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Thursday, 21 June 2001
Page: 24874

Senator STOTT DESPOJA (Leader of the Australian Democrats) (2:25 PM) —My question is addressed to the minister representing the Prime Minister. What is the minister's response to the comments made today by former Prime Minister Mr Malcolm Fraser, who claimed that the government and the opposition are `behaving as if they are frightened of the rednecks'? That was in relation to the continuing detention of asylum seekers. Does the minister agree with Mr Fraser's comments? Does he agree with the statement by Mr Fraser that a number of very decent Australians have been persuaded that these asylum seekers are queuejumpers and that some of them may be prostitutes, drug traffickers or even terrorists? Will the minister take the opportunity now to reassure the Australian people that this is not the case? Will he repudiate any notion that this government is giving in to so-called redneck influences?

Senator HILL (Minister for the Environment and Heritage) —I have not seen the article attributed to Mr Fraser and, assuming that it has been correctly reported, I do not agree with it. I remind the Senate that Australia's system of mandatory detention for unauthorised arrivals is a consequence of bipartisan support for an orderly migration program that gives us, as Australians, the opportunity to determine which people have a right to remain in this country. Detention by operation of law is designed to ensure that applicants for protection are available while their claims are assessed and to ensure that they remain available for removal from Australia should they prove not to be eligible for the grant of a visa. It is also designed to facilitate identification, health, character and security assessments.

These people are in Australia unlawfully and we have not previously had the opportunity to check their identity and assess their claims. Australia's mandatory detention policy is not punitive, nor is it implemented as a deterrent or a disciplinary measure. Mandatory detention is the result of being in Australia unlawfully, not the seeking of asylum. The majority of asylum seekers have entered Australia with a valid visa and are free in the community while they pursue their claims. Detention of unauthorised arrivals is clearly prescribed in legislation and is subject to full parliamentary scrutiny and accountability. It is also subject to external scrutiny, including by the Commonwealth Ombudsman, HREOC, and the Immigration Detention Advisory Group, and the UNHCR is also given access, on request, to all Australian immigration detention centres.

Under the refugee convention, we are required to admit people who arrive in our territory in an unauthorised fashion where there is a question about them needing protection. Australia does this. We are not, however, required to permit full access to the Australian community until we know who they are and we have undertaken health, character and security checking. The policies reflect Australia's sovereign right under international law to determine which non-citizens may enter the country. Immigration detention in Australia is consistent with UNHCR's detention guidelines and Excom's conclusions on this matter. The United Nations Human Rights Committee has considered Australia's policy of detaining unauthorised arrivals. In the case of A v. Australia and the decision given on 30 April 1997, the UNHCR concluded that the policy did not per se breach the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Senator STOTT DESPOJA —Madam President, I ask a supplementary question. I thank the minister for his answer and ask that he consider reporting to the Senate when he has seen the remarks made by Mr Fraser on ABC radio. I ask that he take that on notice and respond in more detail to Mr Fraser's assertions. Can I also ask the minister if this government is willing to consider, as suggested by Mr Fraser, a total review of the policy of detaining asylum seekers in Australia? Will you consider Mr Fraser's suggestion that there should be a total review of that policy?

Senator HILL (Minister for the Environment and Heritage) —I am certainly not planning to respond further to the Senate on what Mr Fraser may or may not have said. I do not know of any plan for any total review.