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Thursday, 12 December 2002
Page: 10400

Mr PRICE (9:44 PM) —I support the remarks tonight of my colleague the member for Greenway, in his contribution to the House in the debate on the Migration Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2002. I know that the government has responded at long last—and I am pleased to see that the minister is in the House—to the human rights subcommittee's report on detention centres. I must say that I am very pleased to have been a member of that subcommittee. We waited until the Joint Standing Committee on Migration did a review of detention centres, and it brought down a report recommending some structural changes to those centres. I am pleased to say that the Human Rights Subcommittee of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade was the first committee of the parliament to actually speak to detainees without any departmental people or ACM people present, and in camera.

In some ways, that has been a tragic mistake—but let me say why it was done. It was done because we wanted the detainees to be able to speak frankly to the committee without any fear associated with their contributions. A lot of what goes on in detention centres is hidden from the public—on the false proposition that it protects the privacy of detainees—when detainees really want to tell their story. The last thing they want is privacy. If we were doing the inquiry again, I would say that, beginning with our interviews with all the detainees at each of the detention centres, I would give them the choice: keep it totally in camera or, if you do not want it in camera, we will make it public. I can only speculate on what the response might be, but I am pretty sure that the detainees would want it on the public record.

It was a very powerful experience, and I would say that all, whether they were Labor, Liberal or Democrat, were affected deeply by what they saw and heard. It is a matter of record that Minister Ruddock viciously attacked principally the coalition members when they brought down the report for a lack of rigour in what they did. Let me say what we did do. We spoke to the department and we were briefed by the department in camera before we embarked on these visits—the same with ACM. At each detention centre, we were briefed again by the department and ACM and had interviews with the detainees in camera. When we came back, we had eight hours of hearings with both the department and ACM after those visits in camera, just to give them an opportunity to correct the record, to get it right, to set the record straight. In the minister's mind, this is a lack of process and a lack of rigour on behalf of the committee. I think the committee brought down a very good report. As I say, it was viciously attacked by the minister.

I want to address some of the minister's responses. Recommendation 8 states:

That the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation develop an appropriate risk profile to assist the early release into the Australian community of asylum seekers.

The government says it is `confident' about `the existing process'. That is fair enough, but you need to understand that the committee spoke to the Director-General of ASIO. I cannot put before the House the transcript of that discussion—in fact, it was an in camera discussion and only notetakers' notes were taken—but, Minister, rest assured that the committee did not override the Director-General of ASIO in its recommendation. Can I be plainer than that? I guess ministers can override directors, but I would have thought one would do so very reluctantly when it is the head of ASIO. I find your response very dismissive of what was, I think, a very constructive proposal by the committee.

We supported the minister's trial at Woomera. The committee supported it and welcomed it, and it put that in its report. I think it is fair enough to say that there was considerable debate within the committee about whether we should go further than that trial. In the end, we wanted to give credit to the minister for conducting the trial—a very limited trial, I might say, of a number of mothers and their children in a security compound comprising a number of houses. We certainly considered going a lot further. In fact, it is only in recent times that the minister has indicated that he is going to extend this very limited trial. For example, we have built a completely new detention centre at Baxter, and there are no such facilities. The newest detention centre at Baxter does not provide for this trial.

There are a couple of other things I want to say. The committee recommended critically that we should use the 14 weeks as a benchmark, but let me explain that to the House, because, with great respect to the minister, I think he sometimes dissembles on this point. His department—that is, DIMIA—is funded to process these applications within a time line. From memory, at that time it was 14 weeks. The committee never recommended that, if someone was in detention and that time line was exceeded, they be automatically taken out of the detention centre. That has been a fabrication. I want to be perhaps a bit more generous and say: if it is not a fabrication, it has been a gross misunderstanding of what the committee was talking about.

We also talked about negotiating with appropriate community groups to examine the feasibility of developing a sponsorship scheme for detainees who have not been processed within the time limit. Again, the minister uses the Joint Standing Committee on Migration report and an earlier report done in 1994 to bucket this recommendation. But this is the same committee that never spoke to detainees in detention centres on their own. They always had a representative group, departmental officials or ACM officials present.

I find the government's response to recommendation 13 staggering. This recommendation says:

That, wherever possible, blocks within detention centres be designated for the exclusive use of families.

The government's response was:

The IDCs at Perth, Villawood and Maribyrnong all contain designated areas for women, children and family groups.

Minister, you are at the table now. Tell me: when were the family group facilities provided at Perth? We were told by your department and the person you have now promoted to deputy secretary that Perth, because of its tight constraints, is very temporary. We were told that if women go there, they are moved out quickly. We were told that families are not kept at Perth. Perth is so small, Madam Deputy Speaker; I invite you to go and have a look at it. It is very constrained. I am sure the shadow minister would agree with me that the facilities there are very, very constricting.

I am surprised, in a way, that we are debating this bill and the shadow minister's amendments, which address the issue of children in detention centres, so close to one of the holiest of Christian holy days. Forgive me, I am not being born again, but I would like to read a quote from Matthew about the flight into Egypt and the massacre of the innocents:

After they had left, the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, `Get up and take the child and his mother with you and escape into Egypt, and stay there until I tell you, because Herod intends to search for the child and do away with him.' So Joseph got up and, taking the child and his mother with him, left that night for Egypt, where he stayed until Herod was dead.

In other words, the holy family were refugees. They were refugees from the massacre of all male Jewish children two years and younger in the vicinity of Bethlehem. If they had come to Australia rather than Egypt, the best we would have done at Woomera would have been to put Mary and Jesus in a secure compound and leave Joseph in a detention centre. If Jesus was unaccompanied—the minister, I know, has made some recent announcements about this—and a tad older, I would suggest that the conditions would not be pleasant. I guess the Labor Party, to paraphrase Moses, is saying: let the children go. Let the children out of the detention centres.

I do not want to single out for condemnation a colleague, the member for Cook, who came along on the detention centres visit, but he was the one on the committee—not unexpectedly, because he is a trained psychologist—who was really concerned about the mental health impacts on kids of being in detention centres.

I know that at the end of the report there was all this lovely guff from the department. As the former member for Throsby would say, `These detention centres are like Butlins holiday camps in the desert'. Everyone is playing basketball or cricket or at a sewing machine or a computer. I can honestly tell you that, at every detention centre I visited, I did not see one person engaged in any game. You could say that maybe that was just bad luck, but how do you play soccer at Woomera on the broken ground?

The other issue that was of great concern to committee members—and I pay tribute to Senator Harradine here too because it was a point that he pursued vigorously—was the education of the kids in the detention centres. Those managing the centres said, `Yes, we follow a state curriculum.' Now if we say about a public school or a Catholic school that they follow a state curriculum, what does that mean? It means that there are certain hours by way of compulsory attendance, that a curriculum is followed and that progress is made and monitored. It is true that there are teachers at these detention centres, and even at Baxter. But the notion that somehow the children there are happily progressing along the South Australia curriculum is utterly fictitious. I do not know how the department can serve up such drivel.

I have another point to make. I accept that the Mayor of Port Augusta has not made life easy and I do not support her comments, but if you are opening the newest detention centre in Australia, would you not think that you would have a memorandum of understanding with the South Australia government so that these kids could go to a public school or a Catholic school and at least get out of the detention centre? How cruel it is to have some children who were in Curtin go to a public school there and then, when you send them to Baxter, not allow them out.

I want to say a couple of things about Baxter. Baxter is an utter contradiction, and it is a contradiction for these reasons. If you look at the facilities that detainees have, the ones at Baxter are a lot better without a doubt than those in other detention centres, and I would not want to quibble in that regard. But there is a certain cruelty that has been designed into Baxter. By the way, I might say that we had a new DIMIA manager when we were there. He was very helpful and very polite—I am not being critical—but he was only three days on the job when we were there, and the ACM manager was only a week on the job. I wonder why those two people were changed at about the time the Human Rights Subcommittee were to visit them. That is mere speculation, I want to say. I am merely speculating.

But why is Baxter designed in cruelty? At some of the other detention centres, detainees are able to mix. The people at Baxter have been in detention centres for many months and in some cases years. Where they were mixing at other detention centres, now they are at Baxter where there are nine compounds and they do not get to mix; at compound one, you know the people in compound one. Also, the compound is turned in on itself. Just in case they should wish to look at the Baxter mountain escarpment—and there is that opportunity—the government have installed frosted glass windows. These are not big windows. They are—how would I describe them?—relatively small rectangular things, but there is an opportunity to see out.

Mr Ruddock —Bathroom windows.

Mr PRICE —Well, why is it that no-one can see out?

Mr Ruddock —Bathroom windows aren't meant to let people look in either.

Mr PRICE —But why design a facility where you cannot see out of the compound? Go through the gates at Baxter. They are a double set of gates where one gate has to close before another can open. I take an interest in defence matters, and I think these gates would certainly stop a Bushranger, an ASLAV. I am not so sure about a tank, but I think the posts would give it a good work over. The compound is thoroughly depressing, Minister, and I think you are better than that. I think you can do a lot better than that.

The minister says in his response that there is any amount of scrutiny of detention centres. He fails to understand that many of the problems and criticisms of detention centres come from a lack of scrutiny. We argued for an official visitor program; he rejects it. He says there is an ombudsman and HREOC—of course, the government have cut their funding—and, yes, they are available to do it. I am pleased that in our new Labor policy we have an inspector-general of detention centres who can do his or her own motion inquiries, he can do an inquiry on behalf of the minister and he can respond to complaints. Yes, it is another level of scrutiny and another level of administration, but I think, in the end, it is worth while.

There are lots of things I would have liked to say about the policy associated with the Labor Party now and our shadow minister. I just want to say that, in relation to the green card, the minister has never prosecuted one employer for employing an illegal migrant. You have not prosecuted one in all the years. You will send the illegal worker back to their country of origin—as you should—but you let the one who profits most, the one who exploits these workers, walk free and hide, and our green card is going to fix that. Our green card will target the employers who exploit this labour, and it will ensure that they get their fair measure of justice for their illegal activity, as well as the illegal worker who you now send back. I support the policy enunciated by the Labor Party on these issues. (Time expired)