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Thursday, 13 October 2011
Page: 7425

Senator STEPHENS (New South Wales) (17:23): We are in an extraordinary position today simply because of the recent High Court decision. Until that ruling was made, we were in the same place as the opposition on this issue. We were in the same place in that we were all supporting an offshore processing regime based around the outcomes of the Bali process—the ministerial conferences on people smuggling. The Fourth Bali Regional Ministerial Conference supported the Malaysia approach in the sense that the conference, co-chaired by Australia and Indonesia and held in March this year, agreed that there needed to be:

… an inclusive but non-binding regional cooperation framework would provide a more effective way for interested parties to cooperate to reduce irregular movement through the region.

The conference also agreed:

… where appropriate and possible, asylum seekers should have access to consistent assessment processes, whether through a set of harmonised arrangements or through the possible establishment of regional assessment arrangements, which might include a centre or centres, taking into account any existing sub-regional arrangements.

I was quite horrified by two things about Senator Cash's speech. The first was the fact that nothing in her 20-minute tirade actually reflected on the extraordinary situation of people who find themselves seeking asylum in Australia. Honestly, I gasped at the fact that there was not a single ounce of compassion in anything that she said. She used expressions like 'being able to remove people quickly' and 'not being able to articulate and act on return agreements'—returning people to where they came from.

One of the most gut-wrenching stories I have heard—from the previous government's regime—was about the return of heavily pregnant women to China. Once they were returned to China—forced by the previous government—they had to endure late term abortions. Let us just think about the real circumstances of people coming to Australia and let us think about what a return to Nauru and temporary protection visas reflects. That is the opposition's position here. That is really what they want to see; that is how they think they are going to turn the boats back. What that policy effectively did—and we know this from all the submissions from several inquiries—was send people mad. It destroyed them and damaged them for life. It stressed people—and not just the asylum seekers themselves. It distressed and stressed the people who had to care for them; it distressed and stressed officials. It created a permanent sense of displacement amongst people who were seeking asylum from circumstances in their own countries which were pretty horrific.

The driving of this debate to such a space, to such a level, is fundamentally bottom feeding. It is bottom feeding on the perils, the misery and the concerns of these people. What should we be doing instead? I will quote from someone from the other side of politics, the former Liberal member for Kooyong, Petro Georgiou, who last month wrote that it was:

an indictment of Australian politics—

I so agree with this—

that refugees are being treated as human footballs.

He says that there is a very obvious way we need to go. When you think about these things, this is exactly what the government has been trying to prosecute. Petro Georgiou suggests:

The first step is to recognise that boat arrivals, regardless of punitive measures, will continue.

You only have to look at what is happening all around the world. You cannot ignore what is happening in the rest of the world. You cannot put a metaphorical fence around our borders and say that no-one can come here, because people are desperate. They are in desperate straits, fleeing persecution, fleeing tyranny, fleeing circumstances that we cannot even begin to imagine. We cannot deny that people have a right to seek asylum and a right to try to escape their circumstances. Petro Georgiou goes on to say:

The second step is to explain to the Australian people why humane treatment of boat arrivals is not a threat.

That is really true. As Petro Georgiou says, we need:

… to inform Australians about the number of arrivals, who they are, how we determine they are genuine, and the persecution to which they have been subjected.

And, I would add, we need to inform Australians about how their processing is being managed. Petro Georgiou's article continues:

The third step is to reach agreements with regional nations that give them some degree of comfort … relieve the pressure on them and make for a more orderly process, and hopefully reduce the number of people coming on unseaworthy crafts.

Quite frankly, that is what this was all about. That is what the Malaysia solution seeks to do: it seeks to consider the issues of the millions of displaced people in the world, to share the load, to create an orderly process and to provide disincentives. I remember when the Prime Minister announced the agreement with Malaysia she said, 'This isn't the end of the process; this is the beginning of strengthening a regional cooperative framework.' The Papua New Guinea proposal was being acted upon as well.

We have a responsibility here to reflect on the urgent need for us to be part of a global resettlement process. We need to ensure that the Australian people understand that, no matter what side of politics you are on, we are a compassionate government. This motion today, which goes to the notion of fear mongering about our borders and pretends that we have porous borders on the immigration issue, really goes to the basest fears and fear mongering that Australian politics has so often become in recent years. It is bottom feeding, and people deserve better. People deserve to know that we do adhere to the United Nations refugee convention, that we do try to process people and that we do have a fundamental policy that is about minimising the impact of people who come here and about assessing their bona fides—and that is not easy when someone is displaced. We also know that there are people to whom the expression 'stopping the business model' is fundamentally important, because there are always people who make money out of other people's misery—they traffic in human misery.

The stories we have been hearing about what has happened as people have come on the boats are horrific. The first part of the deal is of gangs that are starting to sell passages out of Indonesia and other places and the second part of the deal is of then sending pirates after them to disable the boats and steal everything that everyone has, including any documentation. There have even been some unsubstantiated reports of children being stolen. All kinds of things are happening around the world—it is not just happening out of Indonesia. This is the misery of human slavery and human trafficking, and we cannot ignore it. We are an intelligent, educated, sophisticated and wealthy country and we cannot ignore that we have a responsibility to be part of the global solution here.

We need to do what we can. We need to think about the issue of resettlement. We need to explain to the Australian people that a refugee seeking asylum is assessed and then is offered resettlement. We need to educate Australians about the process. We need the issue to be taken seriously. We need to ensure that we can do what we want to do in supporting our economy and in supporting people who come here in an orderly way.

The High Court decision has meant the opposition taking the opportunistic view of not to support the changes to the legislation which would have reinstated the position that we all thought we were in a few months ago. That is honestly not about border protection; it is about playing base politics. It is about preventing the notion that we can be a people and a nation that has some compassion and some capacity to be sensible about these things. The idea that it is not in the national interest to pursue a regional framework is really mischievous of the opposition spokesperson. It is simply base politics to be playing with words. It is not about border protection. The national interest is served when we can play our part in a global solution to this issue and when we can put in place systems and processes that help to manage people's expectations.

The notion that we had of taking an additional 4,000 refugees who had been processed from Malaysia and bringing them to Australia was all about saying to people: 'We are giving you hope that there is a process. We are giving hope to asylum seekers who have been languishing in refugee camps close to us as part of a regional solution and our regional role of leadership and concern by saying that there is an option, and we will start to process these things quickly.' Isn't that what we should be doing? Isn't it where we should be going? We should be getting away from playing on people's emotions and playing to their fears and concerns. The idea of whipping up a campaign that says, 'We cannot possibly take these people from Malaysia because we are going to lose Australian jobs,' just goes to the issues that are being played in the community right now because of the uncertainty and the challenge that the High Court decision left us with.

I agonise about this issue of offshore processing—I can tell everybody that. I have not had the opportunity to speak publicly about it before. I would much prefer that we move more quickly to an onshore processing system, but I do acknowledge that the idea is bigger than us, the system is bigger than us and the processing challenge is bigger than us. We need to do so much more. We need to move quickly to supporting identity checks, security checks and health checks, to supporting what the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship is doing now in trying to get children out of detention centres, to supporting people in community detention and to processing people much more quickly than we have.

Senator Ian Macdonald interjecting

Senator STEPHENS: The option from Senator Macdonald and those opposite is that we would go back to temporary protection visas, which, as I said, sent people mad. The notion that you should be in suspended animation with no support, no contact and no opportunity for family reunion is seriously flawed. It is inhumane in the extreme. It is isolating. It is desperate. It led people to do self-harm. It really is the most inhumane way forward.

The issue that we have on our side of politics is how we manage the concerns that we have about people and how we manage the concerns that we have as a government with protecting our borders and our national interests. Beyond the arguments that underlie this debate are all the other things that we are doing to protect our borders. The things that we are doing in terms of the environment, illegal fishing, antidumping and so on do not hit the radar in this debate because this is about base politics. This is really about the things that the government can do to destabilise people's confidence. It is really very frustrating.

The spirit of the refugee convention is alive and well and underpins the solution that we had before us. We will continue to pursue the Malaysia agreement, I am sure, because it is part, as I said, of the regional framework—

Senator Ian Macdonald interjecting

Senator STEPHENS: It is part of what you would be doing too, I am sure, if the opposition really believed in the Bali process, really wanted to continue that kind of regional framework and really wanted to play the leadership role that is part of Australia being an educated and wealthy nation in the South Pacific. These are the things that we have to take on board. These are the challenges and the responsibilities that we have to shoulder as a nation.

It is not about playing base politics. It is not about closing our borders to anyone. It is not about deciding the how and who and when of allowing people to come to this country. It is about being compassionate. It is about being an international citizen. It is about recognising our responsibilities. It is about ensuring that we find a strong regional and international arrangement that actually deters secondary movement of asylum seekers. This is not an easy issue. If we take it down to a very simplistic 'stop the boats' kind of three-word slogan, we avoid the intellectual responsibility to turn our minds to the ways in which we can stop the business of people smuggling, stop the misery of human trafficking. We need stop playing this kind of base politics and stop fearmongering in the electorate for political gain.

We have a responsibility here to say to the Australian people that there are millions of displaced people around the world and we do not have the right—if we want to have international trade, if we want to have the freedom to travel all over the world, if we want to be international citizens ourselves—to say, 'We will put bunkers up and no-one will come here unless we allow them to.' We have to be quite reasonable and strategic about the way in which we deal with border protection issues. We have to be compassionate and strategic in the way in which we deal with asylum seekers. We certainly have to be compassionate and strategic in the way in which we deal with the whole refugee issue around the world. If we are playing our part in military conflicts around the world, there are consequences to that, and the consequences come with responsibilities.

For me, the issue of the Malaysian solution and the amendment to the migration bill now not proceeding, because of the obfuscation of the opposition, is a real disappointment, because it would have been a way forward in terms of our regional strategic framework. It is something that we have to live with. We will have to find a way forward. If the opposition were the government tomorrow, they would have to find a way forward on this too. It is not an issue that is on one side of politics; it is for all of us to deal with.

Let us be real about this. We need to have compassion and humanity. The issue of refugees and asylum seekers is about much more than border protection. It is about our role as international citizens and our reputation as an international strategic nation in the world. We have a big reputational risk here, and it behoves us all to find a way to resolve the problem.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: As provided for in standing order 199, I move:

That the question be now put.

Question put.

The Senate divided. [17:48]

(The President—Senator Hogg)

Question agreed to.

The PRESIDENT: The question now is that the motion moved by Senator Humphries at the request of Senator Fifield be agreed to.

A division having been called and the bells being rung

Senator Ian Macdonald: Mr President, before the vote is taken, could you just read out the motion so we are all clear on exactly what we are voting for? I suspect the Greens might not understand that by voting with the government—

The PRESIDENT: I am advised we usually say it is in the Notice Paper.

Senator Ian Macdonald: I thought there was a standing order—I do not have my standing orders in front of me—that provides that any senator can ask the Presiding Officer to read what the motion is.

The PRESIDENT: I do not read the motion; the Clerk reads the motion.

Senator Ian Macdonald: Could I ask the Clerk to.

The PRESIDENT: No, once we have locked the doors. Lock the doors!

Senator Macdonald, I will now ask the Clerk to read the motion.

The Clerk: General business notice of motion No. 485, standing in the name of Senator Fifield, to move—That the Senate notes the failure of the Gillard Labor Government to maintain the confidence of the Australian people in its ability to protect our borders.

The Senate divided [17:55]

(The President—Senator Hogg)

Question negatived.