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 [to the case of 43 Papuans arriving in January] 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.