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Gordon Campbell on John Key’s detainee do’s and don’ts list

Gordon Campbell on John Key’s do’s and don’ts list when it comes to detainees

Since Prime Minister John Key plainly has trouble with the leadership thing, maybe we should keep it simple for him. So, here’s a list of what he should do, and what he shouldn’t do when it comes to the brutal detention/deportation of New Zealand citizens.

(a) Key shouldn’t say that the New Zealand detainees on Christmas Island include rapists and murderers when in fact, none of them are. Such claims make him look like either a misinformed fool or a deliberate liar. Either way, its not a good look.

(b) Key shouldn’t keep on recycling Australian government propaganda about how the New Zealand detainees are all serious, hardened criminals. That sort of stuff may go down well with gullible Aussies, but New Zealanders don’t like being stigmatized unfairly by Australians looking for an excuse to mistreat us. No doubt, if Key culls through the list of the New Zealand detainees on Christmas Island he can find some serious criminals. However, a substantial majority are not - and even those who are, still deserve to be treated humanely. Our Prime Minister shouldn’t be smearing the Kiwi detainees by intimating that all of them are desperadoes who pose a serious threat to the law abiding New Zealand public. Most of them are nothing of the sort.

(c) Key shouldn’t keep saying that he can’t do anything to stop the Australians from doing what they’re doing. No one is expecting him to send in the SAS. What we do expect him to do is to denounce the Australians for what they’re doing to asylum seekers and detainees. Criticise them publicly. Put some international heat on them. It's called taking a stand on matters of principle. That may feel weird to Key, but sometimes it comes with the job.

(d) Key shouldn’t keep on urging the Australians to process the Kiwi detainees more quickly. Speeding up an injustice doesn’t make it less of an injustice. If anything, abridging the rights to appeal only tends to make things worse. For similar reasons, Key shouldn’t be urging New Zealanders to bow down to the injustice and voluntarily come back here. All that would be doing is getting him off the hook.

(e) When Key is accused of being weak about defending the human rights of the detainees, he shouldn’t respond by falsely claiming his accusers therefore must be soft on and/or support the crimes for which these people have been interned. Obviously, you can abhor the crime, yet still think the criminals deserve to be properly treated. Key knows that.

The ‘should do’ list

Stopping all of the above would be a good start. Now, on the positive side, here’s what the PM should be doing.

(a) Key should stand up for international law. Asylum seekers fleeing persecution are being penned up indefinitely offshore. In doing so, Australia is in breach of the UN Refugee Convention. In subjecting the children of asylum seekers to this barbaric regime indefinitely, it is in breach of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. In its treatment of detainees, it is arguably in breach of the UN Convention Against Torture. Last year, New Zealand made a song and dance about us being elected to the Security Council. So, we should be willing to defend these crucial UN treaties, and should be publicly denouncing Australia’s violation of them.

(b) To that end, Key (and Foreign Minister Murray McCully could and should have asked Australia some searching questions in front of the UN Human Rights Council four yearly review hearing on Australia this month. It chose not to. Other countries (eg Spain, the United Kingdom, Mexico, Slovenia etc etc ) were not so timid. For starters, here are two questions that Norway posed to Australia:

According to the UN Special Rapporteur on torture, conditions facing asylum seekers at offshore processing centres in Nauru and Papua New Guinea amount to cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment as defined by the Convention Against Torture. According to the Australian Human Rights Commission, prolonged mandatory detention of asylum seeker children causes them significant mental and physical illness and developmental delays. What steps, if any, is the Australian Government taking to introduce time limits and access to judicial oversight of detention so that mandatory detention only occurs when necessary, for a minimal period, and when reasonable and proportionate?

According to reports, including from Australian Human Rights Commission, child offenders have sometimes been held in the same correctional centres as adults, all the way down to the age of 10. What steps if any, is the government taking in order to increase the minimum age of criminal responsibility and ceasing of detention of children in adult facilities? Furthermore, what steps, if any, is the government taking in order to ensure that Australian governments review mandatory sentencing and laws that limit judicial discretion, and expand the use of non-custodial measures where appropriate?

Any chance of our government commenting publicly on Australia’s appalling record on these issues? How can we credibly denounce anyone else at the UN Security Council, when we’re silent about despicable events so close to home?

(c) Key should denounce as unjust, unfair and disproportionate the Australian law under which these New Zealanders are being deported. As things stand, New Zealanders who have lived for decades across the Tasman, paid their taxes there, and raised their families there can be uprooted and sent back here if they commit offences which cumulatively add up to sentences of more than a year in jail. Parking offences, not paying fines, DUIs, if committed more than once can readily add up to more than a year. Moreover, the provision kicks in not according to time actually spent in jail - but in terms of the potential sentence parameters. So if there were mitigating circumstances in sentencing, these do not count when it comes to liability to deportation. All of which makes a mockery of the claim that these are all hardened criminals.

(d) Key should be making common cause with other countries and other leaders – such as his good friend David Cameron in the UK – whose citizens are being affected by Australia’s outrageous actions. Here’s an example drawn from the Christmas Island detainees. A 51 year old Briton who came to Australia as a one year old has been sent to Christmas Island and is being deported after serving time for starting a scrub fire while suffering from acknowledged mental problems:


A British citizen who has spent 50 of his 51 years in Australia, who served in the Australian army reserve, and whose partner, siblings and elderly parents are in Australia, is being held on Christmas Island facing deportation for lighting a scrub fire.

Ian Wightman is one of nearly 400 people caught up in changes to Australia’sMigration Act that automatically cancel the visa of a person deemed to have a “substantial criminal record”. That is now defined as a crime carrying a prison sentence of 12 months, even if the time served is much lower. Wightman was born in London and came to Australia as a one-year-old. He has lived his entire life in Australia. He served two-and-a-half years as a volunteer in the Australian army reserve and has only once visited Britain, more than as decade ago. His family say he has always considered himself an Australian, even without the formality of citizenship.

Wightman was convicted last year for a fire he lit in 2011. The blaze burned less than an acre of scrubland and did not destroy any property or threaten life. Wightman served 15 months in jail, his first serious criminal conviction. He had previous driving convictions and low-level drug offences but none that attracted more than a fine.

When Wightman was released from jail in September, Western Australia’s prisoners review board noted he had completed all rehabilitation programs and had demonstrated “a motivation to change his offending behaviour”. “A limited criminal history indicates an ability to lead a pro-social life,” it said.

Yet after Wightman had served his time and done his rehabilitation programme, he was re-arrested at the gates of the prison and whisked off to Christmas Island, in readiness for deportation to a country that he had left as a toddler, 50 years ago.

Key should be talking to the other countries being affected by this abhorrent policy, so that collective heat can be applied to the Australians. Is he doing so ? Probably not. It is no use in waiting for Australians to wake up to what their government is doing. Like Americans who are surprised when they find their country is widely hated for the way it conducts itself in the world, Australians will be bemused when they go overseas and discover that the rest of the world regards them as pariahs. That’s their problem. Our issue is with John Key, because he’s so clearly choosing to be part of the problem, and not part of the solution.

I Fought The Law… etc

Obvious choice, but this Bobby Fuller Four classic is apt enough… even if few of the detainees/deportees robbed anyone with a six-gun.

In the end of course, Bobby Fuller did not merely run afoul of the law. Fuller’s mysterious death in a parked car – while only 23, and still a Top 40 contender – could have been a suicide, could have been murder. No one really knows, but it does add another dimension to the ‘c’est la vie’ fatalism of the song.

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