Senate debates

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Matters of Public Importance

Asylum Seekers

4:08 pm

Photo of Stephen ParryStephen Parry (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

A letter has been received from Senator Siewert:

Pursuant to standing order 75, I propose that the following matter of public importance be submitted to the Senate for discussion:

"The failure of the Abbott Government to adequately respond to the tragic incident on Manus Island that led to the death of Reza Barati and the serious injury of many other asylum seekers."

Is the proposal supported?

More than the number of senators required by the standing orders having risen in their places—

I understand that informal arrangements have been made to allocate specific times to each of the speakers in today's debate. With the concurrence of the Senate, I shall ask the clerks to set the clock accordingly.

4:09 pm

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

I rise to speak in favour of the motion as put forward by Senator Siewert. This is a really important issue for us to discuss in this place today. I know, when we have in the past had debates around the issue of how Australia deals with and manages the flow of asylum seekers and what we do to help offer protection to refugees, often the level of debate in this place is very low. Often it becomes all about the politics of the issue rather than about understanding the fate of the people whom we are incarcerating in detention. There will be discussion, of course, as to how people arrived. We know that, under this government, even the terminology that is used in relation to how those asking for our help arrive here is negative: all government officials have been directed to refer to them as 'illegal'. In fact, they are not illegal at all. They are asylum seekers. They are people who are asking for refuge. They are not illegal. There is nothing in Australian law that says they are illegal—nothing but a directive from the immigration minister.

I do not want to spend the next hour in this place in an ugly debate, in what is often a very toxic discussion, around asylum seekers and refugees. What I want to do here today is talk about a very serious incident that occurred at the Manus Island detention centre only two weeks ago. A young man died. That young man's name is Reza Barati, a 23-year-old from Iran. He came to Australia as an asylum seeker, asking Australia to assess his claim. For all asylum seekers, there is a process they need to go through in order to be given permanent protection or, if they are not owed protection, to find them a safe way to be sent home. Now, Mr Barati had not even had his asylum seeker claim assessed because not one of the people who are detained at Manus Island have had their asylum seeker claims assessed, processed or judged in any way.

The incident that occurred on Manus Island two weeks ago resulted in the death of this young man. It also resulted in the serious injury of dozens of others. Seventy-seven people suffered injuries as a result of the incident. We do not know all the facts of what happened on that night or on the night before, when the first reports of an incident inside the detention centre started coming out to the Australian public and through the media. We do not know all the facts—

Senator Seselja interjecting

because the government is not releasing all the facts.

Senator Seselja interjecting

Mr Deputy President, if you could ask the senator on the other side to desist so I can at least hear myself think.

Photo of Stephen ParryStephen Parry (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I will ask all senators involved in interjection to desist.

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

Thank you, Mr Deputy President. What we do know is that a young man has died. We know that dozens of others have been injured. Many staff involved in the incident wish to tell their stories of what happened—many of them traumatised themselves by the incident—but they are not allowed to speak because as contractors to the immigration department they have all signed confidentiality agreements. We will not know all the facts as to what occurred that night. There is of course a review being run by the immigration department and there is an investigation underway in PNG. Neither of those investigations will, I believe, shed light on what really happened that night at the Manus Island detention centre. It is one of the reasons why we need a parliamentary inquiry, and I hope that we can establish that when the Senate votes on that motion, which will be put forward by the Greens tomorrow.

We know that this whole policy of deterrence is designed to break people. It is designed to be as harsh as possible, to force people to choose between two hells: either live in the hell that is the Manus Island detention centre, where people are stripped of their rights, where they live in fear, or face the hell of being sent home, back to danger. That is the precise objective of this government's deterrence policy—to break people, to break people's spirits. And, unfortunately, it has done that. This young man was broken. Many others have been broken. And this is a country that has signed the refugee convention, a country that has said, 'We will look after those who come to our shore and assess their claims and, if they are genuine, we will take them in and look after them.' These people were under the care of the Australian government. The detention centre on Manus Island is funded by the Australian taxpayer. The contracts are signed by officials of the immigration department here in Australia. It is run in every sense by the Australian government. This man died in the care of the Australian government.

We know that the minister, in his first statements in relation to what happened on that day, misled the Australian people when he stood there and tried to blame the refugees and asylum seekers for causing the harm to themselves. He said that if people had not protested, if they had stayed inside the centre, this would not have happened to them. I think blaming the victim is one of the most sickening things I have seen the minister do. And I must say, this is a government that has been harsh all the way. They have not pretended about it; I will give them that. The Prime Minister says he does not want a wimp as an immigration minister. Well, he does not have a wimp; he has a bully. And we know that at the end of the day it is bullies who are usually the biggest wimps of all, because they are the ones who pick on the most vulnerable, who push them down, who push them away, who strip away their ability to speak up and have a voice. And that is exactly what this immigration minister is doing with this policy and exactly what this immigration minister did when he stood on day one after the death of a young man and blamed Mr Berati for his own death. What an appalling thing. What an appalling position for a leader within this parliament, a minister who is responsible for this person's care, to take.

We need more facts to come out in relation to this issue and here in this place we will not give up trying to get to the truth to what happened, holding the government to account for the responsibility they must take. We also need to make sure the staff in these places are looked after. Story after story of traumatised workers continues to come out. The brutality that was inflicted on the refugees that night shook Manus Island. Those staff need the right to speak out and to be protected too. (Time expired)

4:17 pm

Photo of Christopher BackChristopher Back (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to reject out of hand the assertion that there has been a failure of the Abbott government to respond adequately to the tragic incident on Manus Island as has been described by the first speaker. And I will place on record, if I may—as others in the coalition have done—that any event that causes the loss and death of any person and injury to others is entirely regrettable. There is no question about that. But, as is usual in the case of the particular senator who preceded me, she has rushed to conclusions long before she ever should have done in this circumstance.

Acting responsibly, the Abbott government has of course deferred to the Papua New Guinean authorities—the Papua New Guinea police and coroner. But, in addition to that, the PNG and Australian governments have both commissioned reviews into the events surrounding 16 and 17 February at the Manus offshore processing centre. The Australian government, of course, has directed that its review will be led by Mr Robert Cornall AO, a former secretary of the Attorney-General's Department and a very highly regarded bureaucrat in this country. He has been tasked to determine exactly what the facts are, to ensure that the facts are available to any authorities who will be called upon to take any action that might be required as a result, and to ensure that the department is provided with a clear recommendation on any improvements that are to be made—three very sound procedures that should take place.

I want to draw the attention of the chamber to the coalition's long-held policy in this whole area of which we speak. One need only go back to the previous coalition Prime Minister, Mr Howard, when he made the comment—which resounded around this country and still holds today—that:

We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.

One thing I will agree on with Senator Hanson-Young is that the coalition has been harsh. But the harshness has been and will continue to be on the people smugglers. We will continue to close down this evil trade in the movement of human beings. But we will also act—as has been the case for some years, when the coalition was previously in government and now that it is in government again—on the basis that the best way to protect these people is to make sure that they do not get on boats in the first place.

Regrettably, as we all know, since 2007-08 some 1,100 people have lost their lives in their attempts to come by boat to our shores. They are the ones we know about; it is probable that there are more. It is about one every second day. And, as has been said in this place, I think it has now been 71 or 72 days since we last had an asylum seeker vessel land on Australia's shores. If you average out those 1,100 people over that period of time, you could safely say that anything up to 35 people have avoided losing their lives under these circumstances.

What is of enormous concern to me in this whole debate is the fact that we conveniently ignore and overlook those genuine refugees who we know have been rotting for years in refugee camps approved by UNHCR to come to this country. I have had advice from an interested person in Western Australia about the corruption that goes on at the management level of those refugee camps. People who have been there for a long time in fact never get to the top of the queue, because payments are made to ensure that others jump that queue. That of course is where our concern needs to be, in my view. But, if we have a look at the evil trade these people smugglers have engaged in, we can see that in the life of the last government some 50,000 people arrived in over 800 boats.

In the last period of the Howard coalition government we had, I believe, four people in detention in 2007—and yet, at the time the coalition came back into government, we were dealing with some 30,000 people. We were looking at arrivals of two people per month in the last five years of the coalition government. Contrast that with some 3,000 people per month at the time we came back into government.

I will conclude with the observations of a young person, well known to me, who was on Christmas Island just prior to Christmas on the occasion of the arrival of yet another of these asylum seeker vessels. The point he made to me very strongly, as he watched these people come off the boats, was the obvious wealth of these people—from the clothing they were wearing, the sunglasses et cetera. He said of a group of Afghani men, whom he said certainly appeared to him to be of military bearing and military standing, that these were not your poor asylum seekers; they were quite clearly people who were coming to this place illegally— (Time expired)

4:23 pm

Photo of Kim CarrKim Carr (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister Assisting the Leader for Science) Share this | | Hansard source

I do appreciate Senator Back's extraordinary insight into the military capabilities of refugees coming to Australia.

The Prime Minister has spoken about not having a 'wimp' in control of border security. What we do have now are real questions about who is actually in control. I, for one, am quick to acknowledge that I do not think there is anyone in this chamber who would take any other position than deep regret at the death of Reza Berati. I also suggest that everyone in this chamber appreciates the grief that his family would be feeling over the manner in which he was killed—while effectively in Australian custody. I am very concerned—and I am sure many other senators here are equally concerned—about the fear that his family would feel in terms of the response from authorities in Iran.

We also know that were dozens—we do not know how many, but we are quite clear from reports that there were many dozens—of people seeking safety in this country injured in the events that occurred on Manus Island on 16 and 17 February. These are the facts that I think are now beyond dispute. What we know is that the reports that have emerged all too clearly demonstrate that there are serious questions to be asked about the competence of the minister who is responsible for the operation of Manus Island and that there are serious questions about the management of the facilities at the core of Australia's immigration and border control policies. The questions keep piling up as I read the newspapers and listen to the reports. On the ABC this morning, for instance, we heard of an Australian employee of the contractor G4S, the security firm, who is making extraordinarily serious allegations about the conduct of the Papua New Guinea police on the night Mr Berati died.

For the sake of all involved, it is now important that we get to the bottom of what actually happened there as quickly as possible. The circus of secrecy that surrounds the government's policy and its administration, frankly, has to stop. When the tragic events of Manus Island were first reported by the minister himself, it has been demonstrated that the facts were totally wrong. To quote from his media conference of 18 February, he said:

This is a tragedy but this was a very dangerous situation where people decide to protest in a very violent way and to take themselves outside the centre and place themselves at great risk …

So what we were told, in a very blunt and unequivocal way, was that the asylum seekers themselves were responsible for what occurred. Then we wait until 8.44 on the following Saturday night, when a media statement is issued, at that very late hour, entitled 'Manus Island update'. And what was the substance of that update? That the minister had got it fundamentally wrong.

A full five days after his initial report he sought to correct the record and to make it clear that the breach that led to the death of this particular asylum seeker, Mr Berati, actually occurred inside the compound—and that the perimeter itself had not been breached. He told us originally, if I may quote the proposition he advanced, that 'people would be safe inside the compound'. That was the assertion made: that we were dealing with transferees who breached the external perimeter. We now know that to be totally untrue.

On 22 February the minister said:

Earlier this week I noted that when people co–operate and conduct themselves appropriately within the centre then we are able to provide for their safety. This is the most effective way to ensure the security of these facilities and safety of all those who are accommodated and work within the centre.

That is the statement made on the night on which the record was being corrected! It seems to me, on the basis of a normal reading of that statement, that we could be assured that violence and death took place beyond the scope of that guarantee. It does seem, on what we have heard since that time, that the guarantee itself was quite hollow—because the majority of what the minister called 'riotous behaviour' took place within the perimeter of the facilities themselves. o, as far as I am concerned, the implications are quite profound. Only someone like George Orwell could look at this statement and describe it as an update. What we now know is that the safety and wellbeing of everyone in the facility on Manus Island is an open question. I say that both in terms of the asylum seekers themselves and the staff. We now know that the situation was entirely chaotic—and that reflects the way this centre has been administered.

It is quite clear that Manus Island is absolutely at the centre of the arrangements in place to deter people from taking that risky voyage by sea. But, in terms of the effect of the establishment of Manus Island, we know that between 19 July and the time of the federal election there had been a 90 per cent reduction in the number of people seeking to travel by sea. But that in no way justifies any government breaching the guarantee of safety that people have a right to expect. It strikes me that we have a situation here where the minister has made this guarantee and it needs to be enforced. We need to ensure there is genuine substance behind such an assertion. That is why Labor has welcomed the government's announcement of the independent inquiry and we look forward with interest to its interim report in March. The public needs to see the full report. We owe this not just to the people who are now in our custody, and who have been exposed to this violence, but to every Australian in whose name we are acting.

I woke this morning to the reports on the ABC and I was horrified. The ABC told us this morning that local G4S staff were the first in, followed by local contract staff. A G4S employee was quoted as saying:

We saw them going in with machetes. They had anything they could pick up—rocks, sticks, the poles from the exercise weights. Once they knocked people to the ground, they were stomping on their heads with their boots. A day later you could still see guards and staff and cleaners walking around with blood on their boots.

  …   …   …

I just remember blood everywhere I looked. Blood everywhere.

I think anyone listening to that report this morning would be deeply concerned that these people were acting in our name. I cannot for the life of me understand why the government feels it is necessary to act in secrecy about these matters. It is not enough simply to wash your hands of responsibilities on these sorts of questions. But it entirely goes beyond what I think anyone would regard as reasonable— (Time expired)

4:33 pm

Photo of Christine MilneChristine Milne (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I support the contention in this matter of public importance that the Abbott government failed to adequately respond to the tragic incident on Manus Island that led to the death of Reza Barati and the serious injury of many other asylum seekers. It is about time that the hypocrisy we have heard in this place is brought to the fore. What we need is a royal commission into what has occurred. We need an inquiry that has judicial powers and can bring in the documents and the evidence and give witnesses the protection they need. But there is not the will in this place to have the truth told in its entirety. That is because the Labor Party in government re-opened Manus Island and made all kinds of claims in this place. Go back to the debate, which I was reading through. I wonder how Senator Lundy feels now when you look at the claims she made defending the Gillard government at the time, saying that all of the conditions would be met and it would meet our human rights obligations. She listed all the things that would occur and she gave endless undertakings—all wrong.

Then we had the next Prime Minister, Mr Rudd, engaged in a memorandum of understanding, and now we have disgraceful behaviour from the current minister and the government, and the cruelty goes on to the point where Reza Barati is dead. I have used the word 'murder' in his case, because what else do you call a situation when a person is in the direct care of the government of Australia and they are dead inside the compound and there are reports of people stomping on people's heads. That is not an accident. What do you call it if there is intent?

Now I get to the reports that Senator Carr mentioned this morning on the question of whether G4S staff are to blame for the Manus Island violence—the reports that the G4S guards allegedly opened the doors of the camp to a local dog squad and PNG police and so on and so forth. They are the reports, but I want to go to a more fundamental question, because I am sick of hearing this in this place. We are supposedly breaking people and destroying their mental health. We end up with Reza Barati dead, 70 people in hospital, bashings and cruelty. Why? Because we are stopping people from drowning. That is why. That is rubbish. This is not about stopping people drowning, and it is about time that truth was told to power. That is outrageous.

I want to go to that point right now. What has this government or the last government done to help people not get on boats? Number one: have they put more money into the UNHCR in Indonesia to assist? No, they have cut the funding. What about the humanitarian intake? Under the last government there was a promise to increase it, and what has this government done? They have decreased the humanitarian intake from 20,000 to 13,750. They have decreased the humanitarian intake and decreased the money in Indonesia. There is all the talk about people worrying about people drowning. That is not the case. You have never supported upholding the Safety of Life at Sea convention. When we questioned—

Senator Seselja interjecting

Photo of Stephen ParryStephen Parry (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Order! Senator Seselja, I have noted your name is on the list. You will have an opportunity later. Senator Milne, you have the call.

Photo of Christine MilneChristine Milne (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you. I appreciate that, Mr Deputy President. When the SIEVX sank, 353 people died. Why? Because the Howard government had stopped a program of allowing family reunion. Women and children were on that boat because they had no other way of joining the rest of their family in Australia. That was a policy decision designed to stop families being together and people had no hope except to be on that boat. To this day, we do not know whether they were allowed to drown. That is a question I have asked for very many years. I am making this very clear.

Photo of Cory BernardiCory Bernardi (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

That is shameful.

Photo of Christine MilneChristine Milne (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

It is not shameful; it is truthful.

Photo of Cory BernardiCory Bernardi (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

You are a disgrace.

Photo of Stephen ParryStephen Parry (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Order! Senator Bernardi, you are also on the list, I have noticed, so you will have an opportunity to comment.

Photo of Christine MilneChristine Milne (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

To this day, the survivors of the SIEVX say that a ship came and put lights on the water. They started shouting and swimming towards the lights. The lights went off and the ship went away. That is what the survivors say. What did Australia know about where they were? Why were the ships not dispatched to rescue them? To this day every inquiry we have tried to get up into the SIEVX has been blocked, and so it goes on. We are involved in a cover-up over what has gone on on Manus Island. I say that because you have Prime Minister O'Neill in PNG saying:

Under agreement, all media queries relating to this deceased transferee are being handled by the Australian government. You have to direct your queries to Canberra …

Then we have an Australian government statement saying:

This is actually a police matter in PNG, so our role has been to support the PNG police in the investigation of a crime, and any matters that follow in relation to an autopsy or a coronial inquest are matters for the PNG government, and we have provided all the support that has been required for that. It is not a matter that is within our control.

So the Australian government puts in a detention centre, does its memorandum of understanding, says it is going to be in control, says it can guarantee safety, and then disaster occurs and it immediately says, 'It's actually up to the PNG government.' The PNG government brings out a statement saying, 'It wasn't our police. No—everything on our end was fine.' This is a cover-up and that is why we need a royal commission to get to the bottom of it, but we need to close that centre right now. If you had any sense of decency and humanity, that is what you would do.

I want to congratulate the 500 academics who signed an open letter to Prime Minister Tony Abbott. It says:

We believe that the current approach to dealing with asylum seekers arriving by boat, especially offshore detention and claims determination, is seriously flawed and unsustainable.

It breaches Australia's international legal obligations, including its obligations as a party to the Refugee Convention. It demonstrably harms the physical and psychological health of detainees.

Furthermore, it seriously undermines the status and good name of Australia as an international citizen.

We call on the Australian government to close the detention centres on Manus Island and in Nauru immediately.

Yours sincerely—

and it is signed by 500 academics in all kinds of academic pursuit around the country. I congratulate them and urge every Australian to stand up to this. It is a cover-up. We need it to be opened right up, but we need Manus Island and Nauru to be closed immediately. This is a disgrace to the nation. In future, people are going to look back and say, 'How did this parliament allow this to continue?' Frankly, Liberal and Labor are complicit in keeping Manus open and in keeping this an internal inquiry when it needs to be a royal commission.

4:41 pm

Photo of Cory BernardiCory Bernardi (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I commence my contribution to this debate by saying how I wholeheartedly support Minister Scott Morrison in his dogged pursuit and determination to stop the people smugglers. He is ably assisted by our Senator Cash, the assistant minister in that capacity. I find it rather extraordinary that when even the Labor Party acknowledges that the government is focused on getting to the bottom of exactly what happened in the incident on Manus Island that led to the death of asylum seeker Reza Barati, the Greens somehow want to make political mileage out of it. The Labor Party have acknowledged that the government is taking appropriate steps to establish exactly what has happened. I do not particularly like the slant that Senator Carr put on it in his selective quotation of what the minister said in successive press conferences. Most of the comments that he made were about the advice that he received. He was constantly and continually updating members of the public and the press gallery as new advice came to hand. So it is a little disingenuous.

But I cannot stand here and let go some of the most grotesque slurs to have been cast upon a previous government, the comments by Senator Milne. To merely suggest that any government of this country would stand by or have their navy float by and watch people drown, as Senator Milne alleged in her grossly defamatory and I think hypocritical address, is an appalling assessment of the judgement of the Greens party. It is an unbelievable slur upon any government to suggest, as Senator Milne has done, that we would stand by and watch people drown for some sort of political expediency. That might be the standards by which you judge your own contribution, Senator Milne, but it is not the standard of contributions from those on this side of the chamber. The appalling hypocrisy of those in the Greens party is begat from their absolute jealousy and their outrage that policies are actually working, demonstrating that their ideas are simply as kooky as they have always been.

Senator Milne asked: 'What has this government done to stop the boats coming?' I could point to the track record that the boats are no longer arriving on Australian shores or in Australian waters, that we have not had an illegal boat arrival on Australian shores for countless days. I cannot believe that Senator Milne thinks that somehow that is a bad outcome.

There is further evidence which I read recently about how the price of a ticket for passage on a people-smuggling vessel has plummeted from $10,000 to $1,000 because the demand is drying up. But that would smell like success. They are unfamiliar with success in the Greens and they are jealous of it. They do not like our success because it exposes just how hollow their whole agenda is.

We have had no arrivals. We have had no drownings at sea. We have not seen 1,100 people drown, as happened under the policies of the previous government and their alliance with the Greens. We have not heard the dismissive, 'Accidents happen,' and 'Tragedies happen,' from the spokesperson for the Greens. We have not seen anything except for the fact that the policies implemented by this government are working.

Do you know how the Greens characterise it? They characterise it as some sort of reality TV show. It is like it is a soap opera to the Greens' spokesman. Senator Sarah Hanson-Young thought it was like an episode of Border Security or Sea Patrol. That is extraordinary. This is the national parliament. We are debating the sovereignty of Australia's borders and the right of people to come to this—

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

Mr Deputy President, I rise on a point of order. I would like Senator Bernardi to correct the record seeing as the Hansard for Senate estimates does not prove that at all.

Photo of Stephen ParryStephen Parry (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

That is not a point of order. That is a debating point.

Photo of Cory BernardiCory Bernardi (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

YouTube will testify—I should send it to you, actually, Mr Deputy President—how Senator Hanson-Young thought that our border protection officers were part of Sea Patrol, that fictitious drama series.

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

Mr Deputy President, I rise on a point of order. Senator Bernardi is misleading the Senate.

Photo of Stephen ParryStephen Parry (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

That is not a point of order. That is a debating point.

Photo of Zed SeseljaZed Seselja (ACT, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Mr Deputy President, I rise on a point of order. Not only is that not a point of order; the senator should actually withdraw. She cannot make that claim. There are formal procedures for making such claims.

Photo of Stephen ParryStephen Parry (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I have ruled on the point of order. There was no point of order.

Photo of Cory BernardiCory Bernardi (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

What we have is the Greens' spokesman on this matter cavalierly dismissing—

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

Mr Deputy President, I rise on a point of order: I am not a man.

Photo of Cory BernardiCory Bernardi (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I think she is withdrawing, Mr Deputy President. I think she is going to withdraw her spurious allegations.

Photo of Stephen ParryStephen Parry (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Order! I indicate to Senator Hanson-Young and other senators that spurious points of order will not be tolerated. Points of order are to be utilised for important purposes.

Photo of Cory BernardiCory Bernardi (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

What we have all of a sudden is the arrogance and outrage of Senator Hanson-Young because not only has her policy position been exposed as the folly that it is; there is also the not-so-small matter that our policy is working. Senator Sarah Hanson-Young is upset because everything that she has built her political career around—faux crocodile tears, the Sea Patrol issues, the dismissal of people drowning at sea and the grotesque accusation from Senator Milne, which was that we stood by and were prepared to watch people drown—has been false. It has been built on a house of cards, on the lie that somehow if we had a more compassionate policy it would stop the boats. That is not true. Our policy is compassionate. It is compassionate because it stops the boats. It takes away the people smugglers' product. It puts back into the Australian government's hands the determination of who should participate in our generous humanitarian refugee program. It puts the people smugglers out of business. If the Australian people are serious about a humanitarian immigration program then they will salute the fact that we have regained control of it. They can see firsthand the dangers of extremists who have really no ideas grounded in reality and the implications of the kooky policies of the Greens, who have made some truly vile suggestions today.

In conclusion, we as a collective in this Senate should be appalled at the death of any individual who is seeking asylum in this country. We should be appalled, and there is no question about it. It is hard. It is very tough on the minister. I know he takes it to heart, as do we all. The simple fact is that it is better to have an orderly immigration program than one in which hundreds, maybe thousands, of people could perish at sea. This is the great tragedy of it. We are doing our best. The Australian people have asked us to go in and fix up the mess that was created by the policy agenda of the previous government, together with the Greens. It is time that we took stock of that. That is why I appreciate the Labor Party saying that the government have taken appropriate steps to inquire into this. I would ask the Greens to reflect on their politicising of a tragic event. (Time expired)

4:49 pm

Photo of Lisa SinghLisa Singh (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary to the Shadow Attorney General) Share this | | Hansard source

I support the contention in this matter of public importance that the Abbott government failed to adequately respond to the tragic incident on Manus Island that led to the death of Reza Barati and the serious injury of many other asylum seekers in the detention facility on that island. I reiterate my Labor colleague Senator Carr's remarks on the question of who is in control of immigration policy in this government and in this country, because there is a serious question over the minister's competence. There is a serious question about the grip that he has on his portfolio and the way he has handled the Manus Island detention facility incident. Those questions loom large. There are still no answers from the minister. All we had were emphatic statements when the tragic event first happened—and then later they turned out, as we know, to be totally wrong. The minister tried to hide by correcting the record in the dead of night. This is not the behaviour of somebody who should be managing an incredibly important facility that I am sure the government would call the cornerstone of their border protection policy. There remain questions looming large as to the minister's competence in the way he is handling this facility and his entire portfolio.

The minister initially said that these matters happened outside the perimeter of the facility and that if asylum seekers were going to breach the perimeter then that was going to be a matter for them. But at the same time as he said that, he gave a guarantee of safety that, if they stayed inside the boundaries of that facility, he could guarantee their safety. Clearly he could not. We are still waiting, though, for that truth to be told.

This circus of secrecy around this government's border protection policy must stop. It has been going on since this government came to power—secrecy not only in this policy but across the board in a number of portfolio areas. When it comes to this circus of secrecy, though, it is probably in this area that it has been the most profound. People in this country have a right to know what is going on and the minister should be out there telling them exactly that. Instead, the grip that he has on his portfolio is very weak and, while this secrecy continues, becoming weaker by the day. The public want to know what is happening and how people are being treated in Australia's name. They have every right to know that. He is a minister of the Crown, he is the minister for immigration, and it is under his watch that this has occurred. It is under his watch that someone's life has been taken and that a number of asylum seekers have been injured.

The government cannot keep hiding from the public because, as we already know, information is coming out, regardless of the minister ducking and weaving and not letting the public know anything. We heard this morning, through the ABC's AM program, about a G4S staff member who has spoken out about the situation. Chris Uhlmann reported on that program that not only are asylum seekers incredibly traumatised by what has occurred but G4S staff themselves are also incredibly traumatised. He said:

Some have left the island suffering from serious post-traumatic stress and one … has spoken to the ABC … and says the situation is now so tense that the asylum seekers are refusing to have anything to do with local staff.

In fact, the G4S guard said that asylum seekers now feel so unsafe that, when they tried to bring local cleaners in the day after the incidents, it just about started another riot. The asylum seekers now want nothing to do with any of the locals. That is how tense the current environment is and remains on Manus Island. We have had three very serious incidents since Minister Morrison became minister, since the Abbott government came to power. The most recent, though, is this one which resulted in a young man tragically losing his life. What we have is a minister who simply has no idea what is going on, or at least is not willing to tell the public about it.

The question remains: where does the minister's guarantee of safety now stand? How can he enforce the statement that he made about a guarantee of safety? I may stand here and wish that Manus Island and the detention facility did not exist, that the death of Reza Berati did not happen and that the injuries and the trauma caused to asylum seekers and staff did not occur. But it does exist and these events did happen. The detention facility on Manus Island exists today—and I am sure it will tomorrow as well—but we need to ensure that people who are within our jurisdiction are provided with the highest level of safety. Yes, they may be on Manus Island, but they are still within our jurisdiction. That is something that must happen under this government's watch—under this parliament's watch. That is what is definitely owed after the tragic events that have occurred in the last week.

Yes, Labor does welcome the announcement of an independent inquiry. That will go some way towards getting to the bottom of what has occurred and we do look forward to an interim report as soon as possible—I think this month. The Australian public also needs to see that inquiry so that everyone can understand where the government is going wrong in its management of this facility and what steps are being taken to fix this mismanagement. Why? Because this is about human dignity. This is about taking ownership of what has occurred.

This is happening under Minister Morrison's watch. He is the minister. He needs to take ownership of what has occurred. He needs to ensure that such a riot—such an event—does not occur again. He needs to quell the fear, the trauma and the disquiet that now remains in the Manus Island detention centre. He needs to provide the public with some reassurance that this simply is not going to happen again. He also needs to deal with the atmosphere, which we have heard from the ABC's AM program is now so tense that it will not take anything much to potentially kick off another round of unrest. Surely the minister does not want that on his watch. Surely he is doing all that he can to ensure that such an event does not occur again.

The other concern I have is whether there were unaccompanied minors on Manus Island during this riot. I did ask a question during Senate estimates regarding unaccompanied minors. As the minister has said himself, it is not an appropriate place for children. I was given an answer by the secretary of the department, Mr Bowles, that there were no unaccompanied minors on Manus Island. But we know, from the Amnesty International report that came out in December, that there had been reports of at least two or three unaccompanied minors on Manus Island. It is certainly my hope that there were not any there during this riot. Having said that, for anyone there it was certainly a terrible tragedy that they should never have had to endure. I hope it never happens again.

5:00 pm

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

Today, we discuss the government's policy to process asylum seekers on Manus Island. The bad idea of processing asylum seekers on Manus Island was the brainchild of one of the previous ALP governments. The new, coalition government, however, has taken to this policy like a duck to water and has done very little in attempting to advance the wellbeing of those who are held in detention.

The precise circumstances which led to the sad death of Mr Reza Barati may not be known at this time by the government, but what is known is that Mr Barati's death took place in an atmosphere of anguish and perpetual suffering for over a thousand asylum seekers in offshore detention and, to a lesser extent, in onshore detention.

The issues surrounding Manus Island are too numerous to mention in this debate. However, recent reports state that there has been limited drinking water for asylum seekers, with some figures suggesting that people have had to get by on as little as two cups of water per day. Taking into consideration the environmental conditions, this is completely unacceptable, if it is true.

Amnesty International reported last year that men would often have to wait in queues for up to five hours in order to access food or toilets. However, what many find most astounding is that these people—people who have done nothing wrong other than seek asylum, people who just want peace and stability for them and their families—are being detained without even being given a sentence. They do not even know how long they will be there—weeks, months or years.

Earlier today, I put forward a motion calling on the government to work more closely with Indonesia to stop people attempting the treacherous journey to Australia by boat. I am not against people seeking asylum; I simply want them to act safely and proportionately to the circumstances in which they find themselves. There are currently thousands of asylum seekers in Indonesia, and many of them are there due to previous Australian and Indonesian government policies. We need to step up to the plate now and be fair. We need to take on board more of those people already in our region who are seeking asylum and help them get their lives on track within Australia.

And that leads me to my last point. The last point that I called on the government to adhere to in my motion this afternoon, which was supported by the Greens, was that we should be processing people here. The Abbott government is telling us all to live within our means. Well, it was made very clear at Senate estimates last week, that it would be much cheaper for asylum seekers to be processed onshore and in community detention than the way we are currently doing things.

We need to start being sensible about the issue of asylum seekers. We must act in a balanced, dignified, safe and compassionate manner. We must ensure that we take some responsibility for the wrongs committed by the global community of which we are part. I acknowledge Senator Back's comments that there are people offshore in camps, who have been there for decades—maybe like the Karen people on the Thai-Burma border. What are we doing to bring them here?

5:03 pm

Photo of Zed SeseljaZed Seselja (ACT, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I start by offering my condolences to the family of Reza Barati. I echo the condolences that the government has expressed for this tragedy. I also congratulate Minister Morrison. I join with other coalition members in rejecting the premise and the intent of this MPI that we are debating today.

Minister Morrison, in very difficult circumstances, is doing the job that the Australian people asked him to do and which the Prime Minister has asked him to do—that is, to regain control of our borders and to stop the flow of illegal boats. Minister Morrison is doing that job in very difficult circumstances, despite the protestations of some of those opposite. I think we should take the time to reflect on the fact that the job of stopping the boats and stopping the drownings is now underway. Minister Morrison deserves praise for that rather than many of the false criticisms that have been tossed around, particularly by the Greens but also by members of the Labor Party.

Let's go to the substance of this issue. The facility on Manus Island was established by Labor. It was established with bipartisan support from the coalition. There was a disturbance with a tragic death at the end of that. The minister gave information as it arose, and where he was advised that information was incorrect he corrected the record, giving constant updates in relation to the information that was coming.

The government, as has been stated already, has commissioned a review by Robert Cornall, which will look into all the circumstances of this tragedy. Unlike some of those opposite, particularly the Greens, we will not be prejudging that investigation. That investigation should be allowed to take its course.

What I will not do is allow the Greens to lecture the coalition on compassion and effective policy in this area. I will not accept that. I will go to what Senator Hanson-Young said at the start of her address. She said that she wanted to raise the tone. I agree: we should raise the tone. We should raise the tone above statements like Senator Milne's, which was that he was murdered. We should raise the tone above the statement of Adam Bandt, which was that we killed him. We should raise the tone. We should raise the tone above what we hear constantly from those opposite. We should raise the tone above Senator Hanson-Young's statement in response to deaths at sea. When asked whether she took any responsibility she said, 'Of course not; tragedies happen. Accidents happen.' How simple it was when the Labor Party and the Greens were running things and 1,100 people drowned.

Senator Hanson-Young's response, in those circumstances was that tragedies happen, accidents happen and that she does not take any responsibility. I think we should raise the tone and we should—

Senator Hanson-Young interjecting

It is interesting, isn't it: no responsibility for the policies that you supported—no responsibility whatsoever. I agreed with the former minister Tony Burke when the Labor Party belatedly acknowledged that the policies were not working. He said, and I agree with this statement:

There is nothing compassionate in a policy where you see people drowned at sea.

…   …   …

In the first place, if it does have an impact on the number of people risking their lives on the high sea, that is a massive difference and compassion can't be limited to who is in your line of sight. The people who drown on the way here don't end up giving interviews.

No, they do not. Tony Burke was right: there is nothing compassionate about the kinds of policies that were pursued for most of the time that the Labor Party was in government and are still advocated by the Greens and were advocated right the way through this motion.

We are faced with choices. We can go down the path that the former government went down and we can see what results they got. What were those results? Fifty thousand people arrived illegally on 800 boats; more than 1,100 people tragically perished at sea—one every two days; more than 6,000 children had their lives put at risk by making the dangerous journey to Australia; and more than 14½ thousand desperate people have been denied a precious resettlement place under our offshore humanitarian program because, under the former government and the Labor-Greens policy, those places were taken by people who arrived illegally by boat. This is about choices. We have a choice as to whether we want to revisit what happened over the last six years, with all of the tragic consequences, or whether we implement policies which stop the boats—because when we stop the boats, we stop the drownings.

Some of those opposite might want to pretend that those 1,100 people who drowned do not matter. I do not accept that. Just as this one death was a tragedy and we need to get to the bottom of it and develop policy responses to make sure it does not happen again, those 1,100 deaths were a tragedy. We are putting in place policy responses to make sure it does not happen again.

You have to ask the question: do the Greens want the policy to fail? It would appear from everything we have heard that they do, because, at no point in any of their contributions either in this place or elsewhere, have they said, 'Isn't it good that people are not risking themselves on that journey in the numbers that they were? Isn't it good that we haven't seen any drownings for the last few months because the boats are stopping?' Isn't that a good thing? Shouldn't we be celebrating that? If you genuinely cared, you would have it within yourself to say, 'Yes, it's a good thing.' We will get to the bottom of this tragedy, but let's stop the thousands of tragedies that we saw under six years of Labor-Greens government in the past.

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

Order! The time for the discussion has expired.