Thursday, 25 June 2015
Migration Amendment (Regional Processing Arrangements) Bill 2015; First Reading
This government seeks this chamber's support to deal with an urgent bill which it introduced yesterday, the Migration Amendment (Regional Processing Arrangements) Bill 2015. It would be comforting to say that this level of disorganisation was unusual for this government, an aberration to its otherwise smooth and efficient running of policy and parliamentary processes. That would be comforting but it would not be true. This is a government that is characterised by chaos and dysfunction. I do not think I have seen anything like this in my 22 years in this chamber, where a government has had matters before it—as has been indicated—since February and discovers, on the second last day of a session, that as a matter of urgency it must resolve this question within 24 hours.
We of course acknowledge there are occasions when governments do have to act quickly, but the government has had these matters—this court case—before it since February and has only resolved to act in the last 24 hours of this session. That strikes me as gross incompetence. But it does not change the fact that there is a major problem that requires resolution, and, despite the fact that those opposite have never provided the level of support that they are now seeking from us—they never provided that when we were in government—we will offer that support today. We will help the government out. This urgent bill does require the support of this chamber, and the opposition will be doing all that it can. Despite the gross misrepresentations that this government has made of Labor's position, despite the extraordinary attempts to manipulate, divide and polarise the community around these issues, we will be supporting these measures, because we are better than them when it comes to these questions.
We could retaliate in exactly the same way as the Prime Minister, when he was Leader of the Opposition, acted when the High Court took steps on the Malaysia agreement. When Prime Minister Gillard wrote to Mr Abbott seeking his support for legislative change, what did Mr Abbott say? He said, 'This is a problem that you have created and it is your responsibility to solve it.' Just imagine if Mr Shorten responded to the Prime Minister's request in exactly the same terms. Where would we be? Of course, the reality is we will not be responding in those terms. We will not be responding in the way Mr Howard acted on the Tampa issue or Mr Reith acted on the 'children overboard' issue. We will not be presenting to the people of this country a proposition that the government wants to roll out the red carpet to people smugglers and terrorists. We said that there are substantive issues of principle that we need to deal with in a proper and peaceable way. That is the approach we will be taking.
We have accepted the assurances put down in the second reading speech by this government that this bill does not seek to go further in the introduction of new policy in regard to regional processing. It seeks only to enable payments to be made at law. That is the basis on which we are acting. We accept the assurances put down in the second reading speech that the purpose of this legislation is quite specific.
We acknowledge that regional processing is necessary. We reintroduced regional processing in government. We did so on the clear understanding that it was a mechanism that was necessary to stop the criminal syndicates sending people to this country, endangering their lives and exploiting their misery. There was no question that that policy was successful. The number of boats that came immediately after the introduction of that policy dropped by 90 per cent. But in no circumstances did we ever sign up to the proposition that the establishment of regional processing centres meant that we were going to legitimise the brutalisation and mistreatment of people who were detained. At no point have we signed up to that. That is the substantive question that I have no doubt we will want to explore here today.
There is no excuse whatsoever for a country like Australia to abandon its responsibilities at law, on international terms or in terms of basic morality. We have a duty of care when we detain people, and they have not been treated properly. Under the current arrangements, we cannot even guarantee people's security let alone assure them that they will not be mistreated by people who we pay to protect them.
The proposition we have before us is a very simple measure, but there are circumstances on which I believe firmly there need to be some answers. Labor senators will be pursuing that. What the opposition leader put yesterday is that these are circumstances in which the government comes before the parliament where trust is in short supply. This is a government that has managed to take a political advantage out of every circumstance here. This is a government that has, as I have indicated, since Peter Reith and John Howard had the firm belief that it can appeal to the most xenophobic and racist elements of our community and that it can seek to win votes by being more brutal about these issues than anybody else.
If anyone even raises a question, it is presented in a dog whistle way that the person asking the question lacks legitimacy. That is a proposition we reject. It is our responsibility to defend our country's reputation, to make sure that people who are detained by this country are treated properly and humanely. We will be supporting this legislation on the basis of what the government has said, but we will not stop criticising the way in which this government has behaved when it comes to the gross political exploitation of these issues. We acknowledge that there should be no confusion between the need to stop criminal syndicates exploiting human misery and the need to act properly, humanely and compassionately. That is the basis on which we will proceed on this question.
There are genuine refugees. The proposition that the government seems to advance is that that is an alien concept. There is a notion in this government that rejects the idea that people have any rights to appeal for refugee status in this country. Why else would the government constantly refer to these people as 'illegals'? They do not even acknowledge the legal right that people have to seek political refuge.
What we have at this time throughout the world is probably the greatest period of social distress and displacement of people that we have seen since the Second World War. There are more displaced people, more asylum seekers and more refugees on the planet today than at any time since the extraordinary upheavals of 1945. Our response calls upon us to acknowledge that there is a huge crisis throughout the world. Our response should not be to draw up the bridges and say, 'We don't want to know anything about that.' Our response should be to engage through the international community and the regional processing arrangements to ensure that Australia does its bit to end the human misery.
That is why we have committed to the highest numbers ever for humanitarian settlement. That is why we have committed to ensure that people are treated properly. We also have to acknowledge that desperate, downtrodden people will do desperate things. We have to stop that occurring when it endangers their lives. We are supporting this bill because we acknowledge that people's safety comes first—much before any partisan advantage that politicians can derive on human rights.
We know that the regional processing arrangements work. The government is acknowledging that in the fact that it has brought this legislation forward. We know that the agreements that have been negotiated with Papua New Guinea and Nauru are very important in stopping the actions of those criminal syndicates. We also note, however, that there is no reason why those actions in themselves should legitimise the mistreatment of people as part of a deterrent.
This issue was first raised through the Malaysia agreement. I have already mentioned Tony Abbott's response to that, but I have not forgotten the fact that the Greens and the Liberal opposition at the time came together to stop that. I can understand that the conservatives in this country would play politics hard on these issues. We now know, though, that the real reason they did it was not because the agreement was not any good. I can remember Joe Hockey in tears. Do you remember that? There were extraordinary scenes of Joe Hockey in tears. He said he would not send unaccompanied kiddies across to Malaysia. Yet he has sat in a cabinet of a government that has done the sorts of things that this government has done to people on Nauru. We know that the real reason the Liberals opposed the Malaysia agreement was not that they thought it was morally objectionable. They opposed it because they thought it might work and take away from the Liberal opposition at the time a major political weapon that they could use against the Labor government.
Yesterday the Leader of the Opposition reminded the government of another truth about this country. It is probably one of the single most important truths about this issue. That is that this country as a nation has been made great because of migration. It has been made great because of multiculturalism. It has been made great because of our diversity. We are a country that should believe—and I believe the overwhelming number of people do believe this—that we are great because we embrace every faith, every flag and every culture. It is our good fortune that people are attracted to this country and are able to live lives that do not call upon them to turn their backs on other cultures. That is at the heart of multiculturalism.
Multiculturalism is so vital to the prosperity of this nation. Yet, since 2001, we have seen this issue be exploited by the most racist and xenophobic in this country, tearing at the fabric, the very idea, of a multicultural Australia. We are saying that we as a nation need to move beyond that. We need to turn our backs on that sort of division and help this community reach an understanding of how important it is not only to honour our international obligations but to demonstrate that we are not a soft touch but that we are a country that acknowledges the strengths of diversity and understands the importance of a national consensus around multiculturalism.
Labor's approach is founded on that principle—that is, our obligations to the international community, international conventions, international treaties and international human rights. Our approach is to ensure that this nation is welcoming of people of all faiths, and there is a demand that we place upon them of the shared respect and tolerance of other faiths. And our approach is that we have to find a place for the most vulnerable in the world; they should be able to come to this country safely and they should come legitimately. On that basis, we are saying that we will support the government in its efforts, but we will not endorse the dehumanising, inflammatory language or the vicious attempts to divide and to shame those that take a different view or those that seek to exercise their rights to approach this country for the purposes of political asylum.
Some hope that this bill might be an opportunity to change the terms of political debate in this country. I am not quite certain that that will occur; but we could at least proffer the idea that, as a country, we should be calling on this parliament to enact laws for a nation that is compassionate, that is strong, that is generous, that is secure, that is safe and that is fair. I look forward to that actually happening.