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Tuesday, 8 September 2009
Page: 5886

Senator TROETH (12:37 PM) —Today I would like to speak in support of this bill; I will be voting for this bill when the call is taken. Over the last few years I have played a small part in ameliorating and lessening some of the more punitive measures that have been imposed on asylum seekers, refugees and people who come to these shores. But I just want to put on record that this particular measure was introduced by a Labor government and perhaps it is poetic justice that it is being removed by a Labor government.

There is no doubt that since 2005, and in subsequent years leading up to now, recognition has grown in the community that people who come to our shores looking for assistance, asylum and a desire to have a better life should be treated a lot better than they are. And to impose accommodation charges on them in the way that has been done because this law has existed is not something I can go along with any more.

We often hear in this chamber about the agonies or the worries of those Australians who are battling mortgage stress. They wonder how they are going to pay their mortgage and how they are going to exist in the present global financial crisis if they lose their jobs. I can only ask the chamber to imagine how they would feel if they were a person newly arrived in Australia who was in a detention centre and was being charged every single night for their accommodation and board, and all they had, quite literally, were the clothes in which they stood. How would anybody feel if, when they left the detention centre, they received a debt notification letter and an invoice from the department—and this was prior to any thought of the debt being waived?

These are people who have spent a very short time in our country. They have probably very little knowledge of macroeconomics. They have left a life of perhaps torture and trauma behind them. They have been in a detention centre and we are asking them to pay a debt which sometimes amounts to $100,000, $200,000 or $300,000. How would they possibly cope with that? Indeed, the Joint Standing Committee on Migration, in its recent inquiry, said:

[The detention charges policy] stands as a barrier towards refugees fully integrating into the community, and [these charges continue] to put significant pressure—both emotionally and financially—on those people who have already experienced so much trauma and uncertainty in their lives.

It must be a terrible psychological shock to them as they wonder how they will repay this debt. When they have nothing, no assets on which to base any sort of wealth accumulation, it must be a shock to be even contemplating this.

The comment has been made that the more we ‘soften’—and that is other people’s word, not mine—policies towards refugees the more we can expect a flood of refugees. And words like ‘flood’, ‘panic’ and ‘hundreds of thousands of people arriving on our shores’ are used all too often. There is no doubt that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, in his most recent report, shows that the number of individual claims for asylum worldwide rose for the second year in a row by 28 per cent to 839,000 people. Developed countries like Australia do attract asylum seekers, but the fact is that 80 per cent of the world’s refugees are hosted by developing countries—Pakistan, Syria, Iran and Jordan. Among the developed countries, the US received 49,600 applications for asylum; France, 35,400; Canada, 34,800; the UK, 30,500; and Italy, 30,000. Australia received—and this is taken together, both boat people and plane arrivals—4,500 asylum claims. That is 0.05 per cent of the worldwide total, and almost all of them did not arrive by boat. So I challenge the theories of those who want to say that this is opening the floodgates. Firstly, that is an unpalatable concept to those of us who think about it and, secondly, it simply is not true.

We are legislators here in a 21st-century Australia, an Australia which has grown enormously through migration, through the assimilation of people who were born in other countries. I regularly attend citizenship ceremonies in my local municipalities where people are so happy to be here. At Stonnington, which is a municipal area in central Melbourne, we wave gladiola to show how happy we are that everyone has now received citizenship. These punitive sorts of charges and the putting up of these barriers should never happen. I will be proud to be in a legislature that legislates to take this law off the statute books.

Senator Fielding said that little of the money is recovered, and I see there is a reason for that. It costs more to gather that money than what we are getting back in the coffers. Let us just do away with it. The law does not help. Even if it is never collected, the fact is that it is still a blot on our statute book and I for one will not accept that it should be in continuation. No advanced society should have on its books laws like this, and so I will be supporting the government on this bill.