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Government ethics: [comments by Senator Amanda Vanstone regarding an article byTony Fitzgerald (The Age, 29/6/04).



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Senator Amanda Vanstone MINISTER FOR IMMIGRATION AND MULTICULTURAL AND INDIGENOUS AFFAIRS

Media Centre

Government ethics

Senator Amanda Vanstone, Minister for Immigration, Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs

The Age 29 June 2004

Tony Fitzgerald (The Age, 29/6/04) accuses governments of all political persuasions of having abandoned ethics, of misleading the public by deception and of engaging in a spiteful, divisive contest.

Yet, when we look at his article we see that he has asserted a number of things that are themselves false and therefore misleading. We look for balance and find it absent. We look for, if not goodwill then, at least an absence of spite - and we find meticulously packaged vitriol. Mr Fitzgerald clearly finds the role of self-appointed spokesman for "the rest of us" a comfortable one.

He asserts that in political debate it is regarded as "not only legitimate, but clever to mislead" and takes this as evidence of the failure of mainstream parties to "shirk their duty of maintaining democracy".

I disagree. Strongly. Deliberately misleading is neither legitimate nor clever. I do not know anyone who thinks it is. I can only assume Mr Fitzgerald makes the mistake of judging the exception to be the rule. Clearly he also gives no credit to the checks and balances within our system including for example Senate Estimates committees.

Nonetheless given his laudable preference for the truth ("in order to perform our democratic function, we need, and are entitled to, the truth"), I am at a loss to understand and was surprised to read two claims in particular.

The first is his description of an alleged policy whereby children and their parents in detention centres are given "a number which they must wear at all times and by which they are known and called." If this were true it would be inhumane and dehumanising, as Mr Fitzgerald asserts. It isn't true. Detainees do have an ID card which they are required to wear. It contains their name, a photograph and a number. People are referred to by their name. In fact the Immigration Detention Standards refer to the need to recognise the individuality of detainees. Numbers may occasionally be used for example to distinguish between two people with a similar name. I have no doubt that a few years ago when something like 4000 people were arriving each year unannounced, without visas and many without identification, that a numbering system would have been needed and used.

Secondly he asserts that parents are not allowed to take photographs of their babies and children. This is simply not the case. Cameras are available in immigration detention centres and there are no problems with parents photographing their family and their children. That is not to say there would not be isolated incidents where particular families could not take particular photos at particular times.

Presumably Mr Fitzgerald is misleading the community on these matters because he is ill informed. He could have easily checked the facts.

Similarly he boldly claims that mainstream Australia ignores the just claims of indigenous Australians. In the 8 months I have been Minister for Indigenous Affairs I have met nothing in the community and amongst my colleagues other than a strong desire to substantially improve the lives of indigenous Australians. Liberal and Labor governments around Australia are working together on this very important goal. We can be proud of the fact that the proportion of indigenous children staying on to Year 12 has increased from 29 to 39 percent since 1996. The number of indigenous students undertaking bachelor or higher degree courses has risen by 36 percent at the same time. This financial year the Australian Government will spend 39 percent more in real terms than the Keating Government did in its last year. There is nonetheless a lot more to be done.

I just mention these points because none of that balance is obvious from Mr Fitzgerald's comments.

I feel sorry for Mr Fitzgerald that he sees an abandonment of ethics of government over the last thirty years. That's a damning indictment of the Australians who elect those governments. Having been in parliament for nearly twenty years, at the federal level, I have seen an impressive extension of parliament's capacity to keep a check on the executive. This work goes on day after day often with people from different political persuasions working together. It is the stuff of parliament that will never make the front page.

Personally I am at a loss to explain Mr Fitzgerald's complaint about divisive debates. Politics is the great conversation of life. As an astute judge once said, "the voice of dissent is the bell of freedom". Differing views of their nature are divisive. A contest for government has a winner and a loser. This is not rocket science.

Mr Fitzgerald rightly identifies that the public debate is occasionally, and I think regrettably, spiteful. I could say that I have been the beneficiary of loads of that in my time. What seems inconsistent is an article that proposes to oppose spitefulness and deception, but is itself laden with invective and error.

Modern democracy is, to quote Abraham Lincoln, government of the people, by the people, for the people. And to paraphrase Winston Churchill, it is the worst possible political system, except for all the others.

There is no doubt that Mr Fitzgerald has some strong political views. There is an election this year. Mr Fitzgerald may wish to nominate for a seat in parliament so that he may put his personal policies directly to the people for their judgment on polling day.

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URL: http://www.minister.immi.gov.au/media/speeches/Age_29_06_04.htm Last update: 08 December 2004 at 15:09 AEST