No Gary No!

But occasionally we should look at their legislative work, if only to worry about it. Last week’s debate on the proposed law to build a refugee-proof, legal wall around Australia highlighted their concerning contributions.

One example is the Liberal Senator for the Australian Capital Territory, Gary Humphries. The Senate has yet to debate the bill, but Humphries entertained ABC listeners last week by explaining the rationale for treating boat refugees more harshly than those who arrive by plane. The latter, he said, are no concern: they are returned on the next flight.

No, Gary, no. Not even the Howard government simply puts refugee claimants on the next plane home. But air refugees are not a problem because people are prevented from boarding a plane for Australia unless they have a visa, and the immigration department does not give tourist visas to those likely to claim asylum.

You do not often hear Queensland’s Kay Elson’s name, although she has been in parliament since 1996. Elson was the government’s second speaker in Wednesday’s refugee debate – she followed Kim Beazley. Her main contribution was to argue that the government’s legislation was not “any sort of knee-jerk reaction 1 as many in the media and on the other side have tried to assert. Rather, I think that case exposed an inequity and a loophole in the current system which this legislation will close.” Interesting.

Elson should recall Vanstone’s statements which clearly pointed out that Indonesia’s irritation, fairly described as a knee-jerk response to the 43 Papuans, initiated the proposed legislation.

Alan Cadman has represented the Mitchell electorate in NSW since 1974. His first foray in the refugee debate on Thursday was to correctly accuse an ALP member of never voting against his party. Cadman was confident in his own record: his conscience troubled him sufficiently to cross the floor and vote against his party (on a non-contentious matter) once in 32 years.

Cadman early made the point that “Australia leads the world with its settlement and compassionate programs, and the Labor Party are vile and contemptible in trying to paint the picture in any other way”. True, Australia resettled 16,000 refugees in 2004, second in absolute terms only to the United States. But officers of the immigration department have long known that these resettlement figures are feel-good, debating statistics.

The member for Mitchell should know, because he was immigration shadow minister for four years, that countries which have real bragging rights are those which accept all arriving refugees, unscreened and unwanted. According to UNHCR, there were over eight million refugees at the end of 2005. These mainly resided in eight countries – including the United States and the United Kingdom – which each accommodated over two hundred thousand refugees. Australia is not on that list. If the Howard government succeeds, the 43 first asylum refugees taken in January this year will be the last.

But the place of honour – the first government backbench member to speak to the refugee bill on Wednesday – belongs to Don Randall from Western Australia. Randall told us that the legislation was needed “because Australia’s legal system cannot deal with unauthorised arrivals on the mainland”. That justifies our own Guantanamo Bay. Yesterday, a shrill Randall said the bill was needed to protect Australia from terrorists. As he told us, many refugees in Australia received military training in the Middle East.

It is ironic that we give so little scrutiny to backbench government members whose votes make the law. When the government allows them to unleash their prejudice and ignorance, they are more dangerous than most. Then there are backbenchers who do what the constitution intended – to oversight the government, without fear or favour. There is only a handful of these in each chamber, mostly in the coalition. By the end of this week we will know all their names.

  1. to the case of 43 Papuans arriving in January[]
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Ken Parish
17 years ago

“But air refugees are not a problem because people are prevented from boarding a plane for Australia unless they have a visa, and the immigration department does not give tourist visas to those likely to claim asylum.”

That’s certainly DIMA’s objective, but they never achieve it. According to the most recent update, the number of “non-program” humanitarian arrivals in 2005 was 11,669. Since to the best of my knowledge no illegal boat-borne applicants arrived during 2005 (the 43 Papuans arrived in January), we can reasonably assume that all of those 11,669 people arrived by air with valid visas and then made applications for protection or humanitarian visas. The number of visa-holding onshore asylum seekers has always dwarfed the number of illegal boat people arrivals. Typically around 12,000 of the former arrive every year, while the illegal boat people arrivals numbered in the hundreds throughout the 1990s, rose to 2000 or so from 1999-2002 and then fell back almost to zero after Tampa, Pacific Solution etc.

The bizarre thing about the visa-holding applicants, in contrast to the boat people arivals, is that the former have always been allowed to remain at large in the community while their protection visa aplications are processed and appeals heard, while the latter are kept in detention throughout. I’ve never really understood why we regard the boat people as a threat whereas the visa-holders aren’t. Or is it that we regard the boat people as cheats and queue jumpers and therefore morally unworthy? But surely the visa-holding arrivals are cheats and queue jumpers at least as much as the boat people. In many cases, they sought and obtained a tourist, student or other visa under false pretences, habouring a secret intention to apply for a protection visa once they reached Australia.

Of course these facts also impact Don Randall’s silly statement that “Australia’s legal system cannot deal with unauthorised arrivals on the mainland”. In fact our legal system has been dealing perfectly adequately (in the sense that neither politicians nor the public seem to have even noticed let alone commented) with the appeals and judicial review applications of the very much larger cohort of legal-arrival asylum seekers, as well as with the tiny number of illegal arrivals. Why would giving legal appeal and judicial review rights to a few dozen (or even a few hundred) illegal boat arrivals cause insurmountable problems for the legal system when giving exactly the same rights to 12,000 legal arrivals every year apparently causes no problems at all? It simply confirms (if any confirmation was needed) that Howard’s aborted expanded Pacific solution legislation had everything to do with pandering to Indonesian sensibilities and very little to do with sensible, humane management of policy.

Chris Lloyd
Chris Lloyd
17 years ago

Isn’t the difference between plane and boat arrivals that plane arrivals have papers. Your ME boat people from 4 years ago flew from Karachi to KL or Jakarta, were allowed through customs there, travelled to south Indonesia, destroyed their own documents, then paid a large sum of money to get on a leaky boat. It seems to me that their very manner of arrival means that they self assessed as non-refugees.

Now I am against the Pacific Solution because it does not address the main issue. And it was an appalling precedent. Not giving people access to Australian law because Australian law is too generous invites the question – why not change the Australian law? For instance to reverse the onus of proof and limit appeals. This may mean formally withdrawing from the 1951 convention.

The Papuans are surely genuine refugees. They have papers and Australia is the first port of call. They are at risk. Indonesia have plenty of form. But once the excision precedent has been set it can be used for other reasons. It is heartening that the political tide is turning.

Francis X Holden
17 years ago

I can’t see what problem 1,000 or 2,000 boat arrivals would be for us each year. Going on current evidence to date any terrorists are likely to be born here and have travelled away from here a few times.

Disclosure: With my (extended)family we have 5 Papuan refugees living with us here with bed, food, clothes, cars, computers, school fees and in my case in particular lots of guitars, CDs, concerts, music, booze and advice. They are all working as well as studying and rather than being burden on this society are a clear assett. The stories of ongoing persecution by the Indos and starvation in PNG camps are no joke.

Ian K
Ian K
17 years ago

Ken said: “the number of “non-program”

Ken Parish
17 years ago

Thanks for that Ian. I had assumed that was what they were calling onshore applicants for protection or humanitarian visas, mostly because the observation in the intro was under an itnem relating to the humanitarian program and because I know from previous research that the numbers of onshore applicants in those categories always numbers in the thousands. I wonder what the true figure is? The statistical publications elsewhere on the DIMA site only go up to 2004-5 (and earlier in some cases). In any event, the exact figure doesn’t affect the overall point iw as making, namely that the number of onshore applicants always vastly outnumbers the boat people applicants so that claims that the legal system can’t cope with the latter are fanciful.