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Thursday, 22 September 2011
Page: 11192


Mr BANDT (Melbourne) (11:38): This is a race to the bottom. This is a grubby debate and it diminishes this parliament in the eyes of the Australian people. It is a missed opportunity for us as a parliament and as a country to have a rational, sensible discussion about the long-term future and about Australia doing its fair share in dealing with people who are fleeing the most wretched of circumstances and are seeking our help.

We are here because the High Court has told us what we should already have morally known, and that is: Australia cannot expel children and adults who come here seeking help and send them to another country where we do not know what fate awaits them. The High Court decision gave us a remarkable opportunity to take stock of where we are going as a country. We could have begun a rational debate that would have allowed us to explain to people, to other members of parliament and to the whole country facts like, for example: every year 15,000 people come here and overstay their visas. That number dwarfs, by several orders of magnitude, the number of people who will ever arrive here by boat. It would take 20 years to fill the MCG with people who arrive here by boat, but the MCG is already half full of people who are overstaying their tourist visas and other kinds of visas. We do not have a national hysterical debate about the backpackers and their impact on society, and yet we have spent so much time in this parliament and in the media having a debate fuelled by misinformation, xenophobia and some of the dirtiest politics around some of the most vulnerable people in the world.

It is a sad day when the Labor Party comes into this place and says, 'Our position on refugees is tougher because we will send them to a country where they might be caned,' and then the Liberal Party says, 'No, ours is tougher because we will tow boats back out to sea no matter what fate awaits the people who are on them.' So long as the two old parties are locked in this deadly embrace, we are going to continue this race to the bottom and we are not going to have a rational debate in this country. Of course we should do everything we can to stop people getting on boats and making the risky journey that possibly might see them end their lives in transit. Of course we should do everything we can to stop that. But, if we were serious about a regional solution to stop that, we would put up front and square the protection of these people, and the debate would be about the best multilateral approach to ensure people's rights are protected and their lives are not put at risk. That is not the debate we are having. We are having a false debate about the so-called evils of people smugglers.

I have no doubt that there are some people smugglers who are not very nice people, but I can tell you this: if I were in a situation where I feared for my life, where I was worried about what might happen to my family and where there was war, famine and threats of political persecution, I would do everything I could to get out of there. I would do everything I could to get my family out of there, and that would include paying someone who offered me the last chance to flee a wretched situation. I would be prepared to bet that most people in this country would do exactly the same. If we started having a debate about that instead of so-called people smugglers, we might go some way to restoring the principle of humanity in this parliament, this parliament might have a better reputation in the eyes of the Australian people, and Australia might have a better reputation in the eyes of the world.

It is worth remembering that it was not always like this in this country. In the years after the Vietnam War, just over 2,000 people came here by boat. We did not tow them back out to sea. We did not send them off to other countries. We took them in and we opened our country to them, to members of their families and to their relatives, and we had a solution that saw, over the next decade, something in the order of 90,000 people come to this country. If you were to ask almost any Australian, I bet that they would tell you that it was a success and that we can look back now with pride at the compassionate approach we took in the past and what it has meant for our wonderful and vibrant society today. My electorate of Melbourne would be a very, very different and diminished place had we not, over many years, welcomed people here from other parts of the world—many of them as refugees. If you ask most Australians, every single one of them, I think, will have a story of someone they know, someone they work with, someone in their street, or someone that someone in their family is married to who came here as a refugee and who might have even come here either by boat or in a way that would now see them languishing in a detention centre or potentially sent off to another country. Everyone is only one or two degrees removed from that success story of migration into Australia, and poll after poll shows that a majority of people want refugee claims processed here onshore in a fair and humane manner. The last poll said 54 per cent of Australians want refugee claims processed here onshore and yet we have both of the old parties in lockstep together, marching away as quickly as they can away from public opinion.

If we were able to have a rational and reasonable debate about this, what we as the Greens would be advancing is a humane, compassionate and long-term practical approach that asks: what is Australia's fair share as a rich country in our region and in the world for dealing with this global problem of movement of people fleeing war, persecution and famine? We would, like the majority of the Australian population, see claims from refugees and asylum seekers processed onshore. We would have a minimum length of detention for the purposes of health and security checks—no more than 30 days and only longer if a court approves it. Once we had checked people's health and security status, we would allow them to live in the community while their claims were being processed, as happens in other countries and as we used to do. And we would lift to 20,000 the number of people we take into the country in the humanitarian refugee stream, something that the Refugee Council of Australia says is Australia's fair share.

This debate looks like ending in some kind of stalemate and we will end up with something approximating a default position, which will be what the High Court said the law and the legal situation is, which is that people will be processed onshore. I am pleased that that will be the outcome, presuming the legislation does not get through—perhaps it will. Whatever happens, I do not think that people looking at us around the country want us to come up with a position by default. I think that people around the country want us to take a stand and make a decision in Australia's long-term interest, in the interest of compassion and fairness, and in the interest of sharing our fair share of the burden within our region—but one that is based on principle. It needs to acknowledge that we will pull our weight within the region and that the basic principle that all of us in this chamber, with the exception of the member for Hasluck, are or are descended from boat people in one form or another. I think people would want us to come up with a position that is based on principle, on what we believe, rather than the short-term politics of the media cycle and the worry about what is going to appear on the front page of the newspaper the next day.

My position and the Greens' position in this debate is that we are not going to assist either of these old parties in their race to the bottom in what is a grubby debate. I will be voting against the coalition's amendments and against the government's legislation. My second reading amendment would bring this parliament into line with what the majority of the Australian people are very clearly saying they want.

This is a historic debate and votes that will be taken on this are historic, because in 10 or 15 years people will look back on this—in the way, I think, that we look back on the White Australia policy—and they will say: 'How could they come up with such a solution? Why were those principles informing their debate?' When they look back on this they will ask every member of this chamber: 'Where did you stand? Did you vote for a more compassionate, more humane and fair approach to dealing with some of the world's most vulnerable people or did you continue the race to the bottom?'

I know that there are some people in this place on different sides of the chamber who want to see this parliament take a stand that reflects the will of the majority of the population and that has processing done onshore. I say to all of them: this is an opportunity to have your vote counted. I hope that when we divide on my second reading amendment, and when parliament states as a matter of principle whether it believes in processing people's claims onshore, it is more than just me and the member for Denison sitting on the affirmative side, because this will be noted. We are entering an environment where seats do not just change hands in elections on the basis of who can come up with the harshest and most punitive policy. People around the country are increasingly saying: 'We've had enough. Seats will change hands and we will change our vote on the basis of who has the more compassionate, practical and long-term policy.'

I commend my amendment to the House. I do not know which way the votes are going to go today, but I do know there will be an opportunity for everyone here to take a stand on a matter of principle about how we as a country—a rich nation in a region where many countries have troubles of their own—will act, how we will be viewed in the eyes of the Australian people and how this country will be viewed in the eyes of the world.

I move the second reading amendment standing in my name:

That all the words after "That" be omitted with a view to substituting the following words: "the House declines to give the bill a second reading and calls on the Government to end offshore processing and process all asylum seekers' claims for protection onshore."

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Ms AE Burke ): Is the amendment seconded?