A Line in the Sand

I spoke in parliament tonight against a private members' motion moved by shadow immigration spokesperson Scott Morrison.
'A Line in the Sand', 21 February 2011

In 1983, I was attending Sutherland Primary School, in the electorate of the member for Cook. One day, a person from the computer company Microbee came and set up a computer in the back of the room. It was the first computer most of us had ever seen. The program was a database of the First Fleet, and each of us took it in turns to search the name records to see if our ancestors were on the ship. In that classroom, every eleven year old child wanted to answer the same question: could I possibly be descended from a boat person?

Nearly three decades later, how is it that some people in Australian politics think they can use the term ‘boat person’ as a form of abuse? When they celebrate Australia Day, do they think that the arrivals of 1788 held valid visas? Why do they applaud the courage of one risky sea journey to reach Australia, but spread fear and loathing about another?

In my own electorate, I have had the privilege to meet some extraordinary migrants. Last year, I attended a prize-giving ceremony for an art competition run as part of Refugee Week. First prize went to a Karen Burmese woman who had woven a traditional crimson tunic. Because she didn’t have a proper loom, the woman had taken the mattress off her bed, and fashioned a loom from her pine bed base. It is hard not to be overwhelmed by the courage and spirit of Australia’s migrants.

The great success of multiculturalism has been the way suburban Australians have – without fuss – welcomed successive waves of new migrants into our neighbourhoods. As a local MP, one of the things I most enjoy is to stand in a school assembly - amidst children from all ancestries in the world – and sing with them those lines from the national anthem: ‘For those who’ve come across the seas / We’ve boundless plains to share’.

Yet today, that consensus threatens to shatter. Senator Cori Bernadi tells us that ‘Islam itself is the problem’. And according to journalist Lenore Taylor, the Member for Cook, Scott Morrison, told Shadow Cabinet last year that the Coalition should capitalise on the electorate's growing concerns about Muslim immigration. Neither of them have been rebuked by the Leader of the Opposition.

In his motion today, the Member for Cook continues his efforts to make political capital out of the Australian refugee program. Yet like the Coalition’s election costings, it is riddled with errors. The motion conflates the Refugee and Special Humanitarian components of the Humanitarian Program which are effectively quarantined from each other in terms of the number of visas granted and the priority accorded to processing them.

The motion erroneously suggests that Australia has rejected women at risk because irregular maritime arrivals have crowded them out, an mistake repeated by the member for Cook in his media release last November. This is not the case. The number of places available for refugees overseas is not affected by the number of Protection Visas granted to onshore applicants (and that includes irregular maritime arrivals).

Australia continues to settle a significant number of refugees from overseas. Indeed, the Labor Government has increased this program since coming to office with an additional 250 places in 2009-10, following an increase of 500 places in 2008-09, bringing the total program to 13,750 for 2010-11.

Beyond this, Australia also works to improve the situation of displaced populations in the region by providing substantial support to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Organization for Migration.

Still, if we overlook the factual errors in the Member for Cook’s motion, it is plain that he is trying to make a simple point. The government should give preference to asylum seekers applying offshore rather than those who apply onshore.

This is simple enough to say, but hardly straightforward to implement. It raises the question: when the Coalition’s proposed ‘cap’ has been filled, what should we do with those people who arrive in Australia with valid visas and apply for protection? What should we do with irregular maritime arrivals found to be refugees? Should they stay in indefinite detention? Perhaps that’s the kind of solution that appeals to people who wish for a return to the ‘grand old days’ of the Howard Government’s migration policy. But whether you look at it from the point of compassion or cost-benefit analysis, indefinite detention for those who come to our shores doesn’t make sense.

We should control our borders – of course we should – but controlling our borders does not require us to add to the suffering of people who merit our compassion. The current refugee program is a reasonable response by the Australian community to a world wide challenge.  Australia needs policies that are based on a humanitarian response, not only because that’s what we committed to as signatories of the 1951 Refugee Convention, but also because it reflects the concerns and interests of the community.

While scrutinising the flaws in this motion, let’s not miss the broader context in which this motion is being moved. In the Sydney Morning Herald last Saturday, commentator Mike Carlton quoted Bruce Baird - the predecessor to the Member for Cook, and a man who served the Liberal Party in the NSW and federal parliaments for 20 years. Indeed, when I lived as a time in Pennant Hills, Mr Baird was my state member of parliament (and even as a member of Young Labor, he earned my grudging respect). Last week, Mr Baird said of the Liberal Party: ‘There's no doubt the party has shifted to the right. It seems like One Nation is calling the tune. They are going for the blue-collar, right-wing vote. Moderate views in the federal party have largely disappeared."

Mr Speaker.

  • As the Prime Minister told the Lowy Institute last year: ‘it would take about 20 years to fill the MCG with asylum seekers at present rates of arrival’. Yet there are those who claim that asylum-seekers are a threat to the Australian way of life. They are on the wrong side of history.

  • There are those who think that Australia’s religious freedoms are too narrow to apply to all religions. They are on the wrong side of history.

  • There are those who tell us that when a rich nation like ours is hit with a flood, our generosity to Indonesia should cease. They are on the wrong side of history.

  • There are those who tell us that when family members lose one another in a tragic accident off Christmas Island, we should deny them the chance to attend the funeral. They are on the wrong side of history.

If you read the history books, you’ll see that these seeds of hatred have been sown before. Brewing up racial discontent has its own special recipe. Start with a cup of rhetoric about how ‘those people’ with their ‘strange customs’ are different from ‘us’. Add a spoon of envy about how those outsiders always seem to get better treatment than ‘ordinary Australians’. And for good measure, why not dash in a suggestion that they could be happier if they just went home where they came from. Then give the pot a good stir, and let it simmer until it’s hot enough to serve up to some unsuspecting racial minority.

Believe it or not, there’s even an academic literature on hatred. Harvard economist Ed Glaeser points out that inciting racial hatred will always be a tempting strategy for political entrepreneurs, but only when the minority group reaches a certain size. Italian-Australians: too big (they might fight back). Luxembourg-Australians: too small (hard to get the base fired up). But Middle-Eastern Australians: just right.

I was asked this morning by a journalist I greatly respect: ‘why are you bringing this up today?’. It’s a good question, so in closing, let me try to answer why I don’t think we should merely let the issue drop.

When Pauline Hanson brought her extremist ideology onto the floor of this parliament in the late-1990s, some people said ‘just ignore it, and it’ll go away’. They meant well, but as the subsequent rise of One Nation showed, they were grievously mistaken.

Sometimes, you just have to draw a line in the sand. Here is mine.

  • If there’s someone attacking a religion, that matters to me – even if it’s not my religion.

  • If there’s someone suggesting that asylum seekers are a threat to our way of life, that matters to me – even if I’m not an asylum seeker

  • If there’s a father who wants to attend the funeral of his child, that matters to me – even if it’s not my child.

I urge the House to oppose the motion.

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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.