Welcome to our rolling coverage of the inquiry’s hearing in Canberra on Friday. The immigration minister, Scott Morrison, is due to give evidence at 9.15am AEST.
Other witnesses set to face the hearing later in the day are Paris Aristotle and Nicholas Procter, of the minister’s council on asylum seekers and detention, and Deborah Homewood, managing director of MAXimus Solutions, which is responsible for providing support to unaccompanied children in immigration detention.
Updated at 10.08am AEST
The president of the Human Rights Commission, Professor Gillian Triggs, launched this inquiry in February. It is looking into children in closed immigration detention, and will assess whether laws, policies and practices relating to children in immigration detention meet Australia’s international human rights obligations.
According to the terms of reference, the inquiry is examining:
- the appropriateness of facilities in which children are detained;
- the impact of the length of detention on children;
- measures to ensure the safety of children;
- provision of education, recreation, maternal and infant health services;
- the separation of families across detention facilities in Australia;
- the guardianship of unaccompanied children in detention in Australia;
- assessments conducted before transferring children to be detained in “regional processing countries”; and
- progress that has been made during the 10 years since the commission’s 2004 report: A last resort? National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention.
Updated at 10.10am AEST
Triggs begins the fourth and final hearing by explaining that the primary purpose of the inquiry is “to examine the condition of children held in closed detention”. She is “pleased” to see Morrison and the department secretary, Martin Bowles.
Triggs notes that one of the concerns about Christmas Island is the inability for children to attend school, but she says it is encouraging and warmly welcomed that the government has made progress in starting education services there. Triggs also welcomes Morrison’s announcement earlier this week about the planned release of children but she is concerned about the fate of hundreds of children who continue in indefinite detention.
Triggs says she is also concerned that many children in detention have been there for more than a year.
Updated at 10.27am AEST
Scott Morrison swears on the Bible before beginning his testimony.
He is asked whether he swears by almighty God to give true answers.
“I do,” he replies.
Updated at 10.45am AEST
Morrison, in an opening statement, commends “all those men and women” who work and serve in the immigration and border protection system to provide care and support. He praises their professionalism and the compassionate and effective way in which they go about their work despite “regular and often unfair criticism”.
“They work in difficult circumstances,” the minister says.
“They do their job to the best of their ability.”
Morrison takes a swipe at the inquiry for not calling his four Labor predecessors to give evidence, saying those former immigration ministers should also face questioning.
The inquiry “could be more accurately described as an inquiry into children Labor put into detention”, he says.
More children had been released under the Abbott government than arrived on asylum-seeker boats under the Coalition.
Morrison says 352 children have arrived on boats under the Coalition: “That’s too many.”
He says 8,469 children arrived on boats under Labor. Many others were not fortunate and “their corpses were scooped from the water” by border protection command.
Updated at 10.15am AEST
Morrison says the system is “not without its faults”.
“In each case we’ve moved to address those weaknesses as they’ve been identified,” he says.
He stresses his view of the central importance of stopping boats from arriving because that would ensure more people – including children – did not enter immigration detention.
“There is much emotion in this serious topic that is before your inquiry,” he says.
As a parent of two young children the emotional challenges are “just as real” for him as they would be for any parent. But he argues sentiment cannot be indulged in lieu of effective policy. The Australian people decided at the last election that “enough children had drowned to warrant a change of policy”.
He says there always would be “costs” and no policy was free of “moral burden”.
Unlike commentators, ministers do not have the luxury of an opinion for which there are no consequences.
He wants to end deaths at sea. He chides “all those [commentators] who cheered them on and advocated weaker border policies” – a “deadly curse”.
Updated at 10.30am AEST
Triggs is pursuing a line of questioning seeking answers about the purpose or reason for detaining children.
Morrison says the government’s policy to stop the boats “by any measure has proved to be highly effective”. But for those people in Australia the government agrees it should be moving as many as is humanly possible out of detention into the community.
Triggs asks for evidence that holding children in detention for more than a year has an effect on stopping boats. Morrison says offshore processing is a crucial part of the government’s policy.
“Frankly, madam president, the results speak for themselves,” Morrison says.
Updated at 10.19am AEST
Triggs tells the minister he is trying to link cause and effect. Triggs contends, however, that it is military force that is “stopping the boats” rather than children in detention.
The president of the Human Rights Commission says: “What I’m challenging or asking you to explain is how do you link detention of children for over a year … to the effective stopping of numbers of boats … ?”
Morrison replies: “The risk is that we’re drifting away from the terms of reference of your inquiry … The Australian government is not using military force in the way you outlined. Operation Sovereign Borders is a civil operation, led by albeit a three-star very experienced general.”
The minister says there is “no silver bullet” to stopping the boats and it requires a “vast array of measures”.
“The numbers speak for themselves, madam president: there’s been one venture this year, just one. That didn’t happen by accident,” Morrison says.
The minister says offshore processing “has a consequence” of children in detention.
Updated at 10.33am AEST
Asked whether he had weighed up the mental illness and ill health implications, Morrison says: “Yes, of course you take the advice, you assess all the information … and you seek to mitigate the impacts of the policies you have in place that are serving a very important process.”
The counsel assisting the inquiry, Naomi Sharp, takes Morrison to montly statistics showing the average length of detention for detainees. She says the average length of time that a child spent in immigration detention in Australia as at 31 July 2014 was 349 days. This compared with an average of 115 days as at 20 September 2013 – the month the Coalition took office.
“That’s effectively a tripling of the time children spend in detention,” Sharp says.
Morrison says it would have been his preference that at the beginning of this year the government would have got under way with processing 30,000 previous arrivals, but the Senate had frustrated the government’s attempt to implement its election promise of temporary protection visas.
He says if it were not for the obstruction in the Senate more people would be out of detention (on temporary visas).
“That is the consequence of what Labor and the Greens decided to do in the Senate,” Morrison says. The minister adds that he’s been speaking with crossbenchers in the new Senate to deal with the backlog of cases.
Morrison is asked why it has taken 11 months in order to put a framework in place in order to release children under 10 years of age on bridging visas. This relates to Morrison’s announcement earlier this week that children who arrived in Australia before 19 July last year would be eligible.
Morrison tells the inquiry he’s been working on “faults and deficiencies” in bridging visa program for children under 10.
“The idea of getting children out of detention is something I think both governments have endeavoured to do,” he says.
“You can always do things better … the government will always seek to do things better.”
The inquiry is pursuing a line of questioning as to whether detaining children is a deterrent for boats arriving.
Morrison does not claim that detaining children is specifically a deterrence, but instead says that is a “consequence” of the policy of offshore processing. He maintains that offshore processing is part of a suite of policies that provide a deterrence and which is “getting results” in stopping arrivals.
Triggs suggests to Morrison that he takes almost no moral or legal responsibility for the consequence.
“I really think that is a very unfair statement,” Morrison says.
The minister points to his opening statement about moral burdens of immigration and border policies. He takes aims at advocates who opposed the government taking a hard line on boat arrivals.
“Those who advocated getting rid of John Howard’s measures got what they wanted and the deadly curse that followed from that is there for all to see,” Morrison says.
Updated at 2.30pm AEST
Morrison defends the quality of health services provided by contractor IHMS.
He then launches a forceful defence of the government’s hardline policy against boat arrivals, saying the Coalition is determined to prevent Australian border protection officers from “staring into the face of a child corpse in the water again”.
“That is our contract with the Australian people,” Morrison says.
Morrison and the secretary of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, Martin Bowles, have taken exception to Triggs talking about asylum seekers “being detained in prison effectively”.
Bowles says he takes offence “at some of those emotive statements yet again” and he maintains that it is not fair to characterise the detention system as a jail.
Triggs raises concern about the conditions on Christmas Island, saying it is a four-hour flight from Western Australia with a landing strip that is sometimes unsafe to land planes. She says she has been there three times and there were armed guards.
Bowles says: “We do not have armed guards, President. I’d like you to acknowledge that.”
Triggs promises to check.
Bowles continues: “I would like you to check that and I’d like you to retract that.”
Triggs says they are locked detention facilities.
Morrison cuts in: “Are you suggesting that Long Bay jail is the same as a pool-fenced alternative place of detention on Phosphate Hill on Christmas Island?”
Triggs: “I know a prison when I see it.”
Morrison effectively repeats his question about Long Bay jail and Christmas Island detention.
Triggs: “I’m not saying they’re equivalent.”
Updated at 4.02pm AEST
Triggs, nearly at the end of questioning, asks Morrison to how he would described his primary concerns for children being held in detention.
Morrison says: “First of all I would like to see their claims assessed and I have been extremely frustrated about the inability to get to that point … It’s interesting that we were able to get processing moving more quickly offshore than onshore because of the actions of Labor and the Greens.”
(This is a reference to Morrison’s determination not to grant permanent protection visas to those who have arrived by boat; his policy is it must be temporary visas only, but this was blocked by the Senate.)
“I don’t want to see children in detention and I’m doing a number of things to stop that,” he says, pointing to efforts to stop them getting on boats in the first place, and his recent announcement about seeking to release children before 19 July last year.
“I’m looking forward to the day against that existed in November 2007 when there was not one child in detention that arrived illegally by boat … it can happen, I know it can happen.”
Triggs says that it is “curious” that Morrison has expressed such sympathy but he has not exercised his discretion over the past year to release numbers to the same level of his predecessor.
Morrison says Triggs is “conflating and confusing” his statements. He says since the Coalition came to office the number of children in detention had reduced by 530.
He acknowledges that the previous government, particularly Chis Bowen as immigration minister, was trying to get children out of detention, but could not because more children kept arriving. “The number of children just kept piling up,” Morrison says. He says the Coalition can’t compromise on its policies.
One of the final questions for Morrison: “Have the means gone too far to justify the ends?”
Morrison says: “I saw too many children die at sea not to pursue to policies I am pursuing.”
The minister adds that the “voiceless” in this debate are the “ones at the bottom of the ocean” and people waiting in refugee camps around world.
And with that – after at-times heated exchanges – the hearing has adjourned for 15 minutes. Representatives of the minister’s council on asylum seekers and detention, Paris Aristotle and Nicholas Procter, will be speaking shortly.
Representatives of the minister’s council of asylum seekers and detention are now giving evidence to the inquiry into children in detention.
The chair, Paris Aristotle, says the council provides independent advice to the minister including on policies, services and programs designed to timely resolution of immigration status outcomes.
But he says the minister, Scott Morrison, has been “very clear” that matters relating to Operation Soveign Borders are not part of the council’s role. The council does not have input into the joint agency task force or a role in determining policy about whether or not certain cohorts should have their claims determined in Australia.
Aristotle says arbitrary non-reviewable detention harmful to mental health of anyone regardless of age, and children are vulnerable to psychological harm.
“We’ve always held the view that held detention of children should be avoided but when it occurs should only be for the shortest possible time,” Aristotle says.
Paris Aristotle says the advisory council raised “deep concern” about the lack of education facilities and opportunities on Christmas Island and “the minister’s response was immediate”. Educational services are now being delivered for every child on Christmas Island with funding provided in the budget, he says.
Aristotle says the most optimal way of dealing with people on Christmas Island would be to bring them to be the mainland but “that’s not the current government policy”.
He says if that is not possible, Christmas Island arrangements should be altered so that families are able to move about more freely and with the school acting as a hub for activity.
“The minister has been supportive of us pursuing that option,” he says, adding that members of the council are currently working on that issue.
Paris Aristotle, chair of the Minister’s Council on Asylum Seekers and Detention, tells of how there had been “a large build up of people in detention in the lead up to the election” last year and “the centres had large numbers of people including children”.
The detention network was coming under great strain and the new government was putting into place Operation Sovereign Borders. “There was a great degree of flux occurring over a period of time post the election,” Aristotle says.
He points to the length of time that some families had already been in detention and there seemed to have been problems with the way in which services were coordinated. Christmas Island education services, for example, were “terribly inadequate” and this had an impact on way in which children were coping, Aristotle says.
Updated at 11.54am AEST
Council chair Paris Aristotle says research “clearly indicates that long-term detention of children and families is harmful to their mental health”.
“Our view is regardless of complexity you need invest adequately to ensure the wellbeing of children and families is preserved,” he says.
Professor Nicholas Procter, a member of the same advisory council, says the council has provided advice to ministers about the negative impact of long-term detention on children. It has been “a constant narrative”, he says.
Long-term detention of children “will cause serious mental health consequences” and “we should avoid it”, Artistotle says.
The advisory council witnesses are asked about the notion that the hardest part for detainees is the uncertainty of not knowing what will happen.
They are asked whether the time frames for assessing immigration status are acceptable.
“No,” Aristotle replies.
The inquiry is told of uncertainty and hopelessness. Long delays in people understanding their immigration status are “harmful”, the witnesses say.
Paris Aristotle reflects on the role of the Minister’s Council on Asylum Seekers and Detention. Some of its recommendations “clearly challenge the policy settings” but whether the government accepts the advice “is up to the government”, he says.
Earlier in the hearing, Aristotle said of Operation Sovereign Borders:
The minister’s been clear. He doesn’t seek our input into that.
Meanwhile at a media conference in Melbourne the opposition leader, Bill Shorten, is asked about children in detention. Shorten states the general principle that Labor believes in releasing children from detention.
I think it’s about time that minister Scott Morrison started engaging in transparency and less secrecy about this fundamental question.
The opposition’s immigration spokesman, Richard Marles, continues the theme in an interview with ABC News 24, saying it was “utterly appropriate” that Morrison be held to account about what was happening in immigration facilities.
The ability of this minister to shirk responsibility when matters get difficult is unparalleled. He needs to remember he is the government; he is the minister is charge.
Deborah Homewood, managing director of MAXimus Solutions, which is responsible for providing support to unaccompanied children in immigration detention, tells the inquiry of a suicide attempt involving a child in detention.
Homewood says the boy had just been to see a psychiatrist.
He said to his friend that he was thinking about suicide …
He was sad, he wanted to go to the mainland.
Updated at 1.17pm AEST
As the inquiry hearing comes to a close, Scott Morrison’s office circulates a copy of the full statement he made to the commission this morning.
Here is the portion in which the immigration minister sought to address the morality of his immigration policy:
There is much emotion in this serious topic that is before your inquiry. There should be.
As a parent of two young children, the emotional challenges of working in this policy portfolio are just as real and just as great as they would be for any other parent in my position. But sentiment cannot be indulged at the expense of effective policy that is saving lives and ending the chaos and tragedy that was occurring that many thought could never be turned around and that is my duty.
At the last election the Australian people decided that enough children had drowned to warrant a change in policy. This has been done, but not without cost. There were always going to be costs.
There is no decision that I, or any of my predecessors, take as a Minister in this area that is not free of moral burden. Our decisions affect people’s lives. It is a heavy responsibility that no Minister carries lightly regardless of their political affiliation.
Unlike commentators, a Minister does not have the luxury of an opinion for which there are no consequences. There are consequences and implications of all policies.
However, those advocating policies, should share in this responsibility, especially when they have been so successful in their advocacy.
When Labor was elected in 2007, those advocating the abolition of the Howard Government’s successful policy measures on our borders got everything they wished for and more.
As a consequence of those policies they advocated for it became a noxious reality. As children filled the boats, filled the detention centres, and many went to the morgue, those voices fell strangely silent in their criticism from the day the previous Government was elected to the day it was voted out of office.
They have now found their voices again after the election in their criticism of the Government in relation to children in detention, as we seek to clean up the mess that has been made by the policies they claimed, and many still claim, are a viable solution.
I prefer to carry the burden that accompanies the success of the policies that I have implemented as Minister that is ending the deaths and the chaos, than the burden carried by my Labor predecessors, and all those who cheered them on and advocated weaker border policies, that imposed a deadly curse on our country.
That is their burden, however nobly motivated.