Kearney: Nauru, Manus policy a blight on our ‘national psyche’

The Manus refugee detention centre. Picture: FILE

CANBERRA – New Labor MP Ged Kearney says indefinite detention of asylum-seekers on Manus Island and Nauru is damaging the “national psyche”, and urges immediate ­action to resettle those in offshore detention centres.

The member for Batman used her maiden speech yesterday to send a message to the government, and to Labor, that she would dedicate herself in parliament to the cause of humane refugee policy.

Kearney said the “shameful” treatment of asylum-seekers today was in stark contrast to the way in which Australia welcomed refugees after World War II.

“We are a rich country. We can afford to take more refugees,” she said. “I doubt, however, we can ­afford the ongoing cost to our ­national psyche of subjecting men, women and children to years of punitive, indefinite detention.

“We must, as a priority, move the asylum-seekers off Manus and Nauru to permanent resettlement and ensure that indefinite detention never happens again.”

Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton claimed “the wheels are falling off Labor’s border protection policies”.

“Labor now has a majority of its members in caucus who are ­opposed to stopping the boats and we see on the Mediterranean thousands of people still dying — so this problem for Australia has not gone away,” he said.

Kearney’s speech intensified pressure on Labor leader Bill Shorten ahead of the ALP conference, where the party’s left will seek to soften its support for offshore processing.

The draft national platform, circulated ahead of the July conference, proposes an overhaul of the government’s home affairs portfolio and calls for asylum-seekers to be shifted out of mandatory detention after 90 days.

Delegates from the Labor for Refugees group will seek to go further, advocating a policy of bringing asylum-seekers from offshore detention centres to Australia.

Kearney, a member of Labor’s left, said the treatment of asylum-seekers was a “passionate and emotional issue” for voters in her inner-suburban Melbourne electorate. She said she was committed to increasing foreign aid to ensure asylum-seekers were supported as they fled conflicts overseas, and urged greater support for the UN refugee agency.

Kearney said she regretted the fact her seat was named after John Batman who, according to colonial artist John Glover, was “a rogue, thief, cheat, and liar, a murderer of blacks and the vilest man I have ever known”.

She said she and thousands of her constituents would prefer the seat be named after 1850s Wurrundjeri leader Simon Wonga.

The former ACTU president quoted militant unionist John Cummins, the last Victorian secretary of the deregistered Builders Labourers Federation, saying she had heeded his catchcry: “Dare to struggle, dare to win.”

Kearney said enterprise bargaining was “one-sided”, penalty rates had been cut and permanent workers were being forced to become independent contractors.

She also called for an urgent shift away from coal-fired power, linking fossil-fuel use to the health of the Great Barrier Reef and noting Australia’s responsibilities under the Paris agreement.

“In the task of transitioning ­energy generation to renewable sources we are committed to a just transition for workers and communities who rely on coal-based industries,” she said.

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