Thursday, 2 March 2006
Legal and Constitutional References Committee; Reference
I hope that on this occasion the government will at least do the Senate the courtesy of putting their case for why they will not support this motion. I understand they are not. This is an important matter. Senator Hurley has outlined well why there are serious concerns that need examination. As somebody that has followed immigration issues for quite a few years now, I think it is very timely to have a broader examination of settlement assistance not just for refugees and humanitarian settlers—although clearly assistance to them is important—but also for other permanent residents coming to Australia.
The wider question that now needs to be considered is whether people here on long-term temporary residency visas could also benefit from some forms of assistance. Clearly, people living in the Australian community for a number of years, and many people who start on long-term temporary visas, eventually end up transferring to permanent visas and, at the end of it all, citizenship. It is very much in our country’s interest to make sure that when people first arrive help is available to enable them to adjust as quickly and completely as possible to their new life in Australia. We have had a lot of debate and a lot of comments made by senior government figures in recent times about multiculturalism, citizenship, integration and all those sorts of things. It is an important area to debate. But, as I said in the Senate yesterday, it would be nice if there were at least a consistent and coherent line from the government on these issues.
Frankly, regardless of what you think about multiculturalism and how you define it or other words like ‘integration’ and ‘assimilation’, which do have their baggage, as Mr Abbott has said, I do not think anybody could dispute that it is in our country’s interest to assist people that come here to settle as quickly as possible. That applies especially to refugees and humanitarian entrants, who are most likely to have come from a very disadvantaged situation. In the case of the refugees that are coming from Africa, it is very commendable that the government is bringing a number of refugees and humanitarian entrants from Somalia, Sudan and other countries.
That is very much to be commended, but it is against our country’s interests, and only doing half the job as far as the refugees are concerned, if we bring people here and then do not provide them with the assistance they need to adjust, as with the example of the family of Richard Niyonsaba, the young child who died that Senator Hurley was referring to. You could accurately call it an alien existence for them, to have come from somewhere where they had never seen a telephone, electricity, washing machines, fridges and all those sorts of things to a completely foreign environment. Clearly, it is beneficial to bring them to somewhere like Australia when they have been living in desert refugee camps for years and always at risk of violence or death, but we have to do more than just bring them here. We have to assist them to settle. As I said, that is very much in our self-interest as well as, of course, completing the humanitarian assistance that we are providing.
There is a bit of a habit, perhaps understandable, that occurs in political debate in Australia around these sorts of issues: people just make the statement that Australia has very good settlement services by world standards. I have made that statement many times myself. It is the same as the way we often make the statement that Australia has a proud history of assisting refugees. Because we keep repeating it, we just assume it is true. As perhaps should not be surprising, the reality is not always as simple as that. We actually do not as a country have an unblemished history with regard to refugees, even before the recent and harsh politicisation of that issue in the last decade. We have a mixed history. And the same has to be said about settlement services. We do have some good practices and some good aspects to our record, but we cannot just keep making the bland statement that we do settlement well without actually examining it to see whether we are kidding ourselves. I think we are kidding ourselves to some extent. We do some things well; we do some things better than many other countries. But we do not do them well enough. And there are some things that we do badly and some things that are at risk of deteriorating.
That is why the broader issues in this reference are important. The specific case of what happened to Richard Niyonsaba in that tragedy is something worthy of investigation. But, even if we do not single out that case, the wider issues of settlement assistance, and indeed the information that is provided before refugee and humanitarian visa holders come here, are things that need examining. Often there are changes that can be made at very little or even no cost that can provide great benefit. I believe that by virtue of having just repeated this mantra of ‘we do really well with settlement services’ we have blindfolded ourselves to the fact that these areas need examination and there are some areas where things are in decline.
Those are the sorts of things that need examining. It is imperative to the future strength of this country. It is not just about a humanitarian gesture of making sure we are being as nice as we can to refugees. It is in our country’s self-interest to have the most effective settlement assistance possible, not just for refugees but for anybody that comes to this country for a prolonged period of time. Unless we look at what it means in application, all of the debate and the words that are being thrown around about citizenship, people’s obligations to Australia, Australian values, integration with the Australian community and the role and impact of multiculturalism are a lot of hot air and rhetoric thrown around the ether.
One of the fundamental areas of application of those sorts of issues is in settlement assistance. It cuts across all the philosophical debates about multiculturalism, integration, citizenship and Australian values because, whatever your view on the nuances of those issues, everybody would agree that it is in our country’s interest to assist and help people, when they migrate and settle here, to settle quickly and effectively. There is growing evidence that we are not doing that anywhere near as well as we could and should be. The time is very much right for an examination of this matter. I would be very disappointed if the government could not at least put its position about these issues on the record, because they are crucial to our country.
Immigration issues are not just a political football. I have become more and more aware the longer I have delved into immigration that it is perhaps one of the most fundamental issues for the future of our country. It has played an indescribably huge role in Australia becoming what it is today, and it can continue to play an absolutely pivotal role in where Australia goes in the future. It plays a positive role, I believe. I think it is as important as all of the debates we are having about our tax system, our economy and those sorts of things. We are talking about people, rather than just dollars and cents. Obviously there are links there, as there are with every issue, but it is as important as those debates. We really need to have much more mature debate on these issues and we need to have the government contributing to that in a responsible way.
It is slightly off the topic, but I think it is appropriate to point out that yesterday we heard the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs making further announcements about changes in the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs and the way they are doing things in response to more reports from the Ombudsman. The minister did not come into this chamber to present that information; she held a press conference outside. She did not speak to any of the reports that the Ombudsman has provided. The minister is not contributing to this debate. That sort of thing indicates that there is not a sufficient degree of seriousness and willingness to engage with these issues. Sure, there is point scoring in the immigration debate, as there is in every other debate in politics, but there are fundamental issues here that need to be properly examined. They are not being properly examined. This inquiry, I believe, would be a good opportunity to do that. It is the right time.
Today the committee—if it gets a chance to get to it—is presenting a report on the Migration Act and the administration of that act, relevant to some of the issues I have just described. It has nothing else on its plate. It has no reference before it. We have Senate committees now sitting in this parliament with no references because the government is consistently blocking reference after reference. We have already seen one on aviation safety blocked this morning. We will probably have another motion after this, on disability services, which is also going to be opposed. If the government is going to block this one as well, we will have a committee sitting there without a reference. Frankly, I think that starts to bring the Senate as a whole into disrepute. Maybe that is the government’s agenda. Maybe it wants to bring the Senate into disrepute. But it certainly does not serve the community well to have committees sitting here without valuable work to do.
As I have said, this is a valuable area. It is an important area of public policy. A lot of it is beyond and above ideology and political positioning. It is about the fundamentals: good delivery of public policy, good delivery of public resources and providing proper assistance to people who we have welcomed into our country and who we expect to make a contribution to our community. They are people who quite clearly want to do that. History shows us how enormous the contribution is that refugees have made to our country. So we know that the potential is there. This is simply about making sure that that potential is maximised. A little bit of investment at the start can produce enormous benefits for all of us, not least, of course, the people who are assisted. It is time that we look at how well we are doing that and at ways that we can do it better.
That the motion (That the motion () be agreed to.