A better debate on asylum seekers in Australia - Speech in Parliament

The Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull talks about moving on from old politics. He talks about serious policy conversations. He talks about bipartisanship. And, as we have all experienced in recent weeks at great length, the Prime Minister talks.

Unfortunately for Australia, that is all it is. He does not present any policies, just more expansive slogans, more articulately presented, than his predecessor. Nowhere is this more harmful than in respect of our treatment of those seeking asylum. They need and we need a different, more respectful debate commensurate with the scale of the global problem we should be trying to help solve.

The Turnbull government is out of step with not only its own country but also what is happening internationally. I think in particular of the leadership of Angela Merkel under real crisis conditions. Humanitarians worldwide were left dumbfounded and alarmed when the former Prime Minister, Mr Abbott, delivered a speech in London recently suggesting world leaders should follow his approach to asylum—extraordinary hubris and lack of self-awareness, given the scale of present challenges in Europe.

Fortunately, this advice has been dismissed just about everywhere but Australia. The Age today reminds me that the man who delivered this lecture as PM complained on this country's behalf—but not at its request—that we were 'sick of being lectured by the United Nations'.

Many Australians are actually sick of the fact that the world has good grounds on which to lecture us. So now we see dozens of countries criticise the Australian government at the United Nations human rights forum. And how does the government react to this criticism? The member for Berowra said it had been a positive performance for Australia and that we were well received. The minister for immigration called the process a farce. Rather than spending a moment looking at his own government's policies and their human consequences, he simply blamed the United Nations—the messenger. Once again, the coalition government is incapable of dealing with scrutiny, much less criticism.

Far from being the exemplar of human rights that Australia has been and must be again, that response is not a surprise though. After all, this is from the minister who makes jokes about the impact of climate change on Pacific Island nations. This is the minister who has consistently played the most despicable kind of politics with people's lives. We have seen him refuse transfer to a pregnant asylum seeker suffering from diabetes and kidney issues who needed to go to an Australian hospital. Particularly troublingly, we have seen his inhumane treatment of the asylum seeker known as Abyan.

The minister for immigration calls widespread international criticism and condemnation of Australia's human rights record a farce. I say the farce has been that he is more interested in commenting on Labor's approach than doing his job. He should be more concerned about what is happening under a veil of secrecy to vulnerable people who have sought our help under his oversight and about how those found to be refugees can be resettled. These should be his focus and they should be the subject of proper scrutiny.

In the meantime, of course, the Labor Party has had a real debate on this issue. The coalition—the party in government—have stood in the way of a similarly informed debate in the wider community. Labor's debate did not see all the proposals I put forward adopted but it has produced a platform that I am very proud to support. I want and we need to see it implemented. It sets out a decent framework that is concerned with protection and anchored in transparency.

A Labor government will reverse the coalition's attempts to undermine international law. We will double Australia's annual humanitarian intake. Labor will get children out of detention and abolish temporary protection visas, which have been proven to cause mental harm. And, as we now push the Turnbull government to ensure people who have sought asylum in Australia are afforded the benefit of the international human rights obligations we have committed to and that this is subject to proper independent oversight, we will ensure when we are in government that these standards are met.

Fundamentally, if the Turnbull government is really serious about this new politics, let's first see a preparedness to take responsibility for their actions in this regard. Let's also see the government and its leadership enable a genuine debate in this place and in the community, absent rhetoric, absent hubris, absent triumphalism that is misplaced in a world where there are 60 million people forcibly displaced—a real debate about the great moral and practical challenges posed by the forced movement of millions around the world.

Let us accept that the policy challenge is complex and vast, but the domestic politics need not be. Let's have a serious policy conversation in this place. Vulnerable people around the world deserve it; so do the Australian people.


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