HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES, PARLIAMENT HOUSE – CANBERRA
WEDNESDAY, 24 JUNE 2015
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We understand this is an urgent matter – and the government is seeking for it be dealt with before the Parliament rises.
We note the guarantee, from the government, that this amendment solely goes to:
- Enabling payments
- Enabling the fact of regional processing.
And that the legislation does not change, or in any way expand, the current situation in regional offshore processing.
Labor has been promised that this amendment is not empowering new conduct and that nothing here is the basis for new action.
We should record that we are underwhelmed with this request for ‘urgent’ action at one minute to midnight.
Surely such important proposals and their timing can be allowed greater periods of preparation and debate.
We flag that we will ask questions in consideration in detail in the Senate, to ensure this legislation is in fact what we have been promised.
But this Legislation goes to deeper issues in the nation.
Trust is in short supply in the 44th Parliament.
Every Question Time the Government regularly attacks our patriotism, and love of this nation, our good faith and our sincerity on these matters.
But sometimes in life, it is a very big wheel that doesn’t turn. Sometimes in life, the very people you attack are the very people you need to turn to.
This is one of those times.
Labor will be supporting this legislation, because it is our policy.
Our policy is based on fundamental principles.
How do we best ensure safety at sea?
How do we stop people-smugglers preying on the desperation of the persecuted, the vulnerable and the dispossessed?
How do we make certain that genuine refugees get a second chance – and those who are not genuine are sent home?
How do we ensure that Australian Navy and Customs officials never, ever again face the grim task of pulling bodies from the water off Christmas Island?
I am sure I speak for all of us in this place, when I say that the devastating loss of life, the drownings of vulnerable people…of children…is something we cannot, in good conscience, ever accept.
It is a human tragedy we must do everything within our power to prevent.
And Labor stands, resolutely, to make sure the dangerous sea voyage from Java to Christmas Island remains closed.
As I have said before, Labor learned lessons from Government.
At the end of the civil war in Sri Lanka, the movement of refugees in our region changed fundamentally – and immediately.
Australia was slow to respond, to change our approach.
The consequences are well known – and no-one supports them, no-one.
But today we support this legislation…which is consistent with the approach we took in government and consistent with our policy.
Entirely consistent with the regional agreement Labor settled in 2013.
So we come to this position today, not, as some do, out of fear.
Not, as some do, in an attempt to pander to the worst instincts, or the base motives of those who have never learned to accept and appreciate and value the reality of modern, multicultural Australia.
We come here not as defenders of an inward-looking, ‘fortress’ where the problems of the world are never ours.
Instead, we stand here guided by our compassion.
Because our compassion demands we prevent drownings at sea.
Just as our compassion demands the humane treatment of all those in our care.
For us: as lawmakers, as leaders, as parents, as human beings, this is not an abstract debate where the loss of human life is lightly dismissed, or conveniently overlooked.
And we cannot limit our compassion, to those in our line of sight.
We never see the photos of the people who drown seeking refuge in Australia.
We never hear their voices, we don’t know their stories.
But their life doesn’t matter less, because of this.
Their death is no less tragic, because of this.
And the duty we owe them is no less.
These are real people, the challenge before us is real - and the questions we grapple with are as fundamental as life and death.
And if we sit here, in the house of the Australian people, with the power to pass laws which can save lives…
Laws which can stop some of the most desperate, downtrodden people in the world from paying every last dollar they have, for a cramped spot in an unsafe possibly lethal boat for them and the people they love, then there is no choice.
Our compassion, our conscience demands we act.
We will vote for this bill, because, people’s safety comes first.
We will vote for this bill, because some things are more important than partisanship, or political agendas.
We will vote for this bill because we are guided by our compassion.
In voting for this legislation, we make it clear that there has been no more effective deterrent, than the regional resettlement agreement introduced by Labor.
And I appreciate the government by moving this amendment, acknowledges Labor’s policy.
It acknowledges that there is no better method of preventing people from taking a dangerous voyage in unsafe vessels, than the arrangement we put in place.
No better way of ensuring genuine refugees are put ahead of those who are not.
There has been no more important act by an Australian government in reducing the flow of asylum seeker vessels than this.
Because of the agreements Labor secured with the governments of Papua New Guinea and Nauru, to have people found to be genuine refugees at the Manus Island Detention Facility and in Nauru, resettled – but not in Australia.
Our country was unequivocally taken off the table as a permanent resettlement destination.
News of these agreements spread rapidly through the people smuggling network.
Despite a clear attempt by some of those now in government – and by some of their supporters – to send a message to those very same networks…that our arrangements put in place could be overwhelmed.
The only possible outcome of such irresponsible public messages was to encourage people to continue to risk the voyage.
Messages which those opposite, and some of their backers in the community, stopped articulating the moment the election was complete.
But Labor understands – in opposition as we did in government – it is essential that the people-smugglers do not have a product to sell.
This means settlement in Australia must be off the table.
This is the clear, unambiguous message Labor sent from the first day of our regional resettlement policy.
People would still be processed under the convention, but people-smugglers could no longer advertise Australia as the destination.
Under Labor, Australia increased our humanitarian refugee intake from 13,750 to 20,000.
Our policies were designed so that Australia would help more people, while ensuring each individual got here safely.
Within two months of the conclusion of Labor’s PNG agreement, vessel arrivals had dropped by 90 per cent.
And, following this, the new government didn’t put in place a single other piece of substantive policy until mid-December.
Labor believes in doing all that is necessary to bring an end to the loss of life at sea.
We do support offshore processing as a step which has saved lives, at Nauru and Manus Island.
But this does not absolve the Government from their fundamental responsibility to ensure that people on Manus Island or Nauru are treated humanely, and with dignity.
We do not believe the government is running offshore processing in the way we would, or the way Australians would expect.
Genuine refugees are vulnerable people, fleeing persecution.
It is not for us to demonise them, to vilify them, to seek to score political points from their misery.
They are not ‘illegals’. And fleeing persecution is never a crime.
And, when asylum seekers are in an Australian-funded facility – even if overseas – Australia still has a duty of care.
Languishing in indefinite detention is not a humane solution.
And there is no place, no place whatsoever, in Australian-funded facilities, for violence, for inhumane or degrading treatment.
Our responsibility is to process asylum seekers as efficiently and as rapidly as possible, so that genuine refugees are not left in limbo.
And people who are not genuine refugees, they’re sent home.
Regional resettlement will always be the core of Labor’s approach to this issue.
We know it works.
We know it sends a message to the people smugglers that your days of profiting from those in dire need are over.
And we know that, when properly administered, regional resettlement is the strongest and most humane approach to asylum-seeker policy.
Of course, when Labor was first asked to support this amendment there was some recollection in my party.
Some considerable recollection about Labor’s first regional resettlement policy centred on the Malaysian Arrangement.
And because of the High Court’s decision in that case, the fate of this plan was entrusted to the hands of the Parliament.
Just as we are being asked to be entrusted now.
It was a debate that was captured for all to see the poisonous, obstructiveness negativity of the Abbott opposition.
We remember, after years of slogans and scare-mongering, that they suddenly sought to lecture us on the rights of refugees.
We remember the then-Shadow Minister for Immigration, the Member for Cook…
The man who said, in 2011 that allowing relatives of asylum seekers who drowned at sea to attend the funeral of their loved ones, for some, the funeral of their own child, was not a ‘reasonable’ use of money…lecturing us about being humane.
We will never forget the crocodile tears from the Treasurer, when he said, and I quote:
“I will never ever support a people swap where you can send a 13-year-old child unaccompanied to a country without supervision—never.
It will be over my dead body.”
We will never forget when Prime Minister Gillard wrote to Tony Abbott asking for bipartisanship, seeking co-operation to reach a solution.
And he wrote back saying:
“This is a problem that you have created and that it is your responsibility to solve.”
That was his idea of leadership.
‘This is your mess, you fix it.’
We will never forget the deal that the Liberals and the Greens did, teaming up to defeat the Malaysia Arrangement.
And we will never forget the 689 lives that were lost after that vote.
My fear is that the truth is, the Coalition opposed the Malaysia arrangement…not because they thought it would not work.
They opposed it precisely because they were afraid that it would work.
They played politics hard.
It is precisely because we remember, which I think was one of the saddest days in the Parliament, that Labor is determined to be better.
I cannot, when confronted with the same facts as Tony Abbott, when he was the Leader of the Opposition, draw the same conclusion that he did.
My job as Leader of the Opposition first and foremost, is to put this country first.
I am a very different person.
There is the national interest – we do put that first.
There is the safety of vulnerable people, we certainly put that first.
We will not grind this parliament to a halt…we will not create or allow the uncertainty to continue…
We will not ignore the consequences of our decisions, in pursuit of political gain.
It took me not even 10 seconds when hearing the problem to work out the ultimate course of action I believe Labor must take.
And my colleagues when they had the facts put in front of them, they have arrived at the same conclusion.
We will do the right thing.
We will help you solve this problem.
As we have from the very outset, the Government will continue to have the support of Labor when bringing to an end the flow of these vessels to Australia.
Too often, this debate is only ever conducted at the highest temperature.
Too often, fear and suspicion rule.
Too often straw men and slogans are substituted for argument.
Too often, refugees are demonised.
Still too often, the two decade old toxic malignant poison of Hansonism still seeps to the surface of Australian politics.
That genie needs to be put back in the bottle, forever.
And we can, I believe, because I believe we are a better, bigger, more generous country than this.
We live in a nation made great by migration.
We are fortunate to count people from every faith, flag and culture as our own.
In the future, I believe we are capable of a better conversation about how we fulfil our obligations as an international citizen and a peaceful, prosperous nation.
Labor’s approach to this question is clear.
We believe in being true to our international conventions.
We believe in being true to the welfare of all people affected by our policies, whether or not they are in our line of sight.
We believe the pathway to a better life for genuine refugees should always be governed and supported and working with the United Nations and its agencies – not exploited by people-smugglers and their criminal networks.
Our approach is to ensure that when we offer a place in our nation, the great privilege of being a part of this country, to some of the most vulnerable people in the world – they should come here safely.
So consistent with this approach, we offer our support to the Government.
But I say to the government, please do not take our support lightly.
It may well be in the light of what we have done, the Government in its Question Time attacks will stop questioning our sincerity, our commitment to safety, our commitment to refugees, our commitment to the security of this country.
It may well be that this is a new turning point.
It may issue in an era where the Government does not always resort to the baiting of the Opposition and the politicisation of an issue which is far more important than any speech any one of us will ever give here.
But that may not happen
We have not asked for that promise back from the Government.
But when the Government do this, remember what every man and woman in Labor is thinking.
When you needed us in the national interest, we are there.
And when you feel like taking a shot at us to pull some lever, to push some focus message, to bring out the lesser angels of the Australian nature, all I say to you is: remember this moment because every person over our side will.
I have asked the Labor party to take the Government on trust on this matter, and we know trust is in short supply.
But even if nothing in the Government’s approach in the way they treat the politics of this issue in this parliament and outside.
I will ask that we should make a decision that the moment of co-operation here could be a turning point in our national debate.
These decisions are not reached easily. I understand that.
But I can ask all of us, including the Government no more dehumanising, inflammatory language.
No more false bravado and faux toughness.
Let us no more use the world’s most vulnerable people as a prop for politics.
Take what we are doing and let us commit to a parliament which we can explain to our children that we are proud to serve in because this is the right thing to do.
Let us commit to a Parliament worthy of our decent, civilised, humane country.
A parliament which shows us for who we truly are.
The nation that we want to see in the mirror, should be reflected in the Parliament of Australia: compassionate, strong, generous, secure, safe and fair.
We all love our country.
We are all human beings and don’t want to see anyone else suffer.
Because we love our country, today, let us vow to serve it better.
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