Unfair maiden

It is instructive, periodically, to go back and read the maiden speeches of government ministers. They are the stuff of aspiration, benchmarks of morality set before the realities of Canberra and of cabinet have worn them away.

Scott Morrison gave his maiden speech on Valentine’s Day 2008. It was six minutes to midday when he intoned on “the values and vision that I intend to bring to this House”.

In among the platitudes and paeans to free markets and Christianity, the quotes from Jeremiah and Desmond Tutu and Bono, he spoke of an Australia that was “above all, generous in spirit”, which would “share our good fortune with others, both at home and overseas, out of compassion and a desire for justice”.

He spoke of responsibilities: “As global citizens, we must also recognise that our freedom will always be diminished by the denial of those same freedoms elsewhere, whether in Australia or overseas.”

He spoke of the need to increase foreign aid, which his government has since cut, of “values of loving kindness, justice and righteousness”, of “compassion”, of his commitment “to respect the rule of law”.

It is worth considering these hopes as Morrison shepherds through the parliament a knot of bills that would undermine the rule of law and strip what little compassion is left from this country’s bastard system of processing asylum seekers.

This sentiment is worth recalling, too: “Family is the stuff of life and there is nothing more precious.” And so is this: “It is my hope that all Australians could have the same caring and supportive environment that was provided to me by my parents.”

One of Morrison’s bills would prevent children who were born in Australia to asylum seekers from gaining citizenship. It would also shield the government from claims over human rights breaches. Among the suite of bills is capacity for Morrison to revoke citizenship on the basis of character, without the support of a court.

The Morrison who once spoke of “global citizens” wants to reinterpret Australia’s obligations to the UN refugee convention and legislate for the forcible turn-back of boats and people regardless of international law. Rights to appeal decisions will also be stripped.

What is perhaps most extraordinary in these changes, however, are the powers they confer on Morrison. He alone will have the ultimate say in cases. The logic is bizarre: “As an elected Member of Parliament, the Minister represents the Australian community and has a particular insight into Australian community standards and values and what is in Australia’s public interest. As such, it is not appropriate for an unelected administrative tribunal to review such a personal decision of a Minister on the basis of merit, when that decision is made in the public interest.”

There are those who see this as a power grab – a means of proving himself through expanded responsibility, in anticipation of a cabinet reshuffle. But it is about more than that. This is about the stubbornness of a government whose overreach on asylum seekers is too frequently frustrated by the courts and who want now to legislate a way around those courts. Taken together, these bills are an appalling assault on due process and the Australia Morrison so optimistically described six years ago. One hopes he also reads his maiden speech periodically.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 29, 2014 as "Unfair maiden".

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