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Monday, 9 December 2002
Page: 7452

Senator BARTLETT (Leader of the Australian Democrats) (4:05 PM) —I speak on behalf of the Australian Democrat Party in noting the motion relating to the proposed deportation of East Timorese asylum seekers that was passed by the Northern Territory Legislative Assembly last week. My understanding is that the motion was passed unanimously—that is, with the support of Country Liberal party members. If I am wrong, I am sure someone will tell me otherwise. The assembly certainly passed it and it is a motion that the Democrats wholeheartedly endorse. Indeed, it should be one that the Senate endorses because it expands upon a view already expressed by way of a motion agreed to by the Senate a few weeks back in relation to the situation faced by people of East Timorese background who are now well and truly part of the Australian community.

It is particularly relevant for people in Darwin and for the Territory community, which is no doubt why the Northern Territory assembly has taken this issue so seriously. It is also particularly relevant for people in Melbourne, where there is another large East Timorese community made up of many of these people who have been made to suffer for such a long period of time and who have been left in limbo because of the consistent policy of this and the previous Labor government when people first arrived while the Indonesian occupation of East Timor was, of course, still well and truly a reality.

The resolution of the assembly rightly acknowledges the substantial contribution which members of the East Timorese community have made to the Northern Territory community over many years. That applies to those who are in other parts of the country as well, but it is probably more noticeable in Darwin because it is a smaller community than somewhere like Melbourne—the proportion of East Timorese there is more noticeable—and because Darwin has stronger historical links with the region, obviously, being a lot closer geographically.

The Democrats are pleased that the Northern Territory parliament has expressed its support for the East Timorese asylum seekers and is extending support, including funding for legal aid. It is a crucial issue and it is one that the Democrats have raised many times over many years. It is very unfortunate that it has got to a situation now where, finally, the government is starting to process these people's claims when the situation is such that they are unlikely to meet the very strict refugee criteria that apply in Australia. It is probably the case that many people do not fit the very tight criteria for refugee status, although it is undoubtedly the case that most or all of them did fit the criteria when they arrived in Australia and when they put in their initial applications many years ago.

The opinion of the Northern Territory government and parliament is that the East Timorese should remain in the communities that they are now well and truly a part of. Certainly I and, I expect, many others in this chamber—particularly the Northern Territory representatives, Senator Crossin and Senator Scullion—have received many representations from individuals wanting assistance to ensure that they can remain in Australia, in some cases permanently and in others at least until they can finish their studies. Surely it would be in Australia's interests, let alone those people's individual interests and in the interests of the East Timorese nation, that people who are partway through higher education should be enabled to finish that education, which they could then use much more effectively to assist their former nation of East Timor. There is no doubt that Australia still owes a significant debt to East Timor, in terms of not just the actions and occurrences during the Second World War but also, as a government, our insistence on turning a blind eye to their plight for around 25 years.

Clearly, East Timor is now amongst the most impoverished nations in our region. The East Timorese are clearly in a situation of significant instability and they need our support. They do not need a government that dumps 1,000 or so people back into the middle of that fledgling nation, many of them without homes to go to, without support and, for the younger people, without even the ability to speak a language other than English and with no real direct experience of or connection with the land that they are now being sent back to other than their historical connection to it.

The Democrats note and endorse the statement seeking support for the resolution and for the deportees' applications to the minister for immigration. It is another sign of how the stringent, very hardline approach to migration law which this government takes is not only harsh and cruel for the individuals involved but also counterproductive for Australia. Here we have a group of people— it is not particularly large; 1,500 to 1,700— all of whom are desperate to stay in Australia. Certainly all those whom I have met, which would probably be about 30 individuals with different histories and backgrounds in Australia for many years, desperately want to contribute. There is no doubt that, on average, they would contribute to this nation far more, far more passionately and in a far more committed way than many others in the country.

In addition to that, we have a process where, rather than simply apply a blanket approach to all of them, which has been done in the past, the minister, for what seem to be policy purity reasons—or perhaps it is because he is not allowed to do so by the government more broadly—is insisting that each case be dealt with individually. Each of them has to go through the departmental assessment. Over 700 have been assessed already, every single one of whom has failed. Each of them will have to go to the Refugee Review Tribunal, which could certainly do without the extra workload. Each of them would then almost certainly also fail. Then, and only then, are they able to apply for discretion from the minister. Rather than circumventing all that process and simply having ministerial intervention at the start and, even better, rather than having ministerial intervention looking at each case individually, which would also take an enormous amount of time, it will tie up not just the department and the minister, who have to make these decisions, but all the advocates, supporters in the community, legal aid and legal services staff who will help to prepare their cases and people such as ourselves who will assist in advocating on behalf of these people. Huge amounts of effort will be put in just to get the minister to exercise his discretion to allow those people to apply for some other visa. It will take a long time and it will lead to ongoing suffering for these people, who will have an uncertain future. They will not know what is going to happen.

One of the worst things about ministerial discretion, as the Democrats have pointed out time and again, including in the Senate committee report on our onshore refugee determination process—it was clearly a unanimous recommendation by all those who participated—is that it is totally arbitrary. You cannot compel the minister to use it and you cannot appeal against it. Whilst there are guidelines that he is required to use, you have no idea what it is that led him to accept one person or to agree to exercise his discretion with one person and not to agree with another. Nobody knows and nobody can ever know. It is almost a massive global lucky dip as to whose future is positive and whose future is negative. Those people and all the people helping them are in the middle of that ridiculous environment and they will suffer it for many months to come.

It is worth noting that it has been done before. There is the well-known case of the Chinese students in the Tiananmen Square massacre. A blanket exemption for all those people ended up allowing 42,717 visas to be granted. You say that that is a special case, and it was. I argue that the East Timorese people have a better case than even the Chinese had, not that I opposed that case. It was also applied back in 1997, when the present immigration minister, Minister Ruddock, announced decisions to resolve the status of certain groups of people who had been in Australia as long-term residents. That clearly applies here. Those groups included people who had come from Kuwait, Iraq, Lebanon, China, Sri Lanka and the former Yugoslavia.

I argue that this case is more compelling than any of those cases. They are people who, as we all know, are part of our community, are effective and will contribute well. Let us save ourselves all the trouble and expense; let us save these people the extra suffering. Let us add our support to the Northern Territory parliament. Let us get state parliaments around the country, particularly Victoria, which has a large East Timorese community, to build the pressure on the immigration minister and the federal government to change their minds, to do the right thing by these people and by Australia and to show a bit of commonsense as well as compassion.