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Thursday, 28 June 2012
Page: 4844

Senator HUMPHRIES (Australian Capital Territory) (15:47): Today, the highest duty facing the parliament is to end the iniquitous trade that has led to the deaths of so many people, to end the business of people smuggling and to end the attraction that so many desperate people find to climb aboard unseaworthy vessels and attempt the journey from Indonesia, or other countries, to Australia. On that I think the parliament would be united.

But what we are not faced with today is a single immutable choice, which we either accept or reject, as to how to actually do that. The government has consistently characterised this debate today as being about their solution or no solution. But there are other alternatives to that.

Senator Wong: How can you as a moderate stand in here and make that contribution. It is a disgrace.

Senator Cash: What about the Left of your party? They have completely compromised themselves on this.

Senator Wong interjecting

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Order! Senator Wong, your speakers have been listened to in complete silence. Senator Cash, I also ask you not to interject. Can the debate continue in the tone that it has been running so far: without interjection.

Senator HUMPHRIES: I stand by the comment that it is utterly inappropriate to accept a solution from this government. This government has demonstrated so many times over the last four years that it cannot get this issue right, that it fails again and again to work out what is going on and diagnose the problem and identify a solution. We are absolutely right in rejecting the one black-letter solution this government offers us, which is to send asylum seekers to Malaysia and nowhere else, because Malaysia is not the option. Indeed, of all the options available to the government Malaysia is absolutely the worst.

We need to be aware that there are amendments before the chamber today. There are amendments from the Australian Greens and from the coalition. Presumably, if either set of those amendments were to be successful, this legislation would pass the parliament this afternoon and become the law of Australia. I assume the Greens have put forward their amendments in the hope that they would be passed, and that would make the bill palatable to them. It has not been entirely clear from what they have said in the chamber—I am looking for some kind of acknowledgement, but I am not seeing it at the moment.

Senator Ludlam interjecting

Senator HUMPHRIES: We will find out from Senator Ludlam in a minute what their position is, but I assume they are putting forward amendments in good faith to amend a bill to make it acceptable to the Greens. It would be very irregular to move an amendment to a bill that you do not intend to support, irrespective of whether or not the amendment gets up.

For our part we have moved amendments that we stand behind. If these amendments were passed and incorporated into the legislation it would allow this bill to pass this afternoon and become law. So, we are not faced with the government solution or no solution. We are faced with the government's solution or an amended government bill that makes this legislation consistent with the human rights standards on which Australia has operated for so long with respect to the treatment of refugees. Although there are three amendments on the page, effectively they are one amendment. The amendment says that in designating a country to be an offshore assessment country that country should be determined by reference only to the fact that the country is a party to the refugees convention or the refugees protocol. That is the only thing that we are asking the government to accept in order to make this bill passable by the parliament today. The other place is still sitting. We could easily send an amended bill to the other place. It would pass and the thing would become law. There is nothing else stopping this from becoming law except the government's unwillingness—to quote the word used so often in the chamber this afternoon—to compromise. Compromise works two ways. We are prepared to compromise. You say that you brought a compromise to the parliament, but you have not bothered to work this compromise through with either the coalition, the largest group of parties in the parliament—

Senator Wong: You will regret this. You will look back on this and regret this.

Senator HUMPHRIES: Deputy President, I have sat through a large number of contributions to this debate today. I have not once interjected on any speaker, although I have been mightily tempted to do so. I ask your protection against the intervention of this minister.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Order! I ask for order on both sides. I will make two comments. Firstly, senators should direct their remarks to the chair, not across the chamber. Secondly, interjections are disorderly and they are not assisting the debate. The tone of the debate has been fine up and until now and it would be nice to continue in that manner. Senator Humphries, you have the call. Please direct your remarks to the chair.

Senator HUMPHRIES: The coalition prefer the option of processing asylum seekers on Nauru. We believe that that is an obvious and logical thing to do because there are already facilities, built at Australian taxpayer expense, on Nauru. The government of Nauru is keen for Australia to reopen its facilities there. There are no human rights concerns about operating the facilities on Nauru, firstly, because Nauru has now signed the refugee convention and, secondly, because, even if it had not, Australia would operate the facilities on the island, as it did between 2001 and 2007. There is no question that we can supervise and ensure the maintenance of the human rights of those who are processed on Nauru. We have said that we prefer Nauru. But the effect of the opposition's amendment is not to mandate Nauru. This is not the opposition saying, 'You must process asylum seekers on Nauru,' and the government saying, 'You must process asylum seekers in Malaysia.'

Senator Wong: We have agreed to Nauru.

Senator HUMPHRIES: You are saying that if this legislation passes—

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Order! Please address your remarks to the chair, Senator Humphries. Order, Senator Wong.

Senator Wong: Tell the truth.

Senator HUMPHRIES: I am telling the truth.

Senator Wong: We have agreed to do Nauru.

Senator HUMPHRIES: You have agreed to allow a future government to do Nauru. You are not going to do Nauru, Senator Wong.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Senator Humphries, your comments should be made to the chair, not across the chamber. That does not assist the debate.

Senator HUMPHRIES: If the government's legislation is passed, they will process all of the refugees who come into Australian waters in Malaysia, in a country which canes people for being refugees and nothing else. In the five years between 2005 and 2010, it has caned almost 30,000 unlawful entrants to Malaysia. Malaysia has laws built into its system of justice which allow the corporal punishment of people, including children, for committing any of a range of minor offences. Children may be whipped, not more than 10 strokes a light cane, I am pleased to say, but they may under the law of Malaysia be whipped for committing certain offences if they are refugees. I am not going to use my vote on the floor of the Senate today to perpetrate that kind of injustice. I want better solutions for those to whom Australia has a duty of care. It is a pity that the Labor Party is not prepared to make the same kind of—

Senator Wong: Did you even read the offer?

Senator HUMPHRIES: You can speak later if you want, Senator Wong. Give me my chance to say something. The opposition is prepared to accept the processing of refugees in any country that has signed the refugee convention. And there are 148 of them, with quite a few in this region. Any one of those countries with which Australia might negotiate an arrangement could be an acceptable place to send refugees. The government proposes, if it passes its legislation today, to process them in only one place: in Malaysia, which has an appalling record with respect to the treatment of refugees. That is consistent with my conscience. I am very surprised indeed that there are some senators who have previously said that they were not prepared to accept Malaysia who have stood in this place today and said that they find that within their contemplation.

The other extraordinary thing about this government's plans are how untested they are and how shaky they are as a realistic proposition for dealing with the processing of refugees. There is great opposition within Australia, rightfully, to the Malaysian deal. But it may surprise some senators on the other side of the chamber to learn that there is also opposition to this arrangement within Malaysia. Only earlier this week, a senior representative of the People's Justice Party—the party headed by Anwar Ibrahim that in nine months will be contesting elections in Malaysia and which has, I am told, a very good chance of forming the next government of Malaysia—said this:

The Malaysia-Australia refugees exchange agreement is not acceptable to the Malaysian public. Asylum-seekers deserve to be treated with dignity, and cannot be sent to and held in places against their will. The opposition coalition, consisting of the People's Justice Party, Islamic Party and Democratic Action Party, will continue to object to the scheme. The Australian government's insistence on pursuing this plan will not help to build a friendly relationship with the Malaysian people.

He finished by saying:

The scheme is inhumane.

This is Malaysia; this is a Malaysian politician; this is one of the leaders of the party most likely to form a government after the next election telling us that they do not think that the Malaysian solution is a good idea. And yet the Australian government purports to tell us that it is a great idea: 'Let's send them to Malaysia.' I don't think this government has thought through this situation, because it is looking for a political solution, not a solution which is consistent with our obligations to those people to whom we owe a duty.

So many myths have been perpetrated in the course of this debate this afternoon, by the Australian Labor Party in particular. They persist with this ridiculous argument that Nauru did not work when we were in government, and they define that to mean that most people who were sent to Nauru ended up in Australia anyway. First of all, that is factually incorrect. The majority of people who were diverted under the Pacific solution of the Howard government to Nauru did not end up in Australia. Only 43 per cent of people ended up being resettled, with humanitarian visas, in Australia. And it was that fact which was crucial in breaking the business model of the people smugglers—because, if you had a product you were trying to sell which had less than a 50 per cent success rate, why would you, as a refugee, no matter how desperate, want to buy it? Why would you want to put US$10,000 into a people smuggler's hands if you had less than a 50 per cent chance of getting to Australia? That fact, and the other steps that the Howard government took to end the trade of the people smugglers, did work—it did result in the trade being virtually stamped out. As many people arrived in the last six years of the Howard government's application of that solution as have been arriving every month in the last couple of years under the solution employed by the Rudd and now Gillard governments. Of course it worked: because it stopped the boats; it actually did stop the boats.

As Senator Brandis pointed out earlier today, when you stop the boats, you stop the deaths at sea. There have been at least 550 deaths at sea that we know about—of course, we will not always know about a death at sea; people don't advertise the fact that they are leaving Indonesian waters and heading for Australia, but we know fairly reliably of at least 550 souls who have perished in the sea between here and Indonesia. That did not happen during the Pacific solution, because people did not come on boats; there were virtually no arrivals in boats, and that is what saved people's lives. People had objections to that solution. People did not like aspects of that solution, because it left people in legal limbo for a relatively long period of time—and I accept that as a criticism you can make about the solution—but, demonstrably, it also saved lives. It ended the business model of the people smugglers; it was worth doing then and it is worth doing again now.

Senator Furner was among others who made the claim that we did not have a country to which we sent asylum seekers during that period under the Howard government which were parties to the UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. Nauru was not, at that stage, a signatory. That is true: it was not a signatory to the UN convention on refugees. But our concern was to make sure that we discharged our obligations to international treaties and so forth with respect to the treatment of refugees, so we ensured that those obligations were met by actually seeing that Australia supervised the provision of services to people on Nauru. We knew that they were being properly treated, because we actually had Australians providing the services. If we send people to Malaysia, we cannot have that same guarantee, when Malaysia as a nation refuses to sign the UN convention. We operated the facilities, we knew what was happening to the refugees; it was an acceptable way of being able to ensure that their rights were being upheld. The proof of that fact is that, when the High Court brought down its decision in October last year, striking down this government's ridiculous Malaysian solution because it was in breach of Australia's human rights obligations, it did not find that a Nauru solution, or a model like it, would fall down, because there were other ways of ensuring Australia met its obligations. That is the crucial point.

As I said, we are not insistent that processing be in any one country. We accept that there are many alternatives and we invite this government to explore those alternatives if it wants to. At one stage, it in fact told us that it was exploring those alternatives. It told us it was looking at reopening the facility on Manus Island, in Papua New Guinea. What happened to that proposition? It appears to have lost interest in it. In fact, it talked about a 'regional solution' at one stage—that there be a regional solution to the problem of asylum seekers. What is regional about the solution that the government now has two years later? At best it is a bilateral solution with one country: Malaysia, and that one country becomes the receptacle for Australia's diverted asylum-seeker intake. And of course it is a very costly proposition to Australia because, for every 800 refugees that we divert to Malaysia, we have to accept 4,000 coming here. If that is the currency the government wants to work with—800 to Malaysia; 4,000 to Australia—what will that do given that, in the period since this solution was announced, some 8,000 people have come to Australia by sea? Does that mean that we would need to accept from Malaysia some 40,000 people as our trade-off with this notorious and ridiculous people swap? I don't think so.

Let me conclude as I started, by saying that we are not faced with Hobson's choice here. The ALP have characterised this as their way or the highway, that there is only one solution to this problem—and it is to accept the legislation that is before us today. This legislation could be changed in a very small way by probably 50 words being added to the legislation, or substituted. These 50 words broaden the range of opportunities for the government to process asylum seekers but ensure that we do not breach our obligations to the human rights of those people who come within our obligation of care by ensuring that we do not send refugees to countries that have not signed the refugee convention. That is the fair and decent thing to do. That is a solution that stands right in front of us today. It is only a vote away from being implemented. I urge this government to cut the rhetoric of 'We're the ones who are going to compromise; why don't you?' and accept that you could make a very big step. You could compromise very clearly by simply voting for the amendments moved by Senator Abetz, ending this farce and ending, most importantly, this iniquitous trade in people run by the people smugglers.