[Extracted from House Hansard, 21 June 2005]


Mr ANDREN (Calare) (7.38 pm)-May I begin my contribution to the Migration Amendment (Detention Arrangements) Bill 2005 by paying tribute to the efforts, and indeed the courage, of the Liberal members who have taken on the forces of darkness in their ranks. One can only wish they had been empowered far earlier than this.

On 29 August 2001, after the introduction of the border protection bill-introduced as the pre-election wedge to beat up the alleged threat posed by the asylum seekers aboard the Tampa who were rescued, as we know, by the Norwegian captain who believed, naively, that Australia was a compassionate country; instead, as events showed, the 433 people aboard that stricken boat and saved from the seas by the Tampa skipper and his crew were distributed to offshore locations under the so-called Pacific solution-I read out a press release of mine to this House:

In the short term we have a humanitarian crisis on our doorstep, whatever the law of the high seas, and in the absence of any other option we must accept the people aboard the Norwegian ship the Tampa are our moral responsibility.

We cannot claim the high moral ground in sending our troops against Saddam, we cannot condemn the Taliban extremists, if we aren’t prepared to accept there are thousands of persecuted victims of those regimes who manage to escape. Why wouldn’t they seek asylum in the most free nation on earth?

I retract the words ‘most free nation on earth’. Since the shameful Tampa episode we have seen a steady decline in our reputation as a fair go country, and the treatment of asylum seekers has been the major contributor to that dramatic decline.

I said in August almost four years ago the Tampa episode was being exploited to create the desired antiasylum- seeker sentiment-indeed what was, in its effect, an anti-Muslim sentiment. I said then that if that was the way to win government in this country then whoever exploits that way holds a poisoned chalice.

Fast forward to this bill: a response by a prime minister under enormous pressure from the four dissident members doing the job of an opposition that is locked into the mandatory detention process because it invented it, which has been rigid with fear of a backlash from the electorate-so rigid that the opposition to this obnoxious policy has gradually developed within the ranks of the government itself. The Prime Minister does not want a debate on existing policy; he now wants one on the proposed new legislation. He has introduced this legislation now simply because the poor wretches who have been incarcerated in unconscionable conditions in outback Australia have served their political purpose. They have been the unfortunate pawns in the border security debate. Remember that former minister Mr Reith had the shameful gall to suggest boat people were potential terrorists at a time when he knew, and the Prime Minister knew, that around 50,000 people were in this country illegally, having deliberately overstayed visas. But they apparently are not potential terrorists. They are mostly middle class and not of Middle Eastern background.

In short, while the measures we are debating tonight -the reformed detention laws-could have and should have been the bare minimum legal regime from day one in our immigration detention laws, we see them only introduced and debated after years of suffering by men, women and children who had no right to suffer when their only crime was to seek our compassion. The Prime Minister suggests that in hindsight the changes he has put into these bills should have been introduced some time ago. Why weren’t they? And, with the greatest respect to that endangered species, true Liberals, why weren’t the dissident backbenchers introducing private member’s bills almost four years ago when these policies were tightened to the point of human rights abuses? It is quite simple: the linking of refugees or asylum seekers to border security and the wider terrorism debate have served the Prime Minister’s political purposes for the time being at least. He now brings about some changes only when faced with revolt from within his ranks-not reform driven by an opposition but by the opposition growing from within the ranks of the Liberal Party.

Despite the amendments proposed by the opposition to get kids out from behind razor wire, and despite calls to shut down Woomera, the opposition has given a very mixed message on its position over the past three years. Of course, it has been possible all along to introduce a more humane policy: a brief detention for security-which no-one would disagree with-and health checks in humane accommodation, and then a series of halfway houses for families while their claims were being assessed. Surely Australia has the wit to create a process unique in the world, using smart card technology, to locate people as they access health services or make essential purchases that, indeed, may be provided to them on a credit basis and to require their reporting to a central point when a decision has been made on their status.

Remember around 90 per cent of refugee applications are successful especially among the so-called boat people. No border security is compromised at all. But this did not suit the government’s cynical, political purpose. Instead we-I say ‘we’ for we are all ultimately responsible-allowed the boat people to be herded on to Pacific islands in return for bribes. We built state-of-the-art razor wire outback prison camps and outsourced the responsibility of care to private operators with little public accountability. We allowed an out-of-control Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs to oversee the whole operation-a department that gradually shamed many of its own employees by the uncaring modus of much of its operations. Not only in detention but in deportation the department has distinguished itself, under ministerial supervision one presumes, for the blunders and bloody mindedness of its work.

Dr David Corlett from Monash University has completed a study of asylum seekers sent back home, so to speak, after years of detention on Nauru, Manus Island and in Australian mainland detention centres. He is putting a book out next month I understand and I think it is compulsory reading for all in this place. By and large, the Afghani, Pakistani and Iranian returnees that he traced have not fared well, living in varying degrees of fear, poverty, depression and homelessness. In the case of the Afghanis their families were gone forcing them to flee again to Iran or Pakistan.

When I dared question the policy of returning the Hazaras home from Nauru at Christmas 2003 to reportedly face assaults-and at least one case has disappeared believed murdered-there was a threat of legal action from the Afghani representative in this country as if I and others were somehow defaming their country. Afghanistan was decreed safe to send refugees back to at the end of 2003, but by early 2004 all had changed. The Australian government changed its position and most Afghan asylum seekers still in detention gained protection. Not only did DIMIA, with ministerial blessing, send people back to uncertain and dangerous situations, out of sight, out of mind, but we also have a sorry recent record of detentions and deportations with Cornelia Rau and Vivian Alvarez-Solon just the latest examples.

As Glenn Nicholls from Swinburne University writes in today’s Age, just last week an attempt to remove a Bangladeshi citizen refused refugee status was blocked at Perth airport after an appeal to the United Nations-the United Nations process which is so denigrated by many on the government side. This was a similar case to that of Somali asylum seeker Sadiq Shek Elmi whose deportation was similarly blocked after UN intervention in 1998. As a senate inquiry revealed, the Elmi case and the removal of the heavily pregnant Zhu Qingping to China disclosed a range of problems with the deportation system.

Where in this legislation are the judicial checks on removal actions to stop wrongful deportations? Where indeed are the provisions in the Georgiou act of compassion bill for a former judge to be appointed as judicial assessor to individually review the criteria for detaining any asylum seeker? Let us look at this legislation which the Prime Minister says is about administering a policy, ‘with greater flexibility, fairness and above all, in a more timely manner.’ According to Children out of Detention, this reform legislation still breaches the convention on the rights of the child. Quite clearly, children are not being released. They are being transferred from razor wire detention to another form, albeit more benign, which is still a place of detention. According to ChilOut, so-called community detention will only apply to families for whom removal operations are not underway. Those families will remain in detention. Again according to ChilOut, it will be near impossible for detained families to obtain bridging visas as they simply will not be able to afford the several thousand dollar bond.

The Prime Minister told Kerry O’Brien on ABC TV last night that the new laws do not affect people in offshore detention. Why? Because we have excised those islands from coverage by such laws. In O’Brien’s words this new found sympathy does not extend to the kids in Nauru. The Prime Minister says ‘we would never have stopped the flood of boats’ without the island policy. That flood was 4,508 between 1999 and 2001. At the time there were an estimated 23 million asylum seekers seeking safe haven around the globe. The PM again raised the spurious argument of asylum seekers reaching Australia jumping queues of legitimate refugees-and the Prime Minister said that again last night. All but the PM and some of his ministers it seems forget the nearest refugee registration point to Afghanistan when that war broke out was Bangkok. As O’Brien put it-people facing death do not consider lining up in queues.

There has been a softening of community attitudes to Middle Eastern asylum seekers in rural Australia in the past few years, but there is a hell of a long way to go. It has been largely due to the work of Rural Australians for Refugees, but also because communities saw, for instance, the Hazara refugees in Young as hardworking people who had suffered constant and ongoing victimisation in their homeland. Suddenly these people and others from Iraq and elsewhere were recognised not as demons flooding in by boat but as people with undeniable claims to our compassion, despite the worst endeavours of racist elements who tried to split those communities.

A Calare constituent wrote to me last week before the PM’s change of tack. He says he would gladly recruit the assistance of four or five families including his own to sponsor a family of detainees to live in Orange. He envisages a community trust fund to help pay for housing rental, clothing, schooling needs and other essentials. The Refugee Council of Australia describes these changes as a missed opportunity. There are people out there in the community ready and willing to put out their hands to provide the sort of protection that we as a nation have the wit to devise in the interests of showing the world how we can compassionately look after people, 90 per cent of whom, as I have said, have been decreed to be genuine refugee applicants.

The Refugee Council welcomes the positive impact of keeping families intact, time limits set on processing, increased oversight by the Ombudsman and the deadline on completion of processing further protection visas, but points out fundamental problems that remain. As with ChilOut, the council points to matters of grave concern such as continuing breaches of human rights conventions, no prevention of people being detained for long periods, no solution for people whose legitimate need for protection falls outside the refugee convention, the damaging use of temporary protection visas for convention refugees and no guarantee of structural change within DIMIA.

Of course, one has to accept the small mercies that have been offered by these changes. But they are political changes to save political face. The Prime Minister, when asked about the harshness of his detention policy, says, ‘Perhaps parents should have asked themselves if they should have come in an unauthorised fashion.’ Perhaps that was what the parents who drowned with their kids as SIEV X sank were asking.

X-URL: http://www.aph.gov.au/hansard/reps/dailys/dr210605.pdf

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