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Chris Uhlmann joins the program -

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Chris Uhlmann joins the program

Broadcast: 30/09/2010

Reporter: Chris Uhlmann

Chris Uhlmann joins the program live from Canberra to reflect on the first week of the new


KERRY O'BRIEN, PRESENTER: In Canberra, the Government has lifted its freeze on processing refugee
claims from Afghan asylum seekers.

The freeze was imposed five months ago, but has since been blamed for contributing significantly to
overcrowding in Australia's detention centres. There are now nearly 5,000 people in detention on
the Australian mainland and Christmas Island.

The Immigration Minister Chris Bowen told Parliament today that fewer Afghan asylum seekers would
now be likely to be successful in their claims for refugee status after advice from his department
and the Australian embassy in Kabul.

At the same time, the Opposition has questioned the Australian troop levels in Afghanistan,
suggesting more soldiers and equipment were needed.

To reflect on the first week of a new parliamentary ball game, I'm joined from Canberra by Chris

Chris, first of all, let's look at the significance of Chris Bowen's announcement that the freeze
would end on the processing of asylum seekers. Now, this whole issue of asylum seekers has had
politics permeating it for so long, poisoning the debate, really, in many ways. What's behind it?

CHRIS UHLMANN, REPORTER: Well Chris Bowen had to do something about it, Kerry. Essentially that put
a cap on the processing system, and there are a number of things which were causing problems. Of
course, the arrival of boats, but that cap on asylum processing for Afghans meant that the pressure
was building up inside the system. Now he's released it in one way by putting in 1,000 new beds.
That's not enough, really. There are 5,000 people, as you say, in the system now. And now they're
going to try and start moving these people through a little bit more swiftly. But most of the
people who've arrived in the past six months have been from Afghanistan and we still don't have a
way of sending them home, Kerry. Even if they are processed, there's no agreement with Afghanistan
or the UNHCR to get them back. We only have an agreement only with Sri Lanka. So I've been told by
officials that there's - even if no more boats arrive, five years worth of work in the system now.

KERRY O'BRIEN: And Chris Bowen was apparently keen to emphasise that the message they've received
via the embassy and from the department implies that fewer Afghan claims will be successful. It's
hard to avoid the reality, I suppose, that there's a political message in there apart from a policy

CHRIS UHLMANN: I think the Government is determined to send people home and to be seen to be
sending people home. And on current trends, as you say, apparently about half, 50 per cent, would
be rejected by the system. But the problem is at the moment we have no way of sending them home and
there's a merit review process in place and there's a High Court decision pending, and both of
those things will help to slow down the process as well.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Well, it's hard to see then how this as a political issue is gonna be taken off the

CHRIS UHLMANN: No, and there's two issues now of course. The boat arrivals, which is what the
Government was concerned about most during the election campaign, are becoming secondary to the
pressure that's now on the detention centre system. And we know what happens - history tells us
what happens with the system once it reaches that kind of critical point where there are too many
people inside it for too long, there've been increases in the amount of self-harm that we've seen
inside the system already and we've seen it spilling out into protests on the rooves of detention
centres and outside detention centres and that's more likely to grow and more likely be a larger
problem for Chris Bowen as the year progresses - as the years progress.

KERRY O'BRIEN: And an embarrassment against the - Kevin Rudd's promise going into the 2007 election
that a Labor Government would process - as a matter of honour and principle, would process asylum
seekers within three months, that as a benchmark they should spend no more than three months in
detention. That's out the window.

CHRIS UHLMANN: Certainly, Kerry, the processing of asylum seekers now has blown out completely. And
with the cap on Afghans being processed at all was essentially indefinite detention. Now that's
been moved now and we'll see some movement in the system. But until there's some way of sending
them actually back to Afghanistan, it's hard to see how they go anywhere.

KERRY O'BRIEN: And just briefly, Chris, your first reflections on the first week of this so-called
"new paradigm" Parliament.

CHRIS UHLMANN: Yeah, getting to stage where if anyone mentions the word new paradigm, I reach for
my gun, Kerry. There's a lot of old paradigm politics going on at the moment.

KERRY O'BRIEN: A lot of targets too, Chris.

CHRIS UHLMANN: A lot of targets. And I think the significance this week, two votes. Of course the
Government lost one yesterday, and depending on how you cut it, the first time since 1941 or 1962,
since that happened, or the Peter Slipper vote. I think in the long term, the Peter Slipper vote
was the one that hurt the most for the Coalition. That is something that has made them incandescent
with rage, particularly given they can't do much about it at the moment. But they're quite certain
that at some stage when it's necessary for the Government, that chit will be called in and Peter
Slipper will do them a favour in return.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Chris Uhlmann, thanks.

CHRIS UHLMANN: Thanks, Kerry.