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Transcript: Christine Milne and Sarah Hanson-Young: asylum seekers

Christine Milne and Sarah Hanson-Young addressed the pressto comment on the Government's punitive asylum seeker policy and the Murray Darling Basin Plan.



Subjects: Asylum seekers, Gaza, Murray Darling

CHRISTINE MILNE: Australians are looking to the political process for leadership. And they've been really disappointed of late. And that's coming out in the polls, it's coming out in commentary everywhere. And people are asking the question, well where are the political leaders leading the country? What sort of country is Australia now? What sort of country do we want to live in? And we've had two decisions in the last day which really I think will say to Australians this isn't actually the way I want Australia to go, this is not the sort of country I want to live in, these are not the values that represent who we are as a people.

We've just witnessed from Minister Bowen, an appalling shift back to even worse and more extreme than John Howard tried in the treatment of people who are seeking asylum in our country, refugees seeking asylum. I find it extraordinary that we have had only a couple of months ago the Prime Minister and the Minister standing up saying we want to stop people risking their lives coming to Australia in leaky boats, and therefore we are going to bring in a regime of punishment and deterrence that will stop them getting in boats because our intention is not out of sight, out of mind, our intention is to stop people risking their lives. Saving lives was the mantra that we heard from the Government as it raced this through, this flawed, absolutely flawed series of decisions. Now a few months later we see just how flawed they were. Far from stopping people from risking their lives in leaky boats there have been record numbers of people risking their lives to the point where the detention centres are full,  the offshore detention centres are full, and now we're going to have an even more extreme regime that says we tried to be cruel to people because we thought that would deter them, however we obviously haven't been cruel enough because it hasn't deterred them, so we're going to be even more cruel, and this goes to the heart of what Einstein once said, and that is, you don't solve problems with the same thinking, the same mentality that created them, and that is precisely what Minister Bowen and Prime Minister Gillard are now doing. The fact is deterrence doesn't work. You can't be as cruel as the circumstances from which people are running away. You only have to listen to refugees and asylum seekers talking about the threat to their lives, the torture of their families, what's actually happening to them, the drone strikes and the rest, to know that it doesn't matter what deterrence Australia puts in place, it's not going to stop people seeking asylum here. But what we are seeing is a real erosion of who we are as a decent people, as the country of the fair go. This is the reintroduction of the temporary protection visas, and I'll hand over to Sarah for some of the details.

SARAH HANSON-YOUNG: What we've seen today is John Howard's temporary protection visas, reintroduced all over again. We've now got John Howard's Pacific Solution. We now have John Howard's temporary protection visas. The question to the Government is when are they going to look at how failed those policies were then, how failed those policies are now, and change track. It's time that the Government did. We know, we heard from Amnesty International overnight just how bad the conditions are on Nauru, and at the same time, as Amnesty International was recording their eyewitness accounts, the Government was loading women and children on a plane to Manus Island. At the exact same time that Amnesty International was saying these conditions are so bad no one should have to live like this, particularly not people who have fled war and persecution, the Government is sending women and children directly into those same conditions.

The Minister said today that not only are they having temporary protection visas, but they're also expecting that the children who are sent to Manus last night will be there for five years. Five years is an awful long time in a child's life, an awful long time in a child's life simply locked up in a detention centre just because they happen to be a refugee. That's not the Australia that signed the Refugee Convention, that's not the Australia that welcomes people from all over the world, and gives people a fair go. This is John Howard's policy, adopted wholeheartedly by Julia Gillard, backed up by Tony Abbott, it's time that the Government changed track.

The other thing that I'm obviously concerned about is the number of people who have been sent involuntarily back to Sri Lanka. There's been no assessment of these people's claims. The Government says we don't offer protection to people who don't deserve it, well that's right, you have to assess people's claims in order to in order to ascertain whether indeed they are genuine refugees or not. If somebody's in need of genuine protection then we welcome them in, we give them permanent protection. If they're not, we send them home but we have to do that assessment first. The Government has breached all of our international obligations by simply turning these people around before even working out what danger they may face back home.

And I'll just remind people of what Amnesty International's report into Sri Lanka showed only a few months ago that those people that we'd already sent back there faced arbitrary detention, physical abuse, and some even disappeared. That is the very real story of some of the people Australia has already returned to Sri Lanka.

JOURNALIST: Do you accept the other side of the story though that a lot of these people from Sri Lanka are economic refugees and why shouldn't they be sent back?

SARAH HANSON-YOUNG: Well that may very well be the case but we have to do their assessments to know whether that that is right. You can't just look at somebody and say oh you look like an economic refugee. It is not how the Convention works:

JOURNALIST: So are you saying the Government has not done the assessment -

SARAH HANSON-YOUNG: They have not run the assessments on these people's cases. The Minister can stand there and say he doesn't want economic refugees, that may be his position, but you have to ascertain whether these people are indeed genuine refugees who need protection, or indeed are not worthy of that, and in which case, sure send them home.

JOURNALIST: When it comes to the political reality of what the Government's announced today of bridging visas, no advantage test -

 SARAH HANSON-YOUNG: Let's call them for what they are they are, they're temporary protection visas, they have everything -

JOURNALIST: Fair enough but what can the Greens do? Does there need to be legislation passed for these to go into effect?

SARAH HANSON-YOUNG: Well look we, this was a question I asked Minister Lundy in the Parliament today and she didn't answer it. Whether this needs legislation or regulation. John Howard's temporary protection visas needed regulation and they were removed by the Labor Party because the Labor Party said when they came into office that temporary protection visas were so bad, they were so cruel, that they had to be done away with and so they introduced regulations to remove them. The question is to the Government - do they need regulation? Do they need legislation? And indeed did they even put this to their own Caucus? What do those members of the Labor Party think now who stood there even only in the last few months in this whole debate about reopening Nauru and Manus Island when Tony Abbott was goading them to introduce temporary protection visas and they stood there and said they were still too cruel. Less than two months later that's exactly what we've got.

JOURNALIST: Under the Howard Government temporary protection visas, those on those visas were threatened with being sent back home, Labor is not proposing anything like that, isn't that an unfair comparison?

SARAH HANSON-YOUNG: No, unless you've been given a permanent protection visa then you're not permanently protected. And what the Minister is saying, and it was reiterated again by Minister Lundy in Question Time today, is that those people who have been given these temporary protection visas may be sent anywhere else, they may be sent to Nauru later on down the track, there may be sent out to Manus Island.

JOURNALIST: But not home?

SARAH HANSON-YOUNG: But let's remember this whole idea of offshore processing is so that the Government can send everyone anywhere but Australia. That is the purpose of it. They've already said that. That's what they said when they reopened the centres, it's what the Australian legislation, the law now allows, because they ganged up with Tony Abbott to introduce laws which stripped absolutely everything away in terms of people's right to permanent protection, to appeal for permanent protection. So in many ways these people are left in an even worse situation than under John Howard because they have no legal ability to appeal their case, they are left with no rights, no protections, and they are going to now be dumped in the community, no ability to work, no ability to get welfare, no ability to bring their families out to support them. These people are going to be left in limbo in the Australian community. And you know who is going to pick up the bill for that? The kind-hearted, compassionate Australians who did last time. There was a crisis around the Australian community after years of John Howard's temporary protection visas, and it was NGOs, charity groups and churches who came in, picked up these refugees, and supported them. And Labor said that was wrong, and yet they're doing it all over again.

JOURNALIST: Senator, Pontville will be reopened, Minister Bowen said it's something that Lara Giddings lobbied him over because of the economic benefits to Tasmania. Would you rather see asylum seekers go to Tasmania and do you know how many people Pontville has a capacity for?

CHRISTINE MILNE: No I don't know how many people it has a maximum capacity for -


CHRISTINE MILNE: Yes maybe 300 (inaudible). I just think it's interesting that Lara Giddings is talking about the economic benefits of a detention centre in Tasmania rather than the human rights of the people who are concerned. (inaudible).

And the Tasmanian community I have to say has been exemplary in terms of the kindness and support that has been offered to people who have been there previously, but as you are aware the Greens do not support indefinite detention, we never have supported indefinite detention. I think the big picture issue here as we are saying is that the policy as it stands is not working and deterrence does not work and just becoming crueller and crueller and crueller is not going to change the fact that you can never be as cruel as the circumstances from which people are running. So how many people are going to be suffering in this way indefinitely into the future and what is our exposure in the long-term to the huge mental health bills that we're going to be facing in terms of human capacity as this plays out.  

SARAH HANSON-YOUNG: No one is any safer today than they were three months ago. The Government said they needed this law, stripped away everybody's rights, they dumped refugees indefinitely on Nauru and Manus, and now we're going to give them temporary protection visas, all to stop people coming by boat. Well it hasn't worked, they haven't stopped coming. No one is any safer today than on a boat than they were three months ago.

JOURNALIST: Foreign Minister Bob Carr says that if they hadn't enacted the changes in August then there would have been even more boats arriving.

SARAH HANSON-YOUNG: Well he would say that.

JOURNALIST Senator Milne, can I just ask, did you make a statement yesterday supporting Hamas?

CHRISTINE MILNE: I made a statement yesterday saying I wanted a ceasefire, I wanted to support everything the Government was doing to achieve a ceasefire and to end the blockade in Gaza, which is a position which has been put by the UN Secretary General previously, it's a position that I think we would all like to see. What I've also said is that there has been a disproportionate response by the Israeli forces in terms of people in Gaza. I also went on to say that Gaza is a very small physical area and that I reject the claims that are being made that women and children are being used as human shields, it's such a small and restricted area that you can't get away from the attacks where ever you are in Gaza. So that's our position absolutely. And I'm looking forward to supporting the Government in whatever which way to try to do whatever Australia can do to support the ceasefire and end the blockade on Gaza, and if we could end the blockade that would be a step forward for the region. I've also got a motion in the Senate today to that effect and also we are calling for Australia to support the recognition of Palestine in the UN when the vote takes place on the 29th.

One other matter that we wanted to discuss and it goes to the heart again of the Government working with the Coalition to go in the wrong direction in Australia, and that's on the Murray River. We've been working for months with the Minister asking for the 4000 gigalitres, the minimum that the Wentworth Group said was necessary to save the river, to get that model we've been offering to to work with the Government in the (inaudible) promise of 3200 gigalitres saying well you have to make that an absolute minimum, can we work with you on this, and what is clear the Government decided some time ago to abandon working with the Greens to save the river and to get a long-term sustainable solution, to take climate change into account and so on, decided to abandon working with the Greens and go and work with Barnaby Joyce and the Coalition to give to the irrigators what they're asking for, knowing full well that it will fail the river. The big tragedy in all of this is that this plan won't be implemented until 2019, long after these ministers are gone, and the money however will flow in the short-term which will of course secure them community support in certain parts of the river system. What we've got is a Government deciding to throw in its lot with the Coalition and actually undermine a sustainable outcome for the Murray. And I think, right across Australia, just as we said before, what sort of country do we want to live in? People want to see an outcome for the Murray, but an outcome that actually saves the river, that sees the wetlands reconstituted, revitalised, that sees the floodplains actually there able to absorb the rain as it falls, and the river flood and so on. The tragedy of this is once again as we've seen previously when the hard decisions have to be made to protect the environment, the things that people love, the Government decides to work with the Coalition and the evidence is there in the bill that's just been put through and the rejection of the amendments that the Greens put forward, that their interests is not in sustainability for the Murray River at all, their interest is simply in getting an outcome working with the Coalition.

Sarah you may wish to comment on the amendments.

SARAH HANSON-YOUNG: The Greens moved a number of amendments that would have given at least some strength to the plan when tabled to ensure there is a minimum of 3200 gigalitres and that the environmental outcomes that the plan is meant to achieve would have to be benchmarked so regardless of who is in government in years to come, everybody would know what the rules are and the rules are that we have to provide enough water to sustain those environmental icons to ensure that the environment is looked after and to make sure that that $11 billion of taxpayer money is actually spent wisely on the things we're setting out to achieve. Unfortunately the Government and the Coalition voted all of those amendments down. That means for South Australia, my home state, at the end of the Murray system, there's no guarantees that the Coorong is going to survive, the Lower Lakes are condemned, the Murray Mouth will not be open for the amount of time per year that it needs to be to flush out the salt through the system, to make sure Adelaide has clean drinking water. We hear debates in the chamber about how much the towns rely on the Murray Darling basin system and they absolutely do, and they're only going to be able to survive if the river remains running healthy. That's the whole point of this system is to make it sustainable. People living in Adelaide cannot be guaranteed that the quality of water that they'll be drinking from the Murray is going to be there in five, ten, fifteen years' time.

JOURNALIST: Senator Milne,  can I just ask one more question about the asylum seeker policy, a) do you know if these families were forced to go to Manus Island and b) what can the Greens do to ensure that these children are protected?

CHRISTINE MILNE: Well the whole point of our, one of the main objections we had when the Government forced the legislation through the Parliament with the support of the Coalition was that the Minister was exempting himself from the guardianship of children, and that's something I think most Australians would be horrified about, that the Minister didn't want to have to actually act in the best interest of the child is exempted himself from that in order to be able to send people offshore. These children are now in some family groups. I'm not across the detail of whether there are any unaccompanied children or whether they are children as part of family groups, I might hand over to Sarah to give detail on that.

SARAH HANSON-YOUNG: The Minister hasn't given much detail and he won't even give us the ages of these children but we will find out. All I can say is that the phone call I received last night from a worker within the Darwin detention centre who was distraught at the idea that these children and their families were being boarded on to a place late last night.

It is, what can the Greens do in relation to this? Well, on Friday there will be a Senate inquiry into a bill that we have introduced to ensure there is an independent, an actual independent oversight body that looks at the health and mental health services offered to these refugees on Manus Island and Nauru. That's the very least that we should be doing to try and help protect these kids. I don't think any children should be detained for five years, two years, one year, indefinitely on an island prison just because they are refugees, and that's what's happened to these children. It is against the Refugee Convention, it is against our obligations under the Rights of the Child, and as a parent it is abhorrent to think that we will lock up children for five years just because they happen to be young people who had to flee war and persecution.



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