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Thursday, 22 September 2011
Page: 11195

Mr WILKIE (Denison) (11:52): I second the amendment and wish to offer a few comments. The High Court ruling against the Malaysia solution provided a very important opportunity for this parliament to look afresh at Australia's policy on irregular immigration. This government and this parliament should have seized this opportunity as a chance to remedy the wrongs of the past and develop a more humane policy towards some of the most vulnerable people in the world. But neither the government nor the opposition has decided to seize the moment. The government instead has chosen to try to cook the books, in effect, by legislating a workaround to dodge the High Court's ruling. The opposition, meanwhile, has seen the ruling as another opportunity to pursue its political self-interest ahead of the public interest—and, in my opinion, it has done so against the wishes of a clear majority of the Australian community.

I will not support the government's Migration Legislation Amendment (Offshore Processing and Other Measures) Bill 2011 because it would perpetuate offshore processing, with which I disagree most strongly. But I would support any new policy put forward by this government—and ideally, supported by the opposition—which finally came to grips with the complexity of the global irregular migration issue, particularly as it affects Australia. I would support a policy that finally and for the first time in this country took into account the fact that the flow of irregular immigrants to Australia is a function of many factors—not the least of which is the situation in source countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere—and which addressed the situation in countries of first asylum such as Iran and Pakistan, which host millions of refugees from bordering countries yet get next to no assistance either from the Australian government or from the governments of other developed countries. The policy I would support would also take into account the important role that transit countries such as Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia have in the flow of irregular immigrants to Australia. Until we have a policy that addresses the situation in source countries, in countries of first asylum and in transit countries, we will continue to have these periodic surges of people making it, entirely understandably and entirely defensively, to our shores.

Irregular immigration is not a border security problem; it is a global humanitarian problem. Australia does not need a better border security policy; Australia needs a more humane policy that takes into account and addresses the humanitarian aspects of irregular immigration. The people who are coming to our shores in boats are not terrorists; they are overwhelmingly people who are escaping awful circumstances in their own country and who are fortunate enough to be able to scrape together or borrow the modest amount of money to pay the people who will facilitate their travel to our shores. With some confidence I would say that just about every person in this House, if they were put in similar circumstances to those of the people who arrive in Australia by boat—if they were put in the same boat, so to speak—would act in exactly the same way as those people do and that they would be shocked if they got to our borders and were not accorded the protection that Australia's obligations as a signatory to the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees demand that it give.

I make the point again that this is not a border security problem; this is a humanitarian problem. Australia does not need another border security policy; Australia needs another humanitarian policy. Such a policy would be not simply the result of legislation which we might create in this place but also a matter of Australia's honouring its international obligations as a signatory to the refugee convention. I remind everyone in this place that, as a signatory to the convention, we are compelled to give protection to anyone who comes to our country and to promptly hear their claims. If their claims are found to be accurate, we are compelled to give them refuge. We cannot opt in or opt out of this—it is not voluntary. Many years ago we quite rightly became a signatory to the refugee convention. Why on earth can't Australian governments—this government and the last government as well as, likely, the next government—come to terms with the fact that we have obligations as a signatory to the refugee convention? We cannot turn it off; it is on. Because of that, we must give protection to people who come to our shores, hear their claims promptly and give them refuge if their claims are found to be accurate. Yes, we should put on the very next plane home those people who are not genuinely in need of refuge and whose claims are thus found to be fraudulent; but the overwhelming majority of people who come to our shores do have reasonable claims, and we should give them refuge.

The people who come to Australia by boat are not criminals and they are not illegal immigrants; neither are they unauthorised arrivals. They are human beings doing nothing more than exercising their rights as members of the human race and moving in accordance with what the refugee convention recognises and allows. They are doing nothing wrong, and those who continue to refer to them as illegal immigrants are doing those people a terrible disservice. Those people are not breaking Australian law; they are, in fact, acting in accordance with their circumstances in a way that we would recognise as entirely warranted. We recognise these circumstances because we have decided to sign up to the refugee convention and to remain a signatory to it. Let us put a face to this. A fellow called Najaf Mazari—and I am sure he will not mind me mentioning his name—fled from Afghanistan some years ago. He made the final stage of his journey to Australia by boat. For his troubles, the Howard government locked him in Woomera for many, many months. Here is a man who fled in fear of his life after many members of his family—who were Hazaras, I would add—were murdered by the Taliban. He fled in fear of his life, including being prepared to travel a very dangerous leg overseas by boat from Indonesia. And what did the Australian government at the time do? We did what I suspect many people in this place still approve of: we jailed him in what was nothing better than a concentration camp in Woomera.

Fortunately for Najaf, his claims were found to be accurate and he was released. He is now an Australian citizen. He has finally got his wife and his young daughter out from Afghanistan and they have a little afghan rug shop in Melbourne. When you talk to that family you realise that they are human beings who genuinely fled in fear of their lives. We have done the right thing by them by letting them settle here and allowing them to become Australian citizens. And they are now pillars of their community in Melbourne—to their great credit.

When you look into Najaf's eyes you see a deep sorrow—a man who has lost many members of his family to violence—but you also see a great joy that a country did give him refuge. You see in him a great potential—someone who will go on and become a great Australian in whatever way he chooses. These are not just SIEVs; these are not just irregular immigrants. These are human beings, and the overwhelming number of them are people fleeing violence.

There has been some commentary today about this being a question of leadership. I agree with the commentary in the media: it is a question of leadership. It is a question of the Prime Minister's leadership and it is also and equally a question of the opposition leader's leadership—because it is not a case in this parliament, in a power-sharing parliament, where one or the other can act alone. I call on the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition to both show leadership, to put their heads together and to seize the moment; not to look for workarounds on how to cook the books and get around High Court rulings.

I call on them to look at this as an opportunity to look afresh at our policy and to create a new policy, a sophisticated policy that is matched to the complexity of the issue—something that means we do more to help out and to stabilise source countries; a policy that give much more foreign aid to countries of first asylum, like Iran and Pakistan; a policy that gives much greater assistance to our transit countries, particularly Indonesia, and, in particular, to help the Indonesians deal with the people smugglers. I make the point: the only people who are doing anything wrong here are the people smugglers. As far as us tracking down wrongdoers, we should be helping Indonesia and other transit countries to track down and to deal with the people smugglers, because they are the only criminals, the only people doing anything wrong.

In summary, I hope my words help to explain why I will not support the government's bill that would perpetuate or resume offshore processing. Nor will I support any opposition amendment that would restrict offshore processing to countries that are a signatory to the refugee convention. I laboured with this issue about the possibility of the opposition bringing on an amendment that would say that Australia can send asylum seekers only to countries that are signatories to the refugee convention. For a long time I did see the value in supporting such an amendment, because if we are going to have offshore processing, let us at least send people to countries that have some safeguards in place—and Malaysia is not one. But in the end I have decided that I will not support such an amendment for fear that it would create the circumstances in which the government and the opposition might work together to continue offshore processing in a place such as Manus Island, where I do worry that the government's and the opposition's interests overlap.

I will support the member for Melbourne's amendment, but I fear that I will be the only person supporting it. The member for Melbourne and I hope that other people come together and support that amendment. That amendment is to do the right thing. It is an amendment that would legislate that we have only onshore processing—the humane approach, the approach consistent with the refugee convention, and the approach in line with the majority of Australians.

The Howard era's irregular immigration policies were a shameful episode. The Malaysia deal would be just as shameful or, arguably, more shameful. At least on Nauru and Manus Island there were Australian officials on the ground ensuring that at least some safeguards to Australian standards were being maintained or adhered to. But the Malaysia solution would not even have that. There would be no Australian officials on the ground—in a country that is not a signatory to the refugee convention, in a country that does use the cane, in a country that would return people to dangerous countries of origin.

This is the moment to seize for both the Prime Minister and the opposition leader. They both need to act in the public interest. This parliament needs to seize the moment and put the shameful episode of the Howard era behind us and to put the shameful suggestion of the Malaysia solution behind us. That is why I will not support the government's bill and I will not support opposition amendments. The only thing I expect to support today will be the member for Melbourne's amendment.