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Wednesday, 19 September 2001
Page: 30979

Mr SNOWDON (1:34 PM) —As we know—and I will make some comments about the abysmal contribution by the member for Page in a short while—the pieces of legislation that we are debating today are the Migration Amendment (Excision from Migration Zone) Bill 2001, the Migration Amendment (Excision from Migration Zone) (Consequential Provisions Bill) 2001 and the Border Protection (Validation and Enforcement Powers) Bill 2001. The two bills that I want to pay particular reference to in the substance of my contribution will be the first two, the Migration Amendment (Excision from Migration Zone) Bill 2001 and the Migration Amendment (Excision from Migration Zone) (Consequential Provisions Bill) 2001.

Before I do that, I want to make some observations about the contribution by the member for Page. I notice that he scuttled out of the chamber very rapidly after he finished his speech. He said that somehow or other the Labor Party had changed its position substantially on the issue of the border protection legislation over the past fortnight. I am not sure what bill the member for Page has been reading, or whether or not he had the opportunity to read the legislation that was offered up for us to reject at the last sittings of the federal parliament, or whether he has even bothered to contemplate the detail of the bill that is before us today. Instead of trying to take cheap shots at the Leader of the Opposition, had the member for Page bothered to analyse the two pieces of legislation he would have learned that there is a substantial difference between that which was offered to this chamber a fortnight or so ago and that which we are debating this afternoon.

We need to understand that that initial piece of legislation was opposed by the Labor Party for very good reasons. The Leader of the Opposition had the unanimous support of the Labor caucus in his opposition to that legislation, because it would have been bad law and it would not have served the purpose that the government was intent on producing. From our point of view, it was absolutely insupportable. Any reasonable analysis of the legislation would have members understand that fact.

Of course, the legislation was given the title `Border protection'. What has gone out into the ether is that the Labor Party, for some reason or other, has opposed border protection legislation. Nothing could be further from the truth, as can be seen by the support we are giving this piece of legislation today. The difference is what needs to be understood. The initial piece of legislation was panicky and its consequences had not been properly thought through. It sought to override all Australian laws without qualification. All other Australian laws would have been overridden by this piece of legislation, without qualification. It created unnecessary, unreviewable and absolute discretion irrespective of the safety of people. It lacked guidance as to when and how decisions would made to remove vessels or persons. It allowed people to be returned to unseaworthy vessels and without the identification of safe havens. It was so broad that it would have applied to Australian citizens and Australian vessels.

There are no circumstances under which the Labor Party, thinking about the good of the Australian nation, would have contemplated supporting that piece of legislation. It was dropped on us at the last minute. The Prime Minister no doubt expected us to support it, because he thought wrongly that we had the same unprincipled approach to these matters that he has exhibited, and we rightly rejected it.

In this new piece of legislation the government has acknowledged the concerns of the Labor Party and that our original opposition to the bill was in fact correct. The new legislation specifically acknowledges the role of the High Court under the Constitution in respect of actions taken under the laws. It permits the use of force in detaining vessels only when it is necessary and reasonable to do so and when the officers concerned act in good faith. It specifically prohibits the return of a person to a vessel if it is unsafe to do so. It provides that all action must be taken within the existing legal frameworks and constraints in the migration and customs acts.

In addition—and this is the part of the legislative package that I want to concentrate on today—it excises a number of Australian territories from the migration zone for purposes related to unauthorised arrivals. Specifically, it refers to Christmas Island, Ashmore and Cartier Islands, the Cocos (Keeling) Islands and other external territories prescribed by regulation, and any island prescribed by regulation that forms part of a state or territory. The reason I want to concentrate on this element of the legislation is that I am the federal member for the Northern Territory. The federal seat of the Northern Territory includes both Christmas Island and the Cocos (Keeling) Islands. It is with some reluctance that I support this aspect of the legislation. That reluctance comes primarily from the fact that there has been absolutely no consultation whatsoever with the communities of Christmas Island or the Cocos (Keeling) Islands.

For the benefit of the chamber, I say it is true that Christmas Island is a long way away from the mainland. It is very close to Java. Indeed, the flight time from Christmas Island to Jakarta on a jet is about an hour and 20 minutes. If you travel a further hour and a half south-west into the Indian Ocean, you will come to the Cocos (Keeling) Islands. What do we know about these two places, apart from the fact that they are territories of this Commonwealth? We know that they have small populations. We know that in the case of Cocos there are only roughly 600 people. This is a coral atoll with a number of islands. One of the two principal islands is Home Island, on which approximately 470 or 480 people live. These people were indentured labourers of the Clunies-Ross family when the Clunies-Ross family were producing copra, which comes from coconut. Cocos (Keeling) Islands was a mandated territory from the United Nations which transferred to Australia in the early eighties.

The other island is an administrative island—these places are very small in area— where about 140 people live, primarily administrative staff and other employees on the island committee. That is where the major school is situated. It was a quarantine station and is very sensitive ecologically. There is very little infrastructure, but very proud Australians live in this community, as with Christmas Island. As a lot of us know, Christmas Island is another place which had a sad history of exploitation of Asian labour, where over almost a century the British Phosphate Commission exploited indentured labour from Singapore and Malaya. It was a community that became part of Australia in 1958 when it was transferred from the United Kingdom. Again, it has a current population of around 1,800 people of whom 60 per cent or thereabouts are of Chinese origin, 21 per cent are of Malay origin and 19 per cent are Anglo-Australian.

What we need to comprehend about these two communities is that they are very isolated. They do not have major infrastructure and they have been treated continually with contempt by this government over a range of issues, this being but the last of them. Although the Tampa was moored off Christmas Island and the community of Christmas Island demonstrated their support for those poor souls on the Tampa, they were keen to facilitate their departure off the vessel and to accommodate them on the island and they have indicated their preparedness, despite hardship, to accommodate people to assist in the processing of people who are seeking entry into Australia on these vessels.

We all understand the necessity to control the inflow of illegal immigrants. Of that there is no question. We all comprehend the necessity to work out a negotiated arrangement with our friends in Indonesia about how we might address at least part of the source of the problem as it emanates from the Indonesian community. Yet we know that Australian diplomacy in this area—at least over the past 18 months—has been an abysmal failure. We have seen a continuing flow of people coming through the Indonesian islands and on to Australia either through Ashmore and Cartier or directly down to the north-west of Western Australia and even into Darwin or currently through Christmas Island. More recently, a group of people from Sri Lanka came through the Cocos (Keeling) Islands.

Now we are confronted with a problem because of the inadequacy of the Australian government's performance in the area. We are confronted with a problem which the Australian community wants us to resolve. What we have done here is say to a particular group of Australians, `You will wear a particular responsibility in relation to these issues. We won't bother talking to you about it. We won't bother sitting down with you and saying that we have a problem we would like you to help us resolve.' What do they hear about it? They hear about it in the media. They hear in press statements from various government ministers that the Cocos (Keeling) Islands will be excised and Christmas Island will be excised. When I communicated with the people of Christmas Island and the Cocos (Keeling) Islands after these matters were portrayed in the media and asked them for their reaction, they said, `What the hell is going on? Why hasn't anyone bothered to come and talk to us? Why is it that we're expected to be treated differently from other Australians?'

Prior to yesterday I was fearful, as were the people on Christmas Island and the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, about what this legislation might entail. I was fearful, as they were, as to what it would mean for Australians living in these two communities. At least in this regard my fear has been dealt with by the way in which the legislation has been drafted. Despite the fact that those people were not consulted and despite the fact that they have major concerns about the impact of the legislation in their communities, their rights as Australian citizens will not be directly affected in terms of the Migration Act as a result of this legislation, because the legislation refers to those people who are unauthorised and who arrive at those communities as offshore entry persons.

After this decision was taken, I spoke in our caucus room about this matter. At my request, the Leader of the Opposition wrote a letter to Mr Ruddock, the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs. In that letter he said, among other things:

The Member for the Northern Territory, Warren Snowdon, whose electorate includes the Indian Ocean Territories of Christmas and the Cocos (Keeling) Islands has been in regular contact with members of both communities over recent days. Community members on both islands have raised a number of concerns. I write to pass on these concerns and seek assurance that they will be addressed.

1. The communities are dismayed that there has been no attempt to properly inform or consult them about the nature, purpose and detail of the proposed. This consultation needs to have regard to the fact that for many of the citizens and permanent residents of these communities English is a second language.

That is certainly the case. The letter goes on:

2. There is concern that there appears to have been no assessment of the impact that the proposed legislation will have on these island communities. Residents of both communities want to know what exactly will the legislation mean for them.

They are still yet to find out. It continues:

3. There is a desire to know how many of those who would be defined as an “offshore entry person” it is anticipated will be located on the islands and for how long.

They do not know that either. It goes on:

The communities would like to know in detail what the Commonwealth now proposes to do when unauthorised arrivals arrive in an excised area.

They do not know that either. It continues:

4. The communities are anxious that their island life be preserved and not be put at risk by the legislation you propose. This is especially the case of residents on Home Island in the Cocos (Keeling) Islands. A unique Australian community with its Kampong lifestyle.

5. The communities want assurance that as Australian citizens their rights will not be affected by the legislation being proposed.

At least we know that that last point has been addressed and that those rights will not be impinged upon. However, we need to understand that these residents have requested to be consulted. They have requested that the minister, Mr Ruddock, visit them to undertake these consultations. Indeed, in public meetings held last week they asked for the legislation to be delayed until those consultations had taken place.

I understand that that is not going to happen. I say this to the government: it is on your shoulders to go and talk to these communities. You then have the responsibility to tell the Australian community and the Australian parliament exactly what you propose to do in relation to unauthorised entrants who come to Christmas Island and the Cocos (Keeling) Islands. Is it a fact that you intend to create detention facilities in both communities? If so, what do you intend to do and how many people do you intend to accommodate? How much money do you expect it would cost? What infrastructure will you be putting in place? Do you understand the lack of infrastructure that currently exists in these two island communities? Are you aware of the need for better communications infrastructure to service the needs of, I anticipate, some thousands of people over a period of time? What impact socially, economically and environmentally would an influx of large numbers of people have on these island communities? None of these matters has been confronted. None of these matters has been answered.

The Labor Party supports this legislation. We understand the need to address the failures of this government in terms of dealing with immigration matters. We understand the need to ensure that people who desire to come here as queue jumpers should not be allowed to do so. But we must deal with Australians fairly.

What is going to be next? Will it be Melville Island off the Northern Territory's coast? Perhaps it will be the Abrolhos Islands. Perhaps it will be Groote Eylandt in the Gulf of Carpentaria. What will be next as people who seek to come to Australia jump the queue and make their way in unseaworthy vessels to destinations which are part of the Australian community? Will it eventually be the case that we will be defining the migration zone as only the Australian mainland and Tasmania? I need to know the answer to those questions, and the Australian community has a right to know the answer to those questions.

What the communities of the Christmas and Cocos islands need to know today is how they are going to be properly dealt with. The Christmas Island community have said that they were prepared to contemplate a processing centre on their community, but they also said that they did not want a detention centre. If what is being proposed now is that they will have a processing centre, how long will people be expected to remain under these new arrangements on their community? How many people will there be?

There is a responsibility upon the government to come clean. It should come clean with the people of the Christmas and Cocos islands and have them understand what obligations the government is putting upon them. It should have them understand what the government is prepared properly to do and what it is proposing to budget for in terms of improving infrastructure on their island communities to accommodate what we are now doing in terms of policy as a result of this legislation in this parliament. We have a responsibility as a nation to say to these Australians, `We are having proper regard to your needs and concerns. We will consult. We will make sure that the concerns which you have properly expressed will be properly addressed.' To date it has not happened. There is a responsibility on the government, and particularly on the minister, to make sure that it happens now.