Last Sunday’s Herald Sun published one of the most memorable photos of the week. A couple of hundred staff at the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne posed for the camera, fists clenched. There were doctors, nurses, technical staff and more besides standing behind a placard that read: “Detention harms children”.

There is no doubt that RCH employees were advocating a noble cause. In an ideal world, children would not be held in detention in a democratic society such as Australia. But, as we all know, there has never been such an entity as an ideal society. Democratic politics is all about making the best decisions possible in the light of current realities and intended and possible unintended consequences.

Sunday’s Herald Sun published an opinion piece signed by “Royal Children’s Hospital doctors”. They stated “detention harms children and families” and called for “moral leadership on this issue to find a solution, quickly — to use alternatives to detention to stop the harm”.

Noble sentiments, to be sure. But the RCH doctors did not suggest what such an alternative or alternatives to mandatory detention might be. Indeed, they effectively denied that unlawful arrivals by sea were a problem.

Instead, the doctors threw the switch to moral outrage by declaring: “When we use a different language to talk about these (asylum-seeker) families — calling them ‘boat arrivals’ or ‘illegal maritime arrivals’ — we start to accept their situation in detention, one that we would not accept for other children or for our own children.”

This overlooks the fact children in detention are different from other children. The fact is they have usually come with — or have been born to — men and women who have entered Australia without valid visas, invariably as a result of the illegal people-smuggler industry.

The Labor government between 2007 and 2013, led by Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, essentially adopted the policy advocated by the RCH staff.

This meant that, for a time, Australia lost control of its borders and our refugee and humanitarian intake was decided by people-smugglers. During the period up to mid-2013, when Labor finally toughened up on unlawful immigration, about 50,000 people claiming refugee status entered Australia, mostly without identity papers. The overwhelming majority were not fleeing death or injury since their journey to Australia was a secondary movement, meaning they came to Australia via Indonesia or Malaysia — to which they had travelled voluntarily and where they had no fear of death or persecution.

Then there were the drownings. It is estimated that 1200 souls — children, women and men — drowned in their attempt to enter Australia during the previous Labor government.

This is the equivalent of 2500 people dying out of an AFL grand final attendance of 100,000.

This equates to about eight times the number of beds in the RCH on any one day.

Any business that had a death rate of such magnitude would be shut down immediately and the management charged with manslaughter, perhaps even murder.

No one doubts the good intentions of RCH staff. Yet their sense of urgency should not pass without comment.

As Malcolm Turnbull pointed out in the House of Representatives on Monday, under the Rudd-Gillard government, “the number of children in detention peaked at almost 2000”. During Paul Keating’s Labor government in the early 1990s, the equivalent number was about 350 children. Presently there are fewer than 200 children in detention — about 100 in Australia and slightly fewer in Nauru. When John Howard left office in March 2007 there were no children in detention.

I do not recall any hospital staff engaging in high-profile protests about children in detention during Labor’s time. Objection to the mandatory detention of children seems to be a matter of most concern during the prime ministerships of Coalition leaders John Howard, Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull.

During question time on Monday, Adam Bandt, the Greens MP for Melbourne, questioned Turnbull about the decision of RCH staff to refuse to discharge “asylum-seeker children because your government will then lock them up back in detention centres”. Bandt continued: “No one wants to see people drown at sea, but do you really believe that we cannot find a solution that does not involve locking up babies and children in mental illness factories?”

Bandt went on to say that “previous Labor and Liberal governments got it wrong” on this issue. But he failed to acknowledge that the Greens entered into a political agreement to support the Gillard government. As the Prime Minister said in response to Bandt, the policies that the Greens “still support” led to people dying at sea.

Bandt’s backing of the decision by RCH doctors not to release children asylum-seekers who are patients raises a difficult problem. Bandt seems to be saying that some children, due for discharge from the RCH, should be prevented from reuniting with their families or guardians unless the Turnbull government changes its policy on mandatory detention.

It’s easy for the likes of commentators and barristers, who are not responsible for the conse­quences of their advocacy, to take the moral high ground on this issue. Last Tuesday, Julian Burnside QC tweeted: “Stop the boats policy causes terrible harm to boat people and Australia’s reputation but harnesses xenophobia for political gain.” How self-righteous can you get? Burnside deliberately overlooked the demonstrable fact stopping the boats also stopped the drownings.

Moreover, he is willing to accuse his fellow Australians of xenophobia without acknowledging the widespread acceptance of the Abbott government’s decision to admit 12,000 refugees from the Syrian civil war, in addition to the existing refugee and humanitarian intake. Perhaps Australia’s most successful settlement of refugees came during Malcolm Fraser’s government in the late 70s. Of the tens of thousands of Indochinese refugees accepted by Australia, all but 2059 were processed offshore and arrived in Australia on Qantas planes with valid visas. This was one of Australia’s most successful refugee settlements and quite a few ended up working in Australia’s big public hospitals.

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