Speech to bill: Thursday, 28 June 2012
Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (14:17): I rise to support my Greens colleagues speaking in this debate. This Australian parliament is seeing two days of very historic, significant debate. I had the opportunity to hear some of the speeches in the House of Representatives and I have been able to listen to all the speeches in the Senate today. I certainly acknowledge that many MPs are looking for a humane approach to refugees who wish to come to this country. But the bill before us should not be supported. As Senator Christine Milne said, the Migration Legislation Amendment (The Bali Process) Bill 2012 is a political solution, not a solution for asylum seekers. The Greens are opposing this bill because we want to welcome refugees to Australia, refugees who have a right to come to this country. We are opposing this bill because we want to save lives.
The Greens' commitment to work with all parties and crossbenchers to find a solution is clearly reflected in the amendment that Senator Milne has moved. That amendment sets out some very specific ways that we could come together to ensure safety of refugees who so often take a very perilous trip when they decide to leave their country. That Greens amendment covers providing safe pathways for refugees, increasing our humanitarian intake of refugees, increasing funding to the UNHCR, entry into urgent discussions with all parties about how to bring more resolution to this issue, and establishing a multiparty committee in the context of the refugee convention to further develop this work. People seeking asylum have the right to seek refuge in Australia and the essence of this bill is that it denies that right. That is what is so fundamentally wrong with this bill and why it should be opposed.
In the context of having this important debate in the parliament and considering how refugees are able to come to this country, it is worth remembering that this issue has not been always so deeply politicised as we are seeing now. In the 1970s and 1980s there was a bipartisan approach that was reflective of our responsibilities. In that period there were waves of refugees coming from both South-East Asia and South America wanting to come to Australia. They were politically fraught times but there was a unity between the political parties in our parliament that did not politicise the issue, did not use refugees and attacks on refugees and a whole lot of implications about their rights, the types of people they are and what they were doing here, to try and win elections.
This is a time when we need to remember that former prime ministers Whitlam, Fraser and Hawke actually worked together—again I emphasise that this issue was never featured in elections, and it was complex—on how people who were seeking refuge could be given safe passage. That was worked on in a collaborative way and that was achieved. I draw senators' attention to a recent most important speech that former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser gave when he delivered the 2012 Whitlam Oration. I recommend that senators read it. There are a number of quotes relevant to our debate today and there are two that I would like to share with the chamber. In reference to refugees coming here from South-east Asia, Mr Fraser stated:
Gough Whitlam did not play politics with this. It would have been easy to do.
He went on to say:
Bipartisanship on issues of immigration was maintained.
That saved lives. That brought dignity to people and made it easier for those refugees, when they came to Australia, to be able to settle here. But, most importantly and most relevant to what we are discussing now, it meant that the government of the day was able to work with those communities looking for refuge in Australia so their passage was as safe as possible.
Mr Fraser also said—and this is relevant to today and it is a very sobering comment:
Our treatment of refugees, and the poisonous debate engaged in by our major political parties has done Australia much harm throughout our own region.
I am opposing this bill for many reasons. Many of them are very personal. I visit Villawood quite often. I have met refugees whose stories are just so heartbreaking. They are heartbreaking for what they have gone through and heartbreaking for what they are now enduring. I am opposing this bill because of the two refugees I met recently who came here as children and who spoke at the Greens event for Refugee Week: Juma Abraham, from Sudan, and Masihullah Mobin, from Afghanistan. Their stories made me very proud of humanity and proud that I had the privilege of meeting these people but also quite ashamed about what human beings periodically do to other human beings. They have lost so many relatives. It is lucky that they are alive here now. But they are in Australia and they are so thankful. I am particularly thinking of Masihullah today, because he was on a boat that overturned. His only relative who was sent with him, when he was 15, died on that boat, and Masihullah had a horrendous time before he was able to come to Australia.
I am also thinking of many of the people I saw in a film recently that I have already spoken about in this parliament, called Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea. I would recommend that all MPs see this. It really does bring clarity to the issues that we are discussing today. This film was made by Jessie Taylor and Ali Reza Sadiqi. These two filmmakers went to Indonesia and met many of the people who are seeking refuge here, who are just seeking a better life somewhere. It explained clearly that the queues do not exist—that is meaningless. It explained the decades and decades that people have to wait, the corruption that exists within the process that they have to go through, often even within the UNHCR process, and just why they feel so hopeless in their lives. Then you start to understand why they get on these boats. You saw sometimes the boats break up, and you expected that people were losing their lives. You felt that you had got to know many of the people that you met in the film—their wishes and their hopes for the rest of their lives and for their children. The end of the film was very moving. It showed photos of those people and, underneath, a description of what had happened to them. With so many of them it was 'drowned', 'missing' or 'settled in Australia'. That was how the film ended, and it was very moving for everybody. I speak of that because they are the people that I am thinking of when I consider this bill. This bill is a betrayal of those people and all people who have a right to seek refuge in this country.
We have heard many speakers. I was disappointed with some of the comments many of the Labor speakers made because they were not acknowledging that this bill is a misuse of international law, that this bill pushes Australia's responsibility under international law onto other countries. This bill is in effect another form of deterrence. I am not denying that many in the Labor government have very humane feelings and are distressed by what is happening, but there clearly is a desire here within the Labor government, in bringing forward and backing this legislation, that the boats will stop. Under this bill, people can be sent to other countries. What we have here is a failed policy. It is a failed policy for refugees and it will be a failed policy in terms of Labor's desire to use this legislation to stop the boats.
I think it is important to reiterate that people seeking refuge have a right to do so. Naturally they will look to Australia. Many people think that is because we are a wealthy country in the region. What goes with that is a huge responsibility, much of it a moral responsibility as well as a legal responsibility. But, from the many talks that I have had with refugees and people who work in this area, I know that people also look to this country because we have such a fine record of welcoming refugees to this country. I just spoke about what happened in the 1970s and 1980s. That is in our memory. It was such a fraught time. The Vietnam War divided this country so deeply, but we came out of that, and people who wanted to take refuge in this country from Vietnam were allowed to do so, and it was done with unity across political parties.
Senator Cameron said that people are crying out for compromise. We have heard that statement made quite often in this debate. What we need to reflect on is: how can you call it compromise when this bill that Labor is supporting—and may have had a considerable hand in getting off the ground—contradicts the refugee convention? This is not a compromise. A compromise is when you ensure that the outcome you are trying to achieve is to some extent achieved. But we are not getting anything better for refugees here. There is no improvement in the current standards for refugees coming to this country. This bill takes things backwards.
As Australians, we need to recognise that we have responsibilities to accept refugees. The number of those seeking refuge in our country will fluctuate. At times, I think we should be willing to accept many more refugees to this country—when wars break out, when there are natural disasters, when people are being persecuted. Sri Lanka is an example at the moment. The civil war has ended, but so many Tamils are taking to boats, and it is because of the extreme persecution in that country. It is similar with Afghanistan. Why are people doing that? Because of the persecution that is continuing in that country, as well as the war. That is why people are taking to the boats in an attempt to escape. Attempted genocide, wars, natural disasters—these are driving people to come to our country, and these are issues that also need to be addressed. I obviously recognise that we have an immediate issue here with the boats, but we cannot divorce what we are facing here from why people make that extraordinary decision to leave their home, to leave their country, to leave their communities, to seek a better life—often just to seek safety in the first instance.
In this debate we often hear terms like 'queue jumpers' and 'risks to the national security of our country'. The term 'border security' is frequently used. We hear talk about people smuggling. I think so much of that language politicises this issue, and again it is a reminder of how far we have moved away from the times of the seventies and eighties, when there truly was a bipartisan position, but a bipartisan position based not on the lowest common denominator in terms of how we treat refugees but on honouring our responsibility under the refugee convention.
I think it is worth also remembering, when people talk about people smuggling, that essentially, across the world, there are informal and formal networks of people moving across borders to seek a better life. That is what is happening. Part of our responsibility is how we respond to that issue, because so often it is a perilous journey that people take.
Australia's responsibilities to refugees, I believe, should also ensure that their journey is not life threatening, and this bill will not save lives. It is an abuse of the refugee convention and therefore of refugees. For all those reasons, it should not be supported.