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Thursday, 18 August 2005
Page: 34


Senator CROSSIN (11:16 AM) —I rise to speak in this debate about the Migration Amendment Regulations 2005 (No. 6) which the Democrats have sought to disallow. I think this is another case of, ‘Honey, I’ve shrunk the borders again.’ This is not the first time I have spoken on this matter in this chamber. Of course, we have had this issue come before us a number of times now and it has been disallowed by the Senate for a very good reason: the policy is illogical. The policy to excise quite a number of islands from the northern region of this country has no logic behind it. The government has simply chosen to do this again because it can—because it has the numbers—without any explanation, discussion or consultation and without any clear plan about where the handling of migration policy in this country is going. So, in the still of the night, towards the end of July, we notice on DIMIA’s web site the regulations are up and running again. This is our attempt to bring some balance and a sense of cohesion and logic to the policy debate about migration in this country, something that this minister clearly does not have a handle on.

This, of course, is not the first portfolio she has not had a handle on. I remember that in 1998, when I first came into this chamber, the minister in charge of immigration matters these days was the then minister for higher education and totally responsible for gutting from that sector of education billions of dollars. So we are now dealing with a minister who has a track record of being totally hands-off and for not providing any direction or assistance to the department, managing the migration portfolio by regulation rather than substantive changes to the act. These regulations go to some 4,891 islands, which range from places as large as Groote Eylandt, Elcho Island or Bathurst and Melville islands off the tip of Northern Australia to rather large sandbars.

On those islands we have a total of about 20,629 people living. I know they were not consulted about this. In fact, they were not consulted about this the time before or the time before that. You may well remember that in 2002 when this came before us as legislation there was an attempt to quickly run around the islands and release some information package about what this legislation was to mean—before, of course, the legislation was even introduced. We had a situation where this government made an announcement and then ran around to Indigenous communities trying to sell this proposition. A certain senator on the other side, who I will not name, involved in a Senate inquiry at the time was known, and was seen on Elcho Island, to be encouraging Indigenous people as to what to say to that inquiry. He now quotes back those words from those Indigenous people in support of why these regulations should be maintained. But those Indigenous people were never given an opportunity to have the effect of these regulations, or the legislation at the time, clearly explained to them. There was an information kit and a CD produced and sent out to all these communities, and then the legislation did not get through the Senate. So when I go out to Indigenous communities they now say to me: ‘What happened with that legislation? I thought we’d been excised for two years. What’s going on? The government, on the one hand, gets these information kits out there and, on the other hand, you’re telling us the legislation did not go through the Senate. And now we have regulations again.’

I was on the Tiwi Islands just two weeks ago. People out there are totally confused about what all this means. Why is that? Because we do not have a minister that is in control of the portfolio. We have a minister that wants to dump this mess on people in the immigration department and get them to sort it out. What are Indigenous people actually saying? ‘Don’t you care about our islands? Does this mean that the federal government can just strike them off the migration map whenever they like?’ Yes, it does. That is exactly what they have just done. They have excised them for purposes of the migration area. ‘What does this mean?’ they say to me. ‘Does this mean that if we now get a boat here anyway, no-one will come? Does it mean we should still get these people on board if they need assistance? What exactly does it mean for these people and when is this government going to be very clear and precise about where this policy direction is going?’

Indigenous people say to me, ‘It doesn’t make sense to us,’ and I raised this in my speech in 2002. At Croker and Goulburn islands, Indigenous people do not actually see water as an obstacle. They are attached to the land. People at Goulburn and Croker islands actually have connections with Oenpelli and Maningrida. It is a huge triangle out there. The fact that the sea runs through the middle of that land does not mean the same to Indigenous people that it does to you and me. So they are totally confused by this.

It has never been clearly explained to these people. Even now, the implications have not been explained to these people. That is because we have a minister who seeks to regulate the migration area that she is responsible for by regulations, not by legislation introduced into this parliament, so we cannot actually have another full and proper inquiry into this matter. When that does happen, the minister wants to simply walk away from the mess. That is exactly what Mick Palmer has highlighted in his report.

I know this is not a debate about the Palmer report, but this is a debate about the mess that the immigration department is in—not because of the hardworking officials that I come across on a day-to-day basis, who answer my many queries about sponsoring people, visa applications and migration matters and who are trying their darnedest to make some sense of the act that they have to work under, but because there is no direction from the top. The minister must take responsibility here and provide very clear and concise opportunities for her officials in the government to be able to put in place what this government’s policy is—but I am not really sure what this government’s policy is, in some respects.

The Palmer report clearly showed that, after nine long years of the Howard government, the department of immigration is in a total mess. It has developed a culture of assumption and cover-up where departmental officers have minimal training and understanding of the act they are supposedly administering. If you read the Palmer report you will see that Mick Palmer makes it very clear that there need to be massive cultural changes within the department. The answer to that, as far as I have seen, is that the minister has just thrown a couple of million dollars at it. We have not actually seen any cultural change emanate from the minister or the minister’s office. In his report, Mr Palmer acknowledged that the speed of change in the immigration and detention environment had put pressure on staff but he also said that it had led to policy procedures and enabling structures being developed on the run. This is a very clear example of that, isn’t it?

I note that Senator Scullion, in his speech, said that this is an essential piece of legislation to ensure that the environment is protected. I do not actually understand where you are coming from there, Senator Scullion. If you are actually talking about the fact that the government assumes it will now be able to stop boats coming through the waters—boats that may have all sorts of substances on them—this legislation does not guarantee that. This legislation does not guarantee those boats will not continue to come. I might add it has been many years since a boat has come through those waters. But it does not guarantee that even legal boats coming through those waters will not bring with them substances that will be harmful to the environment.

What about the illegal fishermen we found up the creek at Maningrida a couple of weeks ago? The silly thing about these regulations is that the Tiwi Islands are less than 20 kilometres from Darwin and we have had illegal fishermen up the rivers at Maningrida. So is this a deterrent? I think not. If I were in a leaky boat and I got as far as Goulburn Island, I am pretty sure I would not get off there. I would keep going until I saw the big lights of Darwin city. The group of Vietnamese people who arrived a couple of years ago made it to the Western Australian border. They were not silly enough to head for an island; they made it to the mainland. So there is no evidence that this will be a deterrent. What it is evidence of, though, is that this is a department that is having to cope with policy on the run.

Let me give you another example of that. I am amazed at the way in which this minister controls or tries to control where and when detention centres are built and placed in this country. We have detention centres at Maribyrnong, Villawood and Baxter. About four years ago we had an announcement that a detention centre at Christmas Island would be built at a cost, which is rising every month because the costs are escalating there, of $220 million. The detention centre was going to be built in one year. There was a huge flurry of activity. We had to have this centre built within a year. Four or five years on, it has still not been completed. So I suspect the cost of $220 million is rising.

At the same time in Darwin, we had this temporary processing centre built on the corner of the Stuart Highway and Amy Johnson Avenue. That cost $7.4 million. It consists of about 100 demountables and it is alleged it could house up to 450 people. In the time that I have been asking questions at estimates about this temporary processing centre, we have had razor wire on the top of the fences moved to the bottom of the fence, at a cost of $48,000, and additional fencing and shrubs and palm trees put around it because we want to hide it as it is an eyesore, at a cost of $16,000 and $32,000. I now read that it is costing around $118,000 a year to maintain. But not one person has ever stayed in that processing centre.

Then last year we saw it suddenly renamed and become the Coonawarra detention centre. We were told it is now going to be used for illegal fishing people. It is about time illegal fishing people were taken off their boats and put on land, but now we are told the Coonawarra detention centre is actually going to become the Darwin detention centre and it will house illegal immigrants as well as illegal fishing people.

Minister, where is the clear policy direction here? You have got Baxter, Villawood and Maribyrnong operating, you are trying to build a Taj Mahal on Christmas Island, but at the same time you want to extend the Coonawarra detention centre to become the Darwin detention centre and you say you will be putting illegal asylum seekers in there as well. I would have thought it is a bit of overkill here. We have not had these people coming to this country for many years. At the very least, I would have thought that Maribyrnong, Villawood and Baxter would cope with the numbers. I have never been convinced that there was a need for a detention centre on Christmas Island. I am even less convinced that there is a need to continue with the one in Darwin.

I notice that yesterday the Public Works Committee presented a report revealing that, lo and behold, this government has now asked for a further $8.125 million for the Darwin detention centre. Yet we have been told for five years it was ready to house people at the drop of a hat. Obviously that was not the case. So, Minister, what is really happening in your portfolio? Where are you really going with all of this? The representation from the Public Works Committee is that women and children should not be housed there. The Northern Territory government and the Darwin City Council are very angry that there is a detention centre on the Stuart Highway as you drive into town that is now going to be called the Darwin detention centre. At the very least, people are saying, ‘Don’t call it that.’ We try to promote Darwin as the tourist destination of the Top End of Australia, and as you drive in along the Stuart Highway you are confronted with an eyesore that has never been used.

The government has also announced that it wants to sell the Coonawarra base on which this detention centre sits. Well, there is a little problem: I do not think anyone would want to buy the base. What would they use it for: an industrial estate, a housing estate? Why would you want to buy an estate that sits right next door—and I am talking about less than 10 feet next door—to a detention centre? I noticed as I drove to the airport on Monday that the washing line of the very last house on the Coonawarra base is probably only five steps from the fence of the detention centre. I would have thought the best way to go would be to remove that facility from there and relocate it or at least create another smaller facility just for illegal fisherman.

Darwin does not want that detention centre. I suspect that Senator Hill has had quite a few headaches in trying to decide who is going to buy his base when Senator Vanstone’s detention centre is right next door to it. But we have heard no comment from the minister about that. There has not been any view expressed by Senator Vanstone about this detention centre in Darwin: why it is needed, why it has now been renamed three times or why the boundaries of the detention centre keep changing. It was for emergency purposes; now it is for fishermen; now it is for asylum seekers; now the Public Works Committee is saying, ‘Don’t put women and children in there.’ Senator Vanstone, what is happening? What is your clear policy direction in this instance? What is the direction for the people of Darwin, for the people in the immigration department who are trying to deal with this, or even for your colleague Senator Hill, who is trying to sell off the land? This is just another example of a minister who has no handle on what is happening in her portfolio and seeks to ensure that her poor departmental officials have to carry the load for her ineptitude and incompetence in trying to have a clear and succinct policy. The Darwin detention centre is one example. The excision of these islands is another example.

When I was overseas in Vietnam this year at the invitation of the World Bank, I spent the time with about 12 other people from around the world—politicians from Korea, India, Pakistan, Sweden, Germany, France and Italy. All of them—even the politician from Sweden and the politician from France, who were elected under conservative governments—said to me: ‘Australia ought to be ashamed of the way it is treating its people over there, you know—ashamed of the way it treats refugees and asylum seekers.’ They cannot understand why it is, given our vast resources, our land, our opportunity and what they believed was a country of some social justice, that we do not take these people in and try to solve the problems for them and then, if they are not refugees, send them home—no-one is resiling from that.

Instead we act like bully boys in the South-East Asia region. Without a proper dialogue with South-East Asian countries and without any discussion with Indigenous people as to why we are doing this, in the still of the night we just excise the islands. And we somehow pretend that this is going to further fix up the flow of refugees around the world who want to come to this country. I do not believe it will do that. I do not believe that that is at all what will happen. I think that, if there are people out there who want to trade in human misery and encourage people to come to this country on a leaky boat, the asylum seekers will now simply attempt to get to the mainland, as the Vietnamese people have done. Mind you, all of those Vietnamese people have now been seen to be genuine asylum seekers. So what are we actually proving here? I also note that nearly 90 per cent of those people who were taken to Nauru have now been assessed as genuine asylum seekers. We may have quite a number of people trying to get to this country, but at the end of the day they turn out to be people who have genuine cases and are accepted by this country.

This is another example, I believe, of an illogical policy—a policy that does nothing to assist our status and image internationally as a nation that cares about asylum seekers and refugees. It does nothing to improve our relationship with Indigenous people, who are even more confused about what they would say is ‘white man’s law’. It does absolutely nothing to ensure that officials working in Immigration, Customs and Quarantine are assisted by the policies of this government and particularly by the policies this minister purports to have control over.

The immigration department is in a mess. We are about to start an inquiry into the administration of the Migration Act, which will almost become a Mick Palmer report II, I would say. This is a minister who clearly needs to get some control over her portfolio. She needs to provide that portfolio with strong and clear directions and policy guidelines so that not only her department knows what they are doing but the rest of this country can clearly get a handle on where this government is going, and so the government does not continue to make policy on the run. (Time expired)