Wednesday, January 04, 2012

More "asylum" boats likely to head for Australia after Indonesian visa change

They're putting the heat on Australia to fix its own problems

The head of immigration with Indonesia's Law and Human Rights Ministry concedes that plans to ease visa rules for three major source countries for asylum seekers heading to Australia could spark more people-smuggling activity.

Indonesia is set to relax visa restrictions on citizens from Sri Lanka and Bangladesh within months, and similar changes for Pakistan and Afghanistan are now awaiting final approval.

The changes come despite the four countries being among 13 nations that for a long time have been on Indonesia's immigration "red list", a reference to concerns that citizens from those countries could pose a security risk. Both the Law and Human Rights Ministry and the Foreign Ministry have confirmed the visa rules are set to be eased for the four countries.

The director-general of immigration with the Law and Human Rights Ministry, Bambang Irawan, has also conceded that the new policy could trigger a fresh wave of asylum-seeker traffic to Australia from Indonesia.

Indonesia is the chief transit point for asylum seekers heading to Australia, while Afghanistan and Pakistan are regarded as major source countries.

"There's the potential for the new policy to lure more boat people heading to Australia," Irawan said in an interview published in the Jakarta Post newspaper on Tuesday. "We will see what the progress is in the future and evaluate."

The visa applications would be processed in Indonesian embassies in the countries of origin. "Based on our data, they head to Australia. To get there they have to pass our country," Irawan said.

However, he maintained that security factors would be taken into account, insisting also that Indonesia remained committed to a regional approach to combating people smuggling and the flow of asylum seekers.

"This is a regional issue that will need co-operation between the transit and destination countries eyed by the people smugglers," he said. Irawan said Indonesia already had "sufficient regulations" to combat people smuggling.

The move to relax the visa policy follows the sinking last month of an Australian-bound vessel off the coast of East Java, which resulted in the deaths of as many as 200 asylum seekers.

Authorities in Indonesia have detained four soldiers for their alleged involvement in the doomed people-smuggling venture, which is believed to have netted the syndicate responsible more than $A1 million.

Only 47 asylum seekers survived when the 25-metre vessel, carrying about 250 people, sank in rough seas 40 nautical miles off the coast. It had a safe capacity of 100. Most of those aboard the boat were from Afghanistan and Iran, but there were also a number of asylum seekers from Pakistan.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa dismissed concerns that the relaxed rules could pose an increased security risk, saying the new policy was aimed at increasing tourism and business links between Indonesia and the four countries. "It's not right for us to stereotype as if a whole country, including children, is dubbed as a terrorist nation," Dr Natalegawa said. "I'm not going to begin stereotyping my brothers and sisters in Pakistan, Sri Lanka or Afghanistan as if they are all terrorists." he said.


A criminal "child protection" bureaucracy in Victoria

THEY are Victoria's forgotten children - the 93 infants, toddlers and teens who died when State Government carers closed their cases. Aged as young as two, they make up the majority of tragedies referred to the child protection watchdog.

As the State Government inquiry into child protection winds down, there are calls to strip the Department of Human Services of its protection responsibilities because "they're getting it wrong".

A Herald Sun investigation into the state's worst child protection failures reveals how 93 kids died soon after DHS workers washed their hands of their plight. In one case, an infant died from neglect, surrounded by dirty nappies, cigarette butts and chewed chicken bones.

In another, a child died from a prescription drug overdose after the DHS closed his case because case workers accepted assurances from his drug-addled parents they were being treated.

One third of the child protection death cases analysed by the Victorian Child Death Review Committee between 1996 and 2009 involved children who had died within three months of their file being closed. In 2010, 12 died within a year of their case being shut down. The children died through accident, illness or neglect.

The child protection system is to have a major overhaul this year after a major State Government inquiry that is ongoing.

In one case flagged by the Ombudsman in a recent report, a child died surrounded by filth - cigarette butts, chicken bones and dirty nappies - within two months of birth. The family was well-known to DHS, according to the Ombudsman. He criticised the generally premature closing of cases and questioned the accuracy of some child protection files.

One in five child protection clients who died were on protection orders - or formally under DHS watch - when they died.

Australian Childhood Foundation chief Joe Tucci said DHS failed to make kids' welfare a priority and called for a child protection department.


Abbott again slams 'rip-off' NBN project

FEDERAL Opposition Leader Tony Abbott has again criticised the Government's $36 billion national broadband network (NBN) project as a waste of money, after it was revealed only 4000 customers had signed up to the service so far.

The connection figures, released this week by the Government-owned company set up to deliver the network, are well down on NBN Co's earlier projection of 35,000 connections in 2011.

That projection also contrasts with its roll-out numbers, with 18,200 homes and businesses lying along the fibre optic cable infrastructure laid down so far at a cost of $1 billion.

"The billion dollars that they have spent so far on the rollout works out at $250,000 per connection," Mr Abbott told Fairfax Radio yesterday. "So by any means this is a monumental rip-off."

But NBN Co said on Monday it was pleased with the 4000 connections achieved by the end of 2011 and expects numbers to ramp up in 2012 as more retail service providers begin offering broadband plans and Australians began migrating to the network from existing services.

It's also waiting on an Australian Competition and Consumer Commission green light for its deal with the country's biggest telco Telstra, so it can access the company's underground infrastructure to lay more fibre.

Under the deal with the Government and NBN Co, Telstra will progressively decommission its copper-based network and allow NBN Co to access its pits, manholes and exchanges, and sell some infrastructure. In return, Telstra will receive $11 billion from the Government.

However, Mr Abbott questioned whether NBN Co could achieve the Government's goal to expand the network's coverage area to another 500,000 premises this year. "The rollout is massively behind schedule," he said.

Mr Abbott also said that by the federal election in 2013, which current polling shows the Opposition would win in a landslide, the network was likely to be "embryonic" at best and suggested a coalition government could pull the plug. "What we won't do is throw good money after bad when it comes to the NBN," he said.

NBN head of industry relations Jim Hassell has said the biggest challenge facing the company is rolling out the network fast enough to meet demand.

The NBN is expected to be completed by 2021, when all Australians should have access to fibre optic, fixed wireless or satellite high speed broadband services.


Gillard rebukes Hawke on unions

THE Prime Minister has dismissed a call by the Labor elder Bob Hawke to slash the power of unions within the ALP. Julia Gillard defended the factional and union influences that were responsible for the destruction of Kevin Rudd's leadership in 2010.

Mr Hawke, a former prime minister and boss of the ACTU, said in an interview with the Fairfax publication The Australian Financial Review that while his "first love" was the trade union movement, its influence over the Labor Party had grown to "suffocating" proportions.

But yesterday Ms Gillard said the unions were the champions of "working Australians": "I believe our great trade union movement is important to Australian society and to representing the needs of working people," she said. "It was the trade union movement, shoulder to shoulder with the Labor Party, that fought back and got rid of Work Choices."

Responding to Mr Hawke's advice to the ALP to recognise the perceived negative association with the unions, Ms Gillard said the matter had been adequately addressed at the party's national conference last month.

She tried to soften the public rebuke to Mr Hawke, once the nation's most popular leader, saying he was an important part of the ALP's history. "Bob Hawke is, of course, a living legend," she said. "Bob is right to say that the Labor Party needs to keep modernising."

His criticism of undue union influence within the ALP mirrored the view of another former prime minister, Kevin Rudd, who savaged the power of the unions and factions in a speech to the national conference.

Mr Rudd said the party had failed to take any significant steps to rein in the power of factions and union bosses. "While some claim we have moved forward on party reform, the truth is we have barely moved at all," Mr Rudd said. "The stark alternative remains: either more power to the factional powerbrokers or more power to the 35,000 members of the Australian Labor Party."

An internal review by the former premiers Steve Bracks and Bob Carr and Senator John Faulkner recommended a guaranteed say for unions and Labor supporters in party preselections and aired dire warnings that the party faced a membership crisis.

Senator Faulkner has repeatedly warned that the ALP risks a wipeout of its membership - as "a small party getting smaller, [and] an old party getting older".

Ms Gillard welcomed the review but resisted the suggestion that the unions be given a say in policy and parliamentary decisions. "As Labor leader I will insist on the right to freely choose the executive of the federal parliamentary Labor Party," she said at the time of the review's release. "I have chosen my team of ministers and parliamentary secretaries and I will continue to do so."

Mr Hawke also addressed the leadership question that continues to dog Ms Gillard, saying he believed she was the best person for the job. "I don't think they should change leaders," he said. "There has been a lot of criticism of Julia, but you have got to give her credit for a lot of achievements and tenacity. "She has shown a lot of courage and determination, particularly on the carbon tax and the mining tax. When those things are bedded down they may even become positives."

Ms Gillard has refused to address questions about the leadership this year, telling reporters on New Year's Day to "check the transcripts" of last year for her answer.

It is more than 20 years since Mr Hawke was prime minister of Australia but the "Silver Bodgie" has enjoyed a resurgence in the media, most recently in a renewed spat with the former prime minister Paul Keating.

The pair showed the passing of time had done nothing to ease the rancour in their relationship, with Mr Keating this week blaming Mr Hawke for the wage explosions of the 1970s.

Mr Keating said that Mr Hawke, as the ACTU national secretary, had "nearly destroyed the economy twice". The spat coincides with the release by the National Archives of the 1982 and 1983 cabinet documents.


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