I suffer from Dupuytren’s disease, a hereditary disease that curls up the hands. If you’ve attended a nursing home and gone from room to room, you’ll probably find people in that nursing home with curled up fingers. If you haven’t seen it, you will. Those of my age do. To address the issue of my fingers curling up like that, every now and again I go to my plastic surgeon, and he cleans out the inside of my hands around the tendons and straightens out the fingers—so I can do that, instead of that, which can be very difficult when you go to shake hands and your hands are all curled up. As you can imagine, as a politician that’s fairly difficult.

It’s miraculous the way this master of manipulation of the body is able to work. His name is Thiem Dhu. He’s Vietnamese. I asked him one day, while they were putting me to sleep to do the next hand or the next finger or whatever: ‘What’s your background, Thiem? You were born here, I take it?’ He said: ‘Oh, no. I was with my family in Vietnam, and my parents said, “You are to go with your uncle on a boat to Australia. There’s nothing for you here, and we’re in danger.”‘ He went with his uncle, hopped on a boat and made the perilous trip to Australia. He arrived here penniless, with his uncle. No family, no education, no nothing.

Now he’s one of the most brilliant surgeons in Australia. He takes off all my cancer spots. A couple of you would be nearly old enough to know what we did to ourselves as children, got out in the sun and did all those things, so I have bits taken off me all the time. I asked him: ‘How do you know which bits to take off? How much of it is instinct and how much of it is your skill?’ He said: ‘Russell, I take a bit off you before it becomes a health problem. At the moment it’s only a skin problem. If I leave it, it will become a health problem, so I like to deal with that early. That’s the way I work.’ He’s one of the most skilful, talented, gentle men I know. He’d be at the top of my tree. He was a boat person. He came by boat.

I’ll tell you another story. I have a friend. She’s been ill for a long time. I was talking to her about boat people, refugees and those sorts of things and these terrible, horrible people smugglers. And this woman, who’s a lawyer, a hotelier, a builder, a creator, with talented kids, wealth, style and living the Australian dream, her parents came out here from Serbia. She said to me: ‘Russell, if it weren’t for people smugglers, I wouldn’t be here. They smuggled us out of Serbia through the hills one night, got us out and that’s how we got to Australia.’ There are two sides to every story.

The contribution that refugees have made to this country should never be underestimated. How we treat them in this country, how we treat people in this country who have done nothing but seek a better life yet have been imprisoned for coming up to 11 years, is something that I as an Australian can’t be proud of. We can’t walk away. As a friend of mine once said, ‘There comes a time when you can’t walk past the pile of rubbish; you’ve got to clean it up.’ It’s time for this nation to look where the rubbish is, confront it and see how we’re going to deal with the lives of individual people who may go on to make a marvellous contribution to this country and look at the opportunities we might give to people who are already here but not allowed to work when we are desperate for employees right across every sector of this nation because of the results of COVID. Why can’t we be sensible and let them work? Let them work. It’s not something that’s so great to ask—that while someone on a bridging visa is here in this country they get an opportunity to work. The benefits for us are unending. We have nothing to fear from these people being employed while they are on a bridging visa. In fact, we need them right now. There’s not a business that I know of that hasn’t got staff shortages and opportunities for people right across the board. I’ll leave those thoughts with you today. They may not go down well with the people who have the responsibilities, but that’s just as I see it.