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Thursday, 23 August 2001
Page: 30121

Mr RIPOLL (12:27 PM) —I am pleased to speak on this important piece of legislation, the Migration Legislation Amendment (Immigration Detainees) Bill (No. 2) 2001. I consider the debate to be a victory for the Labor Party. It is a victory because earlier this year the government was forced to split the discussion into two separate bills so that the contentious issue of the strip searching of immigration detainees could be given the proper consideration that it deserved and so that we could debate it in this House. As I listened to a number of contributions to the debate, in particular as I listened to the member for Dawson, I could see that most people have not spent much time dealing with the bill or what it is about. They talk about all sorts of issues and problems but they have little understanding of the core issues, which they should understand but do not.

The opposition supports this bill because the government has recognised that the amendments that Labor proposed were necessary for the protection not only of individuals' wellbeing but also of Australia's good governance. There is a common theme in the ongoing debate over immigration detainees, and that is human rights. This is not a matter that needs to be debated; everyone in the House should support it, and I believe they do, but the way in which they go about that support sometimes is very questionable. The wedge politics being used by the government in this debate has allowed it to undermine the community's understanding of human rights issues, in particular those in relation to our obligations to treat individuals with dignity and humility, regardless of where they are from and how they get here. There still is a baseline that we draw in this country. That is important for us as a nation, not because of an international obligation on human rights, not because of the rule of law, and not because of all the things that you might think. It is something that we as a people believe in: the issue of human rights is something that we believe in passionately. It is something cultural about Australia; it is something about our system and the way we do business. It is not just about the rule of law or our obligations; it is much more than that.

Then you have to look at the government's attempt to quash discussion that coalition members in particular wanted to raise about problems with immigration detention centres at the recent committee hearings. When the government realised that `wedge' politics was not working even on its own side, its instructions to its own members were, `Make no comment. Stay silent.' This did not work, and we all saw what happened when the minister accused his own members of being naïve and Johnny-come-latelies who had no idea. I do not know if he has retracted or apologised, but he was talking to some people with quite extensive experience and knowledge. It was quite an insult to those people on their own side, let alone everyone else. This government is now attempting to do the same thing with this bill by blurring the lines of responsibility through attacks on other areas. It is blurring the lines of responsibility in this bill, as it has blurred the lines of responsibility in health matters, Medicare, education—as we see every day in this House. This government now takes responsibility for absolutely nothing. Everything is the responsibility of the states. It is passing on taxation, the GST, health matters—everything is someone else's responsibility. This government no longer accepts responsibility for anything in this country.

Of course, the government tried to counter the authority of the parliamentary committee to investigate the living conditions at immigration detention centres, but it has not worked. People do know what the conditions are, and I do not think they are fooled by some of the sensationalism and propaganda this government puts out. The documents it puts out in electorates is just rubbish. I was also greatly disappointed with the Four Corners program that was aired on television recently, in that I believe strongly that there was a gross misrepresentation of the facts and reality. There was no understanding of the program, no balance, no supporting evidence—just a completely biased view. There was great disappointment in the accusations and allegations made—to Australia—that our detention systems are somehow worse than the Taliban and a whole range of things. It is not a simple argument. While I get up here and have a go at the government about their policies, at the same time I accept that there are difficulties with the system we have. But there are better ways to do it and better ways to manage it. There are better ways to deal with this whole issue.

One of the things we have been trying to push forward is the idea of a judicial review of conditions. It is unfortunate that the government will not support us on this but is ignoring it. I wonder what it is afraid of and what it is hiding from. A judicial review would give us a better understanding of what the real conditions are, and then we may not have the kind of problems we had with the Four Corners program of distorting the truth, misrepresenting the facts, and not even coming close to what the reality is in those places. I am sure they just went to one place and spoke to three people and that is supposed to be what happens in detention centres across Australia. I, like many others, am very concerned about these matters, and I have visited every detention centre and every processing centre and have done extensive work in this area. I have to say that, while we have many problems, it is certainly not the way it was portrayed by the Four Corners program.

While there are huge problems, they are problems of management. There are also problems about length of stay and all of the other problems that have been put forward today and yesterday in this debate. I think those issues are a part of this bill but separate in that we need to look at other ways to deal with this. There is an experiment being carried out in Port Hedland at the moment where they are releasing women and children into the community. They are splitting up families, which I do not think is a good thing, but I suppose that releasing women and children is a good thing in itself because it gives them an opportunity to not be contained within those walls.

The member for Dawson was saying that Labor do not offer any practical solutions. We have offered quite a number of them; it is just that the government does not take them up. When it comes to offering solutions and trying to assist, I cannot think of any other portfolio where a shadow minister—the member for Bowman—and the Labor Party have been more cooperative. We have been out there trying to support the government, because we know this is a difficult issue. We know there are many problems. We want to do what is best for this country and for those people who are desperate to come here. We want to do the best by everyone, and we have attempted to do that by putting forward amendments and seeking the government's support for them so that the legislative changes are better.

I do not think the government could ever claim that you can just put up policy and think that it is perfect straight off the bat. We saw that principle in play with the GST legislation—and here we are, 1,800 amendments later. I can remember quite distinctly the Treasurer telling the world about this new tax system for a new century that was so good, so perfect, and so thought through that not one change was needed. We now have something like seven or eight kilos of legislation, as thick as 5½ telephone books, and this is from a government that said, `It is fine; we do not need your help.' This government's principle is that it is fine on its own. It takes no responsibility and does not need any advice or help. It will be fine on its own; it can manage everything. Which one is it going to be? Where is the line being drawn? There are a whole range of concerns not only about what is happening in detention centres and not only about the regime. This government has put in place its own attitude and approach to these issues, but in this bill at least we are going some way to doing the right thing in terms of trying to make the legislation better.

Labor has supported this bill conditional upon our amendments being supported by the government. The amendments we are putting forward are quite reasonable. I do not think anyone could go out there and say that we are trying to obstruct the government in doing their job. The amendments we will put forward in relation to strip searching quite simply make the system better. We are trying to apply the same principles and standards as might be expected out in the community. I do not think standards for detention centres or gaols should be different from community standards. There must be some line. So we have put forward a number of amendments that provide for strip searches to be conducted in a certain manner.

There must be an objective assessment of how strip searches are to take place. They should not be the sole responsibility of the ACM staff, for example, or the staff of the company running these centres, because they have proved not to be very effective or efficient in their management. So some objective assessment must be made as to whether there is a necessity to strip search people. It must be done according to a range of specified authorisations. For example, authority for a strip search must be given by a DIMA SES officer of at least acting deputy secretary level or above. This will make people think about what they are going to do, particularly given that this legislation will allow for the strip searching of minors over the age of 10. I think the community standard for everyone here would be that these things should be done through the correct process: there should be witnesses, they should be done in the most supportive manner possible and they should be done having regard to dignity and human rights. That is what it comes down to: if people are to be subjected to strip searches they have to be done in the right way. In this country we cannot allow for things not being done in the correct way. That is what happens in other countries, such as Iran, from where asylum seekers and refugees are fleeing. It does not happen here and should not be allowed to happen here. I am happy to support this bill if those amendments are put in place.

I also want to make some comments in relation to weapons. We heard the member for Dawson refer to the weapons that have been found. I want to say straight off the bat that I do not condone violence in the community—in detention centres or anywhere else. No-one should condone violence, riots or people taking the law into their own hands, and I think we have to look at that also. Turning to weapons themselves, we need to have a way to check that weapons are not being taken into detention centres. It will always be the case in any group or community, be they in detention centres or anywhere else, that, while the majority may be of good character and good intent, there will be one or two who may be of a criminal element, who may be of bad character. Therefore, we need to protect the other detainees, those women, children and families who are detained under our system, from them. We also need to protect some people from themselves.

So I believe there is a need for this process to be put in place, but I think it has to be done the right way. That is what Labor have been saying. We have not been obstructing the minister or the government as they would have people believe. If you listened to the minister or to the government you would think that, at every step and every bit of legislation, we are there just to obstruct them. We are not. The evidence is in the Hansard: we have been supportive of positive change. We have been supportive of what will make a difference, but this government obviously will not acknowledge that in this debate or anywhere else. It is interesting that, while the government will come to us and ask for support, they will never acknowledge it; they certainly will not go out there crowing about the good work that we have done. I honestly would not expect them to, but on the other hand I also would not expect the minister or the government, at every opportunity they have to speak on this, to attack Labor. The minister says that, somehow, it is our fault. They are the government and they are responsible but he says that somehow we should take the responsibility for all these things that have taken place; it is our fault because we have hindered them.

But what are the facts? Let us go to facts. If you cannot debate people on anything else, you should at least debate them on facts. Over the last 10 years some 13,000 people have come to our shores by various means and been classified as unauthorised, illegal entrants. That is a lot of people. It is not huge in international terms and it is not unmanageable from our perspective. But what has happened over the last five years since this government has been in power? What is the figure for the last five years? Ten thousand people out of those 13,000 people have come in the last five years. This government say they are out there with the right policies and that they are out there making the changes; yet, the majority of these people have come in the last five years and none of the policies or legislation brought in by this government or this minister have actually stemmed the flow. In fact, you would say that it has worked the other way. So what is going on?

This bill does not deal with the core issue at all. This bill deals specifically with strip searching and a number of amendments that deal with what might be problems within detention centres. Yet we hear every government member claiming that they are improving the system, and they use words like `stemming the flow' and `this will make it harder for the people smugglers'. Strip searching at Port Hedland is going to make it harder for people smugglers in Indonesia? I do not think so. This government are kidding themselves if they think that somehow this change in the legislation we are talking about is going to have any core effect on anybody coming in a boat this morning. It will not. The people smugglers are not going to care about the legislation. The people smugglers making millions of dollars through organised crime and by smuggling people are not going to care that those people might be strip searched when they get here or in fact that they will be put in detention.

I just cannot understand where the government are coming from. We have legislation that we have put forward amendments to, but the government say, `This is going to fix the problem. This is part of fixing the problem.' I think we are a long way from fixing the problem. I think the government have run out of ideas. The evidence for that is right here in this grubby, disgraceful pamphlet that Liberal Party candidates are putting out in certain marginal seats—in, let us say, One Nation type supported seats. We have seen what happens to those who would play games and play wedge politics. In the Northern Territory we heard Denis Burke apologising. It is fantastic to have principles and morals after you have lost. It is too bad you did not have them the day before.

The minister, obviously supported by the Howard government, is putting out absolute garbage. Alan Wood said in the Australian on 28 February:

Ruddock has restored integrity to the migration program by strongly emphasising skilled migration, English language proficiency and age limits and by cracking down on rorts.

Based on what? We have had the biggest influx of illegal immigrants and the most riots ever. The system is falling apart. The administration of detention centres, through ACM, is failing. The government has no solution, because it keeps coming back here with legislation that is ineffective. The government says that Labor are soft. How are we soft? We have supported the government. Which bit of legislation has not gone through? Labor have made positive amendments. We have asked the government to think about what it is doing.

We have asked the government not to use this issue as a political wedge, but they think that distributing grubby pamphlets will get them re-elected. The government are scaring people. We talk about sensationalism and racial prejudice. They are heating up these issues in the community with rubbish like, `The Howard government is rock solid on protecting Australia's borders.' Where is the evidence of that? There is not any.

The government have failed miserably at understanding what the core issues are, and they have failed to put together any program to deal with this issue. Now they are about to fail in my state of Queensland. The government have put forward a proposal to build a detention centre somewhere in the Greater Brisbane region. This will more than likely affect my electorate, which already has quite a number of institutions. It is not so much a case of `not in my backyard' but a case of community load. We do not have the capacity to deal with it. More importantly, why does this government want to build a detention centre in Queensland? It wants to shift its problems around the country. I do not think the government has any intention of fixing the problems; it just wants to shift the blame and the responsibility. That is all we have seen to date.

When will the government wake up and stop putting out rubbish pamphlets? Peter Dutton, the Liberal candidate for Dickson, is trying to play wedge politics by putting racist arguments. This will not be an issue for the election come 17 November when we go to the polls. This is not an issue that will concern people the most. This government should get serious about immigration detainees and do something to clean up this mess. (Time expired)