Mr HUSIC (Chifley—Government Whip) (19:22): Without doubt, one of the few things that nearly everyone in this place agrees upon is that the arrival of asylum seekers by sea presents a massive and unacceptable risk to both those making the journey and those forced to rescue asylum seekers who have met with misfortune because they have fallen foul of that risk. While there is major agreement about this, there is massive disagreement in finding a way forward to manage this risk. In an effort to burst open the deadlock that presents itself, the federal government brought together an eminent trio of Australians tasked with the objective of developing a series of policy proposals to help us deal with one of the most contentious areas of contemporary public policy.
The expert panel was made up of Paris Aristotle AM and Professor Michael L’Estrange AO, and it was headed by former Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston. The report, while carried out in a tight time frame, was thoroughly thoughtful and considered. It canvassed a range of options to help us manage this exceptionally challenging issue, but it was underpinned and its 22 recommendations were underpinned with a set of principles. It urged policy makers to do the same, ensuring a transparent, consistent approach to policy development and management. If members of the public have not read the panel’s report yet, I would urge them to do so because it clearly lays out the scale and nature of the problem and then employs an incentive and disincentive approach to help deal with the issue. For example, the report recommended Australia’s humanitarian intake be lifted to help those stuck in refugee camps to have their applications for asylum assessed quicker, instead of risking a journey on a people smuggler’s vessel.
At the same time, the report recommended the application of the no advantage principle to ensure no benefit is gained by sidestepping regular migration arrangements. These quick examples illustrate what I referred to earlier about building incentive and disincentive within the way in which we deal with the dangers generated by people smugglers.
What struck me in the report is the breadth of its recommendations founded upon fact and data. It tried to come up with a set of workable arrangements on a tough issue, but it was also fair. It examined proposals put forward by government and examined options advocated by those opposite. It agreed that regional processing was a critical element in frustrating people smugglers and disrupting their trade, but it also looked at the opposition’s proposal to tow back boats. From my perspective, it was heavily qualified and needed a number of strict conditions to be met. Again in my view, the notion that those opposite would stop the boats by towing them back is both too simplistic and too dangerous to be taken seriously. It risks the lives of Australian Navy personnel and undermines the very thing we need to tackle a regional problem, and that is regional cooperation. Our neighbours do not like this policy. They do not want a bar of it and the Leader of the Opposition knows it. That is why he stunningly failed to raise a policy initiative he rated as critical during his recent meeting with Indonesian President Yudhoyono.
We only need to contrast the dimensions and detail of the Houston report with the simplistic approach of some in this broader debate. In early September the coalition announced that, if elected, it would simply return any asylum seekers from Sri Lanka intercepted at sea without even assessing or determining their refugee claims. It was a breathtaking announcement for a range of reasons, not least of which that there was absolutely no context provided as to why, out of all the nationalities of asylum seekers arriving here, Sri Lankans have been singled out by the coalition.
What is also noteworthy in this unfathomable hypocrisy is that those opposite have suddenly found a voice, becoming the vocal advocates of the refugee convention. It was why the opposition refused to back our agreement on regional processing with the Malaysian government. They pointed out the fact that Malaysia was not a signatory to the convention, using such inflammatory rhetoric about a country that is a valued partner of ours and prompting Malaysia’s Prime Minister to react to the nature of the opposition’s claims at CHOGM last year. It even saw Malaysia’s High Commissioner to Australia, Salman Ahmad, write to every MP in August urging moderation in the way those opposite were tarnishing the standing of his nation through outrageously offensive rhetoric.
But the convention became a point of principle for those opposite, despite the fact they would turn back boats to Indonesia, another non-signatory nation, and now they would turn back Sri Lankans to a country that is not a signatory to the convention. We have a situation where those opposite refused to support a transfer agreement with Malaysia because it is not a signatory of the refugee convention but then seek to establish a transfer agreement with another country that is not a signatory—Sri Lanka.
But it does not stop there. Refusing to even consider the application of a Sri Lankan seeking asylum and then returning them without regard to their safety on return flies in the face of the requirements of the convention. The opposition simply assume every application made by anyone arriving here from Sri Lanka is false. They effectively pre-empt the assessment process, they carelessly prejudge and they potentially ignore the non-refoulement obligations under the very convention they have become such ardent defenders of.
It is the type of policy that prompted the Human Rights Law Centre to write to the Deputy Leader of the Opposition, who announced this policy, to point out that besides contravening the convention their policy would be ‘incompatible with the convention on the elimination of racial discrimination and Australia’s own Racial Discrimination Act’. Why? Because in part the policy would single out arrivals from one country and in that process have the effect of singling out one ethnic group from Sri Lanka, the Tamils. It is worth pointing out that the opposition cited human rights concerns as a basis for refusing to support the agreement with Malaysia. Yet they seem to overlook that Sri Lankan Tamils seeking refuge have actually had their claims in Australia accepted due to a genuine fear of persecution stemming from a long, brutal civil conflict that cost the lives of 100,000 Sinhalese and Tamil civilians between 1972 and 2009.
While some may say that things are improving in Sri Lanka, there are some who say there is still a very long way to go. It is worthwhile pointing out that one of our closest allies, the United States, welcomed UN resolutions carried earlier this year calling on Sri Lanka to credibly investigate war crimes alleged to have occurred during that bloody civil war. Further, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is on the record as saying that Sri Lanka will only achieve lasting peace through real reconciliation and accountability. It is disappointing that the Sri Lankan government has refused to heed this resolution, claiming it needed to complete its own domestic investigations without interference from foreign powers. The human rights abuses that are said to have occurred during the civil war are serious, especially those at the tail end of the war in 2009, when some groups claim that up to 40,000 people died.
These concerns persist today and will be the subject of briefings of parliamentarians which will be conducted as a result of the work of the Australian Tamil Congress, who have invited to Australia Mr M A Sumanthiran, a member of Sri Lanka’s largest democratically elected Tamil party, the Tamil National Alliance. Mr Sumanthiran is in Australia at, as I said, the invitation of the congress and they will be highlighting the need for the Sri Lankan government, with the support of the international community, to properly embrace the need for accountability as a vehicle to reach enduring peace in a nation that has suffered so deeply. Taking this into account and considering how recent this terrible war was, there are some genuine concerns about persecution and safety. That is why we have seen 647 permanent visas granted in 2010-11 under our humanitarian program—a relatively regular number considering that 579 visas were granted in 2008-09 and 689 visas were granted in 2009-10. These are not remarkably high but for the people granted asylum it means the world to them and they have made tremendous Australian residents and then citizens. Many have made there home in western Sydney within the electorates that I and my friend and colleague who is present here today, the member for Greenway, represent. I have had the pleasure of meeting many of them and I am proud to represent them in this place.
Given the relatively low numbers who have settled in Australia, the bulk within Victoria and New South Wales, I am simply at a loss to find the reasons driving the coalition’s policy in relation to Sri Lankans seeking refuge. It flies in the face of their position, stated in reference to the opposition to the agreement with Malaysia, that such agreements must only be entered with signatories to the convention. It also flies in the face of their position that such agreements must be made with regard to adequate human rights protections. There is no consistency in that approach. There is little logic in that approach. That is why I am so deeply opposed to what they have put forward and it is what has driven me to submit this motion for the House’s consideration. It is up to the member for Canning, who follows me in this debate along with the member for Pearce, to outline why this proposal should not be labelled as grossly hypocritical and discriminatory. As opposed to that, the government bases its approach on evidence and does so and manages our obligations consistent with the convention. While we have, as I have outlined, accepted a modest number of people from Sri Lanka seeking asylum, we have returned and will return failed asylum seekers after a thorough assessment of their claim for protection. Into the future, as we implement the recommendations of the Houston report, we will be able to do so in a transparent, understandable way but with an unshakeably firm determination to deny people smugglers the ability to profit from the desperation of others. I commend this proposed resolution to the House.