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Thursday, 29 October 2009
Page: 7658

Senator McEWEN (3:53 PM) —I appreciate the opportunity to speak to this motion this afternoon, but I do wish that the Senate’s time was being used to debate government policy or legislation that will take the nation forward. Instead, we are going to spend the afternoon debating a motion that returns us to those dark, dark days of the Howard era—an era when refugees and asylum seekers were demonised and used by the then government for political gain.

All week we have seen the opposition displaying their total incapacity to present themselves as a viable alternative government. Instead of policy or sensible debate about things that will take the nation forward—including, perhaps, telecommunications infrastructure or health initiatives—we have had question time, taking note and MPIs taken up by shameful attempts, once again, to demonise people who have chosen to leave their own countries in an attempt to forge a better life. I point out, so that people know how much time we have yet again wasted on this issue: on Monday, the MPI in the Senate was about border protection and the debate in question time was about what the opposition called ‘border protection’, but we know is all about belting asylum seekers; on Tuesday, it was question time issue again; on Wednesday, the MPI was again about the issue. Here we are on Thursday, debating it yet again. I urge the Senate, when it returns to sit next month, to please move on from this issue to something that is truly important to the whole of the nation.

The debate is about asylum seekers and people who seek refugee status in other countries. I have to ask, as I have asked many times in this parliament: what is wrong with the motivation of people to leave their homeland, where they may be suffering from persecution, war or poverty? What is wrong with the objective of trying to find a better life for yourself and your children? It is something that motivates all of us and just because you do it, you should not be persecuted and demonised for it.

As we know, across the world there are some 42 million displaced persons who, for one reason or another, are unable to live in their own country or in their own region. Of those 42 million people, 15.2 million are refugees. A tiny proportion of that huge number of displaced persons in the world attempts to find their way to Australia—indeed, they may not even know that they are trying to find a way to Australia; they are just trying to find a country where their hopes for a better life can be realised. Most of the people who come to Australia as asylum seekers actually come by aeroplane. We know that. The other fact we know is that most of the people who come here seeking asylum are found to be genuine refugees. Indeed, most of the asylum seekers who have come to this country by boat have also been found to be refugees. That is true under this government and it was true under the previous government. Those people have become valuable members of this great nation of ours and have contributed to our prosperity and to our cultural wellbeing.

I would like to spend some of the time allotted for debating this motion setting out the facts about the government’s very comprehensive policies and legislative approaches to meet our international commitments and obligations to asylum seekers and refugees and about the government’s approach to border security. By doing that, I think I will contrast the measured approach of the government to that of the opposition, which persists, on this important issue, in using inflammatory language such as what we have just heard from the previous speaker—endless repetition of words like ‘illegal’ and ‘unlawful’. Indeed, I was horrified to see, in the motion before us today, that now asylum seekers are ‘biosecurity risks’. Frankly, I find that quite disgusting, but I am not surprised because, as we saw earlier this week, the lack of any sort of coherent policy from the opposition has been explained in the email communication that somehow escaped from the office of the Leader of the Opposition, in which it was clearly pointed out that the opposition does not want to talk about policy. It finds that while policy discussions are nice, dirt digging and scare campaigns are better. This is the mother of all scare campaigns.

As I have said before, I do not necessarily like reducing to numbers and statistics this debate about Australia’s obligations to people who come here looking for a better life; I think that distracts us from the fact that people who come here are people like us who need our support and assistance. But, because I have this opportunity, I will point out that under the former government some 13,660 people came here by boat and 20 boats per year was the average. So for all their huff and puff about how tough they were on border security and how tough they were on migration, people still came here perilously across the sea, because the motivation to find a better life is so great. We have to understand, whenever we are debating this issue, that no matter what laws we have, no matter how tough we are, people will always try to find a better life for themselves and their children wherever they are in the world. It is disingenuous of the opposition to try to pretend that you can somehow stop it. Indeed, my view is that we have to deal with it but accept that people will always be migrants or potential migrants in the world that we live in.

The current increase in asylum claims by Afghans, Sri Lankans and Iraqis has followed the global trend. It is not just in Australia that the number of asylum seekers is on the rise; it is happening consistently across the globe, due to the crises in those countries. The Rudd Labor government acknowledge that those factors are out there and that people will try to escape countries where they are persecuted or in a war zone, and we are taking a humane approach to asylum seekers. We have maintained the strength of our nation’s borders while creating a fair and effective immigration detention system for those people who do seek refuge on our shores. I am proud to say that, as a government, we are committed to providing fair and certain outcomes for those refugees.

As of 9 October 2009, there were 1,271 people in immigration detention. The opposition are claiming that the government has softened its immigration policy and that we are allowing too many people to enter the country, but that is not correct. The number of people placed in immigration detention in Australia actually peaked in 1999-2000, when there were more than 8,000 people held in immigration detention. That was of course under the former government. In 2007-08 there were some 4,500 people held in immigration detention; so that is half the number of people who were in immigration detention under the former government. Of course, the current government has the view that immigration detention should be used for only the shortest period possible while health, security and identity checks are undertaken.

One of the first things the Rudd Labor government did upon taking office, which demonstrated our humane approach to asylum seekers, was to abolish the Pacific solution, where people were interred on Manus Island or Nauru. I was pleased to be part of the government that did this. The Pacific solution was neither a fair nor a humane system, and it was also ineffective and wasteful. One of the other major changes to immigration policy we made as government was to abolish temporary protection visas. It is difficult to get an opinion from the opposition, in their policy-free zone over there, about whether or not they are actually advocating a return to TPVs. TPVs were introduced by the former government to, it was hoped, lessen the number of unauthorised boat arrivals; but all the evidence shows that TPVs did not have any deterrent effect whatsoever. Actually, there was an increase in the number of women and children making the dangerous journey across the seas to Australia while TPVs were in existence. In the main, TPV holders were established to be genuine refugees.

The people who were living under temporary protection visas came to the attention of the Joint Standing Committee on Migration during our inquiries. I can say that I would never want the country to return to that system where people were in this country living with incredible uncertainty about what the future held for them, often for years and years and years. The Rudd Labor government did not want to prolong the uncertainty and insecurity for those people any longer, and we abolished TPVs altogether. The removal of that system speeded up resolution of asylum seekers’ cases and gave those people a greater sense of security and certainty. We know now that most of those people have now settled in Australia and are, as I said before, valuable, contributing citizens to our great nation.

Another initiative that the government has taken recently has been to announce the establishment of the Council for Immigration Services and Status Resolution. I acknowledge, as I have done in this chamber before, that as a nation we do need to do more to assist people who come here as refugees to settle into our community. That council, which was established by the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, will provide independent advice on immigration policy, services and programs to ensure that we are achieving timely, fair and effective resolution of immigration status for those people seeking asylum in Australia. The council met for the first time, I am pleased to say, just last week and has begun identifying priority immigration issues that need to be addressed over the next two years. If people want to make a positive contribution to the debate about how we assist asylum seekers and refugees, perhaps they could direct their attentions to a positive initiative like that.

I am pleased to say that Australia continues to be an international leader in refugee resettlement. In 2009-10, we welcomed 13,750 people under our humanitarian program. That was an increase of 250 places on last year, and it is the second year running in which that program has increased. Earlier in the year the Labor government announced seven detention values to underpin our immigration system. Those values committed to: a risk based approach to detention, to detention for the shortest practical time and to a rejection of the indefinite detention of asylum seekers.

In the 2009-10 budget there has been a total of $77.4 million over four years committed by the government to implement key immigration compliance and detention policy improvements. In addition to that, $186.3 million was committed to extensively redevelop our primary onshore detention centre, the Villawood Immigration Detention Centre. That welcome redevelopment of Villawood comes after 60 years. It was originally built, as we all know, as an immigration hostel back in the late 1940s. Those of us who have been there wondered if anything could improve Villawood, but clearly the government’s intention and large commitment of money will make it a better place for those people who are detained there while their immigration issues are resolved.

In terms of border control, the government announced last month that we will be providing extra funding to combat people smuggling. The government has condemned people smugglers, and the Prime Minister continues to do so. We join with everybody to point out the fact that profiteering from asylum seekers and refugees is an abhorrent system; but it goes on, and the government is committed to doing what it can and working cooperatively with other countries in the region to stop that practice. So the government has provided more than $18 million to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and to the International Organisation for Migration to assist in managing irregular migration. We have also provided increased money for border security, which I will get to in a minute.

Finally, in the few minutes I have left, I want to spend some time mentioning the government’s legislation, which I think is really important in the context of asylum seekers. If an asylum seeker to Australia is not granted a protection visa because the reason for the persecution or harm on return to their country is not one of the specified reasons in the refugee convention, that bill establishes a new criteria under which a protection visa may still be granted in special circumstances. The example that is often used is that it is not certain that a girl who would face a real risk of genital mutilation would be covered by the refugee convention. The legislation the government has introduced will make it quite clear that that could be a criteria for seeking refugee status. Those sorts of legislative changes ensure that Australia will continue to meet our protection obligations under international human rights treaties and help vulnerable people who are most at risk of serious harm if they are returned to their home country. While we currently meet those obligations through reliance on personal ministerial intervention powers, those are not reviewable, transparent or subject to procedural fairness, so the proposal of legislative change will entrench those criteria in our laws.

Unfortunately I have run out of time to talk about border protection. But, in closing, I would like to reiterate that I find it incredibly frustrating as a senator in this chamber that we have chewed up so much time this week at the behest of the opposition, who are running a fear campaign, scaremongering again about asylum seekers and demonising asylum seekers. We are talking about a tiny proportion of people in the world who have a genuine right to seek a better life for themselves and their children. The nation has more important things to discuss, and you can only hope that the opposition will grow into its role as the alternative government and that when we return to this place next month we can concentrate on important policy issues and not just carry on in the gutter, where the opposition has been pretty much all of this week.