Asylum Seekers and Refugees
My speech welcoming the announcement that Australia will accept another 12,000 people under its humanitarian program. I applaud the leadership shown by the Premier and the Leader of the Opposition, which has no doubt had an impact on that decision by putting pressure on the Prime Minister and all Australians to do the right thing.
One of my first jobs in the Commonwealth public service in the 1990s was in a section of the Department of Immigration known as Refugee Law. The section was established to deal with the growing amount of litigation that had emerged from the number of boats arriving in Australia. One of my tasks was to read, classify and archive the applications for refugee status of the asylum seekers who had come to our shores in the late 1980s and early 1990s. I have read more of their stories than I care to remember. They were harrowing. The first asylum seekers since white settlement arrived on boats in the postwar period. They were welcomed with open arms. Between 1949 and 1960, many spent time in temporary accommodation at Greta, which is partly in my electorate of Maitland. More than 100,000 people seeking a new life in Australia passed through Greta Camp during its 11 years in operation. The next boats arrived in the 1970s, from Vietnam. Again Australia opened its arms to people fleeing a regime with which it had been at war. Since then, some Australians have not been as generous. Some within our community have questioned the right of people to seek asylum having travelled here by boat. We have heard terms such as "economic refugees" and "queue jumpers". We have heard calls to stop the boats. We have been asked repeatedly who will bear the cost of resettling these people. They are not the words of a civil society. That is not the language of a generous and caring nation. They are the words of a defensive and frightened community that is manipulated to think that Australia is a small nation, and that there is no room in our land or in our hearts for those who flee torture, persecution and trauma. In 2013 the then Chief of Army, David Morrison, said in an unflinching video that quickly went viral that there was "no place" in the army for those who "exploit and demean" their colleagues. He added:
If we are a great national institution, if we care about the legacy left to us by those who have served before us, if we care about the legacy we leave to those who in turn will protect and secure Australia, then it is up to us to make a difference.
The same goes for those who think that toughness is built on humiliating others. If you become aware of any individual degrading another, then show moral courage and take a stand against it.
They are powerful words that also apply to social justice in our community. Refugees are our colleagues. It is easier to think of people rather than numbers, particularly when the number of people affected by war and trauma is so large. We think of the people locally who cannot get a job or who are homeless. We prioritise them and we forget about the thousands of individuals who are suffering in a way we cannot begin to comprehend. I am relieved that the image of the lifeless body of little Aylan Kurdi was finally enough to put a face on this crisis that has raged for far too long, with inaction and indifference from our community. We should look to the words of our national anthem for inspiration on how to act when faced with such a crisis:
Beneath our radiant Southern Cross We’ll toil with hearts and hands; To make this Commonwealth of ours Renowned of all the lands; For those who've come across the seas We've boundless plains to share; With courage let us all combine To Advance Australia Fair
We have a proud history of standing up for our mates, whether on the battlefield, in the school ground or in the neighbourhood. As a mature nation, in this Centenary of Anzac year, we should open our hearts to those who have come across the sea, fleeing torture and trauma. I welcome the announcement made by the Prime Minister today that Australia will accept another 12,000 people under its humanitarian program. I applaud the leadership shown by the Premier and the Leader of the Opposition, which has no doubt had an impact on that decision by putting pressure on the Prime Minister and all Australians to do the right thing. Mr GARETH WARD (Kiama—Parliamentary Secretary) [6.48 p.m.]: I thank the member for Maitland for her comments. This issue should not be affected by partisan politics. We should focus on the humanitarian efforts that are required to support displaced people. We are seeing events overseas that we have never seen before. It is incumbent on us to think about the effect of those events on people who have been displaced. I cannot begin to imagine the horror and trauma that those people are going through. We are a generous nation. We are a bountiful and plentiful nation, and we should be generous in these difficult times. My heart goes out to every child, woman and man experiencing the horrific events we see on the news. I join with the member for Maitland in calling for support for these distressed people.