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Monday, 24 February 2014
Page: 648

Ms O'NEIL (Hotham) (21:05):    I rise to make a contribution to the debate about Australia's asylum seeker policy. There is a lot that I could talk about this evening. I could talk about 25-year-old Reza Berati, who was killed on Manus Island last week, or about how angry I felt when the ABC's Barry Cassidy asked the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection whether the suicide of an Indian student in detention could have been avoided, and the minister's response was, 'Could he have avoided overstaying his visa?'. The sheer lack of humanity makes my blood boil.

I know there are a lot of views in Australia about how asylum seekers should be treated, so I want to talk tonight about something all Australians should be angry about, and that is the covert manner in which Operation Sovereign Borders is being implemented. Operation Sovereign Borders sounds like it emerged from George Orwell's imagination, with a communication strategy devised by the 'Ministry of Truth'. The Prime Minister has declared on his government's silence:

If we were at war we would not be giving out information that is of use to the enemy just because we might have an idle curiosity about it ourselves.

We are not at war, and expecting our government to provide us with information is fundamental to democracy; it is not a matter of 'idle curiosity'.

Let us walk through how it has come to this. The government's first move was to provide information about Operation Sovereign Borders only at weekly briefings. But these quickly turned to farce as the minister failed to provide the most basic information to reporters. Last December, the briefings stopped.

The obfuscation has extended to parliament. I want to quote from House of Representatives Practice. This manual explains how the parliament works to be accountable to the people of Australia. The Practice reads:

It is fundamental in the concept of responsible government that the Executive Government be accountable to the House. The capacity of the House of Representatives to call the Government to account depends ... on its knowledge and understanding of the Government's policies and activities. Questions ... play an important part in this quest for information.

And we have asked many questions in this place. We have asked how many boats have been stopped or towed back to Indonesia. We have asked how much money has been spent on operations. We have asked whether Indonesian fishing boats have been purchased by the Australian government, as was promised at the last election. Instead of answers we have had a defence of secrecy, the minister stating:

I'm not going to violate a protocol ... to the entertainment of those members opposite or others.

We do not ask these questions because we want to be entertained. We ask them because we want the government to govern responsibly. Instead, the minister invokes a protocol that he invented.

In Australia, we have had no revolution, no civil war, no Arab Spring, but that does not mean we can take our democracy for granted. We do not have to look too far back in human history to discover what happens when governments govern in secrecy: at best, poor decision making; at worst, flagrant, frequent and severe abuses of human rights. Our democracy must be protected by all Australians, and that means demanding the truth.

This conduct is not merely dangerous to our democracy, it smacks of arrogance. The movement of displaced people is one of the most complex problems in the world. International experts cannot agree on a solution. Yet the minister, just a few months into his job, wants us to believe that he has all the answers, that we should just trust him and be quiet. This, of any policy, deserves a full and healthy debate.

The minister has defended his silence by recasting the sharing of information as 'the shipping news for people smugglers'. Of all the arguments around the release of information, this is probably the one I find most offensive because it is just so ridiculous. The people smugglers know what is happening to their boats. They are on board or in direct contact with the arrivals. By not releasing the information we create a system where the people of Australia do not know what their government is doing, but the people smugglers do.

In the last few years we have seen this House endorse royal commissions on the stolen genĀ­eration and on the abuse of children by institutions. If we could go back in time and prevent the events that led to those royal commissions, we would do it. I know this because I have listened to the heartfelt words of people in this chamber and seen the tears of people who cannot believe that institutions that purport to act in their name would do things so abhorrent to their values.

We live in an open society and, ultimately, I know that the truth will prevail. The question for us Australians is: in a generation, when our children ask us how we let this happen, how we let a government which acts in our name act with such secrecy, what will we say to them?