Senate debates

Wednesday, 10 October 2012


Manus Island

10:45 am

Photo of Richard Di NataleRichard Di Natale (Victoria, Australian Greens) Share this | Hansard source

In rising to speak today I will say what I have said on several other occasions in that this is once again a very unhappy experience for me in having to speak up against this motion. Many of the arguments in this debate have been thrashed out quite comprehensively but I think it is important to reiterate that this is an incredibly complex problem. None of us here have any simple solutions that will resolve it. There are many factors at play, many of them global, international factors, many of them in our region and some of them here on our doorstep.

Because it is such a complex problem and because it is an issue of such tremendous complexity, it is an issue that requires leadership. For wicked problems like this, it is critical that we have governments and political leaders who are prepared to show some leadership and courage, and to try and take the community with them rather than trying to appeal to people's fears and concerns. But instead of that, rather than having a debate in this country that is measured and that highlights the limitations that the Australian government has in terms of influencing the movement of people across the world, we have seen a debate that has been dominated by simplistic slogans and the notion of quick fixes and simple solutions, rather than leaders having the courage to acknowledge that this is a difficult problem that ultimately requires a much longer term set of measures to ensure that we do get the response that we are after.

We have seen a game of political football. Those on the conservative side of politics say, 'We stopped the boats.' That is a function of how debased the political discourse in this country has become, that a problem like the movement of people across the world that results from so many different factors has become reduced to a four-word slogan like 'We stopped the boats'. It is a function of the fact that we have a political debate in this country that has been diminished by the contributions that many people have made on this issue. The lesson for the Labor Party is: whatever you do on this issue, it will never be enough for those opposite. Here we have an opposition who essentially voted for the government's policy and are now doing everything they can to distance themselves from it. They need to realise that they own this policy. It is theirs just as much as it is the government's.

I think it is important also to correct some of the things Senator Humphries said earlier in his contribution. He alluded to the claim that we have essentially seen the Greens policy being enacted over the past five years. Again it is a reflection of the fact that this debate often occurs without any genuine reference to the facts as they actually exist. What is the Greens policy? We want to see an increase in the humanitarian intake. We want to see more funding for the UNHCR. We want to see greater focus on regional processing. We want to see an uncoupling of our onshore and offshore quotas. We want to see people's lives at sea being made safer. We want to see all of those things happen, and none of those things have been in place. So to say we have actually seen the Greens policy enacted over the past five years is just plain wrong.

It is a great injustice to this debate when we have those sorts of contributions, to then gloss over the fact that it was a conservative government that saw the death of 350 people during the sinking of the SIEV X: 'We will gloss over that part of history because it is inconvenient'. It is time that the debate on this issue was at least returned to a level where there is some degree of civil discourse, where the facts as they exist are on the table—not as those opposite would try to construct them. It is very important that we do that because we will not make any progress on this issue unless we do so.

My principal objection to the motion before us is that we are violating a very important principle when it comes to those people who seek our protection—that is, we must first do no harm. By sending people to PNG, we are saying that we will inflict harm and suffering on one group in the community, people who are deserving of our protection in both a moral and legal sense. We are saying to them, 'We will inflict harm upon you' and no-one can deny that what is before us is a policy that inflicts tremendous harm on people. We are saying to them, 'We will inflict harm upon you in an effort to try to change the behaviour of another group of people.' That is a principle that we should never support.

I am very concerned, as are many others who have made contributions to this debate. We argue that we are acting in the interests of refugees. I do not see any refugees arguing in support of this policy. I do not see a clamour from refugee groups suggesting that we are doing is in their interests. In fact, what I hear is in large part the direct opposite of that. Of course, we have the same arguments against this policy from human rights groups like Amnesty, from churches, from the ACTU, from a number of academics and from human rights lawyers.

One of the most interesting contributions recently was from some people within PNG. We know there are parliamentarians in Papua New Guinea who are appalled at what has been inflicted on them. We have PNG's former Attorney-General Sir Arnold Ahmet, who says that Australia is being presumptuous by essentially debating the legislation before PNG had the opportunity to even discuss it within their own parliament. He said:

We cannot overnight be expected to rubber-stamp. It's like a patronising attitude towards Papua New Guinea and we cannot simply be expected to do this. And I think that Australia has handled it very poorly.

He goes on to say that:

Struggling Pacific island states cannot be presumptuously treated like Australian territories with the token gestures of development dollar for removing this problem from Australian soil. This is a moral dilemma. We can't simply be forced upon to take these people.

Even worse than that, not simply are we treating PNG with disrespect but we have the Catholic Bishop of Manus Island, who described the Australian government's plans to process asylum seekers as 'immoral'. Bishop Ambrose Kiapseni was a critic of the Howard government's use of Manus and said that he believed what we were doing on Manus Island with this approach was 'far worse' because we were not prepared to outline the limit on how long asylum seekers would stay there. He says:

…keeping the people like that in a place maybe they don't want to stay in, I think that's like forcing them. So[it] is immoral in that way. It's like putting people in jail without a sentence.

Just think about that. He is stating that he believes that this approach is worse than the Howard Pacific solution.

It is worth considering the conditions on Manus as well.

We have essentially a developing country with a range of communicable diseases, including malaria; we have health infrastructure that is inadequate; and we are saying to people who are both legally and morally entitled to our protection that we are going to send them to that environment so we can try and use them as an example for others. The President of the Australian Human Rights Commission, Professor Gillian Triggs, said that she was very concerned about the change in the balance between executive discretion, ministerial discretion and the opportunity for review by the High Court. In her words, she says that we have 'a strengthening of ministerial discretion, the executive role, and a weakening of the capacity for judicial review'. She says that to change that 'is a worry in a modern democracy where people should have ready access to the courts'.

We have a number of important contributions to this debate, including from some of the people directly affected, who say, 'We don't want it.' There are also very sensible pragmatic reasons. I think there is a very sound moral argument for why this should not proceed, but there is also a pragmatic argument. We know that, to date, there has not been a significant impact on the flow of people seeking our protection. We know that, in fact, to date there has not been a significant impact, because it is unlikely that a policy like this could be worse than the conditions that some people are fleeing from. I find it a little offensive that this argument has been dressed up as an argument for compassion for refugees. There is nothing compassionate about a statement that says, 'We stop the boats. We'll decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.' That is the construct through which this debate has been had. That has nothing to do with compassion and has everything to do with politics.

Ultimately, this is an issue that requires a much more mature debate. It requires a return to the bipartisanship that we had during the Hawke and Fraser years, where this issue was not used as a political football. Unfortunately, that bipartisanship broke down during the tenure of the Howard government, when he saw opportunity in the lead-up to an election to politicise what should have been a manageable problem, not one that was seen through the prism of politics. Unfortunately, that is not the tenor of the debate; it is a function of the lack of leadership and courage from some of our political leaders at this time.

We know that the numbers are not with us in this parliament. We have a bill before the parliament to try and make what is essentially a very bad piece of legislation a little better. We have a bill that would at least ensure that the health of refugees is monitored and that we get a clear and accurate assessment of what their health needs are, as well as how we can best meet those needs. The bill has been supported by the AMA and it essentially says that there will be an independent health panel made up of experts, operating at arm's length from the immigration department and reporting to the parliament so that we can ensure that the parliament at least has some role in ensuring that the welfare of refugees is looked after.

Ultimately there is a much better way of dealing with this problem. It requires bipartisanship. It requires us to offer people a safer pathway. It means that we need to increase our humanitarian intake and work on a regional solution. We need to better resource the UNHCR and provide people with other avenues of reaching this country. I am sure that there will always be a time when some people will use whatever options are open to them to arrive here, and it is our responsibility, both legally and more importantly morally, to offer them protection.

In a wealthy country like Australia it is a sign of strength and not weakness to be able to afford people that protection. It is with some sadness that I speak again today. We will not be supporting the motion today and we will be ensuring that we do whatever we can to make what is essentially a very poor piece of legislation a little better for those people involved.


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