Monday, April 30, 2012

Channeling Howard

John Key has been beating the xenophobia drum for the past few years, talking up fears of a "mass-arrival" of boat people. Now, in response to the recent case of the Darwin 10, he's seen his opportunity to introduce Howard-style mandatory detention.

(At this stage its worth noting that six months ago Key was claiming that New Zealand was ready and the law was sufficient to cope with this eventuality. Was he being dishonest then, or dishonest now?)

The bill is here. The new powers are appalling. Members of a "mass arrival group" (10 or more people who arrive at once on an unscheduled craft) can be initially detained for up to six months, which can then be extended indefinitely, one month at a time, until their status is determined. Reading the Regulatory Impact Statement [PDF], its very clear that this is being driven by one thing and one thing only: to spare the government the "burden" of having to show a court that detention is necessary in each individual case. Because obviously, that's not something they should have to prove before throwing someone in a prison cell and depriving them of their liberty.

But that's not all. The bill also has a nasty little power grab by Immigration, allowing the Minister to suspend refugee processing (totally, or for specified groups of classes of applicants) by regulation. The interplay between this and detention until status is determined is unexplored, but the power is explicitly intended to be used in the event of a mass-arrival, and the result will be indefinite detention, effectively by order of the Minister.

I accept that the current system is not designed to cope with a mass arrival of the size used to justify this law (they are working on the basis of 500 people, something which has never happened). Some changes may be necessary to allow immigration officials to cope with very large groups, especially when identities cannot be established. At the same time, I would expect those officials to adopt a thorough triage system, and use detention only when necessary, and only for as long as is strictly necessary to establish those facts. Allowing a blanket six months (indefinitely renewable) is simply allowing them to be lazy. And that is not something we should permit when people's liberty is at stake.