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Tuesday, 2 February 2016
Page: 83

Mr BANDT (Melbourne) (17:08): Our reputation as an open, generous country is at risk. It has been at risk and under pressure for a number of years now, as the old parties have fallen into lockstep on matters to do with how Australia responds when people come here from overseas seeking our help. We see that in practice now, with people and children locked up in island prisons—or prison islands. We see it where kids, including kids born here, are spending their formative years in detention. We are seeing it to the point where children are now—according to one report and one analysis of what is happening in some of the centres—self-harming every couple of weeks.

One refugee advocate told me recently that in a detention centre in Australia there is now a six-month-old baby that the doctors have started referring to as 'the baby that does not smile'; not because the family does not love it, but because the parents themselves are so full of anguish and desperation as result of being locked up—not having committed any crime, but with no way out—that they themselves are suffering from depression and anxiety, as you would expect. Now, as a result, there is a young baby, who is six months old—probably closer to about seven or eight months, now—who is known as 'the baby that does not smile' because it is not getting its parents smiling at it and so the kid is not smiling back. That is what we are doing to children now. As someone who is the extraordinarily proud father of a seven-month-old, I live for those moments when my child smiles at me, and to think that our system is breaking children—and that that is a deliberate intent of it, because it is put there as a deterrent measure—is something that shames us.

I know that there will be debates and that there will continue to be debates about how best to deal with people coming in from overseas seeking our help, but I refuse to believe that the only choice is between child abuse and what the government says, which is letting people die at sea. There has to be a better way than what we are doing at the moment. When people are coming here seeking our help—including kids who have done nothing wrong other than, perhaps, be part of a family that is fleeing violence or fleeing war, including in many instances those wars where we, as Australians, send our troops overseas to fight—instead of the government turning its mind towards asking, 'What would be a better way?', it does not ask that question. The government does not ask: 'How could we look after children and families who just want to come and seek a better life and flee from persecution?' The government says the opposite. This government says: 'How can we make the situation in Australia so bad that it is almost as bad as the conditions that people have been fleeing?' The government says: 'How we can get to the point where people say, "I do not want to go to Australia, because they will lock you up," or, "because they will send you back into harm's way," so that they never make the journey in the first place?'

We have seen it with refugees. We have seen the approach that this government and the previous government have taken, which is breaking people's lives. We are now seeing it with another category of protection that is offered to people who come here called complementary protection—and that is what the Migration Amendment (Complementary Protection and Other Measures) Bill 2015 is about. It has been known for many, many years and it is recognised in international law that there are people who will come here who might not fit the strict definition of a refugee but who meet other tests and other obligations that Australia has signed up to, such as: they may be arbitrarily killed, have the death penalty carried out on them, be subject to torture, be subject to cruel or inhumane treatment or punishment, or degrading treatment or punishment. Some examples of that include things like honour killings against women or female genital mutilation, or perhaps exposure to some kind of genocide that is happening in other parts of the world—the kinds of acts that we would all condemn. What our laws have said is that someone who might not be a refugee but who could well be killed or could well be tortured or harmed physically if we send them back is someone that we can accept here, because that is what we have signed up to, voluntarily.

What is the government's approach? The government's approach is to time and time again say, 'We want to take that category of protection away or at least render it meaningless.' Firstly, they came in here and tried to repeal these complementary protection provisions and then they came in here and said: 'We recognise that is not going to get through parliament, so we have another idea. How about we make it so that everyone who is coming here has to prove that it is more likely than not that they are going to suffer a risk of torture?' So, if it is 51-49—if there is a 49 per cent chance that they might suffer risk—well, that is acceptable for us and we will send them back. They were sent packing on that. So now they have come back with this bill, which is going to make it nigh on impossible for someone who genuinely wants to claim complementary protection to do so in many of the instances in which they would have been let in here before.

The government is going to make it so that, under this bill, there is a new provision where they have to show that there is a particular risk that they will personally face and that they are at greater risk of that kind of persecution than others in the rest of the population. What does that mean? As one eminent professor, Jane McAdam, said:

At its most extreme, it could be argued that this provision would permit return—

so you could send someone back—

even where a whole country were at risk of genocide, starvation or indiscriminate violence, which would run contrary to the fundamental aims and principles of human rights law.

In other words: if you are coming here seeking help and you cannot prove it is just you that the government is after in your home country—if there is a whole swathe of people who are facing the risk of genocide or torture and not just you—and you cannot prove that you are at greater risk than others around you, you cannot come into Australia. That is what the government wants to say.

The government go further. They say: 'Not only that, but you have to prove to us that everywhere else in your country has exactly the same level of risk facing you and the others.' Just think for a moment about what that means in practicality. The test until now has been: is there a place nearby or somewhere else in your area that you could go to get away from the persecution? If so, you have to do that first. Many people would say that is fair enough. But now, the person who is seeking help has to prove that everywhere else in the country that they come from has the same risk and it is affecting them in a way that it does not affect others.

Think about anyone in Australia at the moment. What knowledge do each of us have about the specifics of what is happening on the other side of the country at any given moment in time? How could we talk specifically about what the weather is like in another part of the country, let alone what the political conditions are like there and what life is like on an everyday basis? That is what we are asking of someone who is coming here seeking our help. They may be fleeing, they may not be educated and they may just want to live a safer life. We are now saying: 'Firstly, you have to prove it is you in particular that they are after and not, perhaps, all the people in your race in that country; it has to be something about you. Secondly, you have to prove to us that everywhere else in the country is exactly the same for you.' That has been roundly condemned as an attempt by Australia to get out of the obligations that we voluntarily signed up to. That is exactly what it is. That is exactly why this bill should not pass.

The government is going out of its way to make Australia's detention centres, its detention system and its migration system as bad as the places that people are fleeing from so that they will choose not to flee in the first place. That is what this is about. It is about creating Fortress Australia and creating a mean Australia so that people will not choose to come here in the first place. That makes us weaker, because we should be celebrating the fact that Australia is a land of hope for people, that Australia is a beacon of democracy, freedom and stability, and that that is why people who do not enjoy those things want to come here. Instead, we are saying, 'No, we'll do the opposite. We'll create these little places around the country that are just as bad as the place that you're fleeing so that you won't want to come here in the first place.' That diminishes all of us. There must be a better way. It stands in stark contrast to what the government is happy to do for business and people who have money. If you are a big international investor, you can come to Australia and buy up parts of the country. If you have a big project that you want to have here, you can bring in heaps of people from overseas to work here at lower than Australian wages and we will not even assess you or test you anymore as a result of legislation that passed the parliament a little while ago under our free trade agreement. Move across borders as much as you like if it is about making money and if it is about exploiting people, but, when it is about people coming here seeking help, we are going to shut the door on you.

This is one of the first tests that the Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, is going to face: whether there is any real difference in substance between the hairy-chested approach taken by his predecessor, Tony Abbott, on the question of compassion for refugees or whether it is exactly the same policy dressed up a bit differently. It is disappointing in that respect that one of the first cabs off the rank is to introduce a bill that is going to make it harder for people who are at risk of torture or women who might be facing honour killings to come here and seek our help. There will be some other tests coming in the next couple of days. There will be some other tests coming when the Prime Minister has to decide what he is going to do with the 37 or 38 babies that were born here and what he is going to do with the kids who are going to school here in Australia and are just part of families who want to seek a better life—whether he is going to send them back to Nauru. The tests are coming as to whether the Prime Minister has the courage to say Australia is an open and generous place.

There is a better way. There is a much better way than saying, 'Let's make Australia or parts of Australia as bad as the places people were fleeing.' No-one who is paying attention to this issue would think there are simple solutions. Of course there are not. Of course it is complicated. There are many reasons why people move around the world. We have to think about many things when we think about how to best deal with it. But to suggest that we are just going to close the door is the wrong way of going about it.

When we look around our region, we see that we are one of the rich countries in our region, we see that there are countries on our doorstep that are bearing a much bigger proportion of the refugee movement around the world than we are, and we see people languishing in camps in places like Indonesia and Malaysia. There are all the crocodile tears that are being cried by some members of the government over deaths at sea and wanting to stop them. The reason so many people jump on a boat from those centres and come here is that they have lost hope and they think Australia is not taking people anymore. Along comes a people smuggler who says, 'Give us a bit of money and I will stick you on a boat,' and they do it. I would probably do it if I were stuck in a camp as a genuine refugee for five or 10 years and felt there was no other way out. This is increasing the desperation that those people are going to feel. This is going to increase the desperation that people around the world feel when they are trying to find a better place to live. This kind of approach is not going to stop deaths at sea; it is just going to make those deaths happen somewhere else. This kind of approach is not about giving people a better life—it is about making Australia a meaner place.

I hope that the government will have a rethink in this an election year and decide to take a break from the usual election-year politics of beating up on refugees, beating up on people whose skin colour is not white and who just want to come here to seek a better life. I hope we will take a break from that, and I hope that the politics of refugees does not become an election issue in the same way that it has in the past. I hope we will break from this approach, stop proposing bills like this one that make Australia a meaner place, and instead consider what we can practically do to put in place solutions where we can take a fairer share of the burden, stop closing our door, admit we cannot have everyone coming here but work out what the happy medium is, and put in place a system that gives people hope, stops people risking their lives at sea and makes sure that we have an Australia we can all be proud of.