Yet another Senate committee has exposed the questionable operations and costs associated with the Nauru regional processing centre, but unlike during the Howard era, it is unlikely that voters or the backbench will force Tony Abbott’s hand on the issue.

On May 13, 2004, then-leader of the House Tony Abbott tabled a report by Human Rights Commissioner Dr Sev Ozdowski on mandatory immigration detention practices in Australia. The report took two years to finalise and found that the Howard government’s mandatory detention policy was a breach of the Conventions on the Rights of the Child because detention was the first and only resort for asylum seeker children, not the last resort. It called for the release of children in detention as soon as possible.

At the time, the government’s response was to quietly begin releasing children from detention, but it kept playing down the number of children being held, claiming single-digit figures while there were, as of August 2004, still 70 children in Australian centres, and 16 in Nauru.

Just over 10 years ago, Howard faced a backbench revolt, led by the wet Liberal Petro Georgiou, and responded by releasing all remaining children in detention on June 17, 2005. It wasn’t to last, however. Children began being detained in centres again for considerable lengths of time during the Rudd government, beginning in 2009. At its peak in July 2013, there were more than 1000 children in immigration detention.

Since the election of the Abbott government, that figure has gone down significantly, but more than 100 children still remain in detention. According to ChilOut, an organisation devoted to getting children out of immigration detention, there are, as of the end of July, 118 children held in immigration detention on the Australian mainland, 87 children held in detention in Nauru, and 480 children in community detention.

The Abbott government has faced pressure from the Australian Human Rights Commission to get the remaining children out of detention — but rather than leading to the backbench revolt Howard experienced, the AHRC’s pleas have only resulted in calls from government MPs for AHRC president Gillian Triggs to step down for her apparent bias.

This report, along with the government-initiated Moss Review, led to another Senate committee looking into the conditions in the Nauru asylum seeker detention centre. The committee’s report, handed down yesterday, is a damning indictment on the state of the facility, its cost, and operation.

When Nauru was reopened in 2012 it was intended as a short-term measure pending the development of a regional framework for processing asylum seeker claims, but three years on, there is still no regional framework in place, and the committee noted that the inhabitants in the Nauru detention centre were “left in limbo”.

The average processing time in the facility is 402 days, and asylum seekers are not provided information about the status of their claims. The report found the facility costs Australian taxpayers $416.5 million over 10 months in capital and operating expenses to house 677 asylum seekers. That’s $1.3 million per day, or $2000 per asylum seeker, per day.

The committee was “particularly disturbed” by evidence on the abuse, traumatisation, and mental illness faced by children in the facility, with reports of sexual abuse, physical assault and other crimes against children.

“Given the evidence put before this committee, the committee fails to understand how, if immigration detention facilities in Australia are regarded as inappropriate locations for children, the government could possible regard as acceptable their continued detention in the far worse conditions of the Nauru RPC,” the committee stated in its report.

The committee recommended that, in addition to removing children from detention, there should be legislation passed so that there is mandatory reporting of suspected assaults.

But rather than backing the recommendations, the government has labelled the inquiry a “witch-hunt”. The dissenting report by Coalition senators claimed much of the evidence being presented to the committee regarding treatment of asylum seekers in detention was “untested and unsubstantiated”.

“This inquiry has sought, in many respects, to advance the political perspective of those opposing senators [and] should be viewed in that context.”

The Coalition members pointed to a new child protection panel established by the government to provide independent advice to government on the treatment of children in detention.

“With respect to the number of children in detention, this situation has improved markedly since the change of government.”

Coalition senators did not back the majority of the 15 recommendations because they viewed them as “redundant”.

While the evidence of treatment of asylum seekers on Nauru was damning, there appears to be no backbench revolt for Abbott, at least on the issue of children in detention. Essential polling also suggests that, unlike Howard, the government will not face too much backlash on the issue with voters. In the most recent polling on the matter back in April, Essential reported that 34% of voters think the government is taking the right approach to asylum seekers, while 27% think the government is too soft on asylum seekers. Just 22% of voters think the government is too tough.

Peter Fray

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