Thursday, 16 August 2012
Migration Legislation Amendment (Regional Processing and Other Measures) Bill 2012; Second Reading
I also acknowledge Malcolm Fraser's presence. I do not agree with him in relation to this issue, but I do acknowledge a former Prime Minister and fellow Victorian. What I do not need today is a lecture from the Australian Greens in relation to this issue—the crocodile tears of compassion that we have heard again today. Why doesn't Senator Sarah Hanson-Young tell us what is compassionate about 1,000-plus people dying at sea? Why doesn't Sarah Hanson-Young tell us what is compassionate about people languishing in refugee camps in Thailand, Malaysia and elsewhere? What Senator Sarah Hanson-Young and the Greens know is that some of those illegal arrivals in this country by boat from Indonesia—some of them—may well be genuine refugees. What Senator Hanson-Young and the Greens know is that every single person in those UNHCR camps is a genuine refugee. What the Greens want to do is to put the rights of those illegal boat arrival people above the rights of those in those UNHCR camps. That is not compassion, and I am sick and tired of the crocodile tears coming from the other side.
Two years ago the Prime Minister of this country made an unequivocal commitment to the people of Australia that there would be no carbon tax under a government that she leads, and straightaway after the election we found out that that was an unmitigated and clear lie on the part of the Prime Minister of this country and the government. But this is just one example of a government and a Prime Minister that simply cannot be trusted. Indeed, if you look at what their policies contain, they are designed only to keep or obtain government. There is no better example of that than in relation to this debate on the Migration Legislation Amendment (Regional Processing and Other Measures) Bill 2012.
There have been 22,000 illegal arrivals in the last four years, 1,000-plus deaths and a $4.7 billion budget blow-out. The Houston report made it quite clear what options were available to this government. This government had the option of putting in place all three streams of the Howard government solution, which stopped illegal boat arrivals in this country and stopped deaths among those arrivals by boat. Why not introduce the full suite of those measures? Why not, indeed, go the next step in relation to turning back the boats and temporary protection visas?
I will just go through some of the previous comments of the Prime Minister in relation to these issues. Julia Gillard, in a press conference on 3 December 2002, said:
The Navy has turned back four boats to Indonesia. They were in sea-worthy shape and arrived in Indonesia. It has made a very big difference to people-smuggling that that happened … And we think turning boats around that are seaworthy, that can make the return journey, and are in international waters, fits in with that.
That was the Prime Minister, back in December 2002. If you go further and look at what she has said since then, on 6 July 2010 all of a sudden she had changed her mind. She said:
I speak of the claim often made by opposition politicians that they will, and I quote: 'turn the boats back'. This needs to be seen for what it is. It's a shallow slogan. It's nonsense.
How does that equate to her comments back in December 2002? This is a Prime Minister and a government that will stop at nothing.
In the 45 seconds left available to me, I also want to speak about temporary protection visas and what the Prime Minister said about that, again on 3 December 2002:
The proposal in this document, Labor's policy, is that an unauthorised arrival who does have a genuine refugee claim would in the first instance get a short Temporary Protection Visa.
At the same conference she said:
We want a short first-instance Temporary Protection Visa.
This Prime Minister has taken up only one of the three legs of what she should be doing in relation to this issue. She has flip-flopped. She says one thing one day and she says another thing the next day. This Prime Minister cannot be trusted, this government cannot be trusted and this bill must go through immediately. In government we will address those two outstanding and extremely important matters.
I start with the question that my colleague Senator Milne started with, which was: how long? How long are we going to be inflicting on desperate refugees detention on Nauru, in an environment that we know causes extreme mental stress? It is all very well to say, 'It's not going to be the same as it was before.' Australians should not be fooled; it will be. It will be the same as before. We are stripping out of the act the ability to offer protections and the necessity and requirement to offer support and protections. That is the very issue that we are talking about here, because we cannot guarantee those legally binding protections, so we are stripping those away. So it is going to be even worse than before, because we cannot enforce those protections. We know we cannot enforce those protections. So I go back to the question: how long? A decade? Longer? We know people have been in Indonesia, Malaysia and these other areas for that long, so how long do the government and the opposition think that we are going to be keeping people there?
My colleague Senator Hanson-Young demonstrated very, very clearly what impact it has already had on vulnerable refugees—people that are fleeing for their lives. Put yourself in their situation. They are being persecuted in their homeland. They are leaving their families and loved ones, often their wives, their children, their mothers, their brothers, their sisters, their fathers, their extended family—leaving them because they are being persecuted. Surveys showed that 96 per cent of Australians, when asked if they would do anything they could to protect themselves and their families, said that they would and, yes, they would flee.
And what happens when they flee when, as in a lot of cases, they have been tortured and subject to persecution? They get to a country that is saying: 'No; go. We don't want you here.' Because this is what this policy is about. Let's face it. This country is saying, 'We don't want those people here,' not that 'We understand your pain, we understand the torment in your homeland and we welcome you.' No. 'We'll lock you up even longer and punish you for wanting to have a better life and protect your family and your children. And we'll lock up your children at the same time, indefinitely, so they grow up in detention.' And then, in the future, will we recognise that, like we have this time, and have to compensate them? Yes, we will, of course.
Why not treat people fairly now like we have in the past? Why not accept that people are being damaged, that people are fleeing persecution, torture and distress in their own homelands? We see it every night on our television. Those are human beings that are being impacted. They are being bombed, tortured, persecuted for what they say. We have been having a debate in this country about freedom of speech; but, when we see people doing that in other lands and then being persecuted for it, we want to turn a blind eye, punish them even further, lock them up again and torture and persecute them even more. It will end up leading to the inevitable lifelong consequences of poor mental health.
And we know these things have lifelong consequences. In this country we are dealing with other people who have been mistreated by the system, and we know of their lifelong consequences and are still dealing with it decades down the track. That is what we are going to be doing with this proposal.
The Greens are deeply committed to caring for and looking after refugees and people in general. That is where we come from. We have been working hard to find an approach to a complex problem. No-one is denying that it is a complex problem, but people take desperate actions when they are fleeing for their lives, and we need to recognise that. We are supposed to be a caring and compassionate society, and what is caring and compassionate about locking people up again indefinitely and stripping away our requirements under our legislation to look after and offer protection to people? I ask again: what is caring and compassionate about it? The government cannot even answer how long we are going to be locking people up for, how long we are condemning people for. That is not caring and compassionate.
The sorts of things that we are stripping away by this act are our requirements to provide access for asylum seekers to effective procedures for assessing their need of protection, providing protection for asylum seekers pending determination of a refugee solution, providing protection for persons given refugee status pending their voluntary return to their country of origin or their resettlement to another country and also making certain that countries meet certain human rights standards in providing that protection. Stripping those requirements out, we do not have to do that anymore. How does that make us a caring and compassionate country when we are amending those particular requirements? How does it make us a caring and compassionate country when we are amending the Migration Act and the requirements for guardianship of children, when we are allowing the transfer to countries and areas where we cannot guarantee protections for these desperate people? These are people we are talking about. We cannot guarantee those protections.
Weigh the fact that people have already taken their lives in their hands by fleeing their birth country. That is a huge commitment these people have made; and, instead of recognising that and recognising that people who are fleeing for their lives take desperate measures, looking at how we can address that in a much more compassionate and regional approach, we are saying: 'We don't want you here. We're going to do everything we can to stop you actually being in Australia. We're going to put you in an environment that we know damages you. We know you're already damaged; we're going to put you in that environment again. We're going to repeat the mistakes of history because we are incapable of learning it—because we are so desperate not to have you in our country that we'll change our laws to make it so we don't have to ensure that these countries are complying with human rights measures and law. We'll change it because we're so desperate not to.' What does that say about our country?
It is a nonsense to wrap this up with, 'Oh, we're trying to stop people getting in boats.' People will continue to get in boats because they are that desperate. They will continue to get in boats and are going to have even fewer protections. Why are we not going back, as my colleague Senator Sarah Hanson-Young has said, to the countries these people have made it to, processing them and facilitating their applications, not making them wait for years and years where they have no protections?
These are desperate people and, over the years, their children will grow from small children to young adults. They will spend their whole lives in this unstable, dangerous situation where they do not have access to education, to adequate housing and to other protections that Australians take for granted. For all their lives all these children will know is poverty, desperation and in many situations cruelty. They will not be afforded basic human rights. By passing this legislation, this country is saying, 'That's okay with us.'
We need to put resources into addressing refugee applications and increase our humanitarian intake immediately. But, instead of doing that, we are saying to these people: 'We will punish you people some more.' We will punish you for what? 'We will punish you for coming from a country that is subject to strife, where the same democratic freedoms that we take for granted are not available to you. We will punish you for having the initiative to want to protect your family and your life. We will punish you some more for having the capacity, the initiative and the desire to live your life with the freedoms that we all take for granted in a democratic country. We will punish you some more because you have not found the mythical queue; you are not sitting in it being subject to persecution while we process your application.' When these people do try to find a place where there may be a queue, we make them sit there for years and years. What is our response to that? It is: 'We are going to change our legislation so that we do not even have to make sure that you are subject to human rights laws where you are staying.' We have gone that low in this country that we think that is acceptable. We think it is acceptable that refugees are treated in the manner that we are seeing them being treated now.
We have to remember what the term 'refugees' means. We think it is acceptable that we strip away our requirements for human rights to apply. What we are saying to the refugees is: 'You shouldn't be trying to get out of those desperate situations; sit there and suck it up.' That is what we are saying. Let us see this for what it is. We are prepared for Australia to participate in a process whereby we sink to such a low level that we ignore our commitment to human rights laws and conventions.
Attacks were made on us yesterday because of the position we are taking on this legislation. Me thinks it is because the people who are making those attacks are too ashamed of the approach that their side has taken. They gave in. They did not try and push for what needs to be done. They caved in to ignoring our commitment to human rights conventions and laws. They have been shown up, even by the Houston report, on the Malaysia solution. Instead of looking at the position they took, they want to come out and attack us for trying to find real solutions, because the solutions that the government and the opposition are proposing will not work. They will lead to the further degradation of desperate human beings and to the further damaging of these human beings. The way you stop people getting into boats is by dealing with them at the place where they land. You make sure that they are not sitting in the so-called queues. There are no queues. They are sitting in desperate situations and not being supported. We need to increase our humanitarian intake. We need to increase resources in order to process people more quickly rather than condemning them to indefinite detention. This legislation is about indefinite detention. I certainly have not heard any answers to the questions that have been posed on how long we will be condemning people to live in these circumstances.
We will oppose this legislation. We will stand up for the rights of refugees. We will stand with all the refugee groups who are saying that this legislation is not the solution. We say: listen to the community; listen to the groups, to the organisations and to the people who have been working for years with refugees to find real solutions that are long term—not a short-term one where you get it out of the way for a little while and out of the headlines; where you say, 'It does not matter that we are condemning people to long-term detention and all that goes with that.' Implement proper solutions. Where is the commitment? Where is the government's announcement that it is immediately going to increase our intake? Do people know that they have an option: the hellhole where they are now or a hellhole somewhere else? Give people a future. Give people a bright future. Give children a bright future. The thing that we in Australia all think about for our children is that they have a bright future in a country where they have access to all of the services that we take for granted. That is what we want for the refugees and their children rather than them ending up in indefinite detention on Nauru or Manus Island or wherever else the government picks on next to shuffle off people so that they are out of sight.
This is not the way that a caring and compassionate country addresses the needs of people who are desperate, people who have been subject to persecution and torture. But what do we do about that? We prolong that as well. This is not good enough for Australia, and we say no to this legislation.
I think too often in this place we accuse people and deride people when we should really take the opportunity to laud the wisdom in the chamber and acknowledge people when they have found an epiphany and made that turnaround. Many people have said that the Labor Left would stand up on this issue, but I said to them, 'You don't know the Labor Left the way I know the Labor Left, and you've got nothing to worry about there.'
We have to give credit where credit is due. I thank the people of the Labor Left who have come to the epiphany that they now support the coalition's policy—Howard's policy—on illegal immigration. It is very strong of them to now understand that John Howard was correct. It is incredible when you hear of people, such as Anthony Albanese, who said that he liked to fight Tories, but they got it wrong. Actually, he was trying to say that he likes to tell stories. I thank the people of the Labor Left for their silence on this issue. I thank them for being complicit on this issue. I thank them for their philosophical change of heart, and the realisation that there is really nothing much there.
I have a strong view about strong border protection, but I know for a fact that they do not. It is a mockery in this place when there is a complete desertion of principles. It makes sense that that is what we would be saying. That has been our position but it has not been theirs. I start to wonder when all of these statements have been made—and there have been so many, from Doug Cameron and Julia Gillard—and they look like complete and utter hypocrites. People will start to wonder about where the plum of dignity is in this place when you have a complete and utter turnaround. I can understand how the Labor Right could have that position and maybe the Labor Centre, but how the Labor Left got to that position I do not know. It is peculiar in the extreme. It needs to be said. For the life of me, it is something that I cannot work out. What do we do? Do we thank Doug Cameron? Doug Cameron—
Sure. Do we thank Senator Cameron? I can think of so many times when he was talking about Nauru, when Senator Cameron said:
… the closure of the disgraceful offshore processing centre in Nauru. It was a disgrace, it was an international shame and it brought nothing but loathing of this country …
And now he is voting for it. Again, Doug Cameron said:
… how Nauru could ever be contemplated as some kind of success.
And now he is voting for it.
I thank Senator Carol Brown for her support. I thank Senator Wong for the amount of work that she obviously did within caucus to fight for her beliefs. I thank her for that. It was quite laudable. I thank them for the discipline they have shown in saying absolutely nothing at all about their former beliefs. If you want to see what the archetypal view of a doormat is, it is the Labor Left—it is 'Roll over, lay down, but don't let me in.' That is the Labor Left.
However, it is a good outcome. I have to acknowledge that it is a position that is held by the Labor Right and it would be genuinely held by the Labor Right. It is genuinely held by us and it is genuinely held by the Liberal Party. We want stronger protections and we are willing to put in what is required to create the impediments, the disincentives, for people to get on a boat. We have had so many drownings. It has been an appalling debacle. The number of people drowning at sea is around the equivalent of our national road toll. That just cannot go on. That is a disgrace. We have always said that tough decisions were required. The coalition said this at the start. It is not that we wanted to revel in some sort of morbid or nasty approach; we just needed this disaster which was happening on our high seas to stop. We only have an estimation of how many people drowned. There is no real log of these people. God willing, it will, hopefully, now come to an end. That was our approach but, for the life of me, I never presumed it would be the approach of the Labor Left. You have to ask yourself: where is the philosophical soul of this movement? Is it gone? Is it finished? If it is, they should just announce it, fold up their banner and move on. It is a defunct movement.
We hope that those who are the benefactors of peddling human life across the seas start losing money. We hope that in this space we can exercise our role as humanitarians. That is definitely our role and we have to make sure that we maintain that. We need to make sure that we do what we can for people who are genuine refugees—that we facilitate their movement from camps, wherever they are in the world, to the extent that we are able to look after them as a nation. This is the difference that we have with the Greens. I know that the Greens have a genuine feeling that this is as much as Australia can take. We have to determine our capacity to do that. We have to determine our budget to do that. We have to determine that we do not create social imbalances by being excessive. We have to make sure that we create a form of assimilation. We have to make sure that we create an easy path for people who arrive in the future. We have our responsibilities but we must know the limit of our responsibilities.
Australia as a nation has been extremely generous in the role that it has played. Per head of population, it is vastly more generous than so many other places. I acknowledge that other places have more pressure put on them, but that is by reason of their geography. It is an example of our capacity when we reach over the seas, find people in difficult areas, bring them into our nation and do everything in our power to assist them. Concerns are voiced that we must placate within our own nation when people feel that domestic concerns are not getting an appropriate amount of attention in comparison to the attention spent on refugees. I do not think that is correct, but that is a view and we must not exacerbate that view by letting the number of illegal boat arrivals, or refugees, or whatever term you want to use, get out of control. We had a position in our nation where the integrity of our borders was well and truly called into question. We were not able to enforce the integrity of our borders, and if we cannot enforce the integrity of our borders we are seen as a nation that cannot deliver to its people one of their fundamental requirements, which include the integrity of their borders, the sovereignty of their soil and the provision of basic services at an affordable price or free.
What is the story now for the Labor Party or the Labor Left when one of their own members, the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, is yet again completely at odds with her own former statements? The need for offshore processing at Nauru might be my view, it might be Tony Abbott's view and it might have been John Winston Howard's view, but it was not Julia Gillard's view. The Australian people must be looking at their television sets and saying, 'Is there anything we can believe about this person whatsoever?' Is there any way that people can look at her and say: 'I might not agree with you, but I think you are succinct and genuine in your beliefs. You are reflecting to me your genuine and well-held beliefs and, in that, I have no doubt that you are a person of integrity. Although I might not agree with you, I believe that what you say is a truthful representation of your beliefs around where you are going to take us. When you say something that I disagree with, I know that is the end of it. When I say something that you agree with me on, I know that is where you are going to go. I have a reliable assessment of your character and who you are.'
However, sometimes the Prime Minister of Australia makes a complete 180-degree turn that works in the coalition's favour and we on the coalition side say, 'Hooray!' At other times it does not work in our favour. The only thing that is consistent is that she is completely and utterly inconsistent and there is nothing that you can rely on. No corner of reliability is left. The office of our Prime Minister has become a total and utter farce, and this farce has now infected this chamber. I can look across at Senator Marshall and say, 'That is not your view.' I can look at Senator Cameron and say, 'That is not your view.' I can look at Senator Carol Brown and say, 'That is not your view.' I can look at Minister Wong and say, 'That is not your view.' I can look at Senator Carr and say, 'That is not your view.' But they are all going to vote for it. They are all going to support it. They are all going to stand silent on it. Where have we gone? What is the point, Senator Cameron, of doing doorstop interviews anymore? Just forget it—give up on it. You do not really have a view; it is amorphous. You have no ticker.
For the rest of you, there is no point getting bitter and twisted; just acknowledge that you are now purposeless, that you are now soulless and that you have never stood up. One of those endearing human traits that we always believe in, an Australian trait, is ticker. Whatever your views are, make a stand because there will be someone out there who has the same views as you and they are relying on you to stand up on their behalf. But those days are gone. Now the whole infection has spread from a Prime Minister who has just been so glib and frivolous and expedient with her personal views. She has given reassurances to the Australian people time and time again, where she has said: 'Look at me. Trust me. I'm believable. You can rely on me. There is something there.' It is quite obvious that there is nothing there.
Where to next? How on earth can the Australian people look at the representations given by our current Prime Minister and think, 'There is something I can believe in that'?—because there is nothing. You would have to be completely and utterly foolish to now believe any utterance that came from the Prime Minister's office. You can just forget it. It is without meaning. This bill is a classic example of that.
I am obviously genuinely happy with this outcome because it deals with the situation offshore. I am genuinely unhappy with the fact that we have become almost philosophically bereft and completely and utterly mercenary now with the espousal of views—not my views but views that I thought were genuinely held by the Labor Party and supported by people with ticker. But they do not have ticker. That is another casualty of this debate.
The former Chief of the Defence Force, Angus Houston, is a man of impeccable character. The moment he was appointed to conduct this review it was certain that he would be truly independent and we knew we would get a recommendation that would include Nauru and Manus. That was obviously going to be the case because his remit was to ensure that the boat arrivals stopped and, of course, this will begin the process of stopping them—there is no doubt about that. That can be seen already as people try to front-end load the situation and exploit what they see as the closing window of opportunity. If that was the outcome that Ms Gillard ultimately wanted, then why didn't the Prime Minister say it at the start? Why didn't she say, 'I'm putting everything on the table'? Why did we have to listen to all these other statements of hers, one after another? As recently as 2011, the Prime Minister said:
They believe they are coming to Australia, but they end up somewhere else. It is a virtual turnaround of boats.
Now she supports a virtual turnaround of boats. She also said:
Labor will end the so-called Pacific solution—the processing and detaining of asylum seekers on Pacific islands—because it is costly, unsustainable and wrong as a matter of principle.
A matter of principle? What principle are we working with now? What is the principle for today? It is Thursday; how long will today's principles last? Will they make it to 11 o'clock?
Even Senator Chris Evans—a bloke I thought might have had something inside his chest—said:
And he went on to say, 'It was also my greatest pleasures in politics.' That is what he said. He said it was his 'greatest pleasure in politics'. Not one of the greatest, not equal with other things, but his 'greatest pleasure in politics'. It was his greatest achievement, as judged by him, by Senator Evans. So what is he doing to today? He is going to vote to bring back what he thought was his greatest achievement in removing.
What goes on in the Labor Party meetings? What happens? Do you have them any more? Where do you hold them—under a rug? Do they give you ear plugs? What happens in those rooms? It will be amazing to see who turns up for the vote. I hope the Greens call a division, but we will have to see what happens. It will be interesting to watch.
I have always supported stronger borders. It was naturally a position the National Party had and it was naturally a position that the coalition had. We have been unambiguous about it all the way through. We have been consistent about it. Like us or loathe us, you knew where we were on this issue. It was completely and utterly consistent. We did not want to revel in it. It has probably been noticed that we on the National Party have not been banging on about this. We knew where we were going and we just wanted it to quietly resolve itself.
My point today—and I think it has to be noted—is that we are now moving back to where we were, which was the coalition's position. Naturally enough, the coalition will go back to what the coalition position was, and we have been honest and succinct about it. There are other people within the coalition who have been honest and succinct about their disagreement with certain sections of it—for example, Judi Moylan and Russell Broadbent—and I think they have been consistent in their views. But what I worry about is how the Australian people must look up at this hill and say: 'What on earth is going on up there? Who is running this show? Where is the substance or the character of consistency of the people who have this most incredible honour and the weight of the nation resting on their shoulders to run the nation?' On the position of leadership, whether you like the leader or not, the leader must be a person who is held in respect and must act as a person who would be respected. A person will be respected when they are consistent, persistent and unambiguous in their core principles. But this is not what the Australian people have received from the Labor government.
Is it political expediency? At least be honest about your motives. Is it just about clearing the decks? Is that what you are doing? Is that what it is about? Just tells us. Tell us what the mechanism was that made you devoid of your principle. Tell us why? People want to know what is going on in the Labor Party. They are kind of fascinated. What has happened? Is it now the case that the Labor Left's position is merely theatrics and pointless babble? Does it have a position on anything anywhere anymore? One of the biggest casualties in this is the exacerbation of a loss of respect in the office of our nation.
I rise to support my colleagues Senator Christine Milne, Senator Sarah Hanson-Young and the other Greens who have spoken so clearly on this bill, the Migration Legislation Amendment (Regional Processing and Other Measures) Bill 2012. We had the opportunity here, if Labor had been willing to work with the Greens, to come up with solutions that would have saved lives and that would have allowed us to ensure that refugee rights were respected and that we honoured our international obligations. Instead, Labor have chosen to work with the coalition and are returning us to the John Howard Pacific solution. But, when you look at it closely, there are aspects of this bill that make it even worse than what we saw in those years. Island prisons will be established. Countries like Nauru and PNG will be left to administer a policy that will violate the refugee convention. That would be unacceptable and unlawful if it occurred in Australia. We would have to conclude that one of the objectives here is to keep the whole refugee issue away from scrutiny. That is one of the reasons this is occurring.
In this debate there have been many myths, deceptions and lies that have been perpetrated—the claim that the Pacific solution made more boats come, that asylum seekers threaten our border—but that is just propaganda to put pressure on people, to scare people and to try to win support for a policy that is so inhumane. What the coalition and Labor are uniting here to do is not about saving lives or about compassion; it is a political fix. It is a political fix that is incredibly dangerous for so many individuals.
Also, if we look towards the future, we can anticipate that there will be many more refugees in the world, due to economy-collapsing countries, wars, pressure on different populations and the climate change impact. We know that there could be millions of refugees in this world, and Australia has a clear responsibility here. We are known by many people—and I think we like to think of ourselves—not just as a country with a fair go but also as being generous of spirit and generous in a very real way. But this piece of legislation takes us in a totally different direction.
When we consider what we have seen from the parties that are now pushing this legislation we need to remember that there is a long history of abuse of refugees behind this. We violated international maritime law with the way the Tampa crisis was handled and we are violating our own obligations under UN treaties. That means that so many innocent people have been treated appallingly—damage that will, in many cases, last all their lives. And we are about to continue that terrible pattern of treating refugees. What is happening is that we are imprisoning people who desire what I believe most people in the world desire—I am sure it is a common factor among all of us here—and that is to wake up in the morning and know that your family is safe, your friends are safe and your livelihood is fairly secure. That is what these people are trying to secure.
The other night in this parliament I read out extensive quotes from a statement that has been released by the Commission for Justice and Peace of the Catholic Diocese of Jaffna in Sri Lanka. It painted a deeply troubling, ongoing situation for the Tamil community in that country. I urge people to look up that statement if they want to understand why so many Tamils are fleeing Sri Lanka, because it becomes quite clear. The civil war in that country may have ended in 2009 but many people are now calling what is occurring in that country ethnic cleansing, with Tamil communities losing their land and their livelihood. There is a description in that statement of fisherfolk who can no longer exercise their daily fishing plans because they are not allowed to fish in certain areas, Hindu shrines that have been taken over or destroyed, and the army and sections of the Sinhalese community taking over businesses, land and communities. This has much to do with why people from that land are fleeing to Australia.
If you look at the situation in Afghanistan, instability continues to be extreme. The war, the conflict and the violence are making life impossible for many people. We know that many Afghanis get to a point where they realise that the only hope for them and for their families and communities is to leave. And they have a right to come to this country and to seek asylum. This morning I went to a very moving event in this parliament for World Humanitarian Day, and part of it was to remember the many aid workers who have been killed in the line of duty. I had not realised how many had died. Senator Bob Carr was one of the speakers, and he spoke about Afghanistan and the violence against women. He said that 80 per cent of women in that country continue to experience violence. The sexual exploitation and the ruthlessness of the Taliban and some of their supporters is driving people out of that country—again, they have a right to come here, and we have a responsibility and a duty under international law to accept those people who come to our country. One day I do believe—I always try to be positive—that we will get back to that, but right now the legislation before us is more than deeply troubling; it is deeply anti-human. That parties could unite on this is quite extraordinary.
With respect to the expert panel's recommendations, we were pleased that they picked up on some of the work that Senator Sarah Hanson-Young has been putting forward on safer pathways and taking more refugees, and I acknowledge that many other groups have advocated those positions. But so many of the recommendations are a huge setback, repealing the few human rights protections included in the offshore processing legislation that went through in 2001. We should never do that, and we are about to see all the Labor and coalition MPs voting for that to happen.
Punishing asylum seekers who arrive by boat is a breach of the refugee convention, and that should not change. We need to remember the mental health problems that occurred among so many of the refugees who were put into detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island. The people who are voting for this legislation are ignoring the lessons that we learnt about what that form of detention does to people. We know that most of those people settled in this country. Australia now has the responsibility of looking after them and trying to address those mental health problems that should never have occurred, but they did occur because we were holding people indefinitely with limited freedom of movement. This is what has happened in those island prisons in the past and this is what we are about to inflict on people.
Then we come to the issue of the expert panel recommending that the removal of child asylum seekers from Australia be facilitated. You would have to say that one of the darkest chapters in this is how we have treated minors and children. I pay tribute to Chilout. They worked for years to get children out of detention and that became a great rallying call for organisations like Refugee Action Collective, Chilout and Labor for Refugees. Incredibly important work was done, and there were achievements, but now it looks like it is going to be wound back. My colleagues have asked the questions. We know that 220 asylum seekers have arrived just recently, and they are the first ones to be moved to these islands. How many children are there? What is going to happen to them? There are no answers. The lack of humanity is one of the aspects of this that I have found most troubling, and we are going to inflict that on children and put them into these island prisons. There is an unwillingness to come clean about what will happen and how it will be managed. They talk about transparency, openness and health facilities but none of that is made clear. And, in the end, none of it is an answer when you are locked up in an island prison indefinitely and your rights have been removed so completely.
Another aspect of the expert panel's recommendations that very much shocked me was that they left open the possibility that boats may be turned back in the future. We have heard the Leader of the Opposition, Mr Abbott, speak about this whole package, and this is where Labor has got its own tactics so wrong, let alone the approach to refugees. He said the boats will keep coming, which they will. People will want to escape the terrible situations in which they find themselves. Mr Abbott has said that the government will be to blame if the boats keep coming, even though what we have here is the coalition's Pacific solution. But there is the further aspect of leaving it open to turn back the boats. We have heard naval people say that that simply should not happen.
I want to put on the record the organisations that this week made such a clear appeal to the government that this legislation, the Migration Legislation Amendment (Regional Processing and Other Measures) Bill 2012, should not pass. These organisations have put so much effort into working on this issue, working with refugees to ensure their rights are recognised, helping them to settle in this country, often picking up the work that government should do: visiting the detention centres, giving the day-to-day support, often taking food to those people in those centres, trying to contact family—again, doing the work that the government should do. These organisations came together this week to call on the Prime Minister not to pass this legislation and to point out the very deep problems from the expert panel's recommendations. It is important that their work is acknowledged and recognised.
The organisations that wrote to the Prime Minister are: Amnesty International Australia; Asylum Seeker Resource Centre; Asylum Seekers Christmas Island; Asylum Seeker Welcome Centre; Bridge for Asylum Seekers Foundation; Balmain for Refugees; Brigidine Asylum Seekers Project; Sonia Caton, migration agent; CASE for Refugees; Centre for Human Rights Education, Curtin University; Chilout; Coalition for Asylum Seekers Refugees and Detainees; Darwin Asylum Seeker Support and Advocacy Network; the Rt. Hon. Malcolm Fraser AC, CH; Sandra Gifford, Professor of Anthropology and Refugee Studies; Human Rights Law Centre; Hotham Mission Asylum Seeker Project; International Detention Coalition; Ged Kearney, President, Australian Council of Trade Unions; Melbourne Catholic Migrant & Refugee Office; Professor William Maley AM FASSA; Dr Anne Pedersen, Associate Professor; Refugee Council of Australia; Refugee and Immigration Legal Service; the Assembly of the Uniting Church in Australia; Welcome to Australia; Dr Savitri Taylor, Associate Professor and Director of Research; Tamara Wood, Nettheim Doctoral Teaching Fellow and PhD candidate.
I congratulate their extensive work for refugees in this country and, as you have heard from other Greens speakers, we remain deeply committed to continuing the work for refugees and working with these organisations to ensure that we return to a recognition of refugee rights.
I mentioned at the start of my speech that so much of the debate has relied on lies and deception in many of the comments that have been made about asylum seekers. I want to deal with some of those myths: for example, that asylum seekers who arrive by boat are committing an illegal act. This is so deeply wrong. I believe the majority of the coalition members and Labor members who have spoken on this, like the Leader of the Opposition, must know that, but they continue with this deception. It is not illegal to seek asylum, regardless of how someone arrives in this country. The term, if you come by boat, is 'irregular maritime arrival'. That is the legal description but there is nothing illegal about it. The constant repetition of that lie relies on the old adage—if you repeat a lie long enough people will come to believe it. It is part of the propaganda that our borders are under threat and these people have no right to come to this country when they clearly have.
I also want to address some of the comments that, disappointingly, have been made by Senator Doug Cameron. He spoke on the Migration Legislation Amendment (The Bali Process) Bill 2012 back in June when we were coming to the end of that session. He spent quite a bit of his argument trying to blame the Greens for a solution not being found. Let us remember that what he was pushing for then was the Malaysia solution, which asked the Greens and all of us to break the law and our responsibilities under the refugee convention. The High Court made a very clear ruling on this and here we saw Senator Cameron take a very irresponsible position and try to blame the Greens for not achieving a solution.
Now we have Senator Cameron going for the Pacific solution. It is worth remembering, when he spoke in June on that bill, that he said he had argued his opposition to the Pacific solution continually over many years. Yes, he has, and for a lot of the period we were able to work with Senator Cameron and others in Labor on this issue. I acknowledge that, as part of the Labor caucus, members have to vote for legislation that their caucus has decided will come through. But we know that Labor members of parliament—senators and members of the House of Representatives—can speak against bills that their caucus has decided on and cannot be expelled for that. Over the years we have seen many courageous members do that when wrong legislation, like this, comes through. That is what Senator Cameron should have stuck with, rather than run the scam that it is all the Greens' fault because we would not vote for the Malaysian solution.
We will continue to work, and are always ready to work, with Labor people like Labor for Refugees. They are critical of what the Labor government is doing here and have recognised the importance of the Greens' position, including what we have advanced around safer pathways and regional assessment. We have seen in how Labor has conducted this debate in recent months that it has not been a compromise. It has not been a compromise to improve the situation for refugees. Again, they could have worked with my colleagues Senator Christine Milne and Senator Sarah Hanson-Young to come up with solutions that provided those pathways, that helped ensure that there were positive solutions. But they have not made refugees welcome. They have moved to a position where they have provided no option but for refugees to get onto boats. As I described in those situations in Sri Lanka and Afghanistan, when people are desperate to leave because of violence, and the abuse and the exploitation have got to that point, deterrence according to laws in Australia are meaningless; they are thinking about how they can escape their situation. The issue of saving lives is absolutely paramount for us. We could have achieved that by recognising the rights of refugees and our responsibilities under the convention, and we will continue to return to that work.
In the short time I have to speak today on this Migration Legislation Amendment (Regional Processing and Other Measures) Bill 2012 I want to deal with an aspect that has been seldom referred to in this very emotive debate. There has been a lot of hand wringing and a lot of reference has been made to the rights of people who have voluntarily paid quite large sums of money and gone upon the high seas of their own free will and then, with information received from Australian supporters, telephoned various Customs, naval and other officials in Australia to come and get them.
The people I am referring to who have rights and who have been needlessly put in harm's way are, of course, those very fine members of the Australian Defence Force, particularly the Royal Australian Navy. They have been needlessly exposed to extreme danger and risk by this massive policy failure, probably the greatest policy failure in the history of our country. It is all very well for people to get up and talk about the rights of these refugees, these illegal entry people who are coming upon the high seas and expectant of first-class treatment, putting our Navy personnel at enormous risk, but those Navy personnel have lives to live. Those sailors have wives, husbands and children, and this policy has put them at enormous risk.
Twenty-two thousand people have arrived by sea since 2007. All of them, almost without exception, have been processed successfully and, may I say, compassionately and professionally by members of the Royal Australian Navy. What about the rights of those sailors, needlessly put in harm's way? Many of them undertake a nine-day turnaround from home base Darwin out to Christmas Island then a number of days patrolling, picking up these boats and then delivering them to Christmas Island or to whenever they can. Several members of the Armidale class Force Element Group regularly work through their eight-week on/four-week off cycle on the high seas—many of them work 12 weeks straight—doing nothing more or less than operating a taxi service for this massive policy meltdown and failure. What about the rights of those people?
I read an article by Chris Kenny in the Australian in July this year and I put on the record some of the things that he said. Of course, this is something that senators opposite do not want to hear because they are hideously embarrassed by this massive backflip, this classic policy failure that has brought derision and scorn down upon all of them. The journalist said:
For these people at the front line of the border protection dilemma, the day-to-day practicalities are more important than the parlour games of the political debate. The crews typically rotate for eight weeks onboard then four weeks onshore, although the pressures are so high now that five sailors recently had to sail through their rostered onshore period.
He further said:
They observe that many asylum-seekers appear well clothed and organised. Apparently a sailor recently was admonished by an asylum-seeker who wanted more care taken with his bag because it contained a laptop. Another sailor lamented; 'Last I checked, I was not a baggage handler at the airport, but a sailor in the Royal Australian Navy.'
I share some empathy and sympathy with that sailor and with all of these sailors who have been reduced to nothing more or less than taxi drivers. What about their rights? It is all very well to be talking about the rights of people who pay large sums of money—what about the rights of sailors?
I now turn to the coronial inquest into the death of five Afghanis on board a boat in April 2009. Mr Greg Cavanagh, the coroner in Darwin, a very learned and respected jurist, delivered his decision on those deaths when a boat, SIEV36, was blown up in April 2009. I quote some of the aspects of what that learned coroner found. In paragraph 11 on page 5 of his report, he said:
By way of overview only and having regard to all the evidence I have concluded that the explosion was caused when a passenger or passengers deliberately ignited petrol which had collected in the bilge area below the deck of SIEV 36. Unleaded petrol in a container housed in a hatch near the bow of the boat had been deliberately spilt into the bilge. The ignition of the petrol resulted in almost instantaneous ignition of petrol vapour emanating from the spill.
He goes on to describe the magnitude of a very serious explosion, which blew nine Royal Australian Navy personnel into the water. It is not enough to come here on one of these boats, having paid for the privilege, but when they get here they want to blow the boat up with Australian people on board. The coroner made distinct findings as to the cause of that explosion—and I will deal with that in a little while.
Let us talk about what Navy did and how they responded. On page 38 of the coronial inquest report the coroner says in paragraph 89:
When the explosion occurred, many of the passengers and navy personnel were thrown into the water. Again the video depicts what occurred. Keogh—
a Navy man—
can be seen on the starboard side of the boat trying to direct passengers to leave the boat. He was very brave as were many others that day. He was unable to save one of the passengers who drowned in front of him. Standing Orders required that he remain on the boat and not enter the water unless directed to do so. He tried to help and took hold the seat of the wheel house which he intended to throw to the drowning man but it melted in his hand. Thereafter he remained on the burning vessel until he was extracted, despite the obvious danger of further explosions and him being injured himself.
The coroner goes on to set out more acts of extreme heroism and bravery. In paragraph 91, on page 39, he says:
In the process of the rescue, Corporal Jager was in danger because her life vest did not inflate and she believed she was drowning. Medbury and Boorman, who were crewing the RHIB that was portside of the SIEV at the time of the explosion, rescued her. In the process of doing so, they had great difficulty. She was clearly struggling, they were finding it difficult to get her on board. Shortly before they succeeded, a passenger was hanging on to her and preventing the rescue. Medbury either kicked the RHIB or kicked towards the passenger. Corporal Jager says that the passenger was kicked in the head. However, she conceded it happened in a split second and she could be mistaken. Medbury agreed that he was kicking towards the passenger to stop him from preventing Jager's rescue. I do not need to make any specific findings about this incident. The incident must be seen in the context of what was happening. There had been a violent explosion, people were screaming in the water. Corporal Jager was struggling and have drowned but for prompt action, the passenger concerned was in fact rescued anyway.
The coroner goes on at paragraph 92:
After high alert had been sounded, HMAS Albany returned to the scene. Albany's two RHIBs were launched and assisted with the rescue of ADF and passengers. The rescue was efficient, effective and in my opinion saved lives. There were many heroic acts that morning in the process of saving the passengers and crew of SIEV 36 and also in their treatment thereafter. For example, Corporal Jager, notwithstanding what she had been through, attended to the needs of several injured people with the Medical Officer Darby with seemingly inexhaustible energy and precision. Many passengers were saved because of their efforts. It can be said that but for the combined efforts of the Australian Defence Force, Border Protection Command, Australian Maritime Safety Authority (Rescue Co-ordination Centre), Off Shore Gas Installation Front Puffin, Truscott and medical teams from around Australia, many more lives would have certainly been lost.
The coroner goes on:
I have already commented on the great efforts, professionalism and bravery of ADF members collectively in rescuing survivors from the SIEV 36. In my view, the individual efforts of ADF members Jager, Keogh and Faunt are worthy of specific mention; 1) I have already mentioned Jager in the previous paragraph; after being on the boat for some time during the night, she was blown off the back of the boat into the water by the explosion, she was in a state of shock and her life vest did not inflate, she was close to drowning with other survivors attempting to swim over her in order to be rescued, she was terrified. Yet, despite this trauma, after her rescue with her specialist medical training she attended to the survivors for the next 10 hours …
And the coroner goes on:
2) I have already mentioned the efforts of Keogh in paragraph 89 … 3) Faunt had only been on the SIEV 36 for a short time on the morning of the explosion, he realised the dangers of an explosion, he called "high alert", he attempted to appropriately deal with the developing situation, he was standing on top of the roof of the boat's coach house, the explosion blew him from the roof into the air and into the water, despite the shock and confusion engendered by this trauma, after rescue he remained on duty for several hours supervising the men under his command in relation to the rescue.
That is what this failed policy has delivered to the Royal Australian Navy. It is a disgrace. And they sit over there with their smug looks and think: 'Oh, yes, this is a political game. Our ideology will prevent us from adopting the Howard solution.' Australian naval lives were put at risk wilfully by this negligent and derelict government. That is what has happened here. And I, for one, will not allow it to go without saying that, but for the fact of the professionalism and the dedication of these Navy people who have had to endure this policy fiasco, there would be many, many more deaths.
How do we measure the level of incompetence and callous disregard of this government in the face of a boat in April 2009 being wilfully blown up, with nine naval personnel on it—how was that not enough to convince this crazy, neglectful, incompetent government that their policies had to change? Four years later here we are, dragged, kicking and screaming, by Angus Houston. That is what this has come to. The events of February 2009 should have woken them up, as any normal person would have been woken up, to the fact that this policy of compassion, the removal of the Pacific solution, was going to lead to disaster, to death and end in tears—and it has. But, no, they know better.
This Prime Minister will not do or say anything that acknowledges the successful governance for 11 years by John Howard. That is the problem; that is what sticks in their craw. And don't we know they are paying for it today? They are an absolute laughing stock. Their incompetent governance skills are probably the world's worst in a Western country. Everything they have touched has turned to mud because they do not know what they are doing. They think about what the spin doctors tell them first and foremost, without concentrating on the outcome and the practical application of policy.
So what did they do with all those people who deliberately blew up the boat? The coroner said that most of them lied, so what did they do with them? They gave them visas. They welcomed them into Australia. That is the level of incompetence we have dealt with from this government. It is a measure of their extreme and callous disregard, neglect and political spin-doctoring that they welcomed into this country those criminals who tried to kill nine Australian sailors.
In closing—because I am very annoyed about what we have had to endure for the last four years, as any reasonable, normal person would be—I want to say to the men and women of the patrol boat FEG out of Darwin a huge thank you for the loyal professionalism they have continued to display year after year in dealing with this classic and massive fiasco of policy. Their dedication to duty has been an example to all of us and on this side of the chamber we all want to congratulate them and say thank you for their work. They are the people whose rights we should have been thinking about.
I rise today to speak on the Migration Legislation Amendment (Regional Processing and Other Measures) Bill 2012. I am deeply saddened that here we are yet again debating legislation which is designed to punish and demonise people merely because they arrive on our shores by boat instead of arriving by plane or waiting patiently in mythical queues in intolerable living conditions where they have no hope or a sense of the future.
The last time I spoke about this issue in this place, just six weeks ago in relation to the Bali process bill, I described the experience of just one refugee I recently met in Adelaide. In desperation he came to Australia after waiting for resettlement in the Philippines. He waited for 20 years. There was no queue. He was waiting in limbo, a no-man's-land where he could not work, he could not form relationships and he had no sense of a future, and he chose ultimately to come to Australia.
It was with deep shame that I witnessed the imposition of mandatory detention on refugees, commenced by the Keating government in the 1990s, and then the more punitive regimes inflicted on refugees and asylum seekers by the Howard government into this century. Like many other Australians, I raised my voice and took what action I could and then I celebrated the lifting of temporary protection visas and the closing of Nauru. We thought that the worst excesses of these nasty exploitative policies were finally over. Certainly we knew that there was a legacy of people who had harmed and hanged themselves, and there are many survivors from that time who went on to be granted refugee status and who live in Australia today. But they still bear the mental scars of long periods in indefinite detention—our fellow Australians. At least, we thought, the bad old days were over. Now, here we are again in 2012 being urged to support this legislation because it represents a 'compromise' in order to find a 'solution' to a wicked dilemma.
It is true that there is a dilemma. People around the world will flee situations of terror, violence, torture and threat. And they will try to reach a safer place like Australia. And their journeys will be hazardous. But it is not surprising; it is exactly what many of us would do in the same situation if we were faced with the same horrors, if that was what was necessary for us to save our partners or our children or ourselves.
The big lie is that there is a simple solution to this dilemma—like the 'Pacific solution' or the 'Malaysian solution'. Pretending that there is a simple solution is misleading and cynical, because it causes false expectations in the Australian public and then leads to pressure for drastic action like what we have before us in this bill. It will appear that something decisive and effective is happening even if the consequences are ineffectual, harmful and cruel. Let us not be misled here. This is a political solution but it will not save lives or reduce suffering.
On Monday at the cross-party parliamentary meeting on asylum seekers, I had the chance to hear from some of the most experienced and compassionate advocates for refugees in Australia. These were people who have considered this issue over long periods of time and their overwhelming message was that this is a complex and intractable challenge and there is no simple solution. There are just ways to manage it in the most humane way possible while maintaining the values that motivated us in Australia in 1954 to sign up to a convention to assist some of the most vulnerable people on the planet.
Now we come to this idea of a 'compromise'. What is it, I wonder, that we are compromising on? Compromising is good we are told: agreeing to something we do not want for some greater result. But what if it won't be effective and will cause untold harm and suffering? Where is the virtue and the sense in that? To support this legislation we must compromise on obligations that Australia voluntarily assumed when we signed the United Nations convention on refugees. They were very clear obligations to respect the rights of people to seek asylum under certain conditions and to ensure that they are treated humanely and compassionately when they do so. Here we are being asked to compromise so that we can treat some people so harshly that it will send a message of punishment and deterrence to others contemplating making the journey. We will have to treat them so harshly that it compares with the situations they are fleeing from—persecution by the Taliban, for instance, or years of statelessness in limbo with no sense of purpose and no sense of hope.
Desperate people will do what is necessary. The best deterrent to making a risky boat journey is the belief that there is another viable option, an alternative that will result in a better life. Refugees in Indonesia have indicated that they are willing to wait, sometimes two or three years, if they know they have a good chance of being resettled—if they have some hope.
The Australian Greens are serious about protecting refugees, saving lives and encouraging people not to risk their lives on boats because they have a better option—because they have a real chance of a future. The Greens have proposed a series of measures designed to give people hope and to work with our neighbours so that we have the credibility and good faith in our region to develop a long-term, truly regional approach to what we know is a regional phenomenon. These measures would include increasing Australia's humanitarian intake to 25,000 people a year and urgently resettling at least 1,000 people from Indonesia and at least 4,000 from Malaysia. We would uncouple the link between the number of onshore refugees and the number of offshore refugees who are eligible for humanitarian visas—something that the refugee advocate community is constantly saying is necessary.
We would significantly boost the number of family reunion places within the humanitarian program. We would review carrier sanctions and visa impediments for people seeking protection by air, to overcome what is often a racist discrepancy when it comes to the status of people who arrive by air. We would increase funding to the UNHCR in Indonesia so that they have a stronger capacity to assess asylum seeker applications and vastly speed up the process. We would develop a new regional plan of action with our neighbours on a respectful basis—not on a basis where we are essentially being hypocritical, pointing the finger at them for their human rights abuses and breaches and yet not being prepared to abide by the convention that we signed up to in good faith in 1954. Finally, if we were serious about saving lives at sea we would codify our obligations to protect life at sea when people are on those boats.
I am very pleased that some of these Australian Greens measures have been taken up by the expert panel but the fact remains that their recommendations also contain some of the worst aspects of punitive, Howard-era policies, designed to deter people from coming to Australia—wherever else they may go, but not to Australia—dressed up as compassion.
I cannot support this legislation. It will not prevent people from boarding boats and it will not save lives. Further, it will remove the few human rights included in the offshore processing legislation passed in 2001. It will open the way for any country to be designated for offshore processing, regardless of whether it is a party to the refugee convention or not. It will allow the displacement of people to hellholes like Nauru, out of sight, away from scrutiny by the public and by the media, and away from independent legal and mental health assistance. It will allow the transfer of child asylum seekers from Australia and the transfer of unaccompanied minors, who will not necessarily have a guardian to act in their best interests—in breach of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. It will allow banishment to Nauru, or Manus Island or, essentially, anywhere but here.
In my first speech in parliament a year ago I noted how over time our Australian map has been redrawn to pretend that some parts of our country are not Australian territory at all—Christmas Island, for instance. The legal term for this process is 'excision'. This noxious policy was introduced by John Howard in 2001, and it requires us effectively to renounce part of our territory so that we can disavow our responsibility for those who come to us seeking asylum. As a lawyer I always found this legal fiction, designed purely to worm out of our international obligations, shameful. What this bill will require is that the entire Australian land mass be excised to enable the refugee arriving by boat anywhere on our continent to be transferred elsewhere for processing.
What does this say about us? Does this renunciation of our territory chillingly reflect the gradual erosion of core Australian values of generosity and compassion?
One of the most concerning aspects of this legislation is the possibility of unlimited detention. Under John Howard's so-called Pacific Solution people spent up to four years in detention in Nauru, but under the new Pacific Solution this could be even longer because there is no time limit on how long people will be in these detention centres. We know that indefinite detention deprives people of hope, their sense of autonomy and their sense of a future. And we know that it leads to mental health problems on a massive scale. We know what happened to the people on Nauru. The mental health experts who visited the island confirmed that asylum seekers on Nauru had a history of suicide attempts and incidents of self-harm. The centre psychiatrist was finding it difficult to manage the psychotic features that he was seeing among the residents there and their suicidal thoughts.
Many, many mental health experts have condemned the effects of mandatory detention both in the past and in response to this proposed legislation, especially the effects of indefinite detention on the mental health of human beings. Respected psychiatrist Professor Pat McGorry has said:
… we know that after about six and certainly 12 months in detention, mental health will deteriorate, and there's very good evidence for that.
We also know that people who have been through previous detention and torture and severe trauma of other kinds—
which many of these asylum seekers have experienced—
… are especially vulnerable to these effects, and particularly children and adolescents.
What we also know is that over the last 15 years, 90 per cent of the people in immigration detention were ultimately found to be genuine refugees and became Australian citizens. And yet before we do that we leave them in limbo with all sense of hope destroyed, often separated from their family, their friends and their community and with no certainty about the future.
This is the ultimate folly. When they finally settle in Australia we are then faced with people with ongoing mental health problems. Professor Louise Newman, on the radio this morning, was saying that in 2012 she is still treating people who are suffering the mental health effects of detention on Nauru. It is almost as if this process is designed to destroy the very resilience, courage and initiative that people who have the wherewithal to flee from persecution to find a better future bring with them. They have such a capacity to make good, grateful, strong and resilient citizens in Australia. It is as if our processes and policies were designed to destroy that very inherent core. That is why the Greens have an amendment that, if detention is to occur, we will limit the length of detention to 12 months.
Finally, I would like to finish by reminding people, in case people have forgotten, about the legacy of offshore, indefinite detention. Let us briefly revisit Nauru. There is an article by the Age journalist Michael Gordon that he wrote back in 2005, when he was the first journalist into the Nauru detention centre after three years of trying—and doesn't that say something about a government's willingness and ability to prevent scrutiny and accountability by having people locked away so far from our shores and not allowing journalistic access? After three years of trying, he was able to get into the Nauru detention centre. His article has been republished this week in the online journal Inside Story. It is very, very moving and graphic and reminds us of the debilitating effects of long-term detention in an isolated place on the morale, health and wellbeing of fellow human beings.
There is one particular person that Michael Gordon refers to, a young man called Ali Rezaee. He began his life in offshore detention at the age of 17—still a kid. He told Michael Gordon that when he was consumed by despair he would go to a corner of the camp and cry at the sky. He said:
… where are my family? Where are they now? What are they feeling now? They might think that I am dead. They think that they have lost me.
He wrote to help cope with what he was going through, and he wrote in an email to a woman called Halinka Rubin, a Polish-born Holocaust survivor in Melbourne who was also a tireless supporter of those on Nauru and in mainland detention. One of his emails included these lines:
I am a boy, who just sees dark and dark, and a minute is passing like one hour, a month is passing like a year. And have no sleep without tablet, no medicine available for reducing the pain, except rolling tear on my cheek.
I am a boy who in the mid of night, most of the time lonely sitting in the corner side the fence, looking at blue sky, at stars, weeping tears, during that time none is moving around.
If this bill is passed, we will condemn many like Ali to wretchedness, despair and, in some cases, mental illness and death. Instead, this parliament can choose to offer refugees safer pathways by taking a true leadership role in our region and genuine responsibility for our share of some of the world's most vulnerable people.
I will not repeat what my colleagues have stated before me on the Migration Legislation Amendment (Regional Processing and Other Measures) Bill 2012, other than to say that I think Senator Johnston's contribution, regarding the burden of the failed policies of this government on our Defence Force personnel, is particularly worth noting. Our Defence Force personnel are a long way from home, in very dangerous situations, performing their duty without taxpayer-funded lobby groups or bumper stickers advertising the trauma they go through. The consequences of the policy failures of this government and the policies of the Greens that this government adopted are very personal for those people, and I think people should seriously take note of the trauma that Senator Johnston outlined. They do not have the same voice of organised, taxpayer-funded lobbyists or lawyers. They do not have press conferences on the steps of Parliament House to put that case, but it is a very, very important element that we should note for the people who serve in our name, defending our national security.
Senator Wright before me talked about the 'big lie'. The big lie is this: that the policies of the Greens that the Labor Party adopted and implemented would have no consequences. The big lie is that weakening the policies of the previous government would not encourage more people to take this dangerous journey to Australia. The big lie was that there is no such thing as pull factors. We have seen over the last four years the consequences of that big lie, and the consequences are enormous. They are people who have been denied the opportunity to come to Australia. They are the people who have lost their lives—those we know about and those we do not. They are the personal stories of people serving in our Defence Force that Senator Johnston has outlined. That is the big lie: that there would be no consequence from weakening the policies that worked. This crisis in policy is entirely a creation of this government, and it is important that the government be held accountable for this failure. The next time we are asked to rely upon the judgement or the good word of the Prime Minister or a member of this government, we can judge people by their track record.
I was not in this parliament before July 2008, but I have been a Liberal Party activist for a long time, and I remember the vilification of people in the then Howard government undertaken by those opposite and their second cousins or first cousins in the Green corner of this place—not just accusing their policies of being cruel but going to their very motivations and alleging they intended to be cruel. I have been at polling booths with representatives of the Labor Party and the Greens where they will insult, attack and vilify those doing nothing but supporting the policies of the Howard government, because it is never enough for the Greens or the Labor Party to address someone's policy; one must allege they are somehow motivated by the darker angels of human nature. I want to know where the apology is—in particular to the member for Berowra, because he was subjected to some of the most intense vilification and personal attacks that any minister in the Commonwealth has ever been subjected to, and it was by those opposite and their Green friends. Part of the reason this was undertaken was for political purposes, to try to generate a political advantage. Rather than just criticise the policy, in football parlance you played the man rather than the ball, and you threw a lot of high elbows. What the member for Berowra, the then minister for immigration, went through was nothing short of a disgrace, and that should be noted. I noticed on Monday that there was not even an acknowledgement from this Prime Minister that they had got it wrong. There was not even an acknowledgement—a courtesy—that the previous government's policies worked. I cannot help but think that one of the reasons this government has changed policies is that it is so obvious that the previous government's policies worked.
It is true this government has backflipped. There is nothing wrong with admitting one is wrong. But one needs to admit it to have the credibility to argue for the U-turn in policy. On Monday the Prime Minister and Minister for Immigration and Citizenship used a constant emphasis on the words 'expert' and 'compromise'. The hubris of this government is not limited by some sort of honest commitment to apology even for the personal attacks made, but that constant reference to expert and compromise stood out. I do not think compromise on something to do with our national security is something to be proud of. Our national security is something that we should not be compromising upon. Compromise for the sake of it is not something that governments should strive for. Admit that the previous policies worked and admit that the policies need to be reinstituted, but this government has the hubris never to do that. Its relationship with honesty and the truth is very limited.
We on this side know that history tells us that temporary protection visas are a critical element of managing our asylum seeker policy and our border security. I hope that this policy works, but I fear that it will not because that element in particular is lacking. I share the scepticism Greg Sheridan outlined in today's Australian that the endless process of a regional solution will not actually deliver an outcome. I note that the constant references to a regional solution could as much be an illusion for political activity as they are going to achieve a genuine outcome, because it has been going for a very long time and I fail to see the interest of some of those nations in cooperating purely for Australian domestic purposes.
I am concerned at proposals to raise the quota without a full consideration of what that means. I have the privilege of working in some areas of Melbourne where there are a great number of people who have been granted asylum by this country. I met a gentleman from Kenya last week who had left home in South Sudan at nine years old and spent years before he went to another part of Africa and then came to Australia. His story was sad but at the same time uplifting because he knew he had been given an opportunity in our nation. One of his concerns was that the services we are offering, because of the strain on our policies because of the failures of this government, are not where they were years ago, that people arriving now are not getting the same support as he did when he arrived under the previous government. I am concerned that raising the quota without a full analysis of what we are doing to support those who are being resettled here will not do justice to us or to the services we wish to provide those people with.
Many of my colleagues wish to speak, so I will not take up much of the Senate's time other than to say that we hope this policy works. I fear that it may not, but it is true to say that the policies of the previous government worked and we know that we need to stop this trade in people coming to our borders.
It is with a heavy heart that I rise to speak on the migration bill today. In my short time here this parliament has achieved some great things. Today would have to be the lowest day, and it deeply saddens me to be standing here as this parliament goes back to John Howard's evil, cruel and ineffective refugee laws.
The Greens had an alternate solution—one that would work, one that was legal and one that had humanity at its heart. The government had a choice. It could have worked with the Greens to implement the ways to discourage asylum seekers from getting onto risky, leaky boats by giving them other, safer options. But they made a choice to bargain with the coalition and to bring back the Pacific Solution. And, while they have said they will adopt the aspects of the Greens' plan which the Houston report endorsed, where is the progress on those fronts? We just have this unseemly haste to force people out of sight, out of mind, onto Nauru and Manus Island to indefinite detention.
I heard today and yesterday some members of the opposition call asylum seekers 'illegal arrivals', and obviously we hear that quite a bit. It really aggravates me. It is not illegal to seek asylum. These desperate people are completely within their legal rights to seek our help. It is Australia that is shirking our obligations to deal with them fairly and to uphold their human rights.
There has also been a lot of talk about push and pull factors and a solution to this intractable problem. Sadly, there is no solution. We will always have asylum seekers. Wherever there is war, conflict or persecution on religious grounds, people will be moved to flee their homes, their countries and everything they know to seek safety for themselves and their families. Deterrence will not work unless the circumstances they are met with are just as heinous, destructive and life threatening as the circumstances they are fleeing from. Australia would have to be as inhumane as the Taliban for asylum seekers to be deterred from seeking a better and safer life here.
I want to quote from the submission by the University of New South Wales Gilbert + Tobin Centre for Public Law to the expert panel:
All that deterrence strategies can achieve is to divert asylum seekers into equally irregular, equally risky routes to other countries in which protection may be found or to trap them in places where they receive little or no protection. We are unlikely through such means to spare asylum seekers from unnecessary suffering and premature death. We will simply spare ourselves from having to witness that suffering and death.
We saw with the last time we had the spuriously named Pacific Solution based on the tenet of deterrence that it simply did not work. Boats still sank after we opened Nauru. Three hundred and fifty-three women and children died on the SIEV X after we opened Nauru. Desperate people will keep seeking our help because they feel they have no other option to save the lives of their families and to give their children a chance at a better life.
The Refugee Council of Australia share this view. They say in their submission to the expert panel that 'a resumption of removing asylum seekers to Nauru would be virtually valueless as a deterrent'. In their submission to the Senate committee, the Refugee Council elaborate on this. They say:
Under the offshore processing arrangements in place under the Pacific Solution, access to legal advice was extremely limited and the credibility of refugee status determination procedures was highly questionable. Many asylum seekers whose claims for protection were rejected under offshore status determination processes experienced persecution or serious threats to their safety and security after returning to their countries of origin. As many as 20 of them are believed to have been killed … Asylum seekers affected by the Pacific Solution were detained in remote facilities for often lengthy periods (up to six years in some cases), to the serious detriment of their health, particularly mental health, and general wellbeing. Throughout the life of the Pacific Solution, there were multiple incidents of self-harm, 45 detainees engaged in a serious and debilitating hunger strike and dozens suffered from depression or experienced psychotic episodes.
So clearly there were lasting mental health effects that will stay with those people forever. Yet they have no other option. Conditions in transit countries are not safe, and because Australia takes so few people per year from Indonesia and Malaysia it can take years and years for them to be processed and resettled. People live in those processing facilities in limbo. They cannot work, they cannot go to school and they have no entitlement to health care. They are in absolute limbo and sometimes with no prospect of being resettled for 20 years. Of course they get on a leaky boat to try and speed that up. Who could face the mental anguish of that uncertainty and that stultifying, oppressive situation of no work, no home, no school and no hope. So of course they risk their very lives for a chance at certainty, freedom and a new life.
The way we get them not to take that chance on a leaky, dangerous boat journey is to give them another option; it is to give them some hope that they will be processed and resettled more quickly. They do not have to risk their lives on a boat because they do not have to face years and years of debilitating, demoralising, soul destroying limbo. It is to give them a safer pathway.
Australia can afford to lift its refugee intake. We take 1.3 per cent of the world's refugees. It is a miniscule amount. We can do better. The Greens propose increasing our humanitarian intake to 25,000, including 5,000 immediately from Malaysia and Indonesia to ease that inhumane backlog. We need to better resource and have more UNHCR assessment processors so that there are not just two officers as there are in Indonesia assessing asylum applications. We need to resettle more people directly, work with our regional neighbors to care for asylum seekers better and ensure they have legal safeguards protecting their human rights in Malaysia and Indonesia so that people are safe while they wait. This approach has worked in the past, under the Fraser government. I had the pleasure of meeting Mr Fraser earlier this morning and congratulating him on having a heart and some courage.
The Greens welcome those aspects of the Houston report that endorse our approach to increase our intake and better resource UNHCR processing facilities. But why have we seen no movement to implement those aspects? It does not need legislation. Why this unseemly rush, instead, to legislate the Pacific solution before even adopting those other more humane aspects to the response? Now we have indefinite, mandatory detention. The Greens amendment to limit detention in Nauru, Manus Island and Malaysia, if it ever gets up, to 12 months was voted down by both big parties in the House. They have another opportunity to change their minds on that today.
The Greens position is backed by the experts. Amnesty, the Refugee Council and former PM Malcolm Fraser have all written to the PM expressing their concerns about this bill. I want to read into the public record those concerns:
Dear Prime Minister
We are united in our opposition to the Migration Legislation Amendment (Offshore Processing and Other Measures) Bill currently before Parliament. We are also concerned that other legislative changes required to implement the recommendations of the Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers will, if passed, see the Australian Parliament remove legislative safeguards for asylum seekers, reverse previous measures implemented to protect vulnerable people and breach Australia’s international obligations. We oppose any form of offshore processing and policies centred on deterrence and punishing people based on their mode of arrival.
They go on:
We are particularly concerned that implementation of the Expert Panel’s recommendations will:
The Greens share those concern s . I have already outlined what we believe is a much more humane and effective solution.
I now want to take the opportunity to put on record some of the perspectives of an organisation from my home state of Queensland that does some really wonderful and inspirational work with refugees. I want to share their perspectives in this debate as, so far, sadly, there has been far too much demonisation of people who simply want our help. The debate seems to have completely missed this key point—the richness and wealth that comes with being a caring, compassionate society that acts in accordance with international law and that accepts people who come to us when fleeing persecution. I think a greater acknowledgment of this by both sides of politics throughout this ugly debate may have helped us come to a more compassionate outcome than the abomination that is currently before us.
The Multicultural Development Association, MDA, is Queensland's largest settlement agency for migrants and refugees. It was established in May 1998 and it does truly fabulous work in promoting multiculturalism and empowering people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds. MDA settles approximately 1,100 newly arrived refugees annually and it currently works with 3,500 migrants and refugees. Most of MDA's clients are from Africa, Asia and the Middle East.
In their 2011 submission to the Inquiry into Multiculturalism in Australia, MDA shared some great insights into the valuable contributions that migrants and refugees have made in their new communities. I want to share some of these. MDA states:
In MDA's experience many refugees and migrants are motivated to integrate into the Australian community, to adopt and share Australian values and beliefs and are eager to work hard to contribute to and 'give back' to their new country. Many of the clients and communities MDA works with also dedicate considerable time to volunteer activities within their community while maintaining jobs and undertaking study in order to create better lives for their families. Indeed, it is estimated that nearly 30% of people in Australia who were born overseas participate in formal volunteering—the number of informal volunteers is unable to be measured.
… … …
During the 2011 Queensland Floods the strength of Australia’s multiculturalism was demonstrated when, during the flood clean up MDA was inundated with offers from Brisbane refugee communities who were eager to help with the clean up, despite feeling traumatised by the flood event. Over a period of four days, MDA had approximately 120 volunteers from nine refugee communities contribute approximately 780 hours to the clean up process. Refugee communities assisted with all tasks from sweeping out muddy houses to carrying furniture and providing food in their local communities. One local community even held a BBQ sausage sizzle in a nearby park and provided much needed food and drink to over 200 weary local volunteers. For some refugees, being able to help others in the community was a practical way for them to show their support for their local community.
I continue the quote:
MDA received significant positive feedback from members of the community about the efforts of refugee communities. One elderly couple whose business premises was severely impacted by the floods told MDA workers that having scores of refugees helping them clean their premises and being able to talk to them about their experiences had completely changed their perspective and opinions about refugees.
The MDA shared one particular story that I think really demonstrates how much richer our communities are for being welcoming and doing the right, caring thing by people who seek asylum on our shores. I quote:
On Wednesday 19 January 2011, the streets surrounding Milpera State High School's flooded campus at Chelmer, Brisbane were inundated with construction workers, residents and a significant army presence to control the traffic and surrounding areas. Over 20 Rohingyan men (from Burma) arrived to volunteer in the clean-up efforts to prepare the site for the massive construction to take place the following week. Many of the men and youth were at different stages of resettlement and each carried with them different stories from their refugee experience, all touched in some way by the heavy military presence from their time in Burma and in refugee camps in Bangladesh. While there was some trepidation about coming into contact with military personnel, it soon dissipated when our community members were greeted with warm smiles and friendly handshakes from the men and women in uniform. The community worked hard all day, barely stopping for breaks, reporting to their community development worker that they would stay all day if they were needed as they were working by choice as opposed to the forced slave labour they endured back in their home country.
The MDA also brought to the fore the significant economic contribution that our migrant and refugee communities provide to Australia by citing statements by former Acting Race Discrimination Commissioner Tom Calma, who said:
… economically, multiculturalism has also brought significant benefits through creating global economic links and relationships; developing export markets; enhancing creativity and innovation through access to a range of cultural perspectives and diverse skills; introducing new goods and services; and increasing economic growth. Other considerable economic contributions by refugees and migrants are outward remittances to support families and communities in developing countries, which amounted to over US$2.815 billion in 2006 alone, and the establishment of businesses and entrepreneurial initiatives in Australia.
I thank the Multicultural Development Association for helping refugees new to Australia, and to my state of Queensland, feel welcome and at home. Clearly their work is invaluable.
In conclusion, the Greens will not be supporting this bill. In this place we have each searched our conscience. Those of us who are parents are particularly moved by the plight of refugee children. But we simply cannot support a bill that will not work. It will not save people's lives; it will relegate them to horror houses, years in limbo and a lifetime of mental anguish. The thought of children growing up in detention is abhorrent to me, as it should be to everyone in this place. Put yourself in the shoes of those desperate refugees and ask yourself whether you would flee for a better life for you and your family. Of course you would. So let's give these people a safer option, save their lives and show them that we have enough decency, humanity, grace and generosity to welcome them to this most lucky country. And let's show Australians that their representatives have hearts and the courage to make decisions that in years coming we can be proud of.
I will use the limited time available to add my support to the government's Migration Legislation Amendment (Regional Processing and Other Measures) Bill 2012. At last Australia is back on track to restoring the integrity of Australia's border protection and, importantly, removing the incentives for people to risk their lives and the lives of their families by undertaking risky journeys by sea in search of a better beginning. Let me be clear: I wholeheartedly endorse the historical fact that Australians have been willing, over many years, to give sanctuary and hope to those fleeing persecution. Australia's record of providing hope to those seeking asylum is well documented and one that we can be proud of.
I have sympathy for the recommendations in Air Chief Marshal Houston's expert panel report that propose to increase Australia's humanitarian program to 20,000 places per annum and that a minimum of 12,000 places should be allocated for the refugee component, as well as the report's emphasis on asylum seeker flows moving from source countries into South East Asia. But I direct my remarks to the expert panel's recommendations concerning offshore processing at Manus Island in Papua New Guinea and at Nauru.
In 2002, I had the opportunity to visit both Manus Island and Nauru with the then Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs, the member for Berowra, and the then opposition spokesman for immigration, today's Prime Minister. For me the experience was powerful. It was formative in shaping my attitudes to border protection policies. There were some elements I was unable to accept, most particularly the policy at the time to detain women and children. It is a testimony to the government at that time that it was quick to read, respect and respond to the growing community discomfort with the detention of women and children. That same responsiveness has been absent in the government's desire to respond and put in—