[Extracted from House Hansard, 21 June 2005]


Mrs IRWIN (Fowler) (8.50 pm)-Last Friday, Australians awoke to the sound of bells ringing from every church across the land. That night, bonfires burned on every hill and the people danced in the streets. The government had changed its policy of mandatory detention of asylum seekers. The member for Kooyong and his band of merry men and women had broken the spell of the evil Prime Minister and goodness had won through once again. Children would no longer spend their formative years behind razor wire. Young men would no longer grow old in the despair of isolated desert camps and on deserted islands. Mothers would no longer cry for their despondent children. Milk and honey would flow throughout the land. And for all this we have to thank the member for Kooyong-this latterday knight in shining armour, so brave and so courageous to take on the Prime Minister and fight for goodness and right. And how easy it was. Like Joshua before the walls of Jericho, the member for Kooyong sounded his trumpet and the great walls fell. It was all so easy. It was a cause that the member for Kooyong had championed for so long-for four long months.

That is what the record of this House shows. The first occasion on which the member for Kooyong mentioned detention of asylum seekers was in February this year-four long months ago. After 12 years in this parliament he finally came out. In the debate on the address-in-reply to the Governor- General’s speech, the member for Kooyong told the House:

I want to raise one area where I believe innovation and change are necessary and possible, and that is the area of refugees and asylum seekers. Our policies towards asylum seekers were premised on concern about vast numbers of undeserving and potentially dangerous people landing on our shores. Today, unauthorised boat arrivals have all but ceased and the great majority of people they carried have turned out to be genuine refugees. There were no terrorists hiding amongst the asylum seekers.

The member for Kooyong went on to focus on the policy of indefinite detention and concluded:

To put it simply, I believe that the policy of indefinite detention of people who have committed no crime-and I think this is a position actually supported by both sides of the parliament -and who pose no threat to the Australian community should not be sustained.

Well, ‘Hear, hear!’ to that. You have to wonder whether the member for Kooyong and the member for Pearce spent last Christmas in Damascus, because that was the first time in this House that they revealed their views on mandatory detention-conveniently after last year’s election. It was hardly the first opportunity they had had to do so.

Since his conversion, the member for Kooyong’s commitment to this issue knows no bounds. On 10 May this year, he mentioned the mental health of asylum seekers and refugees in his speech on the Migration Litigation Reform Bill 2005. On 23 May, he mentioned the plight of a group of Vietnamese refugees on Christmas Island. That is the proud record of the member for Kooyong.

As it happens, some but not all on this side of the House agree with the member for Kooyong. There is a small band of Labor members who, it has been suggested, meet secretly at the member for Fremantle’s home and plot the invasion of thousands of ships bearing unwashed refugees to our shores-some members would like to think that. As a card-carrying member of that small band, I know how the member for Kooyong feels in his party room. I cannot say I blame him for holding his peace for so long on this issue. But it is not as though other members have not raised this issue in the House on many occasions over many years. To quote my own record on this issue, in September 2000, a year before Tampa, I told the House at the tabling of the report by the Joint Standing Committee on Migration entitled Not the Hilton, which looked at detention centres:

My overall impressions of the detention centres left me in no doubt about the government’s objectives in maintaining its detention centre strategy. Its objective, like that of Basil Fawlty, is to ensure that no guest ever returns to a facility and that none of their family and friends wish to go there either. Instead of detention centres, you could call them deterrent centres.

I also said at that time:

I cannot omit to mention that over 90 per cent of detainees in these centres will be granted at least temporary protection visas, and I have no doubt that the great majority will become permanent residents and ultimately Australian citizens.

And that is exactly what has happened. That speech was made nearly five years ago. It was made before Tampa, before the crisis that the member for Kooyong referred to. Then, in February 2001, I spoke in this House on the Migration Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 2) 1999 [2000]. It was an election year, and who could have known in February what part migration policy would play in the election outcome later that year? As I said in speaking to the bill:

... it is not about the national interest; it is about self-interest: the narrow self-interest of coalition members

As the outcome of the November election showed, it was very much a case of self-interest. I went on to say to the House:

You see, a certain redhead is back in town and all the boys on the coalition benches are trying to catch her eye. They have put on the Old Spice and the Californian Poppy, they have polished the old FJ Holden, they are flexing their antimigration muscles and now they are trying to outdo each other to show how much like One Nation they can be.

Where was the member for Kooyong and his happy band then? Where did they stand in that happy coalition that I described as the Liberals, The Nationals and Pauline Hanson’s One Nation? I went on to say:

Where are the small ‘l’ Liberals who championed the cause of human rights? Where are those who worked to establish Australia’s reputation as a leader in human rights?

That was in February 2001, and the answer came in August when the Tampa sailed over the horizon. While the Tampa was still lying off Christmas Island, I told the House in an adjournment speech on 30 August 2001:

The decision to draw the line in the sand with the Tampa incident has more to do with catching votes than catching people smugglers.

That led to the sorry chapter in Australia’s history of overseas detention-the Pacific solution. At home we held on to the policy of mandatory detention of children. In March 2002, after a visit to the Villawood detention centre, I told the House in a grievance debate:

Children are wondering why they are being punished, wondering what they have done to deserve this treatment. These are children surrounded by despair; these are children without hope for the future.

Again in March 2002, I referred to the fate of Tampa refugees and reminded the House that the Prime Minister had asserted that Tampa asylum seekers would not set foot in Australia. But today many are living in our community. In October 2002, I rose in the House to speak on the first anniversary of the sinking of SIEVX - a tragedy that resulted in the loss of over 350 lives. Out of 150 members of this House, I was the only one to recall that disaster-then or since. I again spoke out in June 2003 on the Migration Amendment (Duration of Detention) Bill 2003, but I did not hear a word from the member for Kooyong.

I support the amendment moved by Labor and the minor improvements made by this bill. If the heavy burden of despair is lifted off just one parent, if just one caged child can breathe the free air of our country, Australia, I would support the bill. But I cannot help feeling like the soldier who has spent years in the trenches of the Somme: it is tempting to think that those who now claim the glory spent most of their time drinking champagne back in the bordellos of gay Paris.

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

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