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Thursday, 28 June 2012
Page: 4828

Senator CROSSIN (Northern Territory) (14:31): I rise this afternoon to provide some input into this debate on the Migration Legislation Amendment (The Bali Process) Bill 2012. I guess when I started in the Senate, quite a number of years ago now, the issue of refugees and their rights, what it meant to them and what it meant to this country probably were not exactly on my radar. I had provided my service to the community through education, and I came to the Senate with a knowledge of rural and regional Australia and Indigenous Territorians, having lived at Yirrkala and then in Darwin.

Through the course of my time in this parliament, I became involved in the Senate's legal and constitutional affairs committees. I was involved in the legislation and references committees in opposition, when the legislation committee was chaired by Marise Payne, and since we have been in government I have become Chair of the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee and Deputy Chair of the Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee. You might say: what has that got to do with today's debate? Well, the legal and constitutional affairs committee deals with all matters to do with immigration and citizenship. That is the committee that deals with every piece of legislation, pretty much, that comes into this parliament that has anything to do with immigration. We have looked at a whole range of issues, particularly in the last four or five years. We have looked at each and every time that the Migration Act has needed to change for the character test. We have looked at the situation in detention centres. We even looked at the Malaysian solution—shall we say—when it was sent to us as a reference. We also sit three times a year at estimates and we question and listen to officials from the Department of Immigration and Citizenship.

Through that process I have come to understand exactly why people get on a boat and what Australia's role is in this, but, even more so, what our role in this is internationally. If you sit and listen to the experts that we hear from at estimates—and I am going to say that they are experts; they are the likes of the secretary of the department, Mr Andrew Metcalfe, who has been in Immigration for many, many years, and the very senior officers that he brings with him to estimates, who deal with this every minute of every day, who know every figure, who know every fact, who know every explanation, who know exactly what is going on around this world—you build up a bank of knowledge about why we have got to the situation that we are in today. It is pretty hard to go through that bank of knowledge in a 20-minute speech, and I caught some glimpses of it yesterday in the House of Representatives, but you build up a bank of knowledge that gets you to understand that life is pretty good in this country—in fact, it is damn good in this country—but life is pretty traumatic for a lot of other people in certain countries around this world.

Life is so bad for some of these people around this world that we could never possibly imagine what some of these people have been through. We heard Senator Ludlam's explanation today about a little boy who gets off a bus and sees his father and brother shot before his very eyes. We say that in 20 words or less and in three seconds or less, but just pause for one minute and think about the lifelong image and feelings that that person then takes with them for the rest of their life. Let us talk about the women who are fleeing from Afghanistan and Iran. Let us talk about the men who are running away because they are so frightened for their lives. It is very hard, I think, as Australians to try and really imagine and have any empathy with these people when we know that we will hardly ever or never be confronted with that situation in this country.

Let us put that in the context of what other countries are experiencing—the flow of refugees into Europe, even into places like the United Kingdom, and into other places around the world. A couple of years ago when I was representing this parliament at the IPU and we were over in France and Italy, they were talking about 38,000, 40,000 and 45,000 people a year trying to flee from their countries and get into those European countries. We are debating today less than 5,000 people. We are having an argument today about whether we will increase that quota to 20,000, in a country as big and brave and bright and beautiful as Australia. Sometimes, when I sit here and I hear some of the arguments, I do not get it. I just do not get it. I have been known to say publicly, on the record, that I am not in favour of offshore processing one little bit. I actually think we should have a processing centre in Indonesia and I actually think we should take from Indonesia more of the refugees who have found their way to that country. Then I stop and think and wonder whether that would just put pressure on that country, whether more people would just find their way to Indonesia. So that is probably not a solution either. But certainly I was never in favour of the Malaysian agreement, and people know that in the last 12 months many of my colleagues on this side spoke out publicly about that agreement. I do not think it is the ideal thing. I have wanted the safeguards about the UNHCR being involved. I desperately want Malaysia to sign the United Nations convention, as well. I want the assurances about minors that I heard people speak about yesterday.

But the thing that I want more than anything else is to try to assist people in Indonesia who are refugees and are so absolutely desperate that they flee for their lives and the lives of their families and risk their lives by taking that trip on a boat. I am going to go to that for a few minutes. A couple of months back my husband was on the jury in Darwin for one of the crew of those boats and, once the trial was over and the crew were found guilty and convicted, he was able to talk about the case and the situation. Think about the fact that most of the crew get on these boats believing they are going on a fishing trip, or they are conned and told that they are just taking a group of people to another island in their archipelago, and then, hundreds of kilometres out to sea, they are met by another ship which they and all the people are shunted onto without their agreement. Think about the fact that they have limited water or limited supplies on that boat because they think they are going for two days but end up going for many days. Think about the fact that there are people out there who are willing to sell that commodity to people. But there are also people who are so desperate for their own safety and a future that they get on that boat no matter what. I think that is where we lose sight of what we are actually trying to achieve here.

Of course, I represent constituents on Christmas Island. I have gotten to know and really love that community in my 14 years as a senator; but, by God, I have seen that community change over those years. I saw that community change the minute the coalition decided they were going to build the most grotesque establishment in which to put refugees. To me, words still cannot describe the detention centre on Christmas Island. You have just got to go there and look at it, stare at it, and wonder how we could possibly ever have built such a thing in this country. It was to my great sadness that I learnt, once we got to government, that we were going to have to open it and put people in there.

The Christmas Island community is pretty strong and pretty resilient, but they are tested time and time again by people crossing the seas, crossing those waters, desperate for a free life. We all have very vivid recollections of the tragedy on the Christmas before last, when people—it is true; I heard people talk about it yesterday—actually stood on the rocks at the cove on Christmas Island and, before their very eyes, in front of them, saw that boat smash and people lose their lives, when they were literally just an arm's length away. I went up with Warren Snowdon to the memorial service that they had on the island. I have fought very hard for them to get an emergency management officer, who they have now got, and for better equipment on the island, which they have now got. But in the last week we have seen two more boats. In the last week we have seen my ordinary constituents, people who live a very different life on a day-to-day basis on Christmas Island, having, as emergency services workers, to put on those clothes, get in that ambulance and go down to that wharf to help drag body bags off the boat, help people onto the island and help get into the hospital people who had nearly drowned and lost their lives but who were at least still alive.

Christmas Islanders can stand a lot, but I tell you what: I often wonder at what point those people are at breaking point. We offer them counselling; and they are great community, so they can provide each other with support—plenty of cuddles and cups of tea. But I will never forget the stories that some of those constituents have told me personally about the horrors of that boat smashing on those rocks the Christmas before last. And of course last week the people of Christmas Island had to step up again, and they have had to step up again this week. Tragedy after tragedy is on their doorstep—literally on their doorstep. They see the dreadful outcomes when those Navy vessels come into their port. One thing I want to do today is publicly acknowledge that community: the nurses, the doctors, the ambulance drivers, the people who put together the emergency kits, the radio operators, the people who just make cups of tea for the nurses and police and doctors and psychiatrists while all this is going on, and the administrator Brian Lacy and now the acting administrator Steve Clay who have all had to pull together again.

So where does that leave us as we come to this debate in this chamber again today? As I said, I am not a big fan of the Malaysia agreement. One of the things I have seen though in the last 48 hours is us as a government trying to compromise and find a solution to this. We have worked through the Malaysia agreement as part of the Regional Cooperation Framework, in conjunction with Indonesia and Malaysia. We have always ruled out Nauru, but I think that, with what we are seeing now week after week, with so many people desperate to get on a boat, we need to reach a compromise in this parliament.

For whatever reason, people are conned into throwing away their papers. We hear that time and time again in the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee, which I chair. People are told one story on a boat. They are told, 'It's probably best for you when you get to Australia if you don't have any papers with you. It will be easier.' That is wrong. They are probably told, 'Really, you won't need those papers. You'll get new ones when you get to Australia.' That is wrong. How are they to know the difference? But if you listened to Senator Eric Abetz's contribution this morning, you would think that those people would deliberately throw those papers away. Think about that: why would they do that? If you were trying to come to this country for a better life because you were that desperate to protect yourself and your family, you would want all the evidence in the world you possibly could. I do not believe for one minute they deliberately throw those papers away. They put their trust in the people who are trying to get them here, and that is what they do because they think that is in their best interests. But really what is in their best interests is that they never have to get on that boat at all because they know that there will be no opportunity for them to be here.

I know that the coalition are wedded to temporary protection visas, and I know that if you look through the transcripts of the departmental secretary, Andrew Metcalfe, time and time again you will see that the evidence is very, very clear. Once TPVs were introduced, the number of boats coming to this country actually increased, because a TPV did not allow family migration and reunion while you had that visa. If people who were seeking refugee status had family in this country, they knew they could not get here by reunion, so they got on those boats. The statistics are there. If you look back through estimates, if you look back at the charts which the department gave us time and time again, you will see that because of the way in which TPVs were handled in this country they did not stop the boats. People did not say, 'Oh, I'm going to get a TPV; therefore I won't get on a boat'. People said: 'My family in Australia has a TPV; I'll never be able to have any family reunion under the migration program, so I'm going to get on a boat to be with them anyway.'

What have we done in a spirit of cooperation? We have said: over the next 12 months let's have a look at that. Let's have an inquiry. Let's do what we are really good at in this place: get all of the evidence from the experts, throw it in front of a select committee or a Senate committee and let's have a really good look at the effect of TPVs and whether they were effective or not. That is a compromise. That is a negotiated outcome. I do not understand why the coalition do not see that we are meeting them halfway here—that we have not totally ruled it out. If, at the end of the day, the inquiry says TPVs are going to be useful and workable, then the pressure would be on us, I would have thought, to reintroduce them.

We do not like the Nauru situation, either, because most people who ended up at Nauru were actually deemed to be genuine refugees and were brought to this country as well. So it really was not a deterrent. It was really a turn to the left for some people for a few months, but they ended up here anyway. But, in the spirit of cooperation and negotiation, we have said we will put that back on the table and we will open Nauru again. And we have said we would increase the quota to 20,000. As with all negotiated outcomes and in all stand-offs—and I have been there many times as a trade union official and I have been there many times when I have had belligerent teenagers who wanted more money out of me when they went to the movies or they wanted that extra hour coming home late at night—there is always a compromise and there is always a middle ground. In the last 24 hours I think we have found that middle ground. We have found the compromise. We will have Nauru as well as Malaysia, we will increase the quota and we will have a look at the effect of TPVs. I really just do not get why you will not support that.

For those of us who are still very wary about this whole situation, there is a 12-month caveat. I wondered last night what else you would want in order to pass this legislation. The only thing I could think of was is this. I say to the coalition: is your attitude 'our way or no way'? Is it my way or the highway? That is just not going to work in this situation. We really do not know if any of those solutions will work. We really do not know that. Every successive government has tried something different. Sometimes the boats come and sometimes they do not. Sometimes the rest of the world is peaceful and we do not have the situations in Iran and Afghanistan, and then suddenly we do. It is there before our very eyes, and we have thousands of people wanting to flee those countries to improve their own situation.

But people get on those boats and it is incredibly dangerous. They lose their lives. I do not stand for one minute the crocodile tears I saw in the chamber yesterday. We are all saddened by what we have seen. I could not have been sadder than when I stood on those cliffs at Christmas Island surrounded by islanders who were still traumatised by what they went through. If you are going to do something today, do something for my constituents on Christmas Island. Do something for the people who are in the Navy and the customs and border protection departments of this country. Stop that trauma and stop them having to deal with such incredible duress in their working lives.

People have a right to seek refugee status in this world. They have a right to do that. We have signed a piece of paper under the heading of the United Nations to say that we recognise that and we support those people. What we have to do now is make sure that, when seeking asylum and seeking refugee status, they do it in a very safe way—they do not put their lives at risk, they do not put their family at risk and they do not put their future at risk.

I am really saying to the coalition today: have a break sometime this afternoon and re-assess this. Re-assess where you are going. If this is not the solution, then what is? What is the solution? This is a compromise for a 12-month period. Even though I am not going to give it the full tick and I do not give it 10 gold stars, I am at least prepared to say, like Anthony Albanese, that we have got to do something so that people do not put their lives at risk and so they end up getting the safe and secure future that they deserve in this world.