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Thursday, 14 March 2002
Page: 1316

Ms GILLARD (11:04 AM) —We all know this is not the start to the parliamentary year that this government wanted to have. What has happened since parliament resumed? The parliament of course has been dealing with the `children overboard' affair, where we know that no children ever went overboard but the truth very quickly did. This parliament has also been dealing with the Treasurer's casino—Costello's casino—where the government managed to lose, through lack of competence, $4.8 billion. And then of course there has been the Michael Wooldridge fiasco, with government money being used—

Mr Lindsay —I raise a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Under standing order 81, I ask that the member be brought back to the matter of substance in the bill.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. I.R. Causley)—I think she was just starting off the speech. There is no point of order.

Ms GILLARD —It is all on a theme—a theme we see with the Wooldridge matter, with the losses of $4.8 billion, with the `children overboard' affair, and with what we have seen this week, which is the start of the unravelling of the so-called Pacific solution. The theme of all of these matters that are besetting the government is a problem of competence and a problem of honesty.

Firstly, I turn to the problem of competence in relation to the Migration Legislation Amendment (Transitional Movement) Bill 2002. The member for Herbert, who spoke before me, obviously has the government's rhetoric on asylum seekers down pat. Unfortunately, I do not think he troubled himself to read the legislation, because, if he had, he would understand that this bill has been required to patch up legislation that the government moved last year.

We have asylum seekers under the so-called Pacific solution on Manus Island and on Nauru. They fall, for legal purposes, into two classes: those referred to under current legislation as `offshore entry persons', and those not caught within that definition. One might wonder what the difference is. An `offshore entry person' is a person who touched Ashmore Reef or Christmas Island after they were excised from the migration zone. For that category of person, the current legislation provides that, if they were brought to Australia for any purpose—whether it be a medical evacuation, whether it be because they were required to give evidence in people-smuggling trials, whether it be for any other purpose—they would be barred from making an onshore Australian protection claim.

Then there is another set of asylum seekers, and they are `persons who were intercepted at sea'. They never touched Ashmore Reef; they never touched Christmas Island. The most celebrated of those in the media are the persons who were on the Tampa, but there have been a number of other `at sea' intercepts. The simple reason we have this bill is that when the government drafted and brought before the parliament late last year its package of legislation in relation to asylum seekers, it forgot to deal with this class of person—the class of person who was intercepted at sea, the class of person who does not fall within the definition of being an `offshore entry person' and, consequently, the class of person who, if they were brought to Australia, would be able to make an onshore protection claim.

So we are dealing with this legislation to patch, put a bandaid on, the so-called Pacific solution. The government would not have required this patch or bandaid if they had dealt with the matter appropriately in the first instance, but they failed to. Why did they fail to? We all know, and the Labor Party has consistently said, that the so-called Pacific solution was more about getting a solution to get the government through to election day, and for however long they could sustain it beyond election day, rather than being a comprehensive long-term solution to the issue of asylum seekers. The fact that it was conceived in haste, that it was implemented in haste and that its primary purpose was for electoral advantage rather than being an appropriate and proper public policy instrument in dealing with the question of asylum seekers is now very clearly starting to show.

We have seen two things this week with the unravelling of the so-called Pacific solution, and the member for Herbert clearly has not understood the significance of these. The first of them is the government's announcement to construct a 1,200-person detention facility on Christmas Island. I put the quite simple proposition that, if the so-called Pacific solution is working—if the so-called Pacific solution is deterring further arrivals—why would one be building a 1,200-person detention facility? Unless the government has simply taken leave of its senses and decided to start constructing buildings which will be perpetually empty, one would have to assume that it is engaging in this construction project because it expects further arrivals. So the so-called Pacific solution, on the government's own plans, is not working—it is not deterring further arrivals—and the government is making provision for significant numbers of further arrivals.

Then we have this legislation which makes crystal clear another part of the unravelling of the so-called Pacific solution. The public imagery that the government has always used in relation to the so-called Pacific solution is that these asylum seekers would never, under any circumstances, set foot on Australian soil. That has been what the government has always claimed—that has been its whole imagery. The government engaged in the so-called Pacific solution because it was going to be tough on the question of who came to Australia and it was going to keep asylum seekers off Australian soil and put them on Manus Island and Nauru.

We know from the time of the Tampa—and let us remember that this legislation actually applies directly to the people who were on the Tampa—that the Prime Minister was very clear about this question. Let me refer at this point to a story that was carried in the Weekend Australian around the time of the Tampa crisis. It was headed `PM weighs his anger in stormy seas'—using what I think, from looking at these headlines, was probably a little bit of a mixed metaphor. In any event, the first two paragraphs of this article say:

John Howard strode into The Australian's Parliament House office late on Wednesday night, bristling with nervous energy. “That boat will NEVER land in our waters—NEVER,” he emphatically told a small group of reporters.

The politician—whose career is a testament to his stubbornness—

and, I might insert at this point, not much else—

appeared to be operating on pure adrenalin at the end of one of the most dramatic days of his prime ministership. Howard's eyes bulged, his face reddened and he shifted restlessly as he spoke.

All of us, I think, would be quite grateful that we were not there witnessing this incident.

Mr Crean —What a sight!

Ms GILLARD —What a sight—and one can only pity the group of reporters that was subjected to this display. But this was the imagery: we will keep these people away from Australia. The Prime Minister was so excited about it that he reddened and his eyes bulged. He was always going to keep these people away from Australia.

Of course, this was not the only statement that he had ever made on the question. He was asked by presenter Neil Mitchell on radio 3AW:

Is there any circumstance under which you would allow them to land in Australia?

The Prime Minister responded:

Our position is that they should not be allowed to land in Australia.

And on and on it goes.

Mr Danby —Never, ever.

Ms GILLARD —Yes, I am reminded by my colleague that when the Prime Minister makes a promise, like the `never, ever' promise, then the most likely outcome, as the Australian people know, is that the complete reverse is about to happen. What we know from this legislation before the House is that, true to form, when the Prime Minister is out there saying that over his dead body will asylum seekers off the Tampa gain access to Australian soil, more likely than not the complete reverse is about to happen. This bill tells us that the government wants legislative authority to allow the complete reverse to happen. This bill is legislative authority for the government to bring the Tampa asylum seekers, and other asylum seekers who are intercepted at sea, onshore.

I started my parliamentary contribution on this bill by saying that the theme of the last two weeks has been one of incompetence and deceit. As I indicated earlier, the government could have dealt with these matters at the end of last year. Can I now say that, if they are going to deal with these matters now, they should make it perfectly clear that they are doing this because they are intending to breach the promises they made to the Australian community that these asylum seekers would never come to Australia. Of course, the Australian people are capable of weighing the worth of the word of a Prime Minister who gives assurances of this nature and then seeks legislative authority to breach those assurances.

I now come to what the Labor Party's position is on this bill. I would like to address that in some detail. The Labor Party understands that people who are currently held on Nauru or Manus Island and who fall into the category of not being covered by the current legislation—that is, that they were intercepted at sea and that, currently, if brought to Australia, they could make onshore protection claims—might from time to time require to be medically evacuated to Australia. As we understand it, that has happened on at least one occasion from Nauru, and on that occasion the government engaged in a fiction of giving that person a special entry permit that was timed to expire at midnight on the day they arrived. They entered Australia lawfully so that the department could not be accused of people-smuggling, but as at midnight that night they were in Australia unlawfully so that they could not make an onshore protection claim. Presumably, there were some farcical arrangements about keeping the asylum seeker in question incommunicado for the period up until midnight so that they could not make an onshore protection claim. One can only speculate what would have happened if the plane had been delayed, landed after midnight and the department of immigration itself had been responsible for unlawfully bringing someone into Australia. That could well have happened. We know, of course, that medical evacuations have occurred under those circumstances.

In relation to this piece of legislation, Labor accepts that there is nothing about the happenstance of being involved in a medical evacuation that ought to affect the substance of someone's legal rights. We understand that legislation is therefore required to prevent someone who is medically evacuated to Australia from making an onshore claim. We take the same view in relation to persons who might be brought to Australia to give evidence during people-smuggling trials. There is nothing about the happenstance of being required to be a witness in a trial of any nature that ought to change the legal position of that asylum seeker in relation to making an onshore protection claim.

Labor accepts that, when processing is fully completed in Nauru and on Manus Island, there will be numbers of people who will be found to be genuine refugees and that some of those genuine refugees will be found long-term homes in third countries—that is, there will be other nations on the planet who will step forward and say they are prepared to accept and look after those genuine refugees in the long term. Labor accepts that, if such persons needed to be transited through Australia on the way to their long-term home, they ought not be able to make an onshore protection claim during that transit. At the end of the day, we understand that the 1951 refugee convention is not about asylum seekers forum shopping as to which developed nation they would like to go to and that, if they have a place where they are going to be safe and secure, they ought not be able to make an onshore claim in transit to that place.

Then we come to the category of persons who are found not to be genuine refugees. Labor understands that, and has always understood it. In government Labor implemented a system whereby such persons were removed from Australia, either to their country of origin or to a third country in which they had a right to live. Labor has always understood that. The way in which the government occasionally tries to characterise us as not understanding and not being prepared to implement such a policy is really all about electoral misrepresentation and nothing about the truth. We accept that people who do not pass the test of being a genuine refugee need to be removed.

We all know that in some circumstances removals happen quickly, and in some circumstances they are very difficult. In the positive suggestions that are contained in our second reading amendment we are saying that, if such persons who are not genuine refugees were brought back to Australia and held in Australian detention centres pending removal, and if the government is for some reason unable to effect that removal within six months, despite the asylum seeker cooperating with that process—so we are not in the business of saying anybody should be rewarded for non-cooperation—that person should be able to have their claim assessed by the Refugee Review Tribunal. We want to be absolutely clear about this. We do not want the clock started again on the processing. Processing of these asylum seekers has happened in Nauru and in PNG. Some of that processing would have been done by UNHCR and some would have been done by the immigration department. We do not ask for that processing to be done again; rather, we ask that asylum seekers who are in that situation—who are in limited numbers—where the government has not been able to remove them get to complete the processing they would have been entitled to had they come to Australia at the outset; that is, that they go to the Refugee Review Tribunal.

I know that speakers in this debate on the government benches will be up on their feet saying, `Labor wants to engage in endless rounds of appeal; that's the sort of thing that Labor always supports.' I want to make it clear to government members before they make those claims—which, of course, would be completely untrue—that they are completely untrue. We are saying through this amendment that the very limited number of asylum seekers who find themselves in that position—that is, their claims have been rejected, they have been brought into Australian detention and the government has been unable to remove them for a period in excess of six months, despite their cooperation—should get to complete Minister Ruddock's appeals process; that is, the appeals process that he introduced into legislation last year. If government members want to characterise Minister Ruddock's appeals process as one that has a cycle of endless appeals and that is inefficient and incompetent, can I suggest to each of them that they had better have that discussion with Minister Ruddock before they come into this place and make their speeches.

I now come to the second and very important positive initiative in our second reading amendment. We all know that many of the asylum seekers presently in Australia, on Manus Island and in Nauru are persons who come from Afghanistan. Why did they come? Some came because they were fleeing the Taliban; some came because they were fleeing other sources of persecution; many came because the nation was unstable. We know that Afghanistan is involved in a war in which we have fielded troops, a war against terrorism. We know that Afghanistan is the most mined nation on earth. We know that the new government is struggling to stabilise the nation, and we know that there are major infrastructure problems and major problems with food, shelter and meeting peoples' medical needs.

For persons from Afghanistan who are currently in Australia, it means there will be a time when most of them can go home. Some of them will be found to be genuine refugees because they were persecuted for reasons other than the Taliban regime. I am not speaking about that class of person. I am speaking about the people who, although they have been found not to be genuine refugees, cannot return home in the short term because of the situation in Afghanistan but will be able to return home at some point. I am sure all of us in this House would hope that that point is soon, that Afghanistan stabilises quickly—within six to 12 months—so that the people who are there, and the people who return there, can rebuild their lives in safety and peace. That would be the wish of all of us. But, until that happens, we do not believe that the Australian government should engage in forcible returns of people from Afghanistan. We believe that the government should enter a proper, time limited safe haven arrangement for those persons and allow them to remain in Australia for the period of time that it will take their nation to stabilise and to be in a position to receive them.

This is the sort of arrangement that we entered into for the Kosovars, which was an arrangement that was welcomed—indeed, celebrated—by the Australian people. We see no reason why the reception of the Australian people to such an arrangement ought not be the same—that is, it would be welcomed and celebrated. We have indicated in our second reading amendment that we want to work in a bipartisan way with the government in coming weeks to make sure such an arrangement happens. Labor's position on this bill is a principled and positive position. Two major positive initiatives have been put forward in the spirit of genuine bipartisanship. We are saying to the government that it wants this legislation urgently, and we have two good ideas about it that ought to be accepted. (Time expired)