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Thursday, 14 November 2002
Page: 6447


Senator BARTLETT (Leader of the Australian Democrats) (7:13 PM) —This is a report by the Legal and Constitutional References Committee into the migration zone excision. As well as looking into the Migration Legislation Amendment (Further Border Protection Measures) Bill 2002, the committee also looked into other matters to do with how the so-called Pacific solution operates and what the impacts might be of further excising parts of Australia from Australia's migration zone. Of course there is already a provision in the Migration Act enabling islands to be excised from Australia's migration zone. That was passed last year, on a very sad day for our legal system and our democracy, when a number of bills dramatically reducing the rights of Australians and asylum seekers and potential migrants were all passed in the final week of sitting before the election. We are still seeing the legacy of that. This bill continues that legacy by seeking to further extend the areas where people's rights would be removed. That is basically what the legislation does and the way that the law operates.

In being very critical of the Labor Party for supporting the government's disgraceful package of legislation last year I should therefore be equally complimentary towards them in continuing, through this committee report, to oppose this legislation. The reasons that are set out quite extensively are very accurate and appropriate. I think the only comment one would make is that the reasons set forward as to why this is not a good idea apply equally to the bill that Labor supported last year. It is a pity the same reasoning could not have been applied at that time.

It is certainly the Democrats' view that Australia clearly breaches its international obligations via this legislation and the general process that the government utilises. In some ways, people may say that this is an academic debate in respect of excising more islands, because no more boats are arriving anyway—and that is true, but it is still very relevant. Given that the existing provision for excising islands from Australia's migration zone continues to operate because of the legislation that was passed last year, islands such as Christmas Island are also continuing to operate at this very moment outside our migration zone. What is also occurring at this very moment is the construction of a brand new, purpose-built detention centre— at a cost of over $200 million to the taxpayer, I might add, and in an area where it will clearly be detrimental to endangered species. I might also add that it is occurring via a mechanism that was used when the government decided to exempt itself from any obligations under the federal environment act.

If all things go to plan, that detention centre will be completed some time next year and one assumes that the government is not spending a few hundred million dollars on top of all the other hundreds of millions of dollars it has spent in this area simply for the centre to sit there idle. Presumably it will be filled with detainees. The key point there is that those detainees will then be in an area outside the operation of Australia's Migration Act. This is particularly relevant. It will not just be used for future boat arrivals; I suggest that it will almost certainly be used to take people off Nauru and Manus Island and to keep them on Christmas Island, where they will still be in an area where they have no rights. They will also still be in an area where they will be out of sight of the public and difficult to access and it will obviously be impossible for relatives, friends or supporters to visit them and extremely difficult for the public to know what is going on, in the same way as it is virtually impossible for us to know what is going on in Nauru or on Manus Island at the moment.

The area that the report deals with is very critical and important at the moment. The government tried to beat up a bit of fear, loathing and urgency when they first moved to extend the number of islands that were excised, by saying, `There's a boat on the way. It's out there somewhere with 16 Vietnamese or something, and we had better pass this.' Of course, that boat was never heard of again. I do not know if it was another one we knew about but let sink, like SIEVX, or whether it never existed in the first place or what happened. It was very conveniently referred to by the minister a number of times and then forgotten and it fell from his public statements.

The other aspect that the Democrats believe the public and this parliament need to be very aware of is the fact that under the disgraceful temporary protection visa regime that also continues in place—again, sadly, because of a decision of the Labor Party back in 1999 to support the government in introducing this disgraceful visa—it is a three-year visa. It is now three years since that visa first came in and a large number of people are now starting to be reassessed as to whether they still meet their protection obligations. Many hundreds of them have already started the reassessment process and obviously as time goes by the others who came to Australia and were given protection visas because we recognised them as genuine refugees will also be reassessed, with the risk of having their visas cancelled and therefore having no lawful right to remain in Australia. The big issue is that many of those will be unsuccessful because they were from Afghanistan and circumstances have changed. I am not sure that it is necessarily a safe place to be and I think the department's travel advice is for Australians not to go there, but somehow or other we think it is fine for refugees from Afghanistan to be sent back there.

It is quite likely many hundreds of refugees—real refugees—in Australia now will be reassessed and will be found not to meet the very strict criteria for protection visas. What is going to be done with them? A reasonably convenient solution for the government would be to put them into detention, and an even more convenient solution would be to put them into detention on Christmas Island, where they will be out of sight, outside Australia's migration zone and therefore in an area where they would have even fewer legal rights than they would have in an Australian detention centre. That is why this is still a critical and important matter.

Were it not for this temporary protection visa, those hundreds or thousands of people would now be able to become Australian citizens. If the previous regime still applied and they had been here more than two years, they could have started to become citizens. Many refugees seek to become citizens more quickly than any other forms of migrant do. They seek to settle down, establish new roots and contribute to the country much more readily than any other form of migrant. The temporary protection visa prevents them from doing that. If it were not for the temporary protection visa, instead of having to be reinterviewed about what their lives were like five years ago and continuing to live in limbo these people would most likely be at citizenship ceremonies being welcomed by the lord mayor of whatever town they are in. It is a tragic contrast and a tragic human example of the consequences of a decision of this Senate three years ago. The paths of those people's lives have been radically changed by that decision. Instead of being welcomed as new Australian citizens in a town hall, they are being reinterviewed by the department with a very strong possibility of being dragged off to a detention centre and then forcibly returned to a place like Afghanistan.

That is why this legislation is important. Unfortunately, stopping this legislation will not stop that situation from continuing, because the legislation that was passed last year, in addition to further rights-removing legislation that was passed in the new parliament earlier this year, continues to operate. But I do believe that this report should be examined by all senators, because it goes deeper into the way that the excision regime operates. It is an opportunity that senators unfortunately did not have last year when the original legislation was pushed through, because it was guillotined through without the Senate having the opportunity to examine it. This is the first examination and report by a Senate committee into the way that this operates. This, in addition to the excellent majority report of the Senate Select Committee on A Certain Maritime Incident, which also provided an opportunity to examine the Pacific solution in some detail, is finally starting to get the Senate looking at the issues that we should have been able to look at 12 months ago, before we introduced such a disgraceful bunch of legislation and before we enabled the enormous amount of suffering that is now occurring as a consequence. (Time expired)

Question agreed to.