Mr WILKIE (Denison) (10:22): I move:
That this bill be now read a second time.
This bill might be better referred to simply as the ‘ending the nation’s shame bill’. And I say that very deliberately, because shame is a powerful word and a powerful emotion. Most people have felt it at one time or another—a feeling deep inside when we know we have done something wrong. And I think we all know that the wrong that leads to shame is often a wrong done to others.
Shame is an emotion often felt in retrospect, looking back on events, despite efforts to sidestep the reality of what has been done. We try to justify our actions. We did not know. We did not see. We could not have done anything. We could not have changed the outcome.
But when it comes to Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers there are no such excuses. We do know. We do see. We can do something. We can change the outcome. And millions of Australians do feel shame at the actions of this and previous governments when it comes to our country’s response to asylum seekers. And moreover they feel this shame keenly, shame at actions done in their name. It is time—in fact, it is way beyond time—for this government to end the nation’s shame and this bill will do just that.
The government has done all it can to direct the public gaze away from Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers. It has shut down information and stomped all over transparency. Asylum seekers are now stopped before they reach our shores and kept out of sight, out of mind on islands in some of the most remote places imaginable.
No-one is without sin here because in fact it was Labor that invented mandatory detention, tried to stitch up a deal with Malaysia and resurrected Manus Island. But it has been the Liberals who have ‘perfected’ the solution to the ‘problem’ of what they call ‘illegal immigrants’.
But you know what? We still see. We saw the wild waters off Christmas Island where men, women and children drowned trying to reach a safe life for their families and beliefs. We saw the riots on Manus Island that led to the death of a hopeful young man straining for a better life. We saw the pained faces of observers who tell of children in detention who have stopped speaking or who refer to themselves by number, rather than by name. And surely there is no greater shame than that done to the world’s children.
This government, and the previous government, believe that refugees who arrive by boat are less deserving of our help than those who can afford a plane ticket. Well they’re not.
This government, and the previous government, believe asylum seekers must form a queue or their asylum claim is illegal. Turns out these politicians believe we should treat some of the most vulnerable people running from terror like they are an invading force or a border threat.
This bill would change all that because it ends mandatory detention, ends offshore processing and ends temporary protection visas. It also gives asylum seekers full access to Medicare, Centrelink and work rights and full access to legal support and the rights of appeal.
In other words this bill makes Australia act like the rich and civilised country that we are; a place that not only signed up to the refugee convention, but also one that believes in it. This bill would end the shame.
This bill would effectively end mandatory detention by imposing a 14-day limit on the time people may be held by the authorities on arrival in Australia. And if, after 14 days, there has not been a decision, then they must be released on a bridging visa. Yes, it is reasonable and sensible to make sure new arrivals are not security or health risks, but it is not fair to hold asylum seekers indefinitely or even to take so much longer than other nations to process individual requests for protection.
Mandatory detention goes against everything we stand for in this country. Australia is described as a lucky country, and it is. Australia is described as a country of opportunity, and it is. Yet we throw innocent people into jail for doing nothing more than fleeing for their lives. In particular if a mother and her child spend months travelling the dangerous route to Australia, and days in the hull of a leaking boat far out to sea, then they have been in detention too long already.
This bill would also shut down Nauru and Manus Island, as it should, because it is simply unconscionable to outsource our responsibilities and to wash our hands of all of the consequences of that decision. So, when those in need arrive in Australia, this bill ensures that we take responsibility, that we process people in centres that we control with accountability to the Australian people, not the governments of developing nations.
This bill would also provide certainty to people arriving in Australia that if they have a valid claim for asylum, if their persecution and the danger they face in their country of origin is genuine, then they will be given protection. But not just temporary protection, which effectively imposes a long, slow torture on refugees, but permanent protection which sends a clear message to vulnerable people, and to their families, those who face the worst violations of their liberty and safety, that if they are telling the truth then they will find genuine safety here in Australia.
This bill will also remedy the appalling situation whereby countless refugees are prohibited from accessing gainful employment and government services like Medicare and Centrelink. Frankly, I find it repugnant that we have an official policy to prevent some people in this country from being able to earn or learn, and which denies them any effective financial safety net.
I should add, however, that at least this policy is not entirely discriminatory, seeing as the government is determined to deny a financial safety net to even its own citizens if the proposed changes to Newstart for Australians under the age of 30 are ever realised. More broadly, though, the government obviously does not believe that all are equal under the law, seeing as the manner in which a person arrives in this country determines their access to the legal framework set up to assist and protect all migrants and refugees arriving in Australia. To remedy that, this bill would ensure that there is no distinction between asylum seekers based on the circumstances of their arrival. So, if they need and are entitled to access one of the many review mechanisms available, then all will have an equal right to do so and be treated equally under the law.
This bill also seeks to ensure greater transparency and, to that end, requires the minister for immigration to provide the parliament with a report every six months outlining how many people have arrived in Australia seeking our protection and how many of those the government has turned away. For too long this government has hidden behind phrases like ‘operational matters’ and refused to tell the parliament and the people the truth about how many people want to come here, how many they’re locking up and how many they’re sending back. Frankly, governments act in our name and have no right to keep secret what really are, at the end of the day, humanitarian matters.
The bill has one final reform I will mention, and that is how it ensures that children who are travelling with their parents are not to be separated; not during detention and even not during any transportation that needs to occur. Quite simply there is no good reason children cannot be processed with their parents and there is no reason they would need to be apart. In other words it’s quite outrageous that this government, and the previous government, allowed minors to be held in detention and transported unaccompanied, especially when they were being shipped to other countries.
In closing I make the point again that Australia is a rich and fortunate place. We need to start acting like it. And I make the point again that we are actually a signatory to the refugee convention. Again, we need to start acting like it. It is time to end the nation’s shame and to that end I commend the bill to the House.