Kate Lundy, ALP Senator for the ACT
Kate Lundy is the ALP's Senator for the ACT and the Shadow Minister for the Arts, Sport and Information Technology
Address to Labor for Refugees Forum
In democratic nations, those people privileged to be chosen to govern have no higher responsibility than to uphold the institutions and the human values that are at the core of our freedoms. Because history tells us that, at the end of the day, democratic institutions can be fragile.
Leadership can reinforce and renew these fundamentals but it can also weaken them far more easily than we would like to imagine.
What are those institutions and values?
We recognise certain essential human rights. These include:
Governments are responsible for doing what has to be done to protect these rights on behalf of its citizens, and, where possible, all people. A first order responsibility in creating an environment where these rights are protected is in making the nation safe from those who would seek to undermine it, from without and within.
These actions and values are entirely consistent. But we need to remember why we do things such as maintain a Defence force. It is to protect and strengthen these essential human rights.
In the election campaign, we witnessed a Government and, specifically, a Prime Minister, do something unforgivable. John Howard co-opted the legitimate terminology that applies to one mechanism of protecting our freedoms and used it to undermine our core values.
He took "border protection" and turned it into code for treating a group of desperate people as something less than human. It was a most wicked action. It was an action calculated to win political office without regard to the damage to our integrity as a people and as a nation..
It was an action that was designed to draw divisions of race, and to legitimise the characterisation of people along those lines in ways that most of us would never have thought to be possible.
Labor, we have to admit now, that we were caught flat footed and fell into a trap. We couldn't believe that any leader could be so malicious, so destructive, so fundamentally wicked as to be willing to go to such lengths.
We recognised the legitimate need and concern to protect our borders. We heard the term "border protection" and thought we knew what it meant. Sure, we could see the political expediency in the way the discussion was conducted in the Parliament in an attempt to create a wedge between us and the Coalition.
But we didn't at the time see the putrid core of Howard's agenda. We learnt this when we heard what they were saying inside their war rooms.
Labor has been accused of underestimating Howard in the last election. I take a contrary view. I think we overestimated. We overestimated him as a human being.
It seemed inconceivable to us that he was willing to exploit the most base, racist of instincts to retain office, so we were inclined to say ourselves that we did not deem him personally to be racist. Well, let me say now, racist is as racist does. Can you imagine a boatload of white Zimbabwean farmers being turned away?
Can you imagine a decision being taken to avoid "humanising" a group of white Anglos? Can you imagine English children being locked up in a concentration camp in a desert for years, and, when the inevitable damage done to them began to manifest itself, being accused of extortion against the Government?
When John Howard defends himself against charges of racism, there's always the qualifier ... "I'm not racist but..." It's been the same since he tried to whip up anti-Asian sentiment in the 1980s, it was the same when he used Pauline Hanson to give Australians permission to be anti-Aboriginal, it's the same today.
Personally, I believe that Labor failed at the last election because it was blind to the depths to which the Government was willing to sink. We lost our way. As part of that collective failure, I have to say to you today that I am truly, profoundly sorry.
But I see in the Labor Party something that gives me cause for optimism that we can emerge a better, stronger force from this failure and from the collective soul searching it has precipitated.
This is an occasion where we are forced to focus on what it is that makes us who we are, so that we never again lose sight of the light on the hill. Labor's enduring values extend to the very tenets of the Australian constitutional democracy.
Let me list a few:
These values will guide us because we will find a way to express them in specific policies relating to refugees. They show us the way forward. This is the framework that they illuminate for me.
We should stop using the language of John Howard. That is the language of racism and victimisation of those most in need. We should not reinforce the perception that asylum seekers are a threat and should be feared. We should not contribute to a self-fulling prophecy where asylum seekers are assumed to be guilty of something and therefore treated as convicted felons.
We need to remind ourselves that seeking asylum is not an illegal activity. Asylum seekers are not illegal immigrants until their claims have been tested under Australian law, and found to be wanting.
In this vein, we should be continually testing our opinions and strategies in this debate against these values. We need to take care that we are engaging the community on our own terms, not the de-facto terms that the Coalition has and will continue to try and lay out. This is why Labor's conversation with the community on this issue is so important. We must consult directly and we must make ourselves open and accessible to the views of all.
To date, Labor's Federal Caucus has agreed upon a four point initiative
This demonstrates a progressive shift in our direction on policy substance since the election. Labor is currently working to develop a comprehensive policy on asylum seekers that incorporates our traditional values and principles. And I am optimistic this will be the outcome.
Nonetheless the future is still open and I think right now is a crucial stage in the progress of these internal debates and external consultations.
Already sections of the Party are becoming more outspoken. The ACT Party Branch Council has called on the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party "to fundamentally reconsider its policy in relation to refugees and asylum seekers."
It called upon the party to develop a policy on asylum seekers and refugees that is:
A similar motion was passed unanimously before the ALP National Women's Forum.
Quite simply, refugee policy is still contested ground within the Labor Party. This debate is not limited to the Caucus initiative, or to the multitude of issues outlined by a discussion paper released earlier this year by our Shadow Minister, Julia Gillard: the language of the discussion paper, and indeed, of the party, is, in my view, up for debate.
Labor has committed itself to working in a thorough and consultative way to developing a comprehensive and lasting solution on these issues. It is important for people to see Labor's current position as an encouraging start. These policy changes are just the start of policy review process.
While we are showing leadership so far in policy substance, we need to choose between continuing with the language of the need to "protect" Australia's borders from an "invasion" of refugees, or we can show leadership in both our language and substance, and encourage Australians to not only reject John Howard's characterisation of asylum seekers as criminals, but continue to take a more humanitarian approach to the problem.
As a contributor to this debate, I have already made myself clear on how I think Labor should be expressing the issues and now I want to share with you my views on mandatory detention:
In my opinion, Mandatory Detention, in its current form, is not an acceptable way to process asylum seekers. The very term has come to be a part of the entire "border protection" lexicon, implying that we are at war with those people who arriving by boat into Australia, seeking our protection.
It conjures up uncomfortable similarities with Australia's wartime policies of "internment". Unfortunately, the similarities of the detention centre policy extend beyond just its name. It is apparent that our detention centres, some stuck out beyond the public, away from community services and population centres, are not pleasant places to be. The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission has found that under the Australian policy of mandatory detention, detainees find their right to free movement unreasonably restricted, their educational opportunities limited, their privacy almost non-existent, and their living conditions substandard.
Unsurprisingly, there are alarming physical, mental and social consequences of mandatory detention. Examples of these include self-harm and attempted suicide, unhealthy weight loss, violence between detainees, not to mention the hunger strikes, protests and attempted break-outs which frequently make front page news in our major dailies. Furthermore, the resources are not readily available within the Centres to adequately deal with these incidents.
It is obviously time for a change. From the outset, I believe that some form of initial, short term custody of asylum seekers is a necessity. I do not believe that it is in the interests of asylum seekers themselves, or of the broader society, to immediately immerse refugees into the community. However, I base my opinions on an unwavering belief in the principle found in Article 9 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that "no one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile." In my opinion, this principle must underpin any discussion of this policy.
I will argue within the Labor Party that any policy of detaining asylum seekers must not be with the objective of deterring refugees from arriving in Australia. We must discard the mindset that immigration policy is about protecting our borders. Our policy aims should be to provide humanitarian aid to some of the world's most vulnerable people.
Essentially, any custody of asylum seekers must be within the following grounds:
First, The custody of asylum seekers must be limited to a specified and certain length of time.
I could not state right now exactly how long this time should be, except to say that it should only be as long as necessary to conduct checks on health, security, and a preliminary investigation into refugee status (for example, to establish the elements of the claim).
These checks should occur concurrently with each other, and should be done as a priority by the relevant Government agencies. Currently these agencies seem to have a mandate to make these processes as difficult as possible, as a deterrent to other asylum seekers. This attitude and practice must change to one focused on speedy case resolution.
Once the specified time has elapsed, and an asylum seeker has been found not to be a health or security risk, and has satisfied prima facie grounds of refugee status, they should be eligible to live and work in the community. Obviously, where necessary, this release should be subject to some controls, such as the requirement to report to the Department on a weekly basis, or perhaps a bond requirement.
Secondly, Custody must be a procedural exercise, not a punitive one.
Custody of asylum seekers is necessary only for a range of procedural reasons, such as quarantine, and ease of access to the applicant during the administrative checks on health, security, and refugee status. There is no need for any of the attributes of a prison, such as armed guards or razor wire. Whilst some security is appropriate both for the protection of individuals and Government property, the human rights of detainees to move relatively unhindered should not be unduly restricted. Other human rights, such as the right to privacy, and the right to freedom of speech should also be respected.
Furthermore, the Government must be proactive in providing services to asylum seekers. Legal and translation services must be freely available, along with relevant education and training facilities. Recreational facilities must also be made available.
Thirdly, Asylum seekers must be made aware of their rights regarding these processes.
A significant cause of tension in detention centres relates to the uncertainty both of the time individuals are to be detained, and the status of the application. Also, assessment processes are arguably unnecessary complex. Asylum seekers must:
Finally, Children must never be detained under harsh conditions, such as presently occurs in detention centres.
A recent report from the Catholic Commission for Justice Development and Peace, "Damaging Kids", has detailed some of the shocking incidents that children have had to witness. Even in more relaxed conditions, Children must be given priority for community release.
These four requirements for mandatory detention policies make it clear that the aim is not to imprison "invaders", but to manage and process asylum seekers. It may be that some of these requirements are unrealistic, or logistically impossible, and need to be reconsidered. In this case, I maintain that the fundamental principle, outlined in Article 9 be respected: "No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile."
I would like to conclude here, in full knowledge that there are many more specific issues beyond mandatory detention that are deserving of attention. I am still forming my views on many of them and look forward to participating in the vigorous debate that Labor is encouraging.
I said in my introduction that Leadership can reinforce and renew the fundamentals of democracy but it can also weaken them far more easily than we would like to imagine.
There is a clearly a place for political leadership offering an alternative to Howard's unforgivable approach. Labor is in a position to provide this leadership to a community that is rejecting racism and antipathy. My job as member of the Labor party and an activist in the Labor movement is to ensure that this happens.