Phillip Ruddock now regrets the detention of children when he was Immigration Minister, according to John Lyons in today’s Australian. Kinda sorta. Not so much the detention itself, but “the speed and implementation” of the Howard Government’s policies. The problem, apparently, wasn’t so much with what he did, but the way it was done.

This is Ruddock in 2004, long after the effects of detention on children were being raised by a wide range of critics asked if children should still be detained, he declared: “I’ve taken the view that the law makes it clear that people are only released from detention on valid visas, or when they’re removed from Australia.”

Judging by his half-baked expression of regret, he now has a different view. It isn’t enough. And it wouldn’t be enough even if he came out and admitted straight up that it was wrong to lock up children at all.

Plenty of politicians in the comfort of retirement express regrets about how hard they played the game. With age comes wisdom, or at least a desire to not look like such a pr-ck.

Some acts in public life, however, are beyond regret. Some are so unforgivably cynical as to be beyond all limits of accepted political bastardry. Some are so demonstrably evil in their effects as to be unacceptable in any decent society. Mandatory detention of children was both. The Howard Government ruthlessly exploited mandatory detention as a critical component in its campaign to secure political advantage by exploiting anti-immigrant sentiment. Its efforts to exploit and demonise asylum seekers (legitimate and otherwise) were unremitting. In doing so, it locked up children, who suffered serious psychological injury from the process of incarceration.

Retirement and hindsight are all well and good. But it is what politicians do in the heat of battle that is the basis on which they must be judged. What decisions did they make when political advantage beckoned – when they were asked to balance basic morality and a chance to win votes? Ruddock and the Howard Government chose the latter and there is no regretting that decision later. Their character was revealed at that moment and there is no gainsaying that.

John Howard pre-emptively declared, while still in office, that you would never find him lamenting his political decisions in retirement like other conservative politicians. Howard at least understands that those in public life don’t get to revise or apologise for their own behaviour later. Their decisions have consequences for the rest of us that they and we must live with. Ruddock too. 

Peter Fray

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