Sunday, June 16, 2013

Australia's Refugee system all at sea

Dishonesty in a system run by Leftists?  How unsurprising!

THE refugee determination process in Australia is a sick and dysfunctional farce. This is the verdict of people at its coalface. Their collective judgment is that you could get a blind donkey refugee status in Australia.

It is not that the system is run by bad people, certainly not by corrupt people. But the system is so loosely designed, so completely open to manipulation by asylum-seekers, people-smugglers and community groups emotionally committed to asylum-seekers, and then interacts inappropriately with the Australian legal system, that it has become a multi-billion-dollar joke that is more or less completely worthless.

This week I have spoken to a number of serving and former Immigration Department officials, members of the Refugee Review Tribunal, the independent assessments review body and workers at various detention centres.

I have obtained a copy of a written account by a former senior Immigration Department official. It is very depressing. The official writes: "In the case of boatpeople, most are flying to Indonesia or Malaysia and there has been a growing trend to effectively prebook their voyage. They are less interested in seeking protection than in gaining work and residence rights in Australia. These are people who would largely be ineligible for normal migration but by claiming to be in fear of persecution they are usually allowed to stay in Australia, even though many will later visit their homeland once they have an Australian passport.

"I can confidently say that we are approving large numbers of people who are fabricating claims, and indeed the current refugee determination system works in favour of those who are most adept at spinning a yarn.

"That is not to say that myself, and others, did not deal with people who had been badly affected by generalised violence in countries like Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, but this is quite different from having a credible contemporary claim of persecution. It appeared to me the majority of people I was dealing with had been fed claims which were known to be the sort of statements that were being accepted for approval.

"I remember one young applicant saying to me that it is known in the detention centre that you had to say you had been kidnapped if you wanted to be approved, and it is this sort of enhancing and inventing of claims, no doubt aided by the communications facilities we provide to the detainees, which is contributing to the deluge of boat cases we are currently experiencing.

"There was a small number of claimants who were being honest and these people often told quite sad stories of poverty, owing money lenders, being involved in family disputes (or) being threatened because of a romantic involvement. Such claims were likely to be refused for being outside the (Refugee) Convention but if a vague story was presented involving threats by groups like the Taliban or the Sri Lankan military, such applications were more likely to be approved. As the Captain Emad episode showed, it is easy to hide your identity, and even your nationality, in the refugee process, so presenting a fabricated story is not a difficult undertaking.

"Unlike other visa classes there is no objective criteria ...

"There is a benefit of the doubt test in the convention which weights the decision-making process towards the applicant and various court decisions have leant towards the view that if a claim cannot be disproved then it is difficult to refuse.

"While there is some public acknowledgment that many members of ethnic communities in Australia are paying and organising (at least in part) the travel of friends and relatives on the boats, much less attention is given to those who are monitoring the decision-making process and are identifying the type of claims that are having most success.

"From interviewing many asylum claimants the overwhelming primary objective is to obtain the right to work in Australia. This is so they can send money back to their families and repay loans which have been taken for their travel. There are other factors such as the welfare and houses we provide."

This experienced immigration officer, like numerous others, refers to the new experience of middle-class Iranian asylum-seekers dissatisfied with social conditions in Iran. A former member of the Refugee Review Tribunal, who also participated in the independent review assessments of refugee claims, told me: "I was dealing with Iranians who had left Tehran a week before arriving at Christmas Island."

He, like others, spoke of an aggressive entitlement mentality among Iranians. This was backed up by a health worker at a detention centre who said he had told an Iranian there was a three-week waiting list for an appointment with an optometrist. This was no good, the Iranian said. He had money and could pay to go private.

Another worker at the camps described assaults and intimidation of staff that are never reported or acted on and for which asylum-seekers suffer no penalty.

The senior immigration officer says that if the refugee convention is interpreted the way the UN High Commissioner for Refugees wants it to be interpreted, then there is absolutely no limit to the "literally millions" of people who could claim asylum so long as they get to Australia.

The former RRT member says his work was demoralising and meaningless. He was charged with reviewing departmental decisions not to award refugee status to an individual. If he upheld the department's decision - that is, said no to an asylum claimant - he might have to write 20 to 40 pages of argument justifying his decision as it was certain to be appealed in the courts.

If he overturned the department and recommended granting refugee status, he need only write one page and no one would ever review or question the decision.

While no one told him to decide in favour of asylum claimants, there was an overwhelming pressure to clear numbers as quickly as possible.

This will get worse in the future, as processing is temporarily suspended and a huge backlog is building up.

Refugee acceptance rates after all levels of review are now 95 per cent and above. Any quasi-judicial process that achieves a result like that has to be questioned, he says.

"I would sometimes receive a completely compelling story that was impossible to refuse.

"The problem is I would receive exactly the identical story a hundred times over, with only the names changed. People on Christmas Island would tell me to my face they had copied their story from someone else."

All the cases that went to court resulted in transcripts produced by the courts. These transcripts, with key winning testimony highlighted, were widely circulated among claimants, and their advocates, at Christmas Island.

What the officials describe is a process degenerated into farce, which costs billions of dollars. Even those who are refused refugee status are not sent back. This system has nothing to do with fairly determining refugee status and nothing to do with protecting Australia's national interests. It is folly, futility and charade.


Australia officially recognises third gender of 'intersex' on all documents for people who do not feel they are male or female

Australia has announced new guidelines to recognise the gender category 'intersex' on official documents.  Under the new system, which will come into effect from July 1, individuals will not be required to have undergone sex reassignment surgery or hormone therapy to select the new category.

Since 2011 Australian nationals who were biologically not entirely male or female, have been able to select 'X' as a gender category on their passports.

Transgender people have been able to pick whether they are male or female providing their choice is supported by a doctor.

The changes mean people will now have the option to select M (male), F (female) or X (Indeterminate/Intersex/Unspecified).

It follows a recommendation by the Australian Human Rights Commission in 2009 for the government to consider setting out guidelines for the collection of sex and gender information.

According to Australia's Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus the new guidelines will make it easier for people to establish or change their sex or gender in personal records held by federal government departments and agencies.

He said: 'We recognise individuals may identify, and be recognised within the community, as a gender other than the gender they were assigned at birth or during infancy, or as an indeterminate gender.  'This should be recognised and reflected in their personal records held by departments and agencies.'

If an Australian wants to change the gender entry on their personal record, the government will now accept a statement from their doctor or psychologist, a valid Australian passport or a state or territory birth certificate or other document which shows their preferred status.

Mr Dreyfus said:'Transgender and intersex people in Australia face many issues trying to ensure the gender status on their personal records matches the gender they live and how they are recognised by the community.  'These guidelines will bring about a practical improvement in the everyday lives of transgender, intersex and gender diverse people.'


Education's ominous national plan destined for failure

THE government isn't quite sure what to call it - is it the National Plan for School Improvement or Gonski or Better Schools?

For a while there, the government decided to refrain from using the term Gonski to describe its ambitious plans to alter school funding and impose federal oversight of schools. And well it might; there is an important point of difference between what the federal government is proposing and one of the core premises of the Gonski report.

According to the Gonski report, "the panel recognises that the states and territories have constitutional responsibilities for the delivery and management of schooling. They require a strong degree of autonomy to meet the needs of their state or territory school communities and student population."

The problem with using the term National Plan for School Improvement is that it doesn't exactly trip off the tongue.

And, let's face it, that mouthful is a bit spooky. The Soviet Union probably had a national plan for school improvement, along with national plans for all sorts of other improvements.

Better Schools could work. But under that heading the government includes the national curriculum, ongoing teacher training and better communication with parents, in addition to funding based on student needs.

So how is the implementation of the new school funding system progressing under the earnest and increasingly desperate stewardship of ex-pop singer Peter Garrett? We should not forget this is not just any area of policy, it is one of the Prime Minister's pet projects.

The answer is that progress to date has been long on politics and short on systematic and measured policymaking. Lots of shots of Garrett and Gillard with generally well-behaved school students, but the real outcomes are partial and patchy.

Take the Australian Education Bill 2012 that was rushed through the House of Representatives late last year. What was the point? It read like a Labor Party pamphlet with lots of buzz phrases, including students receiving excellent education, students reaching their full potential in the Asian Century and Australia having one of the top five performing school systems in 2025.

There was the truly bizarre section 10, which stated that the act did not create legally enforceable obligations. Why would the government ask the parliament to pass an act that had no legally enforceable obligations? Obviously, the government saw some political advantage to the passage of the bill; it was arguably a gross misuse of parliamentary processes.

The first five-plus months of this year have been a chaotic period of policy confusion, incomplete modelling, uncertain funding and costly side deals offered to the more amenable states and territories. The government even seems to have managed to get the non-government schools offside.

In the week before last, the government rammed a large number of amendments to the Australian Education Bill through the House of Representatives. There are 71 pages of amendments, compared with the 11 pages in the original bill. The main thrust of these amendments is to carve out separate deals for participating states and territories and non-participating states and territories, respectively.

These amendments are very strange. Normally, one would expect to see these sorts of details articulated in regulations or as attachments to the National Education Reform Agreement, rather than sit in an act. Again, politics is the explanation, plus an attempt by this government to rule from the grave.

At least the federal government has been quite frank about its intended takeover of school education. In the Prime Minister's words, "The funding flows to states, territories and Catholic and independent schools who agree to the actions, targets and reporting for improvement which we agree under the national plan."

In other words, the national plan trumps everything. Note that "all schools will engage with at least one school in Asia in support of the teaching of a priority Asian language, taking advantage of the National Broadband Network", according to Gillard. Schools, Asia and NBN all in the one sentence - how good is that?

As Kevin Donnelly points out, the real trouble is that the new arrangements and accountability requirements being foisted on schools are the complete antithesis of giving schools and their principals more autonomy.

The Australian Education Act may not withstand a constitutional challenge. After all, section 99 of the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act states that "The commonwealth shall not, by any law or regulation of trade, commerce, or revenue, give preference to one state or any part thereof over another state or any part thereof".

Moreover, Bronwyn Hinz and Brian Galligan, of the University of Melbourne, have raised broader constitutional problems for the Gonski reforms stemming from the fact school education is a residual power of the states.

The authors claim it is only a matter of time before there is a further legal challenge.

According to Hinz and Galligan, "Gonski and the High Court both stated that the commonwealth should retreat from schooling, the former on practical grounds, the latter on constitutional grounds. The commonwealth rejected both their conclusions."

The state of play with Gonski is that NSW, the ACT and South Australia have signed up. The remaining Labor state, Tasmania, in all likelihood, will sign up soon.

Given the parlous state of the budgets of Tasmania and South Australia, it is quite fanciful that either can really afford Gonski, given the co-funding requirement. But because the Gonski financial arrangements are heavily back-end loaded, the fiction can be maintained for a little while.

There are some short-term financial penalties for the non-participating states that Garrett clearly hopes will be sufficient to get Queensland and Victoria over the line. The decision to kill off several National Partnership programs in education, funded by the commonwealth, is a further part of Garrett's armoury.

The bottom line is that the implementation of Gonski is no way to conduct important public policy reforms. And if the key is the reform of school funding to reflect student needs, we should take note of Hinz and Galligan's observation that "the funding formula Gonski recommended is already being used in various degrees by most states".

But when it comes to leaving the control and management of public schools in the hands of the states and territories, the Labor government isn't having a bar of it.

New controls, new bodies, new accountability measures, all 10,000 schools submitting annual School Improvement Plans - it is no wonder that the lagging states are a bit hesitant. And most of these new arrangements also will apply to non-government schools.

In the meantime, we should not be concerned with the educational outcomes of only the worst performing students. We also should worry about those at the top, whose performance has slipped according to international standards. There is work to be done, but the National Plan for School Improvement is far too expensive, constitutionally dubious, overrides the states and territories and is unlikely to make much difference.


Fat-fighting nonsense

And what evidence do they have to show that this system will do any good?  None.  It's just dubious theory

The Government is touting a new five-star food labelling system as the latest tool to help fight the obesity epidemic in Australia.  The star scale would rate foods from half-a-star to five stars, based on nutritional value.

Federal, state and territory ministers will discuss the proposal for the new voluntary system at a meeting tomorrow.  If they agree, it is likely stars will appear on the front of food packaging by the middle of next year.

But it is understood the Food and Grocery Council is not convinced the plan is ready to roll out.

The federal Parliamentary Secretary for Health, Shayne Neumann, says he wants all jurisdictions and the industry to support the scheme.

"I'm very pleased the jurisdictional representatives will be there on Friday," he said.  "I've had some discussions already and I'm very pleased with the response so far in relation to it.  "An at a glance, interpretive information guide is what consumers want. It's a powerful tool."

Michael Moore from the Public Health Association of Australia says the system will make it easier for consumers to make healthier choices.

"People will be able to just, at a glance, have a look at the front of the pack and go, 'Hey this is four-and-a-half star food, that's obviously good for me, it's obviously good for my children'," he said.

"Or one-and-a-half stars - 'look we'll eat a bit of that but we'll be careful'."

The proposal has been worked on for months by representatives from the food industry and retailers, health and consumer groups.
Obesity tipped to soar

Jane Martin from the Obesity Policy Coalition says the aim of the proposal is very clear.  "The situation is very serious already. We've got more than 65 per cent of adults overweight or obese and 25 per cent of children," she said.  "And, the projections are that by 2020 that will rise to 80 per cent of adults and two-thirds of children."

She says it is a population-wide problem and while obesity rates are higher among low-income earners, it is a middle-class problem

"There's not going to be one magic bullet and we need to give people the kind of information that will help them make better decisions and healthier decisions," she said.  "So front of pack labelling system that gives people interpretive information will help them cut through the marketing spin."

Food and Grocery Council has concerns

Most packaged food will be covered. Soft drinks and confectionary will be exempt, but will display the kilojoule content.

But the ABC understands the Australian Food and Grocery Council has concerns about the cost to food manufacturers to change labelling and how the 'health value' of a product would be determined.

The ABC understands it is prepared to consider the options, but it has also written to the states with some concerns.  The council did not return calls from the ABC.

Mr Moore says the group has been involved in the process and has lashed out at what he calls their delaying tactics.

"I must say I feel a little jaded because my organisation, the Heart Foundation, Cancer, Choice, have spent quite a significant amount of time and quite a reasonable amount of money to come to this point and I think it's entirely inappropriate action from the Food and Grocery Council," he said.



Paul said...

"interpreted the way the UN High Commissioner for Refugees wants it to be interpreted"

No accident here.

Paul said...

"Jane Martin from the Obesity Policy Coalition"

A classical SL. Could they exist without generous taxpayer funding?