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Wednesday, 16 September 2015
Page: 6979

Senator REYNOLDS (Western Australia) (13:44): Last week, Senator Gallacher, Chair of the Senate Select Committee on the Recent Allegations relating to Conditions and Circumstances at the Regional Processing Centre in Nauru spoke four times in this place on the committee's report. He specifically singled me out for a highly personal attack on the quality of my character, the content of my heart and on my very humanity. He also challenged me to respond to his allegations, which I do here today.

None of us in this place should ever have to come here and justify our humanity and compassion should never, ever be a political contest of one-upmanship. Yet, sadly, that is what it has become.

On 8 September, in this place, the chair made the following assessment of my character. He said:

I will single out Senator Reynolds because of her conduct throughout the inquiry. It was totally partisan, totally political and less than objective conduct.

He then went on to say:

… I did not know what a woodchuck was—which is a politician who will say and do anything for promotion. I will single out Senator Reynolds on that basis.

But that was not enough to besmirch my character; my very humanity was next, with Senator Gallacher also saying:

You could not sit through these hearings and read these submissions and not be affected by them. They were really disturbing submissions.

…   …   …   

For someone—

that is, for me—

to try and tart that all up as a couple of Labor Party senators having a go at the government is totally false and wrong.

And further:

For a senator to put her name to a dissenting report and say that we on this side have made it all up is really heinous.

Disappointingly, this fiery attack was delivered, not to my face, but to my empty chair here.

Three coalition senators participated in this inquiry: me; you, Mr Acting Deputy President Bernardi; and Senator Johnston. Senator Johnston and I co-authored the dissenting report, so I remain puzzled as to why I was singled out for this rather extraordinary attack. Was I seen as the weakest link? Was I seen as the easiest target? I can assure the Senate that, if that was the chair's assumption, he was grievously mistaken.

While of course Senator Gallacher's comments were hurtful I would normally have let them go through to the keeper but, in this instance, I have chosen not to for three reasons. Firstly, the chair himself challenged me in no uncertain terms to respond. Secondly, the very highly personal nature of these comments, I think, sends an appalling message to women and also to men, when looking for a career in this place.

Thirdly, I believe it is simply wrong for anyone in this place to assert that they have a monopoly on compassion and I believe it is time to call it out.

The issue at hand, the one I was accused of being devoid of humanity on, is, sadly, one that I am all too familiar with and deeply and emotionally invested in. If the chair had been looking for the perfect issue to plunge the dagger into my heart, he certainly found it.

I was Chief of Staff to the Minister for Justice and Customs when the Howard government had to tackle the heinous crime of people smuggling, which dehumanises and commoditises people in the worst possible way and which, as we know, has led many people to their death.

These three years were the absolute toughest of my professional career. When you receive calls from border protection agencies to advise your minister that boats are sinking and that men, women and children are drowning, it is utterly devastating and I can assure the senator that you feel.

When you see evil, when you have to deal with the consequences of terrorism, when month after month you assist the injured and traumatised survivors, when you deal with the devastated families of the dead and when you have to see and smell the dead, by God you feel. You feel sadness, you feel grief, you feel anger and you feel rage.

But I understood then, as I do today, that emotion and compassion in public life should never be the sole driver of government decisions. While you must be always be guided by your humanity, decisive action must always be led by rational and deliberative decisions. In this case, the only effective option over a decade ago was to put the people smugglers out of business and to do that there are no easy decisions and there are no easy options.

I am and remain very proud of the decisions that the coalition government team took to, once again, put people smugglers out of business for I believe that stopping this trade is absolutely the most humane outcome in the worst possible circumstances.

Turning to the report in question on RPC Nauru, coalition members stand by our dissenting report and we have heard nothing in the chair's four speeches last week which factually contradict our observations. In fact, it is quite the opposite.

The political and partisan nature of this inquiry was clear for all to see in the report's title: Taking responsibility: conditions and circumstances at Australia's regional processing centre in Nauru. Taking responsibility—really?

The clear weight of evidence throughout the inquiry was that, while this government did not establish RPC Nauru, this government has taken responsibility for fixing the endemic problems we inherited at all 17 detention facilities, opened by Labor as a result of their loss of control of our borders. Thirteen have already been closed by this government and I know many more will be.

Readers of the majority report by Labor and the Greens could be forgiven for thinking that RPC Nauru had magically teleported through space and time to Nauru after the election of the coalition government in September 2013 and that absolutely nothing had happened since then and that time had stood still.

In fact, the overwhelming weight of evidence to the inquiry clearly demonstrates just how much this government has done: hundreds of millions of dollars for new facilities; children and families removed from detention; the Moss Review and the implementation of its recommendations; the new Child Protection Panel; and extra AFP assistance to the Nauru authorities. Nobody is saying for a second that there is not much more still to be done, because clearly there is. But taking responsibility is certainly something that this government has done.

As a consequence of the weight of evidence that we received, I believe the majority report recommendations would have been salient and applicable in late 2013, but they are clearly not relevant today. Coming to Senator Gallacher's allegations that I have no humanity and that I do not feel, of course I was affected by some of the evidence to this inquiry. It would be simply inhuman not to be. But, equally, I was not blind to the significant weight of contradictory and anecdotal second-hand evidence that was presented to the inquiry that we were simply unable to substantiate—evidence such as the sensational new evidence of waterboarding that was breathlessly announced before the last and final hearing of the inquiry. However, when subjected to the most basic of questioning by me and Senator Johnston, the witnesses' testimony simply comprehensively fell apart and there was not a single shred of credible evidence of waterboarding.

If Labor and the Greens had been serious about taking responsibility for, or at least sharing responsibility with this government for, the circumstances that they left behind, I believe they would have waited several more months before initiating this select committee because that would have given time for the Moss review recommendations to have been assessed. Calling this inquiry weeks after the government had started implementing the Moss review reforms demonstrates to me more than anything else the highly political nature of this inquiry. If they were serious, they would have waited until the end of the year until we had at least six months to assess how the recommendations were being implemented.

I would like to conclude by saying that making personal attacks on a single dissenting member is not taking responsibility; acting to fix the problems is, and the government are taking responsibility for what we have been left with.