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Thursday, 16 August 2012
Page: 5621

Senator XENOPHON (South Australia) (16:28): The subject matter of the Migration Legislation Amendment (Regional Processing and Other Measures) Bill 2012—people-smuggling, asylum seekers, their humane and fair treatment, the loss of life at sea—presents a complex and diabolical problem. This is not an easy decision to make. I have always preferred the idea of onshore processing. I believe that when people come to our country seeking asylum, we take on the responsibility for their welfare while they are processed. But since late 2001, at least 964 asylum seekers have perished at sea. They are the ones we know about. It is the ultimate tragedy that people who are so desperate have risked everything and lost their lives. We all do not want to see another life lost in this way. If this legislation will go some way towards achieving that aim, then I cannot in good conscience oppose it.

What is proposed is far from the ideal option, but it is the one that is before us today. It is a classic Hobson's choice. Right now we have to decide to take it or leave it. The asylum-seeker debate is one fraught with passion and angst. While many of us in this place may have drastically different opinions, I do not believe for a second that any of us do not realise the heavy responsibility that we face today with this legislation. Not one of us wants to see desperate people hurt or abused or damaged further. I will be moving a second reading amendment calling on the government to commission a further report by the expert panel on asylum seekers within 12 months of the commencement of this bill.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Cameron ): Senator Xenophon, we already have one amendment before the chair. You can foreshadow your amendment and when Senator Abetz's amendment has been dealt with you will have an opportunity to move your amendment.

Senator XENOPHON: Mr Acting Deputy President, I am very grateful for your procedural guidance and I will do so

The report that is proposed in the second reading amendment will look at any human rights or other issues that have arisen from this legislation, as well as considering whether it has been successful in reducing the number of people attempting to reach Australia by boat. The government will also be required to release and publish the report within 14 days of its receipt.

My intention with this amendment is to put in place some sort of safeguard to make sure we are on the right track and that this legislation is achieving its aims. It will also ensure that there is further debate on these issues and that this legislation needs to be constantly monitored to be scrutinised properly. Many would say this is only the first step, because we need to make sure that appropriate regional cooperation is in place to make sure that this proposal operates properly.

Human rights issues are, of course, vitally important. Australia still has a moral and ethical responsibility for the people who are moved offshore under Australian legislation. We must take every step to ensure that people are treated fairly and humanely and with dignity and respect. A further review of this legislation is also necessary to make sure it is acting as an appropriate deterrent for people smugglers and those desperate enough to try and reach Australia by boat. The ultimate aim we are trying to achieve is fewer people risking their lives in this dangerous crossing, and we need to know that this legislation is working.

I also want to make it clear that we should not consider the passing of this bill as the end of the issue. The government has already agreed to increase Australia's humanitarian intake from 13,000 to 20,000 places a year, rising to 27,000 within five years. I strongly support this. We are a big country with a big heart. We have the capacity to welcome more refugees and we should exercise that capacity.

Even if we succeed in reducing the number of people undertaking the dangerous journey to Australia by sea, we cannot forget that it does not reduce the number of refugees in the world or even in our region. We have a responsibility to do all we can for these people; we must make sure that this increase does not make us complacent, and that the knowledge of 'doing good' makes us forget those waiting in offshore in camps.

Last night on the ABC's 7.30 program, UN High Commissioner for refugees, Richard Towle, pointed out the known dangers of detaining people for long periods of time in remote camps. He said:

Clearly one of the lessons from the past experience under the Pacific Solution was that protracted, prolonged displacement in far-flung islands of the Pacific very rapidly causes serious and long-term psycho-social harm to people. We do not want to go back to those experiences.

But we can also only imagine the irreparable mental harm refugees suffer when they witness loved ones dying at sea.

The government has already stated that it will work with the high commissioner on the details of setting up regional processing centres, and that is a good thing. I support the government's position on this and I strongly encourage it to begin this consultation as soon as possible. I also want to note the comments of the 2010 Australian of the Year, Professor Patrick McGorry—an expert in mental health, and a person for whom I have a very high regard. Professor McGorry was not afraid to speak out against the government both during his time as Australian of the Year and more recently, and he, too, has very serious concerns about the mental health impacts of offshore processing. These are wise voices, and we can listen to them and learn from them.

We also cannot forget the many legal issues surrounding this debate. I acknowledge that the government is seeking to resolve some of these issues, including the treatment of minors. We also need to focus on appropriate sanctions for people smugglers—not so much the crews, who are often under duress, and we have seen evidence of that more recently—but the individuals, the masterminds who are operating these networks and who profit from human misery. These aspects are vital to the functioning of this legislation.

I support the steps that the government has taken so far, and I call on them to continue to be open and transparent with the Australian people as far as these difficult legal issues are concerned. This is a debate that has affected the entire country for many years. We all feel deeply about what should or should not happen, and now that we are working towards a possible solution we must recognise the personal stake many Australians have in this argument.

I would like to take this opportunity to recognise the work done by the expert panel on asylum seekers, comprising the former head of the defence forces, Angus Houston, refugee advocate, Paris Aristotle, and Professor Michael L'estrange, the former head of foreign affairs. I think it is a strong endorsement that Paris Aristotle has supported the recommendations of the report, given his long history of supporting refugees in Australia. I understand that this was a very difficult issue for him. Given his previous strong opposition to offshore processing, some have criticised him for changing his approach. But in reality he faced the same challenge we are facing today: weighing up the risks of more deaths at sea versus the need to support and accept those seeking asylum. In an article in the Sydney Morning Herald yesterday Mr Aristotle summed up the dilemma:

When you're confronted with that reality—

of deaths at sea—

… and you have the capacity to try and construct a different way that would prevent that but, at the same time, provide thousands more people with protection, and you decide not to do it for whatever reason, then I can't really live with myself on that basis.

I don't want to stay awake at night thinking about this issue and imagining how terrified a young kid or a woman would be in a violent ocean, slipping below the waterline with no one around to save them or protect them. The images of that are just too horrific.

He is right. It is just too horrific.

Mr Aristotle went on to stress the importance of a regional framework to replace the current chaos and to establish a better and more humane way of dealing with asylum seekers. I agree with him. We must not forget that this is only one stage of an incredibly complex issue and an incredibly complex process, and I hope that the current and any future governments will commit to seeing it through. But as Mr Aristotle said:

There are risks that we're going to have to monitor carefully, and work hard to ensure that they don't result in damaging people. But there are greater risks with doing nothing.

I believe the intentions of this legislation are, on balance, good, and that a further report by the expert panel will give us an indication of whether the bill can live up to that intention.

I want to emphasise that this is not the end of this debate there is more, much more to be done. Offshore processing must not be a case of 'out of sight, out of mind' because this is ultimately not about plans, or intentions, or numbers, or statistics, or pictures on a screen or political debates. This is about our fellow human beings, and it is our duty to do our best by them.