Part 3 of George Venturini’s piece cites The Green’s opposition to the draconian legislation Scott Morrison introduced into Parliament in his final weeks as the Minister for Immigration.
A Parliament, but what ‘democracy’?
The Parliamentary debate on the final text of the bill had been one of the harshest and most anguished in a long time. Parliament was bitterly divided.
Few members in the House of Representatives could and did speak against the bill in good conscience, by having opposed it from the very beginning.
Most comfortable, despite their anguish, were the Australian Greens members of the Senate. They had the advantage of never having proposed and organised the mis-treatment of asylum seekers as the so-called Labor Party and the so-called Liberal Party, with its Country Party appendix, had done for some twenty years at least.
The final debate on the bill got on the way at mid-afternoon of 4 December 2014.
First amongst the Greens to speak was Senator Milne. She said:
“On 5 April 2013 the now Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, who was the opposition leader at the time, in a speech to his favourite organisation, the Institute of Public Affairs – that is, the Rupert Murdoch-Gina Rinehart think tank – said this: ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’ is the foundation of our justice. ‘Love your neighbour as you love yourself’ is the foundation of our mercy.
That was our Prime Minister when he was the Leader of the Opposition, and now this government is engaged in what I think will be regarded as crimes against humanity because it is systematic abuse. It is not one-off, not by any means: it is systematic and deliberate humiliation and degradation of people, and a deliberate and systemic process to destroy people’s mental health. … The fact that there are children locked up in detention at all is a disgrace, and the minister has the power right now to free all of those children and their families, but he will not do it. He will not do it because he wants to treat those children as pawns in a political game to try to get more power and to get more disgraceful legislation through this parliament. What sort of a person uses the fact that he has the power to keep children locked up behind barbed wire in detention centres and decides to trade or not to trade their freedom depending on whether he can get other people to agree to give him more powers which are against international law?”
“There are so many things wrong with this legislation that it is hard to know where to begin. Schedule 6 provides that you can classify children born in Australia to asylum seeker parents as unauthorised maritime arrivals. No, they are not. They are babies born in Australia on Australian soil, and they should be regarded in the same way as any other child born here and be given their citizenship – their statehood.
What do you call this treatment of pregnant women? There are two women on Nauru who are eight months pregnant. They had been classified as genuine refugees and were settled as refugees on Nauru – not criminals but settled refugees – but, because Australia has determined to send people to Nauru, where, clearly, the medical facilities are not good enough and these women had to be sent to Australia to have their babies, they have been put in detention. They are eight months pregnant and were put in detention, when they are settled refugees. I call that disgraceful and grave humiliation of those people. It is degradation of their human rights. They are settled refugees – they should be treated with the respect that they deserve, not shoved into detention.
I want to talk first of all about the minister’s grab for power – that is, the removal of judicial oversight of the use of maritime powers.
The fact that this bill will amend the Maritime Powers Act and remove judicial scrutiny of whether Australia complies with certain human rights obligations, by removing a role for judges and removing a role for the courts to invalidate government actions at sea, proves and provides that the rules of natural justice do not apply to certain key actions.
It suspends Australia’s international obligations in the context of powers exercised under the Maritime Powers Act. This is the parliament saying that it will exempt itself and its behaviour from the scrutiny of the courts. This is absolutely shocking behaviour in international law terms – we are abrogating our responsibilities under international law just so this minister can do what he likes on behalf of his government.”
Senator Milne went on:
“The other thing that is appalling is that [the intended legislation] is allowing for fast-tracking to occur. To make things worse, under this fast-track process, applicants for protection visas will no longer be entitled to have the merits of their claim reviewed by the Refugee Review Tribunal. In some cases but not all they will be able to have their case looked at by the immigration assessment authority, but it will not involve any hearings where the applicant can set out their claims and a decision will be made purely on the papers. Of course everybody knows that for refugees and people seeking asylum that is going to be virtually impossible. Many of them are already frightened of the authorities because of the way they have had to leave the countries they have been in. They will have no papers and no-one to justify or prove or verify some of the things they are saying.
This is setting up a grossly unfair procedural process. And you are knowingly doing it. It is beyond my understanding of how you continue to use this Orwellian language. ‘Unauthorised maritime arrival’ – no, person, people like you and I, people with parents, with children, with brothers and sisters and families and hopes for a better future, people who have had to leave Afghanistan, Hazaras who have had to leave because they are being persecuted. And this government thinks it is fine to turn them around at sea and send them back to Sri Lanka, for example, where you know and I know that the Rajapaksa government is engaged in crimes against humanity all the time, yet you appease them. You appease the Rajapaksas. You know exactly what they are doing in Sri Lanka. You know what they are doing to the Tamils. You know that the white vans turn up and people disappear, yet you send asylum seekers back because it suits you to do so and, what is more, you give to the Rajapaksa regime some of the vessels which will better able them to intercept people leaving or to return them.
You are more than happy to turn people around, to traumatise the Navy, for example, as we saw on the 7.30 Report this week where people were horrified about what they have been expected to do. They have been given no counselling or assistance even though they are experiencing the humanity they feel about seeing the way these people are being treated. There is the fact that anyone could say it would be inconvenient for a refugee vessel to turn up on Australia Day, ‘So let’s make sure that doesn’t happen, let’s turn them around, let’s push them back, let’s do what we like, let’s get rid of them because they’re unauthorised maritime arrivals.’ No, they are people of whom the Prime Minister has said, ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ It is very clear that he does not believe that. The Prime Minister would not have his own family treated in this way. He would not have a child of his own family left stateless.
Every child has a right to a name and a nationality, a statehood. In the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child every child has a right to a name and a nationality, yet you are taking that away from them.
You are saying: ‘That child will be stateless and, what’s more, we’re not even calling a child a child; we’re just going to label them’ – in Orwellian terms – ‘an “unauthorised maritime arrival.” ’
International law will catch up with this government. The International Criminal Court was set up to look at systemic abuse by governments around the world.”
Senator Ludlam, also of the Australian Greens, opened his speech with a bang: “[The bill] is the latest sordid chapter in a race to the bottom.”
And he continued:
“ … many of us thought it would not come to this. Just when you think this government cannot get any more vindictive in its treatment of innocent families fleeing war and violence and just when you think this government could not get any more sadistic, secretive and authoritarian in its attitude towards some of the most vulnerable people in the world, this government finds a way to surprise you.
So I am now beyond surprising. In truth, the ruination of Australia’s arguably proud record of providing safe harbour to people seeking to escape political or sectarian violence has been a long time coming and there is no point in laying all of the blame at the feet of Minister Scott Morrison. From the moment the ALP and the Liberal-National parties settled their bipartisan consensus that henceforth Australian refugee policy would rest on the principle of deterrence, a bill like the one we are debating tonight was practically inevitable.
To deter people from fleeing the Iranian secret police, the medieval violence of the Taliban, the horrors faced by the Rohingya in the western part of Burma and the murderous repression that passes for official state policy in Sri Lanka inevitably means your policy ends up in a very dark place indeed. The United Nations has recognised this. The Australian High Court has recognised this. Advocates who work face to face with refugees fleeing the unfortunate circumstances that people find themselves in, refugees themselves and advocates, like Amnesty International, which keep an eye on the kinds of horrific situations that people find themselves in around the world, have looked at Australian government policy in recent years and found it extremely wanting.
We have a bill tonight that will grant almost total impunity to Minister Scott Morrison and whoever comes after him in the continued process of the militarisation of a humanitarian crisis. … and I genuinely fear for what powers this bill would grant an individual like Minister Scott Morrison – his authoritarian tendencies when he thinks he can score some kind of political point; brutalising people who already have lost so much – and I genuinely fear what this will actually mean for people who, through no fault of their own, find themselves on the front line.
The bill effectively will redefine the definition of refugee to be whatever the minister of the day says it is. And although Mr Morrison appears to be using hundreds of children who should never have been detained in the first place as a bargaining chip – and, again, we see the kind of compassion that I think has driven this debate for many years. … The compassion that was felt by people right across the debate was so callously manipulated, and, again, that is what is happening tonight. The crossbenchers have been told that Minister Morrison will trade off children behind razor wire – who should never have been put there in the first place – as though they were poker chips in a political negotiation. What kind of sociopath engages in a political debate or a political negotiation using the lives of children who have fled from Hazara lands in Afghanistan or from Sri Lanka ? It is very, very hard to fathom how it could possibly have come to this. Those children could be released tomorrow, irrespective of the outcome of this debate tonight. That is what the Labor Party understands, it is what the Greens understand, and I would urge the other crossbenchers – some of whom have made their position clear and some of whom have not – to rest with that consideration overnight, because that decision will be on their conscience and on all of our consciences irrespective of which way the vote goes when it is committed.
The bill effectively removes most references to the refugee convention from Australia’s Migration Act. This is something that I am not expecting will make the front pages of the papers tomorrow because for whatever reason most Australians, through spending our lives in such a fortunate part of the world, if we are lucky will not ever have to think carefully about what human rights actually mean in the flesh or what international humanitarian law actually means to families, to real individuals. These things are seen by most of us, mediated through television screens, happening to other people.
But these instruments were put there for a purpose. As I described briefly earlier, they were put there so that nobody would ever have to face what those of Jewish descent fleeing the horrors of Nazi Germany had faced, or that the story of those fleeing Poland would never be repeated. That is the flesh and blood behind these human rights instruments that this government is so casually violating in the terms outlined in this bill. What kind of legislator – what kind of leader; what kind of politician – determines that the children of boat arrivals who were born in Australia, in Australian hospitals, are nonetheless unauthorised maritime arrivals ? It is bleak. It is not even ironic; it is an incredibly black piece of legislation. And yet that is what this bill does -newborn children are classified as unauthorised maritime arrivals. How did it come to this degree of political dehumanisation?
Of course, there will be further debate on the amendments that are outlined in this bill when we get to the committee stage, and further amendments will shape the final form of the bill. I will leave comment on those to my colleague Senator Hanson-Young, who has carried the burden of government policies under the former government and under this government as they have sought this race to the bottom – as governments of both persuasion have sought to outdo each other in that deterrent effect that would somehow make Australian government policy scarier than the Taliban or the Iranian secret police.
We can talk about the high-level policy of lifting the humanitarian intake and about the Greens’ safer pathways proposal, which would lift the humanitarian intake to 30,000 to take the pressure off those people who found themselves stranded in transit camps in Malaysia and Indonesia. Under that proposal, out of that target of 30,000, we would take 10,000 from those camps in our region, where people have been told there is no queue. That is what creates the business model that the people-smugglers exploit. Momentarily lapsing into the language adopted by the coalition, if you want to smash that business model, remove the incentive to climb onto a boat. Rather than making people more terrified of the Australian government than they are of the Sri Lankan white vans, offer them hope by offering them a chance at a safe harbour—you might be in this camp for a period of time, but you will be safe while you are here, and you will eventually be resettled. If you want to dissolve the people-smugglers’ business model, that is how to do it. The Greens propose an additional $70 million per year in emergency funding for safe assessment centres in Indonesia to enable this kind of process and to give people confidence that they will not be in these camps forever while they wait for assessment and resettlement. We propose to shut down all offshore detention in Nauru and [Papua New Guinea]. This is not simply about getting children out of detention; it is about getting all human beings out of detention.
There are many, many policy instruments if we simply set the racist undertones of this debate aside, cease the race to the bottom – where we try and terrify people out of fleeing military dictatorships and war zones – and actually adopt a compassionate approach.”
But it was left to the Shadow Minister for Immigration, Senator Hanson-Young to place the final nail in the moral coffin of the Abbott government. Rising to speak late in the evening, she began this way:
“I obviously have an awful lot of questions for the minister as well in relation to how on earth the government thinks it is appropriate to hold children as hostages in order to change fundamental pieces of legislation to simply grant the minister more power for himself. I have had many debates in this place over asylum seeker and refugee policy and many of them have been pretty undignified, but I must say I have never seen anything so appalling and abusive as I have seen in this place tonight. We heard from Senator Muir, who said he felt he was in such a difficult position – with a choice to vote for a bad bill or a terrible bill, because he was told that, if he did not do what the government wanted, the children would get it. He was told the only way to get these children out of detention was to pass this bill and this package.
I have been saying for a number of weeks that the minister was using children in detention as hostages – it was a figure of speech until tonight. Tonight we saw children on Christmas Island being handed the phone number of [an other crossbench senator, who might have been undecided], and they were asked to call that number and beg that senator to let them out. If that is not treating children as hostages, what is it?
This minister has become one of the most sociopathic people in this country. I want to give you the definition of a sociopath. It is characterised by a lack of regard for the moral or legal standards of society, a master deceiver and manipulator, someone who will do whatever it takes to get what he wants with no regard for consequences. Minister Morrison is a sociopath who has held children as hostages in order to grab the power he wants in this place tonight.
I do not blame [that senator]. I do not blame any of the members on this crossbench. I do not even blame a number of the backbenchers of the Liberal-National party who I know are appalled at where this government’s policy is doing but I sure as hell blame Minister Morrison and Tony Abbott. They have been desperate for months to get a win on this issue. They have done everything they could to make it a hard moral choice for people in this place. What is in this bill is not just temporary protection visas, not just a new visa created to allow people to work. We know there are seven schedules in this piece of legislation and the majority of them do exactly the opposite of helping children and their families resettle properly in this country.
Minister Morrison has held children in detention for months, children he could have been released at any time. The conditions inside the detention centre on Christmas Island are appalling. Children have been abused. They have been raped and their parents have been raped. I am not exaggerating. This is what the evidence has shown. Why did he not get the children out when they started to be abused ? Why did he not let the children out when they called, wrote and begged him to let them go to school six months ago ? Why did he not let them out when the Human Rights Commission said they are the most disgraceful conditions children should ever be held in ? Why did he not let them out then ? Because he was waiting for his prime time to use them as bargaining chips, as pawns in his political play, to get legislation that he wanted through this place which previously had no support in this chamber.
The amendments moved today by the minister do not improve the substance of this bill. The amendments put forward in this piece of legislation do not make any real difference to the use of those SHEVs or those TPVs, despite what the crossbench has been told. There is no way that somebody can honestly believe that there is a pathway to permanency for any of the people in this 30,000 caseload backlog.”
Almost in tears, Senator Hanson-Young shouted:
“I want those kids off Christmas Island. I want the kids off Nauru. I want the people out of detention on Manus Island. But I do not believe in setting 30,000 people up to fail, giving them false hope that they will get their refugee claims assessed fairly – which they will not, because schedules 4 and 5 scrap their ability to ever have their claims assessed fairly – and pretending that somehow there is a pathway to permanency when the minister has said himself that it is going to be a ‘very high bar to get there and good luck to them.’ These people are being sold false hope, and who did the final deal but a distraught, broken, abused child on Christmas Island, down the telephone to a compassionate senator who wanted to do the right thing. This minister has not just used children as a bargaining chip. He has sold them a false dream once more.”
Coming towards the end of her intervention, Senator Hanson-Young concluded:
“We know that when you strip away the ability to have a genuine appeal process, to have cases reviewed, you risk 60 per cent of applications being marked as wrong. Sixty per cent of the children on Christmas Island tonight who will come to Australia will never be given a visa under this legislation. It does not matter how compromising or willing we are to try to move on and give people some form of temporary visa or a SHEV. The reality is, the statistics tell us and past history and evidence show us that if this assessment process is changed the way the minister wants it changed, 60 per cent of those children are never even going to be given a temporary protection visa. This minister is not just a sociopath, not just grabber of power for himself who is prepared to take everything and use children to get it; he has sold senators in this place who are trying to do the right thing a lie. Sociopaths are masters and deceivers and manipulators. That is what we have seen here tonight, colleagues. That is exactly what we have seen here tonight.
I have looked through the amendments. There ain’t no family reunion in here. We heard that people would be able to have a pathway to permanency. Well it is not in there, and it will not be in there for the majority of people we apparently must do this for to get them off the island. Why didn’t the minister act to get those children out of detention when he was told that the conditions were damaging them – months ago? Why has he spent months attacking [the President of the Human Right Commission] for standing up and saying these kids needed to be off the island and out of detention ? Why didn’t he act then ? Because he was desperate to keep his chips in his pocket for exactly this occasion. Who would have been on the end of that phone call, distressed and crying, if he had already taken all the children out? I am appalled. Many people in this country tonight would be appalled. Using children as hostages is never okay, and only a sociopath would do it.”