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Tuesday, 27 November 2012
Page: 13511

Mr BANDT (Melbourne) (17:41): It is distressing to be here debating a bill that is similar for all intents and purposes to a step that was taken by the previous Howard government. Many of us had thought that we were no longer in an environment where we would start carving out bits of this country and saying that they did not count as properly being Australia for migration purposes. It is especially distressing because following the events that have happened this year—which everyone in this country would be aware of—where you could not fail to be moved by the tragedy of people drowning at sea as they were escaping to Australia to find a better life, we had in this parliament a unique opportunity to confront what is a difficult issue and what is a global issue; and that is the substantial movement of people around the world, and in this region, as they flee persecution, as they flee war, as flee torture and as they flee hunger. When we were presented with that opportunity, we could have had a rational debate about the kind of country that we want to be. Instead, in an environment that I have heard described as one of moral panic, where it was said that this parliament had to do something and it did not matter what it was as long as we did something, we found ourselves setting a course that would inevitably lead to bills like this.

I fear that we have gone where perhaps the right wing of the Labor Party has always wanted to take us, because Labor, instead of taking us back to Fraser, has taken us back to Howard. That is something that is a source of distress to many people in this country. We could have had inklings of that when we saw the first proposed Malaysia solution, which the High Court and the Angus Houston panel said did not contain sufficient protections for the most vulnerable people in the world as they fled, coming here and seeking our protection. Under the conventions that we had signed up to, it was not acceptable to take the people and then dump them in another country. We saw inklings of this desire of Labor to take us back to Howard from the recent announcement that people who have come here would not be allowed to work while they have their claims processed. We now see confirmation of it in a bill that, for all intents and purposes, excises the whole of Australia from the migration zone if you happen to arrive by boat. As we head into an election year we are seeing a distressing position increasingly being taken by the government. When there is a significant decision to be made on an important social issue, faced with the choice of whether to work with the coalition or to work with the Greens and other progressives in the parliament, the government is increasingly choosing to work with the coalition. We saw it recently on the Murray-Darling issue, and we are seeing it on the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers.

There has been much talk about what alternatives we might have been able to come up with as a parliament—and there are many. But to have an alternative you need to shift your position and be willing to compromise. There was one fundamental issue on which the government was unwilling to compromise, and that was offshore processing: if someone finds their way here by boat after having escaped war, perhaps—after having fled, perhaps, halfway across the globe—then we want to take them to another country or an island; we do not want to process them here; we want to remove them from Australia, whether they are man, woman or child, and potentially lock them up indefinitely. That fundamental point was why the government chose to go and work with the coalition—and of course found a willing partner there. There is a road map for all of this, and that road map was set out by the Howard government.

Let us just consider for a moment someone who finds themselves in such a desperate situation that they will pay someone they have never met some money to get into a boat. This person may have been waiting in the camp in Indonesia, on our doorstep, for a number of years. There are over 8,000 people waiting there, with over 1,000 of them having been found to be refugees, but with no clear pathway out, and with Australia having taken only 50 or 100-odd people from the camp in the last year or two. If I were sitting in that camp, especially if I had been found to be a refugee, and I had seen others sitting near me waiting for years and years, and I did not see a pathway out, and someone came along and said, 'Give us a bit of money and I'll pop you on a boat and you'll get to Australia', well, I would do it. And I reckon anyone here would do it.

What are we doing with those people who come here? We are now putting them in a legal limbo. We are now saying to those people, who had no other clear pathway out, 'You are being put in legal limbo, because when you land you do not actually land in Australia; we reserve the right to now send you off somewhere else for an indefinite period of time.' The worst thing about this is that if the intention is to stop the boats—and I will come back to that in a moment—it will not work. We saw, under the Howard government, one of the biggest single maritime disasters, with 353 people dying at sea, at a time when offshore processing and the Pacific solution was at its height and in full force. And why is that? It is because unless Australia becomes as bad as Afghanistan under the Taliban, or unless Australia starts torturing its citizens, we are always going to be a better bet for people. And we are never going to become that bad, so people around the world, as they look for a safe haven, are always going to look to places like Australia.

We have signed up to the UN refugee convention and said that if people come here then we will look after and process them. If they are not found to be genuine refugees, we send them back; if they are, we find a way of helping them. We are not doing that for these people for whom we say we are going to insist on offshore processing. We will fail morally if we pass this bill, because we have not provided them with a safer alternative pathway. It is all well and good to talk about the no-advantage test. But really—morally—the only way you can say that that is a defensible proposal is if there is safe and quick pathway to come here other than by boat. If you are waiting in Indonesia or Malaysia the average processing time for you can be anything from four years upwards. If you want to take a mathematical average of the time in Malaysia, depending on the category you are in, it could be six or seven years.

We have an obligation—and this is what we could have done—to say, 'We will stop people drowning at sea by removing the risk and the incentive for them to get on a boat by providing safer pathways for coming to Australia.' We could have said—and this is what the Greens have been consistently proposing, even though others have sought to diminish our position as being simply about onshore processing—that if you start to take 1,000 people from the camps in Indonesia and beef up the processing we have there, whether through UNHCR or through Australia operating its own processing centre in Indonesia, and you do the same in Malaysia and increase our humanitarian intake, then all of a sudden the message that starts to go through those camps will be that Australia is taking people again. The message is that, if you are a genuine refugee and you wait your turn for long enough, you will find yourself either in Australia or being resettled somewhere else, so there is no point in getting on a boat. That is what almost all the experts who fronted up to the Houston inquiry, and who have spoken out since, have said is the answer. The people who are working on the ground in the camps in Indonesia and in Malaysia have said that the best thing you can do is give people in the camps hope that if they wait long enough they will find their way out to Australia. At the moment, there is no hope there.

There is lots of talk about the people smugglers' business model. The people smugglers' business model is based on the desperation and the lack of hope that people who are languishing in these camps feel. They feel that there is no other alternative. If we were serious—if this debate was really about saving the lives of refugees—we would have provided them with safer pathways. We have not done that at all. That is because this debate is about two old parties trying to out-tough each other. It is about the right wing of the Labor Party saying, 'When faced with a choice, we would rather go and work with the coalition than work with the Greens or the crossbenchers to find a solution.' Now we find ourselves in a situation in which history is repeating. Instead of going back to Malcolm Fraser, we have gone back to John Howard. The most disappointing thing about it is that there is a better side to Australians. In the years after the Vietnam War, we took in between 90,000 and 100,000 people from Vietnam. We saw them coming in boats. We saw the tragedy that that involved and we said that we needed a regional solution that involved looking after these people and taking our fair share. It was by no means pretty or necessarily the most humane thing. It was a very distressing time for very many people. And it involved people being held in processing centres for a while.

But what we did not do when they arrived here on boats was turn them around. What we did not do was say, 'You've made your way here by boat, so we're going to take you to another country and let them look after you.' Instead, we said to the whole country and to the refugees: 'This is a problem. We've played a role in it. There are people coming here after fleeing a war'—and we should recognise that echo with the people who are coming here after Afghanistan—'and we will come up with a solution that is not only going to stop you getting so desperate that you'll jump on a boat but that will be humane. We will not need to suspend our obligations under the refugee convention and we will certainly not need to say that the whole of Australia does not count as Australia if you arrive here by boat.'

If you ask people in this country whether or not it was a good thing that we did that, most will tell you that it was. Everyone can tell you the story of someone they know in their family, in their workplace or in their street who came here as a refugee and who has now made this country a better place by virtue of being here. There is a better side to each and all of us as citizens of this country. The choice for the leadership of the government is this: which side are they going to pander to? Are they going to pander to the worst in us, the most fearful in us, and embark on a battle that they can never win, which is to try and out-tough Tony Abbott on this question? Or are they going to say, 'No matter what kinds of walls we put up around this country, because we are a democracy people are always going to come here, so the question is how to manage it, not how to try and win votes out of it in outer suburban marginal electorates in New South Wales or Queensland'? The question should be: how do we make Australia better? I reckon if you asked people most would tell you that they would be up for that challenge. But it requires leadership.

We have not seen that leadership and as a result we find ourselves here yet again deciding that we are going to provide differential treatment and have different classes of people. If you had happened to have found your way here by boat 30 years ago, you would have been welcomed and made a part of Australia and would now be one of those people running a business, in a leadership position, in a parliament somewhere in this country or an archbishop. But now we are saying: 'Potentially you will find yourself on a prison island or somewhere else if the government approves that. You will be held for an indefinite period of time. We don't care what mental health consequences that is going to have for you. You are there as an example to be a deterrent for others.' That is not the kind of country that I want and it is not the kind of country that many other people here want either.