MATTERS OF PUBLIC IMPORTANCE - Asylum Seekers

Mr HUSIC (Chifley) (16:10): A few weeks ago I visited Christmas Island with two members who are in the chamber now: the member for Moreton and the member for Stirling. I had never been to Christmas Island and I found that it does take a considerable amount of time to get there. I went there as part of the Joint Select Committee on the Christmas Island Tragedy. While obviously I am limited in what I can discuss in reference to the deliberations of the committee in relation to those terrible events of 15 December, I can say that the trip was revealing to me in many respects and helped to form new approaches and perspectives on this issue.

As all members do, from time to time I receive emails from people who feel strongly about either side of this debate. During the course of the last two weeks I was prompted to respond to someone who felt strongly about the whole issue and—speaking candidly to the House—about the issue of Malaysia. I reflected on my experiences on Christmas Island and, in particular, talked about the visit we undertook to the place where those 30 people who had attempted to come to Australia perished on the rocks. I talked about the 20 people presumed dead and about the video that we had seen as part of the committee hearing. That video was taken from the perspective of the Royal Australian Navy and detailed the efforts being undertaken by the RAN to save those people. I talked about the responses the RAN personnel gave about the film of diesel that covered the water off Christmas Island that day, and about the fact that whenever a member of the RAN was trying to lift somebody out of the water and into the boat, the forearms of the people who were trapped would slip through the fingers of the RAN personnel because of the diesel that covered the ocean and those people.

I remember the trauma that was still evident in the faces of the first responders, who appeared before the committee, who were forced to witness what happened that day and were helpless to assist people who were only a couple of hundred metres from shore and trying in all desperation to get ashore. Some of those first responders, including residents, said that they had thrown ropes to people in the ocean but that just as people were about to scramble over the top of the jagged rocks the swell would take them back out and then crash them back into the rocks. That would trigger a response from the people climbing up, who would let go of the rope and fall into the water. It was not just a case of those people coming back up over the rocks. As was put to us, any person who had a life jacket survived; anyone who did not have a life jacket did not survive. Forty-two people survived, 30 did not and 20 are missing, presumed dead. If you fell into the water without a life jacket, you were gone.

I do not think, as the minister said at the dispatch box, that anyone should make that journey. In some quarters there is a view that idealises people smugglers and tries in some respects to portray them as heroes. These people are profiting from the misery of others. They are profiting from misery and desperation. They do not adhere to the traditional view of people who are supposed to be in command of vessels—masters of vessels—that they should transport people only when they know full well that their vessel is safe and secure and that they can vouch for the welfare of the passengers on that vessel. They cannot do that. From my own perspective, I appreciate that there will be people that are moved by a concern that is, I would say, founded on an improper belief—that is, that sending people to Malaysia under this arrangement would put them in harm's way. We have heard what the minister has said—what clearly many of us regard as sacrosanct—which is that, with the benefit of guidance and input from the UNHCR, people being sent to Malaysia will be treated with dignity and respect.

But, most importantly, can I just say: it is a far better situation than having people in desperate circumstances make that trip across the ocean at their peril. Admittedly, the events of 15 December were highly unusual, as people told us on that day—in particular, some said that in living memory they could not recall the conditions being as bad as on that day. But no-one should be put in the position where they take that trip—two days across the ocean, 500 kilometres out from Jakarta, and take a risk that they will just land and they will find sanctuary—when in actual fact the people smugglers will not vouch for their safety. The people smugglers will not guarantee that safety and they are simply profiting from, as I said previously, the desperate plight of others. That is why I think it is important to place on the record that I do support the solution being advanced by the government. I believe it is a necessary one to deter people from making that decision to put their lives, the lives of their children and the lives of their loved ones in a terrible position where they risk all to come here.

The other reason I support what the government has put forward is that we are doing something qualitatively different, which is to significantly increase the number of people who are able to come to this country via Malaysia as refugees. They are denied the false and misguided belief that, if they hop on the boat, it is a quicker path here. We liberate and, for a group of people who believed they would not have hope, give hope for a second chance at establishing themselves in a new country and improving their lot. Those 4,000 refugees who will be admitted to our country, and the people I have spoken of warmly in this place who have set themselves up as model citizens, because they have been given the benefit of a second chance, will be able to benefit from the arrangements the government is putting forward.

I know there will be people, even those who support me, who will fundamentally disagree with the position I am advancing. But all I can say to them is that I wholeheartedly, and deep within me, believe that the solution we are putting forward is in the best interests of those who would contemplate making this trip and those who currently are stuck in another country, chiefly Malaysia, who seek a better life, who have sought refuge and who we can provide that refuge to.

In terms of the opposition putting forward this notion of transparency, it beggars belief that this could be advocated through this MPI. If you review the history of when they sat on this side of the House, when they were urged to be transparent, when they were urged to correct their approach, the only time they took action was when people within their own government refused any longer to tolerate the litany of mistakes and errors and the fractured nature of the system as it was under the former government, and they tried to force change. As I have previously recounted, we only need to go through, for example, the circumstances of Vivian Solon, who was unlawfully removed to the Philippines in July 2001. Four years later it emerged she had been deported and the government had known of the mistake at least two years earlier. It was never transparent in this House on that fact. Then there was Cornelia Rau, who was an Australian permanent resident unlawfully detained for a period of 10 months in 2004-05. Peter Kazim was held in detention for seven years. There was also the 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.

All these people suffered under the previous arrangements administered by the former government—no skerrick of transparency or openness. The other side, not willing to abide by the notion of transparency, now advocates that others should be transparent. We have provided the detail on 1,200 questions submitted by the opposition through the Senate estimates process. We have opened ourselves up to transparency. We are prepared to do the right thing by people who would tempt fate and travel over the seas to get here. We have done a far better deal for those people than what those opposite ever imagined they could do. (Time expired)

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Ed Husic MP
Federal Labor Member for Chifley


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