The wheels are falling off the DIMIA chariots as they race around Capital Hill. And the embattled department’s ring master, Senator Vanstone, has been caught in the middle of the traffic. But she must have had a premonition, because late last Friday she announced that the 50 East Timorese asylum seekers who have been told by her to leave by Monday 23 May have had their bridging visas extended.

She said would look at each case again to ensure consistency and make a decision within the next two to three weeks. More than 1,440 East Timorese asylum seekers have been allowed to stay as permanent residents through relevant ministers using their intervention power. But Vanstone declined to use her intervention powers when it came to the last 50 East Timorese.

All the East Timorese asylum seekers have been in Australia between seven and ten years. Some of the children were born here. The 50 received a letter from DIMIA dated 26 April 2005 and signed by Vanstone with no explanation as to why she refused to use her intervention power. Instead of reasons they received details of a financial incentive to leave.

When questioned by the media for the reasons why the 50 have been given their marching orders the acting immigration minister, Peter McGauran, suggested that overwhelmingly character issues were the reason for the refusal. But he refused to elaborate. However, Vanstone seemed to contradict McGauran when she told the ABC radio’s Law Report on 17 May that the 50 who were being asked to return were “those who either have these character issues, or have got balance of family.” Vanstone has added a new element to the debate – balance of family in East Timor.

David Manne, director of the Refugee and Immigration Legal Centre has rejected the character claims. According to him, 12 have had some problem with the law but “nothing terribly serious.” However, McGauran’s innuendo has caused distress among the 50 East Timorese. Manne also questioned the opaque process Vanstone seemed to use because “most of these people have the same backgrounds, the same profiles as those who have already been granted humanitarian intervention,” he told The Law Report.

But Vanstone claimed that each case was dealt individually on its merits. If that was the case, why the inconsistencies? Why didn’t she gave the 50 the reasons for rejecting their cases? How did she or DIMIA arrive at the neat figure of 50? Who gave her the information for her to make those decisions? And what is her or DIMIA’s definition of family?

Maybe Vanstone forgets that our parliamentary system of government is based on the Westminster model, and the buck stops with the minister. In the absence of answers from the minister, send your suggestions to [email protected]