Senator DI NATALE (Victoria) (09:31): It is another sad day in this Australian parliament. It is a sad day because I am sure that at some time in the future our kids are going to ask us, 'How on earth did you let this happen?' Ten years after the introduction of the Pacific solution, a failed policy that wrought so much suffering and misery on some of the most vulnerable people in this country, here we are today looking at introducing that policy once again—the Pacific solution. We have to ask ourselves: who is this solution for? What is the problem that we are trying to solve here today? Is it a problem about the movement of refugees and the harm that they face or is it a political problem that we are trying to solve—a problem where one side of politics is losing votes to another side, where populism, fear and untruths dominate the public debate?
The fact is that this is a debate that has very little to do with the welfare of refugees and everything to do with the most base and unappealing politics that this nation has seen. I find it especially galling when people, particularly on the conservative side of politics, dress up this issue with compassion and welfare for refugees when most of them have never believed that refugees who arrive here by boat have any right to seek protection in this country, that as a wealthy country we should be providing sanctuary and refuge to some of the most vulnerable people. Just listen to the language: 'We are being swamped.' 'They are illegals.' They are 'boat arrivals', for heaven's sake, not people! And I keep hearing about the thousands of people who are arriving here and who have arrived here under the current government. But most of them are found to be genuine refugees. Thousands of people are arriving in this country needing our protection because they are genuine refugees. That is why we have a refugee convention. I find the idea offensive that these are people who are taking advantage of the system, that they are chomping at the bit to come to this country and taking advantage of a weak government. I find it offensive because the decision to leave one's family, one's culture, one's traditions and one's language is the most difficult decision that any of us would ever have to face. I have a couple of kids and a partner, and saying goodbye to her and to my kids, knowing that I might never see them again, is something that I hope I never, ever have to face. Yet we have one side of politics here claiming these are people seeking to take advantage of Australia.
If this legislation was genuinely about the welfare of refugees then surely those very people who are affected would have something to say about it—and they do. Since the introduction of this legislation, we have heard from people in places like Malaysia and Indonesia, and they have said very clearly that this legislation is not in their interests, this legislation is harsh, this legislation is inhumane and this legislation punishes the most vulnerable people on the planet—their words not our words. This is the great paradox at the heart of this legislation. How is it that we purport to act in the interests of refugees, yet they make it very, very clear that this legislation is not in their interests? We do not want to deal with that uncomfortable truth. We do not want to deal with it because it forces us to confront what this is really about: a political response to a political problem.
We are not just turning our back on young people and families who need our protection by the introduction of this legislation; we are actively inflicting harm on them. We are inflicting more pain, suffering and hardship on people who have every right—every moral, legal and human right—to seek refuge in this nation. We risk creating a generation of young children and young men who are scarred and damaged through the harms that we will actively inflict upon them. That alone is reason enough not to support this legislation.
But what has become abundantly clear in recent weeks and months is that there is very, very little evidence that this will work in terms of its intended purpose, which is to prevent people from taking this risky journey. Since the introduction of the legislation, we have seen more people continue to take a journey to seek refuge in this country. We have also heard evidence from a range of international experts who have put to us that, for those people who respond to these punitive measures, all it does is force them to take a much more dangerous journey to other parts of the world. We are outsourcing our responsibilities and we are outsourcing the suffering and loss of life that will result from the passage of this legislation. Just because someone does not die in Australian waters does not make their suffering any less.
Of course it is a debate that has been dominated by untruths and by lies. We keep hearing the coalition talk about their record on this issue. Their record is that, after the introduction of the harshest measures associated with the Pacific solution, we saw the drowning of over 350 people in the sinking of the SIEVX. This is a case of correlation versus causality. Let us be very clear about what the difference is. Just because people are in government does not mean that changes in the numbers of boat arrivals can be sheeted home to their policies. The movement of people across the world is a consequence of a complex number of factors that are outside of the control of the Australian government.
We have heard from people like Amnesty International and the Human Rights Commission, from groups like the ACTU, the Uniting Church and a number of other people who work in this area of public policy, saying clearly that they do not support the approach we are taking. It is true that we had the Houston panel provide advice but it is also true that they ignored the advice of those experts; they ignored the advice from Amnesty, from the Human Rights Commission, from the ACTU and from the Uniting Church.
I do believe we are making a grave mistake, and I have sat here listening to coalition speaker after coalition speaker. As I said, I find it galling that they dress up their response under the banner of compassion when it has been very clear that all they are interested in is populism and fear. What has been really interesting is that there is a very deliberate strategy from the coalition. Listening to speaker after speaker, I get the sense that they are trying to distance themselves from the decision they made only a few short weeks ago. It is dawning on them that they might have made a mistake, that people will continue to drown and that people will languish in indefinite detention without any clear sense of when they might be released; with young kids going in and coming out as men damaged and scarred from that experience—that in fact this may be a failed policy. You voted for it, you own it; you own the harm and the suffering that comes from the passage of this bill. If it fails to deter boats, it is your failure just as much as it is the government's. The cost in human suffering, kids languishing in these mental illness factories, more people continuing to do what is their moral, legal and human right—to seek refuge in this country—you own all of it. Of course you throw up the smokescreens of TPVs and turning boats around, but this is your failure just as much as it is the government's failure and no amount of double-talk or weasel words will change that.
Labor has been appalling on this issue. They deserve to be criticised just as harshly. But I will never forget that the breakdown of bipartisanship on the issue of people seeking asylum in this country occurred under the Howard government. That is when things changed. Things changed when under the Howard government we saw a collapse of the bipartisanship on refugee policy. We saw an opposition cede territory on that issue to cave in to the basest form of politics. We saw a departure from the leadership shown in previous Liberal governments—the Fraser government, for example. So the suffering and the hardship that result from this policy are just as much your doing as they are the government's.
There has been a lot of talk about compromise; we keep hearing about the notion of compromise. I find it fascinating that what we have is a debate where two political parties have taken the low road and that somehow compromise on the right thing to do, the moral thing to do, lies between those two political viewpoints. Compromise does not work like that. The truth does not work like that. The truth is independent of politics; the right thing to do is independent of politics. Regardless of the views of one side or the other, sometimes compromise on an issue like this means no more and no less than a betrayal of the things that we hold dear.
We have tried to make this bad legislation better. We have negotiated for things like time limits in mandatory detention. We still cannot get a clear answer from the government about what the no disadvantage test really means. What does it mean? A year in detention? Two years in detention? Five years in detention? No-one can tell us. If you are a 13-year-old kid and you go into a detention centre, when are you going to come out? Will you come out as an adult? In your 20s? No-one is prepared to answer that question—not Paris Aristotle, not the government and not the opposition.
And what about the conditions in Nauru? I am lucky enough to have visited that country. I understand that it is a poor, desperate country—broke—that would cling to any income that might come its way, but these are people who have fled some of the most brutal regimes, who have taken a risky boat journey and who are scarred by that experience, and we are putting them in tents. This is not a detention centre: this is a war zone. We are going to see people with post-traumatic stress disorder, kids and young families in tents. This is more reminiscent of a war zone than of a nation ensuring that it does the responsible thing, the right thing and the generous thing—that is, to provide refuge. That is why we have a refugee convention: safety and security for people who need it. But no! We will send them to a war zone. We will send them to Nauru to live in tents with a lack of access to medical facilities.
We have also done something to try to improve that aspect of the legislation, which is why we have proposed to set up an expert, independent health panel that can visit these places, examine the sort of medical care provided to people and do at least some little thing to try to reduce the mental illness, the depression, the anxiety and the suicides that will follow as a result of this policy. This is a policy that has been taken up by the Australian Medical Association because, as doctors, we have a commitment to an ethic of care and to the Hippocratic oath, which says, 'First do no harm.' But we are harming people through this policy. People like Professor McGorry, Professor Newman, the AMA and others support the call for independent health advice and monitoring, and reporting back to the minister and to the parliament, not to the immigration department. We do not want a situation where we have the police policing themselves. We have to get that level of independent oversight reporting back to this chamber so that we see the cover-ups and the completely inadequate level of care that have been provided through the previous Pacific solution.
I know this is a tough policy for many people. I understand it. But people in this place have short memories. The memories are of the many hundreds of people protesting in detention centres, flinging themselves on barbed wire because we are taking away hope through indefinite detention; people sewing up their lips; and kids forced into catatonic states because they cannot see their mother, their father or their families. This is a generation of kids who will become Australians—because we know that, ultimately, most of these people will become Australians—and they will be damaged and scarred. And we are doing that. In trying to solve one problem we are creating a much larger and much more terrifying one—one that is of our own making.
After all the scaremongering and the lies from the conservative side of politics, we need to start changing this debate. We need to make it clear that as a wealthy, vast and bountiful nation having the capacity to provide protection, security and refuge is not a sign of weakness; it is a sign of strength. I would much rather live in a country that has the opportunity to provide that protection than being forced to flee from one that is responsible for torture and violence. One thing that is lacking in this debate is empathy. I am lucky enough to have been born in this country purely by accident. It is an accident of birth. The fact that I was born into a wealthy nation and been given a privileged education and opportunities are an accident of birth. I could just have easily have been born in a country like Afghanistan and found myself on the border—knowing my family and friends had been killed, knowing that I would be next—and been forced to flee that nation.
Empathy provides me with the capacity to know that we must do what is the right thing not what is politically expedient, not what might get us a few cheap votes. We should be motivated to compromise only when compromise brings us closer to what is right not just what is popular, not just acting for the sake of acting. I do not know how we are going to progress in this debate. I do not know what failure means. We still have not defined what this policy means if boats continue to arrive and if kids are harmed, but I sure as hell hope that we do everything we can over the coming years to ensure we minimise the harm and suffering on some of the most vulnerable people in this nation.