Thursday, 27 June 2013
Migration Amendment (Reinstatement of Temporary Protection Visas) Bill 2013 [No. 2]; Second Reading
This private senator's bill is the first test for the newly installed former Prime Minister, Mr Rudd, who is now, yet again, the Prime Minister of Australia. This is a test for the Prime Minister. Only yesterday he said to the people of Australia that Labor can start cooking with gas.
I say to those on the other side that this is a bill which will enable you to do just that. The substance of the bill is self-explanatory. It has been the coalition's longstanding position, since August 2008, when Mr Rudd, as the former Prime Minister, gave an instruction to former immigration minister Chris Evans to roll back the former Howard government's proven border protection policies.
Australia now knows what the result of that disastrous decision was. It has meant that in excess of 45,000 people have come here illegally by boat at a cost in excess of $10 billion. One of the fundamental planks of the former Howard government's policy was temporary protection visas. You will only stop the boats if you re-install temporary protection visas, and that is exactly what this bill does.
If those on the other side as of last night's execution are serious about a change of policy in this country, then they should stand beside the coalition today and put back in place what they stole from the people of Australia—our proven temporary protection visas. I commend this bill to the Senate.
I rise to speak against the Migration Amendment (Reinstatement of Temporary Protection Visas) Bill 2013, which has been introduced here this morning as a political stunt, and nothing more. It is a political stunt because, as we face an election in the not too distant future, it is about making sure that we play politics with the humanity of people who are seeking protection.
This is an extraordinary bill—hugely problematic, I have to say—and one that certainly this side of the parliament does not support in any shape or form. Let me explain a little about why. The bill seeks to introduce temporary protection visa, TPV, classes and will include two different types of TPV. The argument is that the TPV would provide what is called safe haven and protection to illegal arrivals in Australia or an excised offshore place who do not have protection from another country or are found to engage Australia's protection obligations and meet health and character concerns.
All of that sounds perfectly fine and reasonable. However, we have known for a very long time that temporary protection visas do not work. Temporary protection visas were eliminated from our migration and refugee system with the incoming Rudd government and the cruelty that is associated with a TPV system is something that has been proven to result in catastrophic mental health consequences and attempts by some to take their own lives—and in fact people have taken their lives because of what temporary protection visas do.
This is what they do: first of all, a temporary protection visa—under this new regime being proposed by the opposition—would be granted for three years. There is no access to family reunion and no right of re-entry, but there are mutual obligation requirements. The lack of uncertainty in somebody's life due to being in the never-never for three years is something that has caused TPVs to have been discredited in the past and for the future. People like Paris Aristotle on the Houston review—the expert panel—have been incredibly vocal about the crisis that temporary protection visas generate. He has been a passionate advocate against temporary protection visas and he applauded the elimination of temporary protection visas when that occurred under the Labor government in 2008.
This bill, which has been proposed by the shadow minister for immigration, Mr Morrison, would reinstate temporary protection visas. At the time of their introduction, temporary protection visas did not exist anywhere else in the world and they were subject to widespread criticism. This is because they are inherently unfair and absolutely perceived to be oppressive. They suggest that there is never going to be certainty. That is the cruellest part of a temporary protection visa regime. Let us remind ourselves that the 11,200 TPVs that were granted between 1999 and 2001 were granted to people who were not boat people. That is what is important about this. Only a few were granted to irregular maritime arrivals. TPVs have been proven time and time again not to stop the boats. They are not the disincentive that the opposition would like us to believe. There is no sense that TPVs will be a deterrent to people coming to Australia. The deterrent was a spectacular failure then and it would be a spectacular failure in any new regime.
What will work, as we know, is the proposition that is being put by the government and blocked by the opposition, which is flying people back and providing a transitory space in Indonesia or Malaysia. That is the part of the Malaysian solution that is being developed through the Bali process. It is part of a regional people-smuggling solution and strategy that is being propagated around our region but is not being supported by the coalition.
This bill is a political stunt to raise this issue as part of the upcoming election campaign. What is really in play here? TPVs, as I said, did not work then and will not work know. Some people would like to compare TPVs with the no advantage bridging visas that are currently operating. Yes, there are some similarities. But there are many, many differences. You cannot compare them and suggest that they are the same thing. Bridging visas are restrictive, as recommended by the expert panel—one of the recommendations that we have been able to implement. They implement the no advantage principle for those boat arrivals who are processed in Australia. Bridging visas are about ensuring that people who arrive in Australia by boat do not achieve an advantage in terms of receiving a permanent visa over those who are awaiting resettlement in our region.
People who have their claims processed in Australia and are found to be refugees will remain on bridging visas until they are issued a protection visa in accord with the no advantage principle. This could take a long period of time. But, prior to their release from detention, people granted bridging visas, even though subject to the no advantage principle, undergo needs assessment to determine the level of support that they will be provided in the community. Then people will be provided, under the Asylum Seeker Assistance Scheme and, if necessary, the Community Assistance Scheme, the support that they need. These bridging visas will ensure that people are eligible for up to six weeks of funded accommodation assistance, help with basic living expenses, special benefits, rent assistance, access to basic health care, specialised mental health care, torture and trauma counselling, ongoing and intensive case work, assistance with healthcare appointments, financial assistance for general emergency health care and pharmaceuticals, referrals to counselling, and material aid such as clothing and furniture, education and social activities—significant support within the community for those who have been assessed as being genuine refugees.
Under TPVs, people live with the uncertainty of having to have their claims reassessed every three years. That is the crux of the matter. A TPV provides no certainty. A TPV will actually perpetuate the situation under the Howard government—that the majority of people would never be eligible for a permanent protection visa. Unlike TPV holders, a person on a bridging visa who is found to be a refugee and who satisfies other criteria will, at the end of the no-advantage period, end up with a permanent visa. That is a very significant difference. It should also be remembered that under the TPV system there was no additional support to provide an alternative to coming to Australia by boat.
What we have done as a government is attempt to be firm but fair. We have attempted to do that by increasing the humanitarian program by 45 per cent to 20,000 places and creating thousands of additional opportunities for genuine refugees to be resettled without actually having to risk their lives on a dangerous boat journey. And that really is the crux of the matter. We had this debate last week. We had this debate on World Refugee Day, when we were actually talking about the humanitarian crisis that exists in the world and the way in which Australians as international citizens have to be a part of an international solution to the humanitarian crises that are happening. TPVs coming in out of context, in a peculiarly disruptive way, are not going to do that. We have moved on from that kind of regime. We have made significant improvements in the way we work with refugees and asylum seekers in Australia, and this would be one mighty backwards step—and certainly one mighty backwards step that this Labor government is not going to consider in any shape or form.
The abolition of the TPV system was a huge step forward to improving the rights of asylum seekers in Australia, and it is a visa system that should stay exactly where it is, right now. There are those who would be advocating for TPVs as a way to prevent the crises that are occurring. It is a disingenuous argument, I think, and it is not one that is supported by any of the advocacy agencies in Australia—not one. The St Vincent de Paul Society, for example, has said:
We will not be silent. It is not OK to play politics with the lives of people fleeing persecution and tragedy.
We are a nation that has moved forward in regard to our treatment of asylum seekers. We need to move further forward in the interests of compassion and justice. The reintroduction of TPVs would be a massive step backwards.
And that is absolutely right. Those are the words of national council chief executive Dr John Falzon, a passionate advocate for asylum seekers and refugees.
But, as I said, what we have here today is a failed policy recycled for political benefit—nothing more, nothing less. And it is really inexplicable why a TPV system would ever be adopted, because it has been shown unequivocally to be a complete failure. There is absolutely no evidence that TPVs have ever prevented people getting on a boat. Boat arrivals increased dramatically after the scheme was introduced in 1999. And what happened? Of course there was a dramatic increase in women and children, because the only way people would see their families again was if women and children were put on these boats. If you were a man—a father or a son—and you had managed to get to Australia and you were on a TPV, you had to think of the conditions of being on a TPV. If you leave the country for any reason, you cannot get back, which is just a tragedy. It means people are separated for the rest of their lives. So there is no right to family reunion or a return to Australia. It does not give the holder the right to re-enter Australia if they depart, and it is a condition of the visa that the holder must satisfy mutual obligation requirements for receiving special payments benefits. And of course the devil is always in the detail. What does 'mutual obligation requirements' mean? Does it mean that someone who is on a TPV might have to go and live in Northern Australia or western New South Wales? What does the opposition imagine might be mutual obligation requirements?
The other important thing I think we need to remember is that refugee advocates have pointed to the evidence of the extraordinary psychological harm to holders of TPVs. Isn't the notion that a TPV regime might encourage families of TPV holders to attempt to reach Australia by boat—because there is no other legal way to see their family again, unless they are granted a permanent protection visa—the counter-argument? Isn't that actually going to encourage people to get on to boats—particularly, as we have said, women and children? This is the regime that is going to have us seeing another SIEV X catastrophe. And it is why, in these circumstances, we will not ever consider the notion of a TPV regime again.
There is no logic in what is being proposed here. There is no evidence that it will achieve what it is purported to achieve and support. It is a visa that should be buried in the past, where it belongs. It is nothing more than a political stunt. It is nothing that is going to give any kind of certainty to those who are here as refugees waiting for their claims to be assessed and waiting for assistance to be provided to them.
As a nation we have a responsibility and a commitment to the Bali process. We have been engaged in an international debate, a strategy and a conversation that was rolled out in the 22 recommendations of the Houston report. It requires us to see all this through for the long haul and to understand that piecemeal efforts like adopting TPVs without a commitment to the other things that are part of the recommendations of the Houston report will not make the difference.
This is a political stunt. Senator Cash is trying to re-invigorate a failed policy for the simple political benefits of trading on human misery as part of the opposition's election campaign. It has never actually been explained why refugees who can arrive by plane here in Australia and later claim asylum are treated differently than those who arrive by boat. That is the truth. The truth of this is that, if you are an unfortunate refugee who has taken the most desperate step of boarding a leaky boat and trying to get to Australia, under the regime proposed by the opposition you will be shovelled into a system that has been proved to be detrimental to people's health. It is absolutely frustrating that it breaches international conventions and will do nothing more than up the ante for very desperate people.
Let us see what we can do to ensure that the recommendations of the Houston report are implemented. I call on the other side to come on board and assist in negotiating the Malaysian agreement and supporting that regional processing solution and the transit arrangements that are part of the recommendations of the Houston report—that thoughtful expert panel that consulted widely and was supported by advocates, by policymakers, by international lawyers and by the UNHCR. These are the people who have given us the best chance of breaking this impasse. TPVs are not part of that solution.