Senate debates

Wednesday, 12 September 2012


Instrument of Designation of the Republic of Nauru as a Regional Processing Country

9:31 am

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

It is another sad day in this Australian parliament. It is a sad day because I am sure that at some time in the future our kids are going to ask us, 'How on earth did you let this happen?' Ten years after the introduction of the Pacific solution, a failed policy that wrought so much suffering and misery on some of the most vulnerable people in this country, here we are today looking at introducing that policy once again—the Pacific solution. We have to ask ourselves: who is this solution for? What is the problem that we are trying to solve here today? Is it a problem about the movement of refugees and the harm that they face or is it a political problem that we are trying to solve—a problem where one side of politics is losing votes to another side, where populism, fear and untruths dominate the public debate?

The fact is that this is a debate that has very little to do with the welfare of refugees and everything to do with the most base and unappealing politics that this nation has seen. I find it especially galling when people, particularly on the conservative side of politics, dress up this issue with compassion and welfare for refugees when most of them have never believed that refugees who arrive here by boat have any right to seek protection in this country, that as a wealthy country we should be providing sanctuary and refuge to some of the most vulnerable people. Just listen to the language: 'We are being swamped.' 'They are illegals.' They are 'boat arrivals', for heaven's sake, not people! And I keep hearing about the thousands of people who are arriving here and who have arrived here under the current government. But most of them are found to be genuine refugees. Thousands of people are arriving in this country needing our protection because they are genuine refugees. That is why we have a refugee convention. I find the idea offensive that these are people who are taking advantage of the system, that they are chomping at the bit to come to this country and taking advantage of a weak government. I find it offensive because the decision to leave one's family, one's culture, one's traditions and one's language is the most difficult decision that any of us would ever have to face. I have a couple of kids and a partner, and saying goodbye to her and to my kids, knowing that I might never see them again, is something that I hope I never, ever have to face. Yet we have one side of politics here claiming these are people seeking to take advantage of Australia.

If this legislation was genuinely about the welfare of refugees then surely those very people who are affected would have something to say about it—and they do. Since the introduction of this legislation, we have heard from people in places like Malaysia and Indonesia, and they have said very clearly that this legislation is not in their interests, this legislation is harsh, this legislation is inhumane and this legislation punishes the most vulnerable people on the planet—their words not our words. This is the great paradox at the heart of this legislation. How is it that we purport to act in the interests of refugees, yet they make it very, very clear that this legislation is not in their interests? We do not want to deal with that uncomfortable truth. We do not want to deal with it because it forces us to confront what this is really about: a political response to a political problem.

We are not just turning our back on young people and families who need our protection by the introduction of this legislation; we are actively inflicting harm on them. We are inflicting more pain, suffering and hardship on people who have every right—every moral, legal and human right—to seek refuge in this nation. We risk creating a generation of young children and young men who are scarred and damaged through the harms that we will actively inflict upon them. That alone is reason enough not to support this legislation.

But what has become abundantly clear in recent weeks and months is that there is very, very little evidence that this will work in terms of its intended purpose, which is to prevent people from taking this risky journey. Since the introduction of the legislation, we have seen more people continue to take a journey to seek refuge in this country. We have also heard evidence from a range of international experts who have put to us that, for those people who respond to these punitive measures, all it does is force them to take a much more dangerous journey to other parts of the world. We are outsourcing our responsibilities and we are outsourcing the suffering and loss of life that will result from the passage of this legislation. Just because someone does not die in Australian waters does not make their suffering any less.

Of course it is a debate that has been dominated by untruths and by lies. We keep hearing the coalition talk about their record on this issue. Their record is that, after the introduction of the harshest measures associated with the Pacific solution, we saw the drowning of over 350 people in the sinking of the SIEVX. This is a case of correlation versus causality. Let us be very clear about what the difference is. Just because people are in government does not mean that changes in the numbers of boat arrivals can be sheeted home to their policies. The movement of people across the world is a consequence of a complex number of factors that are outside of the control of the Australian government.

We have heard from people like Amnesty International and the Human Rights Commission, from groups like the ACTU, the Uniting Church and a number of other people who work in this area of public policy, saying clearly that they do not support the approach we are taking. It is true that we had the Houston panel provide advice but it is also true that they ignored the advice of those experts; they ignored the advice from Amnesty, from the Human Rights Commission, from the ACTU and from the Uniting Church.

I do believe we are making a grave mistake, and I have sat here listening to coalition speaker after coalition speaker. As I said, I find it galling that they dress up their response under the banner of compassion when it has been very clear that all they are interested in is populism and fear. What has been really interesting is that there is a very deliberate strategy from the coalition. Listening to speaker after speaker, I get the sense that they are trying to distance themselves from the decision they made only a few short weeks ago. It is dawning on them that they might have made a mistake, that people will continue to drown and that people will languish in indefinite detention without any clear sense of when they might be released; with young kids going in and coming out as men damaged and scarred from that experience—that in fact this may be a failed policy. You voted for it, you own it; you own the harm and the suffering that comes from the passage of this bill. If it fails to deter boats, it is your failure just as much as it is the government's. The cost in human suffering, kids languishing in these mental illness factories, more people continuing to do what is their moral, legal and human right—to seek refuge in this country—you own all of it. Of course you throw up the smokescreens of TPVs and turning boats around, but this is your failure just as much as it is the government's failure and no amount of double-talk or weasel words will change that.

Labor has been appalling on this issue. They deserve to be criticised just as harshly. But I will never forget that the breakdown of bipartisanship on the issue of people seeking asylum in this country occurred under the Howard government. That is when things changed. Things changed when under the Howard government we saw a collapse of the bipartisanship on refugee policy. We saw an opposition cede territory on that issue to cave in to the basest form of politics. We saw a departure from the leadership shown in previous Liberal governments—the Fraser government, for example. So the suffering and the hardship that result from this policy are just as much your doing as they are the government's.

There has been a lot of talk about compromise; we keep hearing about the notion of compromise. I find it fascinating that what we have is a debate where two political parties have taken the low road and that somehow compromise on the right thing to do, the moral thing to do, lies between those two political viewpoints. Compromise does not work like that. The truth does not work like that. The truth is independent of politics; the right thing to do is independent of politics. Regardless of the views of one side or the other, sometimes compromise on an issue like this means no more and no less than a betrayal of the things that we hold dear.

We have tried to make this bad legislation better. We have negotiated for things like time limits in mandatory detention. We still cannot get a clear answer from the government about what the no disadvantage test really means. What does it mean? A year in detention? Two years in detention? Five years in detention? No-one can tell us. If you are a 13-year-old kid and you go into a detention centre, when are you going to come out? Will you come out as an adult? In your 20s? No-one is prepared to answer that question—not Paris Aristotle, not the government and not the opposition.

And what about the conditions in Nauru? I am lucky enough to have visited that country. I understand that it is a poor, desperate country—broke—that would cling to any income that might come its way, but these are people who have fled some of the most brutal regimes, who have taken a risky boat journey and who are scarred by that experience, and we are putting them in tents. This is not a detention centre: this is a war zone. We are going to see people with post-traumatic stress disorder, kids and young families in tents. This is more reminiscent of a war zone than of a nation ensuring that it does the responsible thing, the right thing and the generous thing—that is, to provide refuge. That is why we have a refugee convention: safety and security for people who need it. But no! We will send them to a war zone. We will send them to Nauru to live in tents with a lack of access to medical facilities.

We have also done something to try to improve that aspect of the legislation, which is why we have proposed to set up an expert, independent health panel that can visit these places, examine the sort of medical care provided to people and do at least some little thing to try to reduce the mental illness, the depression, the anxiety and the suicides that will follow as a result of this policy. This is a policy that has been taken up by the Australian Medical Association because, as doctors, we have a commitment to an ethic of care and to the Hippocratic oath, which says, 'First do no harm.' But we are harming people through this policy. People like Professor McGorry, Professor Newman, the AMA and others support the call for independent health advice and monitoring, and reporting back to the minister and to the parliament, not to the immigration department. We do not want a situation where we have the police policing themselves. We have to get that level of independent oversight reporting back to this chamber so that we see the cover-ups and the completely inadequate level of care that have been provided through the previous Pacific solution.

I know this is a tough policy for many people. I understand it. But people in this place have short memories. The memories are of the many hundreds of people protesting in detention centres, flinging themselves on barbed wire because we are taking away hope through indefinite detention; people sewing up their lips; and kids forced into catatonic states because they cannot see their mother, their father or their families. This is a generation of kids who will become Australians—because we know that, ultimately, most of these people will become Australians—and they will be damaged and scarred. And we are doing that. In trying to solve one problem we are creating a much larger and much more terrifying one—one that is of our own making.

After all the scaremongering and the lies from the conservative side of politics, we need to start changing this debate. We need to make it clear that as a wealthy, vast and bountiful nation having the capacity to provide protection, security and refuge is not a sign of weakness; it is a sign of strength. I would much rather live in a country that has the opportunity to provide that protection than being forced to flee from one that is responsible for torture and violence. One thing that is lacking in this debate is empathy. I am lucky enough to have been born in this country purely by accident. It is an accident of birth. The fact that I was born into a wealthy nation and been given a privileged education and opportunities are an accident of birth. I could just have easily have been born in a country like Afghanistan and found myself on the border—knowing my family and friends had been killed, knowing that I would be next—and been forced to flee that nation.

Empathy provides me with the capacity to know that we must do what is the right thing not what is politically expedient, not what might get us a few cheap votes. We should be motivated to compromise only when compromise brings us closer to what is right not just what is popular, not just acting for the sake of acting. I do not know how we are going to progress in this debate. I do not know what failure means. We still have not defined what this policy means if boats continue to arrive and if kids are harmed, but I sure as hell hope that we do everything we can over the coming years to ensure we minimise the harm and suffering on some of the most vulnerable people in this nation.

9:51 am

Photo of Barnaby JoyceBarnaby Joyce (Queensland, National Party, Leader of The Nationals in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise not to actually condemn a lot of what the Greens have said. I think the Greens are claiming responsibility for the legislation in relation to the Abel Tasman. There is an ad in the paper today that says they are responsible for that. But I will reflect on some of what Senator Di Natale just said, that this legislation will force kids into a catatonic state, that we are delivering them to a war zone, that indefinite detention leaves people damaged and scarred, that it is a mental illness factory. He also quoted the Hippocratic oath, that the first job is to do no harm. The reality is that if the Greens really wanted to, they could stop this. If they were fair dinkum, they could stop it. They know full well that all they have to do is walk down to the Prime Minister's office and say, 'If you go forward with this, we will withdraw our support for the government' and it would stop immediately. It would finish it then. They know that. This is all hyperbole. This is the utter pitch of hypocrisy because the Greens have the power at their disposal to stop it and they choose not to. They will give a wonderful dissertation about the evils, but they know they have the element at their disposal to stop it. Why don't they? Because their love of the position of power is greater than their desire to stop this process. That is the reality. That is the absolute hypocrisy of what they are doing here.

Senator Di Natale interjecting

Because they are so offended by this, they bring up Cubbie Station. They are now equating Cubbie Station with the litany of issues they have brought forward. That is how pathetic they have become. They are totally and utterly compromised. They are interjecting because I have hit a nerve. They have the capacity to stop this and the Australian Greens choose not to. If they go right out this door right now to those listening and call a press conference saying, 'We will withdraw our support for this government unless this stops,' this will stop today.

Senator Di Natale interjecting

Senator Di Natale is talking about Cubbie Station. The trouble is that I am not actually part of the government. I was not in a photograph with Prime Minister Julia Gillard with a piece of wattle in my lapel signing an agreement to basically form the government—that was the Australian Greens in that photo. It was the Australian Greens and the Australian Labor Party making their decision, observed by Mr Tony Windsor and Mr Rob Oakeshott—the member for Lyne and the member for New England. They are the government. So we have the Greens complaining about themselves. So how does one take into account statements like, 'It's a war zone' and 'It's indefinite detention'? I agree: it is. It is indefinite detention. There is no doubt about it—this is indefinite detention. There is no doubt that it will leave some people damaged and scarred. There is no doubt that it will force kids in some instances to a catatonic state. There is no doubt that those who are capable of talking about and are proficient in mental illness say quite rightly that it will have the capacity to induce that. There is no doubt about that. And there is no doubt that the Greens could stop it if they wished to.

Photo of Peter Whish-WilsonPeter Whish-Wilson (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Just like Cubbie Station.

Photo of Barnaby JoyceBarnaby Joyce (Queensland, National Party, Leader of The Nationals in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

There is no doubt that when they make an interjection about Cubbie Station they know that they are on such thin ice and that what they are putting forward has become so ridiculous and so pathetic, because I am not part of the government. I am in the opposition. I do not have the power of sway over the government, but the Greens do. The Greens do, and they take you all as fools, pretending that somehow they are in the government one day—when they put an ad in the paper saying that they stopped the Margiris, the big fishing boat. It is in the paper. It is an affirmation of their position of power. It is an affirmation of their position of influence. It is an affirmation of what they are capable of, yet when it comes to this, the most vital core of their beliefs, they step away because now they are not part of the government. They have opted into the government and out of the government within 24 hours. Within 24 hours they are on both sides of the fence.

So the Greens know what they can do. All their supporters know full well that the Greens can stop this today. They can stop this this morning. They can stop this right now. They just have to call the press conference and say, 'If you go forward with this policy, we'll withdraw support for the government.' That is it. That is where it stops, and everybody knows that. If you doubt their affirmation of their influence, look at the ad in the paper today about how they stopped the Margiris. They stopped that boat—there is no doubt about it. They stopped that one.

If it is as you all say, who are you casting these aspersions about—that it is a war zone, that it will leave people damaged and scarred, that it is a mental illness factory, that the Hippocratic oath forces you to do no harm and that it will leave kids in a catatonic state? Who else agrees with this? Could that possibly be Senator Chris Evans who also has brought this about? Surely that could not be his position, because he had a different position. He said the greatest thing he ever did was to get rid of the Pacific solution. Senator Chris Evans said that, but now he is voting for it; now he is supporting it. Surely that could not be the position of Senator Trish Crossin. Surely it could not be her position. It couldn't be. She hates this sort of stuff, but she is voting for it. Surely it could not possibly be the position of Senator Penny Wong. It could not be her position. She could not believe in this. She could not possibly believe in this, but she is voting for it. And we have not heard boo from them—not boo from Senator Chris Evans, not boo from Trish Crossin and not boo from Doug Cameron. Surely Doug Cameron cannot believe this, because Doug Cameron, more than anybody else, used to say some marvellous things about 'the closure of the disgraceful offshore processing centre in Nauru'. He said it was 'a disgrace, it was an international shame and it brought nothing but loathing of this country'. Senator Douglas Cameron said that on 15 November 2010. Senator Douglas Cameron is now voting for it.

The Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, said 'Labor will end the so-called Pacific solution—the processing and detaining of asylum seekers on Pacific islands—because it is costly, it is unsustainable and wrong as a matter of principle'. The Prime Minister of Australia, Julia Gillard, said that it was a matter of principle that they had to stop it. The Prime Minister of Australia, Julia Gillard, brought forward the process to reincorporate this Nauru centre. It is obviously a different principle, a different day. It is complete and utter hypocrisy. It is abounding hypocrisy, and this hypocrisy goes hand in glove with their partners in this process who sustained the government in bringing back this process. It is not our bill—it is not the coalition's bill. It is the Labor Party-Greens-Independents alliance bill. It is their government's bill and it is their government bringing it in.

I will be honest with you: quite honestly there are things in this bill—and I support strong immigration laws; I am not for one moment denying that, but my position is consistent and has been from the start—we could not have possibly have got it through the coalition. They are too tough, but you are voting for these things. The Labor Party vote for it every day and the Greens could stop it today by walking out, calling a press conference and saying: 'We withdraw our support for this government because of this insidious act—this act that will turn the place back into a war zone, will create mental illness factories, will put kids into a catatonic state.' They have a role, as do those who are doctors, to uphold the Hippocratic oath, so they could change it but they choose not to. They choose not to do so because they want to play a little trick on the Australian people that apparently they are on both sides of the fence. They support the government that is bringing in this bill, but they do not support it. It is absurd and no-one believes it.

But surely it cannot be wrong, because Senator Kim Carr could not possibly support this. He could not support this as a matter of honour. He would stand up and stop this—I know he would—but he is voting for it. I know Senator Carol Brown does not support this, but in the core of your being the ultimate statement is not to vote for it. You cannot vote for it, so why are you voting for it? Why are you doing this to yourself? You cannot let people destroy you, because that is what they are doing. They are destroying your soul. I know Senator Carol Brown, although there is so much that we have differences over. But I know those ladies have a consistency of principle—their principles might be different to mine, but there is the consistency of principle. I have admired them because I always believed they would stick to their principles. But now they are not sticking to their principles. You cannot do this and drag your core principles through the mud. It is absurd. I know it hurts and I know how much it hurts if you stand up. You will get smacked around the head. I know that, but you have got to do it. You have got to do it if you are fair dinkum, because if you are not fair dinkum then everybody will mark you down. Not one of you—not Chris Evans, not Doug Cameron, not Trish Crossin, not Carol Brown, not Gavin Marshall, not Penny Wong, not Senator Moore, not Kim Carr—

Photo of David FawcettDavid Fawcett (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Joyce, I remind you of the requirement to address senators.

Photo of Barnaby JoyceBarnaby Joyce (Queensland, National Party, Leader of The Nationals in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

Not Senator Evans, not Senator Doug Cameron, not Senator Trish Crossin, not Senator Carol Brown, not Senator Gavin Marshall, not Senator Penny Wong, not Senator Claire Moore, not Senator Kim Carr and not Senator Louise Pratt—not one of them has gone to the doors and said: 'We disagree with this. We find this to be anathema. We absolutely will stand by our principles. We will not let this happen.' Not one of them has done that. There has been silence—the silence of the Left as they pass this over and then this ridiculous process of the Greens, who have the power to stop it, trying to fool people into thinking that somehow they have got the power this morning in the paper with a full-page ad but they do not have the power now. It has gone. It has gone into the ether. They do not have the power anymore.

Be fair dinkum. You know full well that you can stop it, because we have been there before. I will give you examples of when we have been there before. I remember when the West Papuans turned up and it was on for young and old with a bloke called John Winston Howard, the Prime Minister, and a whole coalition that supported strong borders. Another coalition senator and I said we were not going to vote for it; we were going to cross the floor because we believed that the dignified thing was that these people be let in. We got absolutely poleaxed, but they let them in. It made the difference. You can make the difference if you want to. If you really want to, if you are fair dinkum, you can make the difference. What is so absolutely and utterly disgraceful is that you do not make the difference. You will not make the difference. You do not have the ticker to make the difference.

Honourable senators interjecting

Photo of David FawcettDavid Fawcett (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Joyce, I remind you of the requirement to address your remarks through the chair. Senators on my left and right, I remind you of the obligation to allow senators to be heard in silence.

Photo of Barnaby JoyceBarnaby Joyce (Queensland, National Party, Leader of The Nationals in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

The reality is that the Australian Greens do not have the ticker to make the difference to stop this—they do not have it. They know full well how they could do it. There is not one person that—

Senator Hanson-Young interjecting

Photo of John WilliamsJohn Williams (NSW, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Mr Acting Deputy President, on a point of order: you have requested a couple of times for Senator Hanson-Young to stop interjecting Senator Joyce during his speech. I ask you to enforce that. I think what Senator Hanson-Young is doing is disrespectful.

Senator Hanson-Young interjecting

And now she is doing it to me. Will you please call her to order.

Photo of David FawcettDavid Fawcett (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Williams, interjections have come from both sides of the house.

Photo of Sarah Hanson-YoungSarah Hanson-Young (SA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Mr Acting Deputy President, on a point of order: I would like the record to be corrected. You have not named me in any of these interjections.

Photo of Barnaby JoyceBarnaby Joyce (Queensland, National Party, Leader of The Nationals in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

Let us find out if Senator Sarah Hanson-Young has the capacity to go to the front, call a press conference and announce that the Greens will withdraw their support for the government if this goes forward. There you go—simple; done. Let us see if Senator Di Natale has the moral capacity to go into the courtyard after this, call a press conference and say that the Greens will withdraw their support for the government if this goes forward. Let us see if Senator Lee Rhiannon has the capacity to go to the courtyard after this and call a press conference and say that she will advocate withdrawal of support for the government if this goes forward. Let us see if Senator Whish-Wilson has the capacity to go to the courtyard and say that he will advocate withdrawal of support for the government if this bill goes forward. Let us see if any of them do. If none of them do, then discredit totally and utterly any utterances they have made in this chamber today.

10:09 am

Photo of Penny WrightPenny Wright (SA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

This is another dark day in the life of this parliament as I stand to speak today on the designation of the Republic of Nauru as a regional processing country. This designation is being made by the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship pursuant to section 198AB(1) of the Migration Act 1958. This has become possible because of the recent shameful passage of the Migration Legislation Amendment (Regional Processing and Other Measures) Bill 2012—another dark day in the life of this parliament. The Human Rights Law Centre have been scathing about the human rights violations inherent in this legislation. To quote them:

It enables the government of the day to designate any country as a regional processing country regardless of the human rights protections afforded in that country either under international or domestic law. This is likely to give rise to violations of non-refoulement obligations under the Refugee Convention, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention against Torture, all of which have been ratified by Australia.

They go on to say:

The Act provides for the removal of unaccompanied children to a regional processing country for a broad range of reasons considered to be in the 'national interest', contrary to the general obligation under the Convention on the Rights of the Child to ensure that the best interests of the child are given primary consideration and the specific obligation to ensure that asylum seeker children receive all necessary human rights protections and humanitarian assistance.

It does not stop there. The Human Rights Law Centre also point out:

The act provides that the rules of natural justice do not apply to a range of Ministerial decisions, including decisions as to which countries should be designated as regional processing countries, whether an asylum seeker should be sent offshore, and which regional processing country an asylum seeker should be sent to. This directly breaches Australia's obligations under the ICCPR to ensure that, in the determination of rights and obligations, a person must have access to the courts and is entitled to a full and fair hearing.

It is a very bad day when we are asked, in the Australian parliament, to support a government process that will see the export of vulnerable people, who have come to our country seeking asylum and our protection, to another country, where the length of their stay is indeterminate, there are inadequate facilities for their accommodation and the only condition for the exercise of the Minister of Immigration's power is that it is in 'the national interest' as determined by him or her.

The designation of a country to be a regional processing country specifically need not be determined by reference to the international obligations or domestic law of that country; as the Human Rights Law Centre said, 'regardless of whether that country has human rights protections in international or domestic law'. This designation has not been subject to human rights scrutiny which would be available under the Human Rights (Parliamentary Scrutiny) Act 2011, which established the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights earlier this year. That committee and that legislation were established to scrutinise the engagement of human rights in relation to legislation and subordinate legislation in this parliament. But the government has chosen to exclude the designation from the scrutiny of that process. Why is that? It is stated in clause 12 of the explanatory memorandum with regard to a statement of compatibility—which is ordinarily prepared in relation to legislation and subordinate legislation for the committee then to have an opportunity to assess whether human rights are engaged, to what extent they are compromised and to what extent that would be justifiable—that a statement of compatibility has not been prepared for this instrument. That is because there is not a technical requirement, according to the explanatory memorandum, that that occur because of the nature of the way this particular instrument has been created. But why, when there are so many questions about this entire process, has a statement of compatibility not been provided so that this parliament can have clear scrutiny about the implications of the decision that we are being asked to ratify the day? It is a very bad day when the majority of parliamentarians, those in the coalition and the ALP, are choosing to turn a blind eye to these violations in the name of our 'national interest'. I know that many Australians agree that in relation to refugee policy we need a humane solution to what is a very complex issue. The Australian Greens say that it is our humanity and our essential decency as Australians which is in our long-term national interest. But despite the wealth, prosperity and advancement of our nation, when it comes to refugee policy this government has taken us backwards. The Australian Greens have an alternative to this. We have a humane solution—one that will save lives by providing safer pathways, not by punishing people and banishing them for an indefinite period to far-flung dumping grounds provided by our less wealthy neighbours.

The Greens have a humane, compassionate and human rights based approach to refugee policy in Australia. Our practical proposal for a New Regional Plan of Action has strong support from refugee advocates, human rights lawyers and members of the Australian community. But instead, the Gillard government has fallen into line with the former Howard government and Tony Abbot's coalition to pursue an approach which it has previously criticised vociferously when in opposition. It has continued and, indeed, strengthened offshore processing as the central tenet of its refugee policy. Let us make no mistake: the government's policy is inhumane and it will be ineffective; it will fail. Indeed it is already failing, with so many arrivals since the policy was announced that Nauru and Manus Island are already full before they are even opened.

Paul Lonot Sireh is a Manusian, a Manus Islander, and I recently read his heartfelt plea for humanity—not only for his own people but also for those who will be subject to detention on his homeland. Why is it that the poorest—those who have the least—often have more capacity for compassion and generosity than those who have much? I will share his words:

Being a Manusian, I am feeling sad for my island and my people. I was born and bred in Manus and did my primary and secondary schooling there before going to the seminary to study for the priesthood. I left PNG for Australia about 12 years ago.

The move to spend millions of dollars to reopen the Manus detention centre is very much like building a palace in the middle of a slum. Manus Island is a forgotten province in PNG to say the least as regards development. People's lifestyle is undisturbed and peaceful. However like most developing peoples we are now feeling marginalized and our needs ignored by both governments. Because I reside in Australia, l am privileged to have access to a modern and western lifestyle, with three meals a day, better clothing, and many other benefits from living in this country. Manus Islanders don't have these privileges.

Can both the Australian and PNG governments help improve the living conditions of the islanders before thinking of spending millions on an exercise that will not be beneficial to all? If foreigners are to be sent to Manus how will the needs of all Manus Islanders be met?

What would be the ideal way to boost the local economy on Manus? Here are a few suggestions for much needed improvements to infrastructure. Our deserted Lorengau town needs to be developed with good roads, housing and good sanitation. The Manus highway is very much like a logging track. The wharf has been there since World War II. People are dying every day because there are insufficient drugs and no hospital facilities to attend to the sick. The airport terminal needs to be renovated or completely rebuilt. These are just some of the vital needs of Manus Island if Australia and PNG governments are serious about boosting the local economy.

But my main concern is that Australia is a prosperous First World nation that is economically capable of accepting a much large number of refugees who reach our shores seeking asylum from war, violence and persecution. By offering Manus PNG, with a much weaker developing economy, substantial aid to process many of these asylum seekers, Australia is lapsing back into the habits of its colonial past by exploiting the resources of another nation, in this case the willingness and economic needs of the remote Manus Islanders. The government is asking Manus-PNG to do what they themselves are not willing to do. The fact that the government's motive is to deny asylum seekers the protection of Australian Law makes moving their problems to PNG all the more reprehensible.

Every time we sing Advance Australia Fair:

For those who’ve come across the seas

We’ve boundless plains to share;

my heart sinks. If Australia cannot welcome these asylum seekers into these boundless plains, then please omit this line from the national anthem. Despite the many differences, are there not also many parallels with the early history of Australia, when England decided to solve her convict problems by sending them around the world to Botany Bay—out of sight, out of mind?

He goes on to say it is important to recall the words and experience of the Palestinian asylum seeker Aladdin Sisalem, the sole detainee on Manus Island for 10 months in 2004. He told ABC Radio's Saturday AM program that he is not surprised by the federal government's approach to PNG. It would be wrong, he said, to reopen the facility.

It's a senseless decision, a very bad decision—bad for people's life, bad for the taxpayers' money. Mostly it was the fear on what is behind it, what is going to happen next, because I find that I have no human rights at all—anything can happen to me.

Every time I got the news that I will be released from detention to Australia, I was still unsure about it until I actually left the plane with some other people here in Melbourne. I wasn't secure until that moment.

I actually do have a mental disability now from the post-traumatic stress and suffering. It's been so hard to build this life again after that.

Paul Sireh concludes:

I strongly urge that such experiences should not happen again. To re-open the Manus detention centre would be inhumane and destructive for the health and wellbeing of all involved.

Please leave Manus Island alone if the local people can't benefit from it, and the very name of Manus Island becomes linked around the world with injustice and persecution.

We know that we will be asked to make a decision like this one about Manus Island in the future; it is on the government's list of future asylum seeker destinations. But the observations are equally applicable to Nauru—the fact that Australia is displacing its own responsibilities onto less wealthy, more needy neighbouring countries.

If it is lives we genuinely want to save then this is not the way to proceed. Refugee advocates and experts consistently advise that the only way to save lives and deter people from boarding boats is by providing safer pathways for people fleeing persecution, terror and hopelessness. As Malcolm Fraser said in 2011:

What has been forgotten in this debate is that desperate people will go to any lengths to get to a country that they believe to be safe and that they know will give them, and more particularly their children, a future.

If we look into our own hearts and consider what we would do in similar circumstances, it does not take much imagination to understand that these are the decisions that we would also be driven to make.

If drowning at sea is not a deterrent to boarding boats then punishing people by sending them away for indefinite periods out of sight and beyond scrutiny will not deter them. But it will endanger many, many more lives, because refugees will continue to arrive. As we know from our previous experience of warehousing people on Nauru, when they are detained for long periods of time we will put their health and their wellbeing and even their lives at serious risk. We know that immigration detention centres inevitably become an excellent vehicle for producing mental illness and mental disorder, and the mental health impacts are exacerbated by offshore processing. The uncertainty of immigration detention, currently for indefinite periods in order to create a nebulous no disadvantage effect, leads to hopelessness and despair. The government has consistently failed to indicate what this actually means in practice. It is a cruel and open-ended sentence imposed on people who have already survived experiences that most of us can barely imagine.

The vast majority of people in immigration detention are ultimately determined to be refugees—about 90 per cent—and granted Australian residency. Yet we are willing to leave them to languish in limbo until there is a strong risk that their sense of hope and a future is destroyed through living in a constant state of uncertainty, separated from family, friends and community. The overwhelming majority have fled war-torn countries. Many of those seeking asylum have experienced torture or trauma, and we know immigration detention compounds these existing problems. Unsurprisingly, victims of torture need supportive, caring environments and adequate access to health services, and receive neither in immigration detention. History teaches us very clearly that offshore processing will lead to self-harm, severe depression, suicide attempts and loss of lives through suicide.

Many mental health experts have decried the effects of indefinite detention and they are clearly on the record. Professor Patrick McGorry has said: 'We know that after about six and certainly 12 months in detention, mental health will deteriorate and there's very good evidence for that. We also know that people who have been through previous detention and torture and severe trauma of other kinds are especially vulnerable to these effects, and particularly children and adolescents.'

Many of Australia's mental health and health organisations are united in their concern about the standards of mental health care in our detention centres. They include a long list of organisations: the Australian College of Mental Health Nurses; the Australian Nursing Federation; the Australian Medical Association; the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists; the Mental Health Council of Australia; the Brain and Mind Research Institute; Orygen Youth Health; the National Mental Health Consumer and Carer Forum; the Australian Psychological Society; Sane Australia; Professor Louise Newman, Royal College of Nursing Australia; Lifeline Australia; the Australian College of Psychological Medicine; the Mental Health Research Institute; Catholic Social Services Australia; the Mental Health Association of Central Australia; the Alcohol and Other Drugs Council of Australia; the Australian Association of Social Workers; the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners; and Suicide Prevention Australia. Last year, they were united in demanding that there be an independent investigation into the standards of mental health care in our detention centres because we know that detention centres wreck people's minds.

It is clear that locking people up destroys wellbeing and mental health, and the absence of time limits entrenches this damage. Senator Sarah Hanson-Young has consistently tried to ameliorate the harshest aspects of this policy by introducing basic safeguards of time limits for detention. It is for this reason that the Greens are seeking amendments to ameliorate the worst aspects of this designation—a 12-month time limit and an independent healthcare panel to oversee the health and wellbeing of people in offshore detention. But the government and the coalition appear to be intransigent and their recklessness as to the likely damage to the mental health of asylum seekers in the interests of adding to deterrence is utterly unconscionable.

Through this policy, they are condemning another cohort of refugees to wretchedness and enduring suffering into the future, and most of these people will become Australian residents. The Australian Greens remain utterly opposed to this action by the Labor government, which is urged and is supported by the coalition parties. I believe that in the future Australians will look back, as with other shameful periods in our history, at this time of hysteria, fear and madness and say, 'What were they, our elected representatives, thinking?'

10:28 am

Photo of Arthur SinodinosArthur Sinodinos (NSW, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I found the speech by the previous speaker quite an important speech because she made many points about our humanity and about how this is a complex issue, and she is absolutely right. The art of government has always been how you balance the various competing considerations. This is the dilemma we have always faced. In this particular issue, over the years we have tried to find a way to we meet our obligations to the international community through our membership of the refugee convention while not allowing the perception that compared to other countries with similar obligations we are somehow a soft touch; therefore, more likely to be a place where people should go and therefore on the basis of which an industry can spring up, people smuggling, which seeks to feed on the fears and concerns of asylum seekers.

All of us want Australia to play its role as a global citizen. There is no doubt about that. That is why we have one of the most generous refugee and humanitarian programs in the world, particularly on a per capita basis, and there have been discussions over time in the context of legislation about how the intake might be lifted and all the rest of it. One of the issues we face in this debate is that, if we want to be infinitely compassionate, doesn’t that mean that you just allow anybody who wants to to come here? If there are 20 million refugees in the world, why should we cap our program at 20,000 or 50,000 or 100,000? In other words, what are the limits on our compassion? Should there be limits on our compassion? As a society, we have to balance a lot of concerns. We cannot take everybody. We have to have a rules based society, and we have to have some rules by which we determine who comes here and who does not.

It is one of the fundamental tenets of good government that the government has to observe the laws and the laws have to be enforced, not have this idea that we can somehow give a wink and a nod to people smugglers, reinforce their business model and put money in their pockets—and that is not money coming from us; that is the money being put together by people overseas who are concerned to try and find, in many cases, a bolthole, somewhere to get to. Many of them are genuine refugees; there are others who, quite conspicuously, are economic refugees. But the fact of the matter is that if we want our community to consent to a generous refugee program and, even more importantly, a large immigration program, we need to show that we are in control of what happens.

These are the sorts of considerations that real people, real governments, have to deal with. It is fantastic when we come in here and display our morality and live up to the highest ideals of our conscience, but we all have to live in the real world as well. When the Tampa was steaming on its way to Indonesia and was diverted to Australia, no respectable Australian government was going to sit by and just say, 'We'll put out the welcome mat and in you come.' That is not how you run a country. No country runs like that. We have to have a policy. We have to be generous but it has to be on our terms, because this is our country. We make the rules. We make them in a way that is consistent with our global responsibilities.

I have heard talk over time about the impact of the measures that we have taken on people's mental health. I think that is a real issue. We should try and do whatever we can to address those sorts of issues, but it is people like the people smugglers who are putting people at risk on the sea and at risk of mental problems in these facilities. I never hear condemnation from some of the speakers in this chamber of the people smugglers, the ones who are battening on the wretchedness and misery of others. We are trying to find better pathways, but we are not in favour of an open pathway. If we say we will process whoever gets to Malaysia or Indonesia, it is an open door policy. No respectable government can have that. That has never been the Australian way. It will not be the Australian way. We are in control and we will remain in control.

I hear myths perpetrated around this chamber around the perfidy of previous governments in potentially allowing people to die at sea. There is no Australian government, Labor or coalition, that, with the possession of information about the risk to people at sea, would knowingly say, 'Let them sink.' That is a myth. That would not happen in our system. There are too many people in our system with access to the right information and, more importantly, with the conscience to do something about it—on both sides of politics. It is a myth that people would not take action in circumstances where they have a capacity to do so.

May I say that there is no monopoly on morality or wisdom in these matters, but there are some in this chamber for whom there seems almost to be a monopoly on sanctimony—a holier than thou attitude. Well, I can tell you, when you are in government you have to make choices. People on the other side of this chamber know that all too well. You have to make choices and you have to be responsible for those choices. We cannot have an open door. We must make those choices and often it is making the best of a bad lot of choices. Today we are in that position because we should have made these choices a few years ago when the problem started to reoccur. We had a certain policy which appeared at one stage to be a bipartisan policy all the way up until after the 2007 election and then it started to unravel. That started to send mixed signals to people overseas and it allowed us to get into the situation we are in today. Senator Wright is right when she said we have gone backwards: we have gone backwards.

We need a full suite of policies and we can do that while exhibiting compassion in terms of our refugee and overall immigration intake. I would like to see the Greens address the issue of a higher overall immigration intake because that is one way we can make sure as many people around the world have the capacity to come to Australia, always subject to the caveat of what is our absorption capacity, our carrying capacity as a country. If we want to be generous, why aren't we going down that route? That is something I think the Greens should address in terms of the general immigration program.

Finally, let me conclude by saying this. The Houston report is welcome by the coalition because it verified on an evidence basis many of the propositions we had put. Yes, it is a nuanced report and there are things in there that we have to grapple with as well as the coalition but the point is finally an independent report verified that what we have said for years was not based merely on ideology, prejudice or crass political pointscoring. There are real policy issues in this area and, for too long, they have been treated as a basis for political pointscoring. Hopefully, we are getting to a better basis for policy. I call on the government to adopt the comprehensive suite of measures that we have said are necessary in order to provide effective deterrents in this very sad and sorry situation we find ourselves in.

10:36 am

Photo of Larissa WatersLarissa Waters (Queensland, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak with great sadness on the designation of Nauru as a regional processing centre. I think it is a tragic irony that, as we debate opening Nauru, in fact it is already full. It has capacity for 1,500 people and there have already been almost 2,150 refugees seeking our help in recent weeks and months. Where will we send them to next? Obviously, Manus is next on the list and Malaysia after that. Where else?

It troubles me that rather than take responsibility for the human rights of people who are legally seeking our protection and who we are legally obliged to assist and protect we are looking around for everywhere possible—anywhere but here. We are looking for human rubbish tips and we will have to keep looking because, as we have seen and the figures have shown over decades, this so-called deterrence approach simply does not work.

We have already seen yet more refugees from Afghanistan and Pakistan arriving in Indonesia since the announcement of this policy. I have a quote here from a Pakistani refugee, Alemzadeh, who says:

They know [about the new policy], but they don't stop. They say it's too dangerous to stay in Pakistan.

Of course it is, and that goes to the heart of the problem with offshore processing: this is not going to stop the boats. It is only when Australia is going to be so horrible and desecrate these people's rights and their very existence that there could possibly be a disincentive. I certainly hope we never reach that day. We are fortunate as Australians that we have never had to live under such brutal regimes, so we cannot possibly understand the pressures that these people are facing.

I call upon all members of this chamber to search your hearts, put yourselves in their shoes: if you were facing death or persecution and you felt so unsafe in your home country, what would you do? Would you just stay there while members of your family, your extended family and your community were persecuted, shot or tortured? Of course not. You would act like any other human being, any other parent, and flee to safety with your kids.

Clearly, the push factors will always be stronger than the pull factors. While we have war-torn nations in our region, which sadly it seems we will for a long time yet, people will have no other option. I think we need to start recognising that and designing our policies accordingly, which is exactly what the Greens have said. This is why we need to increase our humanitarian intake—not to 20,000 but to 25,000. This is exactly why we need to properly resource those refugee-processing centres that already exist. It is because people are waiting in those centres, sometimes for decades in limbo—they cannot work, they cannot send their kids to school and they are not able to access public health care—that they are getting on boats to come here. Who could live with that uncertainty? We need to give these people another option apart from getting on the boat. It seems to me that the most sensible option is to say: 'Yes, you will be processed more quickly. Just wait a bit longer; we will put some more people on the ground. There will not be just two people assessing applications; there will be lots more. You're going to get a safe pathway. Just be a bit patient. It won't take 20 years.' That is the way we give people a real option and stop them getting on those boats.

As I said before, unfortunately the figures bear out that this approach of deterrence simply does not work, and we know that. All of my colleagues have referred to the tragedy of the SIEVX, where 353 people, mostly women and children, died after John Howard's Pacific solution had been introduced. It does not stop the boats. Unfortunately, probably nothing that we do can stop the boats. What we can do is try to give people a safer option and try to impress upon them the fact that, if they just wait for a little bit, we will properly resource these processing centres and they can come as genuine refugees—as most of them are recognised to be—and they can come here safely, start their new life, not have to face that terrible persecution and risk of death in their own home country, and not have to face decades of limbo in the refugee-processing camps. We have other options.

It really saddens me that the Greens spoke to the government at length about this and we put our position forward. All of the solutions that we were proposing did not even require the sanction of this chamber, including increasing the humanitarian intake, properly resourcing those refugee-processing centres, working better with the Indonesian government and better implementing our obligations under the Safety of Life at Sea international rules. None of that required this chamber to act, yet the government still refused to adopt any of them.

Thankfully, the Houston report then came out backing some of those aspects of what the Greens were calling for, and I really welcome the fact that the government has now increased, or said it will increase, the humanitarian refugee intake up to 20,000 from just shy of 14,000, where it has remained static for many decades despite other categories having been increased. We welcome that, but where is the progress on that? The government has said that it will in fact increase those numbers. When is that going to happen? These are real ways that we can make a difference, by relieving that pressure and that feeling of folk in refugee-processing camps that they have no other option but to get on the boat. These are real things that we can do to alleviate that, and I would just urge the government to please move along with implementing that positive aspect of the Houston report that the Greens and the experts have been calling for for a long time. It does not need legislation. The government can act on that, and I say to them, 'Please do so.' I think we are all concerned about the loss of life at sea here and I welcome the fact that senators from all parties have expressed that desire. Clearly we differ on the ways to respond to it but, when we have the Houston panel clearly saying that increasing humanitarian intake to 20,000 is one way of reducing that pressure, I say: please, please hurry and implement that.

I want to take issue with something that a fellow Queensland senator, Barnaby Joyce, said in his speech. He was saying that the Greens could stop this and that we should be taking the government to task over this. I would just like to correct the record. The Greens tried and tried and continued to try to negotiate with the government about this issue. We have consistently proposed a comprehensive range of solutions, many of which do not require this chamber to tick off on them, and unfortunately, to the great shame of many Australians out there who think that we have bigger hearts and that we should do better, the government chose to vote and go with the coalition and to adopt the vast bulk of coalition policy. So I would like the record to reflect that Senator Barnaby Joyce's contention that the Greens could somehow stop this is in fact ridiculous when you consider that we will vote against it, and he and his party and the opposition will vote for it. I am afraid that Senator Joyce seems a little confused and I take this opportunity to correct the record. If he feels so strongly then he should come over here and vote with us against this designation of Nauru as a regional processing centre.

Obviously the Greens are opposing this but it seems that the government and the coalition are determined to continue on this race to the bottom to treat people as cruelly and inhumanely as possible under this so-called no disadvantage test, which still remains quite unclear and undefined. We still do not know what that means in terms of how long people will be locked up for, how long they will be abandoned in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with no access to health care, with no floorboards at this point, with no kitchens, with no toilet facilities, with no showers, I heard on the radio a day or two ago. At the moment they have got some tents. Is it any wonder that after facing the brutality and the persecution and the torture that they faced in their own countries, after battling the waves on the sea, if they end up on Nauru to have filthy living conditions and again be in limbo for years, for how long we do not know, there are going to be serious mental health implications from that, as we have already seen the last time we had this policy. That is why, even though with every fibre of our being the Greens resist offshore processing, we are going to try and improve the situation for those people who are dumped on Manus and who are dumped on Nauru and probably will be dumped in other offshore ports anywhere but here.

That is why my colleagues Senator Hanson-Young and Senator Richard Di Natale have introduced yesterday a bill to establish an expert healthcare panel to ensure there is an independent panel of doctors and physicians who are actually overseeing the health and mental wellbeing of asylum seekers. We need this desperately. This would make a cruel and inhumane policy slightly less cruel and inhumane, and I would urge all members of this place to please reflect on the terrible mental health outcomes, the suicides, the hunger strikes, the sewing of lips, just appalling things that people did to themselves, and reflect on the real need of some independent oversight from the medical profession and to report back to this place every six months so that we know what is going on there and we can make decisions in the full knowledge of what we are doing to people.

The Australian Psychological Society have outlined their concerns about offshore detention and processing. They have quite a long list of concerns, including the history of escalating mental health issues resulting from detaining people offshore, including suicide attempts, self-harm incidents such as hunger and water strikes, the lip-sewing, the riots, the protests, the fires and the breakouts. They also say that the remoteness of offshore locations restricts accessing of mental health and other services, as well as compromising the ethical delivery of such services. They talk about the fact that the links to community resources, to networks and to legal assistance are also severely limited in detention centres given the remote locations. They talk about the inequity in human and legal rights for those detained offshore and they talk about the particularly vulnerable groups such as unaccompanied minors, children and families and those with pre-existing torture and trauma experiences. They point out that these people are likely to be at particular risk when parked in offshore detention without adequate support. Lastly, they mention the lack of appropriate access to interpreters and translation services which limits basic communication and access to those already restricted services. In summary, they express their serious concern that sending such vulnerable people to countries other than Australia, and particularly those countries which are not signatories to the UN refugee convention, risks exacerbating existing vulnerabilities and adding to their sense of uncertainty, fear and despair. They conclude that these are extremely costly options in both the short and long term, and I would add there is both a financial and a human cost.

I urge all members of this place to seriously reflect on the need for this expert healthcare panel, the need for independent oversight of the mental health effects of offshore processing, the need for that evidence and that real human experience to be brought back to us here so that we may reflect on what our policies are doing. If the evidence suggests, as I fear it will, that this is doing untold mental health damage to people then it is for us to change our minds and take a more humane approach that will actually work to reduce the desire for people who are escaping torture and legal limbo to get on boats. It will treat people with dignity and it will treat them as we would have ourselves treated.

I have already talked about the fact that it remains unclear for how long people will be held in indefinite detention. Of course, that is tautological: it is indefinite. We await the details of this no-disadvantage test. But it still grates on my sense of humanity and fairness that we should aim to be just as mean, just as cruel and just as inhumane as other countries in order to deter people from coming here. What a sad day when we have to be as cruel and as bad as other war-torn countries in an effort to save people's lives. It just does not even make sense. It is not even logical. It will not work. We have already seen that. The data does not show that deterrence works. In fact, the data shows that deterrence does not work. So there is no logical reason for the no-disadvantage test. It is simply an embarrassment and a blight on the Australian character.

I also take issue with a number of the speakers in this chamber who have again had the temerity to call asylum seekers 'illegals'. I wish there were something in the standing orders that allowed the President or the Acting Deputy President to rule on inaccuracies, because it is to my great irritation that we hear constant inaccuracies that go unchallenged. And perhaps the most insulting of them is that it is illegal to seek asylum. It is not illegal to seek asylum. It is exactly why Australia signed the refugee convention: to recognise the rights of people fleeing the threat of torture, death and persecution and to recognise their right to seek asylum and their wanting to have a better life and for their kids to be able to go to school and grow up without the fear of being shot. So I again point out to the chamber that it is not illegal to seek asylum, and I urge senators to get some legal advice if they do not want to rely on what is obviously in the refugee convention. And please do not perpetuate that wrong, insulting, delegitimising and incorrect statement.

I have talked about the fact that at the moment the regional processing centres are vastly underresourced. I want to mention now the fact that there is sometimes mentioned a floodgates argument, which is that, if Australia were somehow kinder to people and upheld its human rights obligations under the refugee convention, there would be somehow a flood of refugees. I want to point out some facts. Currently, we accept 1.3 per cent of the world's refugees. That is not a large amount. In fact, in my opinion, we are already doing less than our fair share and we could certainly increase that amount. There will be no floodgates. We are at the bottom of the world here, but wherever we have war-torn countries of course people will keep coming. So we cannot expect that this policy of no disadvantage and of deterrence is going to stop the boats. We are kidding ourselves if we do. We need to accept that we have to do what we can and that wherever there are war-torn countries and conflict, people will seek our help; they will seek safety. It is the human condition. We all want what is best for our family, and I do not think anyone in this place would do anything different if they were in their shoes. So we need more than just two officers in those UNHCR assessment facilities in Indonesia. We have to speed up the processing times.

I want to lastly mention that again we have moved to improve the situation here in offshore processing with the establishment of the Expert Health Care Panel. Likewise, we have moved and will again move to try and limit detention from indefinite to just 12 months. Of course, we think 12 months is too long but we hope that 12 months might be an amount that the other parties would consider acceptable. It has already been voted down in the House, and my colleague will bring that back on today. Please, let us take an awful situation and try to improve it slightly for these people who we have the legal obligation and the moral obligation to do better by. I do think that Australians have the heart and the courage to do better, and I firmly believe that the community wants to see this place extending more of a helping hand and a more humane approach to this issue than we have seen demonstrated in recent weeks and months. Again, I ask everyone in this chamber and any Australian listening or reading the Hansard to put themselves in these people's shoes. You would do exactly the same thing. I am a parent and I would do anything for the safety of my little girl. We would all do the same, so please let us reflect on that in the course of this discussion.

10:55 am

Photo of Lee RhiannonLee Rhiannon (NSW, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to support the comments of my colleagues on this issue, and I congratulate senators Sarah Hanson-Young and Christine Milne for the extensive work that they have done on this quite extraordinary situation that Australia finds itself in at the moment. There have been so many aspects of it that have troubled us deeply, and I acknowledge there are so many people working very hard to bring some decency to how we treat refugees in Australia. Many aspects have been taken up by the Greens, and my colleagues have pointed out very clearly how far we have moved away from our international responsibilities. We have abandoned the rule of law and—something that is particularly disturbing and back in the news today—we have abandoned the principle that the minister is the guardian of unaccompanied children.

To read that the government is on the point of sending women and children, including unaccompanied minors, to Nauru and Manus Island marks another shocking day in this saga that the Labor government have made so much worse. They could have worked with the Greens when we came up with a humane position that honours our international obligations and gives assistance to people who have been through such terrible times. I have had the opportunity to visit Villawood Detention Centre, where I met with many people who have told me the stories of why they left their countries. In all the aspects of the debate, one that I find most disturbing is when senators from the other parties doubt why people leave their countries and make out that this is done for frivolous reasons—just coming to Australia to get a better life. The people from Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Iran that I have met tell harrowing stories that would break your heart. Many of them have lost loved ones along the way or are now separated from their loved ones, and they do not know how long they will be apart.

A big part of this story is that we are handing over the running of these detention centres to Transfield Services. There is a big question mark over this company and how it operates; it really needs to have more of a spotlight put on to it. It is interesting that over the last decade this company's financial standing has not been really good, whereas Serco Australia, the division of the British multinational that runs most of Australia's current detention centres, reported a 45 per cent rise in net profits to $59 million last year. The revenue of that company almost doubled from $369 million $693 million—that is what Serco Australia has picked up. What do we know about Transfield Services? It is part of a sweep of companies and it is often hard to distinguish between them. There are Transfield Holdings, Transfield Services, Transfield Corporate, Transfield Pty Limited and numerous partnerships in a whole number of projects. What you find out when you start to look at them is that they have no experience in running detention centres—very little experience in running any facilities. The bulk of their work is in construction, so I thought it was necessary to look at aspects of some of the work that they have undertaken. The company have a bus project in Adelaide. They are that city's largest bus operator, and they were actually fined by the South Australian government when it was found that on the north-south route the buses were late nearly 50 per cent of the time. They were fined $120,000 because of that, and their performance was criticised by both the government and the opposition. This is a bit of theme that you start to see when you look at Transfield: their operations do not live up to the promises that are made or the contracts that they have signed. Sometimes they are a bit loose with their own paperwork. In New South Wales this company has been successful in winning contracts from successive Labor and coalition governments.

The company have a long history going back to the 1980s. The Perisher Skitube Joint Venture was established. Then the Sydney Harbour Tunnel contract was awarded, another joint venture. Interestingly, on the eve of the Labor government going out of office, when everybody knew that their days were over, the Keneally government awarded Transfield Services a $450 million contract to undertake facilities management and cleaning services in public schools, TAFE buildings and other government facilities from the Hunter to the north-west Sydney suburbs—that is a huge contract. In the late 1990s, Transfield was a senior partner in the very controversial $650 million Walsh Bay development in Sydney, which saw the privatisation of a considerable public space.

In 2010, we saw Transfield again run into some problems. They looked to expand their operations with the New South Wales government, applying to that government for a $350 million wind farm. To undertake that they had to put in with their submission some paperwork about their political donations, and they failed to notify details of those donations. There was a donation that they had made to go to a dinner with the then Labor Treasurer, Mr Eric Roozendaal, which they were totally allowed to do, but again there was a failure to disclose.

This weakness on paperwork becomes a bit of a theme, and where this becomes interesting is that this company has now adopted a policy not to make political donations. That is a good move, but I will come back to a few more details about how they are handling that aspect of their work. On their construction work, some of the very serious problems that occurred with the Lane Cove Tunnel need to be put on the record. Not only was this a financial basket case, but we also saw the partial collapse of an apartment block that occurred during the excavation that Transfield was involved in. There are many problems that come through when you look at the projects that they are involved in.

I want to move onto the issue about how this company has handled its political donations, which have been considerable over the years. What we have seen with this company—and you would hope it was more than a public relations exercise, as it is with some companies, although some companies do enforce it very thoroughly—is that in September 2010 they adopted their political involvement and support policy, which says:

Transfield Services does not make political donations …

This is interesting, because I have just detailed some of the projects that they have been able to pick up over the years. Particularly in New South Wales, we see that considerable donations were made. From 1999 the total donations to all political parties comes in at more than $1 million; it is $1,126,546. The coalition were not so favoured by Transfield Services—all the Transfield companies. The coalition picked up $389,300, while Labor in all states since 1999 has picked up $737,246. The story becomes interesting when you look at the recent donations in light of the policy that this company has adopted. It has given more than $1 million to the political parties. But, when we get to September 2010, it says it is not giving political donations anymore and it has adopted a new policy. This information needs to be tracked through the various websites of the electoral commissions where you find that in the 2010-11 financial year Transfield disclosed making eight donations to the major parties. If you look further you find out that Transfield Services—the one that adopted this policy—gave two $5,000 donations to federal Labor in July and August 2010 and Transfield corporate services gave a $50,000 donation to the federal ALP division in August 2010, a total of $70,000 donated to the federal ALP last year. That is all okay according to the company's policy.

Transfield Services also disclosed giving three donations to the Liberal Party that year totalling $16,500. The last donation of $5,500 was listed as given to the New South Wales Liberal Party on 10 June 2011. This is some eight months after the company claimed it had ceased giving donations, in September 2010. Maybe this is a reflection of lax paperwork, but the theme becomes quite worrying. We find out about Transfield (1) that it has a lack of experience in anything that comes close to managing detention centres and (2) how it manages its own affairs.

It is interesting to look at the financial health of this company, because the company's shares have really not increased in value over the last decade, still sitting at around $2.10 per share. In this time shareholders have probably been wondering if their investment was worth it. At the same time, senior management have been looked after. In 2010-11, managing director Dr Goode received $2.8 million, an increase of $400,000 at a time when the return to shareholders went backwards. You become concerned about why the company has put up its hand for the Nauru and Manus Island detention centres. Is the company looking to make profits out of vulnerable people? We know from experience with Serco—I gave the figures earlier, but they are worth repeating because they are quite staggering—that this company picked up a 45 per cent rise in net profits. I find it very troubling that Transfield Services, a private company, has been brought in although it has really no experience of running centres anywhere, let alone under such extraordinary conditions as would be faced on Nauru and Manus Island. It is very relevant to this debate to consider the motivation of this company.

Coming back to Dr Goode, who received an increase in his salary package, you would have to say that was an interesting reward considering that Transfield has been dropped from the ASX 100 Index. Dr Goode, at the end of this month, moves over to become a consultant to Transfield. The new head of Transfield Services will be Graeme Hunt. His background is interesting, particularly in light of this new extensive work that Transfield Services will be undertaking. Mr Hunt's background is in the mining industry; he spent 34 years with BHP. I put that on the record, because that is the relevant part of today's debate: who is running the detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island and their experience with handling people who are in a traumatised situation. That trauma is about to be added to as they are forced to move to another location with facilities that we have heard many speeches in parliament and people outside parliament calling highly inappropriate for people in this situation. So I would hope—I always try to look on the positive side—that out of this debate people become more aware of how far Australia has moved away from its obligations. Those obligations should have been met. The Greens put up very clear proposals to the Labor government. That is where we had the opportunity to work together, to come forward with real solutions—solutions which, if they had been put in place, would have reduced the number of people taking boats to come to Australia.

If we had taken more refugees into Australia and, in particular, had given more resources to the UNHCR, then that would have provided safer pathways for people to come to Australia. It would have been such an important shift in how we are managing refugees in this region and it would have been the way to spread the message that the government tells us it wants to spread through our region. But what we are seeing is that people are not getting the message 'Don't come to Australia by boat,' because the government's own policy has been failing since we debated this very issue in the parliament just a few weeks ago. The boats continue to come. Again, that is a message that I get time and time again when I speak to refugees at Villawood and other places. They always say they are not thinking about the situation they will face where they are about to arrive; they are thinking about what they have to escape from, how they have to protect their family and their loved ones or just their own personal safety because of the attacks, the abuse and the killings that are occurring in Sri Lanka against the Tamil community and what the Hazaras are facing in Afghanistan. That is why these people are taking these terribly dangerous trips.

The essence of the government's failure is shown in the fact that the boats are still coming. The fact that they have to expand the number of places to take the refugees who are coming is clear evidence that the government has got it so deeply wrong. We knew that the coalition had got it wrong, but the fact that Labor moved into Mr Abbott's territory is indeed very shocking.

Again, I would like to thank my colleagues in the Greens and the many community organisations that have worked so extensively on this issue. I know they will continue to add their voice for the need to take a humanitarian approach and to have respect for international law to be the foundation of how we handle refugee policy in Australia.

11:12 am

Photo of Peter Whish-WilsonPeter Whish-Wilson (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

In rising to speak on this motion I would like to begin by focusing on the concept of deterrence, by pointing out that on page 6, clause 21, of the Instrument of Designation of the Republic of Nauru as a Regional Processing Country, under the heading 'Discouragement of irregular and dangerous maritime voyages', it says:

21.   I think that designating Nauru to be a regional processing country may act as a circuit breaker in relation to the recent surge in the number of irregular and dangerous maritime voyages to Australia.

On page 7, it concludes:

I also think that designating Nauru to be a regional processing country will make it more difficult for people smugglers to sell the opportunity to resettle in Australia.

The key reason we are debating this motion today is that this regional processing centre can not only effectively process people but provide a deterrent.

One month ago, along with my colleagues, I debated this subject and I pointed out what was very obvious to me back then on the question of risk management: what would occur if the number of boat arrivals continued? Would we have the resources in place to process them in a place like Nauru or Manus Island, given their capacity, and what would happen if the number of boat arrivals was to continue? Just assume for a second that we were wrong and that the deterrence was not provided for whatever reason—and I will get to that in a moment—what would we do then?

It is not something to brag about but looking at the arrivals, which are actually mentioned also on page 6, in the year to 8 September 2012 nearly 9,000 passengers have arrived and nearly 2,500 have arrived in the last month, since I spoke about this. It has been pointed out by a number of my fellow Green senators today that Nauru itself is nearly full or will be at capacity if we are to move existing refugees there. If these boat numbers continue to arrive, we will need to initiate Manus Island. This has also been reported in the media. It was on the front page of the Australian yesterday.

Let us look at the Malaysian solution. The Malaysian solution, as reflected on by the Houston panel recently, is on the bottom of the pile as an option for us as a humane country in international law to send refugees. The reason, apart from the fact that the High Court has already decided that our sending our refugees to Malaysia is illegal in international law, is that there is no legal protection for refugees in Malaysia. They are not part of the refugee convention. We have evidence of inhumane treatment such as abuse and torture, and caning is one example. The Houston panel said it is going to take a long time before these problems can be fixed and before they, for example, sign the convention. This is not having a go at Malaysia at all; their reality is different to ours. But from where we are in parliament today it is obvious that if the Malaysian solution is not a solution, and I very much doubt that it is, and the Greens do not advocate sending messages to Malaysia, where do we go next if Nauru is full and Manus Island is full? My understanding is that Manus Island can take 600 people at peak capacity and Nauru up to 3,000. What do we do then? Do we set up a series of human rubbish tips around this country where we dump people? How many islands could we put detention centres on? How is that going to look to the world?

The reason I raise this is because, as I mentioned a month ago, as someone who is new to parliament, it seems to me that the politics of this debate has been pitched at a very debased level and that in a lot of ways it is not just parliamentarians who want this issue to go away and would like to see a quick fix; a big part of the Australian people also want to see a quick fix. They expect that the Pacific solution as it stands is going to be a silver bullet and that this problem is going to go away. I think we have got very good evidence in the last month, since this was flagged to the world, that the problem is not going to go away. I hate using these words, but the boats have not been stopped.

I enjoyed Senator Sinodinos's speech today. I sensed there was a bit of a philosopher in him when he spoke today. But it is interesting that he spoke of people smugglers, this external entity, as people who are rational in planning and are calculating in how they traffic to Australia the world's poorest people and some of those who suffer in misery. A calculating, rational group of people: that may be true. Maybe people smugglers do have cartels. But if they are that way inclined then it seems a simple enough proposition to me that if they are standing back and looking at our new Pacific solution which we are here to debate today then the maths is very simple. These centres are nearly full and are likely to be full, so if more people keep coming and the people smugglers are that organised and have the planning in place then they will look at it and say they can overrun the islands where people are dumped. What are Australians going to do then? What are we going to do when another 600 people arrive and the islands are full to capacity?

It is an interesting concept that people smugglers are calculating. If they are, it makes sense to me that they have already come up with a solution—that is, they will keep sending the boats, keep trading in human misery which none of us in here today want to see, and then we will be stuck with the same problem we had months ago. Once again what concerns me is that the Australian people believe this is going to go away. We have told them enough times—I and my Australian Green parliamentary colleagues have not told them, but Tony Abbott has told them—that we can stop boats, that we did stop the boats.

Senator Ryan interjecting

Well, you haven't stopped them yet. Where do we go next? The issue in this country is that we need to have an honest and mature debate. This is also something that the good Senator Sinodinos mentioned. We as a country need to reflect on how we deal with this issue and come up with a solution. Of course we need a solution to be put in place and we need laws. I totally agree with Senator Sinodinos when he says that, I just disagree with him that this is the right law and the right policy prescription for this problem. I do not believe for a complex problem like this that we are anywhere near a solution. We should be managing the expectations of the Australian public. To offer up through spin, rhetoric and nauseating messaging that we can stop the boats is wrong—I think it is idiocy.

Can we afford to take 25,000 people or 20,000 people? As a country, can we afford to take 100,000 people or half a million people? I do not have the answers to those questions and I would be very surprised if anyone in this parliament or this country has the answers. It is my feeling that it is because we have not delved deeply into this issue. I question whether Senator Sinodinos has the answers. If you believe what the coalition parties were saying about refugees recently, the push factors facing refugee movements in our region are not going to go away; instead they are going to get a lot worse. In particular, the Tamils in Sri Lanka, as well as Afghanistan, where our forces are operating, were singled out were as being very significant for future refugees seeking asylum from persecution: potentially millions of people will be seeking asylum. Once again, if we have two island rubbish tips at the moment that can process nearly 4,000 unfortunate human beings, where are we going to stick 400,000?

If we concentrate on the pull factors and Australia being too soft, for people who fear in their own countries execution or worse—if that is possible—what would be the difference between coming to Australia or going to live in Malaysia or another regional processing centre in Indonesia or somewhere else? If you are that desperate it makes sense that you are going to try and get away. All the arguments about pull factors and Australia are not too different when you are desperate and you are dealing with extreme situations to what we see in other countries. I urge my fellow parliamentarians to rise above the gutter with their rhetoric in this House and start speaking rationally, logically and honestly about how we are going to solve this problem, which I think will be the single biggest issue facing this country in the next hundred years. I want to focus on something positive like my colleague Senator Rhiannon did—that is, the Greens' Migration Amendment (Health Care for Asylum Seekers) Bill 2012, which we hope to bring before the House. We would ask that the other good senators in this chamber support this bill.

I will quickly read from a 22 August media release by the AMA about health and the concerns they have about our processing facilities on areas such as Nauru and Manus Island:

The AMA has tonight called on the Australian Parliament to establish a truly independent medical panel to oversee and report regularly on the health services that are available to asylum seekers in immigration detention facilities, both onshore and offshore.

AMA President, Dr Steve Hambleton, told politicians at the AMA Parliamentary Dinner—

which, no doubt, some people in this chamber were at—

that the Parliament had to restore some humanity to an otherwise inhumane approach to asylum seekers.

“The AMA proposes a truly independent panel of medical experts …

I am very fortunate to have so many talented people in the Greens parliamentary team, and one of those is in the chamber with me at the moment. It is Senator Di Natale, who is himself a doctor. I do not know if he is currently part of the AMA, but he used to be, as did Bob Brown prior to his time in parliament.

This bill proposed by the Greens sets up an independent board of health and mental health experts to monitor and evaluate the wellbeing of asylum seekers who are sent offshore for processing. The panel will be empowered to make recommendations in relation to individual cases and provide six-monthly reports directly to parliament. The bill requires the minister to establish an independent panel to monitor, evaluate and make recommendations on the health of asylum seekers. Peak medical, mental health, nursing, dental and child health bodies will submit nominations from which the minister will select the panel. The bill requires the minister to establish a panel within 30 days of making a country designation. The panel will be mandated to make ad hoc recommendations directly to the minister on individual cases. The feature in place here is similar to the powers and reporting functions of a Commonwealth ombudsman. The panel will have powers to subpoena and inspect medical records held by the department or private companies running the detention sites, and the panel will largely set its own terms of reference.

Photo of Gavin MarshallGavin Marshall (Victoria, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Whish-Wilson, are you actually speaking to another bill that is not before the Senate?

Photo of Peter Whish-WilsonPeter Whish-Wilson (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

No, I am speaking to an amendment.

Photo of Gavin MarshallGavin Marshall (Victoria, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Sorry; continue.

Photo of Peter Whish-WilsonPeter Whish-Wilson (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I will quickly talk about why this is an important policy, and I think you have heard from all my fellow Greens senators today about their concerns over the mental health issues, particularly of having children—who, in this country have so much, including my children—put on an island away from the rest of the world, having left their previous life, for a long period of time with very little hope for anything different. It is quite logical to most of us who live the good life that we do in Australia and who are blessed with everything that Australians have that they would not want to put themselves in that position. Nor would they want their children to find themselves in that position. So establishing a panel to oversee health and mental health issues is critical in light of the fact that neither the UNHCR nor the IOM will be involved in managing the proposed offshore sites of Nauru and PNG. We believe that this is a solution which will help mitigate the issues that we foresee based on previous experience—the very dreadful things we have all seen on TV: self-mutilation, suicides, riots. However, it goes nowhere near far enough to solving the problem.

I would like to finish by saying that what is most important to me overall is how we respect humanity, how we uphold the standards that we expect for ourselves and our children and their future, that we actually have a more mature and honest debate about this long-term issue, and that we start managing the Australian public's expectations on this issue. We should start here in parliament and show some leadership.

11:31 am

Photo of Kate LundyKate Lundy (ACT, Australian Labor Party, Minister Assisting for Industry and Innovation) Share this | | Hansard source

In reiterating to the Senate the integral nature of supporting this motion to designate the Republic of Nauru as a regional processing country, I would like to address the amendments put forward by the coalition and the Greens and the reasons why the government will not be supporting these amendments.

The government is taking action recommended by a panel of experts. The government has agreed in principle to implement all 22 recommendations of the expert panel report on asylum seekers, and this is how responsible governments develop policy: listening to the advice of experts. Those recommendations included regional processing in Nauru as soon as practicable. However, the expert panel report does not recommend temporary protection visas, a measure that in the past saw 68 per cent of refugees permanently remain in Australia, and makes it clear that tow-backs do create a risk to the lives of Australian Defence Force personnel and would only ever work with agreement with other countries—something Indonesia has said will not happen.

Faced with opposition for opposition sake, we are taking the politics out of this issue. Instead, the principle behind this policy is that saving lives is paramount. Contrary to the Greens accusations levelled through the course of the debate, transferees will not be left on Nauru indefinitely. However, to have an effective policy, it is necessary, as articulated in the expert panel report on asylum seekers, to have a no-advantage principle for people seeking asylum—that is, those who seek asylum are not given any preferential treatment in processing their claims as a result of travelling irregularly to Australia. That means that people who arrive in Australia by boat should not be resettled any faster than refugees waiting in refugee camps around the world.

If the government is going to invest in a regional process, it is fundamental that asylum seekers should be required to access that process and not seek an advantage by travelling to Australia irregularly. It is important to remember that irregular maritime arrivals would have been waiting long periods in the region for processing and provision of a durable outcome. We are not adding to that time, only reinforcing the principle that there will be no advantage gained in paying a people smuggler to bring them to Australia and risking their lives in the process. These measures are in conjunction with the unprecedented rise in the humanitarian intake to 20,000 people. This will include refugees who have been waiting for a number of years in the hope of resettlement.

It is also important to note that the panel has also recommended circumstances in which people spend time waiting in Nauru will be different than when asylum seekers were processed in Nauru in the past. The intention is that facilities will be open, there will be appropriate mental health arrangements, and transferees will have access to education and vocational opportunities. The department is still negotiating the final details of the arrangements with international health and medical services, but people will receive a similar level of health care in Nauru as is provided to people in detention in Australia. People transferred to Nauru will receive health care from on-site general practitioners, nurses, paramedics when necessary, and counsellors and psychologists. There will also be a visiting psychiatrist and other specialists as required. The transferees will be provided with any medications prescribed by general practitioners and other medical specialists. The local medical facility on Nauru will be available to support certain services, including X-ray, dental and maternity.

This motion seeks to implement a key and urgent recommendation of the expert panel report: the designation of the Republic of Nauru as a regional processing country. The government's policy will be a clear demonstration that people can pursue regular options and be safely referred to resettlement countries like Australia as part of an orderly humanitarian program while providing no advantage to those who arrive by boat, and together these things will undermine the people-smuggling trade. For these reasons, the government will be opposing the amendments put forward by the coalition and the Greens. I commend the substantive motion to the Senate.

Photo of John HoggJohn Hogg (President) Share this | | Hansard source

The question is that the amendment moved by Senator Cash be agreed to.

11:43 am

Photo of Lin ThorpLin Thorp (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Mr President, I seek leave to make a brief personal statement.

Leave granted.

Mr President, I apologise that I rushed in and inadvertently sat on the wrong side of the chamber during the division.

11:44 am

Photo of Sarah Hanson-YoungSarah Hanson-Young (SA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I move revised Greens amendment to the motion:

At the end of the motion, add “with the inclusion of a 12 month time limit on detention of an individual in Nauru, and calls on the Government to immediately establish an independent Health Care Panel to monitor and evaluate the medical, psychological and psychiatric welfare of refugees sent offshore”.

Photo of John HoggJohn Hogg (President) Share this | | Hansard source

The question is that the amendment moved by Senator Hanson-Young be agreed to.

The question is that the motion moved by Senator Lundy be agreed to.