GESTURE POLITICS AT ITS WORST - Speech

PARLIAMENT HOUSE, CANBERRA

 THURSDAY, 10 NOVEMBER 2016

Those of us who sit in this House are here because people put their faith in our undertaking to represent their best interests. This bill, the Migration Legislation Amendment (Regional Processing Cohort) Bill 2016, would permanently exclude any person who comes here by boat from ever entering Australia. In proposing this measure, the government has made a political gesture that is in no-one's best interests—not those sitting in Manus and Nauru, not those refugees who have come to Australia in the past and not those Australians who are concerned to see that our tax dollars are spent wisely and our migration program is an orderly one.

This is gesture politics at its worst, with all of the effectiveness of the pledge by candidate Trump to build a wall along the Mexican border and make Mexico pay for it. That is how effective this proposal would be. It asks people to make peace with the pettiest and meanest instincts, by dressing up those instincts as strength and certainty. It trades on fear and demonisation of the other, aiming to set up a dichotomy between us and them, hoping that Australians will forget the refugees who have come here in the past, who have helped to make Australia richer, more diverse and more interesting; refugees—from Anh Do to Frank Lowy to Les Murray—who have enriched our country.

It is a bill that demeans the elements of the coalition who have instigated it, and it is a bill that has incensed my electorate. As one of my electors wrote to me:

"I was so disheartened today to read of Mr Turnbull's plans to introduce legislation to the Parliament in the next session that any person seeking asylum who has travelled to Australia via a boat will be banned from ever entering this country...One of our dearest friends, who sadly died last year, was a boat person. He, with his family, escaped Hungary in the 1950s and made his way to Australia...Please do not bend to the far-right bigotry that is holding this government to ransom and do not vote for this ghastly piece of legislation." 

Another constituent wrote to me:

"I was appalled at this new proposed legislation. I am sure you will oppose it but want to add my voice to your list of people who are very concerned about this.

"One of my best friends is a boat person from Vietnam who arrived in an era when refugees were welcomed. They are a wonderful family—all now adult children and University educated and in good jobs mostly public service. I teach her grand-daughter the piano and have very close links with the family.

"I feel sad to think of the many lives being persecuted at the moment by the Turnbull government. There must be a better way to stop people smugglers than by ruining so many lives that have the potential to contribute to our society."

As an economist, I am acutely aware of the contribution that Fred Gruen made. He was one of the Dunera Boys, who came to Australia as Jewish refugees after World War II. Aboard the Dunera were many others, including Henry Mayer, who enriched Australian academia, business and the community sector. Fred Gruen was the head of the economics program in the Research School of Social Sciences, and I had the honour at the Australian National University of following in his footsteps as the final head of that economics group. His sons, Nicholas and David, have made an extraordinary contribution to economic policymaking in Australia. Our macro economy would be poorer had we denied Fred Gruen the chance to come to Australia as he did, by boat, on the Dunera.

Canberra's north side is an increasingly diverse and vibrant community. People choose to come here from all over the world, and we are better for that. No Australian government should be looking for ways to needlessly obstruct that inspiration and integration that make for an enterprising and adaptable nation. I was struck earlier by the words of the member for Whitlam, who said that no country will prosper by shrinking. They are words that remind us that Australia's migration program has been a source of strength. As George Megalogenis noted recently in The New York Times, Australia's economic growth has had as one of its principal engines the strong immigration program in this country.

I am an unabashed believer that the challenges of migration, whether they be challenges around housing affordability, traffic congestion or pollution, are best met through direct instruments to tackle those challenges rather than through putting up the walls. But the conversation about migration must always be a conversation grounded in decency and humanity. This is what is so lacking in the Turnbull government's pantomime of authority, with an immigration minister who not only was ranked as the worst health minister ever by Australia's doctors but also, in his time as immigration minister, has sought to sow division and discord rather than unity.

This is a posture, not a policy. I would encourage this government not to seek to fuel the fires of hatred which we can see burning in so many parts of the world, from the far Right parties—Marine Le Pen in France, Norbert Hofer in Austria, the UKIP movement in the United Kingdom—and, indeed, from the wall builders in the US Republican Party. We in Australia need to be better than that. We have benefited from migration, and when we demonise refugees we sow division and doubt about our broader migration program, of which humanitarian arrivals are only approximately one-tenth. We need to cease the approach of doing One Nation's bidding. I notice that Senator Hanson was particularly proud of the introduction of this bill, taking credit for it. Instead, we need a government that will focus on resettling people out of Manus and Nauru. Those 1,600 people who have been languishing in those facilities for over three years, in many cases, need to have an opportunity to begin a new life through third-country resettlement. This bill will not achieve that third-country resettlement. It will not resettle a single refugee. Instead, it will potentially, as the member for Scullin points out, hurt the process of resettlement.

John Key has very clearly said that he does not have an interest in setting up two classes of New Zealanders—a class of regular New Zealanders who have the freedom to travel and live in Australia and another class of refugees resettled from Manus Island and Nauru who are banned from ever entering Australia. So this bill would make it harder to carry out refugee resettlement through New Zealand. It is likely that the same holds true for countries like Canada, Britain or the United States, who would have less interest in taking refugees from Manus Island and Nauru if they needed to then ensure that those refugees could never enter Australia, could never come to compete in an Australian sporting championship, could never come to Australia for a conference if they were to become a successful surgeon or engineer and could never come to Australia to check out the Great Barrier Reef and Uluru as a tourist, having laid down roots in their new country. The Australian government already has a robust compliance program to prevent, catch and remove people who overstay visas. We do not need this sort of dog-whistle politics in order to maintain border security.

As the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees regional representative in Canberra, Thomas Albrecht, has noted, Australia is a signatory to the refugee convention. Part 2 of article 31 of that convention states:

The Contracting States shall not apply to the movements of such refugees restrictions other than those which are necessary and such restrictions shall only be applied until their status in the country is regularized or they obtain admission into another country.

Ben Saul of the University of Sydney has raised concerns about the bill being in breach of Australia's international law obligations—not only article 31 of the refugee convention but also articles 17 and 23 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. I see that the Minister for Justice, who is at the table, is laughing at the notion that Australia might be in breach of international law, and that is so sadly typical of this government's unwillingness to think about our compliance with international law, which is so fundamental to Australia's international diplomacy as a middle-sized power.

We are at our strongest when we stand up for international norms, not thumb our noses at them.

This week in parliament we have seen the strength that comes from diversity. We have joined Australian Hindu communities in celebrating Deepavali, the Festival of Lights. That vibrant Hindu community is just one of many multicultural communities that give strength to the Bush Capital. It reminded me of a ceremony a few years back in which we celebrated Deepavali, or Diwali, as it is also called, in Parliament House, where one of the speakers was Tim Soutphommasane, now the Race Discrimination Commissioner. Tim is the child of Chinese and Laotian parents, and in his book Don't Go Back To Where You Came From he notes that multiculturalism is 'an ideology that draws on both egalitarianism and liberalism'. It should, therefore, naturally be appreciated by those of us on this side of the House, whose wellspring is egalitarianism, and those of the other side of the House, whose party is named after 'liberalism'.

The genius of Australian multiculturalism is something everyone in this House should be proud of—the way in which successive waves of migrants, from Greece, Italy, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, China and the Middle East, have enriched Australia.

I have spoken about migrants here in the ACT such as James Savoulidis, who brought pizza to Canberra in the 1960s and, along the way, taught Gough Whitlam Zorba's dance. It was James Savoulidis's sons who set up the local Wilbur’s Cafe Bar in my home suburb of Hackett and who have helped to build that cuisine we called 'Modern Australian'. Modern Australian is not just a cuisine, though; it is a way of life—a natural way of life in a country where a quarter of Australians were born overseas, and half either are born overseas or have an overseas-born parent. That includes my three boys, given that my wife was born in Ohio.

Canberrans welcome new migrants into our city. I want to pay tribute to Canberra Refugee Support, to Multicultural Youth Services, to Companion House and to Big Bang Ballers, a basketball group in Belconnen that offers Saturday night basketball to new Sudanese and other newly arrived migrants. As a Welcome to Australia Ambassador I am proud of the work that Welcome to Australia does—to tell a great story of Australian generosity.

We are also reminded that the strength of migration is not just on the social side; it is on the economic side as well. Migrants do not just bring mouths to feed. They bring muscles to build and create, and minds to innovate. So many of the new innovations around the world, if you look at places like Silicon Valley, Tel Aviv or indeed Sydney, come from migrants bringing their minds into service of their countries.

Australia is at its best when we are building bridges, not walls, and when we recognise that migrants enrich our society. We on this side of the House have a strong track record of arguing that our policies on asylum seekers can be fairer and more decent. At the last election we pledged to increase the Australian contribution to the UNHCR by $450 million, to double our refugee intake by 27,000, to reintroduce the 90-day rule to the Migration Act, to restore references to the UN refugee convention in the Migration Act, to implement independent oversight of Australian funded processing facilities, to abolish temporary protection visas and to establish an independent children's advocate to ensure the safety of children in offshore processing facilities.

We do not want to see people drowning at sea as they come to Australia, but we do believe that the coalition has mucked up Australia's asylum seeker policy and that our refugee policy can follow a better route. That is why we are opposing this bill, which does nothing to resettle refugees but seeks only to do One Nation's bidding in sowing Trump-style discord and difference in Australia.


Showing 1 reaction

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.
  • commented 2016-12-02 13:06:20 +1100
    Your e-mail message is misleading where it says “I also argued against the government’s proposed lifetime ban on asylum seekers.” It implies all asylum seekers.

Stay in touch

Subscribe to our monthly newsletter

Search



8/1 Torrens Street, Braddon ACT 2612 | 02 6247 4396 | Andrew.Leigh.MP@aph.gov.au