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Wednesday, 15 August 2012
Page: 5431


Senator DI NATALE (Victoria) (18:59): I am deeply saddened to be speaking today to oppose this Migration Legislation Amendment (Regional Processing and Other Measures) Bill 2012 because I believe that we, the parliament of Australia, are making a grave mistake—a mistake that generations to come will find very difficult to understand. I do know that this is a tough decision and I do know that there are no easy answers. The movement of people fleeing persecution and seeking protection in foreign lands is a problem that has occurred for many centuries; it is a problem that has escalated in recent decades; and it is an issue that is far beyond the power of this parliament to resolve.

I also know that there are many good people in this place who have wrestled with their conscience, who have listened to the arguments and have formed the view that punishment is necessary because they believe it acts as a deterrent to others and, in doing so, might prevent deaths. They are wrong, but they are driven by good intentions.

I do fear, however, that there are also many others in this place who believe that punishment is necessary, not because they have ever believed that refugees have a right to seek our protection or that we as a wealthy domestic sanctuary should provide protection to these people. We have in this country a long and sometimes deeply shameful history when it comes to race and it is hard for me to escape the fact that race is one part of the equation when it comes to immigration policy. 'We decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come' has nothing to do with concern for the most vulnerable people on this planet and everything to do with the sorts of cold-hearted and sometimes racist attitudes that have driven this debate for more than a decade.

As a young doctor I learned about the Hippocratic oath, the key tenet of which is: first do no harm. This piece of legislation violates that key principle. We hear much about 'deterrence'. That has become the word around which this debate has been framed, but let us call it what it is. What we are really saying is that it is acceptable to inflict punishment, to inflict suffering, to inflict misery on one group of people in an effort to try and change the behaviour of another group of people. That violates that key principle, the principle I have always held dear: first do no harm.

If what we were being asked to do today was to turn our backs on people who need our protection, that in and of itself would be bad enough. But we are not only being asked to do that; we are being asked to actively inflict more pain and suffering on the lives of some of the most vulnerable people on this planet. Imagine at the age of 16 being on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border and watching your family being removed from a bus and being shot before your eyes. Imagine returning home and being told: 'You're next.' Imagine then fleeing your culture, your traditions, your language, your friends and family, arriving in a foreign country, finding your way across the seas in a perilous journey and then being told that you will be imprisoned, detained, with no prospect of your claim being assessed and processed in a timely way and not knowing what your future holds. That is what we are being asked to vote on today with this bill. That alone is cause not to support it. But there is evidence that that sort of punishment, as severe and as harsh as it may be, will not work, will not stop people from seeking sanctuary in this country and may in fact make their suffering and the suffering of others worse.

This is a debate that has been based on assertion, not evidence. We now are in an era of post-truth politics, where if you say something often enough and for long enough it becomes the truth—and so it is with the mantra 'We stopped the boats.' There is good evidence that there were a number of factors outside of the control of the Australian government that resulted in the changes in boat arrivals to this country. In fact, we saw one of the greatest tragedies in Australian waters in our history with the sinking of the SIEVX well after many of the harshest elements of the Pacific solution were introduced. This is a case of correlation, not causality. Some people in the opposition need a lesson in the distinction between correlation and causality. Just because something happens while you are in government does not mean that you are responsible for it.

Of course, there is the question of whether the practical nature of the solution put in front of us will stop people from coming here. We have already heard accounts from people waiting in places such as Malaysia and Indonesia who have told us that this will not change their decision because the alternative is something they simply cannot contemplate. Think about that. You are fleeing a situation where you face near certain death, you are sitting in limbo where you have no access to education or health care, no prospect of seeing your family, the potential for imprisonment and the potential that already exists of dying at sea, and a change that says, 'We will process you and if that claim is successful then at some point you will be welcomed into Australia.' Why would you choose not to make that trip?

Perhaps more concerning is the evidence that was presented to us that in fact it may make matters worse, that in some instances, in a small number of cases where people's behaviour may change, they may choose to take a riskier journey. We have heard evidence now of trips to New Zealand. We know that parts of the Tamil community are arriving in Canada. We know that simply because people do not drown in Australian waters does not diminish the fact that they drown and die elsewhere. If it results in simply an outsourcing of the misery and suffering occurring in Australian waters, then surely that is not a reason to pursue this policy.

I heard from Senator Cameron earlier about his response to the Greens' position. I will not respond in detail to his comments. I know that his words, like many others in his position, come from a place of anger. I can only imagine what it would be like to spend a good part of your life arguing against a policy, then to argue within your own party for taking some time to reflect and think about whether this is the best course of action for the nation, only to be denied and, worse still, to be forced to come to this place and defend that legislation. His anger is understandable.

Much has been spoken about compromise. I heard that quite a lot from Senator Cameron. Compromise is an interesting notion when it comes to a debate like this. It somehow implies that the truth lies between two political viewpoints, that the right thing to do lies between two political decisions. The truth is that the right thing to do, the moral thing to do, has no relationship whatsoever with the views of what one part of politics might say or what the other side of politics might say. The truth is independent of what we say in this place, and in fact in some instances compromise means no more and no less than a betrayal of the things that we believe in. So I know that that has been the mantra from some people within the Labor Party and within the opposition and, indeed, from within the media, but I say to them that compromise means nothing if it achieves an outcome that results in more pain, more suffering and more misery for some of our most vulnerable members of the community.

I too, like Senator Cameron, wanted to take some time to reflect on what other groups might have said about this position. I was fortunate enough to be in a cross-party meeting where we heard presentations from a number of people and a number of groups, groups like Amnesty International, the Human Rights Commission, academics and others. We have subsequently heard from groups like the ACTU, the Uniting Church and a number of other people working within this area of public policy. What has become clear is that they believe that we as a nation are making a grave mistake. We have heard much about the Houston report and the expert panel, but let us not forget that that panel ignored many of the submissions made by groups like Amnesty and others that recommended that we take a different path. They too are experts and I listen to what they have to say.

I have also heard a lot of talk about the notion of finding a solution to this problem. We need to ask ourselves: who is this solution for? Are we trying to solve a political problem or are we trying to solve an issue that affects the lives of refugees? What I have not heard is people asking refugees and asylum seekers themselves what is in their interest. Many of us purport to act in their interest—well, if we are doing that why not ask what is in their interest? We do not do that because the answer provides us with an uncomfortable truth. They do not want us to go down this path. The reality is that this is a solution to what is a domestic political problem and what we have got here is a political response, a political solution.

I know that this is a tough decision for many people in this place. I understand that. But I do fear what will come as a result of the action that we are taking here today: the memories of people protesting in detention centres in far-flung places, the memories of young children scarred by their experiences in long-term detention. I fear that what we are seeing here is not a solution but in fact the creation of a terrible, terrible problem. I do understand that many people in this place are genuinely torn. I do understand that people have wrestled with their conscience. I do understand that. But we need to understand that as a rich and wealthy nation, being able to offer protection is a sign of strength and not weakness, that being able to offer a helping hand rather than turning our back, is a principle by which we should all live our lives. We should be motivated to do what is right, not what is politically expedient. And we should be motivated to compromise only when compromise brings us closer to that aim, not when it means that we can sweep a very, very difficult and genuinely discomfiting debate from the pages of the newspapers.

In closing, I believe that we as a nation are making a tremendous mistake. I think that what we must do now is everything we can to ensure that this piece of legislation is improved. It is why the Greens have an amendment that puts a time line on the time that will be spent in mandatory detention. The thought of a young 12-year-old going to Nauru and returning from that place as an adult is one that is, for me, far too difficult to contemplate. I hope that we can look at that amendment and at least make a bad piece of legislation slightly better. I do hope that we are not here again in the lead-up to another election campaign, trying to defend the indefensible.