On election day

Congratulations to the homeless people’s magazine The Big Issue on its Election edition. It includes this from the most admirable Liberal, Petro Georgiou, who delivered this farewell speech to the House of Representatives in June 2010.

Mr Speaker I was in the Chamber to hear Kim Beazley’s brilliant valedictory. One of the distinctive things he did was to thank people at the beginning, rather than the end of the speech. Expressions of gratitude are too often truncated by time constraints, so I’m going to emulate Kim’s example…

I came into the Parliament at the age of 47, having been at the sharp end of partisan politics and having contributed to public policy through the establishment of SBS television and the Australian Institute of Multicultural Affairs. I was strong in my view of what the Liberal Party stood for, and confident in the commonsense and fair-mindedness of the Australian people.

I believed politics was a tough business. There were two dominant parties. They were in conflict. They had power, they had resources. Strong, evenly matched. They punched and counterpunched and sometimes low blows were landed. In my view, however, scapegoating the vulnerable was not part of the game. I still believe this…

During my time in Parliament, a number of developments caused me grave concern. The emergence of the pernicious influence of Hansonism stirred racial prejudice; multiculturalism, one of Australia’s unique accomplishments was denigrated; asylum seekers were subjected to increasingly harsh measures. Our civil liberties came under challenge after September 11 and the proud Australian tradition of inclusive citizenship was, without sound justification, reversed…

… I may differ with my colleagues on their position, but I unequivocally endorse their right to dissent. Hopefully, we will never again hear a member of the Federal Parliamentary Liberal Party brand colleagues ‘political terrorists’ because they took a stand on principle.

I have not differed from the majority without considerable deliberations or without speaking with my colleagues and my party leader. And I have always known the consequences of my actions. Ultimately, however, being a member of parliament, especially a member of the Liberal Parliamentary Party, brings the responsibility of speaking with one’s own voice on matters of principle. I am grateful to the many members of the public, and in particular Liberal party supporters, who have expressed their respect for my actions, even when they have disagreed.

It is my conviction that public policy is served when Members of Parliament feel able to speak publicly about deeply felt concerns, even when their views do not conform with those of the majority of their colleagues. I believe that the public good was promoted by the attempt by myself and others to have the Commonwealth intervene to override the Northern Territory laws which jailed children for minor infractions such as stealing a bottle of spring water, laws which fell particularly harshly on indigenous children. We did not succeed in getting the laws overridden. We did achieve the establishment of diversionary programmes which effectively displaced jail.

I believe that Australia benefited from the reforms that flowed from the attempt of a number of us to introduce Private Members Bills reforming the treatment of asylum seekers. Children and families were taken out from behind razor wire. The Ombudsman was made responsible for publicly reporting on people being detained for prolonged periods. Thousands of people on temporary protection visas were given permanent protection. I believe that the resistance to draconian aspects of the anti-terrorist laws, and the introduction of a private member’s bill to establish an independent reviewer of the terrorist laws, which was in essence taken up by the Labor government after much reluctance, served liberal principles well.

I do not pretend that these efforts had anything like total success. The Northern Territory laws were not struck down. The policy of mandatory detention was not abolished by either the Howard or the Rudd governments. What did happen, however, was that the compromises achieved made a significant difference to the lives of thousands of vulnerable men, women and children.

Mr Speaker, 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 Government 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.

It has been a profound honour to serve the nation as a Member of the Australian Parliament. I am proud to have been a part of this place. Thank you.

Just to remind us all how far we have fallen.

Update 10.30 pm

Well, there’s no way we will know for some time who our next Prime Minister will be and the hung parliament possibility is very strong. Whatever happens, the Greens have won in that no government will be able to avoid negotiating with them in the next three years.

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One thought on “On election day

  1. I’ve not read this speech before. Thanks, mate, for posting it. It should be compulsory reading for all pollies, indeed all citizens. Petro was a class act in parliament, one of the very few. I salute him.

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