Monday, 22 July 2019
Matters of Public Importance
I inform the Senate that at 8.30 am today five proposals were received in accordance with standing order No. 75. The question of which proposal would be submitted to the Senate was determined by lot. As a result, I inform the Senate that the following letter has been received from Senator Seiwert:
Pursuant to standing order 75, I propose that the following matter of public importance be submitted to the Senate for discussion:
That people fleeing conflict and oppression in their home countries, who legally and legitimately sought asylum in Australia, have been arbitrarily detained in Papua New Guinea and Nauru for 6 years.
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.
It's now been six long years since former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and the Australia Labor Party took the fateful decision to restart the policy of indefinite offshore detention. They announced that policy on 19 July 2013. It's been six long years of torture, cruelty, deprivation and indefinite detention for the thousands of people who were exiled to Manus Island and Nauru under this cruel policy. Today we saw the Australian Prime Minister stand before our country and try to gaslight us—try to deny the truth about what is going on on Manus Island. That gaslighting is as abhorrent as it is dishonest. Contrary to what the Prime Minister claims, and contrary to what the Minister representing the Minister for Home Affairs claimed in this chamber only an hour or so ago, there are people detained on Manus Island. They are detained there, and the Prime Minister holds the key. They cannot leave because of decisions the Prime Minister and Australia's minister for immigration are making. Their lives have been stolen from them by the major political parties in this country. Six long years of their lives have been sacrificed on the altar of political expediency by the LNP and the ALP in this country.
With a single phone call, Prime Minister Morrison could accept the kind and generous offer made by New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. He could ensure that 150 people on Manus Island and Nauru who were exiled there, overwhelmingly, six long years ago could get the freedom and safety they so desperately need and deserve, the freedom and safety that Australia actually committed to providing to refugees when we signed the refugee convention. But Scott Morrison has not done so.
If senators in this chamber don't think I'm right about conditions on Manus Island, if you think I'm over-egging the situation over there, have the courage of your convictions to go to Manus Island or Nauru and tell the people there who are being tortured that what they're suffering is actually worth it. But you won't do that, will you? Because you don't want to look these innocent people, your political prisoners, who you exiled there six long years ago, in the eye as it would make you grossly uncomfortable. You know that, if you went there, they would explain to you how terrible their situation is and they would ask you how you can possibly justify doing what you're doing to them just because you think it's in your political benefit in this country to do it.
Go and look them in the eye and tell them why you've stolen six years of their lives. Go and look them in the eye and tell them why they are suffering. Tell them why they've been abused. Tell them why they've had to watch their friends being murdered. Tell them why they've had to watch their children being sexually abused on Nauru. Tell them why they've had to watch their wives being sexually abused and raped on Nauru. Tell them why, on Manus Island, they were laid siege to for over three weeks after the Australian government ordered that food, drinking water, electricity and medical supports be cut off at midnight on 31 October 2017. Tell them why their friends have been attacked with machetes and grievously wounded. Tell them why they are incarcerated indefinitely in mental illness factories. Tell them why their gay friends on Manus Island have been exiled by Australia to a place where consenting sex between adult men is subject to many years imprisonment. Go and look them in the eye and tell them, if you've got the guts. But you know what? None of you have the courage to do that. None of you.
These people are like the corpses that used to get impaled on the walls of medieval cities in order to dissuade other desperate people from trying to gain entry. They are political prisoners, and they have been exiled to Manus Island and Nauru for over six years now. And yet we have a Prime Minister who claims that there are no detention centres in Papua New Guinea and that refugees are not detained on Manus Island. Well, what is that place with the guards on the gate and with the razor wire on the fences that people get locked into at six o'clock every night and are not allowed out of until six o'clock every morning? What is that place if it's not a prison? You know what? It's worse than a prison, because they have no end date on their sentence. It's worse than a prison, because they have no educational opportunities, they have massively substandard health care and they have no hope for the future. That is why we've seen a massive spike in self-harm since the election. When the LNP held onto power, the dreams of many of them, that one day they might be settled in New Zealand, were crushed. Many of them now simply don't get out of bed. They lie in their beds every day because they have no hope for the future. When you remove hope for the future from human beings, mental illness is an almost inevitable result.
We've got Prime Minister Marape making it very clear to the Australian government that he expects a timetable for the closure of indefinite detention on Manus Island. And, despite being asked by me today, the minister refused to answer my very simple question, which was whether or not the Australian government had agreed to provide such a timetable. I'll put money on this—I'll lay it on the table—the Australian government won't provide a timetable to the Papua New Guinean government as requested by Prime Minister Marape today. The reason they won't do it is that there are no meaningful negotiations underway with third countries for resettlement.
We know the US arrangement is coming to an end. There are a small number of people on Manus Island and Nauru who've been accepted and are scheduled for transfer at some stage in the near future. There are a smaller number of people in Papua New Guinea at least who are still in the US process. But the information I've got is that the Australian government is currently not in negotiation with any other country for a third-country resettlement option. That's why Prime Minister Morrison, the man who says he cries when he thinks about this, the man who says he prays for these people, needs to accept the New Zealand offer. He needs to show some compassion and he needs to show some humanity. If there's any group of people to whom our country owes a duty of care that is more deserving of compassion, humanity and understanding than the people we exiled to Manus Island and Nauru, I do not know of that group.
I applaud Senator Siewert and her colleagues for maintaining such a consistent position on this matter for many years now. Let's face it: that is more than can be said for their position on wind farms, which has quite literally gone whichever way the wind blows!
The Greens are trying to frame this debate as a matter of legitimate asylum seekers being denied their legitimate claims for asylum in this country. They prefer to perpetuate the myths that this government is placing people in offshore detention because we are just cold and heartless and that people are suffering at our hands from poor medical treatment.
That hyperbole hit fever pitch not just in the speech by the previous speaker, Senator McKim, that we just heard but also when he described the actions of the government as 'cruelty for cruelty's sake', as if, in our spare time, we like to pull the wings off flies and bite the heads off chickens.
The Greens do not have a monopoly on compassion. Indeed, there is nothing compassionate or fair about encouraging people to pay tens of thousands of dollars to organised criminal people-smuggling rings. There is nothing compassionate or fair about leaving vulnerable women and children who don't have the money to pay a criminal people-smuggling ring to sit and rot in refugee camps year after year while others push them to the back of the queue. There is nothing compassionate or fair about penalising those people who go through proper processes and seek asylum by the book. There is nothing compassionate or fair about incentivising people to take a dangerous journey by sea on leaky boats, letting them drown and forcing our border protection officers to pull their wet bodies from the ocean. That is not kind, that is not compassionate and that is not fair.
Operation Sovereign Borders has three components: boat turnbacks, offshore processing and temporary protection visas. Offshore processing matters because it is vital to deterring the people-smuggling trade. When people know they won't get to live freely in Australia if they don't follow the proper processes, we stop deaths at sea and we make space for the truly vulnerable—those without the dough to jump the queue.
Under the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd governments Australia experimented with policies of the kind the Greens advocate for, and it was an unequivocal disaster. The weakening of laws concerning immigration and access to benefits like Medicare and Newstart was like manna from heaven. It was perfect advertising for the people smugglers, so the arrivals started to come. And they came and they came and they came. Twelve hundred people—men, women and children—died at the hands of people smugglers trying to get them to Australia's shores. That is 1,200 souls. It breaks my heart to think of each and every one of those needless deaths, but the coalition stopped the boats with Operation Sovereign Borders. We stopped the boats, and we have reduced the number of deaths at sea through illegal people smuggling to zero.
The Greens policies, which Labor adopted in favour of preferences in inner city seats, saw 8,000 children put into detention, and 2,000 of them remained in detention when we came to government. Let the record show today: there are no children in detention—not one. And let's not forget about the 17 detention centres that Labor and the Greens had to open to deal with the influx of people who arrived under their watch, all of which have now been closed by coalition governments since 2015. Under Operation Sovereign Borders, we have taken back control of our borders, we have ended the illegal and dangerous trade of people smuggling and we have resettled 585 people from Manus Island and Nauru in the USA, with more to come.
Offshore processing is vital to border protection. Orderly immigration, including accepting people seeking asylum, is the only fair way to manage immigration in this country. And we are generous in our humanitarian intake. Per capita, we are second in the world for the number of people to whom we open our arms. But other arrivals, not asylum seekers, but queue jumpers, illegal entrants or visa overstayers—these are the people who are cheating the system, making it harder for genuine and real asylum seekers to gain a place in Australia where they can live in peace, raise their families with quality education, health care and housing, and contribute to our country in their many and unique ways.
Australia has reached our largest offshore intake in more than 30 years. We have provided a generous humanitarian response to the ongoing crisis in Syria, agreeing to take in an additional 12,000 Syrian refugees. As I mentioned, we have resettled people through our refugee resettlement deal with the United States. Yet Labor still persist with their policy of supporting the medivac laws that were pushed through last year, which we know weaken the border protection regime that has been proven to stop people smuggling in this country. And what they describe as a pretty modest piece of legislation is akin to unlocking the door and leaving it ajar.
The medivac laws remove the minister's ability to stop people accused of serious crimes and people without identity documents from coming to Australia, and once they're here they can't be returned; they use the courts to push their case to stay. In a demonstration of the law of unintended consequences in action, the Federal Court has ruled that the two treating doctors that are only required to review a detainee's case files in order to approve a medical transfer don't even have to physically see a patient before making the call that they simply must come to Australia. Really, who didn't see this coming?
But let's not pretend that we weren't providing good medical care to those people who were in our care. Over a thousand people were brought to Australia under the previous arrangements for medical care that was not available in the relevant specialty on Manus Island or Nauru. Indeed, on Nauru, specialist and emergency health care is available around the clock. In PNG, a range of general and specialised healthcare services are available through qualified medical professionals.
It's dangerous to entertain the idea that removing the minister's ability to decide who comes to Australia is without consequences. As long as these laws are in place, the minister can only block the transfer of people who are considered dangerous if they've been subject to an adverse ASIO assessment and/or have been sentenced to more than 12 months imprisonment. We will repeal the legislation because it risks our strong and successful border protection policies.
Operation Sovereign Borders works. We've ended the illegal people smuggling trade because they now have no product to sell. No amount of hyperbole from those in the Greens political party will make a jot of difference, because we have stopped the boats, we have taken children out of detention and we have ended the senseless deaths of men, women, and children at sea. No amount of moral posturing from those in the Greens will change that fact.
I rise to talk about the matter of public importance regarding refugees and asylum seekers in Papua New Guinea, on Manus Island, and in Nauru. The offshore facilities on Manus Island and Nauru were set up as temporary offshore regional processing centres six years ago, but they have become a symbol of something much more. They have become a sign of the ongoing failure of this government and of one minister: the Minister for Home Affairs. This government and this minister blame Labor for a problem entirely of their own creation. They have been in charge now for six years and can no longer attempt to claim this is all Labor's fault. This is six years of Liberal failure and inaction that has been allowed to unfold under this government. Six years of detention is simply too long, and the reality remains that asylum seekers and refugees both on Nauru and in PNG have been left in limbo.
The offshore processing facilities on Manus Island and Nauru were only ever intended to be temporary offshore regional processing centres, but they have now become places of indefinite detention. Let's not forget who has led us to this place, where refugees and asylum seekers are kept in indefinite detention: the Minister for Home Affairs. If he was a minister who was capable of doing his job, then vulnerable people would not be left languishing. This government have created this ongoing problem themselves, and Minister Dutton has refused to act on it. But worst of all, he has constantly misled the Australian people.
I want to refer to a well-known fable that best encapsulates the minister and his actions: Aesop's fable 'The Boy Who Cried Wolf'. It is a fable we all know reasonably well. We all know how awful the shepherd boy must have felt when he realised the consequences of crying wolf too many times. Aesop's fable was right then, and his fable is right now. We have a Minister for Home Affairs who has constantly been caught crying wolf. This is a minister who holds one of the most powerful positions in the Prime Minister's cabinet. This is a minister who has a key leadership role in keeping our nation safe. This is a minister responsible for national security, intelligence, immigration and border protection agencies. How can Australians believe a minister who routinely manipulates, misrepresents and mischaracterises the truth for political gain, as the Minister for Home Affairs has done so very often?
Let's take a look at the medevac debate. Since the medevac laws were enacted, the minister has approved the transfer of a number of sick and unwell refugees and asylum seekers to Australia. Some were transferred after being assessed by the Independent Health Advice Panel. This panel includes some of Australia's best doctors—doctors that the minister got to choose himself—including the Commonwealth Chief Medical Officer and the Surgeon General of the Australian Border Force. But despite this, the minister has been vigorously arguing that two doctors from Nimbin can force the government to bring people from Manus or Nauru to Australia. These claims are simply not true, and the minister knows it. This is the same minister who claimed thousands of people would flood into Australia through medevac. This hasn't happened. This is all bluster from the minister, and it should worry us all when we have a minister that is so comfortable with regularly crying wolf, because what will happen when we face a serious risk? This should be a concern for all Australians.
But it isn't just his crying wolf on this issue that has damaged the Minister for Home Affairs. There is also a raft of other issues that go to his maladministration of his department. The failure of the Minister for Home Affairs to do his job, his mismanagement of basic legislative tasks and the mismanagement of the home affairs department are what should concern us. Whether it's overseeing a $300 million Australian Border Force budget blowout resulting in the Australian Border Force fleet being ordered to stop patrols to save money on fuel, putting Australia's borders at risk; the $7 million spent on a strategic review of the Department of Home Affairs that we're not allowed to see; ANAO report after report after report that highlights significant mismanagement and waste; or the minister's failure to manage offshore contracts, with hundreds of millions of dollars handed out without proper process, these issues of mismanagement simply go on and on. And we must ask: when will the minister step up and take responsibility for his ongoing mismanagement?
So it is not a surprise that the minister hasn't been able to ensure the resettlement of refugees and asylum seekers currently on Manus Island and Nauru. And it is no wonder the minister has always played games with the issue when he has the backing of a prime minister who has tried to play politics with this issue as well. The Prime Minister has used every opportunity to spread fear, like his ridiculous decision to reopen the Christmas Island detention centre. This was a hysterical response from the Prime Minister, the minister and the government. The actions of the Prime Minister and the minister highlight the general attitude of this government and their resolve to provide a solution to the issue of offshore processing and indefinite detention.
Now, this brings me to the point of resettlement deals and New Zealand. We have seen a deal on the table there for years, and there has been no action from this government even to accept it. That is a deal that would allow people to resettle and rebuild their lives after six years of indefinite detention on Manus Island and Nauru. Labor has long called for this deal to be accepted. It was an offer that the New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinta Ardern, reiterated again only the other day. She has reiterated it again and again.
Now, there's an important issue and an important point to make on this debate. There are a number of refugees on Manus Island and Nauru who have been offered resettlement in the United States as part of the resettlement deal with the US. We need to make sure that those who have offers on the table take them up and make a start to rebuild their lives. The United States deal is one that should be grasped with both hands. It provides people with a chance to build a new home and to resettle. Labor strongly support the deal and we want to see people take it up. The minister should be working as hard as he can to ensure that these resettlement arrangements are taken up and that people do have the ability to be resettled and to take up new opportunities and new lives.
Finally, it is important to note that, on border protection, Labor's message is clear: if you try to make it to Australia by boat, you will not make it. You will be turned around if it is safe. Labor supports Operation Sovereign Borders. We support strong borders. But we fundamentally believe that you can have strong borders and also that you can show humanity and you can show compassion to refugees and asylum seekers. Humanity and compassion are both very simple to put forward, but they are definitely two things that this government seems to have completely forgotten about.
Could you please bear with me as I check for clowns behind me, because on the previous sitting day there was another Greens member who behaved like a clown.
As a servant to the people of Queensland and Australia and on behalf of One Nation, I would like to commend the Papua New Guinean authorities on the orderly deportation of Senator McKim. I understand that Senator McKim was asked to leave the country after illegally attempting to enter the Manus Regional Processing Centre. In taking these actions, the authorities determined that the senator violated the conditions of his visa and he was appropriately deported.
The Manus facility is an important part of Australia's immigration infrastructure. The centre serves to protect Australians from the threat posed by illegal immigration and potential terrorist infiltration. One Nation regards interference with the processing centre as a serious issue, particularly when the attempt to enter the facility appears to be part of a political stunt—yet another Greens clown act. I will remind my Greens colleagues that they are not above the law. Compliance with the rule of law is a major problem in my home state of Queensland. Anti-democracy control freaks—radicals—regularly try to shut down traffic in the Brisbane CBD to control and stop legitimate business activity that provides Queenslanders with their livelihoods. This legitimate business activity has been approved by both Labor and Liberal governments at state and federal level, and encouraged and supported for many years by One Nation. I would counsel Senator Nick 'I did nothing wrong' McKim to abide by the terms of his visa when visiting foreign countries. His actions as an Australian parliamentarian and the response they required reflect very poorly on Australia and bring shame on this House.
The Greens are not above the law. No matter how many times they tell us or try to demonstrate it, they are not above the law. Speaking of the law, firstly, we—Australians—control who enters our country, and the Papua New Guineans have the right to control who enters their country and who stays in their country. Secondly, it is compassion that encourages us to make sure that only genuine refugees come to this country. And it is our humanity, our valuing of people's safety and livelihoods, that encourage us to stop the people who come to this country illegally and unlawfully.
Senator Nick 'I Did Nothing Wrong' McKim is not above the law. People who break the immigration law should not be allowed into our country. I know people who have served on Manus in security and they show that the way in which people are treated on Manus is with a lot of respect, a lot of consideration and a lot of safety. The people, though, who violate the terms of visas should be deported.
Australia takes its international obligations seriously and provides protection to refugees consistent with these obligations. We are usually ranked amongst the top three countries globally with long-established annual resettlement programs. We have a proud history of resettling people. Since World War II, we have welcomed over 7.5 million migrants to Australia, including over 850,000 under our humanitarian program. We have committed to increasing this program from 13,750 places up to 18,750 places per annum by 2018-19, making this intake the largest in more than 30 years.
As a former minister responsible for settlement services, I say that we rank amongst the best in the world. The coalition has implemented tough border protection measures through Operation Sovereign Borders under which anyone who comes to Australia illegally by boat, without a visa, will not be settled in Australia. There are two outcomes for people who travel illegally: they will be intercepted and safely removed from our waters or be sent to another country for regional processing. Processing and resettlement in Australia will never be an option. And there has been a very substantial and sustained reduction in maritime ventures and potential illegal immigration attempting to reach Australia.
We must not forget the only reason anyone is on Manus Island or Nauru is because Labor lost control of our borders. And let's not forget what happened during the Labor-Green alliance years. There were 50,000 people who arrived on over 800 boats. There were 1,200 deaths at sea, and these are the ones we know of. There is nothing compassionate about a policy that led to so many deaths at sea. There is nothing compassionate about a policy that led to so many deaths at sea. Over 8,000 illegal maritime arrival children were detained. At the height of Labor's policy failure, in July 2013, there were over 10,000 people in detention, including almost 2,000 children. Labor was forced to open 17 detention centres to deal with the influx, and there was a $16 billion border protection budget blowout. Indeed, during the Gillard government, three-quarters of a billion dollars was diverted from our aid budget to pay for Labor's border protection blowouts, and this made the Gillard government the third-largest recipient of its own overseas development program.
Under Operation Sovereign Borders, we have taken back control of our borders from the people smugglers, and we are proud of our record: there have been no deaths at sea, we have closed 17 detention centres and we have removed all children from detention. As I have indicated, we not only increased the humanitarian program but also provided generous humanitarian response after the Syrian crisis through an additional intake of 12,000 refugees. I've met many of these people from religious minorities. They are very grateful to have come to Australia under our programs. We've also announced a resettlement arrangement with the United States. Our program is about defeating people smugglers, who manipulate vulnerable men, women and children into risking their lives at sea, and it has acted as a very significant deterrent because it has denied the people smugglers a product to sell.
This MPI demonstrates the hypocrisy of the Greens. Before the last election, yet again Labor teamed up with the Greens to give the green light to people smugglers. They were waiting for a change of government. Of course, they've been extremely disappointed. Remember Kevin Rudd's promises in 2007? 'I'll turn back the boats.' The moment he became Prime Minister, the opposite happened. The people smugglers were back in business and 1,200 people died at sea. And that's exactly what would have happened if Labor had won the election.
In relation to Manus, we have significantly reduced the number of people Labor put on Manus and now we are pushing to get it as close to zero as we can. The Australian and PNG governments are committed to ensuring services are in place to support the health, welfare and safety of the transferees in PNG.
I'd like to reflect on some of the very negative aspersions that those opposite have made about Nauru. As Minister for International Development and the Pacific, I had the opportunity to visit Nauru. First of all, there is ample medical staff on Nauru. Every child who requires specialised medical treatment is getting it and has been transferred without compromising security. We have been doing this in a quiet and appropriate manner. Nauru's people are warm, friendly and hospitable, so I find the description by those opposite contemptuous and offensive. Nauru has a population of about 12,000 people, including about 1,000 asylum seekers and refugees.
I visited and toured Nauru Secondary School and the adjacent learning village. There are about 10 schools on Nauru and over 3,000 students. It is compulsory education and it begins in preschool. There's also a centre for disabled children and youth of all ages. The government manages all the schools, and all children on Nauru, irrespective of whether they're Nauruan or non-Nauruan, attend school. We contributed to the construction of buildings at Nauru Secondary School, which opened in March 2010. Since then, with our support, the education system has contributed to increased enrolments, more qualified teachers and the introduction of a new national curriculum, which enables graduating secondary students to receive a Queensland Certificate of Education. The school's been refurbished, and there's been the construction of other facilities. We have contributed to the learning village, incorporating all higher education agencies in a single, disability-friendly area, including the University of the South Pacific, a technical and vocational education and training centre, and a community library.
I also visited the Nauru Lifeguard Service, which is supported by lifesaving groups in Australia. It was great to meet many of the local lifesavers. The lifeguard service is now part of Nauru's National Emergency Services, and it employs both Nauruans and refugee residents as staff. I spoke to local Nauruan businesspeople including expats. The local bank manager told me that there were about 8,000 bank accounts, including hundreds from the refugee cohort.
I visited the hospital. Following the fire there in August 2013, we have contributed funding to phase 1 and 2 of the hospital redevelopment projects. Many new facilities have been included, including new medical and surgical wings, X-ray machines, CT scanners, a paediatric ward, a pathology lab, water storage facilities, sewerage treatment and backup power. These facilities are comparable to services I have seen in Sydney. I visited the Nauru community resource centre, an Australian-funded project in partnership with the Nauru Department of Multicultural Affairs, which provides assistance to local and refugee communities. They provide case management services to refugees in Nauru.
I recall a conversation with a young woman who wanted to come to Australia. I told her that it would not be possible. She told me that people in Australia had told her to wait for a change. That's code for: wait for a change of government. And it is clear that advocates from Australia, hell-bent on their own publicity, are giving people false hope—creating the impression that things can change and giving young people false hope. You are the ones that are creating the angst. You are the ones who are playing with lives and holding out hope for these people. You are the ones distorting the facts and creating mental angst for your own base political purposes.
What does not emerge is that many in the refugee community have started little businesses. For example, there is the young man from Iran who started a restaurant from his home. It's now become a very popular place to eat and meet. There are the Iranian ladies who have started nail and beauty businesses which provide new services on Nauru. I've met many local Nauruans and their families on the island who are now well settled. As I drove around the island, I saw for myself the housing that had been provided for the refugee community—some of better standard than that of local Nauruans.
Those opposite often portray children behind wire fences. One of the biggest problems in Nauru is that, with the introduction of aggressive strains of dogs into the dog population, many more dog attacks have resulted. Therefore, fences are vital to protection. All of this highlights the lies that those opposite have perpetrated, describing Nauru as a hellhole. It's wrong, and it didn't surprise me to see that article in The Australian in November 2018 entitled 'Refugees pick Nauru over US'. We are one of the most culturally diverse countries, and we dictate who comes to Australia.
Sitting here listening to Senator Fierravanti-Wells, who I get along with on a personal basis quite well, having shared a corridor with her for a period of time, I have to say, when it comes to the situation of asylum seekers and refugees on Manus and Nauru, she really is living in a parallel universe. To listen to Senator Fierravanti-Wells talk now about the conditions on Manus and Nauru—
You're right, I haven't seen the conditions. Despite being part of a Senate committee in the last term which sought government permission to travel to Manus and Nauru, I was denied the ability to travel. I would have very much liked to have gone and seen with my own eyes the conditions, but I was prevented from doing so by this government. So, I remain interested in going and seeing the conditions there because, as you probably know, I have some history in representing some of the people who are detained and have been detained in Nauru, and I would like to see the conditions. If the government is prepared to allow a little bit more scrutiny of what is going on there, I think that would be a very healthy thing.
But to listen to Senator Fierravanti-Wells, you would think that Manus and Nauru are tropical island paradise resorts. She's talking about the wonderful opportunities that people have taken up to set up businesses in these places, and I'm sure that there are some people who have made the best of a terrible situation, but I don't think that anyone who has observed—whether firsthand or through listening to witness reports from credible organisations that have been contracted by this government to deliver services on those islands—would agree with the portrayal that Senator Fierravanti-Wells has just put forward.
I'm well aware that the issue of border protection and the treatment of asylum seekers and refugees has become one of the most toxic areas of political debate in this country over the last few years. It has been used by both extremes of politics as a weapon, as a culture war, to try to drive up the votes on the extreme end of politics, doing absolutely nothing to assist the people who are subjected to the conditions that continue in both Manus and Nauru. There remains, unfortunately, much that we will disagree on in how refugees and asylum seekers should be treated, whether they be people who are currently living in Australia or people who are currently in offshore detention as a result of this parliament's policies.
But while there is much that we can disagree on and will continue to disagree on, surely we can agree on one thing—that is, that people still in detention in Manus and Nauru have been there far too long and should be removed as a matter of urgency. Even in question time today, we continued to hear this government make the ridiculous assertion that these people are not in detention. It's not as if they can leave Manus. It's not as if they can leave Nauru and travel wherever they want. They are strictly controlled to this day. Their movement is strictly controlled. Their opportunities to rebuild a life are strictly controlled, so let's not have this ridiculous argument that these people are free to come and go as they please, because they're not. That is the truth.
Even the most ardent supporter of a tough position on border protection and offshore detention would accept that these unfortunate people—human beings, men, women and children—have been in detention in these places for far too long and it has, in far too many cases, caused irreparable harm to their lives, irreparable harm to their mental health and irreparable physical harm in some cases. Unfortunately—more than unfortunately, tragically—a number of people have died, sometimes at their own hand because of their own despondency about their situation. We've had report after report from independent observers, from organisations that have been contracted by this very government to support people in detention in Manus and Nauru, that have told us that the harm being perpetrated on people in these detention centres is dreadful and it must end.
The real tragedy is that there actually is a way through this to stop this human misery and to get these people out to get on with their lives—that is, by the government simply following through on its professed policy that these people will be resettled in third countries. This is something that Labor have consistently supported. We've supported the government's policy that people currently in detention in Manus and Nauru need to be resettled in third countries. We just want the government to get on and do it. And it's not as if the government doesn't have opportunities to do so. Shortly I'll talk about the opportunities that remain available to the government if it's actually serious about delivering on its policy to resettle people.
When it comes to Manus, which is obviously a part of Papua New Guinea, this very day we have the new Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea in this parliament undertaking official meetings. He is on the record as recently saying that he wants to see a deadline for ending offshore processing in his country. He says that it should end as soon as possible. I understand that, after his meetings today with various officials from the government, he said that 'we will ensure that we have a mutually workable timetable and closure program' for the offshore detention facilities. I think that all of us who have an interest in this issue would be very interested to know what this time line is. What time line is the government working towards to end the offshore detention program so that these people can be resettled in other countries and get on with their lives?
One of the other resettlement options that this government has put up involved Cambodia. We remember the government saying a number of years ago that it had reached an agreement with the government of Cambodia that that would be another place for people on Manus and Nauru to be resettled. This agreement has now lapsed, not surprisingly, because it's been such an abject failure. But not without cost—obviously, a cost to the people who undertook that program, but it's actually cost taxpayers $55 million to run a resettlement program with Cambodia. And guess how many people have actually been resettled in Cambodia? It's three. Three people were resettled in Cambodia at a cost of $55 million. So we're nearly up to $20 million per person who was resettled in Cambodia. What a terrific success that is from this government, which likes to say that it's a success in matters of border protection!
Obviously, we've got the arrangement with the US to resettle people. Again, Labor has been supportive of that. But that has moved far too slowly and has still not seen the full allocation taken up that was agreed to by the US government under President Obama. It would be good to see the government actually deliver on that agreement as well, and ensure that the full allocation that was committed to by the US is taken up.
And, of course, most obviously we've got the resettlement arrangements involving New Zealand. For years now, governments in New Zealand of both political persuasions have offered to take people from Manus and Nauru. What could be better from an Australian perspective than having a near neighbour whose values and systems of government we share, like New Zealand, help be part of the solution here? And they remain willing to take 150 people, I think it is, from Manus and Nauru. But, day after day, despite that offer being on the table and being available to take some of these people who remain in detention out, to let them rebuild their lives—we've got a country which is actually willing to do this—this stubborn government, which thinks that it's solved this problem, continues to reject that offer that's been made available by New Zealand. As a consequence, these poor people remain in detention as a result of this government's decision.
We hear arguments from the government that to take up the New Zealand offer would restart the boats. Well, how many times have we heard that something would start up the boats, only to see that not occur? We were told last year, and we continue to be told, that the medevac legislation would restart the boats. It hasn't. Every time this government has claimed that something would restart the boats it hasn't happened. They should take up the New Zealand offer and get these people out.
I personally do not support indefinite offshore detention. In fact, I don't actually support offshore detention at all. Unfortunately, this government not only embraces this policy it has worked particularly hard to demonise asylum seekers in order to keep on its course.
The minister now insists that asylum seekers be called 'illegal', even though he'd be well aware that they have done nothing illegal in seeking asylum in Australia. In fact, had they arrived by plane rather than by boat they would have had their refugee claims processed without problems years ago, and many would already have been settled in Australia. It suits government to treat these people as quasi criminals because it is so much easier to argue for their ongoing, and often inhumane, treatment if it can get the public to view asylum seekers without sympathy.
This almost came undone last year when there was snowballing momentum behind calls for all children to be removed from Nauru. In response, the government started to hustle to remove children from Nauru, but it was all too little too late. It took the medevac legislation to finally and speedily get every last child off that island, but not before some of these innocents had suffered severe psychological damage and physical illness. Of course, kids in offshore detention aren't necessarily doing much better, as we've seen in the media recently. In what sane universe do ministers who have children themselves turn a blind eye to the suffering of children, all in the name of an inhumane policy?
The government has backed itself into a corner by refusing to consider sincere offers from New Zealand to resettle asylum seekers who aren't settled in the United States. It can't seem to get its head around the fact that there are ways to deal humanely with the legacy case load without dismantling its border protection policy. In the black and white, reductionist world of this government, anything that strays from its hard-core policy will restart the boats—like the medevac legislation. That hasn't restarted the boats, has it? Not at all; far from it. We don't have hordes of leaky boats heading here because of the medevac bill—it won't benefit anybody who arrives now. It's also because boat turnbacks have been such an effective turnoff. We know that the US resettlement offer didn't restart the boats, and accepting the New Zealand offer won't do that either.
I'd like to remind the chamber of a well-researched article that former Home Affairs employee Shaun Hanns wrote for The Monthly last year. Mr Hanns worked at the coalface as a protection visa case officer. His previously sympathetic views of Australia's border protection policy changed dramatically after seeing the harm and loss he was creating in his fellow humans. His answer to the problem is simple, humane and well argued. It is, simply, 'keep the architecture; remove the people'. He makes the case that settling those currently in offshore detention in Australia will not restart the boats. In his words:
If you accept that the capacity of people smugglers has been seriously overestimated and that only concessions made to prospective arrivals change people’s decision-making, the answer to this vexing issue, at least in the short term, becomes obvious. Keep the architecture, remove the people.
The government needs to adopt this advice. It needs to change course and find a solution to this stalemate, because while it has enough of the public onside for now that will not always be the case. Its supporters will eventually demand an end to arbitrary and inhumane offshore detention, and that's assuming that PNG and Nauru will continue to play willing hosts, because it very much appears that this role is starting to wear very thin. When that happens, what will be the government's plan B?