Wednesday, 15 August 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 Gillard Government's acceptance of the Coalition's policy of offshore processing of asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Island and the continuing need for the Government to implement the full suite of the Coalition's successful 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.
This particular acceptance represents for the government, and for the now Prime Minister Ms Gillard, a most disappointing reversal and embarrassment. But it is all the fault of one person—that is, the Prime Minister herself.
It was as shadow minister that Ms Gillard came up with the now infamous statement, 'Another boat, another policy failure.' Very rarely did she or her staff ever have to trouble the press gallery with that particular statement. More importantly, it was during the period in which the Hon. Philip Ruddock was the minister that he invited and subsequently took then shadow minister Ms Gillard to Nauru, where she had every opportunity to observe for herself the success of the program instituted by the coalition in response to a need. The coalition then, as the coalition now, had and has a plan to stop the boats.
Worse than that, then Deputy Prime Minister Gillard was part of a group that dismantled a policy that was working. There is nothing worse in the Australian democratic system than to have ideology replace good policy; it inevitably comes back to bite you, and it has on this occasion. Since I began working in this chamber, early in 2009, this side of the chamber has suffered the scorn, disdain and ridicule of what was a successful coalition policy by the now government. They have to eat humble pie, because they were the makers of that pie and they were the bakers of that pie.
When she became the Prime Minister of this country, it was Ms Gillard who said that one of her key priorities was to fix up border protection. We know that she has not. She has lost control of our borders; a fundamental priority for the Prime Minister of any country. Six weeks ago, she outsourced—fortunately to an eminent group of three consultants—the job of advising her, because her own ministers could not and she did not accept the advice of the coalition. This is advice that we have been so often willing to provide to the government. I believe our leader, Mr Abbott, has suggested on more than 100 occasions the very solution that now is being proposed for this place. As our then coalition Prime Minister Mr Howard said, 'We will decide who comes to this country.'
We have not yet got the full restoration of the policy that worked for Australia and worked for genuine refugees. That is a three-plank policy. The first plank is the use of Nauru and Manus Island, which of course now the government, embarrassedly, has had to come back to ask us to accept, and I believe it is the intention that the coalition will. The second and third are temporary protection visas and a policy to turn the boats back when it is safe to so do. These form the three planks of the policy. In the absence of the second two we cannot be confident that we are actually going to see a successful outcome.
Air Vice Marshal Houston and his team have indicated that they agree with the concept of turning the boats back when it is prudent to do so. The Sri Lankan government has even pleaded with this government to do the same thing. We would say the same. We know that naval personnel support that particular element.
What has happened as a result of five years of the failure of this government to continue a policy of the coalition which worked? The first, of course, has been the regrettable death of at least 600 people drowned at sea that we know about. Of course, there are probably more than that and there may be more than those into the future, particularly as on a daily basis those boats are putting to sea in the middle of winter.
The second has been a massive cost blow-out at a time when the budget can ill afford the blowing out of costs as a result of other profligate spending by this Labor government and its mismanagement. The third is a loss of confidence by the Australian community, and gross embarrassment in the Australian community, in what has become a laughing stock internationally—our border protection policy. And in so doing, of course, making fools of the Australian Navy—it now being said throughout the Asian region that the Australian Navy has become the people-smugglers' taxi service. Who can be proud of that sort of criticism in the region? Yet it is this government that has led to that level of embarrassment.
Lastly but not least is the fact that genuine refugees as a result of this mismanagement of the Labor government have been left to rot in refugee camps around the world at a time when, as we know, they should have been coming into this country under our very, very generous refugee program. Recent surveys point to the concern by Australians that we want to see people come through the right and correct channels. It has been this failure to do so that has caused so much concern. (Time expired)
I rise this afternoon to contribute to this debate as well. I guess the one thing I agree with Senator Back on is the eminence of the group of those who made up the panel to bring about an end to this particular situation that we have had, and we have had it for many years. Even under the coalition there were issues with boat arrivals, so it is not a case of being solely an issue that this government has had to deal with.
When you look at the report there are certainly signposts that indicate the problems in dealing with this particular issue. One is the range of disincentives to discourage irregular and dangerous maritime travel to Australia. If we put a stop to that we have done our job as a parliament. I am pleased that the coalition has finally seen through the opportunity to come on board—
rather than being belligerent, like they have been over the last several years, and come to a compromise with us, as we have had to compromise as well.
Senator Brandis interjecting—
You do not have your TPVs or your 'turn back the boats' policies, either, Senator Brandis, so do not worry about that. You go on about your three-pillar policy; you should really read the evidence around the issues associated with turning boats back. I will get to that in a minute, because there are major issues in turning boats back. It is not as simple as Abbott picking up the phone—that was the policy of Mr Abbott some years ago: claiming that he could pick up some phone and decide on how a captain of a patrol boat should operate dealing with illegal immigrants. Instead of individuals reaching out for help, the coalition sees desperate asylum seekers as figures, statistics and numbers they can flaunt in the media.
Senator Jacinta Collins interjecting—
That is correct, Senator Collins. This is exactly what their policy on turning the boats back is. Turning boats around is unsafe. I note that the member for Cook claimed in his opening address on this that Air Vice Marshal Houston has 'belled the cat'. What a load of nonsense. There is no cat that has been belled in this outcome of our government compromising on a solution to stop asylum seekers boarding dangerous ships and travelling to our shores. There has been a litany of examples provided at Senate estimates. I know Senator Brandis as a conscientious senator appears at many of the Senate estimates, at the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee, and raises many issues along with many of the other senators opposite us here. I am sure they have heard the evidence that has been provided by the public servants from many of the departments and also the Chief of Navy of the risks of turning boats back on our seas. I will get to some of those risks in a short while.
In September last year Minister Bowen explained in the Australian three reasons why the coalition's policy of turning around boats was not viable. First of all was that Indonesia did not support it. That has been a position that Indonesia has taken for some time. We have built up a healthy dialogue with that particular country and with that government and we know that if this policy were enforced by the coalition our relationship with Indonesia would be jeopardised to the extent that our relationship would deteriorate. It is only as a result of this government building up that rapport with that country that we have been able to address some of the issues around boat arrivals. We have sent people over there to address particular problems, supplied machinery in maritime assistance and provided education to address some of the issues associated with boats coming to our shores. As for the Indonesians, Brigadier General Agung Sabar Santoso of the national police said:
It will certainly affect relations if (Australia) turns boats away …
He also said:
We don't want them to die at sea. You can imagine that there are children and women as well.
We have experienced those sad situations where there have, unfortunately, been deaths at sea. Here we have the Indonesians concurring with that position—that turning back the boats will not work.
The second major issue, as I mentioned before, is that it is unsafe. We do not want to see people injured and we definitely do not want to see people lose their lives at sea. That also goes for our brave men and women aboard the Armidale class patrol boats. I have personally been on one of those boats, up in Darwin in 2009, and have seen the good work they do. I know, Senator Humphries, you have done a lot of parliamentary defence programs as well, probably as many as I have—
and it is a great opportunity to understand what our men and women have concerns about in turning boats back. In fact, Senator Humphries, on that same trip I was on, one of your opposition lower house members asked, quite rightly, whether it would work. The response he got was, 'No, it won't work, because we know from history that it's unsafe.'
The report of the Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers explained some of the issues associated with it when you were in government. There were about 12 interceptions, and eight of those occasions could be termed 'miserable excuses for a success'. On four of those eight occasions, asylum-seeker boats were successfully intercepted and escorted or towed back to international waters, in the direction of Indonesian territorial waters. Although successful, those four operations included the following incidents: on two occasions, Royal Australian Navy personnel had to undertake repairs to the boat engines in order to be able to turn back those boats; and, on the other two occasions, asylum seekers jumped overboard. Is that the situation you want, where our Royal Australian Navy personnel have to repair the engines of boats that have been damaged as a result of these asylum seekers being so desperate to be rescued, to come to our shores, that they then—the second point made in the panel report—jump overboard? Let us not forget the unfortunate situation that occurred in Darwin, where asylum seekers set fire to boats. That is the sort of desperate thing that occurs when you send that message, 'Let's turn the boats back.' It does not work.
On the other four occasions out of the eight interceptions, either the boats became unseaworthy at some point during the interception or turn-back operation, or non-compliant behaviour by the asylum seekers made the attempt unsustainable, and those asylum seekers ended up at Christmas Island anyway. That is the evidence from the past on this policy of turning boats back—your three planks of policy. It just does not work. When are you going to get it? I do not think you will ever get it.
Then you went to temporary protection visas. Let us have a look at what happened. Let us look at the truth and shine a light on what you guys failed to do. You made out that TPVs were this golden way to stop people coming here. Well, they did not stop people coming here. They did not stop the boats; they did not turn them around. The number of women and children getting onto boats actually increased when you introduced TPVs, and the restrictions that these visas imposed on asylum seekers were unjust and hindered their ability to carry out normal lives. In fact, former immigration minister Chris Evans said in 2008:
Under the unjust regime set up by the previous government, unauthorised arrivals who were owed protection under Australia’s international obligations were only eligible for TPVs in the first instance.
It meant that refugees had no travel rights, reduced access to refugee settlement services such as English language programs, employment and income assistance, and could not be reunited with other family members.
Minister Evans also said:
The Temporary Protection visa was one of the worst aspects of the Howard government’s punitive treatment of refugees, many of whom had suffered enormously before fleeing to Australia.
This is clear evidence that the TPV arrangements did nothing to prevent unauthorised boat arrivals. In fact, illegal arrival numbers increased not long after the regime was introduced. Furthermore, if you want to know what happened as a result, as Peter van Onselen said in the Australian, the paper that those opposite often rely on, on 26 June 2012:
More than 95 per cent—
that is 95 per cent—
of TPV holders who were irregular maritime arrivals went on to get a permanent visa to live in Australia.
That is also reflected in the Houston report, so you cannot deny that. Once again, you need to study the evidence to make sure what you are saying actually occurred. (Time expired)
Australians woke up one morning this week to find that their government had had an epiphany. After 10½ years of the ALP telling anyone who would listen, preaching to the Australian people, that the Pacific solution was inhumane and that Nauru and Manus Island were expensive, ineffective tools in deterring people-smuggling, they changed their minds. It will not come as a surprise to anybody here that, over those 10½ years, the Labor Party made those points with very little subtlety.
I have a wealth of examples of the ALP lording it over the then coalition government, and saying with moral superiority, 'You guys have got it wrong; we've got it right.' The then immigration spokesperson for the Labor Party, Julia Gillard, said in May 2004:
Labor will end the so-called Pacific solution—the processing and detaining of asylum seekers on Pacific islands—because it is costly, unsustainable and wrong as a matter of principle.
In 2008, Chris Evans, the immigration minister, said:
The Pacific solution was a cynical, costly and ultimately unsuccessful exercise …
Stephen Smith, the shadow minister for immigration in 2004, said:
The Pacific solution is now a ridiculously expensive farce, and the government should end it immediately.
So that was the language of the Labor Party over those 10½ or 11 years. They were full of self-righteousness. We were lectured; we were hectored by the Labor Party. Labor promised a better way. In May 2002 Senator Lundy said:
Labor is committed to developing a comprehensive and lasting solution …
Madam Acting Deputy President, six—count them—'comprehensive and lasting solutions' later under this government and this week the Australian Labor Party admitted that none of those solutions had actually worked, that none of them had been effective in turning back the boats, and that they are now back to the original solution that they had inherited but which they had dumped in 2008 because they did not like it philosophically. It was wrong as a matter of principle, Ms Gillard told us. But this week they told us—rather ungraciously—that they were wrong, that in effect they had been wrong for the past 10½ years.
Labor have had an epiphany. Of course Australians are used to the Labor Party having epiphanies from time to time. In fact, as a government they have made a career of having epiphanies. But this was one that the Australian people welcomed because rather than taking something away, removing a promise that they had made—'No carbon tax under a government I lead' et cetera—they were finally giving something back to the Australian people. They were giving back to them a solution which actually worked in preventing the arrival of unauthorised boats on our northern shores. People realised Labor had thrashed about hopelessly, aimlessly for four years with this unsustainable succession of policies—six different policies on my count—that saw the arrival of 386 boats, 22½ thousand people, 2,600 of them in this financial year—that is, the last six weeks alone! People realised that something had to change and finally, in the light of overwhelming evidence, it is changing.
But of course those 22½ thousand people who arrived were the lucky ones because the biggest toll of Labor's chaotic border policy was not the billions of dollars wasted on this incredibly expensive policy, it was not the embarrassment of Australia having to go cap in hand to nations around the region saying, 'Please, be our regional partner,' with a complete lack of success, it was not the total collapse of public confidence in Australia's humanitarian resettlement program; it was the deaths at sea. At least 500 people, it could be as many as 1,000 people, have died at sea.
And even while those deaths were occurring literally on television screens in front of Australians, Labor still were unwilling to grasp the obvious solution sitting there in front of them—the one that had worked, the one that had stopped the boats, the one that they pretended could not be applied but today they admit can be. Of course it must have been applied and was capable of being applied in the past. They could not adopt it because, horror of horrors, that would have meant saying that John Howard must have been right in applying the Pacific solution. It was worth letting people die at sea rather than make that terrible, terrible admission.
Here is the irony: we were told time and again that the Pacific solution was inhumane, but today we are returning to the Pacific solution because it is the most humane of all of the solutions that have been attempted in the last decade to prevent people making unsafe journeys in small, unseaworthy boats across the Timor Sea. It is the most humane solution, the one least likely to lead to deaths at sea.
Senator Thistlethwaite yesterday suggested that this debate was going to go away now that the government had finally adopted the obvious Nauru solution, but they have not adopted the full suite of Howard government solutions and I suspect this issue will not go away because this is not the complete solution to the boat arrival problem. Until the government accept that others have a better idea of what to do in this matter than they do, they still have this monkey well and truly around their neck.
My, how times have changed. What is so different to the days of Malcolm Fraser and Paul Keating? Even during the Howard years, the then opposition leader Kim Beazley continued that policy of bipartisanship: the policy of cooperation on migration that had previously existed between governments and oppositions for many, many years. Many in the Labor Party did not support Kim Beazley's action in supporting the Howard plan on asylum seekers, but it was supporting a bipartisan approach.
The successful Fraser government's Indochina refugee program would not have been possible without the cooperation of refugee transit countries such as Malaysia. The same is true today. Not the simplistic, go it alone approach of the coalition as they repeat their mantra over and over again: Nauru, temporary protection visas, turn the boats back. One-liners derived from focus groups and dog whistling do not add up to a refugee policy.
Meanwhile, the coalition hang onto their delusion that the Pacific solution stopped the boats under Howard. On the other hand, the Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers was asked to help present a solution after the intransigence of the coalition.
There was no point of order on that. I know they do not like to hear the realities of having any sorts of policies on that side. Six weeks ago there was absolutely no doubt that the coalition had no intention of, or in fact was capable of, any compromise. The government does not want people to continue to drown at sea. These deaths are completely unacceptable. The government has been and is prepared to compromise to get a solution in place to stop the unnecessary drowning of desperate people.
If we compare the flow of asylum seekers to the OECD countries and to Australia in the years 2000 to 2009 it is quite clear that the flows of asylum seekers in Australia followed very closely those to other OECD countries.
It is clear that the major reason for the fall of asylum seeker numbers in the early period of the Howard government was not its policies but a decline in the number of asylum seekers in the world. When world refugee numbers rose again after the mid-2000s, so did the numbers coming to Australia. The Howard government's policies had only a marginal impact on the total number of asylum seekers coming to Australia.
All but 45 of the 1,637 asylum seekers incarcerated in Nauru who were found to be refugees then gained residence in Australia or New Zealand. TPVs were introduced in 1999, but had no effect during the next few years. Not until the international decline in asylum seeker numbers began to occur was there a reduction in boat arrivals in Australia. Let us put the facts on the table. The link between boat arrivals and TPVs is a figment of the imagination of the coalition. When was Tampa? Certainly not in 1999.
However, one consequence of temporary protection visas was that the number of women and children arriving on boats after the introduction of TPVs increased from 25 per cent to 40 per cent. Just because two things appear to occur at a similar time does not mean they are linked. The conditions necessary for effective, lawful and safe turn back of irregular vessels carrying asylum seekers to Australia are not currently in place. In fairness, those conditions might change but that would require Indonesian agreement. Has that been addressed by the coalition? I do not think so.
The report of the Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers was asked to help present a solution after the intransigence of the coalition. The government and the Australian community do not want people to continue to drown at sea. These deaths are completely unacceptable. The committee's integrated plan has made 22 recommendations. The plan states quite clearly that achieving a regional cooperation framework on protection and asylum issues is 'fundamentally important', a central focus of this report. This requires domestic policies that enjoy broad-based support and that are sustainable over time. That is, regional engagement that is not limited to countries party to the refugee conventions; with no advantage gained by people who circumvent regular migration pathways; enhanced asylum and protection opportunities; involvement of international organisations, NGOs and civil society. It already sounds like the Pacific solution.
The plan continues that Australia's humanitarian program be increased immediately to 20,000 places per annum with a minimum of 12,000 places in the refugee component of the program and that consideration be given to increasing the program to around 27,000 within five years. Furthermore, the program should be more focused on asylum-seeker flow moving from source countries into South-East Asia and 4,000 additional places should be provided to the family stream per annum to alleviate pressures caused by more applications, and specifically allocated to family of humanitarian visa holders. The government should expand relevant regional capacity-building initiatives by doubling the current allocation from $70 million to $140 million. The Malaysia arrangements should be built on rather than be discarded or neglected and this be should achieved through high level bilateral engagement focused on strengthening protections and accountability as a positive basis for the Australian parliament's recommendations for new necessary legislation.
Indonesia is key to any program. The plan recommends that bilateral cooperation on asylum seeker issues with Indonesia be advanced as a matter of urgency. These include: allocation of an increased number of humanitarian program resettlement places for Indonesia; enhanced cooperation on joint surveillance and response patrols, law enforcement and search and rescue coordination, and changes to Australian law in relation to Indonesian minors and others crewing unlawful boat voyages from Indonesia to Australia. Cooperation and collaboration are also critical parts of the plan.
This is an integrated plan that aims to be inclusive of our region. While Australia may be a desired settlement country, this is an issue for our region and the globe. However, the obsessive desire for an election is the likely explanation for the loss of bipartisanship. Maybe we have some insight into the impasse that has existed for months and years.
On 10 December 2010, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that:
A 'key Liberal Party strategist' told a US diplomat in Canberra in November last year, that the issue of asylum seekers was 'fantastic' for the Coalition and 'the more boats that come the better'.
That 'key Liberal Party strategist' could not have been more explicit about the political game that is being played.
Rather than asking for an apology from the Prime Minister, who has bent over backwards to arrange a compromise, the coalition should be apologising for its intransigence which has lead to the current situation. But, as we know on so many policy areas, the opposition have one policy and that is all. This is to say 'no' to good government legislation and 'no' to good policy. All they are really interested in is trying to get to an election. The reality is that, when you are in opposition, you have a responsibility to this country. The responsibility in cases like this is to have cooperation and to put the welfare of the nation and refugees before the opposition's own political gain. When the government's legislation comes from the other place, we will see that the Labor government's position and the position of the coalition are like 'chalk and cheese.'
In the long term we have the responsibility to put Australia first. We have to compromise. We have been prepared to do that. But no, those in the opposition are only interested in gaining political points that they see. They are not interested in resolving this issue, because they, for their own perverted reasons, see it as a winner for them to keep people at sea, to try to turn around these boats that are not fit to be turned around. We have heard very good one-liners from Mr Abbott, 'Yes, we have got to stop the boats.' The reality is you have come to the table, you have to compromise and you have to put other people's interests ahead of your own political gains. Senator Brandis, you can shake your head, but the people will judge you accordingly.
Can I start with Senator Polley's words about turning the boats back. Let me quote the now Prime Minister, Ms Julia Gillard. The Australian people must also be wondering what is going on when the Prime Minister, and people like Senator Polley, are saying today, 'You can't turn the boats back,' when in 2002, when Ms Gillard was in opposition, she said:
And we think turning boats around that are seaworthy, that can make the return journey and are in international waters, fits in with that.
Ms Gillard was saying turning the boats around, when it was safe to do so, fits in. Of course, prior to the 2007 election, the then opposition leader Mr Rudd, the politically decapitated Mr Rudd, said, 'Turn the boats back when safe to do so.' So we have got the now current Prime Minister saying that, we have got the former, politically decapitated Prime Minister, Mr Rudd, saying the same, and now we have got these people saying, 'No, you can't do that.'
This whole asylum seeker industry has become one big tragedy. Last Saturday week I was with the deputy opposition leader, the Hon. Julie Bishop, up in the New England area at Tenterfield, a great place where Henry Parkes and others sat down to help establish the Federation. It is the birthplace of Peter Allen. It was very interesting as I showed Ms Bishop around Henry Parkes's museum there. He was an interesting man—he had three wives and 18 children and obviously had quite an exciting life. What a great contribution he made to our nation. But Ms Bishop was telling us that when the Labor government was elected in 2007 there were just four people in detention centres in Australia. Just four! And then, in August 2008, the then Prime Minister Mr Rudd at the request of the previous opposition immigration minister Ms Julia Gillard said, 'We will change the rules. We will do away with the Pacific solution,' a solution that the Howard government had brought in under the careful guidance of the Hon. Mr Philip Ruddock. The coalition had a problem and found a solution. This government had the solution and you turned it into a disastrous problem. What have we seen? More than 20,000 asylum seekers have arrived since August 2008. We have seen 386 boats. At the last election—you would remember it well, Madam Acting Deputy President Boyce—the then Prime Minister Ms Gillard said, 'We will do a deal with East Timor.' She told all of Australia, 'We will do a deal with East Timor.' It was just that she did not happen to tell East Timor. So then it was, 'We will do a deal with Malaysia.' It was not a very good deal: 'You take 800 of our asylum seekers and we will take 4,000 of your refugees.' Eight hundred for 4,000—that is not a very good deal either. Of course, the High Court put an end to the so-called solution that the Gillard government had in relation to asylum seekers. It was the end of that when the High Court handed down its decision. So now we see the government, under the Houston recommendations, adopting Nauru. I do not know how many times Mr Abbott has said it.
How many times did Mr Abbott say, 'Pick up the phone to Nauru'? Hopefully, the facility will be back in working condition soon. Hopefully, those people who traffic in human beings for money, putting their lives at risk, will be brought to a stop. Some 22,000 people have come to this country seeking asylum on boats since the introduction of this government. Some figures say four per cent of these people lose their lives. We are talking 800-900 people may have drowned at sea making this dangerous journey to our country. That industry must be shut down.
I am very fortunate to live in a beautiful country town where we have refugees from Sudan who have come to our town and become established there. They are really good people. One lady came there with four children. Her husband was murdered. I think her brother was also murdered. She got a life again, a new start in a lovely country town like Inverell, where the people have made them most welcome, where they are good citizens and where their children are being educated, getting work and going off to university. That is an ideal result—looking after those in refugee camps, those who are threatened, not those who are paying their way to come here. I find it amazing when we see boatloads of people coming and seeking asylum and they are all men. The boat is full of men. What, the women and their children are not seeking asylum? What is going on here? These are the people paying to come here. The industry must be stopped. I think it is certainly good that the government has now adopted the Nauru solution. It has worked before; it will work again. I know this is embarrassing for members of the government who have resisted this in arrogance for so long. But now we are getting steps that hopefully lead to this industry being shut down—lives will be saved and we can continue our compassionate settlement of proper refugees.
This is a very important debate. What we have seen in the last day or so is a complete backflip by the ALP government against the policy they had when they came to office of reversing the very successful coalition measures which stopped the flow of refugees and reduced to a trickle the number of people coming to Australia by unconventional means. Those measures were the provision of temporary protection visas and, of course, the Nauru solution, under which people who came to Australia by boat were taken to Nauru, where they were offered the opportunity of assessment and, in due course, relocation to a recipient country if they proved to be genuine refugees.
The coalition has always argued that the full suite of measures that stopped the boats, including offshore processing in Nauru and temporary protection visas, should be reimplemented if the flood of boats was to be stopped, and we are very pleased that at long last the ALP has seen the wisdom of our policies and has decided to reinstate at least the policy of relocating people to Nauru. I am quite sure that within a short period of time, if common sense prevails, we will see that temporary protection visas are also put in place. Under these, people are offered a temporary protection visa—literally—which means they can stay in Australia while there is a problem at home and, when and if that problem is resolved, they are sent back to where they have come from. That practice was used in the case of the Kosovar problem, when the Kosovar refugees came here. It was also used in the case of East Timor when a large number of East Timorese came to Darwin and, in due course, when the situation East Timor was resolved, they were sent back to East Timor.
The most important point to make about what has happened in the last 24 hours is that the Howard government's highly successful asylum seeker policy, developed over 11 long years in power, has at long last been seen by the ALP to be a reasonable and respectable policy that was in fact very effective. When the coalition left office, just four people who had arrived illegally by boat were in detention—just four people. In a joint media release by parliamentary colleagues last Thursday, Scott Morrison and Michael Keenan pointed out that the largest single boatload of illegal asylum seekers had arrived the night before. It brought to 379 the total number of boats that have come to Australia since the Labor government came to office and the total number of people to more than 22,000. Some 7,500 refugees have come to our shores on boats this year alone. That amounts to one boat a day under the ALP government. Yet, in the last five years of the Howard government, just 18 boats arrived—one boat every 101 days, not one boat a day. That is an important statistic to dwell on.
When the Pacific solution was in place, between 2001 and 2008, 1,637 boat people were processed on Nauru and Manus islands, and I am pleased that, at long last, the Gillard has seen the value of this approach—albeit belatedly and on the advice of the Houston committee. I was very surprised that the government accepted the findings and advice of the Houston committee so willingly. I suspected that they would find flaws in whatever it was that Houston recommended. I think it just shows that at last they have looked back at the Howard years, have seen how successful the Howard policies were, have decided that common sense should prevail and that policies that worked under the government of John Howard should work again so that this terrible saga of people coming across the seas from Java to Christmas and Cocos islands and to Ashmore reef—with sometimes whole boatloads of people dying when the boats sink—will come to an end.
This is a good opportunity to speak to Senator Fifield's MPI. The MPI is exactly the reason why it has been so difficult to make genuine progress in this matter. The government's decision is to work through the recommendations of the expert panel—not, as Senator Fifield has suggested, to implement the full suite of the coalition's policies. For far too long, we watched desperate people drown at sea while all sides of politics—senators and members—drew lines in the sand, dug in our toes and announced what we were not prepared to do. The intention was to be strong, but inflexibility actually weakened us and locked us into a stalemate position that, as the Prime Minister has said, has gone on long enough.
The fact is that good leaders do get things done. We want to move forward on this difficult, complex issue. We are prepared to make compromises. And that is why we welcome the advice of the expert panel and are prepared to work through their recommendations. I would like to see Senator Fifield and his colleagues take a much more positive approach—a genuinely bipartisan approach—to this problem rather than keeping us stalled in discussion over the same old ground while they all talk about adopting the old coalition policy holus-bolus. Compromise actually involves every one of us revisiting our positions—each one of us, individually.
My colleagues know that I have spoken quite passionately here about my personal preference for onshore processing. But I have to say that, in reading the Houston review and thinking about the issue again, I have come to see that the difference between onshore and offshore is simply symbolic. What really matters is the how not where the asylum seekers are being processed. If while they are being assessed and their application is being processed they are treated generously with regard to such things as freedom of movement, food, medical treatment and education, then it really does not matter if this happens on the mainland or offshore.
In deciding to establish processing centres on Nauru and PNG as a matter of urgency, we are actually signalling our willingness to move forward, to climb out of what has been a pretty awful political stalemate, and to take some action. As I said, good leaders get things done. Instead of looking backwards, as the opposition members have asked us to do, they need to be looking forward as well and working with us to implement the expert panel's recommendations.
So they can forget about the full suite of their policy. Senator Fifield can be assured that we certainly have no intention of sending boats back. As the expert panel make clear to everybody, that is not an option. It is not humane; it is unsafe—people smugglers sink the boats; and, in fact, the Indonesian government does not support it either. Senator Fifield can also be sure that we will not adopt their policy of indefinite detention in conditions that have caused so many Australians to speak out. Our intention is to establish processing centres that respect the asylum seekers' humanity while, at the same time, pursuing in a spirit of fairness the principle that those who come to Australia by irregular migration arrangements are not privileged above those who use regular methods.
As Anabelle Crabb reminded us in The Drum, motives are important here. We are motivated by a sense of compassion, a sense of responsibility and a sense of fairness to the people who arrive on these boats, the people who seek asylum via more regular channels and the Australian people that they want to join. We are not naive. We know that working out how to effect procedure that is both humane and fair will be difficult and will take time and that, with so many people in search of a new country of residence, the problem will be an ongoing one. That is why we welcome help in the process from experts such as the UNHCR and from the coalition, the Greens and the Independent members of the parliament who, as representatives of Australia, have a responsibility to work towards a solution to this crisis in our region.
The Houston report recommends that the humanitarian intake be increased—and I know that was not part of the opposition's policy, either. But I certainly invite Senator Fifield and his colleagues to reconsider and to support the government as it works through this and the other recommendations over the coming months. Simply declaring that 'It's my way or the highway' is irresponsible. The expert panel has endorsed some parts of the opposition's policy and some parts of the government's policy. But, frankly, it is in the interests of all Australians that the opposition should turn its focus from inaction to action and support the legislation recommended by the expert panel.