House debates

Thursday, 6 March 2014


Asylum Seekers

10:12 am

Photo of Cathy McGowanCathy McGowan (Indi, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

Today I rise to talk about the treatment of asylum seekers in Australia's detention centres here and overseas. Many of my constituents are concerned about the current treatment of refugees who seek asylum in Australia and feel there must be a better way. I have received phone calls, emails and letters about this issue. I have had conversations with constituents distressed about what is happening to people in detention, especially to women and children. I have seen candle-lit vigils held across Indi. My constituents are saying: Australia is better than this. My constituents are practical, pragmatic people who run small businesses, own farms and know the meaning of hard work. While their priorities lie with their families and communities, they still care very deeply about human suffering around the world.

There is no doubt that the issue of asylum seekers is complex and controversial. I believe the political process has simplified this complexity to the detriment of social justice and human rights. When the politics are stripped away, two points emerge that have consensus in this place. Firstly, Australia as a sovereign nation has the right to vet the people who come to this country. Secondly, Australians expect our government to uphold human rights and respect human dignity. Despite consensus on these points in this place, government after government has found it difficult to consistently uphold them.

The most recent example is the violence on Manus Island. One person is dead, many are injured, Australian guards are traumatised and the local PNG people question whether this facility belongs in their domain. The recent issues on Manus have been affecting our relationships with our neighbours in Papua New Guinea and also Indonesia. The Australian government, whose decision it is and long has been to deal with asylum seekers through a process of mandatory detention, has a duty of care to protect the safety and health of the people we choose to detain. I believe that this duty of care has been breached, and my constituents are asking me why, despite the millions in taxpayer funding spent on buildings and running these facilities, people are not safe. Why, despite the years of debate on this topic, do we not have a solution that is both effective and humane? My constituents are asking me about the budget implications. 'It is getting very expensive, Cathy.' Has the government given them an open cheque?

I commend the government for reducing deaths at sea. This is a big achievement. However, I ask that the government give equal importance to the process of reducing deaths, upholding human dignity and the mental and physical health of asylum seekers. I call on the government to respond to my constituents' concern and create a solution that not only stops people risking their lives at sea but also ensures that on the other side of our detention process people are healthy, sane and, most importantly, alive. I call on the government and the opposition to work together and use debate in this place to deliver comprehensive solutions to this issue that maintain our sovereignty for Australians and gives safety for asylum seekers. I ask the members in this place who advocate in their party rooms to keep talking. We need a solution and we need you to have the debate.

I call on the government and the opposition to take our agreements with the United Nations seriously rather than following them only to the letter. The intention of the conventions we are signatory to must be our guide. Today in Geneva the United Nations Commission on Human Rights will call on the Australian government to review its treatment of asylum seekers and its agreement with Papua New Guinea. We must heed these requests from the international community.

I believe we are a clever and resourceful parliament. We can protect our borders, we can reduce deaths at sea and we can treat the people under our care with dignity and humanity. I am not being sentimental or soft on this issue. I know it is hard, hard work, but I am up to the challenge, and I remind this House that asylum seekers are human beings. We have a duty of care. We can and we must do better.