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Monday, 25 November 1996
Page: 5937


Senator McKIERNAN(6.27 p.m.) —I rise to join in this debate on the Social Security Legislation Amendment (Newly Arrived Resident's Waiting Periods and Other Measures) Bill 1996 with a great deal of sadness—sadness about what the contents of the bill reflect and, more importantly, about what is happening in the wider community. I am referring, of course, to the debate on racism, which is a debate we should not be having. Australia should not be having this debate at the moment. If we had a strong Prime Minister in this country, I am sure we would not be having the debate that we are having.

The previous speakers—particularly Senator Brown and Senator Woodley—referred to the debate. Senator Brown, in fact, named Ms Hanson, a member in the other place. I, as other senators have done, have disassociated myself from the remarks that are attributed to that honourable member. Indeed, I condemn many of the remarks that she has made. I will not go so far here now as to condemn others who are not taking the same position as me in this matter—others with the responsibility to come out and condemn. But I hope that the message will filter through to the office of the Prime Minister (Mr Howard) that he is the political leader of this country and that he should exercise some leadership in this. That is a faint hope.

We—the Labor members of the Senate Legal and Constitutional Legislation Committee—reflected on matters such as this in our minority report, which was presented to the parliament in September this year. In the opening comments of that minority report we drew attention to what had been a sustained attack on migrants to Australia and their families by this government in the short period of time that this government had been in office. We drew attention to the fact that the Office of Multicultural Affairs, which was formerly an integral part of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, had been effectively abolished. We noted that the Bureau of Immigration and Population Research had been abolished. Everybody—even those on the government side, I think—recognised the invaluable contribution that those bodies had made to the exercise of government policies and to the community as a whole with high quality research and policy advice on areas affecting new migrants. In our minority report we drew attention to the fact that services had been cut. We drew attention to the fact that resources under the SIP English language programs had been halved for 1996-97 and were to be abolished next year. We drew attention to cutbacks in labour market programs. Charges to the adult migration education programs are proposed to increase by over 200 per cent. So what we have seen today is not something that is happening in isolation. It is, indeed, as our opening remarks drew attention to, a sustained attack on migrants and their families. What is really bad is that it is happening in an environment which was caused by comments by a member of the other place whose comments remain on the record. They have not been repudiated by the Prime Minister of this country.

In this place I have previously spoken about and drawn attention to many newspaper articles of condemnation of the Prime Minister for not taking a stronger line on the Hanson affair. I am not going to repeat them all here today, but I am going to draw attention to an article that appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald just two days ago, on Saturday 23 November 1996, headed, `Letter comes back to haunt Howard'. I quote from the beginning of the article:

The Prime Minister's role in the debate over race and immigration is likely to flare again after a letter surfaced showing his strong support for policies of assimilation and integration.

The letter, obtained by the Nine Network and aired last night, has Mr Howard writing to a constituent in May 1991 expressing his personal opposition to multiculturalism.

"My own view on this issue is that Australia made an error in abandoning its former policy of encouraging assimilation and integration in favour of multiculturalism," Mr Howard wrote.

"I do not mind where immigrants come from. However, once in Australia, the goal must surely be to establish a completely cohesive integrated society and not encourage separatism."

The article goes on:

Multiculturalism, a policy originally developed by the Fraser Government, acknowledges the right of all Australians to express and share their cultural heritage, while assimilation places a much stronger onus on migrants to blend into society.

The letter was written when Mr Howard was a frontbencher in the Hewson-led Opposition and after the 1988 furore sparked by his comments about the need to slow Asian immigration in the interests of social cohesion.

When he reclaimed the Opposition leadership, Mr Howard admitted he had erred in making the comments, describing them as "wrong" and "clumsy". But doubts have remained about his commitment to multiculturalism.

While the Coalition criticised the Keating Government's approach to multiculturalism, it remained a part of the Coalition's platform for the 1996 election. However, the Howard-led Government has dismantled the Office of Multicultural Affairs, reducing it to a small branch within the Department of Immigration.

Mr Howard also opposed the use of the term multiculturalism in the joint resolution passed by the Parliament last month deploring racism.

The appearance of the letter will add to Mr Howard's problems on the eve of his attendance at the APEC summit in Manila.

A spokesman for Mr Howard declined to comment on the letter last night, saying he could not contact the Prime Minister as he was en route to Manila.

It is unfortunate that we have to be debating and drawing reference to these matters whilst those important talks are taking place in Manila—important for each and every Australian. But we should not have our neighbours being given the opportunity to further criticise Australia on the matter of race. Indeed we know that many of our neighbouring countries are very upset about what has been happening of recent time in this country.

I want to come back to the bill, to the report of the Senate Legal and Constitutional Legislation Committee and to recognise the presence in the chamber of Senator Ellison, the chair of that committee, and Senator Abetz. They will recall that I expressed my pleasant surprise with the recommendations that the majority of the committee brought into the committee when we were deliberating on the report. Their actions in adopting some of the recommendations given to the committee in the various public hearings that were conducted and the submissions that the committee received during the inquiry are an indication—if one was needed, and I am not sure it is—of the good work that committees can engage in and can undertake on behalf of the parliament.

I think there is physical evidence of that good work now in the sense that some of the concerns that were raised to the committee in the public hearings were listened to by the majority of the committee and indeed were then in turn listened to by the minister after the majority report was tabled in the parliament. But, unfortunately, as usual the considerations do not go far enough. The majority has not yet explained the breach of election commitments that the government has engaged in with this bill.

Prior to the 1996 election there was a six-month waiting period for the jobsearch allowance, the newstart allowance, the youth training allowance, the parenting allowance, the sickness allowance and the witness allow ance. The government indicated in the election campaign that they would extend the six-month waiting period to two years. But the government have extended it way beyond the six or seven areas where the six-month waiting period applied. They extended it to the carers pension, the child disability allowance, the disability wage supplement, the double orphan allowance, the family payment, the guardian allowance, the health care card and a whole range of other benefits which were never mentioned by the coalition in the election campaign. They were not part of the shonky promises that were made to the community in the election campaign of February-March this year.

The Australian Democrats and I think Senator Brown pleaded with the opposition, with the Labor Party, to join them in total opposition to the bill. We will not be doing that. We will be sticking with the recommendations that we have put in the minority report. We will not be breaching one of the commitments we gave in the election campaign and indeed the legislation that we brought into this place in 1992 which put in place the six-month waiting period that applied from 1 January 1993.

Briefly, in the debates within Labor Party caucus and the caucus committees the support for these measures was not unanimous. Nonetheless, at the end of the day the numbers were there within the party to bring in those provisions. Senators on the other side of the chamber, as we were then, supported the legislation to impose this six-month waiting period. It would be hypocritical of me to stand aside from the votes in which I participated in 1992 in relation to this matter, so I will stick with the principled position that we adopted. We will seek to hold, by way of the amendments we intend to move and the way we will vote on government amendments, the government to the promises and commitments that they made at election time.

I mentioned in passing the shonky figures. In a coalition statement issued before the budget, the now government said they were going to save $616 million as a consequence of extending the six-month waiting period to two years. The committee, in its deliberations in June this year, was given different information. We were told, for example, in the explanatory memorandum that accompanied the bill—there are details of this on page 9 of the majority report—that in the year 1996-97 the provisions would save $31.4 million; in 1997-98, $143.5 million; and, in 1998-1999, $185 million. That totals $360.5 million—quite a distance from the $616 million that was promised in the `Meeting our Commitments' statement.

The budget statement came up with another figure. I will not go through the amounts for the individual years, but the total was $520.2 million. I note that, in the list of government amendments that have been circulated, the additional measures that the majority of the committee has been able to make the government accept cut those savings by some half a million dollars in each of the next two years. I do not believe that is good enough.

I endorse the comments of Senator Bolkus, who led the debate for this side, on the Racial Discrimination Act and the fact that we would like to ensure, by way of an amendment we seek to move to this bill, that nothing we do to this bill this afternoon or tomorrow will in any way contravene the provisions of the Racial Discrimination Act. We are seeking to move an amendment in that light.

We listened carefully to the evidence presented to us by the Racial Discrimination Commissioner, Ms Zita Antonios, who provided us with evidence, I think in Sydney. We also noted, and drew attention to on page 5 of the minority report, the prevarication, if you like, of the Attorney-General's Department when they were questioned on what the Racial Discrimination Commissioner said. We would like to put this matter beyond doubt. Even if the racial discrimination debate was not currently taking place in our community, I think there is an obligation on the parliament, on this Senate, to carry that amendment when it is put to us.

In conclusion, Mr Acting Deputy President, I again draw attention to the minority report that we submitted in September this year. I have not dealt with each and every matter in the minority report; it runs to some 16 pages. I commend it to the parliament. One area that was not properly addressed in this speech was how the provisions of this bill, if enacted, will discriminate against individuals. In one of the appendices that we attached to our minority report, we provided information on currency restrictions that various countries impose on their nationals as they leave.

People leaving the United Kingdom have no restrictions on the amount of currency that they can bring with them. However, the most a person coming from Vietnam can bring with them is $US5,000. All a person can take from the Philippines is 5,000 pesos, which, at the time we were preparing the report, amounted to $A243. Other provisions worth mentioning concern India, the People's Republic of China, South Africa and Iraq. I dare say that, had we more time, we could have looked at a number of other countries.

Clearly, these provisions are discriminatory. As a nation, we cannot address what the Philippines determine that their nationals should take out of the country, but we do have to be aware that these restrictions are in place and that a migrant coming from the Philippines, China or Vietnam should have the same rights of settlement in Australia as a person coming from the United Kingdom or, indeed, the Republic of Ireland. It is going to be a fairly arduous committee stage debate on this matter. It is something that I look forward to, although I would have preferred that it happen in a different environment than the one that currently exists in our community.