Monday, 25 June 2012
Matters of Public Importance
A letter has been received from Senator Fifield:
Pursuant to standing order 75, I propose that the following matter of public importance be submitted to the Senate for discussion:
The Government's systematic dismantling of people smuggler deterrents and failure to reinstate proven and effective policies.
Is the proposal supported?
More than the number of senators required by the standing orders having risen in their places—
I understand that informal arrangements have been made to allocate specific times to each of the speakers in today’s debate. With the concurrence of the Senate, I shall ask the clerks to set the clock accordingly.
Two years ago, when the now Prime Minister politically executed the man now known as the former Prime Minister, she stated as one of the reasons for the political execution that the Labor Party had 'lost its way', and in losing its way the now Prime Minister Ms Gillard promised the Australian people three things. She would fix three major issues, one of those issues being the flood of unlawful boat arrivals. Given that, since the former Prime Minister's political execution, under Ms Gillard's leadership 196 boats carrying 12,877 people have arrived and total immigration costs have blown out to in excess of $1.1 billion, it can hardly be claimed by those on the other side that Ms Gillard has achieved her stated promise.
It is now clearer than ever that it is not the opposition's policies that do not work; it is Julia Gillard's policies that have failed to protect Australia's borders. The reality for those on the other side, the current government, is that if they cannot protect Australia's borders, if they continue to fail in this regard, then they must responsibly plan for more boats to arrive. The Labor Party itself—not just its failed policies—is now the pull factor, when it comes to people arriving in Australia by boat. "Brand Labor" internationally now tells people smugglers that Australia's doors are open and that when you get here you are all but guaranteed permanent residency.
As the shadow minister for immigration, Scott Morrison, stated in an opinion piece in the Australian newspaper today:
For bipartisanship to be effective it must be real and deliver good policy. A contrived, lowest-common denominator outcome would cheat the Australian public but, worse, it wouldn't stop the boats or end these tragedies. The path forward is for the government to make decisions. If the government wishes to reopen Nauru, it should just do it. It should equally move on all the other measures we have proposed that it has consistently rejected and abolished.
When it comes to border protection, the coalition does not believe in compromise for the sake of compromise. We believe in and are committed to effective and proven policies that have been shown to work. We have not changed our stand on our policies. We support temporary protection visas, we support the re-opening Nauru and we support turning back the boats when it is safe to do so. These policies stopped the boats before and they will, when reintroduced, stop the boats again. Temporary protection visas mean that when people arrive in Australia unlawfully they will receive temporary protection only. Labor's policies, on the other hand, mean that people who arrive here unlawfully, regardless of what they have done—for example, Captain Emad, who has been shown to be a people smuggler—they will get permanent protection.
The facts show clearly that Ms Gillard is unable to stop the boats. It is not just Labor's failed policies that are the problem; it is the Labor Party itself. Labor has become the pull factor for people to get on a boat to come to Australia, to the extent that it is highly doubtful that the government could ever successfully implement any measures that would deter boats. It is more and more the case that only a change of government, not a change of Labor leader, will lead to a change in policy.
The government continues to seek to blame the opposition for its border protection failures, because we are opposed to the Malaysian people swap deal. The first point I make in this regard is that the coalition is not the only party that is opposed to the Malaysian people swap. The Left of the Labor Party is opposed to Labor's own Malaysian people swap deal. Senator Doug Cameron is on the record as stating that the Left of the Labor Party is opposed to its own policy. We heard Senator Milne today, in motions to take note of answers, say that the Greens are opposed to their alliance partner's Malaysian swap deal. And the coalition is on the record as opposing this bad policy. We oppose the Malaysian people swap deal, because it is a bad deal for Australia and a cruel deal for asylum seekers. Removing from the Migration Act human rights protections for people processed offshore, as proposed by the government, is not, and never will be, supported by the coalition. In any event, let us not forget that the Malaysian people swap deal has been proven not to work. How? Because since the deal was announced, we have seen 7,986 people arrive on 112 boats. The Malaysian people-swap deal was good for just 800 people. 'Bring on No. 801' is what the people smugglers would have been saying.
The reality for those opposite is this: they have never, ever wanted to stop the boats. The Labor Party always wanted to embrace the Greens policy of onshore processing and that is exactly what they have done. If the Labor Party wanted offshore processing, they could have reopened Nauru six months ago. In fact, if the Labor Party want offshore processing, we have committed to reopening Nauru tomorrow. However, what have the Labor Party done when it comes to Nauru? They have trashed Nauru at every possible opportunity. As further evidence that the Labor Party have never, ever wanted offshore processing the Rudd-Gillard governments have never processed a single boat arrival offshore. And, in December last year, the Gillard government finally ruled out reintroducing temporary protection visas.
The coalition is on the record as stating that it is prepared to give the government support for any of the 148 countries who have signed the United Nations Refugee Convention. However, just like the Left of the Labor Party, just like the government's alliance partner the Greens, the coalition will not allow the government to create an offshore dumping ground where people are potentially caned and have no protections. That is bad policy and the coalition will not support bad policy.
When you look at the latest budget figures and at the immigration portfolio you will see that this is yet another example of where Labor have completely failed to get this policy right. You see complete fiscal ineptitude. Labor's 2011-12 $1 billion budget for asylum seekers was based on just 750 boat arrivals. Yes, that is right—just 750 arrivals. That was slightly ambitious, to say the least. Why do we say that? Because, as a direct result of Labor winding back the Howard government's proven border protection policies, more than 19,429 people have arrived on 336 boats. And, since 21 August 2010, federal polling day, 181 boats have arrived carrying 12,080 people. Yet the budget for this financial year budgeted for only 750 people. How wrong they were.
Policy failure, denial, inconsistency and inaction have rendered the current Labor government impotent. This government lacks the credibility that is now needed to put the substance and resolve behind measures that make them a real deterrent and the people smugglers know it. The time for talking is over. The government does not have the option of continuing to do nothing and blaming the opposition. This is not a policy; it is merely an excuse. If we must wait until an election to end this madness, then at least take action now to mitigate the increased risk of loss of life and the continued compromise of our refugee and humanitarian program— (Time expired)
Since the Keating government was in office I have spoken in scores of Senate debates about the response of Australian governments to asylum seekers arriving by boat. Over the years these debates have become less and less edifying. More and more these debates are driven by politics, not policy. But no-one inside or outside this parliament can fail to be affected by the human tragedy we witnessed again last week or fail to be moved by the toll of human lives lost since the sinking of SIEVX in 2001.
The truth is that we will never know precisely how many lives of asylum seekers coming to Australia have been lost over the years. We will not even know how many vessels may have been lost prior to detection. We know of the 353 people who died on SIEVX; the five lives lost on board SIEV36; the 12 who perished on SIEV69; the five who, we believe, died on board SIEV143; and the up to 50 lives lost when SIEV221 crashed into Christmas Island.
I do note that Alexander Downer has decided that the appropriate reaction to last week's tragedy is to try to settle a few old political scores. He has found inaccuracy to be no impediment. In today's Adelaide Advertiser, Alexander Downer makes an extraordinary claim:
According to him, the 'vile' accusers are: the Greens, Tony Kevin, Margot Kingston, the Fairfax press, former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, Senator Jacinta Collins and me. Suffice to say, Mr Downer is egregiously wrong.
I commend the report of the Senate Select Committee on a Certain Maritime Incident, chapters 8 and 9, pages 195 to 290, for those who are actually interested in a factual account of the publicly available evidence surrounding the sinking of SIEVX. Surely no-one believes that any government would deliberately allow asylum seekers to drown at sea—not in the case of SIEVX, not in the case of SIEV36, SIEV69, SIEV143, SIEV221 or any other suspected illegal entry vessel either. But I also hope there is no-one who would diminish the Senate's critically important role as a house of scrutiny. During the Senate Select Committee on a Certain Maritime Incident inquiry we saw the Senate at its best. So, for the record, I never have and I never will resile from asking hard questions of government officials and agencies about such matters and I hope that all other senators in the chamber apply the same principle, regardless of whether we have a Labor or non-Labor government in office. That is an important principle and I hope that all senators stand by it. (Time expired)
I rise today at a very sad time. All Australians are very focused on the lives that were lost at sea and the circumstances surrounding that. It is very right for us to focus on that in this place at this time. I have heard much about politics and policy, not only in this debate but in the media as well. It is quite clear that we need to take the opportunity to reiterate not history as you would like it to have sorted out but history as it actually happened.
In 2007, Labor took over government on the basis of a range of promises and undertakings made to the Australian people. They said that when they got into government they would change border control policy. They did that not for reasons of mischief but because they believed that the policy as it stood then was not compassionate and was too hard. They thought that it needed to be softened. They believed that their far more open policy would be more compassionate. That is a wonderful motivation. The reality is that if you change a policy you should be able to examine what happens as a result. The policy was changed and as a direct result of that policy change—nothing else—Australian became a target.
People flee their countries for a whole range of reasons. We are very lucky not to have many of those circumstances in Australia. But when you flee, invariably, particularly if you have access to a vessel, it becomes about where you go. The people who flee go to a particular place, almost as though they are hearing the legendary call of the sirens spoken of by ancient mariners. It is an irresistible call. The ships will steer towards the sound of that siren, Australia, because Australia gives them one thing that is not available to them anywhere else in the world, and that is security through permanent residency. That is the fundamental thing. Before that time, we as good Australians, had decided that we would provide people with protection until such time as they no longer required it, a very reasonable position. That was lifted and the government said, 'In three months, once you've had your security checks, we will give you permanent protection and residency.'
That is an irresistible sound to those in particular who traffic in human misery, because those individuals are able to say to their potential customers: 'Boy, have I got a deal for you. We can offer you a product that is offered nowhere else in the world. We will offer the answer to all your concerns.' The whole world understands that. But this is a luxury holiday destination, so only some can afford it. For $10,000—and that is the conventional figure much quoted across the media—for every person, you could afford access to this particular outcome.
There are many people who can afford that outcome; there have certainly been plenty since 2007. In the year Labor took office, four people had arrived on boats—not 400 and not 4,000, but four people. In the previous year, 2006—and we thought that was a pretty bad year—60 had arrived on boats, with 11 arriving the year before. Labor came to office in late 2007. In 2008, we had 161 arrivals on boats. In 2009, 2,726 people arrived. At that point, I reckon that you would man the pumps. At that point, you would reckon that something might be wrong with our policy; that might have been a bit of a signal. We have gone from 11 to 2,720. If that was not going to set fire to you what about 2010, when 6,555 asylum seekers arrived? At that point, maybe they should have started doing something about their policy; maybe they should have started to provide some leadership not only to this nation but to those people seeking a refugee outcome to ensure that they do not place their lives at risk by heeding the sirens' call.
Under the tried and true policies of the Howard government, in 2001 we had one person arrive by boat. In 2003, that went up to 53. In 2004, it was 15. In 2005, it was 11. There were 60 in 2006, as I said. These were numbers that this government can only dream of. These arrivals are hardly worth a mention in comparison with what we have now. We are only up to June, halfway through the year, and there have already been 4,428 boat arrivals. By now you would reckon that it would be panic stations. 'We must change this policy,' someone would be saying. But that would take leadership. I remember the bloke I always considered to be a great leader. He said:
We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.
For that he was pilloried as someone who was not particularly compassionate. But if you look at what he was saying, he was simply saying that the circumstances under which they come should be that they are those people who are the priorities of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. And they were not those people who could afford to pay $10,000—$10,000 for each man, woman and child to get on a boat and come here.
The demographic with the most need at the moment is people who are living in camps like Kakuma in Kenya and whose lives are not particularly long. One could say, 'The individuals there change,' and 'The list is a bit mumbled.' But those are the people most in need, and the circumstances are such that they are the ones who need the most help. But it is about us deciding who comes here and the circumstances in which they come, and that was about leadership—the sort of leadership this country currently does not have, and that is very sad.
I can recall several months when ago Andrew Bolt wrote:
How many more boat people must die before the Left judge a 'compassionate' policy by its consequences, rather than intention?
He was much maligned because of that reality. The reality is that it is the policies here. I do not suggest any mischief from those on the other side. It is the policies that are the sirens' call to the refugees and to those people who deal in human misery. That call has to stop. We have to change that call. We have to go back to doing the sensible things. At the moment there is the suggestion that Malaysia is somehow a solution. We had 48 people die tragically on the shores of Christmas Island and we have just lost another 90, yet the boats will keep coming. They think they have lost only two boats out of hundreds. But before 2007 every boat was turned back. There was no chance of getting there, so you did not leave. You did not have the rolled-gold-plated permanent residency outcome that those trafficking in human misery were selling in their brochures. That was not available. These are principal issues. Offshore processing is a fundamental part of that mix—the reintroduction of turning back the boats, reintroducing temporary protection visas and processing offshore the refugees who come here in boats.
In closing, the notion that somehow we should think about Malaysia as an answer is, as I have indicated, a folly in any practical sense. The High Court actually found that we have no way of enforcing any side agreement that we need in order to make sure that the asylum seekers would be subject to all the human rights that have been laid down. There is absolutely no chance of doing that at all. So there is only one step forward from this point: those on the other side, with the assistance of the Greens, must acknowledge that if there is not a change then the same things will keep happening. This government owes it to those people in the world who are seeking a refugee outcome—and there are 14 million of them—to ensure that the sirens' call of a guaranteed outcome in terms of residency and the other things that are a part of Australian life is stopped. They need to adopt our policies: turn back the boats, reintroduce temporary protection visas and reintroduce offshore processing in Nauru. (Time expired)
I rise to speak on today's matter of public importance, on people smuggler deterrents, and in doing so will highlight the difference between the asylum seeker policies of this side of the Senate and those policies of that side of the Senate. I seek to immediately draw the Senate's attention to a murky shadow in this Senate on 23 November 2011. During question time on that day Senator Cash was asking Senator Kim Carr, who was then the Minister representing Minister Bowen in this chamber, about the Labor government's policies in this area. During the course of Senator Carr's answer, Senator Cash interjected to say that this is 'the gift that keeps on giving'. That is the premise of their policy on this humanitarian issue. It is to keep up the division, keep up the opposition to trying to assist the most desperate people who want to come to Australia to make a better life for their family. Question time continued with Senator Carr retorting:
Senator Cash has said that this is 'the gift that keeps on giving'. We could not get a clearer policy position from the Liberal Party, which wants people to get on these leaky boats and to drown at sea. This is the Liberal Party policy writ large—'the gift that keeps on giving'.
Senator Cash responded that she was not claiming that boats sinking at sea was the gift that keeps on giving for the Liberal Party but that it was the Labor Party's policy that was the infamous gift that was oh so worthy of throwing into public discourse. Regardless of Senator Cash's clarification, the fact that seven months on the Liberal Party continues to seek to get political mileage out of this humanitarian issue is, quite frankly, puerile.
I refer the Senate to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees 2001 report on global trends. The report notes that by the end of 2011 there were 42½ million forcibly displaced persons worldwide. That is, a group of people equivalent to more than two times the population of Australia was forcibly displaced worldwide. Australians are proud of our nation's record of resettling people seeking refuge from persecution and strife. As a result of our long history of protecting refugees, Australia currently ranks in the top three resettlement countries worldwide. Since the first refugees arrived in Australia just after the Second World War, more than 75,000 refugees have created a new home in Australia. As this government has always said, the composition of Australians and the asylum-seeking case load will change depending on factors in asylum seekers' home countries. The UNHCR report notes that of the 42½ million people, over 15 million were refugees, over 26 million were internally displaced persons and almost one million were asylum seekers. Notably, women and girls represented 49 per cent of people of concern to UNHCR, constituting 48 per cent of refugees, and children below 18 years of age of age represented 46 per cent of refugees and 34 per cent of asylum seekers. This represents an increase from 2010 to 2011 of 44 per cent and 31 per cent respectively.
As in 2010, Afghan and Iraqi refugees accounted for 42 per cent of all refugees under UNHCR's responsibility in 2011. With 2.7 million refugees, located in 79 different asylum countries, Afghanistan remained the leading country of origin of refugees in 2011. On average, one out of four refugees in the world originated from Afghanistan. For our region of the Asia-Pacific the UNHCR reports that, at the end of 2011, there were some 3.6 million refugees, accounting for some 35 per cent of all refugees.
The Gillard Labor government has agreed to fund a UNHCR project on mapping, review and assessment of the protection situation and treatment of unaccompanied and separated children who have moved irregularly into or within South-East Asia. The project totals around $140,000 and will seek to detail arrangements for the protection and treatment of unaccompanied and separated children who arrive irregularly in countries in the region. It will examine existing systems for identifying, registering and referring such children.
I turn to an area of this government's immigration policy that saw real results for asylum seekers and real results for the host community. Although the Pontville Immigration Detention Centre near Hobart was decommissioned on 3 March this year, it was a shining light in Australia's immigration detention network. The positive feedback from the Tasmanian community about the Pontville centre, and specifically the benefits it provided to the local community, must be noted in this debate. And it must also be noted that the overwhelmingly positive feedback from the local community on the Pontville centre and the benefits it provided is in stark contrast to Senator Abetz's claims—he is obviously suffering from the same bout of relentless negativity as Tony Abbott. As part of prudent planning the department has retained the site as a contingency centre. It is standard procedure to provide maintenance at contingency sites and to put basic security arrangements in place to protect assets. The government kept its promise to close Pontville after six months and there are no plans to reopen the centre at this stage.
Over the six months Pontville was open, Tasmanians opened their hearts to men seeking asylum at the centre in southern Tasmania. Shirley Williams, a member of the Bridgewater Brighton branch of the Labor Party and a member of the Brighton Knitting Club, together with other wonderful people in her community, started knitting beanies and other clothing to keep the men warm. Shirley and her friends recognised that the cold climate of the Jordan Valley would be quite a shock to the mainly Afghani asylum seekers. They then spent their own time knitting beanies and other clothing of all shapes and colours for the men in the centre. Shirley and a number of women went further, visiting the centre with knitting needles in hand, prepared to teach the men how to supplement the clothes they had been provided. They were surprised and pleased to discover that the Hazara occupants of the centre were already skilled at knitting, many having made their livelihoods with similar skills in making and weaving carpets. In the regular visits to follow, the men and women swapped skills at the same time as they swapped stories. What a tremendous display of multiculturalism in action—people of totally different backgrounds and experiences bonding over the interests and activities that they share, each teaching the other a new ability and a new empathy.
I also want to place on record my support for the work of Emily Conolan, who harnessed the enthusiasm of the Tasmanian community and established the Tasmanian Asylum Seekers Support Group. Shortly after announcing the purpose of the group, Emily was overwhelmed by the number of people who wanted to be part of a constructive engagement with Australia's humanitarian immigration program. Over 150 volunteers visited asylum seekers at Pontville on a regular basis while the centre was operational. Some worked one-on-one with asylum seekers to provide direct company and support. Each of those people deserves thanks, not just for their compassion but also for their preparedness to look past the anxiety that builds from confronting the unexpected, the barriers, the physical walls and the cultural differences that too often prevent us from genuinely engaging with others.
Despite attempts at fearmongering and whipping up moral panic by Senator Abetz, the Pontville Immigration Detention Centre was embraced by Tasmanians, so much so that in the months leading up to the centre's decommissioning the people of southern Tasmania, including the Mayor of Brighton, Tony Foster; the Tasmanian government, including Premier Lara Giddings; support organisations; and locals were advocating for the centre to remain open. These people recognised that the influx of migrants to Tasmania has traditionally been a tremendous positive for our community—from those who travelled between Poatina, Longford and Ouse in the mid-20th century, building our world famous hydroelectric dams, to the Hmong community, whose delicious fresh produce is snapped up by Tasmanians and tourists alike every Saturday at the Salamanca Market. We are definitely a state that welcomes migrants, a state that opens our hearts to migrants.
During the years of coalition government from 1996 to 2007 Australia's immigration detention regime had the effect of systematically crushing the hope of refugees that they would ever have the chance to begin a new life. Under the Howard government, families with young children were kept behind razor wire for years on end. Some were released into the community through the horrible 'stick' policy known as temporary protection visas, a policy under which genuine refugees were required to constantly reapply to remain in Australia or be forced to return to the country in which they had suffered persecution. Temporary protection visas did not work in Australia, with the overwhelming majority of people on them ending up as permanent Australian residents—that is hardly a deterrent. And if the coalition are so sure of temporary protection visas, why did they reject an independent inquiry into their effectiveness? We know that more than 95 per cent of temporary protection visas holders went on to get a permanent visa to live in Australia.
The harsh conditions of temporary protection visas prevented family reunions but did not stop boats arriving. Temporary protection visas were introduced by the Howard government in October 1999 to deter boat arrivals by denying people found to be refugees the right to stay permanently in Australia. They did not stop boats arriving: there were almost 4,000 boat arrivals that year. During the next two financial years there were almost 8½ thousand boat arrivals. Of the almost 10,000 people who were granted temporary protection visas, 95 per cent were subsequently granted a permanent visa by the time the scheme was abolished. This could hardly be perceived to be a deterrent. The harsh conditions attached to temporary protection visas prevented people from being reunited with their families. From 1999 to 2001 the proportion of women and children among Iraqi and Afghan unauthorised boat arrivals more than tripled. Following the introduction of temporary protection visas, the proportion of women and children who arrived by boat increased from 25 per cent to over 40 per cent. Temporary protection visas were harsh and punitive and did not work as a deterrent. Furthermore, under the Howard government's so-called Pacific solution, other refugees were sent to detention on Nauru, a tiny island where some stayed for up to three years with little human contact.
For every refugee who has overcome incredible odds to build a new life, there is a person whose hope has been consumed by tragedy or a journey to shelter that is just too far. Worst of all is when the promise on which their hope rested turns out to be as insecure as the lives they left behind. It is no surprise that many refugees, who were already suffering trauma from fleeing a crisis and enduring a prolonged ordeal, simply could not cope with such gruelling stress. In such conditions, even the most resolute and naturally positive person falls into a spiral of despair. In these conditions, that hope of a better life for your family can degenerate into severe mental disorders. The evidence is clear that length of confinement is associated with progressive deterioration in mental state.
Similarly, the uncertainty of temporary-protection-visa status was the greatest single contributor to post-traumatic stress disorder amongst refugees. The effects of such trauma are profound and enduring. Refugees held in detention for only a short time have far better settlement outcomes than those in prolonged detention.
I am pleased that under the Labor government the parameters for mandatory detention have been dramatically recast. No longer does the horrible 'stick policy' of temporary protection visas persecute some of the most disadvantaged people in the world with fear and uncertainty. Now temporary protection visas are gone and the government is expanding the number of low-risk and vulnerable families and children being housed in community based accommodation rather than in detention centres. Today, children are no longer held in detention centres, and around 1,600 people, mainly vulnerable families, are in the community. By next year, one-third of asylum seekers will be issued bridging visas to live and work in the community while their claims are assessed, and another 20 per cent will be in community detention.
All the while, the opposition's 'turn back the boats' policy is in tatters. Indonesia does not want a bar of it. The Navy and Border Protection say it is a dangerous risk to Australian lives, and all the experts say it is a dud. The coalition continues to shamelessly spruik a policy that the experts say is a dud, that our own Navy says is dangerous and risks lives, that the UN's refugee chief believes breaches the refugee convention and that has been found in Europe to be a breach of human rights.
The coalition's foreign affairs spokesperson, Ms Julie Bishop, was so desperate that she went to Jakarta to plead for some sort of hearing on their disgraceful policy. She met with the deputy chairman of Indonesia's parliament, who said that the opposition's policy was unfair on Indonesia, and he accused Ms Bishop of being arrogant in explaining the coalition's position. He told the ABC on 3 May this year: 'In my opinion, that view is a view that is solely focused on Australia's perspective, without considering Indonesia at all as the country that experiences the negative impacts of the illegal immigrant issue.' This is just the latest declaration from Indonesia that they do not want a bar of the opposition's reckless and arrogant tow-back policy. The repeated and clear message from Indonesia is that they would not agree to towing back any boats.
We do not see any policy as 'a gift that keeps on giving'. Rather we are committed to working through issues with fairness, equity and justice at the fore of our decision making.
I, like all of my colleagues in this place, from all sides, rise with a heavy heart to participate in this debate, given the events of a few days past, where lives were lost and trauma was experienced and where some families will clearly never be the same again. In this contribution, I do not want to prejudge the bona fides of those who are seeking asylum. There are processes in place to do that as a matter of course, and those discussions are for another occasion. But I do want to look at the question of why the boats are coming, why the people smuggler trade is increasing and what can be done about it. It is for that reason that I proposed the matter of public importance we are debating today.
The starting point has to be that the people-smuggling trade is a trade in human misery. It is evil and I am sure everyone in this chamber condemns it. I think that should be the starting point of any debate over people smuggling and trafficking, which unfortunately is increasing.
This government does have a bit of a record of not honouring its commitments. There are the obvious ones that seem almost too obvious to mention, but I will: the commitment, for example, not to introduce a carbon tax. The government is rightly condemned for its failure to honour its commitments. But there is one commitment that this government did honour, lock, stock and barrel. That was the commitment before the 2007 election to systematically dismantle the border protection regime that was in place, to end offshore processing at places such as Nauru and Manus Island and to end temporary protection visas. As part of that, the then opposition changed language and rhetoric. The Howard government at that time was firm, not just in policy and resolve but in its language, to send a clear message to the people smugglers that we would have no truck with them. Kevin Rudd, as Leader of the Opposition, and Julia Gillard, as the shadow immigration minister, were the architects of the policy to dismantle the effective border protection regime. They were the architects of a policy which set about quite deliberately to remove those disincentives, those deterrents, which were in place for people smugglers. That is why I become more than a little frustrated every time I hear senators on the other side of this place say that they wanted break the people smugglers' business model. It frustrates me because the people smugglers have been operating according to the business model which the Australian Labor Party designed. If you remove temporary protection visas, if you end offshore processing, you are giving the people smugglers a good product to sell.
That is what the Australian Labor Party did. They gave the people smugglers a good product to sell. When they changed the policy, when they changed their language, when they ended temporary protection visas, when they ended offshore processing, that did not go unnoticed by the people smugglers. It was therefore no surprise to those of us in the federal coalition that the people smuggler trade increased. You will recall, Mr Acting Deputy President, that when we sought to point this out, as the boats started to increase in number, as the people smuggler business started to improve, we were told that pull factors were not a consideration, that it was all to do with push factors, it was all to do with what was happening in other countries, it was all to do with displaced people, it was all to do with increase in conflict in particular nations. No-one believes that anymore. The evidence is just so overwhelming that, yes, there were certainly push factors, there will always be push factors, but what made the difference between 2007 and today was the pull factors in Australia. We come back to the product that this government in effect designed and the people smugglers have so effectively sold. Even if we do not go right back to 2007, even if we only go back to the period commencing with Prime Minister Gillard's elevation to the nation's highest office, from that time to now there have been 12,700 people arrive on people smuggler boats. Those 12,700 people arrived on 194 boats. The evidence is clear and it is overwhelming.
I think what we have seen here is what one of my colleagues, Senator Mason, in a range of contexts has referred to as the politics of conspicuous compassion, where the Australian Labor Party is more concerned about trying to be seen to be compassionate, trying to be seen to be humanitarian, trying to be seen to be doing the right thing, rather than actually doing the right thing—the optics matter more than the real-life impact, than the real-life working of policy. None of us on this side of the chamber take any pleasure in pointing this out, because what has come to pass in terms of the increase in the people smuggler trade is exactly what we predicted would happen.
We are told often when contributing in these sorts of debates to forget about the past: 'Don't look at the past; we all know why we are in this situation.' Commentators will often say that to those of us on this side of the chamber. But it is vitally important for the government of the day to recognise why we are in the situation that we are currently in. Unless the government of the day recognise that, they are not going to be in a position to honestly address the situation and to craft policies to address the cause of this situation. That is why we continue to point out time and again, and will continue to do so, that the reason we are in this position today, the reason the people smuggler trade has increased, is because this government dismantled the effective policies of the previous government which had in effect put the people smugglers out of business.
We know, although the government has not formally and publicly admitted, recognised and acknowledged the error of dismantling those policies, in their hearts they know it is true. How do we know this? Because the concept of offshore processing which was previously declared to be immoral when we were in office the government now say is a necessary part of a border protection regime, a necessary part of deterring people smugglers. So it seems that offshore processing is only immoral when the coalition do it; it is perfectly moral if the Australian Labor Party do it. But behind that change we know is a recognition by this government that offshore processing does work. But it does not work standing alone. You also need temporary protection visas; you also need people smugglers to be convinced that a government has the strength of its convictions. Not all offshore processing is equal either, for that matter. Some of my other colleagues have canvassed that already. But I would urge the government to go back to those policies which we know work, go back to offshore processing at Nauru, go back to temporary protection visas and have the strength of your convictions. It is then and only then that the people smugglers will be convinced that you will take away from them the product they sell and they will be out of their dastardly business.
I was going to begin by saying that this matter of public importance proposed by the opposition is preposterous and immoral, but the reality is that it is just terribly sad. Is it any wonder that the people of Australia have an ever-diminishing faith in the ability of our political leaders to represent their interests in this parliament? Here we are arguing what in their eyes is really an insignificant matter, when the reality is that the leaders of our political parties should be sitting down and negotiating a compromise to what is a terribly sad public policy issue in this country. The issue is that vulnerable people who are seeking asylum in Australia are being exploited by unscrupulous people smugglers who are selling them a promise of safe passage to Australia for a very high price, when the reality is that they and their children are getting on board overcrowded, unsafe boats and then being sent out onto the open seas—a recipe for disaster. Unfortunately, disaster is what we often get. As recently as last week, we saw another disaster: a boat sinking with children on board, mid-voyage to Australia. The boat was sinking because it was overcrowded and unseaworthy. It brings back all the harrowing memories of what happened on Christmas Island last year, when those poor, vulnerable people were cast onto the rocks in terrible circumstances.
I have been a surf-lifesaver for 26 years, and I am very proud of my involvement in keeping our beaches safe. I have to say that I take great offence at the comments of Senator Fifield, in which he argued that Labor policy has designed the people smugglers' model. That is a simply disgraceful and untrue comment. As a surf-lifesaver—as someone who has invested a hell of a lot of their time as a volunteer in this country in trying to help save the lives of others in the ocean—I take great offence at that comment. I take great offence because a lot of the tragedies that we are seeing on the open seas are avoidable. The government has developed a policy, on the advice of experts in asylum and migration policy, that is consistent with the advice of the Australian Navy, that has been negotiated with our regional partners in this area and has their support and that has the input of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. It is a policy that will work and that will provide an effective deterrent to the product that people smugglers are selling. It is opposed by those opposite. It is a policy that will stop vulnerable people getting onto boats with their children and risking their lives on the open seas, but it is opposed by those opposite.
The question that Australians must ask is: why is this policy opposed by those opposite? Unfortunately, it is also opposed by the Greens. But it is opposed by those opposite because their leader wants to be seen as tough on this issue, because their leader cannot bring himself to agree with the policy put forward by the Australian Labor Party. Never mind any of the advice or support that the policy has from the experts in the field, never mind the fact that the policy might actually work; it is simply opposed because it has been put forward by the Australian Labor Party—and that opposition is leading to the deaths of vulnerable people on our seas.
At a time when we should be putting behind us the petty bickering that goes on in this place, at a time when we should be rising above politics on this issue, we are not. A solution to the incidence of the death of vulnerable children and asylum seekers is just another political debate for the Leader of the Opposition. The policy of the Australian Labor Party is to be opposed at all cost. This is just sad. Is it any wonder that Australians are losing faith in their political leaders and that their faith in this parliament is ever diminishing?
When the Tampa arrived on our shores over a decade ago, it caused a national and political crisis in this country. Our political leaders—the government and the opposition—were forced to confront the issue. The government of the day, the Howard government, developed a policy to deal with that crisis. But the difference between that circumstance and this circumstance is that Mr Howard dealt with that issue and that crisis with the full support of the opposition of the day. He had the full support of the Leader of the Australian Labor Party, Kim Beazley, and his party. This was despite the fact that the Howard government solution was inconsistent with Labor Party policy. This was despite the fact that many members of the Australian Labor Party opposed the compromise that was reached by the then Leader of the Opposition, Kim Beazley. This was also despite the fact that many Australian Labor Party members of parliament opposed the compromise that was reached at the time.
The leader of the Australian Labor Party and of Her Majesty's opposition at the time put the interests of the nation above politics, put the lives of vulnerable people above politics and reached a bipartisan moral road to settlement on that issue. That was the way in which the Australian Labor Party conducted itself in opposition when dealing with a crisis in immigration policy. It is in stark contrast to those opposite, who are again seeking to play politics with this issue, simply because it is a policy put forward by the Australian Labor Party. It is sad that the Leader of the Opposition and those opposite cannot show the same bipartisanship and the same leadership that was shown by the then leader of the Australian Labor Party, Kim Beazley. Their actions, unfortunately, weaken our democracy and the faith of the Australian people in this parliament.
This government would prefer that it did not have to develop a Malaysia plan. We would prefer that we did not have to negotiate this policy with our regional partners; but, unfortunately, the fact is that we do need to do that. There is a crisis in this area and we must provide an effective deterrent to the product that people smugglers are selling. This is the only way to save lives. I again say to the Greens that I know they believe their policy on onshore processing is a humanitarian one, but the fact is it will not stop the unsafe boat journeys; it will not stop people smugglers selling trips on boats to Australia. One child drowning is one child too many. We have to provide an effective deterrent, and the Malaysia plan is the only credible effective deterrent negotiated in concert with our regional partners that this government has put forward. That is the advice of the experts in this field. That is the advice of Andrew Metcalfe, the former Secretary of the Department of Immigration and Citizenship, a person who has been described by the former immigration minister herself, Amanda Vanstone, as a first-class public servant. That is the advice of many who work in the field.
I do not doubt the opposition's passion on this issue and I do not doubt their belief, but I do dispute their belief that the executive government should not have the support to implement a policy that this government believes will work. Support was given to the then government almost a decade ago with Kim Beazley as the Leader of the Opposition. We believe that our policy is an effective deterrent and that it will work.
In conclusion, Tony Abbott is a surf lifesaver. He makes much political mileage from wearing the budgie smugglers and the red-and-yellow cap. It is time for Tony Abbott to show some of the spirit of surf lifesaving—to agree to compromise and negotiate to stop vulnerable people, particularly children, drowning at sea and to give serious consideration to the Malaysia plan.