Australians are not always good neighbours

Bad neighbour for deportations
Justice Minister Andrew Little spoke forcefully about Australia’s moral failures on an Australian TV programme.  (Robert Kitchin/Stuff)

19 July 2018

Philip Matthews – Stuff reporter

Editorial: Five months have passed since Australia’s 60 Minutes programme fawned over Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern but, as cringe-inducing as the encounter with our “young, honest and pregnant” leader was for host Charles Wooley​, it pointed towards a larger truth that reflects well on New Zealand. That is, Australians are increasingly looking across the Tasman for politicians with principles.

More recently, Acting Prime Minister Winston Peters and Justice Minister Andrew Little have been setting a moral example to our cousins across the ditch.

Peters warned Australia that its detention of a 17-year-old New Zealander was in breach of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Little went further on Australia’s Foreign Correspondent programme this week, when he blasted Australia’s lack of “humanitarian ideals” and its “breach of human rights”.

“It seems to me that there is a venal, political strain to all this,” Little added.

Some will claim that Australia’s laws are its own business, and New Zealanders have no place lecturing it. However, Little argues that it is “improper” for Australia to deport New Zealanders who identify as Australian residents and have lived most or nearly all of their lives there.

“Improper” would seem to be too polite a word for the heartless and callous way that Australia has been acting.

The 17-year-old, who is understood to have almost no family connections in New Zealand, spent four months in a detention centre in Melbourne that is intended to house adults.

After an appeal, the boy has been released, had his visa returned and has gone back to family, who live nine hours’ drive away in New South Wales. But he may still be deported to New Zealand under the powers of Australian Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton.

About 1,200 New Zealand citizens have been deported from Australia since changes were made to that country’s Migration Act in 2014. The tougher laws determined that anyone convicted of an offence attracting more than 12 months in prison will have their visa cancelled.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported that the boy was in a youth detention centre in New South Wales before he was suddenly relocated to Melbourne by the Australian Border Force.

Unsurprisingly, there have been divergent opinions about his offending. Dutton called him dangerous, but immigration lawyer Greg Barns said the boy committed “stock standard” crimes and that “nothing in his offending would make him such a danger to the community [that] he has to be removed”.

Barns said the boy was being poorly treated in a centre that lacked educational facilities or access to services, and that he had concerns for his mental health. A freelance journalist who talked to the boy reported that he was affected by his detention and had not been eating or sleeping properly.

Australian Children’s Commissioner Megan Mitchell agreed that “prolonged detention can have a profoundly negative impact on the mental and emotional health and development of children”.

Despite the successful appeal, advocate Timothy Gassin sees a dangerous precedent emerging. After deporting adults, Dutton may now be moving to attempt to remove minors.

But again, there is a grim irony to that statement, as Barns and other human rights campaigners have acknowledged. When it comes to keeping minors in detention centres, Australia has already had plenty of practice on Nauru.

[Read the Stuff editorial].

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