Two SIEVX Mentions

Senators Bartlett & Vanstone
Extract from Senate Hansard
23 June 2005 pp. 98-101


Senator BARTLETT (Queensland) (5.32 pm)-I need to put the Democrats' position on the record. This is one amendment that we very strongly support. The introduction of temporary protection visas is another major blight on this chamber. Frankly, it is a major blight on the Labor Party, and it is astonishing that they still have not figured out that they should reverse that position. The Democrats, via me, moved to prevent the introduction of these visas on 24 November 1999. I think it is fair to say that most of the things that we predicted were wrong with them and the problems they would cause have been shown to have come to pass. It is an important issue. It clearly will not get up this time. I guess Labor's current policy is slightly better than the existing law, but the fact is that temporary visas are iniquitous for a refugee.

People have been mentioning those who have recently arrived from Nauru. After all that time on Nauru they get here, which is great, but they have a temporary visa and, after all the trauma they have been through, with the added extra trauma for many of them, they have to spend more years wondering what their future holds. One of the men who arrived here from Nauru just a few weeks ago is married with children but has not seen them since 2001 and will not be able to see them for at least another three years. In my view, there is no justification for that.

I take the opportunity to briefly outline the history of this. Temporary protection visas were initially a One Nation policy, released in mid-1998, that argued that refugees should only be given temporary protection. At that time, the then immigration minister, Minister Ruddock, responded:

'Can you imagine what temporary entry would mean for them? It would mean that people would never know whether they would be able to remain here. There would be uncertainty, particularly in terms of learning English, in addressing the torture and trauma so they healed from some of the tremendous physical and psychological wounds they have suffered. So I regard One Nation's approach as being highly unconscionable.'

Former health minister Michael Wooldridge, in a speech he made launching a GP's manual on refugee health, said that this policy created `uncertainty and insecurity' and it `is one of the most dangerous ways to add to the harm'. He said:

We must not and will not turn our backs on those who come here for refuge.

I do not use those quotes to try and score political points. I use them to highlight what was blatantly obvious until we got these extraordinary blinkers put on.

It is one of those examples of the emperor's new clothes phenomenon that seems to inhabit this areapeople seem to be capable of blinding themselves to immense suffering that is a direct consequence of this measure. All of those problems and more are a direct consequence of it. Until it is removed from our laws, it will continue to cause immense suffering. As Senator Harradine, who we have all been praising this week, said in the disallowance debate to the motion I moved in 1999, `The worst aspect from a supposedly profamily government is how it quite deliberately splinters families.' That in itself adds enormously to the stress of people.

Think back to how long ago the Tampa and that election was. These people have still not been able to move on from the trauma they experienced and fled from way before that time. It seems like a different world to us-pre 2001, pre September 11, preTampa-but they have not been able to move on from that different world, because their direct connection with that trauma is still there and is unable to be resolved, and temporary protection visas play a key part in that. That is why it is so offensive to the Democrats.

To require people to re-prove their refugee status is very iniquitous. It is also, I might add, extraordinarily inefficient administratively. This is a policy that damages Australia. Putting the damage to refugees to one side for a minute, there are people here in the community-and we have seen that the vast percentage of them have stayed after they have received further protection visas-who have suffered trauma and the deliberate denial of access to services, such as English language classes and family reunion. These services have been denied to people who are going to be part of the Australian community anyway. Why would you do that?

As this minister quite rightly points out from time to time, we have actually done a good job in assisting refugee settlement-better than many other countries in the world-because we recognise that it is in our interests, once people are in the community, to help them settle. Why the hell would you make it harder for them? Because it sends a message or something?

It is such a counterproductive policy on so many fronts. There is the extra administration of having to reassess thousands of visas again. Consider all of the numbers that went up through the Refugee Review Tribunal with very large overturn percentages in some categories. It is so inefficient. It is so much trauma. There is all of the extra hassle for the minister and her staff. I would have thought she would have liked to have less of a burden and workload in this area. Think about all of the advocates who have to spend their time hassling the minister and the government about all the individual cases. We all know how much time and energy that takes up-it is so inefficient.

The main impact that it had was to dramatically increase the number of women and children who came here by boat as well. Now the circumstances have changed and that is a good thing. There is a whole range of reasons for that and we have different views in this chamber about why they have changed. But I do not see any evidence that the temporary protection visa is part of those reasons. People still kept coming; the only difference was the women and children came in much larger numbers, which was why so many women and children drowned on the SIEVX when it sank.

There are other factors that have led to them stopping. Some of the factors I support, some of them I do not. The simple reality is that temporary protection visas generate extraordinary suffering to people who have already suffered a lot. They are very inefficient in an administrative sense. My view is that they are bad law on a whole range of fronts. It is important for us to take the opportunity in this debate to make those points. This is probably one of the more critical amendments to try and keep pursuing. It will not get up this time around but it is a reminder as much to the Labor Party as it is to the government.

The government has moved in response to public pressure. I have found in talking to people around the country that, more and more, they have identified temporary protection visas as an unjust aspect of the system that is causing unnecessary suffering. It is an area where I would encourage people to keep the pressure up. We have seen the government shift in response to public pressure, and that is good. It is good that the government is listening and it is good that it is moving. We are going to keep the pressure up from the Democrats side of things and encourage people in the community to do so too because they have obviously got work to do on the Labor Party as well. That job will probably take a while longer, I might say. It is a job where people should not lose energy until this is expunged from our laws.

This is one example that I often cite of a policy that was specifically and consciously designed to generate suffering. To do that towards people who have already suffered so much makes it particularly appalling. It is one issue that I signal that we will continue to push strongly on. I encourage the public and those within the various parties here to do so too. This was originally a position of Mr Georgiou's and I am sure that he would still like to move to that position eventually. I am sure there are others in his party who would think that way. I know that there are others in the Labor Party who think that way. The Democrats and the Greens think that way. Brian Harradine thinks that way and there are many in the community who think that way. So people need to keep pushing for it. They should not feel that the debate is over now, because until the injustices that are inherent in the law are removed then inevitably the injustices that it inflicts on people will continue.

Senator VANSTONE (South Australia-Minister for Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs) (5.41 pm)-Firstly, I am very proud-as is every member of this government-to be a part of a government that has taken every possible step to ensure that the boats do not continue to come. In particular we want to ensure that boats like the SIEVX do not continue to come so that people do not lose their lives. That was just one of the consequences of leaving things as they were and allowing the boats to continue to come.

Secondly, we are very proud to be part of a government that has consistently, certainly since we have been in government, been in the top three countries that offer resettlement to people most in need. I believe this was the case under previous Labor governments as well but I have not checked. If we want to talk in the compassion stakes about where my heart lies first, it is with people in refugee camps who do not have running water or power. I will always take every step I can to give them preference over people who have enough money to pay a crim, spivvy people smuggler. I am very proud to be part of a government that does that. Thirdly, the UNHCR is not of the view that people who have to flee their homeland for whatever terrible reason are best to leave and stay away forever. Amongst people who are genuinely interested in refugee issues, as opposed to using them for political point scoring-I do not include you in this category, Senator Bartlett; I understand that you have a longstanding committed view with respect to these temporary visas-the primary aim is to settle whatever hazard there is so that people who have had to flee can go back. That is the primary aim: that people can restore their lives as they were and, if they cannot restore their own lives, they can at least contribute to restoring a portion of their country, or their whole country, if that is at risk. So, bearing that in mind, I do not see a problem in offering people protection for as long as they require it.

That is Australia's position. Anyone here who needs protection will get it. If they need continuing protection they will continue to get it, but we will continue to offer permanent visas to those people who come from offshore lawfully and are stuck in refugee camps. We will always give them priority.

The business of government is not easy. I remember being in opposition, thinking getting into government was going to be the greatest thing since sliced bread. I think I still do think that, but it was not quite the sort of sliced bread that I might order. Dame Margaret Guilfoyle said at one of our conferences once that education teaches but responsibility educates. There are frequently decisions to be made that are not easy. Government is not about saying: `Here are three easy choices. Which one would you like? Here's the lucky dip; you'll always get a prize.' It is frequently about choosing to give priority to competing principles, when you would really like to have both but the circumstances will not allow you to give equal weight to them. You are forced to make a choice. Or you are forced to make a choice between policy alternatives, and you do not want either of them but you have to have one. Or you are forced to choose between alternatives when you want both of them but you cannot have both.

Government is not about the luxury of writing on a whiteboard what is the ideal world; Mrs Ros Kelly's sports rorts put aside. It is not about the luxury of sitting in academia and saying, `What would be ideal?' It is about what must be done in the national interest at this time and what is fair. Senator Nettle, I understand that you have this longstanding view. I would not even call it a begrudging admiration that you continue to raise it, provided that you accept that other people have, legitimately and fairly, a different view. I have that and this government has that.


Back to