Jan 30, 2004

Speech to National Conference ALP: Asylum Seekers

Asylum Seekers


Speech to National Conference ALP in support of amendments moved by Dr Carmen Lawrence

30 January 2004


Comrades, this is the debate we have to have. It isn’t one we can have in a cone of silence. It is one that we are having after considerable consultation and a debate that’s gone on in State and Territory branches across the nation. It is one which I opposed having last year at the Special Rules Conference because I believe that one of the issues that has got to be made clear is there is no crisis in this nation of hordes of people coming here. There has never been and if you look at international standards the number of people we are talking about is miniscule. This is about John Howard’s agenda of promoting fear and hatred and racial vilification. Does any delegate here believe that we would have had the rhetoric from the government if they were Irish Catholics coming here on boats? No, it’s because they’re Muslims. That is why we have had this debate.

John Howard has been prepared to press the cynical race card and I believe that we now have three positions. One, the Howard government’s position of no change, persecution, use refugees in order to get votes in middle Australia. You have another position before you today. The position moved by the Shadow Minister and I want to acknowledge that it is a significant step forward from where we have been. But my view is, my principled view – it’s a view I argued against Temporary Protection Visas when they were put in. We had that debate in the caucus. I argued against the linking of on-shore/off-shore visas. I argued against the incremental changes that were made by John Howard and Philip Ruddock step by step post ‘96. And the mistake that Labor made was the view that if we just roll ourselves into a small enough target it’ll stop there. And it just got worse delegates. And it culminated in the Tampa election, one in which many Labor party members felt a great deal of shame about where we were at. Now, I do not blame Kim Beazley or anyone in the Labor leadership for that because they were in a situation where we couldn’t have the debate because we hadn’t had the public debate. And one of the contributions of the comrades from Labor for Refugees have done is go out there and lift that public debate and I congratulate them for it.

There is a lot of nonsense in this debate about what the people who support the amendment allegedly would have as a policy and I want to address it. One is that we support an open door policy. Absolute nonsense. The amendments before you today are not that different from Stephen Smith’s quotes about graduated detention. We support detention to the extent of health, security and identity. But once those things are established why should it be that the poor people who’ve risked their lives on leaky boats to get here get treated better than some of the ones who fly first class into Sydney airport. The second argument is that somehow to oppose the policy before you is to be soft on people smugglers and this was one that was supported by Premiers Carr and Gallop. It’s one that the government says all the time. This is the government that when the Minasa Bone arrived at Melville Island sent it back and let the people smugglers free. I support tough action against people smugglers. I support the position on people smugglers adopted at the Shadow Ministry last Friday and that was adopted unanimously. What I don’t support is blaming the victims of people smugglers. They’re the ones who we lock up in Woomera in the middle of the desert and persecute.

There’s the other argument about Christmas Island excision. That somehow there’s a problem that these amendments go to that. Well, I just think there’s an inconsistency in a policy that says the Pacific Island solution is bad but the Indian Island solution is OK. Excision of our borders is no way to protect them and we should have the guts to say it. Australian sovereignty – every inch of it – whether it’s here in Sydney or on Christmas Island, should be protected and people should have the same legal rights as other people do regardless of where they are. It is no way to protect our borders to excise them.

The third issue that’s often put up is this argument that somehow, and Julia Gillard put it today, somehow if you actually care about the people in Woomera you don’t care about the people sitting in the dirt in Africa. Well I find that pretty offensive. It’s pretty offensive and I tell you what there’s a bit of a correlation between the people that care most about the people in Woomera and the ones who care most about people sitting in the dirt in Africa. That’s my experience.

I’ll conclude by just raising the issue of temporary protection visas. This is a policy that in my view we could have made substantial progress on and people would have felt a lot more comfortable walking away from this conference if last Friday we had said no to TPV’s. No to the policy that was first put forward by One Nation in 1998, that’s where the policy came from. The Liberal Party adopted it in 1999 and we had the debate about it. What are we talking about when we are talking about TPV holders. We are talking about people who are proven to be refugees. It’s not easy. They’ve passed the test but because of the way that they’ve come here we treat them differently. They find it harder to find work. When they do find work in places like regional Australia they want them. They want to keep them there in W.A. They want to keep them there in the Riverina. They find it harder to find accommodation. They’re not assisted to learn any English skills. They suffer psychological damage from the uncertainty that’s there. And most importantly as well there’s the issue of family reunion, they are often separated which creates all sort of difficulties and they are not allowed to leave and I’ll tell you something that we do need to change about that and the reason why.

I think the worst thing that happened during the Federal election was when the Azalimi family, three of the daughters drowned on Siev – X and no-one in political life, to all our shame myself included said a damn thing about it. And that man was not allowed to visit his grieving wife who had lost her three daughters. I say shame on all of us and what we need to do arising out of that is commit ourselves that that will never occur again.