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Wednesday, 19 March 2003
Page: 12973

Ms GILLARD (6:56 PM) —During this debate, the Howard government has made one of its key justifications for going to war the brutal nature of the Saddam Hussein regime. This was a theme of the Prime Minister's address to the National Press Club and his speech in this place yesterday. It was also a theme of Minister Ruddock's speech to this parliament in the debate yesterday and has been alluded to in the contribution immediately before me.

I agree wholeheartedly that Saddam Hussein is a brutal, bloody dictator. As I have said before in this parliament, the world would be a better place if Saddam Hussein had never been born. But I cannot allow to go unremarked the hypocrisy and the double standards that characterise the Howard government's approach to the suffering of the Iraqi people. When these people are in Iraq, about to meet whatever fate one can expect during an intense military conflict, the Howard government is full of the rhetoric of compassion. But when called to deal not with a mass of faceless people but with real individuals, Iraqi asylum seekers who need help, the rhetoric of the Howard government is soon exposed as hollow.

Minister Ruddock said in the House yesterday that of the Iraqi asylum seekers who had refugee claims processed in Australia `ninety-seven per cent were successful in obtaining a protection visa'. The minister put this proudly, as if it verified the Howard government's compassionate approach. But what the minister failed to mention is that over the life of the Howard government, the Refugee Review Tribunal has had a set-aside rate of 81 per cent in relation to departmental decisions about the refugee claims of Iraqis. This means that immigration department officials made incorrect decisions 81 per cent of the time when dealing with Iraqi applications. Given that no-one ever appeals a favourable decision, this means that the department had a culture of rejecting Iraqi claims, and the Refugee Review Tribunal had to deal with these incorrect rejections. This set-aside rate of 81 per cent is one of the highest set-aside rates at the Refugee Review Tribunal. The department has consistently got it wrong and meted out negative decisions to Iraqi asylum seekers when the law required positive decisions.

The truth is that Australia's high acceptance of Iraqi asylum seekers has been achieved despite the Howard government, the minister for immigration and the department he oversees. Yesterday in the House, the minister for immigration referred to the Iraqis who had sought protection as refugees in Australia and failed to obtain it. He said:

Among those who failed—and I think the figure was about 86—we have seen some returns.

He went on to say:

Not one Iraqi has been returned to Iraq by way of government action.

But the truth was exposed in Senate estimates on 11 February this year in an exchange between Senator Sherry and Mr Bill Farmer, the secretary of the department of immigration. The question asked by Senator Sherry was:

How is the department proposing to return them to Iraq? There is no agreement with Iraq, is there?

Mr Farmer replied:

The individuals can return to Iraq under a number of circumstances. They can go to a country like Jordan and cross the border, for example.

This is not the only verification that the government gets people to return to Iraq.

The immigration department has stated its view that it is safe for people from Iraq to return to northern Iraq. This was highlighted by Mr Bill Farmer at Senate estimates and is a view that has been stated in some recent letters of rejection to Iraqi asylum seekers. In fact, an applicant was rejected by the department because the department had the view that the applicant was safe to return to north Iraq. The department deemed that it was safe for this applicant to go to northern Iraq even though this person had never lived there, had no family living there and was not Kurdish. When I say `the department', can we remind ourselves that, under our system of government, this is the department for which the minister is responsible, the department for which the government is responsible.

How can this government say on the one hand that this regime is one of the most brutal, yet this government, as recently as February this year, has had a policy of dropping people in neighbouring countries so that they can find their own way back to Iraq? How can this government talk about torture and human rights abuse in Iraq and say that it is safe to go back to any part of Iraq? This is the height of hypocrisy. In the debate on Iraq yesterday, 18 coalition members spoke on human rights abuses in Iraq and relied on them as a justification for war. To those members I say this: how does it feel to be part of a government that sends people back there?

But the story of hypocrisy does not end there. Many members of this place will have heard the recent disturbing reports of an Iraqi man who was a stowaway on a commercial ship. It seems that, when he came to the attention of the department of immigration in December last year, the officials who interviewed him formed a view that he had not sought to invoke Australia's protection obligations. A stowaway from Iraq was not seeking protection, in their view. What were these officials thinking? Their next course of action was to serve the ship's captain with a notice saying that it was his duty to stop the young man reaching shore or face a $10,000 fine. At one stage a private firm of security guards were hired to prevent him from leaving the ship. It was only when union officials contacted migration lawyers, who then went onto the ship and completed an application for a protection visa, that this man was allowed to remain in Australia while a refugee claim was properly processed. That is right: we are talking here about lodging an application—this man being allowed to have his claims assessed. The department did almost everything it could to stop him from having his claim for refugee status assessed in Australia. Yet in this House yesterday Minister Ruddock told us, `... we have not turned anybody away who required protection'. The truth is that you tried to—the Howard government tried to turn this man away. Let us not forget the Pacific solution. The intent of this whole charade, the so-called Pacific solution, is to turn people away. This government has been hell bent on turning people away. As I speak today, there are currently 106 Iraqi detainees in Nauru and seven Iraqis at Manus Island.

I am sure that Howard government members listening to this speech will be consoling themselves, chanting to themselves, `We might be tough on queue jumpers but we are good to the ones who get in the queue.' Indeed, the Prime Minister verified that perspective this morning on Jon Faine's radio program when he said:

There's no change to our policy and that is that if people seek admission to Australia as a refugee they have to go through the channels ...

Minister Ruddock, in his contribution to this House yesterday, said:

... people should come through the front door and not through the window, and we do not apologise for that.

But the truth is that these comments must be viewed in the light of the fact that this government has not directed any additional resources to the offshore processing posts to open the front door. Already the waiting times for a refugee and special humanitarian visa application lodged in Turkey—one of the closest processing points—is 119 weeks; in Lebanon, the delay is 141 weeks. How do you join this queue? So spare me the hypocrisy in future speeches—the moral cant, the heartfelt pleas of concern for the Iraqi people. Action speaks louder than words.

If the Prime Minister is as concerned as he makes out about the human rights of the Iraqi people he must not only speak about it but be ready for the human tragedy that will, without a doubt, result from the war in which he has engaged Australia. The Prime Minister is seriously out of touch if he believes that Iraqi people will not flee from Iraq as a result of this conflict. We already know from very credible international aid agencies that they are expecting hundreds of thousands to do so. He is also seriously deluded if he thinks Iraqi people will rush to return to a war zone.

How much money will this government put to the task of dealing with this looming human tragedy? To date, it has been a paltry $10 million and none of that has gone to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Is this government's stated commitment to compassion going to turn into real action any time soon? I leave that for government members to answer. I trust in the speeches that follow that, instead of the hypocrisy, we will actually learn about those commitments.