sunday June 5 Vanstone went further than she had before, and launched for the first time an open attack on the Georgiou Bills, claiming that they would undermine the policy of mandatory detention - a claim not just erroneous, but probably deliberately misleading: the gloves were coming off, and as the events in the week following show, the full counter-offensive was also getting ready to be public just before the weekend of meetings of the Georgiou camp and the Prime Minister.
On Thursday 9 June Vanstone turned the first spade of the Villawood alternative detention facility. The Minister went on and on about the twittering birds, about glorious stands of wattle and about how terrific this type of detention for women and children would be - but within earshot was a group of middle class protesters - a group representing ChilOut - the Children Out of Detention lobby, and the Refugee Council - chanting 'Shame, shame'.
It was left to the Council's chief Margaret Piper and ChilOut's Alanna Sherry to tell the media about the guards, the video surveillance and the infra-red detection rays throughout the facility.
On the same day Vanstone announced Peter Qasim would be transferred to the Adelaide Glenside psychiatric hospital, and she announced it as another great and generous offer, but in reality it was the man's psychiatrist who had demanded his transfer to Glenside, and it was in no way a release: a demountable just outside the section in Glenside where the now nine broken detainees are held, houses eighteen guards - two per person - who probably do little else than playing cards, looking at meaningless magazines and drinking coffee endlessly, while we foot the gigantic bill for their salaries. Of course entrepeneur Dick Smith, who visited Peter Qasim the next day, found him 'more depressed than ever'. Smith received more media coverage than Vanstone and he reiterated his demands that Peter should be released.
News has just broken that negotiations between John Howard and the Georgiou group did not reap results, which would avert the presentation of the two Bills in Parliament. The notes made above suggested that no common ground would be found during the talks in The Lodge.
First, the recent moves by the Immigration Minister and others who have shown a preparedness to undermine the intent of the Bills while at the same time manipulate information and present new initiatives amounting to nothing more than a new spin on old solutions.
Secondly, there is the Prime Minister who, given his record, was always more interested in suppressing what's been growing for considerable time within coalition ranks, and who has shown a great deal of stubbornness in this policy area.
It is no wonder then that Howard made a crucial mistake this week. The Bills will lead their own life even if they get defeated in Parliament, if the number of MP's willing to stand with him may fail the member for Kooyong.
Petro Georgiou and Judi Moylan are highly informed as a result of their strong links with the refugee lobby, and they would have been unlikely to give ground on such plain issues as no-compromise freedom for Peter Qasim. Their Bills were crafted with great care and devotion, clearly underpinned with highly skilled legal consultations, and they became only public after a very long preparation time.
The path into the next phase of Australia's undoing of a shocking human rights endictment on our nation has been forged. We pray the path is short and swift.
Our press release called the RPBV a "con-job", and according to reporters this is also how it was labelled by the backbenchers: http://www.safecom.org.au/news-2403-2005.htm
The February letter we wrote to Mr Petro Georgiou, copied to several coalition backbenchers, suggesting the option of a Private Member's Bill is amongst the documents copied to our website at http://www.safecom.org.au/georgiou.htm
Both Bills tabled by the backbenchers are summarised on our website in Petro Georgiou MP: An outline of 2 Private Member's Bills to be introduced http://www.safecom.org.au/georgiou-bills.htm
Margo Kingston at her SMH Web Diary was the first reporter with her coverage of the party room meeting and kept a tally of the number of MP's who supported all or part of the Bills at Rebel Libs leap from 5 to 9: Howard gets more talks at
Frank Brennan's speech is archived on our website at Developing Just Refugee Policies in Australia: Local, National and International Concerns, see http://www.safecom.org.au/brennan.htm