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Thursday, 23 August 2001
Page: 30108

Mr O'CONNOR (11:12 AM) — The Migration Legislation Amendment (Immigration Detainees) Bill (No. 2) 2001 enshrines the government's response to recent incidents at immigration centres. According to the government, the bill will introduce the power to strip search detainees and it will apply search powers that apply under state and territory legislation to immigration detainees held in a state or territory remand centre. According to the government, this bill is motivated by the increasing incidence of antisocial behaviour at detention centres, with major disturbances occurring at Woomera, Curtin and Port Hedland centres in recent times. As we know, these disturbances led to serious assaults on detention centre staff and extensive damage to property.

Many in the community are asking how we have got to this particular situation in our detention centres and in the administration of this very contentious area of public policy, and I will speak a little more about that as this debate progresses. During these disturbances, we have seen increasing incidence of the use of weapons that have been fashioned from nonmetallic materials such as glass and hardened plastic or wood, and items such as razor blades. The existing frisk search powers in the migration act are obviously insufficient for the purposes of providing a safe and secure environment for detainees and staff. Currently, the Migration Act permits only a pat down search of detainees. In the government's view, this has serious consequences for the department's ability to manage immigration detainees in a lawful, responsible and effective way, and it potentially places detainees and staff in harm's way.

The government claims—and many would take the government to task on this—that the provisions in this bill will strike a reasonable balance between preserving a detainee's dignity and privacy and providing a safe environment in the detention centres for all. If the government is claiming that these particular provisions strike a reasonable balance, it is due to the activities of the opposition in this regard. We have succeeded in negotiating with the government some amendments that make the legislation more palatable to those elements in our community who are very concerned about what has gone on in the detention centres and about the reputation of this great nation, which has suffered as a result of the administration of this contentious area of policy by this government.

The first two measures that have been incorporated into the bill came about as a result of discussions between the shadow minister for immigration and multicultural affairs and Minister Ruddock. What has come out of those discussions is a much tighter application of this strip search power. A search can now be authorised only by a very senior officer in the central office of the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs, namely, the secretary or a Senior Executive Service band 3 employee such as the deputy secretary. Also, a detainee who is to be searched will be able to nominate another person to attend the strip search.

To allay some of the fears of the community about this legislation, it is important to note that the search of a detainee or of his or her clothing will not be conducted as a matter of routine. It will be conducted as a matter of last resort, to be used only in determined exceptional circumstances. A draft protocol has been prepared on the exercise of the new search powers, and that has been settled in conjunction with the Attorney-General. This draft protocol will be incorporated into written directions, pursuant to section 499 of the Migration Act. It will provide operational guidelines for the power and will be binding on all officers.

I want to put on the public record that Labor did not support this legislation when it was first presented to the parliament but, as a good opposition does—a good opposition that is preparing for government and will be in government in three months time, when the Prime Minister calls the election on 17 November—we have forced the government to negotiate a number of substantial amendments to the original bill. They have now been incorporated in the bill before the House.

Let me refer to Labor's amendments and the logic behind them. Our amendments reflect a priority to put in place safeguards to prevent any abuse of the power that has been conferred under this legislation. A strip search can be conducted only on the basis of a reasonable suspicion that a weapon is being hidden on the person, based on the outcome of pat-down search or metal detector scan. We are concerned to ensure that a strip search can be authorised only by a senior officer of the department, which is a measure I referred to earlier. Detainees being searched have the right to have a witness of their own choosing present during the search. That is a very important amendment that the opposition have been able to achieve. In the case of minors, the strip search must be authorised by a magistrate in addition to the senior department official.

These are safeguards that should have been in the legislation in the first place if the government had done its job, but we know the propensity of this government to latch onto particular issues of concern in the community and to play them out in a political sense rather than seeking to do the right thing from the start of the process. It is very clear that we have a defensive minister who has lost control of this particular area of his portfolio responsibility. In response to that, the easy way out is to bring into this parliament what could be termed quite draconian legislation that would appeal to those elements in our community that do not have a finer sense of what Australia stands for and its reputation in the international community.

Unfortunately, the government, in preparing this legislation, fell foul of that particular sentiment. It sought to pander to the more redneck elements in our community that are very unsympathetic to the plight of genuine refugees who are currently incarcerated in our detention centres. It is a source of some concern to those in our community with sensitivity on these issues that Australia has jettisoned some of the cherished values that have motivated our attitude to refugees in the past and which have been such an integral part of the process of establishing Australia's very high reputation in the international community as a compassionate country.

The measures here will ensure to a greater degree safeguards both for detainees and employees in our detention centres, but the real issue for public policy is how to prevent the ever increasing number of unauthorised boat arrivals to our shores. The arrival on Monday night, 20 August, of yet another boatload of asylum seekers on Ashmore Reef brings the number to 451 people in the last five days. It clearly shows that the Howard government has no real answer to unauthorised boat arrivals and has lost control of this area of policy. In the last 10 years there have been some 12,700 unauthorised arrivals, but I am sad to say that the vast majority of them—over 10,000—have arrived since the Howard government came to power in March 1996. The government's response over the last five years has been largely limited to introducing domestic legislative changes that were supposed to slow the number of unauthorised arrivals. But, for all their bravado and all their breast beating, the Prime Minister and the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs have failed miserably to stem the number of unauthorised asylum seekers arriving on our coastline.

Labor has put into the public arena a policy position to create an Australian coastguard. This was one of the first policy initiatives announced by the Beazley opposition, and it was a detailed policy. We have been accused by the government of having no policy at all, but when we do put policy into the ring the government does one of two things: it is highly critical of it and does not even seek to extract the best features of the policy, or it goes to the other extreme and tries to pinch every idea that we put into the public arena. That occurred previously with regard to Kim Beazley's knowledge nation, which Labor will create when it is elected at the next election. For several years, Kim Beazley as opposition leader has put this particular concept into the public arena and he has drawn the attention of the Australian public to the great damage that the Howard government has done to the research, development innovation and skill infrastructure of this nation. I guess it is a sad reflection for members on the government backbench— indeed, some members of the executive whom we intend to retire at the next election—that, after being in government for five years, the one great thing that they can hang their hat on, their great visionary initiative, is the introduction of an outdated tax. What a sad indictment of a government which is bereft of ideas and which, in this very contentious area of public policy, has really let Australia down. It has let this issue run out of control.

This is a contentious issue in community. In my electorate of Corio, I receive as the federal member calls from both sides of the fence with respect to this particular issue. We in Geelong are blessed with a large ethnic community that goes back to migration before the war. Modern Geelong has been built on postwar immigration and migrants have contributed much to the development of Geelong in an economic and cultural sense. But I know that in Geelong's ethnic community there are significant divisions of opinion on this particular issue. There are former refugees who have settled in the Geelong area who hold a very compassionate view with regard to those people who have made their way to Australia—the land of plenty, that land down under that offers security to them and their families and the opportunity of a new life and a decent standard of living. There are other migrants who are waiting for parents to join them. Their parents are on long waiting lists, and they are very impatient with that particular process. That has generated a very strong feeling against those people who have arrived on our shores in an unauthorised way, who seek to jump queues and who seek by illegal and unauthorised means to take advantage of Australia's great compassionate values.

That division is also reflected generally in the Geelong community in that there are those who believe that Australia is devoting too much in the way of resources to the particular task of housing refugees and people who arrive here in an unauthorised manner. In a society where there are competing claims for government resources, it is always difficult to argue that Australia should be devoting significant resources to determining who is a genuine refugee and who is not and making sure that, in the process of establishing that, we treat in a humane way those who come to our shores in this manner. There are others in my electorate who have contacted me who are absolutely appalled at the current treatment afforded to refugees by the system that we have in place. I do not think we should mince words about this, dodge the issue or gild the lily. These divisions of opinion exist in Australian society today.

It is my view that Australia needs to strike a balance by taking a compassionate but firm stance on this particular issue. We have a great international reputation that has been built up since Federation as a place where people can come and settle as refugees. Indeed, I am proud of my own community in that regard. When in the wake of some difficult times that were being experienced by people in the Balkans the minister requested that the Geelong community take some of those refugees, we have responded magnificently. We have not trumpeted the fact, because we know how this particular issue can excite sentiment and division in our community. But I am proud of the way in which the Geelong community and those people on the Geelong Ethnic Communities Council and the workers at the Geelong Migrant Resource Centre have accommodated the demands that have been put on them by the government—and this is a government that is not wont to resource these very important areas of social activity.

We do have a deep-seated value in our society that we ought to give a fair go to all. But those who seek to come here need to be fair about this also. We are not a soft touch, and we do not intend to be. We must insist on appropriate processes and procedures in the resolution of these individual cases. The Australian community is demanding that the great values that have motivated our refugee policies in the past be maintained; but they are also demanding that the community be protected from illegal activities by people smugglers and others who seek to undermine those compassionate values that we have displayed in the past.

I think one of the great features of Australian democracy and the processes of this parliament is that, when a government that politically has its back to the wall seeks to exploit a contentious community issue, the parliament then goes to work, the opposition goes to work, the Senate goes to work as well as the minor parties. We have been able to corral the government and its potential excesses—and might I add that politically this is an increasingly desperate government that would seek to exploit this particular issue—with the great values that have motivated us in the past. We always come back to the central core values of Australian society and Australian democracy. With the amendments that we have been able to achieve to this piece of legislation, I think we have done that.

I congratulate the shadow minister for immigration for his persistence in this matter. He has quite an awesome reputation not only in the immigration community but also in the veterans' community of this nation. I congratulate him and this parliament for the amendments that we have succeeded in making to this legislation in this very contentious area of public policy.