By Christian Kerr

The case for…

So you can get deported or detained if you have a foreign accent and a mental illness – but boatloads of illegals are far and few on the horizon.

Mandatory detention needs renovation, not demolition. That’s the argument Don D’Cruz from the Institute of Public Affairs think tank put in an op-ed in the Courier Mail yesterday:

Arguing for more safeguards and greater flexibility within the system for the vulnerable is a far cry from the effective dismantling of mandatory detention which is what some are arguing for.

In spite of its faults, the current border protection regime has proved remarkably effective in terms of stemming the tide of unauthorised arrivals on our shores.

One might even argue that the current system may be a victim of its own success, with some believing that the policy is no longer necessary.

That would be a mistake. Australia’s border protection policy, which is centred on mandatory detention, has been in the news for all the wrong reasons of late but it needs fine tuning, not an extreme makeover…

It’s a pretty sharp job. Read it all here.

The fight against…

Good work from TheOz this morning. “Hundreds of immigration detainees have been held without trial in the nation’s toughest prisons to live alongside hardened criminals, some for years at a time,” Natasha Robinson writes.

“The Immigration Department was unable to provide an estimate yesterday of how many cases have passed through the nation’s maximum security prisons, but confirmed there were 14 detainees in state-run jails. The Australian understands the practice has been routine for at least five years…”

And we worry about people accused of crimes but on remand being locked up with these types…I wouldn’t want you or Ruddock as a lawyer, Mandy.

John Howard has never seriously faced internal opposition since he returned as Liberal leader in 1995. This issue is doubly dangerous for him.

Petro Georgiou and his supporters in the party room represent traditional Liberal supporters that have developed second thoughts about supporting the party – doctor’s wives. Their votes cost Howard the seat of Adelaide and maybe Parramatta last year. The people who support mandatory detention are the new Liberal voters that have given Howard his success – the sort of electors who have made the outer Melbourne seat of Aston, considered up for grabs at a by-election four years ago, safer than Georgiou’s own electorate and Menzies’ old seat of Kooyong.

That’s why he appeared on Lateline last night and said he has no intention of going back to the illegal boat “surges” of 2001 by abandoning the Federal Government’s mandatory detention policy – yet while he’s also holding private discussions with Georgiou about his plans to soften the current approach.

Yesterday’s Government Party Room meeting ran for double its usual time – more than three-and-a-half hours. The ubiquitous “Party Room sources” say that while most MPs empathised with Georgiou and his supporters, only a handful indicated they would back his bills – but the PM still promised a fairer and more humanitarian system.

Unattributed quotes that ran on the wires yesterday show the mood is wobbly – quotes like: “I’m glad Petro brought the issue up. It’s good we’ve got it back on our radar. We’d like to see the process streamlined a little. If people could be processed more quickly, not sitting behind razor wire for long periods, we’d be happy.”

Georgiou intends to press ahead with his proposals if he can’t reach a compromise with the prime minister. At least 11 MPs and senators are prepared to vote for all or part of his two proposed private member’s bills. That’s not enough for anything to happen, even with the support of the ALP and the crossbenchers, but a very strong start.

No wonder Georgiou was able to issue a statement that read:

I was heartened by the extent of support and depth of feeling amongst many of my colleagues for the need for further reform. I am reassured that the proposed bills will provide a strong basis for discussions with the prime minister. I remain committed to moving forward with the bills if the discussions do not yield effective results.

Amanda Vanstone’s characteristic glib bullying in Estimates – the cake episode, for example – can’t have reassured her colleagues.

And the prime minister’s judgment has been awry here, as Michelle Grattan comments today:

Concern about detention policy is not limited to Liberal moderates (some Nationals are also worried); nor does it represent a wider revival of the moderates. The fate of failed asylum seekers and of refugees seeking permanent residence has mobilised all sorts of people, as we have seen outside Parliament with the widely supported Rural Australians for Refugees.

Howard for too long turned a deaf ear to the concerns; after he tuned in, he failed to give his minister a needed sharp kick into action. As a result, now that the issue has blown open, it is not just more difficult to handle but any solutions send out amplified messages…

Howard desperately wants to avoid a crunch on the floor of the House. Not enough MPs would cross the floor to win a vote. But Howard referred yesterday to the unpleasantness of people crossing the floor in Fraser days.

This now puts a lot of weight on Georgiou’s shoulders. Presumably the Government is willing to give him some concessions. But it won’t go too far. Once the bills go into the House they become a symbolic gesture. Georgiou would be allowed his brief parliamentary speech. The Government, on its present thinking, would not allow a full debate or a vote, but Labor would have ways of forcing a vote on some tactical issues to corner the rebels into crossing the floor.

So Georgiou has to push the Government hard and then judge whether anything he gets is enough to strike an honourable deal. He can’t afford to sell out his principles. But he would be foolish to refuse a compromise that brought progress.

He’s one of the few backbenchers who might be up to the task. But can he proceed in good faith?

John Howard is slippery – but so is this issue. The PM is losing his grip on it. More Grattan:

The question is, if certain undertakings are given to him, can he trust the Prime Minister and the minister to carry them out?

Their performance over the new visa, announced in March, to allow long-term failed asylum seekers into the community, raises some doubts. After two months, only 10 people in detention have been offered these visas, and these were announced on Monday night, as the Government shored up its defences for the party meeting.

Time and again, including last week, earlier this week and yesterday, Howard has said the Government wants to find ways to administer the policy with compassion. So far, he hasn’t said how he intends to match this rhetoric. If he means what he says, why didn’t he have some suggestions yesterday? Is he sincere about this line, or just using it as an attempted distraction? The negotiations will answer that question.

If Georgiou strikes any sort of deal, perhaps he should get it in writing, with firm times put on implementation.

Georgiou’s action shows how, in certain circumstances, a small group of determined backbenchers can wield influence. He decided months ago to elevate the detainee issue. But it was the Rau affair (reinforced by the revelation in the Alvarez Solon case) that gave his cause momentum

It is unclear what, if any, specifics will come out of this revolt. But the pressure is having a practical effect. The numbers in long-term detention are being reduced, through a variety of means, and that will continue.

It seems to be the solution when you can’t admit you’re wrong.