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"All the decisions that we make affect people" Peter's Senate speech on Migration Legislation Amendment

Speeches in Parliament
Peter Whish-Wilson 22 Aug 2012

Senator WHISH-WILSON (Tasmania) (13:04): I have only been a senator in the chamber for three sitting weeks, but I am learning a lot about government, parliamentarians and the responsibility that we all share. I reflect upon what is going through my mind sometimes when I come into the Senate chamber as someone who is new. I think about what people outside the big house may think when they see parliamentarians-I prefer to use that word rather than 'politicians'-on television. That is that perhaps we make decisions that might seem light and fluffy or frivolous at various times or that we somehow serve an administrative function, passing bills and legislation that may relate to the running of government. I can see clearly now the responsibility that goes with government.

All the decisions that we make affect people. Sometimes there may not be direct correlations with the decisions we make. There may be trickle-down effects or things may be fairly general. But I think this debate on refugees has a different human dimension. To me, the decisions we make in this parliament today on this legislation will not only directly impact people and their livelihoods but will also impact people who are probably in the least fortunate position to be put under even more psychological stress. For my feeling, all decisions we make in parliament are important but there is something very special about this debate today and the gravity of the decision we make.

I attended the cross-party refugee meeting on Monday with a number of my colleagues, and it occurred to me not just during that meeting but also in previous discussions with my fellow Greens senators and friends and family just what a complex problem this is that is facing Australia. It is a problem that is not going to go away. During that committee meeting we heard from a number of people who work with refugees. My position and the Greens' position of strength in this debate is from values based on the same values as those people who work with refugees. They are based on the same principles that those people who work with refugees adopt. Our position is based on the realities of what faces refugees. We have not taken this view for political purposes. We have taken this view after campaigning and working for a number of years with people who are on the ground and whose everyday lives are impacted by working with refugees. They see the angst, the destruction and the sadness. I think that is the Greens' position of strength here. It is a position based not on the broader political factors but on the reality of what is confronting us in that situation.

Earlier today Senator Hanson-Young talked about push factors. On Monday, the Refugee Council and Amnesty International discussed the potential push factors in Afghanistan when Western, NATO and allied troops are withdrawn from there in a few years time. We have discussed what has happened in Vietnam; it has been mentioned several times in several speeches. It has been made very clear that we possibly do not know what we will be in for in terms of the number of people who will be seeking political asylum here.

My question is: is this legislation a mistake from the point of view that we are picking on the most unfortunate people in the world when we are in such a fortunate situation? Also, is the solution we are putting in place today-the bill that will be tabled here-practical? Is it going to work? From a quick look at the numbers-and this was mentioned earlier by a coalition senator; I apologise that I have not learnt everybody's names yet-we have seen 22,000 people arrive since 2007. Last year alone, we saw 7,983 people arrive. From the best information that I can collect, Nauru can currently house 1,500 people and, at peak capacity, potentially 3,000 people. Manus Island, PNG, has a capacity to house 600 people. The nearly 8,000 people who have arrived in the last 12 months is a reflection of a future year-

Senator Fifield: Hopefully we won't. That's the point.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Hopefully we won't. None of us want to see refugees getting onto boats and taking dangerous journeys. That is something we all share in common. If we are wrong on this and the numbers keep increasing, simple arithmetic says that both these places which are to house refugees will be quickly filled. The answer I got from people when I spoke to them about this issue was that this deterrent will work and the refugees will stop coming. No matter what your ideological view is on this issue, the reality of the situation is a lot more complex than that. It was also mentioned on Monday that problems are developing in Sri Lanka-the ongoing issues there with the Tamils. So it seems to me that a rational, logical person might question whether the boats will stop and whether this solution will be able to (a) house refugees and (b) process them. The Greens have asked for an amendment to limit the time refugees are in detention. That we consider putting a time limit on how long these people spend in detention seems entirely reasonable in managing the risks of this new legislation and what it will mean for these people's lives.

It is also reasonable to look at the costs associated with keeping people in detention. The establishment and operation of the regional processing capacity in Nauru in accommodating 1,500 people-so not at peak capacity-will cost between $1.2 billion and $1.4 billion over the forward estimates. The full establishment and operation of the regional processing capacity on Manus Island, PNG, in accommodating 600 people will cost in the order of $900 million over the forward estimates. Detaining people is expensive. I and the Greens would like to see more comprehensive economic work done on the costs of detention versus processing domestically. This is an issue that has got very little attention.

I was in the chamber when Senator Di Natale spoke last night. I was moved by his speech, as I was by Senator Hanson-Young's speech today. In that speech Senator Di Natale said, 'I think this is a mistake.' Have we sold the Australian public-and I use the word 'sold'-a quick-fix solution for this problem to go away? Do we want people to consider this legislation as a silver bullet to solve the problem? My concern is that, as parliamentarians, we have not managed the expectations of the Australian public. If we do see a continuation of boats-and, once again, I stress that we all hold the common belief that we do not want to see more refugees coming-and if we understand that the world is going to be wracked by conflict, then we can boil this problem down to its most basic cause and effect. It is simple human nature: this is not going to change. If we believe the climate change forecasts of disruption from extreme weather events such as drought and the projections of increased refugee numbers right around the world then I suspect how we manage this problem could be the single biggest issue facing this country over the next 100 years. Once again, it makes sense to me to say that this legislation is a quick-fix solution for a very complex problem. I wondered whether I would say this today but I do really want to say it: I doubt whether there is a solution to this problem. Looking at it every possible way, rationally, I am not sure how we can stop people in the future from coming to this country seeking asylum, seeking a better life, but I do know that claiming that this is a victory is stupid. We need to be a lot more grown-up about our debate, particularly in this chamber. There is blaming of the government, glib statements and politics when this issue is so serious-and I am speaking as someone who has only recently come into politics. It is not a good look for people outside the House who rely on us to make important decisions.

I want to comment on three other things that I feel are important. Firstly, there are the words 'border security'. What is it exactly that is a threat about poor, disadvantaged people, not carrying any weapons, from what I understand, and not intent on damaging our national infrastructure or hurting people in this country? What is the security threat from that? If you are talking more about a threat to our lifestyle-that as a nation we cannot afford to have significant numbers of people coming to this country-at least say it. Do not hide behind rhetoric. Come out and say, 'We can't afford to have these people,' and at least we can have that debate and look at it sensibly and rationally through a number of different measures.

The second thing is that I heard here today that people have a choice-it is their choice to get on boats. I must say that I was horrified, as I attended a press conference nearly six weeks ago, when my two fellow senators, Senators Hansen-Young and Milne, were speaking to the media. A journalist said: 'These people were told to turn back their boats. They didn't. They drowned. Why are we to blame for that? It's their fault.' My immediate thoughts were for the children below deck who would not have had any part in a decision to not turn back that boat. Let's put ourselves on that boat. Who would have? The captain, possibly, who is getting paid; the people smuggler that we all rightly demonise? Who would have made the decision not to turn back the boat or who would have made the decision to scuttle the boat? I very much doubt whether there was a democratic vote amongst refugees to continue on a dangerous voyage. Did they really understand the risks? Once again, we are not really thinking these things through very well.

Lastly-and I have said this to lots of my friends who disagree with my point of view on this and the point of view of my party-I would like you to do one simple thing: imagine yourself in the shoes of these people for just one minute, because, if you can imagine, then you can understand. That is the basis of empathy. With empathy comes human compassion and an understanding of what these people go through. For lots of Australians, possibly the best way to make that connection and to imagine and understand is on Sunday night by watching-I am not sure if I am allowed to promote a TV program in the Senate but I will anyway-SBS's Go back to where you came from. It was very hard to watch the first series and not feel compelled to put oneself in the shoes of these people. The next series starts on Sunday night. It is a shame it was not screened prior to this debate and the passing of this legislation because I think most Australians who watch that will feel and understand the pain and misery that these poor people are going through.

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