Committees - Australia's Immigration Detention Network Committee

Mr HUSIC (Chifley) (10:51): This motion submitted by the member for Cook is sold to the parliament and the public as a sincere effort to shine a light on the way the nation's detention network is run, demanding of the parliament and, principally, the government transparency and a willingness to critically examine the management of this network. In short, this is not a call for a serious examination. It is not a move to provide genuine recommendations for the way detention centres are managed to enhance their operation. I imagine it is not even a real attempt to reconsider the model of detention. This is simply a political stunt by the opposition, who, incapable of putting forward a viable, workable alternative, seek to flex their intellectual muscle by calling for—wait for it—a parliamentary inquiry. With the opposition deprived of attention and having an inability to breathe life back into a shabby approach to the issue of asylum seekers, we are now meant to believe that the member for Cook is seeking to pursue serious policy outcomes. An opposition that refuses to join other multi-party committees tasked with dealing with the gravest policy issue confronting our generation and those that follow—climate change—now calls on the parliament to join with it in a political exercise designed to generate advantage for the coalition, not for the nation. A member who just a few short months ago could not allow grieving families the peace to bury their own and who instead, with his public remarks, poured shame onto a period of intense grief, has now struck within himself a vein of compassion. He saunters into the chamber showing us his confected concern that masks a ruptured conscience.

What has prompted this motion by the member for Cook? What in the last two or so weeks has prompted the member for Cook into this sudden push for a parliamentary inquiry? What has changed that has made this so important for the member for Cook to bring this on now is simple: the announcement made by the Prime Minister and the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship on Saturday, 7 May. The member for Cook fears that the government is putting in place its election commitment for a regional cooperation network to help end the people-smuggling model. The member for Cook, like many opposite, is afraid that the government's policies will have the desired effect of putting in place a sharp disincentive for people smugglers and those contemplating taking the dangerous journey by boat to Australia. What we have is simply the member for Cook trying to squeeze every last drop of political capital out of the human misery of irregular migration and people smuggling. If he were genuinely concerned with the events in part (a) of his motion, we would have heard about this proposed inquiry more than a month ago. The reason we did not hear about it is because the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship responded quickly and effectively to the events on Christmas Island and at Villawood by announcing an arms-length independent inquiry led by experienced public servants Helen Williams and Dr Allan Hawke. This is the right and proper place for a sober examination of what occurred and what needs to be done to help avoid these terrible scenes happening again.

Even if we accepted that the proper place for examination of the events on Christmas Island and Villawood was a parliamentary inquiry, what is this proposed inquiry supposed to achieve? Parliamentary inquiries are supposed to be vehicles to get to the bottom of a particular event or to challenge policy settings. Is the member for Cook seriously suggesting that we should end mandatory detention—a policy that has enjoyed bipartisan support for over 15 years? The government has a policy of mandatory detention of unauthorised arrivals for the purpose of health, identity and security checks—which I thought were things that the member for Cook supported. The terms of reference put forward by the member for Cook have no real focus or desired outcome. Why? For the coalition, it is more important to continue to talk about asylum seekers or boat people than to come up with real policy solutions to tackle major challenges like people smuggling in our region.

The gall and hypocrisy embedded in this motion should drive the House away from it. The opposition would ask that the government be judged when they have shunned judgment themselves, knowing that judgment of their performance would yield little to be proud of and much to be ashamed of. The rollcall of infamous incidents stands out with innocent people caught by the fractures and flaws of their system. Vivian Alvarez Solon was unlawfully removed to the Philippines in July 2001. Four years later it emerged that she had been deported, although the government had known of the mistake two years earlier. Cornelia Rau, an Australian permanent resident, was unlawfully detained for a period of 10 months back in 2004-05. Peter Qasim was held in detention for seven years. Then there were mother and daughter Virginia and Naomi Leong. Virginia Leong, a Malaysian citizen, was arrested and placed under mandatory detention in 2001 for attempting to leave Australia without the correct papers. She was two months pregnant at the time of her detention.

What of the coalition's own efforts to reach regional understanding to tackle people smuggling? The former government, headed by a Prime Minister who was the self-appointed deputy sheriff of the Asia-Pacific, were able to muster only an island state to form the basis of their Pacific solution. Of the 13 or so independent states within the Pacific, only one agreed to their Pacific solution. And then they told us that they could bring their own regional solution, no doubt through their boat phone—with only one other country on the other end of the line—while in the background, under their watch, there were fires, breakouts and violence at Woomera and Baxter. In terms of transparency and openness, one only needs to compare our record to theirs, and we are quite prepared to do so. This government is open and accountable about its immigration detention system, unlike those opposite when they were last in office.

As I have mentioned, we have already announced independent reviews into the incidents at Christmas Island and Villawood detention centre, and the Ombudsman consistently investigates the detention system. I also understand that the minister has fielded more than 1,200 questions on notice as part of the Senate estimates process. We are prepared to consider genuine proposals for changes to improve the operation of the detention network and the safety and security of those who live or work within it. We are building regional solutions to the regional problem of irregular migration and people smuggling. We have secured the agreement of more than 30 countries to a sustainable regional cooperation framework for dealing with asylum seekers. We are implementing that framework through cooperative arrangements with interested countries in the region, beginning with a landmark transfer arrangement with Malaysia.

In October last year, the Prime Minister and the immigration minister announced that the government would move the majority of children and vulnerable family groups out of immigration detention facilities and into community based accommodation by the end of June this year, and we are well on track to meet that commitment. We also committed to ensuring that asylum seekers within the immigration detention facilities are housed in humane, appropriate conditions and are provided with appropriate services and care. We have long acknowledged the pressures on our detention system and we are working hard to relieve that pressure by improving processing times for asylum claims and delivering a regional solution to the problem of irregular migration.

I noticed that the member for Cook in his proposed motion has again revisited the issue of the costs of damage caused by the fires at Villawood detention centre. This is an issue that was particularly embarrassing for him when he raised it during question time during budget week. His question suggested a great big cover-up by the government. The response by the minister for immigration left the member for Cook red-faced. The Commonwealth is not liable for the damage to detention centres at Christmas Island and Villawood; that is covered by Serco's insurance.

Minister Bowen has announced a range of measures to strengthen the consequences of criminal behaviour in immigration detention, including the amendments to the character test which are currently before the House. I am told the member for Cook received written advice from the department's senior legal team as well as a briefing on the legislation weeks ago—and, still, I do not believe we are any wiser on whether or not the coalition will support the reform. The changes send a strong and clear message that criminal behaviour in detention centres will not be tolerated. Will the member for Cook step up and support these changes—or is it all talk yet again?

There is no question that the government's policy of detention will have its costs. This is something that the Liberal Party know about—they were, after all, the party that spent hundreds of millions of dollars building the facility on Christmas Island. Our costs in the budget for asylum seeker management cover the new measures the government is taking to break the business model of the people smugglers, the building of a regional solution and the costs of processing. When taking into account all the measures considered here today by the government and our record of being open and transparent on this sensitive issue, the contrasts are clear for all to see in the newfound commitment to openness and transparency that those opposite refused to embrace when they were in government.

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Ed Husic MP
Federal Labor Member for Chifley

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