Immigration minister, Amanda Vanstone, is unveiling a change to immigration detention policy today, allowing asylum seekers awaiting repatriation to be released into the community. Amnesty International slammed the move yesterday, with refugee coordinator Graham Thom once again calling for an end to mandatory detention and describing it as a flagrant breach of human rights.

“Piecemeal releases from detention or temporary visa arrangements are not good enough,” he said. “What is needed is a comprehensive and lasting change so that cases such as that of Peter Qasim – who has been incarcerated for more than six years – can never happen again.” Qasim, a Kashmiri national, has been imprisoned for almost seven years. He has been refused visas in Australia, but cannot return to India because the government doesn’t recognise his nationality – making him a stateless person.

Interestingly, The Australian’s leader writers seem to agree: “Yesterday the Howard Government took another minuscule bite at reform of asylum-seeker policy,” its editorial says. “This time the beneficiaries will be those whose applications for refugee status have failed but who cannot be sent home. They will likely include Kashmiri Peter Qasim, who has been in detention for an unconscionable seven years, as well as the Afghan and Iraqi asylum-seekers whose countries say they cannot, for now, take them back. This all makes sense. While opposing the extremes of asylum-seeker policy – such as the Pacific solution, indefinite detention of those who cannot be sent home, and the imprisonment of women and children behind razor wire – The Australian has not opposed mandatory detention itself. The worst thing that ever happened to asylum-seeker policy in Australia was not the introduction of mandatory detention by Labor in 1992, but its politicisation by John Howard in 2001…”

Perhaps the wedge has failed. The media this morning seems to be looking at detainees who have spent years behind bars for nothing, rather than keeping the “Christians versus Muslims” line from earlier this week in play. The concession is being described as a victory for Liberal moderates – Liberal moderates who haven’t ratted on their principles in exchange for a seat at the Cabinet table, unlike the contemptible Vanstone and Ruddock.

“John Howard has softened the hardline mandatory detention policy credited with winning him the 2001 election, agreeing to release up to 100 asylum-seekers from behind razor wire after relentless campaigning by Coalition MPs and human rights activists,” Elizabeth Colman and Steve Lewis write in The Australian. “Cabinet agreed yesterday to allow stateless detainees to live in the community, rather than detention centres, until they could be deported to their country of origin.”

According to The Australian, “Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone is today expected to announce that the holders of the new visas will also be eligible for welfare entitlements, allowing them a better standard of living while in Australia” and “the Government’s latest shift on refugee policy came after a group of prominent Liberal backbenchers raised concerns about conditions in detention centres…”

The Australian lists the MPs as NSW’s Bruce Baird and senator Marise Payne, Victorian MPs Petro Georgiou and Phil Barresi and West Australian member Judi Moylan. But what price will they pay? Rumours won’t go away that Howard would love to see Georgiou out of his seat of Kooyong – Robert Menzies’ old electorate. Georgiou is a master strategist. A budding academic, he joined Malcolm Fraser’s staff in the lead-up to the 1975 crisis. As an adviser he was instrumental in establishing SBS and he was state director of the Victorian Liberals when Jeff Kennett had his whopping wins in 1992 and 1996. And Howard cannot understand him.

Georgiou refused a parliamentary secretary’s job after the 1998 election. He told the PM it was a ministry or nothing. Rumours have been drifting around for months that Josh Frydenberg, a former adviser to both Howard and Alexander Downer is being lined up to replace him. Another name that gets mentioned is even more interesting – Andrew Bolt.

Georgiou, however, might be the Liberals best hope in Kooyong. Yes, it’s Sir Robert Menzies’ and Andrew Peacock’s old seat, and yes, it takes in some of the poshest parts of Melbourne – but it is also a hotbed of the dreaded doctor’s wives. The outer Melbourne seat of Aston – the site of a bitter by-election battle back in 2001 and one-time marginal – is now safer. Howard may just need Georgiou – for Kooyong and other traditional Liberal seats are where voters despise his refugee policies.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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