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7am Podcast

Contributing editor of The Politics for The Monthly online, Rachel Withers, on how parliament ended the year on ugly scenes.

Australia is being toxic about immigrants again

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A High Court decision ruling indefinite detention unlawful – leading to the release of 148 immigration detainees, some of whom are criminals – has sparked weeks of toxic political debate about refugees.

In the last few days, the government raced to pass new immigration laws that will put an end to it, but the style of debate has already caused damage.

So, what have we learned from the debacle, and did Australia miss an opportunity to have a conversation about our hardline immigration policy?

Today, contributing editor of The Politics for The Monthly online, Rachel Withers, on how parliament ended the year on ugly scenes.

 

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Guest: Contributing editor of The Politics for The Monthly online, Rachel Withers

Read Transcript
[Theme Music Starts]
 
##ANGE:
From Schwartz Media, I’m Ange McCormack. This is *7am*.
 
A high court decision which led to the release of 148 immigration detainees, some of whom are criminals - has sparked weeks of toxic political debate about refugees.
 
In the last few days the government rushed to pass new immigration laws that will put an end to it, but the style of debate has been bruising, and at times, racist. 
 
So, what have we learned from the debacle - and did Australia miss an opportunity to have a conversation about our hardline immigration policy?
 
Today, contributing editor of *The Politics*, Rachel Withers, on how Parliament ended the year with ugly scenes.
 
It’s Friday, December 8. 
 
[Theme Music Ends]
 
##ANGE: 
Rachel, this week in Parliament has felt pretty tense. It hasn't been this, you know, cruisy final week of the sitting year by any means. What's the mood been like and why?
 
##RACHEL:
It's been ugly and toxic.
 
##Audio excerpt – Penny Wong: 
“Why don't you have a look at the amendments for the preventative detention regime, which is which is actually about Australians keeping Australians safe, keeping Australians safe.”
 
##RACHEL:
The issue that has been causing the most heated exchanges at the moment is the Government rushing to bring in new immigration detention laws through Parliament. And this is the final week, the final sitting week of Parliament in which to do it.
 
##Audio excerpt – Penny Wong: 
“So you had nine years to arrange resettlement and, and you didn't, and now you want to complain about the consequences of that!”
 
##Audio excerpt – Speaker: 
“Order!”
 
##RACHEL:
To give you an idea of just how intense this has become. It's worth mentioning a press conference that took place on Wednesday where Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus appeared to lose his temper a little bit with a *Sky News* reporter.
 
##Audio excerpt – Olivia Caisley (Sky News): 
“Do you owe an apology to those in the community that have been subjected to misdeeds by some of these individuals…”
 
##RACHEL:
She was asking if the government would apologise to people over the release of detainees into the community after the high court decision we saw a few weeks ago. And Dreyfus clearly saw this as not a very good question. He called it absurd.
 
##Audio excerpt – Mark Dreyfus: 
“What does suggest to you that that question is an absurd question? You are asking a cabinet minister, three ministers of the Crown to apologise for upholding the law of Australia.”
 
##RACHEL:
He explained that he would not be apologising for following the law and following a high court ruling.
 
##Audio excerpt – Mark Dreyfus: 
“I will not be apologising for upholding the law.”
 
##RACHEL:
And when she attempted to interrupt him…
 
##Audio excerpt – Mark Dreyfus: 
“And I will not be apologising for acting...do not interrupt! I will not be apologising for acting. I will not be apologising for acting in accordance with a high court decision. Your question is an absurd one!”
 
##RACHEL:
So this exchange has caused, you know, a little bit of conversation online. The Coalition are certainly trying to use it to argue that the Attorney-General snapped at a woman. But I think it's worth stepping back and figuring out just how we got to this point and what this exchange was actually about.
 
##ANGE:
So as you said, the government has been dealing with this high court decision for a couple of weeks now. Why is it that they've now found themselves in such a pressure cooker this week? How did we get to this point?
 
##RACHEL:
Yeah. Well, as you say, it's been building for a few weeks. But near the start of this week, we saw reports that two of the detainees released under the high court's decision had allegedly re-offended. One former sex offender indecently assaulted a woman allegedly in Adelaide, and another was charged with possession of drugs. 
 
And of course this sent the Coalition and the conservative media a little bit berserk.
 
##Audio excerpt – Chris Kenny (Sky News): 
“This immigration detention scandal, the release of criminal non-citizens back into our community, had blown up in the government's face. It was the consequence most of us feared.”
 
##RACHEL:
This was kind of the moment they've been waiting for ever since this high court decision was handed down.
 
##Audio excerpt – Bridget McKenzie: 
“Look this is an absolute disgrace, what’s happened. The government knew back in June that the high court was likely to make this decision and they failed to do the preparatory work…”
 
##RACHEL:
And it was front pages and motions in the Senate and interviews… 
 
##Audio excerpt – Peta Credlin (Sky News): 
“Why should I be surprised that Labor does not seem fit for office. And how could they be with yet another foreign criminal arrested and back behind bars for an alleged indecent assault in Adelaide.”
 
##RACHEL:
And in the ensuing days, we've seen two more of these detainees charged and detained under the criminal law. And so Opposition Leader Peter Dutton really, really began ramping up his attack.
 
##Audio excerpt – Peter Dutton: 
“Mr. Speaker, I seek leave to move the following motion. The House 1. Expresses its grave concern that the Albanese government's catastrophic handling of the NZ, NZYQ High Court.”
 
##RACHEL:
Case warning of further, quote unquote attacks against Australians and calling for the Home Affairs Minister and the Immigration Minister to resign or be sacked.
 
##Audio excerpt – Peter Dutton: 
“3. Calls on the Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Multicultural Affairs to resign, or for the Prime Minister to enforce accountability and to sack him.”
 
##Audio excerpt – Speaker (House of Representatives): 
“Is leave...Order! Members on my right!”
 
##RACHEL:
And this was followed by a massive debate in the Senate where Liberal Senators Michaelia Cash and Simon Birmingham lobbed some extremely heated rhetoric at the Government.
 
##Audio excerpt – Simon Birmingham: 
“Why weren't you prepared earlier to take the most basic steps to protect the Australian community?”
 
##Audio excerpt – Michaelia Cash: 
“The only thing your government was ready to do was to release these detainees into the Australian community. Minister, why can't your government keep children safe!”
 
##RACHEL:
About the fact that they knew this was coming, why weren't they prepared, why weren't these people already locked up again basically ...
 
##Audio excerpt – Speaker (The Senate): 
“Order across the chamber! That was incredibly disorderly and disrespectful.”
 
##RACHEL:
This high court decision was one that found that it was illegal for the Government to indefinitely detain people who had served their sentences and who the government was unable to deport. 
 
It wasn't the Government's decision to let them out. They actually fought against this in the High Court and they lost. And so they were required under the law to release these people. 
 
And the Coalition's attack is sort of then, well why didn't you have new legislation in place to lock them up again? There's also this idea being brought up that these people are inherently dangerous. 
 
This huge uproar about a handful of these former detainees reoffending, which ignores the fact that actually this is just something that happens in society. We release people who have served their sentences for crimes all the time. They often do re-offend. In fact, the rate sits at about 60% in Australia, and then we charge them again and then let the criminal justice system deal with it again. And they are sometimes put away again. 
 
The prison system doesn't really rehabilitate people, but this is just something that we do in a liberal democracy. We don't lock people up indefinitely just because we think they might be a threat.
 
##ANGE:
And the government did manage to rush through this new legislation on preventative detention on Wednesday night and it passed. What does getting that bill through mean for this story?
 
##RACHEL:
Yeah, so this is sort of what the Coalition wanted them to do all along. Preventative detention laws will allow the government to refer non-citizens freed from immigration detention to judges to decide whether they pose a risk to the community and whether they can be held longer. 
 
Now, legal experts say that that's going to be a very, very high bar. Most of these people won't be locked up again if you put their case before a judge. It's no longer in the hands of politicians to decide. 
 
The bill has been passed. It might help with some of the immediate concern. But at the end of the day, we're left wondering whether this legislation has really addressed the real problems with our immigration detention system, or if the government has engaged with the issue beyond stemming the attacks on itself or arguably making them worse by buying into the fear.
 
##ANGE:
After the break - how one day in Parliament showed the best and worst sides of our leaders.
 
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##ANGE:
Rachel, we've been talking about the new immigration detention laws. And part of the reason the debate about the high court decision narrowed to how quickly the government could get this new legislation through Parliament was because of the pressure applied by the Opposition. What do you think this final week of Parliament tells us about the Opposition and how it's approaching politics at the moment?
 
##RACHEL:
Well, I'd say after the referendum, the Voice debate, they've been emboldened to go harder and harder. They're not really seeing consequences for dog whistling behaviour. 
 
And you know, Peter Dutton has long been a fan of the dog whistle and appealing to raise the fear as he campaigns. And you know, it seems to be working. It's resonating with the media, it's drawing attention, it's capitalising on on what is perceived as a weakness for Labor border security. 
 
It's worrying for what we're going to see in the new year. Peter Dutton has taken the lessons of 2023 and looks set to go even harder.
 
##ANGE:
And Rachel, this issue has been quite a toxic debate. You know, regardless of what the arguments have been over, the style of debate has been ugly. Is that ultimately kind of on brand with what we can take away from Parliament this year?
 
##RACHEL:
Yeah, I'd say unfortunately so. You know, when this new government was elected, we heard a lot about the new tone and the change in tone. But Question Time is once again unwatchable. People just saying outrageous things, a lot of shouting. But I think it's really interesting to note that while all this was going on this week, we also saw a very different tone that the Parliament is able to take.
 
##Audio excerpt – Tony Burke: 
“I move that so much of the standing and sessional orders be suspended as would prevent the following from occurring in relation to business for today. One, the Prime Minister moving a motion of condolence in relation to the death of Peta Jan Murphy.”
 
##RACHEL:
The whole sitting day, the daylight hours were put aside for tributes to Labor MP Peta Murphy, who died on Monday after a long battle with breast cancer.
 
##Audio excerpt – Anthony Albanese: 
“We meet today to offer our nation's condolences to all those who had the great fortune of knowing Peta Murphy. Peta Murphy was special.”
 
##RACHEL:
And yeah, about 60 MPs from all sides of politics spoke to a condolence motion. You know, a real mark of how respected the former member for Dunkley was.
 
##Audio excerpt – Sussan Ley: 
“Women, especially in public life, are judged relentlessly for how they look, the clothes they wear. Then I cut and of course their hair. And that is why I was so moved whenever I saw Peta stride into this place, outwardly unfazed, clearly unwell with no head covering. Because what you saw was a woman with passion in her eyes and a resolution to claim back her identity.”
 
##RACHEL:
People were paying tribute to her empathy, her integrity, her sense of humour. But what really struck me was that so many of them were referring to the fact that she did politics differently.
 
##Audio excerpt – Peter Dutton: 
“In many ways, the inspiration Peta drew from Australia's longest serving Labor government forged into the ideals that we all knew. It was that idealism which saw her possess that unfaltering faith in our democratic system. She had an unbreakable belief in the cauldron of Australia's national conversation in the power of ideas and robust debates to break through the walls of brute politicking.”
 
##RACHEL:
You know, people do say this all the time, but her maiden speech was about the need to listen to each other and to try to solve complex problems together. 
 
But that press conference with the Attorney-General, Mark Dreyfus, that we were talking about at the start of the show that came right in the midst of this day of condolence motions for Peta Murphy. 
 
And you know, this clip is going around, but you know, it's without the context that Dreyfus has spent weeks explaining, it wasn't the government's decision to let these people out, explaining what the new legislation would do and how it would work. And so yet, you know, it was in the context of him explaining this for the millionth time with people who refused to accept his answer, and also in the context that he was about to go and give his speech to the condolence motion to his colleague who died on Monday, worth noting also that Dreyfus lost his wife to cancer quite recently. 
 
But it was jarring to hear all of these beautiful tributes and speeches and talking about the need to do politics differently…only very quickly for things to return to normal once the motion was over, because the evening sitting was about the immigration detention debate.
 
It was quite sad to have listened to all these beautiful tributes about doing things that are only to see the worst of our politics, I would say at the very same moment.
 
##ANGE:
Rachel, thanks so much for your time today.
 
##RACHEL:
Thanks, Ange. 
 
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[Theme Music Starts]
 
##ANGE:
Also in the news today…
 
Veteran Broadcaster Alan Jones is planning legal action against Nine newspapers for publishing allegations of indecent assault.
 
In the reporting by Kate McClymont, several men detail allegations against Alan Jones - including that he groped or inappropriately touched them without consent.
 
Alan Jones strongly denies the allegations.
 
And
 
A review has made 26 recommendations on how to transform the National Disability Insurance Scheme. 
 
The independent report, commissioned by the government, has found the scheme is neither efficient nor fair … and that the government had become too reliant on the NDIS as the dominant or only support for people living with a disability.
 
The government says it will announce reforms based on the recommendations early next year.
 
*7am* is a daily show from *The Monthly* and *The Saturday Paper*. 
 
It’s produced by Kara Jensen-Mackinnon, Zoltan Fecso and Cheyne Anderson.
 
Our senior producer is Chris Dengate. Our technical producer is Atticus Bastow. 
 
Our editor is Scott Mitchell. Sarah McVeigh is our head of audio.
 
Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief. 
 
Mixing by Andy Elston, Travis Evans, and Atticus Bastow.
 
Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio. 
 
I’m Ange McCormack, this is *7am*. We’ll be back next week. 
 
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