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Thursday, 23 August 2001
Page: 30138


Mr EMERSON (1:55 PM) — This bill, the Migration Legislation Amendment (Immigration Detainees) Bill (No. 2) 2001, introduces the power to conduct strip searches of detained asylum seekers. It is designed to safeguard the working conditions of the officers tasked with the job of guarding these detainees and to also ensure the safety of other asylum seekers within detention centres. Labor supports the measures proposed in the bill, subject to a number of government amendments which I understand have been agreed to.

It is very important that we achieve a level of safety in detention centres. No-one condones the violence that has occurred. Strip searching is never a pleasant task, nor one that a parliament should very lightly empower people to do. That is why we on this side of the parliament have been very concerned to ensure that there are in fact adequate safeguards and that guards cannot just at a whim conduct strip searches. The bill is the outcome of protracted negotiations between the government and the opposition on this matter.

The whole difficulty, though, is that the number of asylum seekers coming to this country as unauthorised arrivals is going through the roof. Very unfortunately, although the government has put in place a number of measures that time and time again it has said will guarantee a reduction in the flow of unauthorised arrivals, sadly and spectacularly it has failed to stem those arrivals. Over the last 10 years there have been around 12,700 unauthorised arrivals. The vast majority of them—in fact, more than 10,000—have arrived since the Howard government came to power in March 1996. In response to that the government said it would put in place a range of domestic measures that would reduce the attractiveness of Australia as a destination for unauthorised arrivals. The measures include a new temporary protection visa regime. I remember very clearly that the government said, `This will do the trick.' The government tried to wedge in the Labor Party on that matter. In the end, we supported, with some qualifications, the measures that the government advocated there on the basis that they would in fact stem the flow of unauthorised arrivals. But they have failed to do so. Other measures include tougher border control measures, increased jail terms for people smugglers and boat crews, tougher laws for troublemakers in detention centres and, as covered in this legislation, special strip search powers.

The Labor opposition has put forward a number of policies that it thinks could be a lot more effective in dealing with this problem, most particularly an Australian coastguard service. It is quite bemusing to me that, whenever we talk about that Australian coastguard service, it is ridiculed by the government as being entirely unnecessary and very expensive. Well, the problems that we have now are very expensive, and I put to you, Mr Deputy Speaker Nehl, and to this parliament that the range of measures that the government itself has said will fix the problem have failed spectacularly to do so. I reinforce that point with these statistics. In 1998-99 there were 920 arrivals. In 1999-2000 that figure leapt from 920 to 4,174. Already for this year to date there have been 4,592 unauthorised arrivals.

There is a lot of human misery locked up in this whole sorry saga of unauthorised arrivals. I for one am concerned about the problem of queue jumping. People who wait patiently in refugee camps and other locations overseas have their rights to consideration for entry into this country thwarted by queue jumping. But among those who jump the queue and arrive on boats are very desperate people as well. So it is evident to me that we need to do a lot more in terms of processing arrivals in countries of origin and in other countries so there is some equity in this entire process.

This brings to the fore some of the other social consequences of unauthorised arrival. In Logan City, most of which is in the seat of Rankin, there are a substantial number of refugees. The agencies charged with the responsibility of caring for refugees are under enormous financial pressure. You would think that one of the more compassionate things that a government could do would be to at least provide the necessary resources to the agencies and voluntary organisations to which have fallen the responsibility to manage the lives of refugees, many of whom arrive here with nothing. They come to Logan City because of its very low cost housing, and there are a lot of housing commission homes in Logan City. I know—and I put this through the parliament to the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs, who is sitting opposite—that our local organisations are under intense pressure. They have written to the minister, and I hope that he will consider the representations of these organisations sympathetically. Logan City is one of the most multicultural areas— arguably the most multicultural area—in Australia in terms of diversity, with people from at least 106 homelands, quite a number of whom are refugees. Our resources are stretched to the limit and beyond.

I would like to see a much more even-handed debate about immigration policy in this country. From time to time the issue arises. I have to say that, sadly, opportunities seem to be seized upon by the coalition to practise some wedge politics. I hope that does not arise in the future, but it has, sadly, in the past. Maybe the coalition considers that there are some political benefits in that, but I think any political benefits would be short term and very cynical and should be eschewed, because this is a very important issue for the future of this country.

We do not have a proper population policy in this nation. We do not have a decent immigration policy in this nation. That is very sad, because under more than five years of coalition government you would think the government would set out such a policy. Whenever Labor talks about having a proper population policy or a more enlightened immigration policy, out come the wedge politics and the criticism. Let us try to make this a bipartisan debate.

Since the Second World War, there has been a great wave of immigration into this country that has built up this nation. We always say, `We want more skilled migrants.' Everyone wants more skilled migrants. The demand for skilled migrants around the world is very high and we compete very hard for skilled migrants, but lots of skilled migrants prefer not to come to Australia. But, if you look at how Australia was built, it was built very substantially on the back of unskilled migrants. Unskilled migrants arrive here highly motivated. There are so many famous examples of migrants who arrived in this country penniless and with no English language skills whatsoever and who have risen up and made a very substantial contribution to the economic and social development of this country.

It is very important that we have a proper bipartisan debate on a population and immigration policy for this country, because without that we are going to see opportunistic divisions created within Australian society by our political leadership. That itself is a very sad indictment on this parliament and on the coalition government in particular. As I say, whenever we raise these issues, the coalition practises wedge politics.


Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER —Order! It being 2 p.m., the debate is interrupted in accordance with standing order 101A. The member will have leave to continue speaking when the debate is resumed.