Thursday, 16 August 2012
Migration Legislation Amendment (Regional Processing and Other Measures) Bill 2012; Second Reading
I will continue my remarks on this week's developments for improving Australia's border protection, and in particular my visit in 2002 to both Manus Island and Nauru in the presence of the now Prime Minister.
I am staggered that despite having been and seen the success of offshore processing herself in 2002, the Prime Minister and her government have been slow, reckless and belligerent in returning to policies that have clearly worked. A decade ago this Prime Minister saw for herself the success of these policies when she visited Manus Island and Nauru. Her views of what she saw are for every Australian to see. The Age newspaper reported on 6 February 2002:
On Sunday, Ruddock and his Labor counterpart, Julia Gillard, visited the base, free of any prying media.
Yesterday, both were united in their praise of the facility. To the surprise of some of her colleagues, Gillard went out of her way to declare that she saw nothing wrong with how things were operating.
On the same day the Canberra Times stated:
She said people had shelter, health care, adequate food, …
Not surprisingly, she commented that conditions were tough and that there needed to be more attention to the adequacy of schooling for children. So how can the Prime Minister not feel deeply, deeply ashamed that 10 years ago she witnessed firsthand a policy setting that she has now agreed to endorse?
The tardiness of her handling of this issue has come at considerable cost: not just the $4.7 billion cost to the Australian taxpayer but the 22,000 illegal boat arrivals, the almost 400 illegal boats and, most tragically, with the loss of almost 1,000 lives at sea. After a catastrophic policy failure only now has the Prime Minister finally seen a better path—a path that was not hidden from her, but one that she saw firsthand for herself 10 years ago in 2002 when she visited Manus Island and Nauru.
I am afraid to say that the newsletter of the Socialist Left of February 2002 was prophetic in its commentary on Labor's border protection policies. It said, 'Labor's indecision on the border protection bill exposed a policy-on-the-run approach and a lack of leadership. A sorrier story of policy failure mixed with political self-preservation we have not ever seen.'
This legislation is not perfect, nor is it a complete remedy for Australia's border protection dilemma, but it is a necessary first step. The next steps must be the imposition of temporary protection visas and turning back the boats when it is safe to do so.
I welcome this move towards offshore processing. This has indeed been part of the coalition policy agenda for over 10 years. But what the government has done here this week is simply not enough. The government must implement all the coalition's proven measures in order to establish an effective policy against people smugglers and illegal boat arrivals.
What we have here today is a one-legged stool. It has the beginnings of a functional object, but without the other legs it will never be stable or effective. Unfortunately, that is something that this government is good at doing—not being stable or effective.
In contrast to the disarray of Labor I am proud to be part of a party that has consistently supported good border protection policy and opposed bad border protection policy. Year after year we have stood firm in pursuing the policies that worked in deterring the people smugglers' trade, but I cannot say the same for this Labor government. They have backflipped and flip-flopped to such an extent that I wonder whether they know which way is up these days. Let us just have a look at their track record.
In opposition, the Prime Minister supported turning back the boats. Three years ago she said that turning back the boats was a shallow slogan. Now she seems to support a virtual turnaround of the boats. In opposition, the Prime Minister talked of temporary protection visas as part of Labor's policy; now her government does not support temporary protection visas. The number of empty words from the Prime Minister and her colleagues is simply astounding. Those on the Labor side should indeed hang their heads in shame at the intransigence of the last four years.
Just look at the damage and tragedies that have occurred: over 22,000 illegal arrivals on 386 boats; an increase in the people-smuggling trade that puts people's lives at risk day after day after day; a $4.7 billion blowout—for those Australians who are actually listening to this, that is $4.7 billion of your taxpayer dollars being spent because of Labor's failures—and, tragically, there were hundreds—perhaps even thousands—of deaths at sea. In just four years, Labor has easily eclipsed the number of illegal boats and arrivals that came during the entire 12 years of the Howard government. Labor took a policy that was working and they created an enormous problem. They put their own ideological bent before the interests of this nation. Such a grievous error of judgement is simply unforgivable.
The travesty that Labor has allowed over the last four years is proof that this Prime Minister is not fit to hold the highest office in this land. Those on the other side of this chamber will eventually wake up to this fact, just as they have finally woken up to the fact that offshore processing on Nauru is important to stop the people smugglers' trade, just as they will wake up to the fact that temporary protection visas are a necessary element of stopping these boats and just as they will wake up to the fact that turning the boats back where it is safe to do so is also an essential part of effective border protection policy.
But we all know that Labor find it really difficult to recognise sensible policy. It is simply deplorable to deliberately trash established, sensible, effective policies in order to replace them with weak and futile attempts at ideological policy. We would not be here today trying to clean up this mess if the government had done the right thing and left the established policies as they were. We would not have had four years of an influx of boats, with thousands upon thousands of people paying people smugglers and risking their lives on a perilous journey, and we would not have had the hundreds—perhaps thousands—of deaths at sea.
However, finally the government have seen sense about how damaging their policy failures have been, with the flourishing of the people-smuggling trade and so many of these deaths. Yet, I regret to say, the delusional Greens party, championed by Senator Hanson-Young, continue with their cavalier attitude to protecting our borders and protecting asylum seekers from harm. This is perhaps best—or worst, I should say—summed up by a comment from Senator Hanson-Young just last year. When asked whether the Greens accepted any responsibility for the loss of life in the sinking of an asylum seeker boat off the coast of Java, she replied: 'Tragedies happen. Accidents happen.' That is hardly the compassionate view that the Greens constantly talk about. In this place I have seen Senator Hanson-Young cry her crocodile tears for the cameras while both she and her party blindly refuse to accept any responsibility for the dysfunctional nature of this country's border protection policies. They are just as culpable in this fiasco and this disaster as the government is.
Australians have every right to be outraged at the conduct of this government and their partners the Greens in respect of protecting Australia's borders. They also have every right to question the judgement and integrity of the Prime Minister and her government. But, in short, the buck does stop with the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister owes the people of Australia an apology. She should apologise for her perfidy. She should apologise for her mendacity. She can no longer hide behind the claim of being young and naive, as she has in the past. She now needs to do the honourable thing and resign or call an election.
Since coming to office, the Australian Labor Party and their allies the Greens have failed our country in two important public policy challenges. We all know what they are: first it was the carbon tax and second, of course, it was border protection. They are the two conspicuous failures from the government and from the Greens. The root cause of Labor's failure is, of course, the same. What is that? It is the conspicuous moral vanity of the Australian Labor Party. In both cases, the Labor Party and the Greens have put forward policies that are not in our national interest just so they can show the world—and most importantly, perhaps, themselves—that they really are morally superior. They are the ones with a conscience. They are the ones who are enlightened. They are the ones who are ethical. They are the ones who are superior. The coalition on the other hand, they argue, is ignorant, unenlightened, mean and morally bankrupt. That is the left-wing narrative. That is the narrative of the Greens and the Australian Labor Party. That is the narrative of the Gillard government and the Rudd government since 2007.
So the Labor Party and the Greens mortgage our national interest with the introduction of a carbon tax. They mortgage the competitiveness of our economy, the jobs of our children and the balance of our trade and introduce a carbon tax. Why? So that they can feel good about themselves and show the world how enlightened they really are. No-one actually believes that the carbon tax is in our national interest. The Labor Party and their allies the Greens do it anyway.
Then the Labor Party and the Greens do it again. They do the same thing with border protection. They mortgage our national interest, the security of our borders, the integrity of our immigration program and, indeed, even the broad support for the humanitarian and refugee program. That is all mortgaged by reversing the Howard government's successful Pacific solution. Our national interest is all mortgaged because the Labor government just could not bear to admit that the Howard government was not morally bankrupt. They just could not bear to admit it. We were morally bankrupt, but of course the Labor Party were all sweetness, light and morality! They just could not bear it. Instead the Labor Party and the Greens are willing to sacrifice the integrity of our borders and our migration program and create a dangerous, unsustainable policy—this was the aim—so they can tell the world how compassionate and enlightened they are and so they can feel good about themselves. That is why they do it. It was all very cosy—terribly, terribly cosy way up there on their high moral ground and their moral high horse—because from up there you could not even see people drowning.
'Houston, we have a problem,' says the Prime Minister. Finally, reality intrudes. The horrors become apparent. Even the Australian Labor Party can see there is a problem out there, and what do they do? They outsource their conscience to Air Chief Marshal Houston. That is what they did, and it was pathetic. Politics should not be a giant psychodrama just so Labor politicians and Greens politicians can feel good about themselves. Our country's national interest should not be subject to that psychodrama. Right now the government is having to eat their moral vanity as humble pie, and I suspect it will be a little hard to swallow.
I am indebted to the Australian for a report in the last few days on a mad snake virus which is affecting pythons in the US. It is causing them to tie themselves in knots and 'stargaze'. This mad snake virus is thought to be caused by rats and is being considered to be a mysterious new virus. I would like to suggest that in fact it has been a well-known virus affecting the Labor and Green parties of Australia for a long time and that it is only in the last few days that the Labor Party has finally worked out how to stop tying itself in knots and stop stargazing by accepting the sensible coalition suggestion of adopting what has in the past been a proven policy. Unfortunately, I do not think that we now have an antidote for mad snake virus. We have some concerns that going forward we have yet more problems to overcome with this policy that the government has finally seen fit to adopt.
It is concerning to see that the way they have gone about this has caused yet another deluge of people attempting to get to Australia by boat. It is concerning to see that people will initially be housed in tents. Certainly, if the government had accepted the coalition's view on using Nauru and Manus Island when they were first suggested two or three years ago, this would not have happened. We have had a very difficult period for everyone whilst the government was too proud, too affected, too virally unwell to see sense on migration. I am going to keep my remarks very brief because we are interested in getting this legislation passed and getting on with the job even though we apparently already have a mad-snake-type implementation of the legislation happening from this government.
I would also like to very briefly acknowledge another good point in the legislation other than the fact that it will re-establish offshore processing, and that is the significant improvement that the government will make to our humanitarian migrant intake. I think this is one of the most important ways of demonstrating to refugees and others seeking better lives for their families that this is the route to take to seek to come to Australia.
So I would like very much to support the legislation. We intend to move amendments to it, but the coalition supports the legislation and wants to support its rapid passage so that we can get past what has been a shameful stargazing effort from the government, manipulated by the Greens over the last 12 months.
I have only been a senator in the chamber for three sitting weeks, but I am learning a lot about government, parliamentarians and the responsibility that we all share. I reflect upon what is going through my mind sometimes when I come into the Senate chamber as someone who is new. I think about what people outside the big house may think when they see parliamentarians—I prefer to use that word rather than 'politicians'—on television. That is that perhaps we make decisions that might seem light and fluffy or frivolous at various times or that we somehow serve an administrative function, passing bills and legislation that may relate to the running of government. I can see clearly now the responsibility that goes with government.
All the decisions that we make affect people. Sometimes there may not be direct correlations with the decisions we make. There may be trickle-down effects or things may be fairly general. But I think this debate on refugees has a different human dimension. To me, the decisions we make in this parliament today on this legislation will not only directly impact people and their livelihoods but will also impact people who are probably in the least fortunate position to be put under even more psychological stress. For my feeling, all decisions we make in parliament are important but there is something very special about this debate today and the gravity of the decision we make.
I attended the cross-party refugee meeting on Monday with a number of my colleagues, and it occurred to me not just during that meeting but also in previous discussions with my fellow Greens senators and friends and family just what a complex problem this is that is facing Australia. It is a problem that is not going to go away. During that committee meeting we heard from a number of people who work with refugees. My position and the Greens' position of strength in this debate is from values based on the same values as those people who work with refugees. They are based on the same principles that those people who work with refugees adopt. Our position is based on the realities of what faces refugees. We have not taken this view for political purposes. We have taken this view after campaigning and working for a number of years with people who are on the ground and whose everyday lives are impacted by working with refugees. They see the angst, the destruction and the sadness. I think that is the Greens' position of strength here. It is a position based not on the broader political factors but on the reality of what is confronting us in that situation.
Earlier today Senator Hanson-Young talked about push factors. On Monday, the Refugee Council and Amnesty International discussed the potential push factors in Afghanistan when Western, NATO and allied troops are withdrawn from there in a few years time. We have discussed what has happened in Vietnam; it has been mentioned several times in several speeches. It has been made very clear that we possibly do not know what we will be in for in terms of the number of people who will be seeking political asylum here.
My question is: is this legislation a mistake from the point of view that we are picking on the most unfortunate people in the world when we are in such a fortunate situation? Also, is the solution we are putting in place today—the bill that will be tabled here—practical? Is it going to work? From a quick look at the numbers—and this was mentioned earlier by a coalition senator; I apologise that I have not learnt everybody's names yet—we have seen 22,000 people arrive since 2007. Last year alone, we saw 7,983 people arrive. From the best information that I can collect, Nauru can currently house 1,500 people and, at peak capacity, potentially 3,000 people. Manus Island, PNG, has a capacity to house 600 people. The nearly 8,000 people who have arrived in the last 12 months is a reflection of a future year—
Hopefully we won't. None of us want to see refugees getting onto boats and taking dangerous journeys. That is something we all share in common. If we are wrong on this and the numbers keep increasing, simple arithmetic says that both these places which are to house refugees will be quickly filled. The answer I got from people when I spoke to them about this issue was that this deterrent will work and the refugees will stop coming. No matter what your ideological view is on this issue, the reality of the situation is a lot more complex than that. It was also mentioned on Monday that problems are developing in Sri Lanka—the ongoing issues there with the Tamils. So it seems to me that a rational, logical person might question whether the boats will stop and whether this solution will be able to (a) house refugees and (b) process them. The Greens have asked for an amendment to limit the time refugees are in detention. That we consider putting a time limit on how long these people spend in detention seems entirely reasonable in managing the risks of this new legislation and what it will mean for these people's lives.
It is also reasonable to look at the costs associated with keeping people in detention. The establishment and operation of the regional processing capacity in Nauru in accommodating 1,500 people—so not at peak capacity—will cost between $1.2 billion and $1.4 billion over the forward estimates. The full establishment and operation of the regional processing capacity on Manus Island, PNG, in accommodating 600 people will cost in the order of $900 million over the forward estimates. Detaining people is expensive. I and the Greens would like to see more comprehensive economic work done on the costs of detention versus processing domestically. This is an issue that has got very little attention.
I was in the chamber when Senator Di Natale spoke last night. I was moved by his speech, as I was by Senator Hanson-Young's speech today. In that speech Senator Di Natale said, 'I think this is a mistake.' Have we sold the Australian public—and I use the word 'sold'—a quick-fix solution for this problem to go away? Do we want people to consider this legislation as a silver bullet to solve the problem? My concern is that, as parliamentarians, we have not managed the expectations of the Australian public. If we do see a continuation of boats—and, once again, I stress that we all hold the common belief that we do not want to see more refugees coming—and if we understand that the world is going to be wracked by conflict, then we can boil this problem down to its most basic cause and effect. It is simple human nature: this is not going to change. If we believe the climate change forecasts of disruption from extreme weather events such as drought and the projections of increased refugee numbers right around the world then I suspect how we manage this problem could be the single biggest issue facing this country over the next 100 years. Once again, it makes sense to me to say that this legislation is a quick-fix solution for a very complex problem. I wondered whether I would say this today but I do really want to say it: I doubt whether there is a solution to this problem. Looking at it every possible way, rationally, I am not sure how we can stop people in the future from coming to this country seeking asylum, seeking a better life, but I do know that claiming that this is a victory is stupid. We need to be a lot more grown-up about our debate, particularly in this chamber. There is blaming of the government, glib statements and politics when this issue is so serious—and I am speaking as someone who has only recently come into politics. It is not a good look for people outside the House who rely on us to make important decisions.
I want to comment on three other things that I feel are important. Firstly, there are the words 'border security'. What is it exactly that is a threat about poor, disadvantaged people, not carrying any weapons, from what I understand, and not intent on damaging our national infrastructure or hurting people in this country? What is the security threat from that? If you are talking more about a threat to our lifestyle—that as a nation we cannot afford to have significant numbers of people coming to this country—at least say it. Do not hide behind rhetoric. Come out and say, 'We can't afford to have these people,' and at least we can have that debate and look at it sensibly and rationally through a number of different measures.
The second thing is that I heard here today that people have a choice—it is their choice to get on boats. I must say that I was horrified, as I attended a press conference nearly six weeks ago, when my two fellow senators, Senators Hansen-Young and Milne, were speaking to the media. A journalist said: 'These people were told to turn back their boats. They didn't. They drowned. Why are we to blame for that? It's their fault.' My immediate thoughts were for the children below deck who would not have had any part in a decision to not turn back that boat. Let's put ourselves on that boat. Who would have? The captain, possibly, who is getting paid; the people smuggler that we all rightly demonise? Who would have made the decision not to turn back the boat or who would have made the decision to scuttle the boat? I very much doubt whether there was a democratic vote amongst refugees to continue on a dangerous voyage. Did they really understand the risks? Once again, we are not really thinking these things through very well.
Lastly—and I have said this to lots of my friends who disagree with my point of view on this and the point of view of my party—I would like you to do one simple thing: imagine yourself in the shoes of these people for just one minute, because, if you can imagine, then you can understand. That is the basis of empathy. With empathy comes human compassion and an understanding of what these people go through. For lots of Australians, possibly the best way to make that connection and to imagine and understand is on Sunday night by watching—I am not sure if I am allowed to promote a TV program in the Senate but I will anyway—SBS's Go back to where you came from. It was very hard to watch the first series and not feel compelled to put oneself in the shoes of these people. The next series starts on Sunday night. It is a shame it was not screened prior to this debate and the passing of this legislation because I think most Australians who watch that will feel and understand the pain and misery that these poor people are going through.
There was such an inevitability to the debate that we are having today on the Migration Legislation Amendment (Regional Processing and Other Measures) Bill 2012. It was inevitable from the moment that the Australian Labor Party won office in 2007. It was inevitable from the moment that they started to systematically dismantle the policies that the Howard government had in place. It was inevitable that, every day between then and now, reality would come crushing down on the heads of those in the Australian Labor Party that this is a problem, this is a situation of their making and only legislation of the sort that we are debating today could undo that damage. It was entirely inevitable that we would end up at this point. That is why the Australian Labor Party say: 'Let's not talk about the past. Let's just talk about the future. Let's not play the blame game. Let's just pass this legislation.' And pass this legislation we should. But the reason the Labor Party do not want to look back is that they would have to confront their culpability for the sheer volume of boats and individuals who have been put in harm's way.
I well recall the current Prime Minister railing, along with Mr Rudd, the then coalition government's policies before 2007. They denied the existence of pull factors; only push factors existed, apparently. They were outraged at the very concept of offshore processing. It was immoral—we heard that more than once. And the hideous regime that the coalition had in place of offshore processing, temporary protection visas and turning back the boats where it was safe to do so was so reprehensible that dismantling those policies had to be one of the first things that the Labor Party did in office, and they did. I, like many colleagues on this side of the chamber, have been very critical of many policy areas of the Australian Labor Party, for not honouring their election commitments, but there is one election commitment that they honoured in full—lock, stock and barrel—and that is the systematic dismantling of the deterrents that we had in place, deterrents that were effectively shutting down the people-smuggling business.
The Australian Labor Party have spoken often about breaking the people smugglers' business model. They should know how to break the people smugglers' business model because they are the people who designed the people smugglers' business model through their policy. There is a direct relationship between the Labor Party's policy going into the 2007 election and the people smugglers' business model. This legislation today seeks to undo that damage and undo that business model.
One of the things that has frustrated me no end—it has driven me to distraction over the last six to eight months—is hearing members of the Australian Labor Party continually talk about the need for compromise and the need for a grand bargain, as though there is some innate virtue in compromise for compromise's sake, as though there is some innate virtue in a grand bargain, as though there is some innate virtue in shaking hands across the chamber, as though there is some innate virtue in making people feel a little better about politicians and the parliament. There is no innate virtue in any of those things. The only virtue is in good policy that shuts down people smugglers and makes it less likely that people are put in harm's way. We on this side of the chamber have never been interested in just reaching an agreement. This should never have been approached on the basis of some sort of industrial negotiation where one side makes an ambit claim and the other meets them halfway or it is treated like haggling over the price of a house in a sale. We have stood firm. No, we are not just going to reach compromise for compromise's sake; we are going to hold and stand firm until the government agrees to good policy and agrees to a return to the policies we had before.
We are part of the way there with this legislation. Offshore processing on Nauru and Manus Island is a good thing, but we still need temporary protection visas and a commitment to turning back the boats where it is safe to do so, because it is not only policy that matters; it is also the strength and resolve of government that matters. Those other measures will, if they are adopted, send the message to the people smugglers that the government again has the strength and resolve to stamp out this evil trade of people smuggling. It will ensure that people are not put in harm's way or advantaged by approaching Australia in an irregular way. The coalition will be supporting this legislation, as my colleagues have indicated. It is important that the chamber as a whole does.
I, too, rise to make some very brief remarks following the comprehensive and heartfelt contributions of my colleagues on this side of this place on the Migration Legislation Amendment (Regional Processing and Other Measures) Bill 2012. Notwithstanding some of the emotional speeches made from the crossbenches, the continued loss of asylum seekers' lives at sea is a matter that fundamentally strikes at the heart of us all. We are at one in our determination to do what we can to ensure the disgraceful practice of people trafficking is stopped—period—and that the most humanitarian approach is taken in dealing with refugees. The coalition has consistently argued for and demanded the adoption of the former Howard government's Pacific solution for one reason and for one reason alone: history has demonstrated that it works. The Pacific solution worked. It is compassionate, notwithstanding the histrionics of those who have decried it in the past and continue to decry it today.
I feel impelled, though, to put on the record a couple of points. I will make them fairly brief because it is important that this legislation be passed today. Firstly, political parties are elected to office to govern. That is something that this Gillard government does not seem to get. It is the responsibility of an elected government to make the necessary tough decisions that are in the interests of all Australians to ensure that we fulfil our international and moral obligations. What worries me most, though, is that, whilst the coalition has continually sought to sit down with the government to discuss the policies that worked under a coalition government, the Gillard government, firstly, refused to do so—
Thank you, Mr Acting Deputy President. Rather, the Gillard government chose to contract out that responsibility to a committee to make the decisions for it.
The former Chief of the Defence Force, Angus Houston, Michael L'Estrange and Paris Aristotle are all highly respected and eminent individuals, so my comments in no way reflect on them personally. Rather, I believe that the approach that the government took is a damning indictment on the Prime Minister and her cabinet. They were incapable of reaching a solution and needed the involvement of a third party to come up with a proposal—elements of which, I hasten to add, we have been calling for now for some years. This government continues to fail every test when it comes to leadership.
My second point, just in closing, is how incensed I get in this place when I listen to the Greens and some of those on the other side of the chamber who constantly champion the furphy that they are the guardians of the moral high ground—and you all know who you are because you do it consistently in this place. What absolute bunkum! Clearly, they believe that if they say something long enough it becomes a fact. But history will continue to demonstrate that actions and facts actually speak much louder than words.
There would not be one person—not one person—who has not been deeply moved by the images or accounts of men, women and children who have lost their lives at sea. Just as we are concerned about the millions housed in refugee camps across the globe, it is compassion and common sense that drives our support for this bill. Compassion drives our support for a system that seeks to break the people-smuggling model and a system that does not disadvantage those people who seek asylum through the UN sanctioned refugee camps. It is a system that seeks to be fair and equitable, and I support this bill.
The modern history of the migration debate in Australia began when 438 Afghani asylum seekers were rescued from a 20-metre wooden fishing boat in international waters by the MV Tampain August 2001. The events following that rescue, the reluctant involvement of Australian Special Forces personnel and the cynical political exercise now known as the 'children overboard affair' are well known to us here, so I will not dwell on them. However, it is necessary to acknowledge these events in order to make sense of where we find ourselves today.
I had hoped that by now, over a decade later, the migration debate would have recovered from its malignant origin. Sadly, the events of the last year, and of the last few weeks in particular, have proven otherwise. As the chair of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on the Christmas Island Tragedy, I have a better understanding than many of the challenges faced by asylum seekers and the risks that they take in their attempts to flee persecution. The tragedy of SIEV221 demonstrated the inherent dangers of the people-smuggling business in a horrific way and at great human cost. But we cannot forget what motivates asylum seekers to face these risks. They are fleeing racial persecution, religious persecution, political persecution, torture and oppression. The decision to board a leaky boat bound for Australia is not a decision that anyone takes lightly.
I cannot honestly say that the legislation we consider today, the Migration Legislation Amendment (Regional Processing and Other Measures) Bill 2012, sits comfortably in the narrative of the Labor Party—a party based on social justice, compassion and the fair go—and it does not sit well with me. I know that many members of the party and of the Australian public more broadly share the sense of disappointment and frustration that I feel today. But, equally, I am not so naive that I can support the continuation of the shameful political deadlock that currently exists—a legislative environment in which we might expect the tragic events of the 2010 Christmas Island tragedy to recur.
That is why I welcome the findings of the report of the Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers; not because I agree with all of their recommendations—because I do not—but because I believe that it at least offers us a way forward. I welcome the report’s proposal to increase Australia’s humanitarian intake to 27,000 people and to build capacity through a cooperative, regional approach. As a party we have long maintained that a regional approach is necessary. This is the real answer and the one that will stand the test of time. I am encouraged by the words of Amnesty International’s Graham Thom, who states:
As long as refugees have little chance of finding safety through official channels many will be forced to seek protection through dangerous unofficial channels. A successful regional approach can only work if refugees and asylum seekers' access to protection is improved, as evenly as possible, across all regional countries.
Amnesty International believes that Australia has a key role to play in developing a regional approach to refugees that in the long term reduces the need for people to flee their homeland, in the medium term reduces the need for refugees to flee countries of first asylum and in the short term provides refugees with more access to official migration routes throughout the region.
He goes on to say:
This approach must never be viewed as a substitute for the long‐established obligation to offer protection to vulnerable people asking for our help.
It is a lack of safe options across the region which forces refugees onto boats to Australia. Improving this situation is absolutely key to stopping people taking dangerous boat journeys.
Australia has no shortage of critics when it comes to our migration policy and no doubt some of this criticism is justified. But we should also acknowledge that the commitment to increase our humanitarian intake will make Australia second only to the United States in refugee resettlement and world leaders on a per capita basis. Australia is and remains a generous country.
I must also put on record my grave concerns about the punitive aspects of the legislation. I understand the need to discourage asylum seekers from undertaking the perilous journey to Australia by boat. And it is clear that the Houston report is well intentioned when it suggests the no-advantage principle as the best means to do this. But, whilst the idiom of 'cruel to be kind' is easy to understand, we cannot allow such simplistic thinking to cloud our judgment on this issue. I am concerned about the effectiveness of the no-advantage principle as a disincentive when asylum seekers are, by their very definition, fleeing serious persecution, often in fear of their lives.
International law requires us to respect the needs of those who seek asylum here, and as a nation we have a responsibility for their protection. I was unsurprised to read in the Age this morning that my concerns are shared by the regional representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Richard Towle. Mr Towle is quoted as stating:
Resettlement is based on individual protection needs, it's not a mathematical formula and it's not based on time spent in a queue … We've got to make sure that if people who are genuine refugees are having to wait for solutions, it's not so long as to cause damage.
I could not agree more. As former member for Fremantle Dr Carmen Lawrence has written:
Not surprisingly, every independent inquiry into immigration detention has drawn attention to the poor mental health of detainees and the particular risks to children's well-being … Such research has revealed high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety and panic attacks, attempted suicides and self harm. The longer people are held in detention, the worse the symptoms are likely to be, adding to the already high levels of psychopathology among those who've experienced persecution, harassment, torture and physical assaults.
The very fact that I should feel the need to repeat this is a sign of how low this debate has sunk, but once again I must draw the attention of the chamber to the fact that asylum seekers simply do not have universal access to an orderly migration path or queue. That is a convenient myth, a symptom of the poisonous atmosphere of intolerance and misinformation that continues to pollute this debate. For those refugees who lack access to an orderly migration path, their alternative is to never arrive. This should not be used to justify a policy of arbitrary, indefinite detention, and it is this aspect of the bill that disturbs me the most.
It gives me no satisfaction to support this bill. These last few weeks have been a very difficult time for me and for my Labor Party colleagues. The caucus decision on this matter was not unanimous. Many of us have had great difficulty reconciling this decision with our personal values and I will admit that it conflicts with my own. But, as the party of government, we do not have the luxury of indulging our self-righteousness. And, as the party of government, we are bound to act on this issue, even at our own political cost and against the judgment of some caucus members like myself.
I doubt that there will be a lot of public sympathy for this view. It lacks the immediacy of both the self-serving moral outrage of the Greens Party and the cynical triumphalism of the coalition. But the parliament was called upon to act with maturity in this debate and we had a commitment to make the best of a challenging situation. This legislation is far from perfect and there is still much work to be done and detail to work through. I, along with many of my colleagues, will continue to face the challenge of humanitarian reform of Australia’s migration policy and the challenge of ensuring that we do not lose sight of the fact that asylum seekers are neither a mathematical problem nor pawns in a political game. They are real people, decent people, who arrive on our shores asking only for help and protection for themselves and their families.
It has been roughly six weeks since we left this chamber and since we debated this legislation: the Migration Legislation Amendment (Regional Processing and Other Measures) Bill 2012. Quite frankly, I think the debate reached a very low point in this chamber. I sincerely believe that nobody in this place bears any ill will or malice towards asylum seekers, but there has been political gloating on the point we have reached today. We must remember that we are speaking about people; we are not speaking about figures in a book. Even when we debate things in this chamber that affect Australians here today, we are speaking about people and how we affect their lives, their families and their communities. The politicisation of the misery of others is a pretty low point to reach.
Whether it is current Australians, new Australians, refugees, asylum seekers or people who seek humanitarian relief in our country, all people in this country need jobs, they need housing and they want a good environment. It is incumbent upon us to deliver these things in the best possible way that we can. We do not live in a perfect world, and no legislation that comes out of this chamber is perfect, but people in this place genuinely try to do the best that we can. Messrs Houston, Aristotle and L'Estrange are, I believe, honourable men and they have produced a report for this parliament under incredibly difficult circumstances. Now it is up to us to judge that. I believe they have done the very best they could under the circumstances.
In recent times I have visited Villawood detention centre to try to get some understanding of what refugees and asylum seekers experience when they come to our shores. Quite frankly, I would not like to be there. I acknowledge that they are fed and they are housed and everything, but it strikes me that it is a bit like Jurassic Park. I hope that the refugees, the asylum seekers and people seeking humanitarian relief are treated equitably under this legislation and that they are not used as political pawns. I believe that the Senate must continue to review this legislation over the coming months and years to make sure that we deliver a fair, equitable and humane system for all Australians.
I also rise to make a contribution in this debate on the Migration Legislation Amendment (Regional Processing and Other Measures) Bill 2012, and to put on the record my view as a former shadow parliamentary secretary in this area, having had over my lifetime the benefit of experience in the migration area as a lawyer with the Australian Government Solicitor and having spent a lot of time dealing with constituents in the broader community and sharing their views and concerns about this important issue.
The only way to stop the boats and to end the needless deaths that we are seeing at sea is to adopt fully the coalition's proven record in this area. Yes, we have seen the government finally dragged kicking and screaming to adopt one plank of that policy—that is, offshore processing—but there are two other very important aspects: temporary protection visas and ordering the boats to be turned back when it is safe to do so. In the end, this has been supported—flip-flopped in the past but still supported—by Kevin Rudd prior to the last election. There he was in the Australian a few days before, advocating this policy.
All we have seen by this Labor government is years of 'policy failures'. To use the words of Julia Gillard, every boat arrival was a policy failure. Well, she has been an absolute unmitigated disaster, given what happened under her watch: 22,000 illegal arrivals, 1,000 deaths, harm to our international reputation and a $4.7 billion blow-out. Finally, this week we have seen part of an adoption of policies that worked but, unless you adopt fully the Howard government policies, you will not see the same results. An important feature of that is the temporary protection visa framework.
We saw Senator Evans so effectively dismantle a system. In estimates, I trawled through repeatedly with him and his department the many changes that they effected to this area of policy and we saw that bit by bit it was dismantled, whether it was the detention costs or the paying of legal fees and leaving a debt to the Commonwealth. Over my years, having done my fair share of migration law in the past, I have watched millions and millions of dollars of Australian taxpayers' money just forfeited, and people leave Australia with those debts. Now, even if they leave those debts, they can still apply to come back to this country. I think the taxpayers of Australia should know that. For every piece of dismantling that Senator Evans and those after him undertook, the people smugglers were probably watching it on their own websites, following it via the internet and changing their model accordingly.
However, nothing pales beside the vitriol and the verbal abuse that those of us who stood by went through, maintaining the need for order and process in immigration. The vitriol came from those on the other side and the Greens, and we have always had it and will continue to have it. Today, those positions have been vindicated. But we have not heard one word of remorse from the Prime Minister or those on the opposite side who verbally abused and vilified those of us who have been advocating these policies for a long time. We copped that abuse and now there is nothing from the Prime Minister. As one person said to me recently, 'What would you expect from a woman that is a cross between Lady Macbeth and Lucrezia Borgia?'
Thank you, Mr Acting Deputy President, I withdraw those comments. Immigration has always been about order and process. Millions of people have come to this country and abided by those processes. They have come here after waiting in queues. People who come to this country understand about queue jumping. They understand what it means to wait in those places for up to 10 or 12 years and be the next person in the queue to come to Australia and then to watch somebody jump you in the queue because they have undertaken an illegal process and paid a people smuggler.
As I go out, particularly to those people who have come to Australia, and speak to people who have come via the front door, they understand. It is interesting: I bet some of those constituents have told those opposite that that is how they strongly feel about this issue. There are many migrants in Australia who feel very strongly about this issue and those opposite have finally, obviously, been told by the focus groups brought to this process to—kicking and screaming—change their position. Having said that, even with the passage of this legislation on offshore processing, the question remains: can the government be trusted to properly implement these changes? Only time will tell.
As a number of my colleagues have remarked, it also gives me no pleasure whatsoever to rise and speak in opposition to the Migration Legislation Amendment (Regional Processing and Other Measures) Bill 2012. I will briefly reflect, as many of us have, on the circumstances that brought us here. In 2010, new Prime Minister Gillard delivered a speech on the question of boat arrivals and expressed the need to protect our way of life. Thereby, she bought entirely into this disingenuous conflation of two completely distinct issues, that of asylum seekers—refugees, people fleeing war, violence, ethnic cleansing in our region or other parts of the world—and border protection, as though these were somehow the same issue.
The conflation of those two issues was very effectively developed and deployed by a former Prime Minister, John Howard, and former immigration minister Philip Ruddock. It has been extraordinary listening to contributions from the other side over the last 24 hours celebrating the fact that 'we are back; we were right and we are here again'. Prime Minister Gillard went on to say, 'I understand the anxiety in the community around boat arrivals' and it is on this foundation that the notion that refugees are a threat to our way of life, and that the anxiety around them is therefore justified, should even be talked up or encouraged. All subsequent Labor and coalition discussion has rested on this policy. The ALP has completely accepted the toxic and inaccurate premise of the debate set by the coalition. The premise goes virtually unchallenged within the public pronouncements of the major parties. It has been left to the Greens to put what seems to us so obvious into the public record.
The ethical thing for the new Prime Minister to have done would have been to show leadership on the issue. I think that is what former Prime Minister Rudd and his frontbench had attempted to do in the moves that they made, when they came to power, to formally and legislatively reject the Pacific solution that was in place. Prime Minister Gillard could have continued down that course and she did not. By validating people's fear of this tsunami, as some coalition MPs have said, of illegal arrivals, this flood of people, the queue jumpers—and we heard that phrase again from the speaker before me—Labor has fallen into the trap predicated on an assumption that not only does the Australian public not know any better but we also cannot know any better. It preaches to a base and, I think, a completely wrong understanding of Australian culture and of the Australian tradition of the fair go. I think it sells us all short.
Senator Ian Macdonald interjecting—
I am going to ignore you, Senator Macdonald, lest I say something that I will regret.
Senator Cash interjecting—
The proclamations and the policies from the ALP and the coalition suggest that they believe a solution is something that frightens asylum seekers away from Australia. We have heard a great deal from both sides of the chamber on that premise in the last few days. The problems are that people flee their homelands, that the processes for application abroad are painfully and dangerously slow, if they exist at all, that other countries are ruthlessly cruel to refugees and that the heads of the smuggler rings take advantage of a ready supply of desperate people, to fleece them of their savings and offer them a cramped spot on a voyage that might kill them. Until the major parties publicly accept this entire picture and not just one convenient element of it, there will not be any solution.
We have always opposed Labor's Malaysia solution because it is a people-dumping proposal. Put quite simply, it is a live people trade of 800 asylum seekers—who are to be made an example of to other people who might be seeking to make a voyage, to rot behind barbed wire, effectively forever—in exchange for 4,000 people who had already been accepted as refugees, living freely but not particularly welcome in Malaysia. In August 2001, as senators know, that disastrous people-dumping scheme was rejected by the High Court in a case brought by David Mann of the Refugee and Immigration Legal Centre. Mann is the grandson of refugees who fled the Nazis—with the help of people smugglers. To him, the notion that people could reach Australian waters to claim asylum and then be sent to a third country where the human rights, on the balance of the evidence, would put them in very serious danger was morally and legally repulsive, and fortunately the High Court agreed. The decision not only rendered the Malaysian people-dumping project illegal; it also cast doubt on the legality of all offshore processing, including on Nauru.
For that reason, the Greens opposed Mr Oakeshott's bill, which effectively stripped out what little protections exist in the current law, and we therefore oppose this bill. To support either would have marked a 180-degree turn on long-held principles and policies, and it would have been an offence to reason and decency and a betrayal not only of the people who are seeking refuge here in Australia but also of the many Australians who trusted us with their votes, knowing where we stand.
A real regional solution would involve supporting human rights abroad not only in the countries from which people originally fled—some that we have recently invaded—but also in those countries through which people pass on their way to Australia. That means overhauling Australia's overseas asylum application system so that it is no longer prohibitively slow, and significantly increasing Australia's humanitarian intake. Some of these recommendations were taken up by the recent expert panel and some of these recommendations, we hope, will not be lost in the appalling furore that has erupted in this parliament over the last few days.
The UNHCR's annual budget in Indonesia is around $6 million. If the government and the opposition are serious about saving lives, why not support the UNHCR in providing a safe pathway to asylum for genuine refugees. Most of the people who do find a way here are genuine refugees—as everybody knows and I think most senators on both sides acknowledge this—and are seeking to escape the kind of violence that we would not subject ourselves or our families to were it occurring here.
The word 'queue' is thrown around to depict boat arrivals as sneaky and unjust—or even unchristian, one of the strangest contributions to the debate that I have heard so far. In Indonesia, the wait in the queue to be resettled from refugee camps is 76 years. An immediate increase in UNHCR funding of at least $10 million from Australia would at least increase the capacity to assess asylum applications. This was rejected by the major parties.
Early last year a Hazara refugee in the Leonora detention centre told a journalist this:
The people of Australia must understand we are not criminals, we are homeless. If peace in Afghanistan come back, we can’t stay (in Australia) because we love our country, we all want to help our nation. If Afghanistan have peace—no body come across a big ocean with 99 per cent chance of death for 1 per cent chance, in small boat come here and many Afghani died in Malaysia to Indonesia trip, this ocean … All Afghani people take risk and our life risk because they want to work here for peace … Their life in danger—because of this they cross the ocean to reach here and want protected in Australia.
That is something that has been so completely lost in this debate. How dangerous and how serious does your deterrent have to be? If you want to break the so-called business model of the people smugglers you need to be scarier than drowning, war, ethnic cleansing and torture, and more of a deterrent than the things that these people are justifiably fleeing from. We all know that that simply will not happen.
These processes that are combined with the oppressive and dangerous conditions in Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and other states from which people arrive here seeking refuge provide the customers for the so-called business model of the people smugglers. Instead of making the alternative more accessible so that people do not climb onto these vessels in the first place, the major parties' approach is to make the smugglers' path undesirable by making the destination scarier than war, ethnic cleansing, torture, systematic rape and violence that these people are fleeing. The major parties believe a successful policy is one that makes refugees believe that they are better off facing repression in Iran, violence in Afghanistan or persecution in Malaysia than they are by reaching Australia's waters by boat. We have reached a point where this is how Labor and the coalition define success and history I believe will see it differently.