Prime Minister Tony Abbott addresses the media on Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 during a press conference.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott addresses the media on Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 during a press conference. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

As Australian Federal Police were again denied access to the
MH17 crash site this week and questions were asked about whether
Australia should be in such a dangerous part of the world, you could
hear the Prime Minister Tony Abbott struggling to contain his

In an interview on the wireless on Thursday, Abbott argued
Australia was on a ‘‘moral’’ mission to recover the victims of the air
tragedy in Ukraine. ‘‘What could be more moral and more ethical than
going to claim your dead, assist the investigation and to obtain

Next week, flags will fly at half mast around Australia to
mark a National Day of Mourning for the victims.‘‘There were 298
innocent people on this aircraft and their deaths offend our sense of
justice,’’ Abbott said in an emotionally charged statement. 

It is always fraught to compare human suffering, but there
has been a noticeable ‘‘concern gap’’ between the government’s reaction
to MH17 and the recent reports of life on Christmas Island. 

Last week, Human Rights Commission president Gillian Triggs
and professor of child health Elizabeth Elliott reported back on their
trip to the island where they saw children with chest and gut
complaints, "big lumps", red eyes and untreated sores. They also
observed psychological complaints: nightmares, stuttering and
toilet-trained children wetting their beds.

On Thursday, Triggs compelled medical experts to appear at a
public hearing for the commission’s inquiry into children in detention.
Here, psychiatrist Peter Young revealed the Immigration Department had
told service provider International Health and Medical Services to
"withdraw" figures that showed large numbers of children in detention
were suffering significant levels of distress. 

As Triggs later recounted,
witnesses also described examples of children banging and putting
plastic bags on their heads, jumping off heights, cutting themselves,
hanging themselves and drinking detergent. This followed 128 reports of
self-harm incidents for children in detention between January 2013 and
March 2014. Over the same time period, there were 80 for adults. 

The government has been unmoved in response.

Last week, Immigration Minister Scott Morrison said he did
not believe Triggs’ reports of sick and self-harming children were true.
‘‘I don’t think there is evidence of the claim that the Human Rights
Commissioner has made in the way that she has made it,’’ he told the ABC’s 7.30.
‘‘These are difficult environments and appropriate care is provided by
our people. I think they’re quite sensational claims that have been
made. [Triggs] herself is not a doctor and we have medical people who
are there who provide that care on a daily basis.’’

This week, when asked about the evidence that emerged from
the Human Rights Commission inquiry, Abbott replied: ‘‘No one wants to
see children in detention, no one wants to see anyone in detention. But
the only way to avoid this is to stop the boats.’’

When pressed about the children who were in detention now, he
said: ‘‘What could be more horrific than the idea of children perishing
at sea because their parents have fallen for the false promises of the
people smugglers?’’

All this comes as psychiatrists, physicians, psychologists
and social workers have written separately to the inquiry, warning of
the mental health risks of detaining children. These include
post-traumatic stress disorders, anxiety, depression, twitching,
nightmares, bed wetting and self harm. Their bottom line? Apart from the
very real questions about whether it is legal to detain children for as
long as Australia does it, it is that it is not safe nor healthy for
children to be locked up. 

And yet, the government is waving away legitimate concerns
and mounting evidence. This instead of, say, even entertaining the idea
that some of this stuff may need to be looked at further. 

Then again, there is an emerging pattern with the Coalition of dismissing expert advice. 

For the past decade, public servants have been advising an
emissions trading scheme is the most economical way to reach emissions
reduction targets (according for former Treasury boss Ken Henry), leading economists have rejected the idea there is a ‘‘budget emergency’’ and the Australian Medical Association opposes the $7 GP co-payment, arguing it will threaten universal health care for the neediest

In the meantime, the Productivity Commission has doubts about the additional benefits of Abbott's paid parental leave scheme and thinks the extra money can go into childcare instead (where it is really needed) and government data shows that working for the dole is the least effective way to help people get paid work

There is, of course, no shortage of experts and advice around
policy and politicking. And governments are entitled to pick their own
path. But it is worth noting that sometimes expertise is just that. And
doesn’t come with an ideological agenda. 

Judith Ireland is a Fairfax Media journalist.