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Thursday, 28 June 2012
Page: 4810

Senator DI NATALE (Victoria) (12:58): As it is for many people in this place, this is an issue I feel very deeply about. Both my mother and father came here in boats—not under the threat of death or torture but in the hope of a better life. I understand better than most the courage required for the sacrifice involved and the sadness that comes with turning your back on your culture, your language and your traditions because you have lost hope. It is this legacy I bring to this debate. First and foremost, let us never forget that this is not a debate about boats; it is a debate about people who have fled their home countries because they fear death or persecution—mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters. At the heart of this dilemma lies a central question: should we punish people who seek refuge in the hope that we prevent further suffering or should we protect them and provide them with the refuge they seek? I know there are many good people in this place who believe punishment is necessary because it acts as a deterrent to others and in doing so it might prevent further deaths. I also know there are others in this place who believe that punishment is necessary because they have never believed that refugees have a right to enter Australia by boat and that doing so somehow represents a violation of our borders. 'We decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come,' best reflects that sentiment. I am not going to spend any time on this argument except to say that many decades ago, in response to unimaginable cruelty, nations across the world gathered together to ensure that all people have a right to seek refuge. We are not just obliged to do it under international law; it is the moral thing to do, it is the right thing to do, it is the just thing to do. Rather than focus on that, I want to focus on safety at sea and deterrence because, like many good people in this place, I have been greatly disturbed by the recent deaths.

If our primary concern is the welfare of people making this perilous trip, we are not confronted with a simple choice between stopping deaths at sea and relative safety. It is much more complex than that. It is not a simple choice for the individuals involved and it is not a simple choice for those of us charged with deciding how to respond. The first question to answer is: does deterrence work? If the risk of death at sea is not a sufficient deterrent, it is hard to imagine that anything the government does will make a substantial difference. Just today I have heard from NGO workers in Indonesian who tell us that asylum seekers are aware of policies in Australia but that the threat to send people to Malaysia will not stop them. Only today we heard from Senator Milne who said there are many thousands of people in camps in Indonesia and Malaysia, yet despite those many thousands we have settled but a few.

I do not think anyone would argue that refugee movements for the large part are a reflection of broader international trends. And the fact that we are a wealthy, safe and democratic nation makes Australia a desirable location for people who seek our protection. I know that the coalition argue that their policy stopped the boats, despite the fact that, as Senator Milne said earlier, the sinking of the SIEVX, with over 350 people on board, occurred several years after the introduction of TPVs and months after the introduction of the Pacific solution. It is true that fluctuations in refugee numbers have occurred after changes in government policy but this is a case of correlation rather than causation. Just because something happened during your time in government does not mean you are responsible for it. I do however accept that these facts are contested. I also accept that, if this was a decision that carried no other consequences, there might even be an argument to test it. I understand the Australian community are desperately sad at what they have seen and they are reaching out for a solution—so too am I. That is why this is not simply an argument about deterrence and whether it works; there is much more to this debate than that.

If we do accept that government action plays some role in deterring people from embarking on a dangerous boat journey—and I do not accept that that is necessarily the case—there is still a much larger question to answer: should the government turn away people who are seeking our protection? Turning people away—even if it is for the right reasons—who have a genuine right to asylum and sending them back to countries which have not signed on to the refugee convention also has terrible costs. It means committing people who have already endured untold suffering to further suffering. Some people say, 'They have their lives,' but many refugees will say that such a life, a life without hope, is not a life worth living. They may not lose their lives at sea, they may not make the six o'clock news, but many die or suffer in silence. Some will take their own lives, young children are damaged and the suffering endures behind locked doors. It might not have the impact of a death at sea but their suffering is no less important.

I will never forget the great harm inflicted on the thousands of people who legitimately sought protection but were sent offshore to suffer away from the gaze of the Australian public—the suicides, the self harm, the kids who screamed in their sleep. That is the consequence of the bill we are being asked to consider today. There is also another great injustice at the heart of this bill—that we would punish one group of traumatised and vulnerable people who are legitimately seeking refuge and protection here on our shores, as is their right, simply to send a message to an entirely different group of people. We do not accept that for Australian citizens. We never have and we should never accept it for people from other nations who seek our protection. There has been a lot of talk over the past few days about policies that work, policies that are effective, policies that have made a difference. But the real reason we are here today is that we cannot agree on how we actually define a successful policy. What is a policy that works? We know that some people are going to argue that stopping the boats is all that matters and that is the only thing that is important. But I cannot ignore the fact that offering refuge to people in need of protection, not inflicting further suffering on an already traumatised group, is just as important. I have always believed that a wealthy country like Australia, a country with so much to give, should offer that protection because it is a sign of strength, not weakness.

Ultimately, though, I take my guidance from those people whose welfare we purport to protect, those fleeing torture and persecution in their home country, like the 14-year-old Pashtun kid living on the Pakistan border who watches his father and older brothers taken out of a bus and shot at point-blank range. He leaves his home country, fleeing the very real prospect of torture or death; he arrives in a transit country on our doorstep where he faces the threat of imprisonment, where he will never get a job or an education; and he makes the decision to come to Australia. From the perspective of a refugee like him, the decision to board a boat to come to Australia is an entirely logical one. Return to your home country or stay in a transit country and risk death or imprisonment, a life without any meaning or hope, or take that risk, knowing what it means, in the hope of a better life. For some this is simply the lesser of two evils.

I am not here in a show of party unity. That is not why I am here. I have wrestled with my conscience on this issue. I have looked for compromise, and I do understand that in politics, just as in life, compromise is important—it is essential. But I have always believed that real leadership means knowing when not to compromise, because compromise can soon become betrayal—betrayal of the refugees on board when the SIEVX sank and instructions were issued to prevent any of them reaching Australia via boat, and it was the Greens who stood up for them; betrayal of the values that I hold dear; and, above all, betrayal of people seeking our protection.

We are at a stage in this debate where we have reached at least some agreement. I believe there is consensus on action. It seems now that all of us in this place agree that we must increase our humanitarian intake, and I think that is progress. We all agree that we need to work with our neighbours, both Malaysia and Indonesia, to improve the way we process and care for asylum seekers. We agree that they need to have legal safeguards so that people are safe while they wait. In short, we all agree on the need for a regional solution. It seems we are also reaching agreement on the fact that we must adequately resource the UNHCR. There are such small numbers of people charged with the responsibility of processing the many thousands of men, women and children lingering in camps near our shores. As Senator Milne said earlier, with such limited capacity and such great need, it is no wonder that so many people are taking risks to come to Australia. We can do something about this problem today: we can adequately resource the UNHCR so that we process more people and provide a safe pathway for these people who have every right to seek refuge and our protection.

I would also say that in some ways this is a watershed debate. I know it might be a forlorn hope, but I do believe that many of us in this place are here with the best of intentions. The suggestion that we should have a multiparty committee to try and make progress on this issue is a good one. Why not meet behind closed doors, away from the glare of the media spotlight, and do our best to depoliticise this issue? Let us not pour any more fuel onto this fire. We also need to think about uncoupling the zero-sum game that comes from pitting onshore and offshore refugees against each other, by establishing quotas that work independently of each other. We heard from Senator Milne about the critical need to take concrete and practical steps to improve safety at sea for all people who seek to make this dangerous journey.

I know that not everyone will agree with our position. I know that. I have heard from some of them. I have spoken with some of them. I know some of them are angry. I know many of them understand. But it is a position taken in good conscience, knowing that there is no single right answer to this terrible, terrible dilemma. I say to those people who criticise our position that they are not just criticising us. They are criticising Amnesty International and the many other human rights groups we have spoken to and sought guidance from, the UNHCR, and the many thousands of NGO workers currently in camps, doing the work of processing refugees and trying to provide them with a pathway to a better life. I do understand that despite our best efforts and regardless of what we do here today some people will continue to take risks to come to Australia. I understand the courage and sacrifice that is necessary to take those risks. I also understand the deep sadness associated with that decision. But it has always been my belief and always will be my belief that we as a rich, prosperous, generous, compassionate nation have an obligation never to turn away people who seek our help and our protection and who seek to make their lives a little bit better.