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Senator Peter Whish-Wilson on the governments sordid Asylum Seeker bill

"The government is ending the year having been thoroughly spanked in parliament, in the opinion polls and by the Australian people. It makes me sad that it believes that a race to the bottom on cruelty is somehow something it should be waving a flag on," said Green Senator Peter-Whish-Wilson.

"It was with a heavy heart on the last night of parliament for 2014, I debated the government's sordid Asylum Seeker bill that the majority of human rights experts in this country condemn. Not because the government is trying to save lives at sea. But because they're trying to get a good headline and appear to be strong and in control, because the truth is this government is in disarray," he concluded.


Senator WHISH-WILSON (Tasmania) (19:03): I rise to talk about the Migration and Maritime Powers Legislation Amendment (Resolving the Asylum Legacy Caseload) Bill 2014. I do so with a heavy heart on the last night of parliament for 2014. I am looking forward to getting home to my home state of Tasmania and spending time with my children and the rest of my family and enjoying the good life that so many Australians enjoy, spending time with our loved ones over Christmas. I will certainly be reminding myself of what a lucky country we live in. I think that sometimes we forget that it is not like that in the rest of the world, unless you have been overseas and experienced life in other places or have met people who have fled these other places. For example, I grew up socialising through our church group with Vietnamese refugees during the mid-1970s. They were a common part of my Sundays-we called them 'spring roll Sundays'. Our families would get together and we would spend time with them. I think now about the sort of society that my children are going to live in and the message that is coming from this government about other human beings. We need to get this right back to the building blocks and wash away all the spin, all the nonsense and all the messaging around this debate. Essentially, we are dealing with human beings.
Senator O'Sullivan: What do you tell them about the drownings?

Senator WHISH-WILSON: I will get to the drownings for your benefit, Senator O'Sullivan, through you Mr Acting Deputy President Smith, very shortly. We are dealing with human beings. Every human being has human rights. We should all have the same human rights. It is a fundamental concept that I think we in here all understand.

The reason I am standing here and debating this bill on the last night of parliament, on a Thursday night, rather than being on a plane heading home is politics. It is not because Senator O'Sullivan's side of the chamber is trying to save lives at sea. We are here because the government desperately needs a win in the last remaining hours and minutes of parliament. When the bell rings and we go home the government wants to be able to say that it has controlled the agenda and that it has focused on an area that it believes it is strong on and has delivered on. It wants to show the Australian people just how big and tough and in control it is. Considering that I have heard several times from the Prime Minister and Minister Morrison this week that the big achievement of this government this year is that it has stopped the boats-not that we would know, because it is top secret; but let us take their word that they have stopped the boats-why are we here trying to pass this fundamentally flawed legislation as a matter of urgency? It is legislation that the majority of human rights experts in this country condemn. It is an extraordinary bill even for this government with its record of cruelty towards refugees and asylum seekers.

It is an extraordinary bill-and there is no hurry for this. This is all about trying to get a good headline and appearing to be strong and in control, because this government is in disarray. It is ending the year having been thoroughly spanked in this chamber, in the opinion polls and by the Australian people. It makes me sad that it believes that a race to the bottom on cruelty is somehow something it should be waving a flag on, saying how great it is and, 'Look at what we've achieved.'

I have talked before about language that we use as leaders in parliament on issues relating to war and terrorism. I have talked about the role of the media in these types of debates. And it is no different here. It really disgusts me. I know that Senator Cash probably has a good heart, but it is her job to stand up in the chamber during question time, talk about the government's message and use certain language. But it really disgusts me that we have couched what is humanitarian assistance in military terms-even the word 'operation', as in Operation Sovereign Borders, and 'protecting' our borders. Protecting our borders from what? From the most unfortunate and desperate people in the world. The last time I checked, they were not coming here to seize our national assets. They were not carrying guns or explosives. This is set up because this cruel, conservative government knows it is good politics, and has been good politics in the past, to demonise, dehumanise and marginalise other human beings.

In an attempt to appear more reasonable, the argument goes that it is all about people-smugglers, but, in the attempt to push that frame into the minds of Australians through the media and through this parliament, they forget that they are doing a lot of damage-not just to the people that they are locking up on prison islands but also to migrant communities here in Australia. The Greens have consistently offered alternative solutions. I want to talk in a minute about a project in my home state of Tasmania which a number of church groups have come together to lead as an alternative solution to cruel offshore processing, turning back boats and temporary protection visas.

The procedures set out in this bill actually clearly point to this Australian government seeking to limit the number of people who are found to be genuine refugees, thereby limiting the onus on Australia to meet its fair share of responsibility in dealing humanely with those seeking asylum from persecution and violence. The unfairness in the system is obvious to anyone who has ever worked with refugees. This is the position of strength that the Greens have always had in our policy-and through Senator Hanson-Young in all the work that she has done. Our position is firmly embedded in that of stakeholders in this country who work with refugees. We have always worked with stakeholders in the formulation of our policies and ideas around refugees. Many of these, who have provided written submissions to the Senate inquiry, which I will touch on in a minute, have pointed out things such as the following. People fleeing countries where government institutions are weak or predatory are, understandably, initially fearful of Australian officials. Asylum seekers are often traumatised by their experiences and are unable to put the whole of their claims into a logical or coherent narrative. I have met a number of them in Tasmania at the Pontville detention centre. There are heartbreaking stories from young men who have fled persecution. They do not understand what is important and what is incidental in recounting their stories. It takes some time before they feel safe. When sexual violence is also involved, it can be many months or even years before an asylum seeker feels enough trust to be able to divulge the nature of their suffering.

It is also important to note that even this substandard form of review will be off limits to certain categories of asylum seekers who arrive by sea-for example, those whose claims the minister decides to exclude, based on his or her opinion, as being manifestly unfounded. This effectively renders the minister judge and jury in a decision that could cost the person their life, their family and their future. I do not know about others in this chamber, or how Australians feel about it, but, from what I have seen of Minister Morrison, he is not the sort of person I would want in a position where compassion, empathy and understanding are required in dealing with human beings who have universal-or should have universal-human rights. When taken together, the Australian Human Rights Commission has warned that these changes will:
• Significantly reduce the rights of asylum seekers travelling to or arriving in Australia
• Increase the risk that they will be wrongly found not to be refugees
• Increase the risk that they will be returned to a place where they have a well-founded fear of persecution, because of a lack of judicial oversight of relevant decisions

These changes are also unlikely to lead to the types of efficiency gains-which I have heard coalition senators in the chamber talk about this week-that the government coldly hopes for, particularly if protection applicants continue to be denied access to legal advice. As the Law Council of Australia has pointed out, the lack of access to legal advice at the initial stage, coupled with the removal or restriction of merits review, is:
... likely to lead to more applications to the High Court based on common law judicial review principles. This will undoubtedly lead to further inefficiencies, and prolong the process of determining Australia's protection obligations.

The bill also seeks to amend the Maritime Powers Act 2013 to remove judicial scrutiny of whether Australia complies with certain human rights obligations. And on and on it goes.
The debate that was in the media today and was focused upon in the Senate was about temporary protection visas. That is one of seven schedules.

That is being used as a Trojan Horse to ram through this parliament tonight, with no real urgency except for headlines and political gain, a whole series of manifestly unjust, unethical and dangerous provisions that have been so well summarised in the Senate inquiry into the migration and maritime powers legislation amendment.

We heard from thousands of human rights lawyers, refugee advocates, academics and community members, all of whom rejected the amendments proposed in this bill. Despite the overwhelming evidence from experts in the community, who have said this bill should not proceed, the majority report had recommended that the bill be passed. This committee has arrogantly rejected the evidence of thousands of Australians and has chosen to favour politics and punishment over protection and the rule of law. Unfortunately, I am sometimes not paying enough attention during question time, but I do not know how many times I have had to stand up and ask Senator Cash to retract her statements that they are illegal entrants into this country. They are not. Under international law it is not illegal to seek asylum.

This bill is by far one of the most regressive pieces of legislation this parliament has seen when it comes to the treatment of asylum seekers and refugees. There is no doubt this bill is an attempt by the government to dramatically reduce the number of refugees Australia takes each year and to legitimise their actions at sea when intercepting and turning back asylum seeker boats. It seeks to legalise the government's actions at sea, limit parliamentary and judicial oversight, disregard Australia's international and human rights obligations-and we are becoming a global embarrassment-reintroduce temporary protection visas for boat arrivals, introduce a new temporary protection visa called a 'special humanitarian enterprise visa', introduce rapid processing with the sole aim of reducing the number of people Australia finds to be in need of protection, remove the refugee convention from the statute books and deem babies born to asylum seeker parents as unauthorised maritime arrivals.

This bill is an attack on Australia's generous heart and our whole concept of fair and equitable treatment and will result in Australia wrongly refusing protection to genuine refugees and returning them to persecution or significant harm. We do not know how many genuine refugees we have turned away when we have 'safely towed back the boats'. We have no idea how they are hurting or what kind of lives they fled from. We have denied them the right held by so many of our predecessors in generations before us who had fled persecution, come to this country and built themselves a better life. They not just built themselves and their families a better life but built a better country.

Why is all this happening? Why are we having this radical deviation from Australia's longstanding commitment to international and human rights law? Why are we seriously endangering the lives of thousands of asylum seekers? While you can say you are saving them from drowning, you have no idea what they are going back to or how long they can survive in the places they are going to have to flee to.

Senator O'Sullivan interjecting-

Senator WHISH-WILSON: You can laugh, Senator O'Sullivan. It's not a good look.

Senator O'Sullivan: I wasn't.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Good. I hope that is the case.

The Australian Greens strongly recommend that this bill be rejected by the Senate. We are better than this. This is not about saving lives at sea. This may be about saving money because efficiency dividends are so important to this government. This is about politics. This is about trying to get a win in this chamber before we go home for Christmas, because this government is under pressure. It is in disarray. Even the Murdoch press has turned on it in recent weeks. It knows it has six to eight weeks before parliament comes back and it desperately needs a win. Once again, it is genuinely sad that the coalition government feels it can get a win on being more cruel to people every time it tries to introduce a new piece of legislation.

I want to finish on the concept of empathy. If you saw the documentary Go Back to Where You Came From, it was pretty hard not to feel empathy for people who were fleeing persecution. But, without that empathy, there is no understanding. And, of course, there is no compassion without empathy. If any one of us here tonight goes home, stares at the ceiling before they close their eyes and try to imagine that it would be like to be in people's shoes, we probably could not, to be honest, because we have never seen our children shot in the head. We have never seen some of the awful-

Senator O'Sullivan interjecting-

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Senator O'Sullivan, these are eyewitnesses. This is what I have been told. Some of the atrocities these people are fleeing from are well documented. They are often from war zones and areas of famine or disease. All they want to do is get a better life. A young man who gets put on a bus at two in the morning by his dad and his uncle is spirited away somewhere, and before he knows it he is on more buses. Then he is on a boat. He does not know where he is going or why, but his family want a better life for him or do not want him killed. These are the kind of people we are 'safely towing back' at sea, safely spending them back into the blue yonder. Goodbye.

What are we afraid of in this country? What are we actually protecting our borders from? That is the question at the heart of this debate. Why does the coalition, going all the way back to John Howard and Tampa, see it as good politics to be cruel, dehumanise and marginalise other human beings? I am still struggling with why there are people in my country who are so fearful of desperate people arriving by boat. The only conclusion I can come to is that that fear is deeply seated for a number of reasons.

I sometimes wonder whether it is just the fact that we fear for our quality of life, because we have such a good one in this country. We are so lucky. Of course there are people doing it tougher than others. There are people doing it tough here but, compared to the poor souls risking their lives for a better life, I actually think we do pretty well here, and we would do pretty well to remember how fortunate we are.

I have been very pleased to be working with a group of Tasmanians-originally it was church groups but a number of people have joined them-to look at the Tasmanian opportunity to offer an alternative to offshore processing in Tasmania using facilities that are there, using the community to resettle refugees and taking a compassionate approach that will cost a fraction of what Senator Cash's department is spending on her so-called military operation to protect this country from the world's most unfortunate people. We could do it through our communities in a positive and inclusive way. There is another way. We have to build the politics. It is our job in the Greens, and hopefully in Labor and other progressive parties, to build support for that kind of initiative in the Australian community. That is our job-to let Australians know that there is nothing to be fearful of. This is a normal part of Australia's heritage and it will have a very positive future if we can come together-

Senator O'Sullivan interjecting-

Senator WHISH-WILSON: and put aside the politics of fear, Senator O'Sullivan. Have a Merry Christmas and enjoy the time with your family.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Smith): I draw the chamber's attention to the fact that a second reading amendment has been circulated. It is on sheet 7645. I expect that that will be moved.

(Quorum formed)


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