Hon Judi Moylan


Mrs MOYLAN (Pearce) (19:47): In rising to speak to this motion, first of all I thank the member for Chifley for giving us the opportunity to debate the issue. I do not wish to engage in a debate which is just purely pointscoring. I think that these are serious issues. It is not just about boats; it is about people and people's lives. I think one of the things that the member for Canning has done this evening is point out the complexity in these situations not just with Sri Lankans but with people fleeing from many other places.

I am not sure about the lecture on ethics, because on 9 April 2010 the Labor government, with no warning, declared an immediate freeze on the processing of asylum claims of people from Afghanistan and Sri Lanka on the grounds that developments within those countries meant that they had no basis for asylum claims. That was an arbitrary decision based solely on country of origin which breached our legal and moral obligations to hear the claims of people seeking asylum. People in genuine fear for their lives were left in limbo, indefinitely detained in what I call maximum security prisons because I do not like the phrase 'detention centres'. I think it does not tell the story. Despite the Labor Party's own policy only two years earlier explicitly stating that 'indefinite or otherwise arbitrary detention is not acceptable', that detention should 'only be used as a last resort' and that asylum seekers should be treated 'fairly and reasonably within the law', only when the government finally accepted that persecution continues to threaten lives in countries long after the official end of conflict was the processing reinstated.

Then the government sought to enact the Malaysia solution, which would have seen anyone seeking onshore protection removed, without consideration of their claim, to a country which is not a signatory to the refugee convention. We have seen from this government the spectacle of women and children being shuffled around the country and locked in detention centres. Now the government has decided to implement a no-advantage test, which may see people being held indefinitely pending claims being processed.

We should not forget that these people are fleeing violence and persecution and that it is a significant and unpalatable option for someone to have to leave their home and cross the perilous seas to seek our assistance. Stemming the flow of refugees is best achieved wherever possible by addressing the factors which cause people to flee their home in the first place. Despite the end of the official conflict in Sri Lanka, paramilitaries exist and civilians are still at risk from reprisals from the various factions based on imputed political beliefs or ethnicity.

The Sri Lankan government needs encouragement and assistance to address the internal security situation. Australia should look to countries like India, which has a far greater portion of people fleeing into its areas, to also assist. I know that India has offered Sri Lanka a $1 billion loan to assist in rebuilding after its long internal conflict. That is to be commended. It is also setting up an Indian agency for partnership and development, which will oversee $11 billion of aid being distributed to Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Bangladesh over the next five to seven years. Australia should work more closely with India to ensure that such development assistance is to some extent tied to improved internal security, which will help stem the flow of refugees. Yet, the government has presided over a consistent downsizing of our foreign affairs. When we should be stepping up our diplomatic engagement we are actually dumbing it down.

In dealing with these policies where life and dignity are at stake a cautious approach must be taken whenever there is a risk of returning people to potential harm. The fact is there are very strict criteria for determining whether a person meets the status of an asylum seeker. Whichever party's policies are in place, that test must be strictly applied to make sure that these matters are dealt with according to our obligations. We should apply that test regardless and we should learn from the mistakes we made with Cambodia where we returned Cambodians because we said the conflict was over because the Hawke government at the time had been involved in the peace process. We need to be very careful when we presume that these people are safe because the conflict is over. We should draw from history and recognise the fact that we could well return people to situations that threaten their lives.

Debate adjourned.


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