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Wednesday, 7 March 2001
Page: 25359

Dr THEOPHANOUS (10:42 AM) —I am pleased to follow my Independent colleague, the member for Calare, because I agree with some of the issues that he raised. This is an interesting day to speak on the Appropriation Bill (No. 3) 2000-2001 and cognate bills because it gives us the opportunity, as usual, to speak in broad terms about the general political agenda and what is happening in this country.

One of the interesting pieces of news today is the opinion poll which shows the Labor Party with a high 48 per cent primary vote and the Liberal and National parties down to 30 per cent, which is the lowest vote in a poll ever recorded. What is going on in the political landscape? Some people think that this is just a temporary phenomenon. I do not think that is right. I think the Liberal Party's continuing move to the right is now being reflected in the polls.

Looking at this from the point of view of a political scientist, one wonders why the Liberal Party has chosen to follow a leader who has continuously pushed them further and further to the right, thereby giving the whole centre ground of politics to the Labor Party—for which they have been very grateful. In recent days, commentators have raised questions such as: what does the Liberal Party now stand for? What is its concept? What is its vision? Where is it going?

One has to look at some of the things that have happened in the last three or four years. The Prime Minister thought he was being very smart when he decided to have a very conservative social agenda and abandon a number of key social justice and human rights issues. He felt he could win the votes of Hanson supporters—the so-called `one million votes'. I agree with the member for Calare: they are not all the votes of extremists and racists. It took the Prime Minister a long time to condemn Hanson and, when he finally did, he agreed to put in place agendas which are, unfortunately, very similar to those of Hanson. The result has been that the Liberal Party is now perceived, generally speaking, as being contrary in its approach to fundamental issues of social justice and human rights.

I am not saying that all members of the Liberal Party are like that, but this is the image which has been created by the Prime Minister because of the positions that he has taken on reconciliation, human rights, multiculturalism and other related issues. It might be thought that, after all, if you can win the votes of the Hanson supporters, who cares about a few people who might be concerned with human rights. The fact of the matter is that it is not just a few people. The vast majority of central and swinging voters do have some concerns about human rights issues. The government's failure to recognise this—failing even to take account of the recommendations and suggestions of its own backbench members who have been concerned with human rights issues—has led to a situation where the whole government has been tainted with this image of abandoning human rights.

The most interesting illustration of this was the extraordinary decision last year to have two ministers face the cameras and say, `Right, we're going to do away with any cooperation with the United Nations human rights committees. We're going to reduce our involvement in those committees and we're going to refuse to ratify the convention on the elimination of discrimination against women.' Can you imagine that? Can you imagine a government in the modern Western world doing something like that? But we have a compliant media and the media in Australia are a disgrace when it comes to human rights issues. They have supported Hanson and they have supported these kinds of actions by the government.

As a result of that situation, we have been embarrassed internationally. I have talked to some of our international representatives and they are saying that, whereas at the United Nations a few years ago Australia was considered to have weight and power above its size, it is now considered to have weight and power much less than its size. Why? Because, in the United Nations and other forums, the current government's attitudes and positions are viewed with total contempt. The government do not mind that because they think they are winning votes.

They think they are winning votes, for example, when they condemn refugee claimants—people who come to Australia from places like Afghanistan, for God's sake. That is the place run by the Taliban—the people who destroy 2,000-year-old Buddhist temples and statues. People escape from these regimes and come to Australia and what does the government do? They put them in prisons which are called `detention centres'. The minister then goes on radio and television—not only here but overseas—and he says to people, `Don't come to Australia in a boat. Don't try and claim refugee status in Australia. We're such a small country, we can't afford to have any more people.' More than 100,000 people go to Western Europe every year claiming refugee status and yet we think it is a big crisis if 2,000 or 3,000 people come here! Do we treat them in a humanitarian fashion? No. We impose all sorts of extraordinarily tough conditions on them. What do we say to them even after the tribunal says they are genuine refugees? We say, `Bad luck, we can't give you permanent residence.'

For 50 years we had a proud tradition that, if you became a refugee, you were given permanent residence—not any more. Now we say, `Okay. You are not going to get permanent residence; you are going to get a three-year temporary visa and, at the end of the three years, we will determine what you are going to do.' By the way, have we actually given them a guarantee that, if the circumstances still continue, they will get permanent residence? We have not. I have asked the minister not one but two questions on notice on this issue. I have tried to get a guarantee from the minister on whether or not the temporary protection visa means that at the end of the three-year period people are going to be able to get permanent residence if these circumstances still apply in Afghanistan or wherever they come from. Each time he says, `They may be able to.' But there is no assurance that, if they meet the criteria, they will be able to. I challenge the minister to come out and be honest about this. Are these people, if they are still refugees, at the end of the three years going to get permanent residence or not? Or are they going to be given another three-year temporary visa? What is he saying?

Why is this an important matter? First of all, these people are not given the same rights as other people in Australia. They do not have the same access to services. In particular, they do not have access to education, something which they really dramatically need—and the minister knows that. But there is something else. They are not able to bring their spouses or their children here while they are on this temporary three-year visa. That means that we have a policy of forced separation of people from their spouses and children. You are not allowed to sponsor or bring them. If you come from Afghanistan, for example, and you are given refugee status and this temporary three-year visa, you are not allowed to bring your wife and children here. What sort of an image does that present to the world and the Australian people? Does the government think that all the Australian people are simply Hanson supporters?

I can tell you that the swinging voters—the people who used to vote Liberal—are very concerned with the image of this Prime Minister. I can tell you that this issue I have just referred to, and the other issue of reconciliation that I will come back to in a minute, have been taken up by groups of people who always used to vote Liberal—church organisations, for example, and welfare groups. And they are not all living in the western suburbs in the poor areas—they are also in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne, for example, which always used to vote Liberal. They are having campaigns there about the refugees. I have been to them; I have seen them. These people are going to their churches and welfare organisations. What are they telling them? They are telling them that this is a government without a heart.

If the Liberal Party wants to completely abandon its traditions from the past and forget about these groups of people, it does so at its peril. They are the people who are running away from the Liberal Party. It is not just the Hanson people that are running away. It is also the middle ground people; the people who used to think they wanted to support the Liberal Party for economic reasons but also expected it to have a social conscience. Whether or not it is claimed the party has a social conscience, the fact is that the appearance is very different both here and internationally.

This is a bad thing for democracy because it is important for democracy that there be some balance between the parties, not a situation where the Liberal Party is imploding because it has abandoned some of the traditional values. I remember considering former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser to be a conservative person, especially on economic issues. He had some good ideas on social issues, especially multiculturalism—I will say that for him. He did some things on Aboriginal affairs. But what has happened to him in recent years? He has virtually become a pariah in the Liberal Party because that strand of the Liberal Party has completely been destroyed.

Mr Rudd —He speaks the truth.

Dr THEOPHANOUS —Yes, he speaks the truth on many issues, including human rights issues. But this former Prime Minister who did so many things to identify that party with things like reconciliation, multiculturalism, human rights et cetera has virtually become a pariah. And, in the meantime, they think it is very smart to go around treating refugees as they do or treating indigenous leaders and indigenous people with contempt. I remember when Aden Ridgeway, the Aboriginal senator from the Democrats, came to a compromise with John Howard, and it was assumed that the Prime Minister was going to actually do something on reconciliation. Instead of that, what have we got? Senator Ridgeway has totally abandoned his support for the Prime Minister. Why? Because the Prime Minister did not act in good faith on the reconciliation issue. He did not carry out actions on the reconciliation issue; he did not do the things which were required.

I will give the House some awful facts. Is the House aware that the number of deaths in custody of indigenous people has actually increased since the report came down? Isn't that a shameful thing? We carried out that massive exercise, we had all the recommendations and yet, at the end of the day, we have the following situation: indigenous people are 17.3 times more likely to be arrested, 14.7 times more likely to be imprisoned and 16.5 times more likely to die in custody than non-indigenous Australians. That is the situation we have got after the report. How can a government that has been in power for five years talk about how everything is going relatively okay in this society? If you listened to the Prime Minister you would think, `Gee, we live in the best country in the world and we have got no problems.' I will not talk about the economic problems for the moment, but what about trying to actually do something real about these other problems?

Mr Deputy Speaker Andrews, you were able to show that the federal parliament had some considerable powers over the government of the Northern Territory in one of your actions. It is funny that we were able to ensure that. But when it comes to the question of mandatory sentencing of juveniles, of which the overwhelming proportion are people of an indigenous background, suddenly the federal government does not have powers or is not interested in exercising powers. The federal government had the power in the case that you, as the honourable member for Menzies, brought up. But doesn't it have the power in the case of mandatory sentencing of people? Of course it does.

The acceptance of that shameful deal basically gave Mr Burke everything he wanted. He went away smiling at the cameras, saying, `I've got everything I want.' Mr Burke should have gone away feeling pretty ashamed of himself. Instead, we had that situation—another example of what is going on in this country. One could mention many other issues, but suffice to say that we are now at a crossroads in relation to what is going to happen with politics in this country. The key concern that I have is the increasing undermining of human rights in every sphere of life in Australia. It is not just the refugees and it is not just the indigenous people. Many other groups feel disadvantaged: the disabled, sections of the poor and migrant communities.

I have tried to raise the question of providing sufficient resources for people from ethnic backgrounds who are ageing. Ethnic aged care is an issue I have raised. When I raised it with the Minister for Aged Care, she chose to say that she did not have any statistics to give me. I raised the matter of the proportion of beds that are going to specific ethnic clusters for people who have needs because they are ageing. Those people lose their knowledge of English and revert to their original language. What are we doing about that? We have increased the number of aged care beds, but we have not increased significantly the number of beds to cater for people from these backgrounds. I have said, `Let's try and deal with this issue because it has become a crisis, especially in our big cities of Sydney and Melbourne.' Why would anybody of ethnic background in Sydney and Melbourne vote Liberal? What is the Liberal Party doing for them?

Leaving aside these issues of aged care, let us look at what is happening to the immigration program and the way in which family reunion has virtually been destroyed. You cannot bring your brother and sister here. If you are an Australian citizen and you marry somebody from an Asian, African or Middle Eastern country, you end up having to wait for nine to 12 months—sometimes 15 months—to bring your own spouse here. What is going on? What has happened to the concept of rights? People come into my office every day about these issues. They all have a fundamental thing behind them—the issue of basic human rights. I will be saying more about this in the House.