This is the third in the series of comments1-2 on the embarrassing speech by Prime Minister Scott Morrison given at the Canberra Citizenship ceremony3.
About half way through the speech, Morrison said:
“Today we reflect on how far we have come, but importantly we humbly acknowledge the work still ahead of us. We have risen above our brutal beginnings.”3
Admittedly, we do not openly massacre people in this country any more, Robodebt notwithstanding, but we do lock them up, seemingly in perpetuity. There are two little girls, both born in Australia, who have been locked up with their parents on Christmas Island for three years. These two little girls, Tharunicaa and Kopika, were taken into custody with their parents, Priya and Nades in a predawn raid on their home in Biloela in March 2019, after the mother’s visa had expired the day before3. Their asylum claims have been rejected and Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton has refused to intervene in their case, despite numerous appeals to do so, not least from the people in Biloela4.
Of course, Morrison and Dutton, have used the standard defence by stating that it can’t make exceptions based on community sentiment because to do so would send a positive signal to people smugglers4. Furthermore, they have used the epithet “illegal immigrants” to characterise these people, which is a lie. They are asylum seekers, and it is not a crime to seek asylum in another country when you are fleeing possible violence in your own country.
Given the reasons for their stated reluctance to intervene, one wonders if there have been any other ministerial interventions on behalf of other people who didn’t enter the country in the regular way. In fact, there have been; 4,000 of them. Dutton intervened to bring a stateless Rohingya boy, who had arrived by boat on Nauru, to Australia. The boy’s parents had been murdered, but he had relatives in Australia5. Dutton also intervened in the au-pair case, to have European au pairs allowed into the country after they had been initially refused by Border Force. The first was on behalf of an old Police colleague, the second on behalf of the AFL Chief Executive and son of a Liberal Party donor. Dutton has also intervened in other cases that have prompted community concern, including families facing deportation because one of them has a health condition or a disability which excludes them from getting a visa. There is also convicted drug trafficker William Betham, whose visa was cancelled in 2016 on character grounds. In 2017, despite being in detention ahead of deportation that year, his visa was returned and he was released. Dutton has maintained that this case was not decided by him6. One could be forgiven for thinking that less consideration is being given to the Biloela family because they are brown.
In Australia, the minimum age of criminal responsibility is set at 10 years. In January, 2021, Australia had its UN Universal Periodic Review, where once every five years, the human rights records of all UN member states are reviewed. This resulted in 31 UN member countries pressuring Australia to raise the age of criminal responsibility to 14. These include Canada, France, Germany, Venezuela and Norway, in an escalation in international pressure on this issue. In 2019, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child recommended 14 years as the minimum age for criminal responsibility. In response to this, a Council of Attorneys-General (CAG) cross-jurisdictional working group was set up to look into the issue, but postponed a decision on raising the age. It means children as young as 10 can still be prosecuted, convicted and imprisoned across Australia7. You get no points for guessing which group of Australian children suffer the most under such a regime, and why the governments see no urgency in dealing with the matter.
The Law Council put it most succinctly when it said, “The current low minimum age of criminal responsibility is out of step with international human rights standards and the most recent medical evidence on child cognitive development. It also ignores the large body of social research highlighting the harmful effects of early contact with the criminal justice system, including entrenchment and recidivism, and a correlation with being less likely to complete education or find employment. Further, it ignores the social determinants that lead to certain cohorts, such as First Nations children, children in out-of-home care, and children with significant health issues, being disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system.”8,9
In August 2020, the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) became the first jurisdiction to break ranks and support raising the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 14. The ACT government intends to do so in its first term after it was re-elected in late 202010.
Despite what Morrison said in his awful speech, there are still brutalities in our system, which we have not ‘risen above’, and they are unlikely to be fixed by someone like him, who seems to revel in them. This federal government lags behind most others in the one thing that every government should aspire to: decency.