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Monday, 14 March 2005
Page: 124


Senator BARTLETT (10:07 PM) —I want to speak tonight on a topic I have spoken about on a number of occasions in this place, and that is the importance of freedom. There has been a lot of talk about freedoms as a society and individual freedoms and defending those freedoms from attacks from terrorists and other acts of violence, and it is appropriate that we do that. But a growing number of people—including, I might say, people from all parties in this place—recognise that curtailing an individual’s freedom, actually locking them away, is very serious and not an action that should be taken without the strongest possible reasons. I speak in the context of the debate about mandatory detention of asylum seekers who arrive in Australia without a valid visa and also in the context of the very robust debate that has occurred over the last week or so in the United Kingdom parliament and over the last few months in that country’s community and courts.

You do not need to be a monarchist to recognise the strong links that Australia’s legal system and legal traditions have with the UK. A basic recognition of how fundamental it is to have one’s individual freedoms and freedoms as a community is something our two societies share. But it is important to contrast that debate and its results in the United Kingdom with the reality here in Australia. In the United Kingdom last year, just before Christmas, Britain’s highest court, the law lords, ruled by eight to one that a law passed by the UK parliament was not lawful. That law had allowed arbitrary detention of foreigners who were suspected of terrorism; obviously they had been assessed to be potentially of great risk to the safety of the community and, therefore, it was necessary to take the extreme step of detaining or imprisoning them without trial.

The law lords in a very strong judgment recognised, to quote one, that it was ‘antithetical to the instincts and traditions of the people of the United Kingdom’—as I said before, certainly in this context traditions which Australia shares. Another law lord, in assessing this law of the parliament of the UK, said:

The real threat to the life of the nation, in the sense of a people living in accordance with its traditional laws and political values, comes not from terrorism but from laws such as these. That is the true measure of what terrorism may achieve. It is for Parliament to decide whether to give the terrorists such a victory.

They are the extremely strong words that have come from judges of Britain’s highest court about a group of people who were assessed as potentially being significant security risks. In response, the UK parliament has been debating replacement laws for the last week or two. As other senators may know, these laws have bounced backwards and forwards between the two houses of the UK parliament. Even though the upper house in the UK does not have the same powers as the Senate here in Australia, it certainly still has the power to send bills back to the lower house for reconsideration. That was done with a lot of debate, a lot of public commentary and a lot of coverage in the media—far more fulsome coverage, it appeared to me, than we received here in Australia with our antiterrorist laws. The legislation, which was finally passed, still allowed the imposing of curfews and electronic tagging of people—that is, people who have not been charged—as well as putting conditions on people such as preventing them from meeting certain people and from travelling and restricting their access to the internet or telephone. So certainly the legislation restricts some of their freedoms but it falls short of imprisoning them without charge. I remind the Senate that this is about people who are suspected of being a severe safety risk to the people of the United Kingdom.

I put that by way of background to the reality here in Australia, where we have people who have been locked up—in one case now for over 6½ years—who clearly do not present any threat at all to the community regarding safety, security or health risks. They are not suspected nor have they been accused of any sort of crime. Certainly in some cases they have even indicated their desire and willingness to go to any other country, including the country they say they came from. But that has not been achievable, so they have just stayed locked up.

Contrast Australia, which will lock up asylum seekers who are not accused or suspected of any crime, risk or danger to the community for six years or more and counting, with the United Kingdom, whose courts recognise it as being unlawful to lock up without charge indefinitely people only suspected of being a terrorist risk. I think that sends a very strong message about how far out of whack our priorities are in Australia. I am not sure how we got to this stage—probably one step at a time—but where we have ended up is simply a disgrace. It is antithetical to our democratic traditions and that crucially important basic and very appropriately cherished right of individual freedom.

I would mention also another woman who has not been locked up for 6½ years; she has only been locked up for about 20 months. Maybe that does not seem too bad by comparison. But it is pretty poor when you start to think, ‘Oh, 20 months is not too bad; she’s still got a way to go before she gets to six years.’ This is a 74-year-old Vietnamese woman called Thi Tu Nguyen who has been detained on Christmas Island since 6 July, when she arrived with slightly more than 50 other asylum seekers. Eleven of those 50 have now been accepted as refugees; this woman has not been accepted. I met her, along with most of the other detainees on Christmas Island, towards the end of last year. She is a very small, frail woman who was born in 1931 in Vietnam and she would have gone through all sorts of experiences in Vietnam over the course of the 20th century. To think of her ending end up imprisoned on Christmas Island for nearly two years now—and she clearly poses no threat or risk to the Australian community—is clearly not acceptable.

About now, because Western Australia is three hours behind us, people are demonstrating outside the detention centre near the airport in Perth. I think people drive past this centre all the time and do not realise it is there. That is where this woman now is. The Christmas Island centre is not the most pleasant place in the world, but it is certainly nicer than the very stark, small, cramped brick detention centre adjoining Perth airport, which is where this woman is now. She is the only female in that detention centre. She has been brought to Perth for medical treatment, and the local Vietnamese community has offered to provide her with accommodation in its Perth Buddhist temple. That has not been agreed to by the immigration minister. Again, I think it is an absurd situation where we have frail and ill 74-year-old women being locked up in a concrete jail with others who are visa overstayers and criminal deportees purely because that is what the law says and for no other reason. It is a ridiculous situation.

This woman is a bit like the matriarch of the group on Christmas Island. When I met her, I could see she was clearly suffering from her situation. It is a situation of suffering that should not be added to by her current circumstances. Of course, there are still others in detention. The people on Nauru have now been there for over 3½ years. They cannot go back to Iraq or Afghanistan at the moment, they will not be accepted by Australia and they are stuck there, languishing and suffering more and more with each passing day. This sort of situation is unacceptable. I support the calls of the member for Kooyong and many others for us to recognise that we have gone down the wrong path, to rule a line under it, to let this small number of long-term detainees go and to sort out a better way forward. Look at what the UK has recognised, even for its suspected terrorists: this is not appropriate for people who are a threat to no-one. It is time to change our way. (Time expired)