Sunday, June 22, 2014

The boats have stopped, but not the protests

The boats may have stopped, but discontent with Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers continues.

Hundreds of Melburnians rallied to protest offshore processing on Manus Island and Nauru as part of World Refugee Day on Sunday.

Last week marked six months since the last boatload of asylum seekers journeyed to Australian shores.  

The Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, Scott Morrison, has remained uncompromising in his tough stance on “illegal arrivals”.  

In a statement he said “the government remains resolute in our determination to stop the boats”.

But the people who gathered in Melbourne’s CBD expressed shame and embarrassment at Australia’s “disgraceful” policies on asylum seekers.

Michael*, 62, said he was upset by existing policies. “I think the government is not representing me as an Australian.  I hate to think what [other nations] think of Australia.”

David, 65, from Beechworth said he was “ashamed of what the Australian government is doing to the most desperate people”.

Dressed in his St Kilda football club scarf, Tom said he was “disgusted with the way refugees are treated”.

He was referring to Australia’s system of detaining asylum seekers, who arrive by boat, in offshore detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru.

Nicole, a 34-year-old barrister, said she believed offshore detention was a “deliberate way of making sure there is no scrutiny” of what goes on in the centres.

Annie, 31, said Australia was breaching international law by putting asylum seekers in offshore detention.

Despite differences in age and origin, protestors shared similar visions about what their preferred asylum seeker policy might involve.

David once marched against former prime minister Malcolm Fraser’s policies, but now supported Mr Fraser’s push for regional processing. 

He said Australia should be using its close connection with Indonesia to develop “proper, efficient and fair” processing in Indonesia to prevent people resorting to unsafe voyages by boat.

But should boats still arrive, Michael supported asylum seekers remaining in community detention while their claims were processed.

Nicole said she had "no issue” with boats coming and that Australia had “plenty of resources”.  Annie agreed: “Australia is a country well positioned to assist others in need and should be doing more."

Tom saw value in sending asylum seekers to regional areas to assist farmers and producers while their claims were processed.  While Beryl, an elderly protestor, said she believed in bringing refugees straight to Australia.

Former Speaker Anna Burke spoke to the crowd disagreeing with her Labor party’s policy to support offshore processing at Manus and Nauru.

“We need to do better,” Ms Burke said.  The issue “should not be a political football”.

“Each asylum seeker that seeks protection should be treated with dignity and humanity and treated as a human being."

Annie said she did not labour under illusions that the Abbott government would heed the views expressed at the rally.

She went to the rally to show her “depth of feeling”.  She believed her attendance demonstrated a commitment beyond merely sending an email or signing a petition.

Joined by her five-year-old twins, Jane, 40, said “no one really acts” on their concerns.  She wanted to publicly “take a stand” to prompt the government into action.

Kaz, 37, said he hoped passers-by would notice the rally and be prompted to ask why people were supporting asylum seekers.

“’Asylum seekers’ is a label we created.  We should call them people fleeing persecution,” said Kaz.

Deputy leader of the Greens, Adam Bandt, also addressed the crowd that marched through the Bourke Street Mall led by MC, Corinne Grant.

*Names of interviewees have been changed.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Salvation Army used Facebook to recruit detention centre support workers

Former Salvation Army support workers at Nauru and Manus detention centres told a Senate inquiry today they were recruited via advertisements on Facebook and did not receive training.

Nicole Judge and Chris Iacono told the Senate inquiry into the February riots at Manus Island detention centre they responded to advertisements on Facebook in September 2012.

Ms Judge wrote in her submission to the inquiry that she was "hired by the Salvation Army without interview or job training".

The Salvation Army used their Humanitarian Mission Services Facebook Page to recruit workers for Manus Island and Nauru processing centres.

An advertisement was posted on November 21 2013 inviting people interested in supporting asylum seekers to respond:

In response to queries posted about requisite qualifications, the administrator of the page wrote that "qualifications would depend on the type of support role and individual circumstances of the applicant".

The post included a 59 second video featuring a Salvation Army employee who stated "it's a once in a life-time opportunity.

"Conditions are tough in Nauru and with anything in life there are positives and negatives.  If anyone's interested in this program I would say go for it."

A longer video was posted on November 20 2013 featuring an HR employee, Phil Donnan, talking about conditions on Manus Island.

"It's hard, it's hot, it's humid and the conditions on the island are quite harsh, difficult and challenging,"Mr Donnan said in the video.

In their submission to the Senate inquiry, The Salvation Army stated "support worker roles typically do not require individuals to have particular skills or experience.

"The Salvation Army maintains that those employees who were engaged in this role were, at all times, adequately skilled to discharge the duties required."

According to The Salvation Army, the duties included providing "sport and recreation activities, facilitating computer and telephone access, operating the kiosks and the provision of basic needs for clients".

Mr Iacono and Ms Judge told the Senate inquiry they spent time talking with and counselling asylum seekers.

Ms Judge told the Senate inquiry "I honestly thought that going into this would be some kind of fun experience".

The Federal Government did not renew The Salvation Army's contract to provide support to asylum seekers following its expiration in February 2014.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Should Geoff Shaw be expelled from the Victorian Parliament?

It's a tough call.

The Labor party thinks he should be expelled; and according to Fairfax reports, so does the former Speaker Ken Smith.

Many Victorians would be glad to see an end to two years of unimpressive manoeuvres by the independent Frankston MP who, by being a lone power-broker in a finely-balanced House, has seemingly forced out a Speaker and a Premier.

But what has Mr Shaw done and does it warrant expulsion from parliament?

Mr Shaw's predicament turns on the use of his electoral car for business purposes. A report by the Ombudsman isolated a handful of occasions on which it was agreed by the parties that the car was used for Mr Shaw's business.

Using the car for commercial purposes is considered a breach of the MPs' code of conduct that says "Members shall accept their prime responsibility is to the performance of their public duty" and will avoid conflicting private interests.
Code of conduct for members: Section 3 of the Members of Parliament (Register of Interests) Act 1978.

3 Code of conduct for Members
(1) It is hereby declared that a Member of the Parliament is bound by the following code of conduct—
(a) Members shall—
(i) accept that their prime responsibility is to the performance of their public duty and therefore ensure that this aim is not endangered or subordinated by involvement in conflicting private interests;
(ii) ensure that their conduct as Members must not be such as to bring discredit upon the Parliament; 
A wilful breach of the code is considered contempt of the Parliament for which the form of punishment can be determined by the House.
9 Failure to comply with Act Any wilful contravention of any of the requirements of this Act by any person shall be a contempt of the Parliament and may be dealt with accordingly and in addition to any other punishment that may be awarded by either House of the Parliament for a contempt of the House of which the Member is a Member the House may impose a fine upon the Member of such amount not exceeding $2000 as it determines.
Mr Shaw says he did not know the car was being used for commercial purposes and he did not give permission to his business partners to use it for business purposes.

Nevertheless, Mr Shaw did nominate his business staff as authorised drivers of his parliamentary vehicle.  

One of the identified uses of the car was for a trip to Warrnambool on 21 February 2011.  When the Ombudsman asked him why he gave his parliamentary vehicle to a business colleague to use to drive to Warrnambool, Mr Shaw could not recall a precise reason.

Mr Shaw completed a logbook entry signing himself as the driver for the 694km private trip (PVT).

Does this example constitute 'wilful contravention' of the code of conduct and does it warrant expulsion? 

The Opposition members of the Privileges Committee believe it does, when combined with other documented examples.  They say that Mr Shaw's "recklessness, careless conduct and complete indifference to his obligations" constitutes wilfulness and that the Ombudsman's report documents examples of this behaviour.

Mr Shaw wrote an impassioned submission to the Privileges Committee stating that "the Ombudsman's Report is based on an inaccurate account of the relevant facts".  

Mr Shaw accused the whistleblowers who brought the original concerns to light of being disaffected former employees one of whom had "resorted to extreme measures of retaliation and extortion".  He said "they chose to take their photos and photocopies to the media to extort me to maximum effect".

Mr Shaw said he has experienced a "trial by media" and had been the subject of an investigation political in nature involving "dirt" and "spite" and "political lynchings".

The whistleblowers have stated their case to the Ombudsman, but were not called to the Privileges Committee.  They stated that Mr Shaw had told them they could use the parliamentary car for Mr Shaw's business purposes:

Charges against Mr Shaw arising from these claims were dropped by the Director of Public Prosecutions in December 2013.

Has Mr Shaw wilfully breached the code of conduct amounting to contempt of the Parliament warranting expulsion?  It is a tough call.  

Certainly, signing over the use of a parliamentary car to business associates, admitting to wrongly signing a log book for the use of the car and accusing whistleblowers of bringing concerns for purposes of retaliation doesn't look good.

Those arguing against expulsion say a dangerous precedent arises if the House can gang-up on a democratically elected independent and cause a by-election.

Alternatively, a by-election does return the power to the people: if they feel the Member has been wrongly punished, they can re-endorse them at the ballot box.

It is open to the Lower House of the Victorian Parliament to make a finding and exact the punishment it sees fit.  The decision in this case is made all the more complex because of its political implications for a government hanging on by one vote.

It has taken two years for the parliament to consider sanctions in this matter.  In the political thunderstorms anticipated in the House this week, let's hope for a break in the clouds and a resolution to this saga.