July 04, 2013
No democratic Australia could ever impose penalties on refugees which could match the terror from which most of them flee. Our policies need to change
There have been headlines today that I’m campaigning for the Greens. I am not campaigning for them, but I am speaking at one public forum for a Greens senator, Sarah Hanson-Young, because of her position on asylum seekers, and also because her seat is most at risk in the senate – or it certainly was when Julia Gillard was still prime minister. This is because I don’t think either party deserves to have a majority in both houses.
I believe the major parties’ policies are extreme. The Liberal party policies have not been spelt out with any clarity, and both Liberal and Labor parties seem to be competing to have tougher – or more inhumane – policies which deny domestic and international responsibilities to people fleeing terror.
I became particularly interested in asylum seeker policy with the refugee exodus out of Indo-China in the 1970s. My government allowed about 70,000 people who were fleeing to resettle in Australia over three years on top of our refugee resettlement commitment to the United Nations, which was about 12,000 people per year. The Vietnamese community has turned into a very vigorous, vibrant community of about 300,000 of enormous benefit to Australia. Vietnamese-Australians are productive, loyal, hard-working citizens.
We should establish policies similar to what we had in the 1970s and early 1980s. Mandatory detention is not necessary; when people want or hope to get a visa to stay in Australia, they are not going to abscond. During my time in government, the immigration department proposed mandatory detention centres several times. We regarded the proposal as barbarous, and we rejected it.
If you give refugees bridging visas, if you allow people to work, they would pay taxes and the government would make money on it. As it is, they get a very small allowance which most people would find difficult to live on, they’re not allowed access to any government services and in many cases, their survival is dependent on other organisations like theAsylum Seeker Resource centre.
It’s part of a policy of deterrence, trying to be nasty to people hoping
that will stop them wanting to come. But what neither the government nor the opposition have understood is that no democratic Australia could ever impose penalties or hardships on refugees which could match the terror from which most of them flee.
So the supposed policy of deterrence is obviously not working. John Howard said it worked in his time but that is, at best, a high gloss on the truth. It is true that the boats stopped but at that time the number of asylum seekers going to Europe also fell massively, and they hadn’t introduced any of the penal policies introduced by the Howard government. It was the lessening of violence in those countries that led to the fall of refugee numbers during the Howard era, not punitive policies imposed by Australia.
What the major parties do not want to admit to is that our policies on asylum seekers have done Australia very, very grave harm. I’ve known Sarah Hanson-Young for a long while. She is a voice of sanity and decency and humanity in relation to asylum seekers. I admire the way she speaks out on the subject, and she was in my office on one occasion telling me how difficult it was going to be to hang on to her seat. I said “look, if I can help you as a person, not the Greens as such, I will”.
I won’t do another event – but that’s got nothing to do with the headlines today. Once it’s out there, I think she should be supported. And anyway, I’m too old to go campaigning around. I’ve been there, done that years ago.