Labor has been accused of trying to thwart transparency and gag debate over offshore detention after the government tried to urgently push through legislation to renew Nauru as an immigration detention location with less than 24 hours’ notice.
The opposition accused the government of dropping the ball on border security after it emerged Nauru’s official designation for offshore processing lapsed four months ago. Labor moved on Tuesday to renew the Pacific island nation’s status by shoehorning the renewal measure into the parliamentary agenda.
According to government sources, Home Affairs officials only realised in December the Migration Act instrument allowing the use of Nauru for immigration detention – put in place by Labor in 2012 – had expired in October. Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil was notified, but nothing could be done until parliament reconvened this year.
Leader of the House, Tony Burke, moved to suspend normal parliamentary business to pass a new instrument, as well as an amendment to superannuation legislation. He said they were urgent matters that needed to be addressed immediately.
“Both issues are time sensitive … there are real-life consequences if we aren’t able to deal with these issues today,” he said.
Opposition home affairs spokesperson Karen Andrews accused the government of failing in a key pillar of border security, but said the opposition would support the government’s motion.
Victorian independent MP Zoe Daniel accused the government of springing the matter on parliament after MPs were notified on Monday night that it would be included as an item for debate on Tuesday.
“This is not due process, this is not the way parliament should operate,” she said, adding the issue of offshore detention was controversial, and she would be voting against it.
Indi MP Helen Haines said she found the lack of notice disturbing as the issue had “been known about for some months”.
“There’s no way that issues of this gravity can be debated in such a short time,” she said. “Once again, we are being asked to limit debate in this place”.
Kooyong MP Monique Ryan said giving people bills with 24 hours’ notice regarding offshore detention wasn’t a display of transparency or integrity and the argument about urgency didn’t add up. She said bundling it up with a bill about superannuation was “egregious and perverse”.
“We deserve, and our constituents deserve, and those 65 individuals on Nauru, deserve an opportunity for us to discuss this important matter at length,” Ryan said. “I don’t think I can find any way that I could support this motion.”
West Australian MP Kate Chaney said the lapse of the instrument “may be symbolic”, in light of the human rights issues and treatment of asylum seekers at Nauru.
The issue was raised the same day as writer Behrouz Boochani, who was detained offshore for several years on Manus Island, in Papua New Guinea, was in parliament to call for a royal commission into the treatment of asylum seekers.
He said the continuation of offshore processing – which he referred to as the “exile policy” – was unbelievable “because we know the history of this policy”.
“We know the tragedy that was created under this policy,” he said.
When introduced by O’Neil on Tuesday afternoon, the motion sparked debate in both houses of parliament over the morality of offshore detention.
O’Neil told parliament the continuation of regional processing was essential to ending the people smuggling trade.
“We have to separate the politics from the past on this issue. This problem has vexed this parliament for decades,” she said. “It is time to move on, there is a clear settlement on this matter. It includes regional processing and it includes Nauru amongst the regional processing countries that this parliament declares.”
Dai Le, who spoke in her first speech last year about fleeing war-torn Vietnam by boat, asked for the government to consider a new way to process asylum seekers.
She said while she agreed genuine refugee claims should be rigorously assessed, Labor’s decision to spend $420 million maintaining offshore detention, where serious physical abuses and self-harm had been documented, was wrong.
“Both sides of politics … have used refugees and asylum seekers as scare-mongering to our electorates. Refugees like myself have contributed greatly to society,” Le said, adding she didn’t believe extending the life of Nauru was the “way to go.”
When asked about the government re-signing a 10-year contract to continue the facility at Nauru, Assistant Treasurer Stephen Jones told ABC’s QandA program on Monday night the government’s objective was to have nobody on the island, but to use it as a deterrent.
“Or if anyone is there, they’re there for a very short period of time until a third-country arrangement is put in place,” he said.
CREDIT: Angus Thompson – reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age