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Thursday, 27 March 2014
Page: 3442


Ms PARKE (Fremantle) (16:49): I take this opportunity, before the parliament rises for a significant period, to make some comments on the asylum seeker issue. It is no great secret that I have not rejoiced in policies that were put in place on a bipartisan basis by the former government in relation to offshore processing—policies that have now been continued, expanded and made many times worse by the current government.

I accept that many parliamentarians on all sides have been motivated by a desire to reduce deaths at sea, but if we are really concerned about people taking dangerous boat journeys why then are we punishing people when they have already made the journey and survived it, instead of working to prevent it happening in the first place?

Prevention would involve such measures as significantly increasing our humanitarian intake, working with other countries in the region to make conditions safer in transit countries and speeding up the processing of claims. It also means maintaining sufficient levels of foreign aid to address the root causes and improve conditions and the rule of law in the places from which people are escaping.

Pure deterrence can never be a solution, unless we seek to become as vicious and cowardly as the harm from which people are fleeing. And when we do, like Oscar Wilde's Dorian Gray, succeed in our program and start to look as ugly as we act, does anyone stop to think about what happens to the people who are so deterred from taking those boat journeys to Australia, or who are towed back to Indonesia on an orange lifeboat? A great many of them will still be refugees fleeing persecution, they will still need a safe haven and they will still be facing uncertain and precarious existences without rights in transit countries. They may well still die fleeing persecution on a different sea or trapped in an airless container. We do not reduce the risk to these people by taking away one of their escape options; we merely displace the risk to another time and place. Through the tow back actions—illegal under international law—we also further imperil our formerly close relationship with Indonesia and our reputation.

What of the people caught in existential limbo on Manus and Nauru—places where Australia has made independent oversight near impossible, where those countries are barring any examination of human rights, where asylum claims are not being processed and where people have been killed, injured or driven by despair, fear and hopelessness to riots or suicide? It is not okay. This is not what the Australian community understood at the time those centres were re-established on Manus and Nauru, when parliamentarians solemnly promised to ensure that the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and international human rights would be respected, and that there would be independent oversight of offshore processing centres, especially in relation to the physical and mental health of detainees. Australia cannot contract out its obligations under international law to poor neighbouring countries. We have a responsibility to ensure the convention is complied with in respect of the people who have claimed asylum, even where these claims are being processed in a third country.

This is patently not happening. Clearly the conditions under which Labor undertook offshore processing when in government are no longer being complied with, and as a nation we are in violation of our international legal obligations. In my view, either the protections required as preconditions to offshore processing must be restored or put in place, or the centres on Manus and Nauru cannot be supported and must be shut down.

And what of those people in detention on Christmas Island and on mainland Australia, whose rights to legal representation, of appeal and support are being stripped away; whose children are not receiving appropriate education, as we have seen from reports of Christmas Island; and those refugees who are facing indefinite detention because of a negative security assessment from ASIO, a situation described this week by Sydney University's Professor of International Law Ben Saul in TheNew York Times as 'Australia's Guantanamo'.

It is as if we have gone back in time to an Australia that was proud to be white and that put up countless legal, administrative and social obstacles for outsiders to come here, but much of that shameful past can be attributed to ignorance and to its time. What is our excuse now? This prosperous, educated, outward-looking Australia that prides itself on the fair go, on tolerance and egalitarianism, and on mateship—mateship for whom? Those exactly like us? As we gaze at this beautiful portrait of ourselves, let us endeavour to be that Australia and not be consumed by the darker side of human nature or, just as wrongly, avert our eyes so that we do not see any unpleasantness. We cannot hide behind the notion that we are being cruel to be kind, that we are saving people from themselves or that we know best—actually, we do not.

As someone who has lived and worked in places afflicted by war and oppression, I am aware of how remote Australia is from the factors that are driving millions of desperate people worldwide to leave everything they know and to seek refuge. That is why it is incumbent on those in leadership positions to present all the facts and to seek to inform rather than politicise this issue. As in the past with the Vietnamese refugees, we need benevolent bipartisanship and a genuinely regional burden-sharing approach. (Time expired)