Parliamentary speeches

Asylum seekers - matter of public importance

November 20, 2013

Mr GILES (Scullin) (16:03): This is a matter of public importance at two levels. It is about an important matter of public policy, but it also goes to the very heart of our democracy. This is not the government the Australian people elected on 7 September; this is a government of secrecy. And it is that secrecy which goes to the heart of this debate, which I am very glad the shadow minister for immigration and border protection has brought on. We have heard a lot of rhetoric and a lot of abusive language but no facts. There are two issues at play. There are two questions we have to ask. Firstly, what do we know? One thing that we know is that the PNG resettlement program was working. That is an uncomfortable fact for those in the present government. It has been raised three times in this debate.

Mr Craig Kelly interjecting—

Mr GILES: And the fact that the member for Hughes or anyone else says it louder does not make it not true. The PNG resettlement solution was working. We know that. What is the other thing that we know? The present government and the present Minister for Immigration and Border Protection are not interested in telling us what they are doing. Why? There are some big fig leaves. He will give us 10 minutes of a history lesson. We have had a history lesson from other members opposite—plenty of history, plenty of discussion about the work of previous governments. But in here we hear nothing about the work of this government. We hear '75 per cent', we hear 'nearly 80 per cent', but in this chamber we hear no more.

Why, I ask members, could it be? What possible inference could we draw from the fact that we are hearing nothing about the tow-backs and the buybacks? What possible reason could the minister have for not having in his folder the answers which demonstrate the success of his policies? I think it is pretty clear there is only one inference that can be drawn.

I am a new member in this place and I may be very naive, but I have read House of Representatives Practice and I would refer members opposite to page 543, which states:

One of the more important functions of the House is its critical review function. This includes scrutiny of the Executive Government—

yes, scrutiny of the executive government, Minister—

bringing to light issues and perceived deficiencies or problems, ventilating grievances, exposing, and thereby preventing the Government from exercising, arbitrary power, and pressing the Government to take remedial or other action. Questions are a vital element in this function.

Members will be pleased to hear that. And further:

It is fundamental in the concept of responsible government that the Executive Government be accountable to the House. The capacity of the House of Representatives to call the Government to account depends, in large measure, on its knowledge and understanding of the Government's policies and activities. Questions without notice and on notice … play an important part in this quest for information.

I think this is a very important passage which goes to the heart of this debate. But it is very difficult for me, a naive new member, to reconcile this description of responsible government with the present government's performance. On eight occasions the minister has refused to answer direct questions. What is the fundamental point of having a minister who is not accountable and responsible to this parliament? What is the point of having a minister? It flies in the face of centuries of responsible government and makes it impossible for the people of Australia to determine the performance of the policies that he is so eager to claim credit for. With the repeated refusal to answer questions, the only inference anyone here can draw, the only inference the Australian people can draw, is that buybacks and tow-backs are not working and the policies of the previous government, including the PNG resettlement solution, are working.

There is something unsettling and even Orwellian about this government, going to the very title of Operation Sovereign Borders and the militarisation of civil policy, from debate management motions to operational matters to this failure to disclose anything in this debate on this matter of great public importance. This is treating parliament with contempt. This is treating the Australian people with contempt. It is surreal. May I suggest in future that the media strategy comes after the public policy, that the media strategy comes after the responsible minister treating this parliament and the Australian people with the respect they deserve.