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Thursday, 17 December 1992
Page: 5432

Senator CHAMARETTE (9.52 p.m.) —It is hard to avoid being cynical as the Government yet again rushes into the Parliament to amend the legislation dealing with people seeking asylum in Australia by the Migration Amendment Bill (No. 4) 1992. If it were not so tragic to the people concerned, this could be categorised as the `Oops!' legislation. The Government has tried and tried again to make sure that gaining refugee status in Australia is well nigh impossible unless people come through proper channels and wait in the queue. But each time it has discovered that it has left a tiny window through which the light of justice and fairness can shine.

  Of course, this legislation has come about because the High Court has ruled on the Government's policy of detention without recourse to court jurisdiction. In May of this year, we saw legislation rushed in here to head off a court challenge and now the Government again wants to make sure that the courts are not able to evaluate the legal validity of its policies. So it is time to try to close the window once more.

  In May of this year, we had the extraordinary situation of the Government insisting that even a court did not have the power to release someone held in custody by the Department. Why is this Government so hell-bent on this process which relies on detaining people against their will without recourse to the power of the courts to adjudicate on the merits of their detention? Whose interests are being served by this regime of detention without relief?

  It costs the Australian community thousands of dollars per person held. Just for interest, at a very conservative estimate, the cost is $11,000 per person per year in Port Hedland and $27,000 per person per year at Villawood or elsewhere. This imprisonment reinforces antagonism towards these people in the community by making them seem different, not to say criminal, and denies people opportunities for overcoming the fears which they have sought to escape by coming here.

  Studies overseas have shown that, in countries where refugee applicants are not detained during their processing, only 3 per cent fail to appear for the various steps required for their application. But even putting aside the remote possibility that the Australian Government could come at that, we have groups in our community which are willing and ready to provide accommodation and support for these people and to see them through the application process.

  The Bill seeks to clarify some other matters which managed to slip through the net last time. So the 273 day detention period during which the processing must be completed is now to be able to be extended by a further 90 days for each extra step of an appeal process. A person's detention may so become nine, 12 or 15 months. Where will it end? The Government says that it is committed to ensuring that people will not be held in custody for three years or longer, as has happened to a number of people, but it seems to want to have the right to punish people with extra detention if they choose to appeal a negative decision.

  We now also have the infamy of the Government setting people's right to compensation for illegal detention over the past few years at a paltry $1 per day. To add to the infamy, it recognises that a compensation claim can only proceed for the 104 people who fall within the High Court determination. But, nonetheless, it wants to limit the court's decision making powers by setting the level of compensation.

  One dollar per day is an insult to those who have been illegally detained. In fact, the notion of someone bringing such an action, making use of legal representation possibly costing thousands of dollars, is an obscenity. Is this the hallmark of a civilised and caring society? Australia has limited by this legislation its liability to a total of some $23,000 shared between 104 people potentially, yet may still spend 10 times that defending their obligation to pay it. Such is the stupidity of this Government's attitude towards this tiny number of unfortunate people.

  Just to make it concrete, the Department of Immigration does not intend to contest the claim of 71 of these people whose boat is no longer in existence. This would amount to $300 compensation for each person for their 10 months unlawful detention. However, the Department of Immigration would be prepared to contest the claims of the 33 people whose case for unlawful custody was upheld in the Federal Court and who, through this legislation, would potentially receive $60 per person.

  The total number of refugee applications from people currently in Australia exceeds 21,000. But this Government has singled out a small handful of less than 500 for all the harsh treatment, manipulation of our standard legal processes and, indeed, the skewing of our entire immigration agenda to boot. Why is the Australian Government so deeply committed to allowing only 5 per cent of refugee applications to succeed? When compared with other countries—Canada is an obvious example—why are we so miserly with onshore applications? Even if we were to accept all of those who are at present in detention centres, especially those who have been in custody for three years or more, would it make any significant difference to our immigration program? Of course not.

  Clause 6 of the Bill also provides a catch-all clause to negate any further possibility of redress to the courts at a State or Federal level for unlawful custody apart from the compensation I have outlined above. One of the pillars of a free country is recourse to the courts, yet through the insertion of proposed new section 54RA(1) in the Act there can be no further opportunities for these 104 or any other refugees who arrived in Australia after 19 November 1989 to find any sort of remedy through court proceedings.

  This legislation is another disgraceful episode in this Government's refugee policy blundering. It seeks to snuff out the light of hope for a just and fair hearing for those who leave their homelands in terror and despair.

  What is happening to this country? What is happening in this Government and in this Parliament? It has become heartless and inhuman. This legislation and the decision making and motivation underlying it expose a serious value vacuum in our society. The stories that we hear from Germany regarding the resurgence of the neo-Nazi movement promoting jingoism and racism are not so far afield. In Australia, it is emanating from our government policies rather than from subversive minorities. Australia's international reputation is at risk. Our approach to refugees exposes totally our hypocrisy in decrying the human rights violations of other countries.

  As I have mentioned once before in a different context, the problem with racism is that people who have racist values and attitudes have great difficulty acknowledging that they are racist. They believe firmly that they are right and that everyone else is wrong. They live in an encapsulated world of black and white values and concrete thinking.

  The reasons underlying this Government's preoccupation with migration legislation from the point of view of its supporters is simple: this land is ours; only if people apply through the correct bureaucratic processes will they be given consideration of their civil rights and access to the due process of law; and if we are not strict in enforcing our borders, we will be inundated by hordes trying to take advantage of our lenience and steal from us the benefits of this land.

Senator Harradine —Who said that?

Senator CHAMARETTE —Supporters of this legislation. It is not my view. I assure those who have no difficulty with the view I have just expounded that there is another view. I believe that many people share it with me, and with Senator Harradine and some of the Australian Democrats. Unfortunately, very few of these people are in Parliament today. They are ordinary Australians who are not seized by fear or self-interest but who remember how fortunate we are to be in this country, and remember that we have done nothing to deserve being in this part of the world rather than elsewhere. The spirit of this is blatant in the second verse of our national anthem:

Beneath our radiant Southern Cross,

We'll toil with hearts and hands,

To make this Commonwealth of ours

Renowned of all the lands;

For those who've come across the seas

We've boundless plains to share

With courage let us all combine

To Advance Australia Fair.

I believe strongly that the spirit reflected in that anthem still remains the dominant community view. The narrow view that is reflected in this legislation is pathology, a disease which, as yet, has not pervaded or overwhelmed us. However, the disease emanates from the history of this country and is badly in need of treatment.

  White Australia has a black history. This paranoia that people will rush in and steal our land may well be related to the fact that European Australia stole this land from its Aboriginal occupants only 200 years ago. I remember distinctly a brilliant cartoon—unfortunately, I cannot recall as distinctly its creator—in which the traditional Captain Cook arrival scene has one Aboriginal person onshore saying to another, `Mark my words, if we let in any more boat people, they'll be taking over.' Australia's lack of justice to Aboriginal people is now matched by its lack of justice to the unfortunate 450 boat people or `designated persons' who have tried to gain refuge on our shores.