Senate debates

Tuesday, 3 December 2013


Asylum Seekers

8:57 pm

Photo of John MadiganJohn Madigan (Victoria, Democratic Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Last night you should have heard Senators Cash and Carr at it again. They could not help themselves, competing on who could treat vulnerable people—people escaping persecution and threats as serious as death; people whom most of the world refers to as asylum seekers but whom our government prefers to refer to by their new-coined name, 'illegal maritime arrivals'—in the worst fashion possible. They were getting pretty fired up, and the idea of another party having a more disastrous effect on people's lives was getting too much to bear. They both had to set the record straight on who was tougher. Senator Cash had made it clear to the Senate that Operation Sovereign Borders has been successfully implemented despite the best efforts of the Greens and those on the opposition benches. She went on to state that to date we have seen an 80 per cent reduction in illegal boat arrivals coming to this country and that it is but the first 72 days of the operation of Operation Sovereign Borders.

I thought a little bit about this, and like any good researcher I sought the assistance of Wikipedia to make sense of the category this particular military operation would fall under. Wikipedia lists 16 types, none of which seemed appropriate for our Operation Sovereign Borders—because this is what it is all about. It is about being able to determine who comes to Australia and the circumstances in which they come. But to do this without compassion is to recognise a problem and to refuse to offer a meaningful and attainable solution.

If our governments could stubbornly put their minds to protecting our borders from substandard manufactured goods and could use the same resolve to level the playing field for farmers, manufacturers, food processors and industry in the same way they consistently regurgitate similar asylum seeker policies from over a decade ago, we would no doubt have a stronger economy to show for it. I use the plural 'governments' here because, as Senator Carr reminded us in this chamber yesterday, they deserve some credit too. Senator Carr was winding himself up yesterday as he thought about the prospect of his party not getting any recognition for their poor standards when it came to assisting the vulnerable who, in desperation, travelled to Australia. He made reference to the fact that on 19 July this year the ALP government introduced the PNG regional resettlement arrangement. He reiterated that under this arrangement every person who arrives by boat is transferred from Australia and if such a person is found to be a genuine refugee they will be resettled in PNG. No offence to PNG, but they have their problems. Australia should be very grateful to them for their assistance to Australian soldiers during the Second World War. But to think that they are in a better position than us to provide a genuine future for those who have already been through so much is a little far-fetched. They have a population of a little over seven million and an economy that is smaller than that of Nepal. It seems to me it is a bit like moving deckchairs on the Titanic.

What is the ultimate problem here? The coalition? Perhaps. The ALP? Perhaps. The Greens? Although often the case, not necessarily, but still perhaps. I tend to think the real problem is politics. As a nation, we are big enough to help asylum seekers and refugees regardless of their preferred mode of transport based on their own personal abilities and opportunities. Let me be clear: people who come to Australia by boat are putting their lives in great danger. But I am also mindful that they calculate it to be proportionate considering what they are fleeing.

The solution we are choosing to take in response to the real problems faced by asylum seekers is to build a wall. We are acting as if it were us being persecuted and living our lives in fear from credible and capable threats. Our government's psychology reflects that of someone who cannot cope with the circumstances which they face and would prefer to shut Australia off.

If our governments were strong, we would not provide temporary protection visas indefinitely, but rather invite people to start a new life built on some of the values which they have shown by coming here in the first place: perseverance, ingenuity, courage and calculating risk. The debate for a sustainable solution for the issue of asylum seekers and refugees has seemingly ceased in Australia, yet the continual argument of mainstream unsustainable policy continues and we see this in our papers.

I would like to bring to attention the DLP's policy on this issue, as I think it is meaningful and a valuable contribution to a debate we must reignite. The DLP realise that Australia only has limited influence in ending the circumstances forcing people to flee their homeland and seek asylum. We must increase our efforts overseas to do all we can to foster peace and stability in areas of conflict around the world. This requires international cooperation. Australia cannot do it alone. Any sustainable solution will require short-, medium- and long-term plans. The issue of asylum seekers is one which is occurring throughout the world. We must therefore take a holistic and strategic response in line with recommendation 1 of the Report of the Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers of 2012. The DLP believe in a bipartisan approach by parliament in working to address this issue. It is time our leaders put politics aside and gave the issue the respect it deserves.

We must focus on what we can do to help the plight of asylum seekers in a balanced, dignified, safe and compassionate way. Rather than spending billions of dollars every year on keeping asylum seekers detained offshore, we should be spending this money within our domestic economy through an onshore processing solution. This will create jobs for Australian workers while treating asylum seekers with dignity. It will save lives and strengthen our economy to boot.

We must work more closely with our regional neighbours, particularly Indonesia, to ensure our ability to help 30,000 refugees each year in an orderly and sustainable fashion and to ensure that our secure borders are not undermined. The DLP therefore propose enhanced cooperation with Indonesian authorities. This would include forming a joint task force consisting of Australian Customs and Federal Police officers, two patrol boats and Indonesian law enforcement authorities. DLP propose deducting $l million from Australia's upcoming aid to Indonesia for every vessel of asylum seekers which leaves their exclusive economic zone undetected for Australia. This will act as an incentive for Indonesia to eradicate corruption, especially in areas of its police force, which are linked to people smuggling. Every boat arrival is an extra financial cost. If we pay for an Indonesian based problem here, it should come out of the budget we have allocated to pay for problems there.

The DLP propose increasing our annual asylum seeker and refugee intake from Indonesia. There are thousands of people in Indonesia waiting for either a boat or one of the very few spots available in the UN resettlement program. Increasing our intake from Indonesia will give asylum seekers and refugees a good reason not to risk their lives on a boat to get to Australia. Asylum seekers who then still come to Australia from Indonesia as an irregular maritime arrival, so-called, will be transported to one of five UN accredited refugee camps of their choice. With the certainty of knowing Australia will increase its intake of asylum seekers and refugees from Indonesia, there is no excuse for risking their lives by taking a boat.

We also believe in onshore processing. Those asylum seekers and refugees who qualify for asylum should receive it on a temporary basis for up to five years. Processing would initially take place in a secure community. This process should typically take a matter of weeks. If a person's refugee status is confirmed, he or she would promptly be relocated to a purpose designed regional estate to live in typical Australian housing and be provided with the opportunity to work, undergo education and training, and integrate with the Australian community. Refugee status would be reassessed on a set date after three years and again after a further two years. Should it be found possible for them to return home at either of these points, they would be able to do so. Should they not be able to return after five years, they would then be granted permanent residency.

A secure community would be similar to a town in that it will function like a community. Housing would be modest compared to that enjoyed by many Australians. The residents would be processed as fast as possible. Once approved, the residents would be released to live in a regional estate. Those who have their claims rejected would be required to leave the country or be held in offshore detention. The secure community is still a processing area and, for this reason, it will still be required to be closed off from the rest of Australia. Although residents will not be allowed out, Australian citizens and organisations with authorisation from the relevant government department will be allowed to visit them.

A regional estate is a newly developed area which would cater for up to 600 refugees who are still within their first five years of seeking asylum. The estates would be located primarily near regional towns and cities, ideally in areas near nation-building projects in need of a workforce. The land would be developed to allow also for private investment. Careful planning will ensure that situations such as large ethnic enclaves are avoided, with sensitivity also to ethnicity, culture and the local community. The total number of refugees living in the various regional estates should not account for more than five per cent of a town or city's total population.

Housing would be built to be durable and easy to maintain. It would also be built to comfortably house a large number of people where possible. Only a few designs would be made available for construction. Children would be able to attend local schools and participate in sport, and adults would be required either to work or to undergo a form of education or training. Each person would be entitled to basic welfare. The level of welfare should take into account Australia's generosity in accepting them into our communities and therefore should only be a portion of what is provided to Australians who are also doing it tough. Workers would not be entitled to receive superannuation prior to becoming permanent residents.

I think what I have displayed here is that a minor party, the Democratic Labour Party, possibly has a stronger grasp on how to handle the issue of asylum seekers and refugees than do the majors. I hope they take the time to read over my remarks and reconsider their own policy for the sake of those people they are supposedly trying to help.