Senate debates

Thursday, 4 December 2014


Migration and Maritime Powers Legislation Amendment (Resolving the Asylum Legacy Caseload) Bill 2014; Second Reading

6:23 pm

Photo of Jan McLucasJan McLucas (Queensland, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Mental Health) Share this | Hansard source

To conclude, I do understand that those opposite are a bit sensitive about what I am saying. The criticism I am making of them will hurt, but it is their responsibility to keep order in this place, and it did not happen today.

I will now go to the bill. The bill has seven schedules. Labor senators have very significant concerns about some elements of the bill, and we cannot support it in its current form. I want to go through some of the schedules and discuss how they will operate and why Labor is opposed to them.

The intention of schedule 1 is to seek to provide legal authority, according to the government, for the government's policy of turning back asylum seeker boats on the high seas. During a committee inquiry there was a lot of discussion about this particular element and what in fact its intent is. The intention, as described, is to give some legal authority for the actions that are happening on the high seas—we do not know about them, but they are still happening. Through schedule 1 the government asserts that this requires some sort of legal framework. The Labor Party maintains its long-standing concern about what has happened, since the change of government, in the ocean between ourselves and our northern neighbours.

On the government coming to power, we heard of Operation Sovereign Borders. It was turned into quite a militaristic type of response to the issue of people seeking asylum in Australia. According to the government, we had to turn this response into a response that had a militaristic way of behaving. Who can forget those uncomfortable weekly briefings that Minister Morrison was conducting in the early days of this operation—painful, they were, with Minister Morrison refusing to answer almost any questions, saying that they were 'on water' matters. Everything was an 'on water' matter and could not be answered because that would compromise the operation. The secrecy we had in those days—and it is not a lot better now—was a shameful part of Australia's history in dealing with migration matters.

The other part of it that offended me particularly was, frankly, the abuse of Defence Force personnel. Minister Morrison required, or demanded—I cannot work out how that happened—a member of our Navy to stand with him and respond to media questions. I think that was a dreadful abuse of our military. To use them in that way was appalling. In saying these words, I make no criticism, though, of the officer involved. He was doing what the government of the day had asked him to do. As we all know, that process then moved away from those very awkward weekly briefings to more information, and then finally—and I was pleased about this—the naval officer was not required to stand with Minister Morrison.

I have to say we still do not really know—we do not know what is happening out there on the water. We cannot find out. We have even had the circumstance where the immigration minister has refused to admit that a boat has been intercepted, despite widespread reporting in the media that that was the case. It has gone past amusement and it is now to the point of embarrassment. As previous speakers have noted, the way this happens is frankly a shame on our nation and we should behave better as a nation when we are dealing with these matters. It is important to note that in 2012 Admiral Ray Griggs stated before Senate estimates inquiry said:

There are obviously risks involved in this process.

He was referring to turn backs. We are yet to hear or find out what is different and what has changed that means that there are no longer risks involved with turning back boats to Indonesia.

Another issue is the issue of the relationship with Indonesia, our closest neighbour and a very important neighbour for us. I find the number of incursions that have occurred in Indonesian waters astonishing. We are yet to know why and how this has happened; but importantly it has now impacted our relationship with Indonesia and the new Indonesian President, Joko Widodo, has issued a very stern warning to the Australian Prime Minister about the Prime Minister's failure to respect Indonesian sovereignty. This is a relationship that has to be mended and that we have to make sure is strong and respectful, and to do that will require good diplomatic relations as well as also continued openness with Indonesia, our nearest neighbour.

I think we should call schedule 1 for what it actually is. It is less about legislating for turning back boats and more about seeking to undermine a specific case which is before the High Court—namely, CPCF v the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, commonly known as the CPCF case. It is Labor's view that schedule 1 is a pre-emptive strike on an existing High Court case, and in our view that it is an inappropriate way to legislate. It is important and surely fundamental that the High Court be allowed to do its job and apply the rule of law. Surely this government can respect the role of the High Court. The High Court should be allowed to determine the legality of the government's turn-back policy as implemented on the basis of existing law. If the policy is shown to be totally lawful, that is important for public confidence in the government and its actions. Equally, though, if aspects of the turn back policy are found to be unlawful, it is important that this be a transparent part of the public record. This in my view is an extraordinary way to use this parliament and legislation generally. Accordingly, Labor senators will oppose schedule 1.

In the time I have available I too want to go to the visa elements of this bill. This bill proposes to reintroduce into Australia the temporary protection visas. The government argues that this is a deterrent to people coming to our country by boat, but there is no evidence to support that assertion—none at all. When the Howard government introduced TPVs more than 90 per cent of refugees who were initially granted temporary protection visas were eventually granted permanent protection, because the situation of their country of origin had not changed. This is not a deterrent and it is a furphy frankly to argue that that is why the visas are being introduced. The reality of what happens with temporary protection visas is that people seeking asylum are placed in a state of limbo. I am sure that many of us in this place have met people who have been living on temporary protection visas. They are in a place where they cannot make decisions about their lives. There is a level of fear and anxiety that they will be returned to their country and so placed in a dangerous circumstance. They live in incredible financial hardship but it is the effect on families who are living under temporary protection visas and their inability to make decisions about their futures that I find the most troubling. You see families who have made the decisions not to progress with education, not to make decisions about forming families. People are almost put in limbo, and it is a cruel way of dealing with potential migrants.

In December last year when the parliament rejected Minister Morrison's policy of bringing back temporary protection visas, Mr Morrison reacted by stopping the processing of people. I have to say that that was a pretty petulant response. Labor believes that the correct response should be now to start and continue processing people without delay and managing our detention facilities in a safe and humane and dignified manner. The other important point to make is that this legislation deals with people who are already in detention, who arrived before 19 July last year. This flies in the face of any argument that this is a deterrent policy. This deals with that group of people who are currently in detention.

The other visa class that the bill ostensibly introduces is the safe haven enterprise visa. This resulted from consultations with Mr Palmer and his party earlier this year, in September. But the truth is that this bill does not in fact give any legal effect to safe haven enterprise visas as a new visa class. The most that the bill does is to introduce a new subsection 35A(3) into the Migration Act, which provides:

There is a class of temporary visas to be known as temporary protection visas.

But that is it. There are no further details. There are no criteria for the visa or the conditions that apply to it. I am interested to know whether Mr Palmer and his party are comfortable with those words in the legislation as it stands. Does that in itself deliver on the agreement that was made in September of this year, when Mr Palmer provided some support for the bill? In my view, it does not provide the outcome which Mr Palmer was looking for when he said:

… it’s a win for regional Australia, which will benefit from the additional work resources in communities where there is a labour shortage, thereby increasing the viability of these areas.

So I am interested to know whether Mr Palmer and his party are comfortable with what they have achieved in negotiations with the government. Does it actually provide what they were seeking? The other question that they might want to ask is: how many people will be able to receive a SHEV, a safe haven enterprise visa? Mr Morrison himself responded to a question on this issue during a press conference. He was asked how many people would be able to receive a safe haven enterprise visa and would it be a very small number. His words were:

It's very possible.

There is also a high level of doubt about many aspects of the visa, including what pathways there will be to other visas—an issue that does need some clarification. There is a question about regional Australia. What is the definition of 'regional Australia' when it applies to the safe haven enterprise visa? Also, what social services would disqualify a holder of a safe haven enterprise visa from applying for other visas? We do need some clarity about those elements. If the agreement with Mr Palmer is to be upheld, I think Mr Palmer should be asking for answers to those questions.

As I said, there are real questions about the way in which this bill was introduced into the parliament and about the decorum and the demeanour of the parliament during its entry into the chamber. But there are also questions about what we should be doing as a country, as a nation, in dealing with asylum seekers. Repeatedly, people say to me that they are offended by the way that the language has drifted to the bottom, that we use the wrong language to describe asylum seekers. The word 'illegal' is used inappropriately and, in a legal sense, incorrectly to describe people who are seeking asylum in our country. We are better than this. We can be respectful of people who are acting within the law. We know that we have to work with our international neighbours and with the international community more broadly to ensure that the very, very large numbers of people who are seeking asylum from their war-torn countries are provided the support that we can give. We are the furthest away than possibly New Zealand in terms of destinations for people seeking asylum. We can do better. We can do it in an orderly way. We can provide to our community a much more dignified way of speaking about individuals who are seeking asylum in our country.

People have talked about bipartisanship. It is hard to see where we will be able to get to a point of bipartisanship in the future, but I still do have a hope that we should aim for that, that we should aim for a place where we do not turn desperate people into political footballs, that we do not use people seeking asylum who come from different nationalities, different religious backgrounds, that we do not demonise those people for the benefit of a political outcome. Unfortunately, that has been the case for about the last 10 years, maybe even longer, and that we have been divided as a nation on this issue. It is time that we came together to try and provide a better way for our country. (Time expired)


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