Wednesday, 23 November 2022
Matters of Public Importance
I have received a letter from the honourable member for McPherson proposing that a definite matter of public importance be submitted to the House for discussion, namely:
I call upon those honourable members who approve of the proposed discussion to rise in their places.
More than the number of members required by the standing orders having risen in their places—
s ANDREWS () (): I start by saying that the protection of Australians should be the No. 1 priority of any government. When the coalition were in government, we took that very seriously and we always acted to make sure that Australians were protected and that they were kept safe. Community safety forms a very key part of that national security and making sure that Australians are protected.
After weeks of media reporting about the potential repatriation of dozens of Australian people in Syria, on Saturday 29 October 2022 the government confirmed by media release that it had 'repatriated four Australian women and their 13 Australian children to New South Wales from an internally displaced persons camp in Syria'. It went on:
Informed by national security advice, the Government has carefully considered the range of security, community and welfare factors in making the decision to repatriate.
That full release can be found on the Home Affairs website. I would draw the attention of those here today to what the government said they had considered, which was a range of security issues—and I do hope that they did take into account the security implications of bringing those women and their children to Australia, because the advice was very clear about the risks that were associated with Australians going into those camps to bring out women and children. There was also very clear advice about the impacts on our community of these people coming back to Australia, and there was very clear advice about the costs that there would be to make sure that these people were properly monitored when they were in Australia. So security was one of the issues the government claimed that it considered. The government also said that it took into consideration welfare factors, but little has been said about that. Of particular concern in this matter of public importance are in relation to the words 'community factors'.
Last week, I met in Sydney with the mayors of Liverpool, Fairfield and Campbelltown councils, and I discussed multiple issues arising from the Labor government's decision to repatriate a group of individuals from those camps in Syria. One thing that was made abundantly clear to me by the mayors, on behalf of their communities, was the disappointment that they felt by the way the government had treated them, largely pushing aside their concerns and refusing to make any contact with them—dismissing the concerns that they genuinely had on behalf of their communities.
Those three mayors were very passionate about representing their communities, and I commend them for that. They have been particularly outspoken about their concerns regarding the way that they have been treated by the government. They have tried, on a number of occasions, to reach out to the government and to speak with local members, with ministers or with the Prime Minister. It's actually got to the point where they have raised concerns so many times, without hearing back, that they've offered to jointly pay to attend a fundraiser that's supposed to be attended by the Prime Minister. An article in the Daily Telegraph said:
Fairfield Mayor Frank Carbone, Liverpool Mayor Ned Mannoun, and Campbelltown Mayor George Greiss told The Daily Telegraph that they would do "whatever it takes" to raise concerns of their communities with Mr Albanese.
"If it takes $1500 to attend his event just so we can put forward our community view, we are happy to pay it," Mr Carbone said.
I have publicly stated on a number of occasions that the views of local government should certainly be taken into account and that those mayors should be listened to, particularly on such important issues as resettling wives of terrorists and their children in their community.
Let's understand Western Sydney and the concerns that the people in those communities very rightly have. Some of the people who are living there had to flee from ISIS. They witnessed firsthand overseas what impact ISIS had on them. They saw their friends killed. They perhaps saw members of their family killed, in some cases by being beheaded in front of them. They are so concerned about the impacts of ISIS that they feel particularly terrorised. But here they are. They are in Australia, where they had felt safe. They are in Western Sydney, in a community where they felt safe, and now they are facing—
Honourable members interjecting—
Sorry. I really did not want to interrupt you, but there's a lot of interjection going on, and I'm really struggling to hear your contribution. So I'm just asking both sides to dial it down. I'd like to hear what the member for McPherson has to say.
These people are now terribly concerned that they are going to be living side by side with people who are associated with those they actually fled from overseas. But what we have is a government that has very little concern for those individuals. The mayors have put their concerns very robustly through the media, and I don't doubt that they have put that in any forum that they possibly can.
It was also, I have to say, particularly disappointing that whilst I was in Sydney last week—I was meeting with the mayors face to face in Western Sydney, but also one of them actually came to meet with me in the Sydney CBD—there was actually a home affairs summit being held in Sydney. Community organisation could have been held so that the ministers who were addressing that conference could have spoken and met with the mayors. I'm sure that the mayors would have taken the opportunity to come in and meet directly with the ministers, but that was not available to them. So ministers could take the time to speak at a home affairs summit but could not take the time to actually meet with mayors who were representing their communities. I would have thought that many in this place would understand how important local government is when you're talking with communities, because they are the ones who are on the front line in delivering a lot of the support. They're very close to their communities and they deserve considerable respect for the work that they have undertaken. But that certainly appears not to have been the way that they have been treated by this government.
There are multiple questions that have been raised with me. They have been raised very publicly. The mayors themselves have also raised these questions, and any reasonable person, quite frankly, would be raising these questions, to which there has been no response from the government. Those questions include: What is the cost to the taxpayer of monitoring this repatriated cohort—if, in fact, they are being monitored? What are the details of any welfare and integration program access and delivery cost—if there are any? What is the chosen timing and location of this first cohort, and how was it determined? How will the government manage the situation when this group may well share a facility with those refugees who fled the devastating carnage that ISIS spread across Syria and resettled in safer communities here in Australia? That is a fundamental concern of those people who have fled from ISIS and were happily settled in Western Sydney.
Are there more to arrive? We did hear that there was a significant release of information, which is very concerning. I have raised my concerns about the level of detail that was discussed publicly about these supposed repatriations because they were supposed, at the time that I was first contacted about this—I responded to media requests myself in relation to these repatriations, but there was a level of detail being discussed publicly which is of concern. I was pretty happy to have it confirmed in Senate estimates by, I believe, the secretary of the Department of Home Affairs that Prime Minister and Cabinet would be looking into and investigating how that information came into the public domain. It is really concerning. It potentially put at risk those Australians going in to extract those women and children from the camps, and it puts future repatriations, if there are any, at risk.
But what we do know from that is that there are more women and children in those camps in Syria. The government needs to come clean on what it is going to do. Is it planning to repatriate more women and children? Where will those women and children go? The government should not be hiding behind national security. At least now that those women are in Western Sydney they should be speaking to the local mayors.
Before the minister gets the call, I understand that the level of interjections that were occurring before were in response to behaviours that I did not hear or recognise, and so I can't comment on that. I'm just going to ask a general request of everybody in this House to treat each other with some respect. This is an MPI, a matter of public importance debate, where we get to engage in robust debate around ideas and discussions—all of which is absolutely fair. When it becomes personal or unparliamentary, I will pull it up. Okay?
Deputy Speaker, just on that point: I think it would assist the House if the member for Hawke apologised for his actions. If he does that then I think everything will go back to normal. But I would ask him to apologise for his actions.
I think it would be appropriate for us to talk about this in a sober manner, and yelling slurs at each other across the chamber is not giving this its due consideration.
The decision to repatriate the women and children who are the subject of this debate was informed by individual assessments, which followed very, very detailed work by our national security agencies. I want to take a bit of time to outline to the House why this decision was important for our national security. As the House would know from media reports, the repatriation decision concerned four women and 13 children, the oldest of whom is a 13-year-old girl. The women in this instance were assessed in a detailed manner and have all received an assessment of being low risk.
I want to be absolutely clear to the House, because I think this important fact is getting somewhat lost in the debate about this matter: the women and children who have returned to Australia are Australian citizens. Now, there will be people in this chamber who see this matter from very different points of view. I am Australia's home affairs minister, and I have a very clear and simple prism through which I review these matters, and my concern is for the national security of Australians who are in Australia, full stop. That is the prism through which I see this matter.
We have a question here confronting our country about how we manage a situation where there are a number of women and children who are today living in camps in Syria. What the House and the Australian people need to absorb, in thinking through this issue, is that, as Australian citizens, these women and children have an enduring right to re-enter our country. There have been some attempts by this parliament to discuss taking citizenship away from people under certain circumstances. It is quite clear that that is not a legal avenue for the parliament to undertake. A home affairs minister from the conservative side of politics can't do it, just as a home affairs minister from the progressive side of politics can't do it.
We have to manage this issue, and the question for us is how we want the children at the heart of this matter to grow up and what the safest thing is for our country, for the type of childhood for these children to have. Is it in the nation's interests for a large group of Australian children, who will in all likelihood one day return to Australia, to spend their formative years living in a squalid refugee camp where they have very little access to health, where they do not get to go to school and where they are subjected every day to radical ideologies that tell them to hate their own country, or are they safer growing up here with Australian values? That is the decision we must make on a case-by-case basis, and we do it knowing that, at the moment, this country has control over whether and how these people return. We will not always have that control. There will come a point where we don't have the facility and ability to manage how these people return to our country, and they will return in an unplanned way, as happened under the previous government; I will get to some of the actions of the previous government in a moment, but let me focus on the matter at hand.
The national security decisions the government has made have been made on the advice of national security agencies, and the decision in these particular circumstances—and it will not be the case for every person who is Australian and in these camps—is that we manage this in a controlled way. That means the Australian government has been able to undertake individualised, very comprehensive security assessments of each individual that returns to this country. It means we can do it in a way where measures are implemented to protect the community. We can prepare for ongoing law enforcement monitoring, and, more importantly, we can connect these children with reintegration and rehabilitation so they can live a successful life in this country—which, surely, everyone in this parliament wants to see happen. If we don't do this, if we do as those opposite did—that is, stick our heads in the sand and pretend this problem is going to go away—then we are doing a disservice to our country. One of the things about being home affairs minister, which the member opposite should well know, is that sometimes we do difficult things in this job. There are no easy decisions here. There is no easy path forward. But this is the safest thing for our country, and that is why the government has made this decision.
I know those opposite are familiar with a lot of these arguments, because what is at the root of this debate is rank political hypocrisy that I would have thought would have been beyond even those opposite. I say that because we know the former government did exactly the same thing in 2019. The thing I fail to understand in this debate is why those opposite—some of whom are smart, free-thinking individuals—are getting up and criticising this decision when their government did exactly the same thing. Come on, let's have some standards for ourselves in this parliament; let's have some drive for consistency in this parliament. That decision of the former government to repatriate a group of Australians was made while the opposition leader was the home affairs minister. He had exactly the same choice I had as home affairs minister: would he leave these Australian children in Syria, to allow them to be continually subject to radical ideologies on a daily basis, or would he bring them to Australia? He made the decision to return those people to Australia.
I note that there has been some discussion about the consultation that has been undertaken here, and I want to turn to that matter. I have had a number of really good discussions with Western Sydney community leaders. They've been really good discussions because I think they show the level of complexity, seriousness and depth in the thoughts and beliefs that these communities take to these matters. As one community leader pointed out to me, no-one in Australia understands what is going on in Syria better than the people of Western Sydney. They are actually the experts on this matter. Not everyone is going to agree with the decision that the government is making, and there are people in the community who are asking very legitimate questions—ones that I am very happy to answer. But I do say that I have spoken to people in Western Sydney, including community leaders, who have deep regrets that this matter is being politicised. One said to me, 'This is about the only time that Peter Dutton has ever been to Fairfield.'
I met yesterday with the member for Fowler, who has been vocal in the debate. I hope she feels that was a good and constructive meeting, because I certainly felt that it was. She faithfully put the views of her constituents to me, which I gratefully appreciate. That is our role as members of parliament. I have spoken, I believe, to all of the MPs who have expressed an interest in this matter. If there are people have not had a discussion with me but seek one, please contact me. I'm very pleased to talk to you.
The Australian Federal Police have had a number of discussions with affected communities. Senior counterterrorism experts were in Western Sydney about a week ago, meeting with a large group of community leaders. We have more consultation planned. I think the calls for discussions in Western Sydney are very fair ones, and I am happy to comply with that, as I have said publicly.
I do want to ask those who follow me in this discussion to address the point of what consultation the former government undertook when it did a similar repatriation in 2019, because, as far as I am aware, none of this consultation occurred when those opposite did exactly the same thing. Again I invite those opposite, when they're on their feet, to give the parliament the courtesy of explaining why our government should be held to a completely different standard from the one your government was held to.
Our government has worked very hard across the Joint Counter Terrorism Teams, which have been a very important structure for our country in its successful fight in preventing terrorist attacks. We have incredibly smart people, with the deepest of community links, who help protect our community. I have confidence in those well-established frameworks that enable the Australian Federal Police to manage and respond to extremist threats in Australia, as they do every single day when they get out of bed every morning. I think it's important that we acknowledge the amazing efforts of those people and the repeated ways in which they have kept our community safe from radicalisation of all kinds.
I close by saying that the former Prime Minister the member for Cook was the greatest advocate for repatriating the group that came back. This what he said at the time in relation to the people who returned:
… they can't be held responsible for the crimes of their parents … they'll find their home in Australia and I'm sure they'll be embraced by Australians.
That was what the then Prime Minister said at the time, and I would just invite the opposition to consider why it is that they haven't continued in that tradition and instead have focused on the lazy politicking which has brought this before the parliament this afternoon.
Thank you, Minister. We did have a productive conversation yesterday about this issue. As many in the House are aware, I have spoken up about the resettlement of ISIS families among our community in South-West Sydney. In my electorate of Fowler, approximately 10 per cent of my population have escaped war-torn Iraq, Syria and Lebanon and, in particular, escaped the ISIS regime and states. As a former refugee who escaped communist Vietnam, I can empathise with the fears that many members of my community who escaped the atrocities under ISIS have been feeling since hearing the news through the media about the resettlement of a group of people among them. We cannot judge their genuine fears, and we cannot properly relate to what it was like to have lived through and under ISIS.
When Australians hear the word 'ISIS', they immediately connect it to the Lindt Cafe siege which occurred on 15 December 2014 and to the Melbourne stabbing in 2018, both of which shook the entire world. The threat of ISIS to our nation has slipped to the back of the minds of many Australians because our intelligence agencies and authorities have taken action to keep us safe. But, for members of my community, it still keeps them up at night, whether it be the nightmares or the severe trauma they experienced while fleeing their home countries to escape harm. We in this House cannot, and will not, understand the immense impact this decision by the government has had on my community, unless you physically leave your office and travel to south-west Sydney and to Fowler and the surrounding areas to see for yourself the concerns about placing ISIS families within walking distance of those who have experienced Islamic State's direct oppression.
As a member of parliament in the Australian House of Representatives, my job is to represent the views and interests of my constituents in Fowler. Our community is often a quite community, and we do not ask for much because we're so used to not being considered or consulted during the decision-making process on key issues that have a large impact on our community. So, when we do speak up, and when we do want to be heard, I would hope that this government does the right thing and listens. I understand the government has a mandate and wants to do as much as it can in as little time as possible, but I cannot stress enough the importance of dialogue and consultation with a community that is often forgotten by successive governments.
I live and breathe my community of Fowler and will be a constant voice in this House to advocate for them. I understand the minister will be visiting the seat of McMahon following my invitation to visit my Fowler community. I thank the minister for agreeing to my request to hear directly from the community groups who have been traumatised by the ISIS regime. I hope I'll be included in the community forum consultation this week, but even if I am not included I know that the community and I have been successful in getting you, the minister, to come and see south-western Sydney and listen to the concerns. I will continue to facilitate consultation. I will continue to offer my assistance and be the bridge that connects the House and any other major institutions to foster dialogue that will deliver positive outcomes to my diverse community of Fowler. I will hold this government accountable for the decisions that affect my constituents.
I am sorry that the member for McPherson has brought this matter of public importance to the parliament in the way in which she did. I think it's really questionable, and I think she should be ashamed of herself.
Opposition members interjecting—
I have plenty more to come. If you look at the complete politicisation of the issue by the mayors who were quoted, I just think it's pathetic. I had written to the previous government about returning these children—these Australian citizens, these children—from the Al-Hawl camp. I'm not, of course, in any way justifying what their parents did.
I have a daughter, Amelia Freelander, who works for Medecins Sans Frontieres. She has visited all their clinics around the world. She's based in Europe. This is a little bit of what she told me about the al-Hawl detention camp in Syria: 'In 2021, 79 children died in the al-Hawl camp, the vast majority killed by violent acts. The majority of the rest died because of preventable illnesses. Boys as young as 11 were removed from their parents, never to be seen again. Girls in their early teenage years were taken from parents and married off without their consent. The camp is violent and unsafe, 24 hours a day. As I've already mentioned, the leading cause of death was violent crime in children. I've heard stories of children suffering severe burns, left in agony and refused medical care until they died. Most children have poor growth, poor nutrition, skin infections, parasitic infections, iron deficiency and B12 deficiency. They are severely psychologically traumatised; their learning is severely impaired. They are exposed to physical and psychological violence every day, seven days a week. Their parents are all similarly traumatised.' The women, of course, did the wrong thing, but many of them were barely children themselves. These are Australian citizens.
The way this issue has been politicised by those opposite is shameful. The way it's being politicised by the local mayors is shameful. I have not had one complaint from my community about this. Our local council fails to do its duty to its ratepayers, yet it can make these spurious claims without any evidence whatsoever. There's no evidence. I have not received one email, one letter or one visit to my office from any of my constituents, and I am embedded in my community.
This is really sad. These are children. I am a paediatrician. I cannot see those kids—any kids—be exposed to that, without trying to fix it. To see what's happened today really does raise a lot of questions in my mind about the motives of those opposite—not all, I recognise that. I know many would not have wanted this MPI to be presented, but what's happened has happened. We know that the previous government did nothing to support these kids. I've spoken to a number of security experts. They feel it is better that the children are brought to a place of safety, that they are brought up here and not left in an environment of continual trauma and continual indoctrination to become a possible greater danger to Australia in the future—those that don't die from this environment.
As has been mentioned previously, the previous government, in 2019, did repatriate some children. The reason they have brought this matter on today is unclear to me. I've put my point of view. I think all of those of good faith in this parliament would want Australian children brought up in safety.
I'd like to thank all the members who have contributed today, and I look forward to meeting with the Minister for Home Affairs. I do welcome that invite. There are concerns that I have, and there are some that have been raised with me by intelligence members who have worked in the region, as well as soldiers who have fought against terrorism, whether it be the Taliban or ISIS. These will be concerns that I will be able to raise directly with the minister in the coming days, because low risk doesn't mean no risk.
For me, this MPI goes to questions that I have, that the member for Fowler, the former deputy mayor, has and more to answers that we can then give to the people that are contacting me and other members of this place. I concur with the previous speaker in saying that no-one wants to see children in detention. No-one wants to see children, especially in a country like Syria, in a camp. Save the Children released a statement which said: 'An estimated 7,300 children live in camps under the guardianship of their ISIS-affiliated mothers who are diligently indoctrinating them with ISIS ideology and instilling in them the desire to avenge their fathers who were killed or taken prisoner in battles.' I agree with the previous speaker: we don't want to have young people, children, in camps and being indoctrinated.
Other countries, like the United States, France and Canada, have repatriated people, whether it's from Roj or the other detention centre there. France has repatriated 40 children and 15 women from the Kurdish-run camps in Syria, which were holding family members of suspected ISIS armed group fighters, according to the French foreign ministry. The 15 children were taken into child services, while the women were transferred to judicial authorities. We've also seen that Canada arrested two women as they returned home from the camp. They are accused of four crimes, including leaving Canada to participate in the activity of a terrorist group. So Canada has taken a different avenue to what Australia has taken. I do think that there are concerns that need to be addressed, because, if we've got security professionals and intelligence professionals with questions, that means the general public will also have them.
There have been full-female brigades fighting for ISIS. That's well documented. There was a Kansas woman, in the United States, who pled guilty to one count of conspiring to provide support to ISIS. She told the judge that she didn't know that some of the 100 women she led and trained to use weapons and explosives were children, some as young as 10. During her decade of working with ISIS and others to wage violent war, she travelled from Libya to Egypt and eventually to Syria, and she had plans for a terrorist attack in the US. She trained other women in ISIS on how to use AK-47s, grenades and suicide belts, according to her plea agreement. No-one wants to see that here, and I have extreme faith in our intelligence agencies and in the government to really dive in to ensure that it doesn't. But what follows that? Is there any surveillance? Are there any report lines? Are there any checks and balances put in place to ensure that there isn't someone like this person from Kansas who trained others or that the people who are here haven't done something similar?
These are questions that I think need to be answered, and I'd like to work collaboratively with the minister on that. If I can use my network and the people that have been contacting me to dissuade any of the thoughts or suggestions that these people could have been in the same brigades, then I think it's a good thing, because we don't want to see fear and angst in the community.
We have a special responsibility in this place to act in the national interest. I think we all know that. I know the members on the other side and the crossbench do. Many people don't see the cooperation that happens in the committees and the other important matters in this place, where members and senators from both sides work together in the national interest.
I've seen that spirit of bipartisanship, and, in that context, I find this MPI simply unbelievable. It's actually galling. You would think the opposition would have learnt their lesson when it comes to our national security and foreign policy. You would think they'd resist the temptation to try and score domestic politic points, after the damage that was done to our international relationships by the former government. But they haven't learnt. They are so desperate to cover up the truth and to write a revisionist history when it comes to their pathetic legacy in government, because, when it comes to this issue—like many other issues—they just want to kick it into the long grass and then politicise it. They refused to make the tough calls, the ones Australians expect their government to make.
This government has made this decision, based on the best advice of our national security agencies, based on four sound reasons: national security for Australians, to keep us safe; support for our partners who are fighting on the front line against Islamic State; and citizenship. What does it mean to be an Australian? What are our obligations to our Australian citizens, particularly children? And the fourth reason was our humanitarian obligations to those Australian citizens.
Firstly, on national security, I want to ask those opposite, given you decided not to repatriate these children, what was your plan? Was it to leave them there languishing, exposed to violent ideology, and to have them grow up alongside people who would seek to do us harm and have them become those people? Was it to have them become adults, Australian citizens, and have them return to Australia or elsewhere with that violent ideology after being radicalised? What was your plan?
For all of the criticism that you want to throw at this government, this government actually acted. We chose not to take the risk to national security in the longer term, knowing it would have increased down the line. Instead, we chose to let these children grow up in Australia, inculcated by Australian values, not radicalised in a squalid camp with a violent ideology. The UN counterterrorism chief said that inaction on repatriation threatened 'to bring about those very outcomes we intend to prevent,' including 'the radicalisation and recruitment of a new generation of terrorists and a strengthening of terrorist groups in the region and around world'. He went on to brief the UN Security Council in August this year and said:
Those individuals, many of whom are children who did not choose to be there … are at very real risk of radicalisation and recruitment.
Secondly, we have made a decision to support partners on the frontline fight against Islamic State. Approximately 36 other countries have repatriated many of their citizens from those camps in north-east Syria. This is a decision made by this government in line with our allies and partners around the world. Thirdly, these children are Australian citizens. That means something. It should mean something to each and every one of us in this House. There is a value in it. Fourthly, we owe humanitarian obligations to our citizens, especially children. The repatriation of the women and children from the camps shows that this government cares for its children, for its citizens and for its responsibility to act in the best interests of those children.
The former government left Australian women and children to languish in these camps in conditions most of us could not imagine, horrible conditions, with children under constant risk of being injured, killed or trafficked. I would suggest those opposite, if they weren't trying to score cheap, domestic political points, would actually support this decision, because guess what? The member for Cook when he was PM actually did so when the former government repatriated children in 2019. They received the same advice that the now opposition leader, when he was Minister for Home Affairs, got. He was briefed by the same national security agencies that supported this decision.
So if you don't have a plan, leave it to those who will act in the national interest, who won't kick the issues into the long grass. If you are interested in working in the national interest in a spirit of true bipartisanship, as I believe many are in this place, give up on the sham of trying to rewrite history. Accept your failings in government, but don't criticise this one for taking action where you refused to.
There is a dangerous naivety that pervades a lot of the Labor Party in relation to national security. This dangerous naivety manifested in recent weeks and months in this matter. I will give an example. The member for Sydney exclaimed loudly that, in relation to ISIS brides returning to Australia, these are women and children, as if somehow women couldn't be subject to extremist ideology the same as men could be, as if this wasn't a deeply complex matter. As the Minister for Home Affairs said, the radicalisation of Westerners who fled to the Middle East to support the ISIS regime knowingly supported the deaths of tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands of people—our citizens. I thank the shadow minister for bringing this matter to the attention of the House. Rather than what the government here is saying about this being a political point, we fundamentally do not agree with this because the government has not answered questions.
I will get to that in a moment, Minister. Trust me, I will get to that in a moment. What we don't agree with is of course what this government has done in bringing back the brides of ISIS fighters, women who did voluntarily leave our country to support an ISIS regime that we know threw homosexual people off buildings, that we know subjected Yazidi women to repeated months of slavery followed by death, and pushed young boys into mass graves. So when we hear members of the talking about the conditions of people and camps because of the ISIS regime we must not forget the Westerners left their country, their free country that respects human rights, to support this regime that created this problem in the first place.
The minister has not said to the Australian people what charges will be laid against people who left our country to support this regime. What advice has she received on the culpability of the adult women who left Australia to support their husbands in these practices? This is not just about the children, Minister, as you well know. If we're talking about children and what governments supported children, let's talk about 2019 because it has been raised several times. But it is an inconvenient truth what the minister said to the House, very inconvenient.
In 2019 the Morrison government repatriated eight orphans from the Middle East.
No, one of them was not an adult, Minister. Again, you are wrong and you are misleading the House. One of them was a pregnant teenager; that was the other one. The rest of them were orphans. You have repatriated for the first time, and this is the difference that you haven't been upfront about, people who left Australia to support the ISIS regime. That is a quantitative difference. It is a serious national security matter. It needs to be addressed in front of the communities of Western Sydney and Melbourne, and you have not done so. For the first time today, you've come to this House to give some comprehensive answers.
Are you serious? I asked you a serious question. You were deliberately ignoring, at the very least, my comments. I'm asking you to direct your comments through me as the chair. When you refer to the minister, use her title. When you say the word 'you', it is as though you are talking to me. That's my ruling, and you have chosen to wilfully ignore it. I'm asking you not to, or I will ask you to leave the chamber.
Of course, Madam Deputy Speaker. I'll do whatever you say. The minister, of course, has been forced into this House and, for the first time, has had to answer. I understand why members opposite are touchy about this issue, but it is not the opposition that is raising this issue. It is mayors in Western Sydney, it is members of the Australian Assyrian community, it is members of the Australian Yazidi community, and it is the tens of thousands of refugees that we, the Morrison government, took in from the Middle East as the victims of ISIS regime. When will the minister come to this House and tell Australians what charges will be laid against people who left this country to support ISIS? When will the minister come in and give the actual details about what arrangements will be in place to protect Australians and our children and our safety? (Time expired)
When the whip on our side showed me what today's matter of public importance was, I asked if I could speak on it. It may sound a bit weird to have the federal member for Bendigo ask to speak on a matter like this, but I wanted to for a couple of reasons. First, I wanted to say a few things about the women who are being brought home and make a few comments on the children, as others on my side have. But I also wanted to make a few comments about the tone in which this has been brought before the parliament.
Many may not know this, but I was born in Western Sydney, in Wentworthville. I'm a Western Sydney girl. My mum, a ten-pound Pom, grew up in Mount Druitt. It is the story of so many Australians. Western Sydney is such a dynamic, awesome part of our country that so many people have a connection to. That's what I think disappoints me the most about this matter of public importance—suggesting that people living in Western Sydney today are different than the rest of the country. These are people who for generations have lived in Western Sydney, people who recently arrived in Australia and now live in Western Sydney, and people like me, who started in Western Sydney and became the federal member for Bendigo.
Shame on the government for trying to single out such an awesome part of the country—sorry, shame on the opposition for trying to single out such an awesome part of the country and say that they are different. They have the same concerns, worries, hopes and aspirations as the rest of us. I think about what my mum would say now if she knew about this matter of public importance, and I think about the stories that she continues to tell me today about the neighbourhood in which she grew up, at Mount Druitt, a proud part of our country.
The children being brought here are innocents who have been growing up in absolute squalor. Our responsibility as a parliament, and as Australians, is to ensure that all Australian children have the same opportunity and deserve the same go. It is our responsibility to bring them here, just like the previous government did. I remember, when they repatriated the first women and children from the Syrian campus, thinking, 'Finally, the government'—the government back then—'have found their heart and realised that they have a responsibility to ensure that these Australian children can grow up.' These were young children who had no opportunity in the camps where they were. The government were taking some responsibility for Australian children. I can remember one family and the hope on the grandfather's and great-grandfather's faces, and the joy and the tears, when their family had been returned, knowing they now had a chance. I remember the way they embraced the granddaughter, who was pregnant and a child bride.
These women—we don't know their full story. We don't know how they ended up in Syria. What we do know about is the reports that have come through from other parts of the world where they've repatriated women. Many of these women, these ISIS brides, were coerced, were tricked. They may have left here not fully knowing what was happening over there. They were married at 15, 16, 17, 18. It is a life that nobody would want to see a daughter or granddaughter go through. We don't know their trauma or their experiences. When they come to Australia, home, they may start to receive help. We do not have matters of public importance debates on people who have experienced torture, people who've experienced trauma, people who have may made a wrong decision, people who may not have known the decision they were making, people who are now wanting to restart their lives. These women deserve our support, compassion and understanding. These women deserve a moment for healing and a chance to rebuild their lives in a country that they are part of.
I really respect and admire the decision that the Minister for Home Affairs has made and the spirit in which she has made it, taking on board the recommendations of our national security agencies. I do acknowledge the reason why it's taken a bit of time to get here is that they did want to make sure these women posed a low risk, and that is what has now been found.
To the women, to the 13 children they bring with them, to their families: I'm so relieved that you will now be able to come together and start to heal from your experience. I cannot imagine what you've lived through, but I am proud that you will be coming home to a country that truly wants to see you find a place here, where you can be raised, live free and have hopes for the future, like all of our children.
I rise to speak on this matter of public importance about the government's rushed decision to settle families of ISIS soldiers in Western Sydney without proper consultation with that community. At the outset, I note there have been some comments raised from those on the other side today about whether or not this was an appropriate matter of public importance to be brought by our side. I think many of the points that will be in my speech are not so much around whether or not it is appropriate to bring back Australian children into this country. It is about the process that has been followed. It's about the seeming lack of communication from the office of the Minister for Home Affairs and from the government department that she oversees on this issue. And the fact today that we have at last had some explanation as to the reasons why this decision was made is in fact proof that this was a matter of public importance that was appropriate to have been brought today by our side.
I also say at the outset, particularly as a mother: I do not want to see Australian children held in these camps in the circumstances that we have heard described. That is why my comments today are more around the process from the Minister for Home Affairs, the lack of consultation with the people, with the communities to which these Australians are being repatriated, and the process that has so far been followed, or perhaps not followed. These are around issues of national security. It is a deeply complex issue and, in view of that, it required probably more consultation and more communication because of the nature of the complexity of the problem.
In that regard, I acknowledge the work done by my local Liverpool City Council mayor, Ned Mannoun; Campbelltown City Council mayor, George Greiss; and Fairfield City Council mayor, Frank Carbone, and I thank them for that work. Collectively, these local government areas represent over 560,000 residents, including constituents in my electorate of Hughes in the suburbs of Voyager Point, Holsworthy, Wattle Grove, Hammondville and Moorebank. On 9 November those councillors wrote to the Prime Minister to request a meeting to discuss the resettlement of the relatives of Islamic State fighters. In the letter they were quite clear about what they were seeking. They said:
These families have lived alongside Islamic State fighters for over 7 years after turning their backs on Australia, and at no stage have they spoken out against the actions of ISIS.
Your Government has listened to the repatriated families views but have not taken time to consult with the communities affected by this decision.
So this was not about traumatising already traumatised children. This was three councillors activating and advocating for their community, requesting a meeting and requesting an explanation of a complex government policy. The Prime Minister has, rightly, attended in person recently and met with victims of floods in New South Wales. Therefore, I ask why it is that both the Prime Minister and the home affairs minister are above face-to-face meetings with concerned residents of Western Sydney on this very important issue. The people of south-western Sydney deserve respect. They deserve to be listened to. They've asked legitimate questions and are simply asking that those legitimate questions be answered by the minister responsible.
Regarding repatriations to Western Sydney, Australians are entitled to understand two main things. What, if any, safeguards has the Minister for Home Affairs put in place to ensure that none of these Australian women or children have been exploited by ISIS and that none of these children have been placed in situations of irreparable harm? The job of the Prime Minister and the home affairs minister is to keep Australia safe, to keep Australians safe and to reduce risk to our national security. I call upon the minister to meet with this community.
I acknowledge all those who have entered into this matter of public importance debate this afternoon in good faith, and I think a fair few have; some haven't, or perhaps have taken their responsibility in regard to these issues in the former government to heart. But we should have respectful debate in this place. So it has been interesting to see the different aspects of this discussion that were pulled out by different members of the opposition—uncomfortable I think, with the bringing of the matter before this House, and it is questionable. However, in having a respectful discussion, with the focus on process and proper consultation—valid points—the opposition did kick this cohort of people down the road. There's no doubt about that. When we talk about a cohort, it's women and children. It's Australian women and children, kicked down the road, which is a road to ruin.
Anyone who understands what camps full of displaced people in conflict areas are like—maybe the shadow minister for defence has visited some of these; I know a lot on our side have visited such camps—knows that they are incredibly dangerous places, they are incredibly unhealthy places and often they're places where people don't want to be—and they don't want to be there for good reason. To have Australian children growing up in inhumane camps with poor health, as the member for Macarthur pointed out, and poor access to any sort of education—which of course is the way we battle radical ideologies, through good education—is a very negative environment. For these children, as Australian children, to be returned is I think an admirable thing but also a smart thing, given that the security agencies have recommended that we do that. To those opposite who are calling that advice into question, I would say that the security agencies know a lot more than you do about this issue, so I'm happy to provide some points for you to reflect on.
I understand the political motives behind what you're trying to do with this issue, and as unadmirable as they are I think it's an important issue. Australian citizens are facing difficult situations. We are not going to know the full story behind why any decision was made. We never do when it comes to matters of the heart, matters of families, matters of cultures and traditions, but what we do know is that we're much better off accepting, not rejecting, people into our communities because that leads to safer communities.
Previous speakers have pointed out the hypocrisy of the opposition in criticising the bringing of these children home, and I won't go over it again and again. But it is interesting to note that the Leader of the Opposition was specifically briefed on this operation by our national security agencies. I will just say to him that he should know better, having held positions in government in the past, than to act in a dishonest way.
The situations in these camps, as I've mentioned, are horrific. The amount of rape, the amount of assaults that go on, as well as sickness—basically these children are at constant risk of being injured or killed. A lot of kids die in these types of camps. They can also be trafficked. Let's just think about what we're really doing here.
I think decisions have been made in the interests of national security. A lot of people in this House and a lot of those in the opposition like to look to others around the world. We're acting correctly as a global citizen.