Tuesday, 27 November 2012
Matters of Public Importance
I have received a letter from the honourable member for Cook proposing that a definite matter of public importance be submitted to the House for discussion, namely:
The Government’s inability to deliver strong, consistent and effective border protection and asylum policy over the past five years.
I call upon those honourable members who approve of the proposed discussion to rise in their places.
More than the number of members required by the standing orders having risen in their places—
I understand the minister for immigration may be joining us for this MPI today, and I know that the member for North Sydney would be keen to know that because he has been looking for Captain Emad just like I have—
and maybe the minister will be able to tell us where Captain Emad is today, given that on the last few occasions he has been out searching!
This is a serious matter—five years of failure that have no peer. Earlier in this place today we were debating, as we continue to debate, the excision bill that is currently before the parliament. Back in 2006, it was the current Minister for Immigration and Citizenship who described that bill, should it be passed, as 'a stain on our national character'. One thing that is very clear is that the only stain is on that side of the House for their failure to put in place effective border protection measures over the last five years. In that 2006 speech, the minister for immigration said that he thought amending the bill was 'like putting lipstick on a pig'. The government's hypocrisy is such that it is now coming into this place trying to use that very pig, as the minister described it, to try and save their own political bacon—because it is this government, as it creeps from failure to backflip on this issue, that continues to repeat every single day it is in office the failures that have put Australia in such an adverse position when it comes to our borders. Labor's failures on our borders are without peer and, without any doubt, they have exceeded our worst expectations. Five years of failure, rising costs, chaos, tragedy and now hypocrisy on a grand scale: all of this has been on Labor's watch.
I refer now to page 2 of the Immigration Detention Statistics Summary of 23 November 2007, the day before the federal election of that year. When the Howard government left office in November 2007, the number of people who had arrived illegally in Australia by boat, described in here as 'unauthorised boat arrivals', who were in any form of detention—including community detention, alternative temporary detention in the community, immigration detention centres, residential housing and immigration transit accommodation, all of these places—was four. Four.
Opposition members: Four!
Four. You could count the number of people who had arrived illegally by boat who were in any form of detention, going through processing, on less than one hand. There were four. I seek leave to table the document.
I turn now to the Immigration Detention Statistics Summary for 30 September 2012, the most recent that the government has published. It is a much bigger report this time; it goes for far more pages—there is a lot more to report. Going to page 5 of that report, the number of people in any of those forms of detention I just referred to who had arrived illegally by boat as of 30 September 2012 was 8,987. Now, that does not include the 4,000 or thereabouts we estimate are on bridging visas and out in the community, following the government's decision on 25 November last year; and it does not include the 4,000 that have turned up since that report was published. So it has gone from just four people to, we estimate now—including those inside and outside detention—over 12,000. If those metrics do not speak of policy failure, then I do not know what does.
There is a very interesting chart in that report. It is a chart showing the population in immigration detention since January 1990. If you want to know what lift-off looks like, this is what it looks like. When you get to January 2009, once the effects of the government's decision to abolish the Howard government measures took place, you get lift-off when it comes to illegal boat arrivals. You get lift-off. That graph is included in the earlier reports, Madam Speaker, and I seek leave to table that report of 30 September 2012.
We have had to produce that result. Over 30,000 people have arrived on illegal boats since this government abolished the effective policies of the Howard government. That is a large number of people. The numbers that we might take under our immigration program may be relatively smaller, but 30,000 people is a lot of people. To give people an idea of how many people that might be: it is bigger than a town like Alice, as I said on the weekend; it is bigger than Albany; it is bigger than Busselton, as the member behind me mentioned; it is 1½ times the size of Goulburn; it is bigger than the city of Warrnambool; it is bigger than Nowra-Bomaderry, where I was last week; it is bigger than Mount Gambier; it is bigger than Gawler; it is bigger than Victor Harbor.
If you want to get another idea of how many people have turned up, then maybe the member for Lindsay can assist. The next time the member for Lindsay, the commander, is piped aboard the Panthers' stadium out there in Penrith, he should know that the number of people who have arrived on illegal boats under the watch of the government of which he has been a part is 1½ times the number of people you can put into the Panthers' stadium; it is 1½ times the number that you can put into the Sharks' stadium, in my own electorate of Cronulla; it is 1½ times the number you can put into Parramatta Stadium. For any major rugby league ground you go to, whether in New South Wales or Queensland, you will find that it is 1½ times the number you can put in it. It is more than you can put into Canberra Stadium, not far from this place.
Thirty thousand is a significant number to have arrived. For the Howard government to achieve that, it would have taken half a millennium, in terms of the number of people that arrived in the last six years after the Howard government's effective border protection policies were put in place.
This is the record of the government's failure on our borders, and it is getting worse. It is not getting better, it is getting worse, because more than half of those arrivals have turned up since the beginning of this year. More than a third of them have turned up since 1 July this year. Remember: on 1 July this year, the Treasurer stood at that dispatch box and presented a budget which said that the average number of people he estimated arrived every month was 450. The average figure for this financial year is more than 2,000. If you were to use the methodology adopted by the Department of Immigration and Citizenship for when MYEFO would have updated that figure, the 30-month average, then the figure now underpinning the budget would be around 715 per month, which is less than half what is occurring, which means that this budget, if anyone ever doubted it in the first place, is blown, and they have blown it on boats alone.
The cost of these increases in arrivals is breathtaking. The blow-out alone over the last four years, going out over the forward estimates, is $6.6 billion, and that does not include the cost of increasing the refugee and humanitarian intake, which is the policy of this government, to 20,000, which is 25,000 extra places over the next four years at a cost of $1.3 billion and at a cost of more than $50,000 per place.
To give people some understanding of the rate of increase: in 2007-08, the cost of managing this issue was $85 million a year; in this year, not including capital costs, the cost will be $2.4 billion. This chart I am showing sets out—
the high level of increase in costs, which we have seen to rise from $85 million a year to $113 million in 2008-09, to $292 million in 2009-10, to $879 million in 2010-11, to $1.4 billion in 2011-12, and this year to $2.4 billion—and that is based on a budget which is estimating arrivals at less than half the rate that is occurring. This is a government that has blown the borders and, as a result, they have blown the budget, too, without any hesitation of doubt.
The humanitarian consequences of these failures are the most significant, and we know of the loss of life that has occurred over the last five years—we estimate it to be over 1,000 people; how many it is, we really do not know. We also know that over 8,000 people have missed out on protection visas in Australia, waiting in places all around the world, because they did not come on a boat under this government. These are the human costs of the government's failure over the last five years.
It all results and stems from an unwillingness by the government to recognise when they have got something wrong—and I do not mean politically wrong, because that is the only thing the government ever seems to be able to come to terms with, but when they have got the policy wrong. And these policies will continue to fail as long as the government continues to cling to the failure.
Labor have decided—rather than to restore the measures that worked, as the member for Berowra was saying just before we came in here for question time—to go their own way. And go their own way they have. They decided to chance their arm, and the record of failure is as I have related to the House: the asylum freeze, the East Timor farce, and the failed Malaysian people swap, which the government itself has abandoned.
The government itself abandoned the Malaysian people swap, refusing to take any genuine action after the Houston report. We continue to make clear our objections to this policy, but the government itself has decided to just drop it, leave it alone and blame the opposition rather than take action. Yet one of the key actions they could take is this. Malaysia has a choice, and the government has a choice in its dealings with Malaysia. Malaysia could sign the refugee convention which would ensure there were binding legal protections in Malaysia. I think that is highly unlikely. I do not think it will happen. The other thing Malaysia could do, which the government could negotiate for, is to introduce legally binding protections in their immigration act. Has the minister raised that with the Malaysian government since the Houston report was handed down? I doubt it, given that a year ago, almost, he told me that they had rejected that notion.
The policy of bridging visas and community release announced just a year ago on 25 November has proved to be an absolute disaster, with over 16,000 people—well over half of the total arrivals—turning up since the government introduced that policy. After being dragged kicking and screaming to reopen Nauru and Manus Island, the daily problems of the government's inability to implement anything effectively continue to be demonstrated, and I will have the opportunity to witness that firsthand when I head to Nauru next week. The no-advantage policy which the government have thrown their arms around but are yet incapable of explaining to anyone also continues to be a thorn in the side of a government struggling and still trying to find their way on an issue where the Prime Minister herself said they had lost their way when she took office. They are no closer to finding it today. In fact, they are further away than they have ever been.
There is a different and better way forward. It is the way forward that the coalition offered when we were in government and it can turn failure around and turn it into success. It can turn it into success with policies that have worked. Those policies still have their doubters, just as they had back in 2001. In the Australian on 1 September 2001, it was said when John Howard had turned around the Tampa: 'The government is hoping its hard-line approach towards the Tampa will bear fruit. That is unlikely given the global reality of 22 million refugees, many of whom are languishing in countries on the Indian Ocean Rim.' Well, they were wrong. All those who said John Howard's policies would not work were wrong. Those who say they will not work again are wrong.
We will restore those policies, and we will ensure that this country once again has a government that believes in strong border protection and implements strong border protection. As we go to the next election, there will be a simple question: who do you trust to protect the nation's borders—the mob who have trashed our borders with over 30,000 arrivals, $6.6 billion in cost blowouts and carnage, chaos, cost and tragedy to back up that record, or a coalition who have the conviction, the belief, the policy, the resolve and the record? That is the choice. By making the choice of the coalition we can send a message to the people smugglers that they will understand.
It is now almost 12 months since 200 people died off the coast of Indonesia. On 18 December, 200 people drowned off the coast of Java trying to get to Australia. About 100 bodies were eventually washed up upon the shore; 100 remained at the bottom of the Java Sea. A lot of people have forgotten about that, but I have not. I had been in the job for about four days and the events of that day and the subsequent days are scarred on my memory. The first reports of 87 people having survived were followed by more disappointing reports that only 33 had survived. We saw images on our TV screens and in our newspapers of exhausted, half-dead survivors and heard the stories that followed of people being swallowed up by the ocean.
Ultimately that is what this debate is all about. It is about stopping a repeat of this. It deserves better than the yelling and screaming and the smart lines that often pass for debate on this issue. That is what is wrong with this debate: it has been poisoned by politics. It is rancid with politics. The great irony of all this is that the major parties agree on most things here. The difference is at the margins. But you would not know it from this debate and you would not know it from what you read in the newspapers and see on TV or hear in this place. Why? The reason is that this is not a debate that is principally about policy; it is a debate that is about politics.
Let me give you an example. Four days before those 200 people drowned almost a year ago, the Prime Minister wrote to the Leader of the Opposition. In that letter, the Prime Minister said to the Leader of the Opposition: 'The Australian people expect us to work together to ensure that the national interest is upheld. I would be happy to make Minister Bowen available to meet with Mr Morrison in an attempt to identify a mutually satisfactory outcome.' Two days later, two days before those 200 people drowned, the Leader of the Opposition wrote back. In that letter that Leader of the Opposition in response said: 'I do not see much point.' So you have the Prime Minister in her letter reaching out, saying, 'We need to work together,' and you have an opposition leader in response saying, 'I do not see much point.' He did not see much point in even having a meeting.
The day after those people died, the government wrote to the Leader of the Opposition again and asked him to make the shadow minister for immigration available to sit down with the minister to reach a compromise. He still refused and then he demanded a written proposal from the government before any talks could begin. So we did that. The government gave him a written proposal where we put on the table the offer to implement offshore processing in Nauru and the government's plan with Malaysia. Then, on the morning before those talks were to begin, on the morning before Mr Bowen and Mr Morrison were to sit down, the Leader of the Opposition held a press conference and rejected the written proposal that we had made. So, in effect, the negotiations ended before they began. All of that was in the aftermath of 200 people dying, and he still refused to give the government the powers that we think we need to stop people risking their lives by getting on a boat and possibly dying at sea.
That refusal still exists today. The Leader of the Opposition still refuses to pass legislation to send people to Malaysia. Why is that? My view is that this is about politics. In the debate that we had on this very same issue only a few weeks ago, I pulled out a quote from David Marr's article in the Quarterly Essay. It is a quote that bears repeating. On page 36 of that essay, he says:
WikiLeaks told us how keen the Coalition is to exploit the boats. In late 2009, in the dying days of Malcolm Turnbull's leadership of the Opposition, a "key Liberal party strategist" popped in to the US embassy in Canberra to say how pleased the party was that refugee boats were, once again, making their way to Christmas Island. "The issue was 'fantastic," he said. "And 'the more boats that come the better." But he admitted they had yet to find a way to make the issue work in their favour: "his research indicated only a 'slight trend' towards the Coalition."
That quote tells you everything you need to know about this debate. It tells you why it is so hard to come to an agreement between the two major parties. It explains everything that is going on here. A senior Liberal Party strategist went to the United States embassy to have a meeting, saying 'this issue is fantastic' and 'the more boats that come the better' and expressing their disappointment that they had not been able to get more political benefit out of it already. That is what is wrong with this debate: people who think like this, people who say things like that and people who are more concerned about political advantage than they are about the boats.
Mr Frydenberg interjecting—
The member for Kooyong might express his disappointment. I know he is a man who would never say things like that. The problem is there are people like that who have decided that the more boats that come the better. We are better than this. The member for Kooyong is better than that and we as a parliament are better than that. We have to get rid of comments like that if we are going to sort this issue out.
There are no easy answers in all of this. This is a wretchedly difficult area of public policy. There are plenty of views, plenty of ideas about how to address it. My view is this. Whatever you think the solution is, we should all agree on this: the government of the day should be given the power that it believes it needs to stop people dying. That is what we did when we were in opposition, when we gave support to John Howard's laws to implement offshore processing, and that is what we have been denied in government by the Liberal Party, by the National Party and by the Greens party. They have all refused to give us the powers that we have come to the view are necessary to help stop people dying at sea.
That is why we set up an expert panel to help to break this political impasse. Headed by Angus Houston, it made 22 recommendations, including offshore processing Nauru—and we have started offshore processing there—and at Manus. That has now begun. It also included doubling the number of refugees that we will take each year, part of increasing our humanitarian program from 13,500 to 20,000. That has been done. We are increasing co-operation, as recommended, between Australia and Indonesia on search and rescue. I visited Indonesia in September with Minister Smith and Minister Albanese and we agreed to six measures to help to do that. That includes making sure that Australian search and rescue gives Indonesian search and rescue the type of ship tracking information and communication via satellite that is necessary to get in touch with merchant ships as quickly as possible and an agreement with Indonesia to allow our search and rescue planes to land and refuel in Indonesia.
The report from Angus Houston and the expert panel also talked about the importance of disrupting boat ventures—stopping people getting on boats before they set to sea. The latest information on that is that so far this year 209 disruptions have occurred, involving 7,964 people, including 120 disruptions from Indonesia, 65 from Sri Lanka, 14 from Thailand, five from Malaysia, four from India and one from Vietnam.
We are also flying people back to Sri Lanka who are not refugees. In the past few weeks we have flown home 650 people, including 50 people today, and there is more to come. The biggest increase that we have seen in boats this year is from Sri Lanka. They are more than half the number, and many of the people on these boats are not refugees. They are economic migrants—people seeking a job, people seeking a better life. They are not entitled to protection, and that is why they are being sent home.
The importance of this should not be underestimated. The threat of death has not deterred many from getting on a boat. But this should. There is no point in paying a people smuggler thousands of dollars to get on a boat if you are going to be flown straight home. That message will hopefully get through to people in Sri Lanka who are thinking about trying their luck and getting on a boat when they see someone in the street who they thought had gone on a boat only a few weeks ago and who is now back home in Sri Lanka. The media plays an important role in getting this message through to people who are thinking about getting on a boat. The headline in the Daily News in Colombo, one of its major newspapers, said this last Tuesday:
Australia issues fresh warning to Lankan 'Boat people'
This is a tough message, a strong message, but an important message. It is designed to help save lives. It is designed to stop people making that decision to waste their money and potentially risk their lives.
We have to do all of these things I have just outlined and more on top of that. We have to implement each and every one of the recommendations that Angus Houston and his panel recommended. That means Nauru. It means Manus Island. It also means Malaysia. If we are going to tackle this problem for good, we need a regional solution and Malaysia is part of that. That is what the report said. It said it was critical. The opposition have refused to support Malaysia, and the shadow minister articulated that again in the debate today. Their argument is that Malaysia has not signed the UN refugee convention. That is a false excuse. It is an argument that has been made up by the opposition to hide behind. They sent people to Nauru for six years and Nauru was never a signatory to the refugee convention during that time. They oppose Malaysia not because it has not signed the UN convention on refugees but because it suits their political objectives.
I think it is the height of hypocrisy to criticise the government on this issue and refuse to give us the powers we believe we need to stop people risking their lives at sea. This is an issue that is too important for that sort of politics. We have to be prepared, on this issue at least, to work together. We have to be prepared to compromise, and if that means changing your position then so be it.
This motion talks about consistency. It would have you believe that the opposition have not changed their policy on this issue in 10 years. That is not correct. Both parties have changed their position. Only 3½ years ago the opposition, with its former shadow minister for immigration, supported the closure of Nauru and supported the closure of Manus Island. On Lateline the former shadow minister said:
Both sides have changed their position. You change your position when the facts change and you change your position if that is what it takes to save lives. That is what we ask the opposition now: give us the powers that we believe we need to help stop people dying at sea. We have been fighting about this issue now for 11 years. We have been fighting about it since the Tampa arrived. Australians have had a gutful of it. They want us to stop shouting at each other and start talking to each other. They want us to work together.
If you need more proof of the importance of doing that, look at the story in the Sun Herald on the weekend that tells of another boat and another 33 people who drowned last month. Only one person survived—a 22-year-old man rescued by a fishing boat, who is now in an Indonesian detention centre. He paid $5½ thousand to a people smuggler called Sikander. He says the boat took off on 26 October and, on the way to Australia, the engine stopped. The phone they had did not work. The boat began to sink. This is what he told the Sun-Herald:
''On the first day there was hope. Everyone was optimistic,'' he said. ''We were praying, saying there will be an island, there will be a boat.
''On the second day, some people, they lost control, shouting and crying, saying, 'No one will help us.' One guy was in very bad condition. He lost his grip of the rope and went away and he was screaming, crying a few times. After that we didn't hear him any more.
''Then time was passing, night was coming, and the day passing, losing friends. I would see dead bodies coming from the right side, left side. Everyone, one by one, was waiting for their turn because everyone knew that there may not be help, there may not be any chance for a second life.
''Some guys got crazy, they were talking and fighting, they let go of the rope and went away. On the third night there were seven people on the rope, but … in the morning, there were only three people left including me.
In the end, there was only one. That is just one story. There are a lot of stories like this—too many.
Monsoon season is fast upon us. Last December, 200 people died. The December before that, dozens more died when a ship hit the rocks on the coast of Christmas Island. I dread what might happen in the days and weeks ahead. We have got to stop yelling at each other and start talking to each other about this issue. I urge anyone that is thinking about getting onto a boat: don't; don't do it; don't risk your life. And I sincerely urge all of us parliamentarians to be worthy of the name and to work together to stop this happening again.
I want to respond to some of the things that the just said in his speech on this matter of public importance discussion on border protection. I have heard his arguments on this issue before. The first thing I want to refute—and I want to refute it in the strongest possible terms—is that somehow we do not want to see the boats stop coming illegally to Australia. The Labor Party has put this. The minister just put it. Other ministers have put it at various points. I can assure the minister and I can assure the Australian people that that is complete and utter nonsense. We do want to see this issue resolved and we would always be prepared to work with the government to resolve it. But, if we are going to work with the government, they need to embrace policies that are actually going to work, something that has completely eluded them for the whole five years they have been in government.
We know what policies are going to work, because we implemented them in government when we were faced with a similar situation. You know what? They actually worked to resolve this problem. The whole reason that this problem recurred, the whole reason that we went from having four people in the detention network when the government changed and an average of three boat arrivals in any given year of the last six years of the Howard government, was that when the Labor Party came to office, in an absolute fit of some form of moral superiority—they wanted to put their credentials on display about how they were so much better humanitarians than the Howard government—they instituted a series of policy backflips that undermined the robust system of border protection that they had inherited, and that led to the re-emergence of people smuggling. People smuggling was dead and buried under the previous government. When the Labor Party came to office, they restarted people smuggling by not understanding the implications of the policies that they were pursuing.
Mr Deputy Speaker, I rise on a point of order. It is entirely inappropriate to suggest that the government is running people-smuggling processes. The shadow minister should not be allowed to make such an assertion in this debate. It is a serious issue. We do not always agree with each other, but it can be debated in an appropriate way. To make that sort of assertion about the government is an outrageous slur and he should not be able to do that in the debate.
The member for Stirling would assist the House if he heard the Attorney-General's comments. I think in this chamber we all feel the difficulty of the policy and of resolving this whole illegal trade of people. I would ask him to moderate his comments in relation to assertions that could be taken as a comment that the government is running a people-smuggling racket.
I was not saying anything of the sort. I was saying that the government, because of their misguided policies, are responsible for the re-emergence of people smuggling. That is 100 per cent factual and cannot be argued with. I did not say that they were people smugglers or that somehow—
I did not say anything of the sort. This is the ludicrous misrepresentation that we get from a government that do not understand the implications of the policy decisions that they have taken. They still refuse to admit that it was those policy decisions that have led Australia down this blind alley—with over 30,000 people arriving here illegally on over 500 boats—from a problem that was solved when they came to office. The reason that we are dealing with it again is specifically because of the Labor Party's misguided policies. The reason that they are not going to be able to deal with it now is that, since they took those policy decisions of August 2008 that reinvigorated people smuggling, they have had a whole series of policy prescriptions, none of which they have been able to implement effectively, all of which they have announced and then either been unable to implement or not had the resolve to implement.
This is why we say now that it is the Labor Party themselves that are the obstacle for us to get any resolution to this issue. Even if the Labor Party were to come up with another policy tomorrow—and for all we know that is possible—why would the criminal gangs of people smugglers, who have been benefiting from the failed policies that the government have been pursuing since they came to office, take them remotely seriously when they say that they are going to do something differently to attack the people-smuggling trade?
We have heard it all before, as have the people smugglers, who are sophisticated enough to understand the implications of the policy debate here in Australia. These fateful decisions were taken in August 2008. The abolition of the Pacific solution and the abolition of temporary protection visas were the policies that allowed the people-smuggling trade to once again emerge, and this is why we have been inundated with illegal boat arrivals ever since.
But the misguided policies that were taken by the Labor Party have been compounded every time they have dealt with this issue. They reinvigorated the people-smuggling trade, and, when the people smugglers started sending people down to Australia illegally, the government initially denied that they had a problem. They denied that this was a real issue. They subsequently pinned it on international factors. We had minister after minister roll up to the dispatch box in this place and say: 'Well, it's got nothing to do with us. It's a turbulent international environment and that means people are going to seek to come here illegally.' They have now abandoned that excuse too.
Of course, one of the reasons the now Prime Minister Julia Gillard dispatched the former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was his inability, as she saw it, to deal with the border protection crisis. By the time the government approached the 2010 election, they knew they had a political problem on their hands, so they did re-embrace something that they had been vilifying for a long time, and that is a regional processing centre. They said they were going to put a regional processing centre on the island nation of East Timor. They did so without doing any homework. It was announced as part of the Labor Party's policy platform for that election. They did not do their due diligence with the East Timorese government, who were taken by surprise by this announcement. Subsequently, that announcement was completely dead on arrival. They continued to push it as though it was somehow a live issue, as though somehow the East Timorese were considering it, to the detriment of actually coming up with an answer to this problem.
Finally, they faced reality and abandoned that, and they subsequently came up with this Malaysia people swap arrangement. The minister, as you heard, was going on about how, if we were to allow them to do the Malaysia people swap, this would somehow contribute to stopping people smuggling. He neglects to mention a few very salient points about that arrangement. Firstly, Malaysia is not a signatory to the United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, and therefore, if you were to send people there for processing, they would not be subject to the sorts of safeguards that we would expect them to be subject to. Secondly, and I think very importantly—and this is often lost in this debate—is that the arrangement that the Labor Party negotiated with Malaysia was a 4,000-for-800 people swap, so we were only going to send a maximum of 800 people to be processed there. In the context of illegal arrivals at the moment, that is about a week and a half of illegal arrivals—and they say that somehow this is going to be the silver bullet that gets people smugglers to take them seriously for once! The Malaysia arrangement was never going to do that. It is a flawed arrangement from our perspective because it does not provide the protections that we would expect, and it certainly does not provide the scale that is the result of the Labor Party's failed border protection policies.
There have been subsequent positions that the government has taken—and it would be very difficult for me to list them all. I am not sure that even Labor backbenchers or ministers can keep up with all the iterations of the Labor Party's border protection policies over the past five years. What we can say categorically about them, though, is that every single one of them has failed to do anything to put a dent in people smuggling. Even the announcement of going back for offshore processing in Nauru and Manus, which was a step in the right direction, has done nothing but accelerate the rate of illegal arrivals. Indeed, 25 per cent of the 30,000 people that have been smuggled here illegally under this government have come since that announcement was made on 13 August.
We can only conclude that the problem is now not the policies; it is the Labor Party themselves. They cannot now credibly come into this parliament or go outside this parliament and say, 'We've now got a new idea for something that's going to close down people smuggling,' because why would anybody, let alone the people smugglers, take them seriously when they have had such a litany of failure on this issue and, of course, it was their policies that started this issue in the first place?
On 18 October 2001 an Indonesian fishing boat left the port of Bandar Lampung. There were 421 people on board, including at least 70 children. The boat was 20 metres long and four metres wide, so people were tightly packed on board. The next day, about 70 kilometres south of Indonesia, the boat encountered heavy seas, took on water, listed violently to one side, capsized and sank within an hour. There were life jackets on board, but none of them worked. As a Senate committee chaired by the late, great, Senator Peter Cook concluded, there were at least 70 children aboard when SIEVX sank. Only three survived. Two hundred adults also lost their lives. This was the precursor to many more deaths at sea over the next decade.
We are where we are today because Australia, as an island continent, is a dangerous place to journey to. We are where we are today because the UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees is a document largely drafted in the aftermath of World War II to deal with what were by today's standards relatively moderate asylum seeker flows across land. We are where we are today because Australia faces a unique challenge. Four per cent of those who take boats to get to Australia perish on the seas attempting to do so, so our policies need to be targeted at stopping those deaths at sea.
There are those in both houses who have served on the SIEVX inquiry, and there are other parliamentarians who have served on the Christmas Island inquiry. We have just heard the Minister for Justice speak movingly about some of the more recent tragedies that have occurred. I believe that in this debate there is no compassion in a policy which says that, if you take a leaky boat to Australia and make it, you can stay. I do not think that that policy is a compassionate one. I do not think that that policy is one which aligns with the value of the Labor Party, a party that I am privileged to represent in this place. What we have done through putting the Malaysian agreement before this parliament—an agreement rejected by an alliance of those to the left and to the right of us—has been to try and ensure that we do not create incentives for people to make the dangerous boat journey here. That Malaysian agreement was struck down by the High Court, and legislation to enable it was unable to pass through this parliament. We then found ourselves in a position where a productive exchange of letters over the Christmas break last year between the opposition immigration spokesperson and the government immigration spokesperson was stymied when the Leader of the Opposition became involved. It became almost absurd. The member for Cook was asked at one point: 'If the government were to adopt all of your policies, would you support them?' and he could not even say yes to that. So, as an attempted circuit-breaker, this government asked three distinguished Australians—Angus Houston, Michael L'Estrange and Paris Aristotle—to come up with a report which would look at how we could prevent tragic drownings at sea. When the Houston report came down, the government immediately announced we would follow its recommendations. All we have unfortunately seen from those opposite is an attempt to try to play politics with one of the most difficult issues in Australian public life.
There are three facts that I do not think have received significant discussion in public commentary on this issue. First, the humanitarian intake in Australia has been increased by 45 per cent to 20,000 places. I called for that in a speech at the end of last year and was extremely pleased when it was adopted. That is 45 per cent more people who are able to enjoy the high-quality humanitarian settlement process in Australia. Subject to economic circumstances, that will be increased to 27,000 places in the next five years. That cements Australia's position as the leading resettlement country globally on a per capita basis, according to United Nations data.
Secondly, Australia has been a world leader in how we provide those settlement services. I am enormously proud of the charities—some of them religious, some of them not—in my electorate of Fraser who work hard with newly arrived refugees. In some cases this will be a young Afghan boy who has lost his parents or whose parents have not joined him here and who is struggling to learn English and fit into the local community.
Canberrans have accepted refugees from Sudan, and many of them are making a great contribution to our city. In fact, I was pleased to start the day playing a game of basketball outside Parliament House with the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, the member for Chifley Senator Lundy and a range of parliamentary staff. We were playing against the Big Bang Ballers—a phrase not best said 10 times quickly—a group run by Pierre Johannessen in Canberra. Pierre works with at-risk youth who play Saturday night basketball. Many of the youth who join in are migrant youth or refugee youth. The Sudanese blokes on the other team certainly ran rings around me. But it is testament to the Canberra community that we are able to work on that resettlement so well.
Antonio Guterres, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, told 7.30 on 13 February this year:
Australia has received 750,000 refugees until now. Australia's one of the most successful, if not the most successful, resettlement programs in the world with a large number of people being successfully integrated in the Australian society.
We provide English language support; case management; torture and trauma counselling; funding for migrant resource centres; and cultural orientation programs.
The third thing that you do not hear often in this debate is that the average length of time spent by asylum seekers in detention facilities has decreased. It decreased from 277 days in November 2011 to 93 days in June 2012. The government is reducing the amount of time that people spend in detention.
In re-opening the Nauru and Manus Island facilities, we are also providing external scrutiny, something that never existed when the Howard government was in power. Amnesty International has recently brought down a critical report on the Nauru detention centre. The government does not agree with all of the findings in that report. But it is important to note that that report would not have been possible under the Howard government. Next week I understand the member for Cook is travelling to Nauru—again, something that would not have been possible under the Howard government.
That internal scrutiny is important to me as somebody who believes that it is important to deter people from making a dangerous boat journey, but we must also treat with dignity and compassion those who make that journey. You will not hear me, as the member for Cook and the member for Stirling said, describing as illegals those who come as asylum seekers. It is not illegal to seek refuge in another country. You also will not hear me attempting to have it both ways on the refugee convention.
In speaking on the Migration Amendment (Unauthorised Maritime Arrivals and Other Measures) Bill 2012 shortly before question time, I discussed some of the circumstances that determine why a country signs or does not sign the refugee convention. I find it passing strange that the opposition is willing to turn boats back to Indonesia—a dangerous attempt which could endanger the lives of not only asylum seekers but also Navy personnel—given that Indonesia is a non-signatory country. We believe that it is important to recognise that circumstances have changed since the refugee convention was signed and to find an approach that is humane and compassionate.
Since November 2007, the government has lost control of Australia's borders. As I said in previous speeches to this House, Labor's border protection policies should be likened to an employment program for people smugglers. The Howard government put them out of business and Labor resurrected them. Since November 2007, Labor's failures on our borders have gotten worse, and their half-hearted policies and commitment is not up to the job. Labor's dismantling of the coalition's border protection policies have resulted in more than 30,000 arrivals. Of the 30,057 arrivals on 515 boats, more than half of this number—15,403—have turned up this year, and more than one-third—10,146—had turned up since July 1. Beyond the catastrophic loss of life and the inability to discourage people smugglers, Labor's border protection failures have also equated to a $6.6 billion budget blowout since 2009-10. This blowout does not include the additional $1.3 billion required to increase Australia's refugee and humanitarian intake to 20,000—up from 13,750—as part of the Houston report's recommendations.
This is a public policy disaster in both humanitarian terms and budgetary terms. There is no other way to describe it. In 2011-12, the government spent more than $4 billion on humanitarian services for migrants and refugees. In 2012-13, it is estimated that will increase to almost $4.28 billion, according to their budget estimates. The astronomical cost impacts that flow from Labor's horrendous border protection policies mean that the delivery of effective settlement services for new migrants and refugees have got that much harder. Somehow, we have got to do that with $6.6 billion less in the budget.
Yes, it is true that we had good settlement policies. The member for Fraser was earlier quoting Antonio Guterres, and he said that Australia has some of the best settlement services in the world. We have had in the past a good settlement policy and good settlement programs and we have settled many, many refugees—some 750,000 since World War II. But, those settlement services are at risk. Labor's border protection failures and gross inefficiencies in the management of the migrant and refugee settlement programs have placed enormous pressures on both settlement services and settlement service providers throughout Australia, and they are going to cause danger to social cohesion in this country. The increase in the humanitarian intake to 20,000 will also stretch and put more pressure on infrastructure, more pressure on education, more pressure on the health sector and more pressure on housing.
In relation to the housing sector and the availability of accommodation, a number of settlement service providers have already reported to me that the scarcity of available housing services has led to rental bidding wars which is causing rental prices to go up in many areas that are relying on public housing waiting lists. In Western Australia alone, there is a seven-year waiting list for public housing. I want to commend the terribly hard work that agencies like the Red Cross and others have to do when they have to house asylum seekers, because it is getting more and more difficult as this government's policies fail and we are getting more and more people.
There are many settlement services provided. One that I want to talk about is the English language service to new migrants and refugees. The primary vehicle for delivering these English-language programs is the Adult Migrant English Program, or AMEP. Language skills are universally acknowledged throughout the world as being a critical and a very core component of positive settlement outcomes. As such, one would expect that Australia's settlement service programs for new migrants and refugees would be geared at delivering outcomes that result in higher levels of literacy and good positive language outcomes. But, how are we going at the moment? At the moment, the AMEP will cost the Australian taxpayer more than $220 million in 2012-13, and that is not small change in anybody's language.
During a Senate estimates hearing in February this year, it was mentioned that there was increasing pressure to deliver an adequate AMEP program and that participants were issued with certificates although they did not even have functional English proficiency, and a further 14 per cent of participants were issued with certificates just for turning up. It is absolutely beyond me how any government would issue a certificate for just turning up. Here we have a program that has a 68 per cent failure rate for a $220 million investment. Poor English language skills result in poor and very poor employment outcomes. Poor employment outcomes trap new migrants on welfare dependency and reinforce a sense of failure, not just for new migrants and refugees themselves, but for the wider Australian community, which in turn creates pressures on social cohesion. Apart from that $220 million price tag, what is even more galling is the extremely poor results being produced from that program. Labor is well aware of the consequential negative flows, particularly from underperforming programs, yet still introduces these very clunky template approaches to service delivery.
The government initiated a report last year. The Department of Immigration and Citizenship produced the report, Settlement Outcomes of New Arrivals, which found that 83 per cent of refugees were still on some form of Centrelink benefit more than five years after they arrived in this country. I had the opportunity recently to visit many parts of regional Queensland and to meet with settlement service providers. They highlighted the pressures on language services and on-the-job service programs for new migrants and refugees who have not arrived in this country illegally, but the ones who have arrived legally. Also, they expressed concern to me about the dramatic increase in irregular maritime arrivals. For example, I just want to highlight one of these areas. In Toowoomba, there are 3,000 new migrants and refugees from sub-Saharan Africa. After five years, 70 per cent of them still are not able to find permanent employment. Far from setting up new migrants and refugees who are legally in this country to succeed, we are now setting up people to fail because of Labor's failed border protection policies. I turn to discuss the unaccompanied minors on humanitarian visas in Australia. A report was recently done by the Multicultural Youth Advocacy Network and the Department of Immigration and Citizenship. It was released on 16 October this year and includes some very disturbing facts. It highlighted again Labor's neglect, which has left unaccompanied minors vulnerable to online predators. The report reveals that, as of 30 June, there were some 865 unaccompanied minors living in Australia and that, in addition to being without their parents, these young people had to arrange their own carers. How did they arrange their own carers? They went on Facebook—how else would you arrange your own carer!—and other social networking sites. To anyone who is a parent, that is absolutely appalling. Imagine your child being in a strange country by themselves—without you to protect them and unable to speak the local language—and looking for a carer on the internet. Does that sound like a good system to you? It scares the hell out of me.
The problem of children looking for carers on the internet was highlighted in a report in the Herald Sun titled 'Asylum kids an online target'. In the report a departmental spokesman is quoted as saying that unaccompanied minors are placed in permanent care arrangements by the department but:
… not placed in a permanent care arrangement by (the department) without an assessment of the suitability of that placement.
The department is also reported as saying that it is 'satisfied' with the current arrangements for unaccompanied minors. Yet the department is putting unaccompanied minors in risky situations. Such statements are staggering. These guardianship arrangements are unsuitable: as any parent will tell you, there is a real risk to young people from online predators. I would like Minister Bowen to explain how care arrangements for unaccompanied minors are satisfactory. The Sun Herald report also highlighted great concerns about the lack of targeted support and transitional arrangements for unaccompanied minors before they turn 18 as well as the need for a national framework for the care and support of such children.
Labor's border protection failures have resulted in fiscal and humanitarian disaster. Such failures tear at the fabric of Australia's social cohesion and put at risk our successful migration program. (Time expired)
I hate to begin my contribution with a confession such as this, but I have to confess that I missed the member for Cook's contribution to the debate on this MPI. Luckily for me, the member for Holt and the member for Lyons are here to tell me what he said. I imagine that the member for Cook said that border management is a joke. He probably said that we should never have changed what those opposite did. He probably said that we should go back and do what they did before.
Not that you are aware of; I thought that that would be the case. The only policy those opposite have on the complex subject of asylum seekers is to go back to their old policy. They do not recognise that, as the member for Holt said, times have changed. They do not accept that people smugglers alter their tactics to take into account government policy. It never comes into their thinking. Those opposite are all about going back. They always talk about doing something that John Howard did. As I have said previously, the Leader of the Opposition has never had an idea that John Howard did not think of first. Coalition policy is the biggest recycling program this country has ever seen. They talked about Work Choices being dead, buried and cremated. I do not know how that works, but bringing up all the policies they tried in the past is a big exhumation job. They think that all their old polices will fit circumstances now.
The motion in the MPI debate today talks about consistency. Consistency for those opposite is all about ignoring reality and not looking at the situation as it is now. Their policies are one-size-fits-all, and the problem is that the size of the policy they are trying to fit onto today's situation fitted circumstances 10 seasons ago. But perhaps I am being unfair: they did have one new policy. I remember them hectoring us, 'Just pick up the phone and call Nauru.' Then they made a call to scope out how much it would cost to reopen the processing centre on Nauru. Who did they call? They did not call Immigration—they did not call anyone in the know about what it would cost to reopen the centre on Nauru. They called a catering company. That is the quality of the policy-making of those opposite. They used an accounting firm instead of Treasury to cost their policies in the lead-up to the 2012 election, and they used a catering company to work out how to reopen the centre on Nauru! They outsourced policy to Masterchef, yet they lecture us on policy and say 'just do what we did in the past'!
We have tried to break the impasse on asylum seekers by having an eminent trio of Australians, led by Angus Houston, step forward to work out what the best way forward is: what course can we take that will get us out of the political divide where there is a logjam and we are unable to move? They came up with 22 recommendations looking at the incentives which exist at the moment to people-smuggling: does the system as it is geared presently allow people to abuse the system to get here? They have tried to work out how to put in place incentives for people to use the system properly. People have the personal wealth to buy passage to Australia, and there are people profiting from their desperation by trying to get them here in vessels which are clearly unsafe and which people who are masters of the sea would never allow to be used to transport people. Things were put in place—for example, the no-advantage rule that has been steadily implemented by this government to create a disincentive for people turning to people smugglers—and there were things put in place to fix up loopholes, as has been the subject of legislation that is currently being debated in this place about unauthorised maritime arrivals.
We have increased the humanitarian intake. This is an interesting point because this matter of public importance calls for consistency. Now, in an effort to try and win the Greens' support in June, when the member for Lyne moved his resolution on regional processing, by all accounts a quick meeting was convened by those on the opposite side, where they agreed that they would increase the humanitarian intake. They did that—and then what happened? Last week we had the Leader of the Opposition say that he has trashed that. He is now not supporting an increase in the humanitarian intake. In fact, he will now wind it back.
Those opposite lecture us on consistency when, in the space of a couple of months, they have moved away from their policy. Just to secure and meet their own political ends in this place they have done that. There is no consistency when it comes to the policies of those opposite. They say to us, for example, that they will not support the Malaysian agreement. As I said earlier today, if you were against having people detained for extended periods, if you were for people having work rights—as those opposite have advocated—and if you were for people having some access to education, you would support the Malaysia agreement quick smart. You would not support the situation as it is now.
As I said earlier today—I have been quite frank about it—I do not think Manus Island and Nauru will work in the longer term. I have said that previously. I have said it to the minister and I have said it publicly. I do not think it will work because it is not reflective of the situation we are in now. The situation now is that we need to remove the incentive from people smugglers to say to people, 'You'll just sit on Nauru for a bit and then you'll get here.' That is it: it is a holding pattern that they are offering to people who want to pay to get here.
The longer-term decision for us is to do what the Houston report said: the next stage of offshore processing has to be Malaysia. The Houston report said that we need to move on this as quickly as possible. My argument is that this should be done as soon as possible to ensure that we are able to break this down.
Those opposite do not support it. They say it should only happen if you can find a country that has signed up to the refugee convention. They say this regardless of the fact that their tow-back policy would see people towed back to a country that is not a signatory. They say this regardless of the fact that in September they instituted a policy that would see people shipped back to Sri Lanka straight away, ignoring the refugee convention and not even giving fair consideration to their applications. The opposition would send them back to Sri Lanka, which, coincidentally, is not a signatory to the refugee convention.
Again, we are lectured on consistency by people who are, themselves, inconsistent. As I said, if you want to see a massive dent in the approach taken by people smugglers—a massive dent in the success of people smugglers—you will support Malaysia in a heartbeat. But those opposite are happy to play politics while we are trying to deal with a situation where people are drowning because they are being offered false hope. And the worst thing about this entire debate is that, we will argue, with regard to other policy issues—for example, on this whole notion of means testing—that people who have high incomes should support themselves. We talk about that. We give no regard for the people stuck in refugee camps. We are talking about people who have the money to pay for a berth to come here while other people see the best years of their lives go past while they are sitting in refugee camps. We are not looking at liberating them; we are looking at this.
We do need to put in place every single disincentive possible to prevent people from risking their lives and risking the lives of children—and people profiting off that—and, in the process, we potentially need to give people a second chance at a new life by freeing them from refugee camps. That is consistent policy.
It is always good to follow the member for Chifley. I just let him know that there are already people being sent back to Sri Lanka. When I was on Christmas Island last week they were already going back—and they are the ones who want to work. They come to Australia and say they want to work, so they get sent back.
I rise to support the Member for Cook on his MPI. The Member for Cook started his MPI with comments about searching for Captain Emad, along with the shadow Treasurer. It was an example of the failures of this government and its policy failures.
The minister in charge of customs, the member for Blaxland, opened his speech with the reminder of the 200 people who died off the shore of Indonesia nearly one year ago. And the member for Fraser also reminded us of the deaths at sea in 2001. I understand the minister's sentiments and I remind him that this is exactly the reason we raised this MPI. It is about saving people's lives by stopping the people smugglers and the illegal entry trade. If we, as an opposition, need to continue to remind the government of that, we will do that in every way possible.
We are also often reminded of the Prime Minister's statement when in opposition, 'Another boat; another policy failure.' Well, I say to the government that that is what you created in your scrapping of John Howard's Pacific solution in 2008—more policy failure. With the scrapping of the Pacific solution this government created a magnet for the people smugglers, and of that there can be no doubt.
This week marks five years since I was elected to parliament in 2007, and in those five years I have seen many examples of disastrous Labor policy failures which have hit hard in my electorate and out in the broader Australian electorate. However, none has been quite so catastrophic, as I said before, as Labor's decision to effectively repeal the Pacific solution—the border protection policy that had reduced the number of illegal boats to, effectively, zero.
When the Howard government left office in November 2007, there were just four people in the detention network who had arrived illegally by boat. As I said earlier, the boats were so rare that when one eventually showed up, Julia Gillard would get excited, stand up in parliament and declare 'a policy failure'. Well, Prime Minister, by your standards we have had well over 500 policy failures in border protection since you took power. The results from the reignition of the people-smuggling trade have been tragic. Over a thousand people have died at sea, a thousand souls lost because Australia cannot secure its borders from the people smugglers. This is a tragic loss and a horrible one—1,000 people have drowned on our doorstep. And the arrivals are quite simply out of control. Currently there are 2,000 people arriving every month. As the shadow minister said, that is the equivalent of the QE2 turning up at Christmas Island with a full passenger manifest every month.
This is the fifth month in a row that more than 2,000 people have arrived illegally. And they are showing no signs of slowing down. In total, 30,000-plus have arrived under Labor and the government seems powerless to stop it. The people smugglers know that this government has lost control and, what is more, it has run out of places in detention facilities. In the West Australian last week it was revealed that, as there are no detention places left, illegal arrivals were to be fast-tracked to live in our suburbs, although without work rights. This caused plenty of concern in Western Australia, particularly in my electorate of Swan. This chaotic situation cannot be allowed to continue.
I will repeat a story I told in parliament earlier in the year. A gentleman came up to me after a citizenship ceremony wanting to get his photo taken with his MP. When I asked which country he had come from, he said he was from Afghanistan. I asked him, 'How did you arrive here?' He said, 'By boat.' I asked: 'How did you happen to get onto the boat? How did you find the people smugglers?' He said that he did not find the people smugglers, that they came to his village offering anyone who was interested entry to Australia. I asked him, 'What did that cost you?' He said, 'US$10,000.' 'That's a fair price,' I said. 'How did you actually get here?' He said: 'We flew to Malaysia and then we got on a boat in Malaysia. We bypassed Indonesia. Before we went to Christmas Island we were told to destroy all our identification, so we did. Then I got processed and came to Australia.' 'So you beat the system?' I said. With a smile on his face, he said, 'Yes, I beat the system.' The reason I tell this story is that it shows that this is a business and nothing more—a business this government has enabled.
At least 8,100 people are waiting offshore in desperate circumstances and have been denied Australia's protection via humanitarian visas over the last three years due to this boat influx. These people—the people in refugee camps, the people who don't have US$10,000-plus to pay a people smuggler—need our help most. That is the tragedy of this situation. The people of Australia welcomed a controlled immigration policy. John Howard built a consensus in favour of immigration over his time in government. It is a tragedy that humanitarian visa places are being sold on the Australian government's behalf by the people smugglers.
That brings us to this matter of public importance today:
The Government’s inability to deliver strong, consistent and effective border protection and asylum policy over the past five years.
That the border protection laws have been weakened and can be deemed ineffective is indisputable. The lack of a consistent policy response means the boats keep on coming. First we had the removal of temporary protection visas and offshore processing. Then, before the last election, we had the East Timor fiasco—an incredibly embarrassing incident for Australia where the Prime Minister spoke to the wrong member of the East Timorese government. I am sure the other members on this side of the House will remember how many times we heard, before the previous election, 'We must stop the boats.' The Labor candidate for Swan repeated it over and over again. But, as yet, we have not seen it happen.
The Prime Minister ditched the East Timor solution and tried a people swap arrangement with Malaysia. It did not work, and the High Court struck it down anyway. Still the boats came. Then the government defaulted to a policy of onshore processing, their previous preference, which continued to fail. During this time, the Leader of the Opposition recommended to the government 106 times that they pick up the phone to the President of Nauru and revive offshore processing as part of a three-part plan to revive the Pacific solution.
When this advice was confirmed by the Houston panel, the Prime Minister finally acted and reversed a four-year opposition to offshore processing on Nauru. But, as the coalition has said time and time again, one policy on its own will not do it. The government needs to reinstate the proven suite of Howard policies in full—namely, TPVs, offshore processing and turning around the boats when it is safe to do so.
As I have said previously—from the information I have received from people in Western Australia who know what is going on—the people currently in detention centres are emailing their friends overseas to say, 'Come now before the policies are changed; come now before the coalition is re-elected.' This has been confirmed by one of the guards at the Northam detention centre. He told me that message is continually being emailed by people currently in detention centres.
Financially, there have been significant consequences for the taxpayer. The annual budget in 2007-08 for offshore asylum seeker management was just $85 million. The total bill for this year alone is $2.8 billion. The government's wafer-thin surplus prediction is wiped out by this alone. I can see the shadow Treasurer salivating and wishing he could get his hands on that $2.8 billion for his budgets. You can see the government trying to grab cash wherever it can, as we found out this morning with the Treasury Legislation Amendment (Unclaimed Money and Other Measures) Bill 2012.
But, just as the people smugglers do not believe the government is serious about getting tough on people smugglers, the people of Australia are under no illusions that the government will deliver on its budget surplus promise, despite it being repeated dozens and dozens of time by the Prime Minister and the Treasurer. The reality, as my colleague the shadow minister for immigration, the member for Cook, has pointed out, is that the Pacific solution, when put together with temporary protection visas and turning boats back when safe, reduced the number of boat arrivals to Australia by 99 per cent and cost taxpayers only $289 million over six years. The current government has said this three-pillar solution will not work. But, in the meantime, we still see the boats coming, with many lives put at risk.
The shadow minister for customs refuted the comments by the Minister for Home Affairs that the coalition were happy to see the boats restart and continue because there was some political gain from it. I too refute those comments and have, along with other members of the coalition, continually called for this government to stop the people smuggling. This government should step up and stop this evil trade. They should keep their promise and stop the people smuggling.