Senate debates

Thursday, 25 June 2015


Migration Amendment (Regional Processing Arrangements) Bill 2015; First Reading

11:31 am

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

I rise to speak against this bill. This bill is really an acknowledgement that the operation of our detention centre network is illegal. This bill is an acknowledgement that the abuse and atrocities that have been committed in detention centres have been committed under an illegal framework. Far from asylum seekers being illegal, it is the actions of this government that are illegal. Yesterday we heard assurances from Senator Brandis that what is occurring in our offshore detention centre network is legal, lawful and within the rule of law. But a government that is confident that what it doing is within the law does not rush through legislation like this at a minute to midnight. A government that is confident that what is going on in its name is within the law does not bypass the parliamentary processes that need to be scrutinising bills like this. This is an acknowledgement that what is going on in detention is going on illegally.

The case that has triggered the response from the government was brought on by the Human Rights Law centre. It involves a number of families, some members of whom are children born here in Australia, who are being deported. Their stories and their families represent the stories and families of many other thousands of people who are suffering in detention in our name. We recently had 40 people transferred from a detention centre near Darwin. Many of those people were going back to Nauru after reporting sexual abuse in that detention centre. They were returning to a place where they have suffered horrific abuse. There were allegations of rape and people being denied antenatal care or decent medical care and children exposed to violence being forced to self-harm. That is what this bill is about. It is about changing the law to allow these things to happen within the law. It is about changing the law to allow the continued abuse, rape and violence that our system of detention centres now represents.

This is part of a worrying pattern from this government. Far from being a conservative government, this is a radical and extreme government that is prepared to trash the very foundations of our democracy. It has used bribes to turn back boats on the high seas in an effort to aid people traffickers. It has implemented gag orders to prevent doctors, nurses and teachers from disclosing what is happening in detention centres. It has referred journalists to the Australian Federal Police. It has engaged in surveillance, going as far as to spy on a senator in the Australian parliament doing nothing else but her duty in ensuring that we get access to what is going on in these facilities. It is a government that across so many other areas is trashing the rule of law. In the very unedifying debate around citizenship, we saw a government that is prepared to deny people a very basic and fundamental right. This is a government that is lawless, that is out of control and that needs a check. That check should be the Australian parliament, the Senate, and yet here we are forced to rush through this legislation with the support of the Labor Party. The government will argue that all of these actions are justified because it has stopped the boats. In the words of the Prime Minister, 'that is all that matters'. Well no, Prime Minister, that is not all that matters. What matters is respect for our democratic institutions. What matters is respect for the separation between executive government and the courts.

We are paying a huge price. Stopping the boats is not difficult. The question is: what price are we prepared to pay for it? Are we prepared to trash the institutions that all of us have fought so hard to protect? Are we prepared to justify the epidemic of mental health issues that are occurring inside detention? Are we prepared to justify young children self-harming? At a time when the nation is asking itself about how we could allow child sexual abuse to occur in our national institutions, are we going to turn a blind eye when that occurs in those institutions that are dealing with people who are fleeing torture and persecution and doing nothing other than coming to us for help? What is the economic cost of what we are engaged in? What is the economic cost? The billions of dollars that are necessary to sustain this immoral, illegal policy of offshore detention comes at a huge economic cost. I cannot help but wonder if that money were invested in resettlement in our regional communities what sort of contribution they could be making to the nation right now. We would be a richer, better, more decent nation for having offered them assistance and for allowing them to do what they want to do, which is to contribute, to give their kids a decent education, to become citizens of this nation and to contribute in a way that generations before them have been able to do.

I think of the cost in terms of our international reputation and the relationship we have with our nearest neighbours, like Indonesia. We recently met with the Indonesian ambassador, and it is very clear that they are hurt, angry and disappointed in the way we have responded to this problem by isolating ourselves from the rest of the world and by not recognising that what we are confronting is a global issue that requires a global response. We must engage at a regional level with Indonesia, with Malaysia and with our neighbouring countries to ensure that we all work together to resolve what is a diabolically difficult issue.

What we will hear from the government, and from good people on all sides, is that we have to do this to stop the boats and to stop the drownings at sea. But this response started long before the issue of people drowning at sea entered the public consciousness—it started with language like 'queue jumpers' and 'illegals'; that we were being 'swamped'; we need to 'protect our borders'; we have to 'keep terrorists out'. That is the language in which this debate started. Not for a moment do I believe that this is driven by any concern for drownings at sea—not for a moment.

We need to ask ourselves: by stopping the boats are we keeping people safe? If people do not drown in Australian waters but die elsewhere, does that mean that they are safe? If we, through our policy of deterrence, condemn someone to remaining in an environment where they are being tortured, where they are being raped, where they are suffering tremendous abuse, and where they are at risk of being killed for their religious beliefs or their sexual orientation, that does not mean they are safe. It means that we have outsourced the problem to someone else.

The issue here is that we have a political debate dominating what really is a moral question. The politics have become so toxic in this debate that political self-interest is motivating the actions of this government and governments before them. There is a different way. We saw bipartisanship in the early 1980s in response to the wave of South-East Asian refugees. There was a compact back then that we would not play the race card. There was a compact that said that we as a rich, prosperous, decent nation would play our part in resettling people who are fleeing horrendous circumstances. We did that through leadership, and we brought the Australian community with us. We can do that again, but what we are engaged in now is a race to the bottom—it is a political race to the bottom because we have one party that knows no boundaries on this issue. It will gag people from speaking out. It will pay people traffickers. It will bring in legislation at one minute to midnight to allow what is an unlawful policy to continue to operate, which means more abuse, more torture and more children being driven to self-harm. That is what is being allowed to happen in this parliament today.

I say to the Labor Party: this is a race you cannot win because with each step this government will take us further away from what is decent, from what is right and from what cannot be justified in any way. There are no perfect solutions; I readily admit that. It is a diabolically difficult problem. There is no perfect solution to this issue, but what we are doing cannot continue. No matter what the problem is, forcing young children to self-harm and condoning abuse within detention centres can never be a solution—it can never be a solution. There has to be another way. Through this debate, we will introduce a range of amendments that, while not perfect and while not going far enough, will improve what is a terrible situation.

Let me talk to some of those amendments. We have to have time limits in detention. We cannot continue to operate a system that deprives people of all hope, and that is what we are doing right now. We cannot have forced deportations of young children who are being born here in Australia and sent away to the hellholes that are the Nauru and Manus Island detention centres. We cannot continue to allow that to happen. We have to lift the cloak of secrecy that exists within our detention centres. Journalists should get access to what is going on there and we should be forced to witness it with our own eyes. We cannot continue to keep this 'out of mind, out of sight'. The whole edifice depends on the Australian community not knowing what is going on in detention—because the moment that we connect with people in there as people, with children in there as children, we know that what goes on there cannot continue. We have to lift the veil of secrecy that sustains this inhumane policy, and that is why journalists must get access.

There must be mandatory reporting of child abuse. How can we have a situation, as reported, where a four-year-old girl is exhibiting behaviour consistent with a child who has been sexually assaulted:

… including sexualised dancing and pulling her pants down to invite adults to insert their finger into her anus. Despite child protection workers assessing her to be at "high risk of ongoing sexual abuse", … the immigration department did not remove her from detention.

That is a report from The Guardian. How can we allow that to happen? At this time, we are questioning the issue of institutional childhood sexual abuse, where we are hearing horrific stories of people whose lives have been damaged right across the nation. We have a royal commission and we are asking ourselves that singular question: how could we let this happen? Yet here we are with people going through what we have accepted as a huge tragedy and a wrong that needs to be addressed. So we must have mandatory reporting of sexual abuse. We have to give access to the centres to the institutions that are a check on the executive, like the Human Rights Commission. Rather than denigrating the human rights watchdog, which is doing nothing other than speaking truth to power, we should be allowing it access to these institutions so that we know what is happening in our name.

There is another way. This is an opportunity for the Labor Party to stand up with us and for the crossbench to stand up with us and say to the government, 'Enough is enough.' This cannot continue, it must stop and this bill cannot be supported.


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