Petro Georgiou on Progress

By Petro Georgiou
from his Valedictory Speech
Thursday 3 June 2010

For much of my life I believed in the inevitability of progress. The reality has been that many of the things that I believed were embedded parts of our polity—multiculturalism, inclusive Australian citizenship, the protections of civil rights—have been rolled back.

Also rolled back has been a more decent treatment of asylum seekers. Until a few months ago I believed that the reforms made by the Howard and the Rudd Governments meant that we had irreversibly turned the corner.

I wrote that we were closing a dark chapter in our history. This chapter had seen men women and children seeking refuge in our country incarcerated; innocent people imprisoned for periods longer than convicted rapists, robbers and kidnappers. Escapees from persecution were demonised. Detention centres traumatised not just detainees but their guards.

That chapter has been reopened.

Regression has become the order of the day. With an increase in boat arrivals, asylum seekers are being subjected to increasingly virulent attacks. The Labor Government has frozen the processing of Afghani and Sri Lankan asylum seekers, and is reopening the Curtin detention centre, historically the most notorious detention centre, a place of despair and self harm.

Opposition policies would turn back boats, process asylum seekers in undisclosed third countries, and restore the destructive temporary protection visas. These policies are cruel. They do not have my support.
This regression does not reflect credit on either side of federal politics. Vulnerable people are again being made into a football to be kicked around in the interests of partisan politics. This is despite the facts and the best values of our society.

The fact is, Australia’s punitive approach did not deter people seeking to come to Australia. Mandatory detention, charging asylum seekers for the cost of their detention, the introduction of temporary protection visas and the Pacific Solution did not deter.

After mandatory detention was introduced, boat arrivals increased. After temporary protection visas were introduced, boat arrivals increased. Most of the people subjected to the Pacific Solution were found to be refugees and resettled in Australia and New Zealand. We have not lost control of our borders. People smugglers do not determine who comes into Australia and who doesn’t.

We can support orderly processes; we can warn people against people smugglers and risking their lives on unseaworthy boats. We have to realise, however, that escaping from persecution is not an orderly process. Desperate people do take desperate measures. Beyond the arguments about deterrence and what causes what, however, is a deeper issue.

It goes to our obligations. I believe we have a fundamental obligation as a nation. That obligation is to not further harm those who bring themselves into our orbit of responsibility seeking safe haven.

We should not, as Australians, compound the persecution of genuine refugees, delaying their processing, locking them up in unnamed third countries or keeping them in permanent insecurity on temporary protection visas.

I once said to journalist Michael Gordon that “in life there are many things that you’d like to walk past and not notice. Lots. But sometimes you do notice and when you notice, you have to do something.” Well I have noticed some things, and I have tried not to walk past.

Progress is not inevitable, it requires commitment. There are setbacks and regression but I leave this place still optimistic that Australians will seek and find in their representatives declarations and deeds that elevate hope above fear, tolerance above prejudice and that they may be proud of laws made by Parliamentarians and the contribution they make to help build a fair, decent and civil society for quickly coming generations. We here each bear a responsibility for our nation’s calling and our nation’s standing.