Friday, 21 April 2023

Speech to Refugee Legal

I’d like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the lands on which we meet today, the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation, and acknowledge their elders, past and present.

Since federation, Australian governments have twice had to grapple with the enormous challenge of reopening to the world.

After the devastation of the Second World War, this was a central pillar or the Chifley Government’s reconstruction efforts, and today, the Albanese Government is continuing to respond to the pause on migration that came with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Seventy years ago, of course, we embarked on a migration journey that has transformed our nation into a diverse and dynamic multicultural society.

This transformation, in very large part, has been shaped by the nearly one million refugees who have come to Australia since the end of World War Two.

We should take great pride in this, and in the fact that it was Australia’s signature that brought the refugee convention into effect.

We should remember that Ben Chifley’s famous light on the hill shone beyond our national borders. His call to action extended to ‘anywhere we might give a helping hand’.

That was, and remains, our movement’s greatest objective.

Today, as our immigration system connects Australians to loved ones and supports our economic recovery, we consider too the fact that there are presently more people forcibly displaced than at any time in human history.

And we focus on how we can give that helping hand.

Starting with some important policy changes, and with engagement around the world to encourage responsibility sharing and cooperation.

I’ll touch briefly on each of these, and in doing so highlight the importance of civil society, and in particular, Refugee Legal.

In Australia, for more than twenty years, politicians have cynically looked to fear rather than hope.

Past ministers for Immigration have had a bit to say about so-called activist lawyers.

So I’ll join them, to note my appreciation, in particular to those at Refugee Legal.

Since its establishment in 1988, Refugee Legal has provided free specialist legal assistance to people seeking asylum, refugees and disadvantaged migrants in Australia.

A cohort the most in need of legal assistance, and historically with some of the worst access to that assistance.

Refugee Legal has also looked beyond the change they can make for their individual clients, to what they can do to make a difference across our migration and asylum systems.

Their contributions, along with the contributions made by others here this evening, were crucial to informing our policy and mechanism to convert those on TPVs and SHEVs to permanent visas.

Refugee Legal has a 35 year history of keeping governments accountable in the spirit of respect and cooperation – we won’t always agree (as the number of cases with me as the responded strongly suggest), but I recognise we always get better outcomes through engagement.

I recognise too the significance of the contribution of David Manne, someone I’ve known for 25 years, a former colleague when we were both young lawyers, and friend.

It would be difficult to overstate the importance of his contribution.

It’s even harder to overstate the significance of High Commissioner Grandi’s visit to Australia this week, and anyone reading his speech delivered today at the Centre on Statelessness would appreciate what’s at stake, the power of his sense to humanity and the urgency of the call to collective action.

It’s been more than a decade since a UN High Commissioner for Refugees visited our country.

A decade that’s been wasted in a retreat from international engagement.

To our cost, as well as to the detriment of the world’s most vulnerable people, our regional relationships and our global standing.

The time of negative globalism is over. It’s time to return not just to constructive engagement in our region and around the world, but to assume leadership in addressing the global displacement crisis as Australia did 70 years ago.

It was an honour to meet with High Commissioner Grandi earlier this week, and that Filippo is here now speaks far more eloquently to the role and standing of Refugee Legal than any words I can come up with.