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Wednesday, 15 August 2012
Page: 5423

Senator CAMERON (New South Wales) (18:19): I rise with a heavy heart to speak on this bill. I think it will become clear as I go through my contribution why I say that. The first thing I want to say is that I listened intently to Senator Abetz, who spoke about the Pacific solution. I do not know any expert anywhere in the world who thinks there is some quick solution to the problem of refugees and asylum seekers around the world. There is no quick and easy solution.

I want to state my deep disappointment that the bill that was before the Senate in June failed to pass. In my view, that bill was far from perfect but it provided for a better policy outcome than does this bill. In terms of the humanitarian values that I hold on this issue and the policy outcomes that I would prefer, I believe that this bill is a step backwards from the position that was before us in June. I have already indicated my disappointment with the Greens for what I believe is an immature political position that they adopted in June. As on carbon pricing, on this issue their political puritanism and their complete unwillingness to make any compromise on what they call their principles has given us this bill, which is a lesser bill in my view than that which was before us in June. For the Greens, any compromise on their part is an unconscionable backdown that cannot be tolerated. For everyone else, according to the Greens, failure to agree with them is an unconscionable sellout.

As Waleed Aly points out in the current edition of the Monthly, 'The Greens are perfectly capable of shedding crocodile tears when it comes to the human rights of asylum seekers.' When the Greens refused what may ultimately have been a disingenuous offer from the coalition to increase the refugee intake to 20,000 and limit processing times to 12 months, largely reflecting Greens policy, they knocked it back because of their humanitarian concerns about processing on Nauru. As Aly points out, 'Apparently, asylum seekers' human rights must be protected even if it kills them.' Let me just remind the Greens what the UNHCR had to say about the government's arrangement with the government of Malaysia. The UNHCR:

… welcomes the fact that an additional 4000 refugees from Malaysia will obtain a durable solution through resettlement to Australia. The potential to work towards safe and humane options for people other than to use dangerous sea journeys are also positive features of this Arrangement. In addition, the Malaysian Government is in discussions with UNHCR on the registration of refugees and asylum-seekers under the planned Government programme announced in June on the registration of all migrant workers.

The Arrangement and its implementing guidelines contain important protection safeguards, including respect for the principle of non-refoulement; the right to asylum; the principle of family unity and best interests of the child; humane reception conditions including protection against arbitrary detention; … and the ability to receive education, access to health care, and a right to employment.

That is what the UNHCR had to say about the Malaysian agreement—an approach that provided the basis for a truly regional approach to dealing with asylum seekers but an approach that the Greens were too pure to accept, and they rejected it. And here we are with Nauru and Manus Island staring us in the face because of what I believe was the political immaturity and the intransigence of the Greens. But, clearly, the greatest shame on this issue lies at the feet of the coalition.

We hear much in this place about the history of political parties. As I have done on many occasions in my time here, I want to quote Robert Menzies. In a radio broadcast on 24 July 1942, Menzies had this to say about his Liberal creed:

Fear can never be a proper or useful ingredient in those mutual relations of respect and goodwill which ought to exist between the elector and the elected.

And so, as we think about it we shall find more and more how disfiguring a thing fear is in our own political and social life.

If there is ever an example about a disfiguring position in political life it is the situation that we face now with the propositions and the fear campaigns being run by coalition on the issue of refugees and asylum seekers.

The inflammatory rhetoric of the coalition is all about fear. It is totally against the Menzies creed. It is about fear and loathing for asylum seekers. The inflammatory rhetoric never misses a beat. The coalition rail against asylum seekers. The dog whistle is turned up to full volume. They cast doubt, without any evidence, on the credentials of asylum seekers. They insinuate that they might be terrorists. The claim they could bring disease to Australia. They fabricate claims of them throwing children overboard so that they might be considered unworthy of coming to this country. They claim that the very act of boarding a boat is un-Christian. The fact that the asylum seekers might actually be religious Hindus, Buddhists or Muslims matters little when the dog whistle is set at full volume. There is only one religion according to the coalition monoculturalists.

The cowardice of the coalition was on full display yesterday in the other place. In his contribution to the debate on this bill, the Leader of the Opposition could not help himself, dragging the debate straight into the gutter, as he does every single day. If anyone is responsible for the risible state of political discourse in this country, it is the Leader of the Opposition, Mr Abbott. He lives in the political gutter. He is incapable of lifting himself out of it.

What sort of political coward, other than Mr Abbott, would try to distance himself from the grubby remarks of a shock jock by repeating them unprompted and completely out of context in the parliament? That is what Mr Abbott did yesterday when he claimed, adopting the old coward's rhetorical trick, to not endorse the stupid and grubby remarks of Melbourne shock jock Neil Mitchell. The best way to repudiate Mitchell would have been to ignore him. By not ignoring Mitchell, Mr Abbott effectively endorsed him by giving him undeserved prominence.

While ever the likes of Mr Abbott, Mr Morrison and many of those opposite continue with the campaign of fear and loathing they have waged against asylum seekers for well over a decade, it will be difficult to crush the lies, to allay the ill-founded fears, to promote understanding and to draw on the better angels of Australians' nature that should characterise public debate on this issue. I will not shirk the task of waging the battle from the other side of the debate.

Why do refugees seek asylum in Australia? Why do they do this from all around the world? I listened to Senator Abetz, and there was not one mention of the reasons people are en masse trying to flee their native country and seek resettlement and refuge in countries around the world. The whole underpinning of the reason that people flee their own country was never mentioned. They do it because of racial persecution—something that I am sure the coalition would claim they do not support. They do it because of religious persecution—but I suppose unless you are a Christian it does not really matter! They do it because of political persecution. Some of them do it for economic reasons, because they are living in abject poverty with absolutely no hope for themselves or their family into the future. Some of them have suffered famine and they leave because there is famine and they seek refuge from famine. They seek refuge from dictatorships. They seek refuge from tyranny. They seek refuge from war. Yet these people, who are seeking refuge and support around the world, are treated to the dog whistle and the politics of fear from the coalition.

International law recognises that people at risk of persecution have a legal right to flee their country and seek refuge elsewhere. From March this year Australia adopted a complementary protection regime. This allows for protection of people who may not fit the strict definition of a refugee but who, should they be returned to their country of origin, will suffer a real risk of personal harm.

It is appropriate to look at some of the myths that abound in relation to asylum seekers. There is the myth that boat people are queue jumpers. The fact is that in Iraq and Afghanistan there are no queues for people to jump. Australia has no diplomatic representation in these countries and supports the international coalition of nations who continue to oppose these regimes and support sanctions against them. There is no standard refugee process where people wait in line to have their applications considered. Few countries between the Middle East and Australia are signatories to the 1951 Refugee Convention and, as such, asylum seekers are forced to continue to travel to another country to find protection.

That is why I find it bizarre that the Greens are still arguing that there should be no arrangements made with any country unless they actually sign off on the international conventions. I would prefer countries signed off on the international conventions, but that is not likely. So the Greens' position is that we then disenfranchise the majority of nations between here and the Middle East from playing any practical and positive role in a regional approach to dealing with refugees and asylum seekers. I think it is hypocrisy; I think it is stupidity; and I think it is ideological purity gone mad. I think we need to actually deal with some of these issues that we are faced with.

It is no secret that I opposed the proposition for this legislation in the party room. It is public knowledge. I did that because I wanted time to actually read the report, analyse the report and consult on the report with a number of my colleagues and friends, who for years have been supporters of refugees in this country. I wanted to get the view of the refugee groups and I wanted to get the views of the UNHCR. But that was not a position supported by the majority of my colleagues in the party room, and that is why the debate is on here today. And it is a debate that will continue, because there is no solution to the issue of asylum seekers fleeing. I take the view that, if you are fleeing for your life, no amount of deterrents will stop you looking for a safe haven—and I think that is what we have to understand when we try to get a regional approach to refugees put in place.

We heard Senator Abetz laud the so-called Pacific solution. I do agree with the previous speaker, who indicated that there was no solution. That is true—there was no solution. In fact, 43 per cent of the refugees who went to Nauru were ultimately resettled to Australia, some 27 per cent to New Zealand and, according to refugee groups, they believe that the others who returned to their country of origin, if they had stayed in Nauru, would have been resettled as well. So almost everyone who went to Nauru under the so-called Pacific solution ended up being genuine refugees and ended up being resettled.

The argument from the coalition that we should reintroduce temporary protection visas is, again, another spin, another lie and another deception—a deception to try to place some respect on that outrageous Pacific solution. The former Commonwealth minister for health, a Liberal, Dr Michael Wooldridge, had earlier described as 'deeply flawed and dangerous' the spurious claim that Australia should only be a temporary haven for refugees before they are sent back again when things get better, arguing that creating insecurity and uncertainty, as these views undoubtedly do, is one of the most dangerous ways to add to the harm that torturers do.

Out of the mouths of Liberals comes the truth—courageous Liberals; Liberals that were not prepared to accept the rhetoric and spin, and lies and misinformation that the coalition claim as their Pacific policy. It is clear that turn-backs will not work. It is okay for Senator Abetz to cherry-pick some aspects of the report, but the report clearly says that things have changed since the turn-back situation. Paragraph 3.78 on page 54 of the report says:

Circumstances have changed since the limited number of turn-backs of irregular vessels carrying asylum seekers in Australia over a decade ago. The legal context has changed. The attitudes of many regional governments have evolved …

And I could go on. The argument that you can turn the boats around without legal consequences, without safety consequences and without getting agreement from the nation that you are trying to turn the boats around to is exposed and destroyed in this report. Far from endorsing turn-backs, this report says you cannot do it. And yet we still have the lies and the rhetoric and the misinformation being peddled by the coalition to try and say that you can turn boats around, when the experts clearly say you cannot do it.

In my view, it is time for the Greens to get rid of their ideological purity and to start behaving like a mature political party. It is time for the coalition to stop lying to the Australian public, to stop misrepresenting and vilifying and demonising people who are in genuine plight and who are looking for refuge in this country. It is time we lifted the standards in this country. If we had done so earlier, we may not have needed Nauru and Manus Island; we could have had a decent policy in this country. (Time expired)