28 June 2012




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I rise to follow what was a very good speech by my colleague Senator Crossin. I want to start by discussing the historical context of this debate, not so much because I want to apportion blame but because I think we need to understand why it is this has become in this country such a difficult debate, why it is that positions have become so entrenched and why it is that this parliament has become so diminished by the inability of its members to shift from entrenched positions.

This is a debate which takes place in the shadow of past events, past conflicts, past elections. I was elected during the election which has come to be known as the Tampa election. That was the election I was elected in—something which I have always thought was somewhat sadly ironic. It was an election which, despite the protestations, the verbiage and the verbal sidestepping, was firmly about the politics of immigration, asylum seekers and race. It was an election in which those issues were far more than dog whistle; they became foghorn issues. And no-one who campaigned in that election and saw what was happening in our community as a result of the decisions of the then government and the public statements of the then government would have any doubt about that fact. It was an election which I think was a regrettable milestone in Australian politics.

In my first speech to this place I spoke about the fact that, over our history since white arrival, race had been an uncomfortable topic for us. We were of course a country that, for example, had a bipartisan commitment to a White Australia policy for many years. But after the dismantling of that policy—and I pay tribute to both parties of government for that; both sides of politics had people who worked on that issue—you would have to say when it came to the issues of migration, the issues that tapped into some of that unfortunate undercurrent, there was a sensible centre in Australian politics that sought to moderate the debate and that was made up by people of goodwill in the Labor Party and in the Liberal Party. Let us not forget, the moderates in the Liberal Party were very important over many decades on issues of immigration and race in this country to ensure that what could have been an incendiary issue at times was not made so. The sensible centre, the voice of moderation: that is what was needed in the past and that is what is needed today. As I said, I think that sensible centre enabled difficult issues to be managed and to be handled in the national interest. It recognised that care needs to be taken by elected representatives, by leaders, to ensure that such issues do not become incendiary in the electorate in the way that we have seen at times in Australia’s history.

Of course, there were notable exceptions to that, and I count probably first amongst those the former Prime Minister Mr Howard, who is known for his comments in 1988 in which he argued for a reduction in Asian immigration, something that those of us who understand discrimination firsthand will never forget. I will never forget that debate and what it meant for me, my family and my community. Mr Howard was the Prime Minister who, when Pauline Hanson said we were in danger of being overrun by Asians, defended her right to speak, not the rights of people whom she was attacking—a failure of leadership that will never be forgotten.

This same Prime Minister and ministers in his government engaged in some of the most brutal politicking in recent times on issues of asylum seekers in the lead-up to the election in 2001. We all know what occurred in relation to the Tampa vessel, which has been discussed at length and is now part of the history books and of course was also taken through the courts. A refusal by the government to accept asylum seekers was played out, if I may say so, for maximum political effect. We also know that that was the government responsible for the events which led to what is known as ‘kids overboard’—the ‘certain maritime incident’—in which ministers asserted that children of asylum seekers had been thrown overboard, a fact that was not correct, a fact that was untrue. Ministers in that government described asylum seekers as queue jumpers. Ministers in that government linked the issue of asylum seeker policy to a pipeline of terrorists. We had a Liberal government who refused to let children out of detention because that would mean the end of mandatory detention, notwithstanding the pleas from the medical community and others to do so.

It is difficult to reconcile those facts and so many others with the newfound compassion for asylum seekers that some in the Liberal Party purport to have. Forgive us for finding that difficult to reconcile. It is difficult to reconcile their newfound desire to ensure that the refugee convention is sacrosanct, when it was never the case when they were in government that this was such an important point of policy and point of principle. It is difficult to reconcile that with their position whereby they say, ‘We will tow boats back to a country that is not a signatory of the refugee convention, but we will not allow you, through an arrangement where both governments are engaged and the UNHCR is engaged, to send people back to Malaysia.’ Those two positions are not consistent. It is not for me to justify that; it is for those opposite. But I think most people—responsible listeners, reasonable listeners, reasonable observers of this debate—would say: how is it possible that you can go from a position where you say ‘we don’t like queue jumpers’, where you draw a link to a pipeline of terrorists, where you do not care about the refugee convention, to a position where you would vote against this legislation on the basis that Malaysia is not a signatory? It really beggars belief.

But I did not want to come in here just to talk about who was right and who was wrong, because I think what is more important now is to say: what do we do? One of the consequences of the politicisation of this policy area has been that it has become nearly impossible to have a sensible policy debate. People have become entrenched in their positions and that has led, as I have said, to gridlock—and this is to the diminution of this parliament. We need a sensible centre to find a practical response. Instead, it is a debate where we see extreme views dominating, preventing the answer being found. It is a highly politicised debate, a highly charged debate, a highly emotional debate, a debate in which it is easy to take a position that is counter to any practical response.

In this context I make reference to my own policy journey on this issue. Others in the Labor Party have spoken about their own journey as well—including my friends Senator Crossin and before her Senator Cameron, Mr Steve Jones in the other place, and others. Many of us in the Labor Party expressed concerns prior to coming to government about offshore processing. For us it was very much linked to the history that I have just described of the Howard government’s response and the way politics was so brutally played out then. In the Labor Party in the past many people have expressed their great concern regarding offshore processing, but I would say this: I do not believe it is tenable any longer to argue that push factors alone are responsible, and I do not think it is tenable for us to say that we do not have a responsibility to try and find factors which deter people from getting on boats. That is my position. The loss of life that we are witnessing demands a response.

I want to say something briefly about the position of the Australian Greens. My difficulty with the position of the Australian Greens is that there really is no practical response. The hard, inescapable truth is that words will not prevent anyone getting on a boat. I understand the view of the Greens party on offshore processing and the refugee convention. However, I again say it is easy to come in here and speak about words, speak about a convention, but what we are charged with today is working out what legislative response we can put in place to prevent people getting on boats. Many fine words have been spoken in the last two days in this and the other place. There have been many tears shed. Speaking fine words and showing genuine emotion have their place but as political representatives we are called today to do far more than that—we are called to try and find an answer. The answer, particularly in this debate, can be found only if people are prepared to compromise. This is a debate where the extremes mean there is no common ground and there is no answer.

Let us review briefly why the legislation before the chamber reflects a compromise from the Labor government’s position. I commend Mr Oakeshott for bringing this bill forward, because the bill is a genuine attempt to find that common ground and compromise. There have really been three matters at issue between the government and the coalition. They are the Malaysia arrangement, the opening of a detention centre on Nauru and temporary protection visas. The government’s position has previously been that we did not wish to proceed with the opening of a detention centre on Nauru because we accepted the advice given that that would not be an effective deterrent. What has the Prime Minister said we would do? She has said that if this legislation is passed we will proceed to do that—we will proceed to open a detention centre on Nauru.

The Labor Party has also had longstanding opposition to temporary protection visas. Senator Crossin went through what the government is proposing in respect of that system—a process to examine it, run by agreed reviewers, independent of government and agreed with the opposition. Terms of reference, as I recall, will also be agreed with the opposition, and the report will go to both the Leader of the Opposition and the Prime Minister concurrently. As someone who was in opposition for many years prior to becoming a minister in a government, I know that is an offer that would never have been contemplated by the Liberal government. We also wish to proceed with the arrangement with Malaysia because the advice we have is that that will provide a deterrent. So there has been substantial compromise by the government.

In light of that I find it extraordinary that we see coalition senators come into this place saying again and again why it is that they cannot support this compromise. Effectively what they are saying to the chamber, and to the Australian people, is that their way is the only way: ‘We are not prepared to do anything other than what we want to do; we are not prepared to work with the government or the crossbenchers in the lower house to support legislation that will deal with this issue; the only legislation we will accept is legislation that reflects our policy.’ Had the government taken that position, this bill would not be before the chamber—it would not have passed the lower house. But the government has been prepared to compromise. As I said, regrettably this is a debate that has been dominated by too many extreme views. It has a particularly sad history. When you have a debate dominated by the extremes, where you have people unwilling to compromise, answers fall through the cracks. In this area that has some tragic consequences.

I do not stand in this chamber, and nor do I think any government senator stands in this chamber, saying that this bill is the complete answer. What we collectively face as a nation and as a parliament is an enormously complex policy challenge, an enormously complex policy problem, which is not cured by sound bites or three-word grabs, a policy problem the world is grappling with and that involves millions of people seeking a better life in a different country. I do not stand in this chamber saying that I believe this bill is necessarily the complete answer, but I do know this: it is the only answer before us. It is the only answer that can become law today. It is the only chance for this chamber to put in place a legislative response today which has the capacity to prevent more tragedy. I say to those opposite and to the Australian Greens, we should do all we can to prevent more tragedy.