Speech on the Migration Legislation Amendment (The Bali Process) Bill 2012
Senator LUDLAM (Western Australia) (16:08): I rise to add some comments to this debate on the Migration Legislation Amendment (The Bali Process) Bill 2012. It has been interesting, having spent most of the day in here, that despite the fact that this parliament is bitterly divided on this issue, there is a striking degree of agreement across the chamber about what we are seeking to prevent. What we are seeking to prevent most immediately, after the few days we have had, are deaths at sea-people undertaking these voyages and finding themselves in unseaworthy vessels in heavy waters and drowning on their way to what they hoped would be a better life in Australia. Although there has been a certain amount of back and forth across the chamber this afternoon, it has been a remarkably respectful debate, given how strong feelings run on this issue.
My office has been getting, as I am sure all senators' have, a lot of correspondence phone calls urging us to compromise-urging us to just do something, to just make this stop-and pass legislation that will prevent these things that appear to us as images on television screens. They appear to our search and rescue crews as human beings struggling to stay afloat, and they appear to the people most concerned as life-or-death situations on the high seas. The tone of some of the correspondence we are getting-and Senator Humphries hinted at this in his contribution-is: what use is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights if you are drowning, and it is pitch black, and you have no hope of reaching shore?
Believe me, if this bill we are debating would prevent those deaths, we would all be on the other side of the chamber. But we will be voting against this bill when it comes up, for the simple reason that we do not have any confidence that it will prevent these horrific scenes we have been witnessing over the last few weeks. I think we are being presented, in essence, with a false choice: 'Just do something; do anything that will work.' Of course we would, if it worked. Compromise is the essence of politics. It has been proposed that politics is in fact the art of compromise, the art of getting the best out of a situation. If we thought a life would be saved or a boat could be prevented from foundering, then of course we would be voting for the bill and then making the best of it from there.
I wonder whether senators have visited the memorial out at Yarralumla. It is a remarkably moving place. I only visited it for the first time a year or so ago, and it took a while for us to get what it was telling us. It was put there, as I am sure all senators are aware, as a memorial to the tragedy of the SIEVX, the suspected illegal entry vessel. It is a tragedy that our country remembers pretty well, and I think it is also a sombre reminder of just how long and how divisive these debates have been in this country. It is quite an experience. You walk through a long line of white poles that wind through the grass. It is a very quiet place down by the lake. Most of the poles have a little dedication on them, a name of a person. But a large number of them do not have names, because we do not know exactly who they were. There is a sign that tells you exactly what the memorial is. About three-quarters of the way down, the path of poles branches out in the shape of a vessel and then you realise, with horror, that this is the vessel that this huge number of people were crammed onto when it came apart at sea.
The memorial represents a number of things for me-among other things, the compassion of the Australians who put it there, and the schoolkids who learnt a little bit about the individual lives that are just numbers to most of us. If you care to, you can go down there and learn a little bit about the people and about the horror they experienced. There were 353 people on that boat, a tiny little boat in an enormous ocean. The tragedy occurred during the period of the former government, well before I got into this place, at a time when the debate was at fever pitch. The system of TPVs that are now back on the table- I believe the coalition is proposing to bring them back-was in place. It was a time when the deterrence effect of a bunch of different policy instruments was being proposed to deter people from making these risky voyages. If there is one thing this chamber agrees, it is that we do not want people dying on their way to this country.
But of course the flaw in that logic, and the flaw in the logic that underpins this bill that we are debating today, is that the deterrence effect has to be scarier than a war, it has to be scarier than an internment camp in the north of Sri Lanka, and it has to be scarier than torture, or having cigarette butts pushed into your body, as some of the Tamils showed us. I visited a young guy called Joe who was incarcerated in the Perth airport detention centre. It is quite a small centre, it is relatively well run, it is obviously approachable-you can get to it; it is not parked way out in the bush. I and a colleague took the opportunity on a number of occasions to visit some of the people, most of them Tamils, who had fled the war in Sri Lanka. They showed us photographs of their relatives who had been tortured and murdered. They showed us some of the scars and the wounds that they still carried. It made a lasting impression on me.
To try to deter people who have reached the kinds of places that have been described in a bit of detail during the debate-these camps and these queues that people talk about, the endless waits with no guarantee of any kind that you will ever be resettled anywhere, let alone Australia or perhaps New Zealand-you have to realise just how serious your deterrent effect is going to need to be. The people who are fleeing some of these horrific situations have experienced things that most Australians, fortunately, will never-we hope-have to experience.
You have to be scarier than war and you have to be scarier than torture. Compared to war or torture, the various proposals and counter proposals about where we dump people offshore, in the event that they do try to make these voyages, must seem very mild. Bitter experience, as modern history has shown, is no deterrent-it is in fact no such thing.
I had the good fortune a couple of years ago-and I to hope to visit there again in a couple of weeks-the Mae La Oon refugee camp up on the Thai-Burma border, where 50,000 people live under bamboo within sight of the Koren side of the border. Along that border a bitter civil war between the Koren people, together with some of their northern neighbours, and the Burmese regime. There are somewhere in the realm of half a million to a million Burmese now on the Thai side, many of them in gigantic internment camps. I visited one of those, and people are safer there than they are in their home country, but it is a pretty fine margin. To get a sense of their hopes and expectations, they have makeshift schools, they are teaching themselves primary health care and basic medicine. When I was there, completely out of the blue, I was able to give a computer award to kids who were training themselves to build computer hardware and who were then walking back across the border to home. There are display boards in the refugee camp showing when people would come to take them out of there and give them a new life in Australia. Some of them have been there for years and years and years. Perhaps they will be able to go home, but we know many of the people fleeing Afghanistan, a country that we are currently helping to occupy, may never be able to go home. The Hazaras who have made their way through various countries between Afghanistan and here may never be able to go home.
A deterrent has to be worse than some of the conditions in Afghanistan-for example, the Taliban poisoning schools because they happen to be educating young women or the United States and NATO forces using white phosphorus and drone strikes that blow entire families away in the hope that they will get the guy they are after. That is what we are competing with in our attempt at deterrence, which, of course, will not work. There were somewhere in the realm of 42½ million people on the move at the end of 2011-refugees like those I met in Thailand, internally-displaced people and people seeking asylum. There is reasonably robust modelling that presumes by mid-century-if we continue to stand by while the climate changes-anywhere between 100 million and 500 million people will be on the move. That is one of the reasons it is important that we pause today to consider how our decisions-on people numbering in the dozens and the hundreds who are attempting to reach our shores, on where we attempt to dump them and how harsh our deterrence should be-will shape future responses, when vastly larger numbers of people are on the move. We are already seeing the way this is shaping domestic politics in North America and in western Europe, where they are coping with much larger refugee flows than we do here in Australia. There will be up to half a billion people on the move by mid-century if climate change gets a grip. I raise that not as a distraction from the immediacy of people trying to reach our shores now, but as a gauge for the responses-with degrees of compassion or pragmatism-we bring to bear on these debates now will potentially shape us or scar us as we move into the future.
The Greens will be voting against this legislation. It is a bit unfortunate that Senator Humphries has left the chamber, because he put a reasonably sensible question during his contribution along the lines of the second reading amendment that was moved by Senator Milne and Senator Hanson-Young earlier this afternoon on behalf of the Australian Greens. It is incumbent upon us on the crossbenches who are proposing to vote against this misguided legislation to come up with a counterproposal that makes sense and will meet the need.
Senators may have had time to read over the amendment that the Greens have moved, and I want to step senators through it, so that you are very clear about our intention. Two clauses in the amendment propose to deal immediately with the people who are seeking asylum today. I should also note, partly by way of response to Senator Humphries' questions to me across the chamber, that all of the clauses in this proposal do not need legislative effect. They could be put into practice immediately. That is our proposition, no matter the fate of the amendment when it is put to the vote. Part (vi) proposes to codify Australia's obligations under the Safety of Life at Sea Convention, which we signed in 1974 across all relevant agencies. I think what we are hearing collectively in this building from the Australian community is: 'Act now. We will work out some of the detail later. But act now to prevent loss of life at sea.'
Part (v) of the amendment proposes that we enter urgent discussions between Australia and Indonesia to address the critical need for cooperation and effectiveness of intelligence sharing and resourcing between Australia and Indonesia in order to save lives at sea. Senator Milne spoke at some length in her contribution about how rapidly that that could occur-that we engage in immediate high-level talks with the Indonesian government about the degrees to which we can assist them in resourcing air and sea search and rescue efforts so that we get early warnings. If the risk of drowning is not a deterrent for people making these journeys, I have no idea what is. These are two sensible things we could put in place, no matter the fate of this bill later today, that would go some way towards addressing the horrific loss of life that we are witnessing right now.
Part (ii) of the proposed amendment deals with one step upstream with why people climb onto these vessels. It is important to remember that all the competent crew are gone. All the people who know how to pilot these vessels have been interned. Some of them are in Australian internment camps; some are impounded in Indonesia. All the seaworthy vessels are gone. We have been breaking them up. In an attempt to help and improve the situation, we have made things worse by breaking up boats and incarcerating crew.
So what can we do to take the pressure off people, the pressure that they feel, the pressure that was there in the Mae La camp to just circumvent this damn queue-because if it is not going anywhere, then why wouldn't you? Part (ii) of our amendment proposes to increase Australia's humanitarian intake from 13,750 to 20,000-why not effective tomorrow, Friday morning? Increase that intake and start to clear the backlog in those camps. That then creates the sense of hope that, 'Maybe we don't need to put our lives and the lives of our kids at risk on these nasty little unseaworthy vessels, because things are moving.'
We have heard contributions in the debate about how we resettled, using a variety of partnerships with countries in the region, people fleeing from Indochina during and after the Vietnam War. The reason that that worked was that there was a sense that people would end up somewhere, that they are not still going to be there 20 years later. Part (iii) proposes to immediately increase funding to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees-we have proposed a $10 million increase; of course that is negotiable-to boost the capacity of refugee status determination assessments in Malaysia and in Indonesia. Can we just create a small increase in institutional capacity? Senator Hanson-Young pointed out in her speech earlier today that we are proposing to spend $3 billion incarcerating people in Australia-some deterrent that is going to be. Yet we spend a tiny fraction of that amount enabling the UNHCR and local authorities to process people and get them into resettlement destinations.
Under part (iv), having dealt with the immediacy of the emergencies of death at sea, having started to come to grips with the reasons why people put themselves on these vessels in the first place and having created a sense of hope in the camps and worked to build regional alliances, we propose a multiparty committee to do some of the longer term and deeper thinking about how we adapt to these issues, which are not going away. No bumper sticker is going to stop the boats, no matter how tough we talk in this place. The proposal is to establish a multiparty committee that would be charged with developing a framework for a long-term regional solution which is underpinned by the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the related 1967 protocol. All parties and Independents would be invited to the table to sit with experts, to sit with Amnesty, to sit with refugee advocates, to sit with refugees themselves, heaven forbid, and to sit with the UNHCR to develop a longer term strategy to pull the venom, the blaming and the finger-pointing out of the debate, after we have dealt with the short-term immediate emergency that confronts us at the moment.
To answer Senator Humphries's question, we will not be supporting this bill, but we have put these parts of the amendment together firstly to test the consensus and the will of the chamber, because very few of these things that I have just read into the record were invented by the Australian Greens. These are ideas that have come forward from the major parties, from the Independents, from experts in the field, from refugee advocates. So none of this is particularly new, but we believe that this is a sensible formulation to deal with the emergency and to deal with the longer term crisis that we face. We will submit that amendment to the will of the chamber when it is put to a vote. I also want to point out that all six of the items in the amendment are consistent with our obligations under domestic and international law and also all six could be enacted without legislative enforcement this afternoon if there were a will to do so. I will certainly commend that amendment when we put it to the vote.
Lastly, by way of closing, I would like to acknowledge some of the people who have been working away in my community in Western Australia to support Joe and people like him and their families, who have made their way by arduous and sometimes downright tortuous and fraught journeys to Australia, only to find themselves behind barbed wire in places like the Perth Airport detention centre or places far worse than that.
My first experience with this was when I worked for my dear friend Robin Chapple MLC when the Port Hedland detention centre, which I think was one of the first ones that ever opened, was still operative in Hedland. When we got there that night I had never seen a detention centre before. I was only dimly aware of what they were for and who was behind the razor wire. I got there at about 8 o'clock at night and they were throwing food over the wall in plastic bags, because if you have guests you feed them. The busload of activists that had brought themselves up from Perth to have a direct experience were treated to quite a feast, actually, that had been cooked inside the Port Hedland detention centre and then hurled over the wall. That was the hospitality that they greeted us with. It still hurts me today to recall the kind of hospitality that we had greeted them with in return.
In Perth there are way too many people and too many groups to name who have carried on their advocacy through the various phases of this debate. In particular the Refugee Rights Action Network-Phil, Victoria, Mary-anne and others, including Anne Petersen; the folk working for Amnesty International who have been so steadfast; and friend and colleague Andrew Bartlett, who, in many ways, led the earlier iterations of this debate in this place. Those people put themselves out there and in some cases put their lives on hold in order to meet the immediate human need, the human suffering that is in front of us directly. But they rely on us to do the policy work, and that is the responsibility that is before us now, no matter what our political allegiances.