Melissa Parke: Labor’s humanitarian hero

13 June 2012

Written by: Catherine Falalis

Source: APH

At only 45 years of age, there is no doubt that Labor MP Melissa Parke has an impressive CV. And her work as a senior lawyer for the United Nations has shaped her humanitarian values – something she has fiercely clung to.

Within her current role as the federal member for Fremantle, Parke campaigned against the Malaysian asylum seeker swap policy, and live cattle exports to Indonesia. Although sometimes at odds with her own party, Parke continues to speak out against animal cruelty and demands a fairer approach in dealing with refugees.

In 1999, Parke began working with the UN peacekeeping mission in Kosovo within the Office of Legal Affairs. At the time the UN was acting as a temporary government in Kosovo. And government and non-government institutions needed to be set up from scratch.

‘On my first day in Kosovo I drafted a traffic code. I had neither access to the internet nor to translations of local laws. The code I wrote was passed the next day,’ says Parke. Later they drafted legislation in regards to many areas including education, health, taxation, weapons control and media regulation.

‘I also chaired a working group on people trafficking. Our focus was primarily upon women and girls being taken from Eastern Europe to Kosovo for forced prostitution,’ she says. Comparing this to drug trafficking, Parke says these crimes involve less risk and have large financial rewards: ‘Drugs, once used cannot be resold; a person can be sold many times.’

After spending more than two years in Kosovo, Parke began her work in Gaza for the UN agency that assists Palestinian refugees – the legal division of UNRWA. Parke was responsible for liaising with representatives from the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Israel Defence Force to enable access through border crossings for staff and supplies.

She assisted in the organisation of an international presence in Palestinian refugee camps and wrote reports on violations of humanitarian and human rights law for the UN General Assembly and Security Council.

It was particularly within this role that Parke developed her views in regards to the humane treatment of refugees.

‘All my humanitarian work, and especially my work with refugees, has informed my understanding of the predicament that people face when they are forced to flee their home country through fear, violence, and persecution,’ she says.

When the Malaysian asylum seeker policy was proposed last year, Parke openly spoke out against it. She could not back a deal that did not have the United Nations refugee agency’s support.

Parke told the Sunday Times: ‘I don’t believe in sending people who have come here back to Malaysia. Once they have come here we have an international legal obligation that we signed up to, that for any potential refugee once they come to Australia they have the right to claim asylum here.’

However she is not without criticism. Olive Wrensted from Geraldton wrote to the Kalgoorlie Miner on January 5 this year, labeling Parke as ‘out of touch’ with reality and ‘naïve’.

‘Perhaps if she were to step down from her ivory tower and take off her rose coloured glasses she might wake up to the fact she is actually condoning and supporting people smuggling and encouraging illegal entry of people into our country,’ Wrensted continued.

But Parke thinks otherwise.

‘I believe that Australia must make its proportional contribution to a global issue. It’s right that we do so. It is entirely within our means, and entirely in keeping with our core values of fairness and compassion and tolerance,’ she says.

It is no surprise that Parke supports the High Court’s decision to rule against the policy. ‘It was certainly an adjudication that I agree with as a matter of humanitarian principle and international law,’ she says.

Parke has also strongly campaigned against live cattle exports to Indonesia following reports of the inhumane treatment of cattle last year — though some still question why more is not being done to actually address the issue.

‘People should remember that the animal welfare horrors that we have been made aware of in the last 12 months are the result of neglect and blindness within the live export industry itself, and the government is trying to fix that mess. Whilst I will keep pushing for further and more sweeping change, I am glad that the government has stepped in to take a much more active regulatory role.’

‘I am pleased to have achieved agreement at last year’s ALP National Conference to create an independent office of animal welfare,’ Parke says.

Prior to her election, Parke undertook a position in 2004 with the UN headquarters in New York. In 2006 she accepted a legal position in Beirut, investigating the assassination of the former Lebanese Prime Minister, Rafik Hariri.

Since Parke’s election in 2007 — winning with a 9.14 per cent margin — one of her ambitions was to see her electorate of Fremantle recognised as a leader in urban sustainability and in climate change awareness and action.

Parke says there have been a number of achievements to this end. Such as the development of the Carnegie Wave Energy technology: the creation of a National Centre for Water Desalination at Murdoch University and research and development funds. The funds have garnered projects including cheaper carbon fibre manufacturing processes and a technology that facilitates greater efficiency transfer of solar power into the existing grid.

‘I worked hard to secure the visit of the PM and cabinet to host a Community Cabinet at South Fremantle Senior High School, which is a dedicated carbon-neutral school, and this drew a significant amount of attention to Freo’s appetite and enthusiasm for innovation when it comes to emission reduction, water recycling, and so on,’ she says.

Parke’s environmental achievements are quickly filling up the fridge door and she hopes that her constant pursuit for the just treatment of refugees will be even more successful.

Politicians like Parke are hard to come by — but just imagine the Australia we could have if they weren’t.

Catherine Falalis is a journalism student at La Trobe University. You can follow her on Twitter: @cat_falalis

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