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Tuesday, 14 August 2012
Page: 8539

Mr WILKIE (Denison) (17:44): We know that approximately 600 people—not illegal immigrants or unauthorised arrivals, as some choose to label them, but 600 human beings—have died trying to get to our shores in recent years. That is probably just the tip of the iceberg, because we can reasonably assume that many more boats have sunk without even coming to the attention of the authorities, let alone being subject to any sort of rescue attempt. In fact, probably over a thousand asylum seekers have lost their lives in recent years on the sea leg between transit countries, Indonesia in particular, and Australia. That is a thousand or more dreams of a better life extinguished—bodies smashed against the already bloodstained rocks, last breaths gasped in a frenzied panic as parents struggled to save their children from their watery graves.

This is not a border security problem. This is a humanitarian crisis, and it escapes me how anyone in this place could seek to implement any solution not underpinned by our lucky country's moral framework and our obligations, both written and implied, as one of the original signatories to the United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. Yet here we are, at it again, debating the dubious merits of yet another migration legislation amendment bill designed to solve the 'problem' of asylum seekers. Well, if asylum seekers are in fact a problem, as some people clearly think, then it is not because asylum seekers are some kind of border security concern, but rather it is because they are the faces of a humanitarian crisis of enormous dimensions and sometimes seemingly unfathomable complexity.

The recently released findings of the expert panel have a ring of familiarity about them, including, as they do, the tired policies of the so-called Pacific and Malaysia solutions. But countless questions must hang over this proposed return to Howard era asylum policies, and one of these must be: how can we, as a nation and a parliament, accept an immigration detention regime which we know makes people mentally ill and, for some, attempt suicide? Expert panel member Paris Aristotle was interviewed on ABC's Lateline on Monday night, and he argued that the expert panel had made additional recommendations to ensure that the Nauru and Manus Island centres do not systematically cause mental illness and chronic depression in detainees. But the government is proposing, and the opposition is set to support, the imprisonment of desperate people for extended periods of time on small islands in the Pacific. Many of these unfortunate souls will be alone, as they will have been forced to flee without their families. Moreover, with the proposed changes to the family sponsorship arrangements, many of these asylum seekers will have simply no way of knowing if they will ever see their families again. Some will never even know whether the wives, mothers, sons and daughters they left behind are alive or dead. The reality is that there is no way to imprison asylum seekers for what must seem to them like an eternity without a significant risk of chronic ongoing detriment to their mental and physical health.

This is one of the reasons why my position has always been clear: opposition to mandatory detention and opposition to offshore processing. My voting on this issue is consistent. Yes, I did vote in support of the member for Lyne's bill six weeks ago, but that was only because the government had the numbers regardless of my vote, and, by voting the way I did, I was able to secure a 12-month sunset clause to ensure that the parliament—this parliament—would be forced to re-examine the issue. My concern to try and get such a safety net built into the member for Lyne's bill was not without good reason. Let us not forget that Greens Senator Hanson-Young agreed to support the opposition amendment at the time, which would have cut out Malaysia but ensured offshore processing on Nauru and Manus Island, in return for the promise of an increase in the humanitarian intake to 20,000 asylum seekers. But, frankly, with these sorts of deals being cut at the time, I was hardly going to miss an opportunity to let the member for Lyne's bill pass without a sunset clause forcing a review, if I could help it.

And, yes, I did also try and bring on the opposition bill six weeks ago, but that was only to keep the parliament sitting in the hope that the political impasse could be overcome at that time. I certainly would not have supported the opposition bill had it come to a vote. Perhaps, if just enough members in this place had stayed at work that morning, rather than having gone home to bed, we would have come to a solution eventually far sooner and in doing so prevented more deaths. Perhaps the boat feared sunk in recent weeks with the loss of more than 60 asylum seekers would not have been despatched, and none of those unfortunate souls on board would have had to drown, if we had just tried harder six weeks ago.

The expert panel's recommendation to continue to pursue the so-called Malaysia solution also beggars belief. We have a legal and ethical responsibility to protect those seeking asylum on our shores, and shipping asylum seekers, including unaccompanied minors, to Malaysia to rot for years in overcrowded refugee ghettos, unable to work and deprived of basic rights, is simply unconscionable. The promise of some minor additional safeguards to this so-called Malaysia solution is no way to go, because the government's Malaysia agreement has clearly been rejected by both the people and this parliament, and it is clearly time to think of something new.

For all the political rhetoric surrounding this expert panel, the song remains the same. Instead of reaching out to explore new attitudes and new solutions, it is simply a case of new names being devised to dress up the failings of the past. That said, I do welcome the expert panel's specific recommendation to greatly expand Australia's humanitarian intake of refugees across the board. This will ensure that more people are resettled in Australia and that others will spend fewer years waiting in desperate conditions in refugee camps shut off from the eyes of the world.

I do not doubt the good intentions of all the members of the expert panel, but I do believe they missed a unique opportunity to go much further in this regard. With a chance to fundamentally influence immigration policy for the better, the panel have been mute on several key shortfalls. For example, Australia currently links onshore arrivals with its quota of offshore humanitarian arrivals. Therefore, whenever an asylum seeker arrives in Australia by boat or, more frequently, by plane, one less refugee waiting in UNHCR camps will be resettled in Australia. This policy is not grounded in logic and is highly unusual internationally. All it does is feed into divisive rhetoric about queue jumpers.

I call on this parliament to reach for compassion, empathy and a policy that respects asylum seekers. Some members have called for an end to the fighting on this issue and asked other members to lay down their swords. I, for one, will not stop fighting while ineffective and cruel policy is formed in the name of politics so that the claim can be made that there has been a result. I will not lay down my sword until compassion is restored to this issue. This is not about border security; this is a humanitarian crisis.

I will not stand in this place and support a reform or this bill, the Migration Legislation Amendment (Offshore Processing and Other Measures) Bill 2011, which seeks to restore a policy that pretends to be the best possible compromise, when it is merely a politically expedient compromise. When people's lives are at stake, I will not put my support behind legislation that takes us back to the time of the Howard-era Pacific solution with some modifications that make it even worse. The Australian public unambiguously rejected the Pacific solution at the 2007 federal election. How quickly we have forgotten.