Philip Ruddock is today once again in the spotlight as he gives evidence to the Haneef inquiry. Ruddock was Attorney-General when Dr Haneef was arrested and wrongfully charged with a terrorism offence in July last year.

But Mr Ruddock’s role in the Haneef affair might seem like a walk in the park when placed alongside the scrutiny that will inevitably be applied to his role in prosecuting the policy of mandatory detention for asylum seekers.

Mr Ruddock, as Immigration Minister, was an enthusiastic proponent of the Howard government’s cynical voting garnering manipulation of mandatory detention for asylum seekers. Detention centres like Woomera and Baxter in South Australia and Villawood in Sydney were hellholes and became the focal point of international human rights campaigns against the Howard government.

Those of us who actively campaigned against mandatory detention warned that Mr Ruddock and the Howard government were putting at risk millions of dollars in future compensation claims that would be made by men, women and children who suffered psychological and physical harm as a result of their being detained.

The chickens are about to come to roost. A new book, Human Rights Overboard, which hits the streets this week, chronicles in graphic fashion the serial human rights abuse that took place in our detention centres. Children watching their father hang himself, a guard kicking a young boy, women so depressed that they were catatonic. The stories are heart rending.

As the authors Chris Goddard, Susie Latham and Linda Briskman note, the policy of mandatory detention “was organised and ritualised abuse of vulnerable people, including children, by the Australian government.”

Mr Howard, Mr Ruddock and the bureaucrats and contractors who devised and implemented the policy of mandatory dentition will be held accountable for their actions. They had a legally recognised duty of care to those they detained not to harm them psychologically or physically, and they failed to exercise that duty.

Furthermore, Australia has obligations under international human rights conventions to which it is a signatory to ensure that human rights are not breached. A court can take into account the failure by government to act in a way that is consistent with those obligations when deciding if decisions taken by government were lawful.

The state governments of South Australia, New South Wales and other governments which were asked to intervene and prevent child abuse, and that failed to do so, might also find themselves on the end of claims by former detainees.

How the Rudd government responds to claims for compensation will be telling. In Opposition Labor cowered pathetically when it came to standing up for asylum seekers.

It has a chance now to redeem itself, and ensure that the victims of the institutionalised abuse of mandatory detention do not have to spend years arguing their cases before the courts, by establishing an independent process for compensation along the lines of the processes established for those who suffered in state government care during the last century.

If the Haneef affair was a dark chapter in Australia’s recent past in which Mr Ruddock played a role, the abuse of asylum seekers is a whole book in which the man who got a standing ovation at the Liberal Party’s 2001 election campaign launch is a central character.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey