Monday, 4 December 2017
Resolutions of the Senate
Asylum Seekers; Consideration of Senate Message
That all words after "That" be omitted with a view to substituting the following words: "the resolution of the Senate be agreed to".
This is a very straightforward and sensible motion that has been moved by the Senate and agreed to by the Senate. It is not a motion that has been agreed by only one party; otherwise it would not have got through the Senate. This is a motion that has enjoyed widespread support across the political spectrum within the Senate because it deals with the desperate situation that is currently unfolding at Manus. It deals with what can only be described as an emergency, a humanitarian emergency, where several hundred people have been put in situations where the basic conditions of life for them are now under threat.
There were, as people would know, several hundred refugees in the camp at Manus when it was deemed to be closed on an arbitrary deadline by the government. When it was closed, the men who were there said, 'We're not prepared to be moved, because we are concerned about our safety in the place that we are going to.' And it wasn't by any means an ill-founded concern. They had this concern on the basis of what had happened to them in the months and/or years leading up to this. There have been reports of assaults. We know that people have even gone further than that, at great risk to their life and sometimes fatally. And we know that they were concerned about moving to another place where the facilities were not ready. They said that they were not going to move. When they said they were not going to move, they were met with the fiercest of responses, sanctioned by this government. I'll come back to this point, because the government wants to have it both ways. On the one hand, the government says that they're not our problem, Australia's problem, and that what happens to them is purely a matter for PNG. On the other hand, of course, we've got the government standing in the way of a potential resolution.
In any event, what happened to those people after they made the decision to say, 'We are concerned about our safety and we are not prepared to move'? What we know is that, after that, forces went in and the basic conditions of life for these men—access to water, for example—were cut off. They had jury-rigged water tanks to catch the water that was falling to make sure that they could collect it and it was then converted to a drinkable form. They had done that themselves. What happened? We have reports that water was tampered with. The barrels that they were using were tampered with in a way that meant that they couldn't even collect water any more. Electricity was turned off on them, and they were denied other basics of life, including medicine. We had many reports of people who were unable to get the medicine that they needed.
We were getting these reports in real time and, as far as possible, the Australian and international media was reporting on what had happened there. But of course, because of restricted access, including increasingly restricted access over the time that they were there, the Australian public was forced to rely, in many instances, on the firsthand reports. Not only did we have the firsthand reports; we had the United Nations staff who have been on site. The United Nations staff, when they were on site, said, 'Yes, the men's concerns have some validity; it is right that they have concerns about their health and wellbeing.'
Crucially, the United Nations also backed up, as did many other observers, that these men have a very well-founded concern about where they're meant to be moved to, because these places are simply not ready. We're not talking, as the minister has said publicly, about paving around a patio; we're talking about whether or not these new places that the minister wants to move them to are fit and safe places to live. The report suggests they're not, and the men certainly have a well-founded fear of that.
So we have this terrible, terrible situation where several hundred wretched souls are now struggling to meet the basic conditions of life, and their lives are at risk. There are many different views about how we got here. The Greens' position on that has been made crystal clear—the Greens' position about the camps, the history of these camps, how we've got here and the supervision that has led them to this point. But the reason that this resolution passed the Senate is that, whatever part of the political spectrum you sit on, people are now coming to the view that the way these men are being treated is just not right and that we need a better way of dealing with them. We need to deal with them. Whatever one wants to do about broader immigration policy, about which there are going to be fierce debates in this place and elsewhere, we need to do something about these men. I personally would prefer that they be brought here, and I know many other people in this country would prefer that. I suspect I probably wouldn't win a vote in this chamber to say they should be brought here.
But fortunately, for at least a proportion of those men, we now don't have to resolve that. The government's in a position where, if it's serious about looking after these people, it can in a sense have its cake and eat it too. We, the Greens, will continue to oppose the government's policies, but let's say the government wants to keep its policies. We now have an option on the table from New Zealand. New Zealand has said that it will resettle 150 of those refugees, and it would begin work to expedite processing those refugees if and when the offer is accepted. That offer and that proposal to resettle them in many ways has parallels with what the government has done with respect to the United States. I, and many other members of parliament, might have very strong disagreements about how the government is conducting itself, but if the government is prepared to negotiate a deal that will see some of the men move to the United States then why on earth can't there be a similar arrangement that allows these men to go to New Zealand? Why isn't the government exploring it?
So I simply ask: what have you got, Minister, against them going to New Zealand? We're not saying, in this motion, to bring them here. The Senate's not saying that. I would disagree with the arguments, but I could understand the arguments that would flow. The government would talk about how we've got to maintain our borders, the people smugglers' business model and the like. I disagree with that argument, but I presume that's what the government would say if the question was to bring them here. But the question is not that. The question is whether we will facilitate the offer that New Zealand has made.
In that context there can be no good reason for not doing so. If the government is prepared to send people from Manus to the US, the government should also be prepared to send people from Manus to New Zealand. We know it's a bona fide offer that has been put on the table.
This motion is a motion stripped of rhetoric, and that's why it has passed the Senate. It is a motion that is stripped of messages of condemnation and so on and it's a motion that steps outside the high-level debate that we will have about what is the best immigration policy for this country and asks very simply: why can't these men go to New Zealand? I know the minister makes the point publicly when he appears on television and says, 'We're not going to be bullied or blackmailed into bringing people here.' I disagree with that point vehemently, but I reiterate that that is not what we are talking about right now. We are talking about whether or not people will be allowed to go to New Zealand and whether the government will facilitate it.
If the government says, 'This is really PNG's problem; it's not ours,' then the government should make it clear to all concerned that it is not standing in the way and that, if PNG and New Zealand want to reach an arrangement, it doesn't mind. But, if the government steps in and says, 'No; actually, we're going to stop this from happening,' then how in good conscience can that be done?
The government loves to parade the figure of how many people have previously died at sea. That figure is a contested one. What cannot be ignored is that there are now several hundred sitting in Manus and the New Zealand government has offered to take some of them. The fate of those souls is in this parliament's hands, and this House should concur with what the Senate has asked. (Time expired)