Governments should practice moderation, not extremism

I spoke against the government's latest refugee bill, and in favour of a moderation over extremism.

 

Ms BUTLER (Griffith) (19:16):  Lyndon B. Johnson said that a President's hardest task is not to do what is right but to know what is right. That is our Prime Minister's challenge too. Most people who would fall within the cohort covered by this bill, people who have come by boat seeking asylum since June 2013, will have been conferred with refugee status—

Mr Katter:  Why don't they seek asylum in neighbouring countries, in Muslim countries?

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr S Georganas):  Order!

Ms BUTLER:  By definition they have fled persecution for reasonable fear of it.

Mr Katter:  Answer the question! Why don't they seek asylum in their own countries?

The DEPUTY SPEAKER:  The member for Kennedy has had his go.

Ms BUTLER:  Each of them is a person who has asked for our help, and how we go about helping them will have an impact on people beyond that cohort. It will affect those people who are in transit countries, the places they have got to so far, the places they are now contemplating leaving in search of a place that is a signatory to the refugee convention. It will affect them because of expectations about whether the maritime route to Australia is open; it will affect whether or not they take the risk of getting on a boat, assuming they know the extent of the risk in the first place, which is not a safe assumption. How we treat the people who are on Nauru or Manus will also affect another cohort of people: the Australian people. It will affect how we see ourselves and how the world sees us. Our broader humanitarian settings will affect others as well. Those settings will affect which of the 60 million or so displaced people in the world will be welcomed into Australia through our Humanitarian Program.

I do not pretend there are easy answers when assessing the right thing to do. It is precisely because there are no easy answers that we need a Prime Minister with a strong moral compass and we need a Prime Minister who can meet the challenge of knowing what is right. I suspect this Prime Minister does not have that moral compass. If he thinks that having the immigration minister announce, on a Sunday, without any consultation, that this government wants to legislate to stop a certain cohort of refugees and others who have sought our help from ever coming to Australia, if he thinks that was the right thing to do he is incapable of determining what is right. If he thinks the lack of hope facing refugees on Manus Island and Nauru is something he should leverage for votes here at home he is incapable of determining what is right. That is a very great shame because right now it could not be more critical that we have a Prime Minister who can tell right from wrong.

Maybe I am wrong. Maybe he can tell right from wrong. Maybe he knows what he is doing with this bill is wrong. Maybe he knows it is wrong to continue the great polarisation of our country that has occurred over the past two decades. Maybe he knows it was wrong to drop this out in a press conference on a Sunday morning and then demand we vote for it. Maybe he knows it is wrong to cynically treat the suffering—the previous suffering through persecution or the risk of it and the current suffering, of very different kind, that comes about through a lack of hope—as a way of winning votes in an election. If so, I am not sure whether that is even worse because that speaks to a lack of coverage. That speaks to knowing what is right but not even having the fortitude to do it.

In either case, this bill is really speaking to a lot about what is wrong with politics in this country. It is a bill that is calculated to say to people that it is okay to not want to help people who are in trouble. It is a bill that is a calculated repudiation of 'love thy neighbour'. It is a bill that is a calculated repudiation of the idea that if people are fleeing persecution it is absolutely fine to not want to help them. That is what this bill does.

Like almost all Australians, I have been appalled by what has been happening on Nauru and Manus Island. I have been appalled by the reports that I have read about what has happened. I am not going to stand here and pretend that there is a simple answer, as I have said. There is not. With so many people in the world needing help, with so many people in the world seeking help, with the importance of strong borders, with the importance of making sure that we provide the best help that we can, of course there are not simple answers. But it is no answer to leave people in a situation of being in limbo, of hopelessness and of suffering. It is no answer to fail to provide adequate accommodation facilities. It is no answer to scrap Labor's policy of 90-day processing times.

It is no answer to drag your feet in finding places for people to live. It is no answer to come into this parliament, which designed to uphold and create the laws in the best interests of the Australian people, and say, 'Here is what is in the best interest of the Australian people,' when it is to take the references to the Refugee Convention out of our domestic law. And that is what this government has done.

None of those things is an answer to the complex set of policy circumstances that we face when it comes to refugees. This government is contributing to the polarisation of our community; and it is contributing to the idea that it is okay to turn your back. Boats were turned away and refugees were turned away after the Holocaust. Turning away refugees is something that has been a source of great shame to people for many, many years—for more than seven decades. No-one, of course, is saying that any one nation is capable of providing a comprehensive response to the global people movement crisis that we face, but we must all as nations work together to do that. That means strengthening our support and respect for international law, not turning our backs upon it.

It also means not giving into extremism. I quoted LBJ when I started speaking. Another thing that LBJ said was that a president cannot give into extremism, a president must govern in moderation. But this bill is about extremism. This bill has echoes of the campaign style of former prime minister, when, as opposition leader, he drove around this country with billboards with pictures of boats on them. He was not saying to people, 'It is terrible that people have drowned, and that is a policy problem that we must respond to.' He was saying to people, 'Too many refugees are asking for help, and it is okay for you to resent that.' That is what that campaign was about; that is what this bill is about—the despicable conduct in making it okay for people to fail to recognise the humanity in others.

I mentioned 'love thy neighbour' before. I am not a practising Christian; I am a secular humanist. In any language 'love thy neighbour' is an important principle for humanity. The secular humanist approach might be: the fact that I acknowledge my own humanity and acknowledge yours means that I owe to you an obligation to try to help you when you are in need. To put it another way, the fact that we have free will obliges us to exercise moral decision making in the choices we make. We have those obligations and we have those duties. The question is: whether we discharge them and, if so, how?

There has probably never been a more important time in the past seven decades than now to reflect on these questions, because we need to bring people together. It is not okay to keep dividing people up into ever smaller slices of the population and pitch to them about their specific fears. It is not okay to continue along this path, taking people who are in genuine need and diverting their attention from what can be done to respond to that need by engendering fear of others who are also in genuine need. There is enough of that in this world to go around, but it takes courage and it takes political will.

I count myself very fortunate right now to be an Australian citizen. I count myself as fortunate because I have seen what has been happening in the UK and in the USA is a direct consequence of the policies of Thatcher and Reagan in the 1980s and of the approaches that have been taken in those countries ever since: the hollowing out of the middle class; the growth in extreme inequality; the situation where real incomes have actually fallen for people in the middle class; the situation where you can work full-time and still live in poverty; the situation where you are unable to have access to life-saving medical treatment and surgery in the absence of charity because you do not have that right. People are in genuine need. The idea that you can just have industries disappear, that you can just have jobs disappear, that you can have middle-class incomes going backward, that you can have working poor, and that the way to deal with those things is massive cuts in taxation for corporations and the very rich.

That idea is the reduction of the progressivity of the income tax rate and the reduction of corporate tax rates—and if not the actual rates, the collection of corporate taxes, which has the same effect. It is the idea that you can have policies that promote the payment of dividends to shareholders rather than reinvest capital in businesses to make them more productive, thus generating economic growth and giving people the benefits of that economic growth. It is the idea that you should break apart the collectivism of the working classes, to take away their power, so that you can pay them less and avoid the sort of red tape the conservatives talk about, which is code for safety laws. It is the idea that you can do all of those things to break the power of the people at their expense and for the benefit of a small handful of very wealthy people, which is really the effect that those Reagan and Thatcherist policies have had.

It is an idea that has led to the disenfranchisement and anger that you saw expressed in Brexit and you have seen expressed today. As I said, it makes me grateful to be an Australian, because at the time they had Thatcher and Reagan we had Hawke and Keating. We had the Prices and Incomes Accord; we had the idea that it was not just tolerable for people to be collective, but an important social institution to be part of a collective that works. We had the establishment of Medicare; we had the establishment of universal superannuation; we had governments that said no to the neo-liberal agenda of cutting taxes for the very rich, cutting corporate taxes, hollowing out public services, shrinking the size of governments, leaving people to fend for themselves. That is why today we do not have the prospect of an extremist becoming the prime minister of this country, but I am worried about the tendency for those who are in power may start to exhibit some signs of extremism.  

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