Grattan on Friday: Government must be held to account for what’s happening to children in detention

Immigration Minister Scott Morrison has been the subject of calls to get asylum seeker children out of detention centres and into the community. AAP/Nikki Short

Two characteristics of this government are that it regularly overreaches and that where possible it shies away from transparency and accountability.

Very different issues in the news this week highlight these features – the proposed new requirements for job seekers and some shocking revelations in relation to asylum seekers.

One would have thought, after all the trouble over its budget measures, that the government would have been careful in calibrating its new model for employment services. But instead it has again gone too far.

The argument that work-for-the-dole can help get and keep people engaged may be fair enough - although the hard evidence doesn’t support the conclusion it helps them into jobs. The government produces anecdotal accounts rather than empirical data to back up its belief that having the under 30s complete 25 hours a week for six months each year is the way to go.

And while obviously people on unemployment benefits should have to show they’re making serious efforts to apply for jobs, the proposed requirement to undertake up to 40 job searches per month seems absurd.

The small business sector is complaining it will be swamped with applications. Peter Strong, executive director of the Council of Small Business of Australia, said: “It’s not workable. It won’t really achieve anything. You know, it’s classic tough talking from governments that they do now and then”.

Employment minister Eric Abetz says people can do one application in the morning and another in the afternoon. The government is putting more emphasis on quantity rather than quality, which suggests it is driven more by ideology than common sense.

Answering criticism that the plan would increase red tape, Tony Abbott recalled his days as employment minister in the Howard government. “There was a requirement for people on unemployment benefits to make contact with potential employers and in those days, all you had to do was call or knock on the door and make a diary entry” which was “occasionally” audited by Centrelink. That sounds like tokenism.

The government points out its employment services blueprint is out for consultation, and it will be listening to feedback.

But what it has put up tells us a lot about its mindset. Go for the more extreme, rather than the moderate, approach. And assume that people who are unemployed are very likely to be so because they are not trying hard enough to get jobs.

The fact is that in some areas and for certain cohorts jobs will be hard to find.

The government encourages the option of people moving to where there is more work but even for the young, this is often not as easy as it suggests. And for both younger and older workers, there are particular problems in the labour market. While the government has some initiatives directed to these issues, its dominant attitude towards the unemployed – especially the young unemployed - seems punitive, most notably demonstrated by its imposition in the budget of a six months waiting period for the unemployment benefit for those under 30.

Saul Eslake, chief economist for Bank of America Merrill Lynch says: “The main reason for relatively high unemployment among young people is not that they don’t want to work but that there aren’t enough jobs for them.

"Employers in aggregate have almost completely stopped new hirings since the global financial crisis. Almost inevitably the brunt of that will be felt by new entrants to the work force – who are bound to be predominately young people.”

If it’s negative towards the young jobless, the government’s approach to asylum seekers is to try to dehumanise them in the public mind. They are labelled “illegals”. Immigration Minister Scott Morrison pronounced the 157 Tamils he was forced to finally bring to Australia as “economic migrants” before they have been processed.

After Human Rights Commission President Gillian Triggs visited Christmas Island and said most of the children were sick, and highlighted the self harm among them, Morrison on Wednesday rejected her account, essentially accusing her of giving an untruthful picture.

“I don’t think there is evidence of the claim that the Human Rights Commissioner has made in the way that she has made it,” he said. “I think they’re quite sensational claims that have been made. She herself is not a doctor and we have medical people who are there who provide that care on a daily basis.”

But on Thursday doctors with experience on the ground, who appeared before the Human Rights Commission’s inquiry into children in immigration detention, backed up her account in spades.

Psychiatrist Peter Young, former director of mental health services for the private provider International Health and Medical Services that has the immigration detention contract, made the very serious allegation that the Immigration department, presented with figures showing the significant mental health problems among child detainees, “reacted with alarm” and asked for the figures to be withdrawn from the reporting.

The department’s head, Martin Bowles, who also appeared at Thursday’s hearing, could not shed any light on this.

Two doctors who worked on Christmas Island in 2013 told the inquiry how inappropriate the conditions were for treating children. The inquiry heard that asylum seekers had medications taken from them when they arrived, including a three year old girl with epilepsy who started having seizures.

Asked about the children, Abbott told reporters: “They will be dealt with in the ordinary way and the best thing that we can do for children in detention is to ensure that this whole people smuggling business is ended as swiftly as possible and that is the commitment of this Government”. In other words he defaulted to the old mantra, which is not the present issue.

In a strong statement outside the inquiry, Triggs said Morrison “has a responsibility to be much more transparent about what is happening.

"We’re trying to get facts right when frankly it would be much simpler for the minister to provide the Australian public with this information in the first instance.”

She followed this up later with a call for Morrison to get the children out into the community “because a lot of damage is being done”.

Morrison, whose commitment to secrecy has been most recently shown by his refusal for weeks to disclose where the shipload of Tamils was, has said he will appear at the inquiry but this week gave the excuse of the High Court case over the Tamils to avoid doing so.

It is worth remembering that we are only hearing what is happening to the children in detention because of the independence of the Human Rights Commission and the willingness of Triggs to take on Morrison, refusing to be bullied by his attempt to discredit her. The onus is on Morrison to answer the latest claims and evidence. He is responsible for what is done by his department.

What this week has made clear above all else is that the call in a just-released report from a church taskforce for the guardianship of asylum seeker children to be removed from the Immigration Minister is absolutely spot on. The conflict of interest is blatant.

Listen to the new Politics with Michelle Grattan podcast, with guest, US Ambassador John Berry.