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Monday, 21 February 2011
Page: 718

Dr LEIGH (9:13 PM) —In 1983, I was attending Sutherland Primary School in the electorate of the member for Cook. One day a person from the computer company MicroBee came and set up a computer at the back of the room. It was the first computer most of us had seen. The program was a database of the First Fleet and each of us took it in turn to search the name records to see if our ancestors were on a ship. In that classroom, every 11-year-old child wanted an answer to the same question: ‘Could I possibly be descended from a boat person?’

Nearly three decades later, how is it that some people in Australian politics think they can use the term ‘boat person’ as a form of abuse? When they celebrate Australia Day, do they think the arrivals of 1788 held valid visas? Why do they applaud the courage of one risky sea journey to reach Australia but spread fear and loathing about another?

In my own electorate, I have had the privilege of meeting some extraordinary migrants. Last year I attended a prize-giving ceremony for an art competition run as part of Refugee Week. First prize went to a Karen Burmese woman who had woven a traditional crimson tunic. Because she did not have a proper loom, the woman had taken the mattress off her bed and fashioned a loom from her pine bed base. It is hard not to be overwhelmed by the courage and spirit of Australia’s migrants.

The great success of multiculturalism has been the way suburban Australians have, without fuss, welcomed successive waves of new migrants into our neighbourhoods. As a local member of parliament one of the things that I most enjoy is to stand in a school assembly amidst children from all ancestries in the world and sing with them those lines from the national anthem:

For those who’ve come across the seas

We’ve boundless plains to share …

Yet today, that consensus threatens to shatter. Senator Cory Bernardi tells us, ‘Islam itself is the problem’. And according to journalist Lenore Taylor, the member for Cook, Scott Morrison, told shadow cabinet last year that the coalition should capitalise on the electorate’s growing concerns about Muslim immigration. Neither of them have been rebuked by the Leader of the Opposition.

In his motion today the member for Cook continued his efforts to make political capital out of the Australian refugee program. Yet, like the coalition’s election costings, his efforts are riddled with errors. The motion conflates the refugee and special humanitarian components of the humanitarian program, which are effectively quarantined from each other in terms of the number of visas granted and the priority accorded to processing them.

The motion erroneously suggests that Australia has rejected women at risk because irregular maritime arrivals have crowded them out, a mistake repeated by the member for Cook in his media release last November. This is not the case. The number of places available for refugees overseas is not affected by the number of protection visas granted to onshore applicants, and that includes irregular maritime arrivals.

Australia continues to settle a significant number of refugees from overseas. Indeed, the Labor government has increased the program since coming to office, with an additional 250 places in 2009-10 following an increase of 500 places in 2008-09. This brings the total program to 13,750 for 2010-11. Beyond this, Australia also works to improve the situation of displaced persons in the region by providing substantial support to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Organisation for Migration.

Still, if we overlook the factual errors in the member for Cook’s motion, it is plain that he is trying to make a simple point: the government should give preference to asylum seekers applying offshore rather than to those who apply onshore. This is simple enough to say, but hardly straightforward to implement. It raises the question: when the coalition’s proposed cap has been filled, what should we do with those people who arrive in Australia with valid visas and who then apply for protection? What should we do with irregular maritime arrivals found to be refugees? Should they stay in indefinite detention? Perhaps that is the kind of solution that appeals to people who wish for a return to the ‘grand old days’ of the Howard government’s migration policy. But whether you look at it from the point of view of compassion or cost-benefit analysis, indefinite detention for those who come to our shores does not make sense.

We should control our borders—of course we should—but controlling our borders does not require us to add to the suffering of people who merit our compassion. The current refugee program is a reasonable response by the Australian community to a worldwide challenge. Australia needs policies that are based on a humanitarian response, not only because that is what we committed to as signatories of the 1951 refugee convention but also because it reflects the concerns and interests of the community.

While scrutinising the flaws in this motion, let us not miss the broader context in which this motion is being moved. In the Sydney Morning Herald last Saturday, commentator Mike Carlton quoted Bruce Baird, the predecessor to the member for Cook, and a man who served the Liberal Party in the NSW and federal parliaments for 20 years. Indeed, when I lived for a time in Pennant Hills, Mr Baird was my state member of parliament, and even though I was, of course, a member of Young Labor, he did earn my grudging respect. Last week, Mr Baird said of the Liberal Party:

There’s no doubt the party has shifted to the right. It seems like One Nation is calling the tune. They are going for the blue-collar, right-wing vote. Moderate views in the federal party have largely disappeared.

As the Prime Minister told the Lowy Institute last year:

… it would take about 20 years to fill the MCG with asylum seekers at present rates of arrival.

Yet there are those who claim that asylum-seekers are a threat to the Australian way of life. They are on the wrong side of history.

There are those who think that Australia’s religious freedoms are too narrow to apply to all religions. They, too, are on the wrong side of history

There are those who tell us that when a rich nation like ours is hit with a flood, our generosity to Indonesia should cease. They are on the wrong side of history.

There are those who tell us that when family members are lost in a tragic accident off Christmas Island we should deny the survivors a chance to attend the funeral. They, too, are on the wrong side of history.

If you read the history books you will see that the seeds of hatred have been sown before. Brewing up racial discontent has its own special recipe. Start with a cup of rhetoric about how ‘those people’ with their ‘strange customs’ are different from ‘us’. Add a spoon of envy about how those outsiders always seem to get better treatment than ‘ordinary Australians’. And for good measure, why not dash in a suggestion that they could be happier if they just went home where they came from. Then give the pot a good stir, and let it simmer until it is hot enough to serve up to the electorate.

Believe it or not, there is even an academic literature on hatred. Harvard economist Ed Glaeser points out that inciting racial hatred will always be a tempting—

Mr Ewen Jones —Mr Deputy Speaker, I rise on a point of order. The point of order is on relevance; we have got a motion here and I wish he would just start talking to it.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. BC Scott)—There is no point of order.

Dr LEIGH —Harvard economist Ed Glaeser points out that inciting racial hatred will always be a tempting strategy for political entrepreneurs, but only when a minority group reaches a certain size. Italian-Australians: too big—they might fight back; Luxembourg-Australians—hard to get the base fired up; but Middle-Eastern Australians—just right.

I was asked this morning by a journalist who I greatly respect, ‘Why are you bringing this up today?’ It is a good question so, in closing, let me try to answer why I do not think we should merely let the issue drop.

When Pauline Hanson brought her extremist ideology onto the floor of this parliament in the late 1990s, some people said ‘Just ignore it and it’ll go away.’ They meant well but, as the subsequent rise of One Nation showed, they were grievously mistaken. Sometimes you just have to draw a line in the sand. Here is mine.

If there is someone attacking a religion, that matters to me—even if it is not my religion.

If there is someone suggesting that asylum seekers are a threat to our way of life, that matters to me—even if I am not an asylum seeker.

And if there is a father who wants to attend the funeral of his child, that matters to me—even if it is not my child.

I urge the House to oppose the motion.