Senate debates

Monday, 10 September 2018


Asylum Seekers

10:00 pm

Photo of Stirling GriffStirling Griff (SA, Centre Alliance) Share this | | Hansard source

Last week marked another low in our government's handling of Australia's obligations towards people fleeing persecution. In the midst of the Pacific Islands Forum, the government of Nauru blocked the evacuation of a mentally ill refugee needing urgent treatment, despite an Australian Federal Court order that she immediately be brought to Australia for treatment. I know on this occasion, technically, this was not the Australian government's fault. They even had an air ambulance on stand-by. She was ultimately flown out on a commercial flight. However, I am sure there is no need to remind this government and those sitting opposite, whose hands are by no means clean, that the only reason the Federal Court orders were needed is the fact that Australia has abrogated its moral responsibility for these asylum seekers.

The government and Labor are so determined to keep to the policy that no asylum seeker who arrives by boat is resettled in Australia. This is a cruelty, I might add, that was devised under Kevin Rudd's leadership. I often wonder how the architects of this policy sleep at night when we hear of children on Nauru self-harming and suffering psychological trauma that will burden them for the rest of their lives. This act is the indefinite detention of vulnerable people who have lawfully sought our protection. It is a disgraceful, dishonourable act. The government likes to downplay the number of people it has in detention. Why is it not being honest with the Australian people? It says there are no children detained on Nauru when, in fact, there are more than 100 children wasting their lives away on that island. They are not technically incarcerated, but they are there and they are certainly not free.

If you think that is rich, you should check out the Department of Home Affairs' latest monthly Operation Sovereign Borders update. If a member of the public were to read that piece of PR spin, they would be forgiven for thinking there are only 189 asylum seekers on Nauru when, in fact, there are close to 1,000 still on the island and no asylum seekers on Manus at all. The fact that successive governments have passed the buck to Nauru and PNG and have allowed these people to waste away without hope is deeply shameful to many, many Australians. I wonder, though, whether anyone on the government's side or the opposition, for that matter, listens anymore to denouncements of their offshore policy. The two sides are in lock step on this. I fear that it just falls on deaf ears, despite the enormous financial and reputational costs to Australia.

Tonight, I want to remind my colleagues of their humanity. Only a couple of Sundays ago, fathers around Australia celebrated Father's Day. I am a proud father, as many others in this place and the other place are. I know the Prime Minister is also a proud father of two young daughters. As a father, I am fiercely protective of my children. I have taken great joy in seeing them become independent, confident adults and seeing them strive to achieve their ambitions. As a father, I cannot imagine what it must feel to be powerless to protect or to provide for your children and to have lost hope for their future.

I cannot begin to imagine this, but I believe it is incumbent on all of us in this place to try. Imagine your child growing up in a dusty, mouldy tent with a barren patch of dirt as a playground. Even if you are not in these tents, but living out in the community, imagine being trapped in a place year after year that you cannot call home and from which you feel you may never escape. Imagine seeing your once bright, cheerful and joyous child slowly turn into a depressed, desperate and possibly suicidal shell, their spark for life extinguished by the loss of hope. Imagine your guilt. You wanted to give them a better life; instead, you have given then hell.

Imagine feeling that there is nothing—not one thing—that you as a father can do to provide a safe and lasting home for your beloved son or precious daughter, nothing you can do to provide them with the sort of education and opportunities you had dreamed of and the future you had so much hoped for. Imagine that your child is forced to live in dust and dirt that is probably contaminated with toxic cadmium—because we know that Nauru has high concentrations of cadmium due to the phosphate rock deposits on the island. Imagine that your child is seriously ill and must get treatment that is not available nearby. You cannot jump into a car and drive them to somewhere that can assist. There is no-one you can call for help. There is nothing you can do but wait for some official behind a desk somewhere else to make a decision about your child, and then that decision quite possibly is no. 'No, your seriously ill child is not sick enough,' they decide, despite what doctors say. Imagine your words of encouragement and hope turning into lies as finally there is no escaping the reality that no matter how hard they might try at school or at life the fate of your child is to be nothing more than a pawn in someone's cynical political game.

I cannot begin to imagine the horror of being a father in these circumstances, yet this is exactly what this government is presiding over. It has the power to change this—either to bring these people to Australia or to accept New Zealand's sincere offer to resettle many of these genuine refugees. I make a simple appeal to the Prime Minister as one father to another: remember your humanity. Put their suffering above political expediency and re-election. Get these families off Nauru.

Senate adjourned at 22:06