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Asylum seeker debate out of proportion

Yesterday the full bench of the High Court began hearing a challenge to the Malaysian solution.

The Greens hope David Manne and Debbie Mortimer, SC, and their legal team succeeds, not least because we do not want unaccompanied children to be expelled to a country where their rights cannot be guaranteed. It's not yet clear when the court will issue its ruling, but it could permanently derail the Gillard government's plans to export Australia's international obligations to give protection to countries including Malaysia and, possibly, Papua New Guinea.

The Greens and others, such as human rights groups, have for years lobbied against mandatory detention. We think there's a better way, one that's humane and compassionate, in handling some of the world's most vulnerable people. We do not support the policy of locking fragile people up as a first resort, when it clearly should the last thing we should do. Indeed, Australia is the only country in the world as signatory to the Refugee Convention that arbitrarily detains asylum seekers, contrary to what the convention suggests.

Whenever the major parties, or shock jocks for that matter, seek to attack asylum seekers and others who lack a voice, myself and the Greens will be there to stand up for them. We refuse to follow the ALP and Coalition in a race to the bottom.

I think the Australian electorate is sick of that competition. They're tired of both sides repeating the same mantras, using the same language - indeed the same policies - to confront what is a relatively small problem, compared with the volumes of people arriving on the EU's shores. The major parties' responses cost billions of dollars and damage lives unnecessarily.

Australians want alternatives to a policy of mandatory detention because it has failed to be a deterrent for people seeking our protection since it took effect in the early 1990s. They want their government to explore other paths, such as those outlined in the Centre for Policy Development's report A New Approach, Breaking the Stalemate on Refugees and Asylum Seekers released yesterday.

They want their elected representatives to show results for policies to deal with Australia's ageing population, how to provide more affordable child care options, and a national dental health scheme. In addition to finally ensuring the future of a healthy Murray Darling Basin, they'd also like to see their parliament amend the Marriage Act, so same-sex couples can get married and formally celebrate their commitment to each other.

Everyday Australians are eager to see their government deliver a mining tax that fairly redistributes the wealth from the present boom so it is invested here and not sent overseas. They fear the proceeds risk being squandered instead of funding essential public transport and other infrastructure. And what about a sovereign wealth fund, which Treasury has supported, to invest in future generations?

The major parties have created these problems with immigration and asylum seeker policy, which serve their interests. But we can solve them all with practical measures and confront other challenges that the community would prefer we concentrate on.

First published in The National Times on August 23, 2011.

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