On Friday night the NSW Council for Civil Liberties awarded Sydney solicitor John Marsden honorary life membership. Julian Burnside was invited to make the speech in Marsden’s honour. In the course of his speech, Burnside referred to the unregulated use of solitary confinement in Australia’s immigration detention centres, criticising it as inhumane and also as unlawful.

The speech went down well, but one person took him on afterwards, while guests got on with their dinner. Andrew Kirk, currently senior advisor to Joe Hockey, but until recently chief of staff in Amanda Vanstone’s Immigration Department, told Burnside that he was wrong. A fairly lively debate between the two followed, in which Kirk conceded that solitary confinement is used as punishment in detention centres, that punishment without the order of a court breaches the constitutional separation of powers; that use of solitary confinement as punishment is unlawful, but that they would keep on doing it until a court told them to stop.

Later in the evening, Burnside had to get up and present the award to Marsden. He took the opportunity to tell the 350 guests, point by point, what Kirk had said. He then invited Kirk to contradict him if Kirk disagreed with the summary of their conversation. Kirk said nothing.

We have known for years that solitary confinement is used in detention centres. The government has always been cagey about it, preferring to call it ‘separation detention’. Now we have a clear, public admission of systematic conduct by the department which not only breaches international conventions, but which the department knows is illegal.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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