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Senator Ludlam speech on Morrison's latest cruelty to refugees- "And so it comes to this..."

Speeches in Parliament
Scott Ludlam 4 Dec 2014

Full transcript below.

Senator LUDLAM (Western Australia) (19:25):  I rise tonight to oppose the Migration and Maritime Powers Legislation Amendment (Resolving the Asylum Legacy Caseload) Bill 2014 in the strongest possible terms. This is the latest sordid chapter in a race to the bottom. I guess many of us thought it would not come to this. Just when you think this government cannot get any more vindictive in its treatment of innocent families fleeing war and violence and just when you think this government could not get any more sadistic, secretive and authoritarian in its attitude towards some of the most vulnerable people in the world, this government finds a way to surprise you.

So I am now beyond surprising. In truth, the ruination of Australia's arguably proud record of providing safe harbour to people seeking to escape political or sectarian violence has been a long time coming and there is no point in laying all of the blame at the feet of Minister Scott Morrison. From the moment the ALP and the Liberal-National parties settled their bipartisan consensus that henceforth Australian refugee policy would rest on the principle of deterrence, a bill like the one we are debating tonight was practically inevitable.

To deter people from fleeing the Iranian secret police, the medieval violence of the Taliban, the horrors faced by the Rohingya in the western part of Burma and the murderous repression that passes for official state policy in Sri Lanka inevitably means your policy ends up in a very dark place indeed. The United Nations has recognised this. The Australian High Court has recognised this. Advocates who work face to face with refugees fleeing the unfortunate circumstances that people find themselves in, refugees themselves and advocates, like Amnesty International, which keep an eye on the kinds of horrific situations that people find themselves in around the world, have looked at Australian government policy in recent years and found it extremely wanting.

The refugee convention that the Australian government will effectively shred tonight was written in the aftermath of the Second World War. The precursor to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees-the UN Relief and Rehabilitation Administration-was actually set up in 1943, in the latter part of the Second World War, to provide humanitarian relief to the vast numbers of potential and existing refugees in areas that were facing allied liberation at the time. Millions of people were on the move, fleeing the various fronts of the war.

It was evident after the First World War but it was certainly very evident in the aftermath of the Second World War that we needed to ensure that people fleeing Nazi Germany in various occupied territories and those fleeing regimes as the fronts and the ruination of war shifted from place to place would never again find themselves-like many Jews, for example, fleeing the Holocaust found themselves-stateless, unwanted and shunted from port to port. It was decided by the international community in the aftermath of the Second World War that nobody should face these horrors again and that nations that considered themselves civilised should have an obligation to provide safe harbour for people with legitimate reasons to flee regimes, to flee war, to flee violence, to flee occupations and to flee persecutions.

So we ended up a proud signatory of the 1951 refugee convention. I do not think there would actually be disagreement in this chamber tonight that Australia ended up a better place for participating in that convention, for recognising the horrific circumstances faced by families fleeing war and violence, and for allowing people to make a new home in this country.

It has made Australia what it is. Of course it has its flaws. It has so many flaws, but you could also argue that Australia is one of the most successful experiments in genuine multiculturalism anywhere in the world as a result, in part, of our ascension to the 1951 refugee convention, which said that as a civilised country, as a democracy and as human beings we would provide safe harbour to people when they needed it.

The convention was obviously more or less limited in its initial draft to protecting European refugees in the aftermath of the war. But, of course, the 1967 protocol, which Australia also signed, expanded its scope as the problem with displacement spread around the world. And that is why the bill we are faced with tonight will do such damage. It will do damage not just to Australia's international reputation and not just because of our evident disrespect for the rule of law here and overseas; it will do damage, most importantly, to those families and those individuals and those children who find themselves, having committed no crime and through no fault of their own, on the move and forced to flee their homes.

We have a bill tonight that will grant almost total impunity to Minister Scott Morrison and whoever comes after him in the continued process of the militarisation of a humanitarian crisis. And that, I think, is something that Prime Minister Howard kind of put down in draft. We saw during the Tampa crisis what that looked like-when you had a cargo ship boarded by the SAS and which cued the militarised press conferences and the chest thumping that arguably changed the course of an election-to what we see now: Minister Morris, flanked by men and women in uniform, having militarised a humanitarian crisis. This bill grants almost total impunity to a minister who has already shown himself fundamentally secretive and untrustworthy, and I genuinely fear for what powers this bill would grant an individual like Minister Scott Morrison-his authoritarian tendencies when he thinks he can score some kind of political point; brutalising people who already have lost so much-and I genuinely fear what this will actually mean for people who, through no fault of their own, find themselves on the front line.

It is a bill that seeks to reintroduce temporary protection visas, and I guess that is what has seemed to have dominated the public debate and public understanding of this bill. Temporary protection visas effectively invite people to put their children on boats if there is no other way of and no other hope for family reunification.

We understand that the Palmer United Party-and I think Senator Lazarus will speak later in this debate about the concessions, if you could call them that, that Mr Palmer has been able to extract-think this bill will create a safe haven enterprise visa, but of course the bill does not actually do any such thing. Mr Palmer again appears to have engaged in the tactic of creating all kinds of diversionary press conferences, putting himself in front of cameras, demanding concessions, marching around the landscape as though he is some kind of deal maker, but has come away with precisely nothing. There is nothing in the bill to give any kind of life to the concessions he says he has extracted. And we have seen this repeated pattern of behaviour. Maybe everyone does have their price, it is just that Mr Palmer's is very, very low. We do not see anything in the bill, as it is drafted, that would give any kind of expectation of permanent protection to people who find themselves in this country, no matter how they have managed to get here after fleeing some of these horrific circumstances.

The bill effectively will redefine the definition of refugee to be whatever the minister of the day says it is. And although Mr Morrison appears to be using hundreds of children who should never have been detained in the first place as a bargaining chip-and, again, we see the kind of compassion that I think has driven this debate for many years. People right across the political spectrum, across all parties-Independent, Liberal, Labor, Green-were horrified at the number of people who were making risky voyages on unseaworthy vessels and finding that  the boats simply were not able to get them here. So many people died in those crossing.

The compassion that was felt by people right across the debate was so callously manipulated, and, again, that is what is happening tonight. The crossbenchers have been told that Minister Morrison will trade off children behind razor wire-who should never have been put there in the first place-as though they were poker chips in a political negotiation. What kind of sociopath engages in a political debate or a political negotiation using the lives of children who have fled from Hazara lands in Afghanistan or from Sri Lanka? It is very, very hard to fathom how it could possibly have come to this. Those children could be released tomorrow, irrespective of the outcome of this debate tonight. That is what the Labor Party understands, it is what the Greens understand, and I would urge the other crossbenchers-some of whom have made their position clear and some of whom have not-to rest with that consideration overnight, because that decision will be on their conscience and on all of our consciences irrespective of which way the vote goes when it is committed.

The bill effectively removes most references to the refugee convention from Australia's Migration Act. This is something that I am not expecting will make the front pages of the papers tomorrow because for whatever reason most Australians, through spending our lives in such a fortunate part of the world, if we are lucky will not ever have to think carefully about what human rights actually mean in the flesh or what international humanitarian law actually means to families, to real individuals. These things are seen by most of us, mediated through television screens, happening to other people.

But these instruments were put there for a purpose. As I described briefly earlier, they were put there so that nobody would ever have to face what those of Jewish descent fleeing the horrors of Nazi Germany had faced, or that the story of those fleeing Poland would never be repeated. That is the flesh and blood behind these human rights instruments that this government is so casually violating in the terms outlined in this bill. What kind of legislator-what kind of leader; what kind of politician-determines that the children of boat arrivals who were born in Australia, in Australian hospitals, are nonetheless unauthorised maritime arrivals? It is bleak. It is not even ironic; it is an incredibly black piece of legislation. And yet that is what this bill does-newborn children are classified as unauthorised maritime arrivals. How did it come to this degree of political dehumanisation?

Of course, there will be further debate on the amendments that are outlined in this bill when we get to the committee stage, and further amendments will shape the final form of the bill. I will leave comment on those to my colleague Senator Hanson-Young, who has carried the burden of government policies under the former government and under this government as they have sought this race to the bottom-as governments of both persuasion have sought to outdo each other in that deterrent effect that would somehow make Australian government policy scarier than the Taliban or the Iranian secret police. We will see what kind of final form this bill ends up in, but in the meantime I fear that this Senate is going to fail these people tonight and that, again, we will see that the resistance and hope and compassion wielded by people a long way from Capital Hill actually provide the real opposition and the real hope in refugee policy in Australia.

In my own home town, there are groups like the Refugee Rights Action Network, and right across Australia there is a movement called Love Makes a Way. These are people of faith who have taken some of the most significant parts of scripture about loving thy neighbour very literally indeed. Hundreds of them have risked arrest, and many of them have been arrested, in peaceful, non-violent sit-ins in ministers' offices around the country, including that of my Western Australian colleague Senator Cash, who is here tonight. They are respectful but defiant that we simply cannot continue this hateful race to the bottom. I want to acknowledge all of those who have taken those kinds of matters into their own hands to ensure that there is some hope in the Australian community for compassionate policy on refugees, because it is very, very hard to find it in this building.

There are groups like the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, who work with those who arrived with nothing and are trying to make their way in the Australian community or avoid deportation. There are groups like the Refugee Council and, as I said, like the Refugee Rights Action Network, who do everything from political advocacy to front-line activism to visits to detention centres, where people find themselves detained for years despite the fact that they have committed no crime.

We can talk about the high-level policy of lifting the humanitarian intake and about the Greens' safer pathways proposal, which would lift the humanitarian intake to 30,000 to take the pressure off those people who found themselves stranded in transit camps in Malaysia and Indonesia. Under that proposal, out of that target of 30,000, we would take 10,000 from those camps in our region, where people have been told there is no queue. That is what creates the business model that the people-smugglers exploit. Momentarily lapsing into the language adopted by the coalition, if you want to smash that business model, remove the incentive to climb onto a boat. Rather than making people more terrified of the Australian government than they are of the Sri Lankan white vans, offer them hope by offering them a chance at a safe harbour-you might be in this camp for a period of time, but you will be safe while you are here, and you will eventually be resettled. If you want to dissolve the people-smugglers' business model, that is how to do it. The Greens propose an additional $70 million per year in emergency funding for safe assessment centres in Indonesia to enable this kind of process and to give people confidence that they will not be in these camps forever while they wait for assessment and resettlement. We propose to shut down all offshore detention in Nauru and PNG. This is not simply about getting children out of detention; it is about getting all human beings out of detention.

There are many, many policy instruments if we simply set the racist undertones of this debate aside, cease the race to the bottom-where we try and terrify people out of fleeing military dictatorships and war zones-and actually adopt a compassionate approach. With all sides of politics engaged in that project, we could potentially regain some of the dignity that we had under the Fraser government, when we resettled tens of thousands of people fleeing the Vietnam War-a war that Australia was also implicated in. At that time, nobody on either side of the old political parties decided to throw rocks, and there was a bipartisan consensus at the time that these people should not be used as political bargaining chips. Perhaps it was a more civilised political age, but it is our hope that we can return to that kind of civilised debate where people, and particularly children, are not treated as some kind of political weapon to be wielded in pursuit of one cheap headline after another.

I want to particularly acknowledge Jarrod, Teresa and Tyson for their First Home Project in Western Australia. This is what I think Australian refugee policy would look like if it actually proceeded from love rather than fear. The First Home Project is a unique experiment where funding was crowd sourced for a home in Perth's eastern suburbs, where recently arrived refugees could actually live and get themselves a rental history-and, of course, as we know from our work in homelessness policy, if you have somewhere to live you can build a life. You can go out and get the services that you are looking for, you can get job training, you can learn the language, your kids can go to school and you can find a way in our community. This was created with absolutely no government support at all, and it is a wonderful experiment. People end up moving on after a year in the place with a rental history and they can then go out into the private rental market. It is that kind of Australian spirit of welcome and compassion that I think, surely, is what most Australian people want. They want for this debate to proceed not with fear but with love and compassion for people who actually have nowhere else to go in many instances and have fled circumstances that we in this wealthy and very fortunate place could barely imagine.

That is what I hope the crossbenchers tonight will rest with, as we all rest with these kinds of debates. I wish these debates were considered conscience votes. For all of us in here I think it is that serious where these lives are at stake, that just for once we could see party discipline relax, the talking points set aside and we could treat people as human beings not as collateral in a political debate that has long since passed the point of dismal. As Australians, whatever our political allegiances, we can do better than the kind of bill we are debating tonight.



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