Tuesday, 27 November 2012
Migration Amendment (Unauthorised Maritime Arrivals and Other Measures) Bill 2012; Second Reading
It is distressing to be here debating a bill that is similar for all intents and purposes to a step that was taken by the previous Howard government. Many of us had thought that we were no longer in an environment where we would start carving out bits of this country and saying that they did not count as properly being Australia for migration purposes. It is especially distressing because following the events that have happened this year—which everyone in this country would be aware of—where you could not fail to be moved by the tragedy of people drowning at sea as they were escaping to Australia to find a better life, we had in this parliament a unique opportunity to confront what is a difficult issue and what is a global issue; and that is the substantial movement of people around the world, and in this region, as they flee persecution, as they flee war, as flee torture and as they flee hunger. When we were presented with that opportunity, we could have had a rational debate about the kind of country that we want to be. Instead, in an environment that I have heard described as one of moral panic, where it was said that this parliament had to do something and it did not matter what it was as long as we did something, we found ourselves setting a course that would inevitably lead to bills like this.
I fear that we have gone where perhaps the right wing of the Labor Party has always wanted to take us, because Labor, instead of taking us back to Fraser, has taken us back to Howard. That is something that is a source of distress to many people in this country. We could have had inklings of that when we saw the first proposed Malaysia solution, which the High Court and the Angus Houston panel said did not contain sufficient protections for the most vulnerable people in the world as they fled, coming here and seeking our protection. Under the conventions that we had signed up to, it was not acceptable to take the people and then dump them in another country. We saw inklings of this desire of Labor to take us back to Howard from the recent announcement that people who have come here would not be allowed to work while they have their claims processed. We now see confirmation of it in a bill that, for all intents and purposes, excises the whole of Australia from the migration zone if you happen to arrive by boat. As we head into an election year we are seeing a distressing position increasingly being taken by the government. When there is a significant decision to be made on an important social issue, faced with the choice of whether to work with the coalition or to work with the Greens and other progressives in the parliament, the government is increasingly choosing to work with the coalition. We saw it recently on the Murray-Darling issue, and we are seeing it on the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers.
There has been much talk about what alternatives we might have been able to come up with as a parliament—and there are many. But to have an alternative you need to shift your position and be willing to compromise. There was one fundamental issue on which the government was unwilling to compromise, and that was offshore processing: if someone finds their way here by boat after having escaped war, perhaps—after having fled, perhaps, halfway across the globe—then we want to take them to another country or an island; we do not want to process them here; we want to remove them from Australia, whether they are man, woman or child, and potentially lock them up indefinitely. That fundamental point was why the government chose to go and work with the coalition—and of course found a willing partner there. There is a road map for all of this, and that road map was set out by the Howard government.
Let us just consider for a moment someone who finds themselves in such a desperate situation that they will pay someone they have never met some money to get into a boat. This person may have been waiting in the camp in Indonesia, on our doorstep, for a number of years. There are over 8,000 people waiting there, with over 1,000 of them having been found to be refugees, but with no clear pathway out, and with Australia having taken only 50 or 100-odd people from the camp in the last year or two. If I were sitting in that camp, especially if I had been found to be a refugee, and I had seen others sitting near me waiting for years and years, and I did not see a pathway out, and someone came along and said, 'Give us a bit of money and I'll pop you on a boat and you'll get to Australia', well, I would do it. And I reckon anyone here would do it.
What are we doing with those people who come here? We are now putting them in a legal limbo. We are now saying to those people, who had no other clear pathway out, 'You are being put in legal limbo, because when you land you do not actually land in Australia; we reserve the right to now send you off somewhere else for an indefinite period of time.' The worst thing about this is that if the intention is to stop the boats—and I will come back to that in a moment—it will not work. We saw, under the Howard government, one of the biggest single maritime disasters, with 353 people dying at sea, at a time when offshore processing and the Pacific solution was at its height and in full force. And why is that? It is because unless Australia becomes as bad as Afghanistan under the Taliban, or unless Australia starts torturing its citizens, we are always going to be a better bet for people. And we are never going to become that bad, so people around the world, as they look for a safe haven, are always going to look to places like Australia.
We have signed up to the UN refugee convention and said that if people come here then we will look after and process them. If they are not found to be genuine refugees, we send them back; if they are, we find a way of helping them. We are not doing that for these people for whom we say we are going to insist on offshore processing. We will fail morally if we pass this bill, because we have not provided them with a safer alternative pathway. It is all well and good to talk about the no-advantage test. But really—morally—the only way you can say that that is a defensible proposal is if there is safe and quick pathway to come here other than by boat. If you are waiting in Indonesia or Malaysia the average processing time for you can be anything from four years upwards. If you want to take a mathematical average of the time in Malaysia, depending on the category you are in, it could be six or seven years.
We have an obligation—and this is what we could have done—to say, 'We will stop people drowning at sea by removing the risk and the incentive for them to get on a boat by providing safer pathways for coming to Australia.' We could have said—and this is what the Greens have been consistently proposing, even though others have sought to diminish our position as being simply about onshore processing—that if you start to take 1,000 people from the camps in Indonesia and beef up the processing we have there, whether through UNHCR or through Australia operating its own processing centre in Indonesia, and you do the same in Malaysia and increase our humanitarian intake, then all of a sudden the message that starts to go through those camps will be that Australia is taking people again. The message is that, if you are a genuine refugee and you wait your turn for long enough, you will find yourself either in Australia or being resettled somewhere else, so there is no point in getting on a boat. That is what almost all the experts who fronted up to the Houston inquiry, and who have spoken out since, have said is the answer. The people who are working on the ground in the camps in Indonesia and in Malaysia have said that the best thing you can do is give people in the camps hope that if they wait long enough they will find their way out to Australia. At the moment, there is no hope there.
There is lots of talk about the people smugglers' business model. The people smugglers' business model is based on the desperation and the lack of hope that people who are languishing in these camps feel. They feel that there is no other alternative. If we were serious—if this debate was really about saving the lives of refugees—we would have provided them with safer pathways. We have not done that at all. That is because this debate is about two old parties trying to out-tough each other. It is about the right wing of the Labor Party saying, 'When faced with a choice, we would rather go and work with the coalition than work with the Greens or the crossbenchers to find a solution.' Now we find ourselves in a situation in which history is repeating. Instead of going back to Malcolm Fraser, we have gone back to John Howard. The most disappointing thing about it is that there is a better side to Australians. In the years after the Vietnam War, we took in between 90,000 and 100,000 people from Vietnam. We saw them coming in boats. We saw the tragedy that that involved and we said that we needed a regional solution that involved looking after these people and taking our fair share. It was by no means pretty or necessarily the most humane thing. It was a very distressing time for very many people. And it involved people being held in processing centres for a while.
But what we did not do when they arrived here on boats was turn them around. What we did not do was say, 'You've made your way here by boat, so we're going to take you to another country and let them look after you.' Instead, we said to the whole country and to the refugees: 'This is a problem. We've played a role in it. There are people coming here after fleeing a war'—and we should recognise that echo with the people who are coming here after Afghanistan—'and we will come up with a solution that is not only going to stop you getting so desperate that you'll jump on a boat but that will be humane. We will not need to suspend our obligations under the refugee convention and we will certainly not need to say that the whole of Australia does not count as Australia if you arrive here by boat.'
If you ask people in this country whether or not it was a good thing that we did that, most will tell you that it was. Everyone can tell you the story of someone they know in their family, in their workplace or in their street who came here as a refugee and who has now made this country a better place by virtue of being here. There is a better side to each and all of us as citizens of this country. The choice for the leadership of the government is this: which side are they going to pander to? Are they going to pander to the worst in us, the most fearful in us, and embark on a battle that they can never win, which is to try and out-tough Tony Abbott on this question? Or are they going to say, 'No matter what kinds of walls we put up around this country, because we are a democracy people are always going to come here, so the question is how to manage it, not how to try and win votes out of it in outer suburban marginal electorates in New South Wales or Queensland'? The question should be: how do we make Australia better? I reckon if you asked people most would tell you that they would be up for that challenge. But it requires leadership.
We have not seen that leadership and as a result we find ourselves here yet again deciding that we are going to provide differential treatment and have different classes of people. If you had happened to have found your way here by boat 30 years ago, you would have been welcomed and made a part of Australia and would now be one of those people running a business, in a leadership position, in a parliament somewhere in this country or an archbishop. But now we are saying: 'Potentially you will find yourself on a prison island or somewhere else if the government approves that. You will be held for an indefinite period of time. We don't care what mental health consequences that is going to have for you. You are there as an example to be a deterrent for others.' That is not the kind of country that I want and it is not the kind of country that many other people here want either.
I am pleased to speak on the Migration Amendment (Unauthorised Maritime Arrivals and Other Measures) Bill 2012. We would not be here tonight debating this at all if this Rudd-Gillard government had not have changed the policies in 2007. We had policies that worked. People have said this many times, but it has to be said again: when the Rudd government took over in 2007, there were four people who had arrived by boat in detention. The policies worked. No matter how you spin it and no matter how you play with it, at the end of the day the changing of the policies that the member for Berowra put in, which included temporary protection visas, the offshore Pacific solution and the turning back of boats where it was safe to do so, worked. The number of people coming by boat dried up to a trickle.
Let us look at the history of this. I was in the parliament at the time when John Howard brought in these measures—the Tampa solution. I was elected in that year, 2001, so I remember it well. People wanted us to do something about this, and we did. It sent a very strong signal to people smugglers that we were not open for business. Unbelievably, the Rudd Labor government made a great fanfare of dismantling that policy. Western Australian Senator Chris Evans was the immigration minister at the time. I felt pretty cheated by the way he gloated at what he did to a successful policy. I will be reminding my electorate in Western Australia of the role of Senate Evans in this come the next election, because they need to know who was responsible for the dismantling of a successful government policy that saved this country a lot of money and saved a lot of lives.
Senator Evans gloated about dismantling not only the solution but the camps at Manus Island and Nauru. When this new solution was taken on by the Gillard government, they complained that the camp on Nauru had fallen into disrepair and was derelict. They talked in the same manner about Manus Island. The minister at the time, Senator Evans, should be castigated for having bragged about destroying government property or being a barracker for those who destroyed government property.
Eventually the message filtered through to the people smugglers that Australia was open for business again. This government saw a sudden and exponential increase in the numbers of people deciding to take the risky journey to Australia. I speak about this with a little bit of authority, because I have been to Afghanistan and seen the people there who want to come to Australia by any means. I have been to Sri Lanka recently and I met with those detained by the Sri Lankan navy and talked with them about their reasons for coming. And I can tell you, in Sri Lanka, not one person that I spoke to said they were coming here for humanitarian reasons—not one person. They said they were coming here because they knew they could get a good job and there was a lot of money in Australia. When I told them they would not get a visa they said to me, 'It doesn't matter; we'll try, and we'll try again.' Interestingly, the minister, who is at the table, probably does not want to be aware of this, but the money that they get to go home is worth about three years' salary to many Sri Lankans, particularly in the north. It is not much of a deterrent: $16 a week is what the guy serving me in Jaffna told me he earns. So it is not a bad lure to come here and be sent home with your three years' salary.
But let's get back onto this disgraceful backflip, as it has been described by everybody who has been speaking on this bill—even the Greens member, Adam Bandt, from Melbourne. This hypocrisy knows no bounds. At least the member for Melbourne is consistent. I do not agree with the Greens' policies—I think they are pretty whacky and out of touch with the reality of the Australian electorate, who want to see an orderly migration system, not the one that the Greens want where they say, 'We need to better facilitate their entry into Australia.' Unless you vote Greens, you just do not ascribe to that strange logic about getting people here.
I was in the parliament in 2006 when we were vilified, up hill and down dale, by everyone possible in this place, when John Howard wanted to do what this bill wants to do—that is, essentially excise Australia from being a migration zone. We first talked about the islands around Australia. Oh, shock horror! People said it was unconstitutional, it was un-Australian; and now the current government, as we did in 2006, suddenly, because it was recommended by the three members of their advisory panel, have decided to have a go at this. But let us just remember: they vilified us as well about the Pacific solution. They had to contract out their advice, and they got the Houston committee to then tell them, 'Yes, you should try Manus Island and Nauru'—too late; they are coming in their droves. You cannot build a camp big enough to accommodate the thousands of people who are coming per month.
So what has happened? Australia is full. Inverbrackie is full. Curtin is full. Northam is full. Leonora is full. They are opening up the centre at Tasmania. What is the next solution? 'Well, we tried to get people to take them as billets, and we wanted to pay them so much a week'—so all these poor ladies around Australia were happy to try and earn a quid by billeting a few refugees while they waited. That has not worked; it has not really cut through or taken off. So what are we going to do? We are going to let them come here, but, because there are so many of them, they can now get a bridging visa to stay in Australia but they cannot work. As I said, I remember the hypocrisy of what they were saying when we did what we did—and it worked.
It has been said, but I have to remind you: it was not only people like Senator Evans, and, of course, the minister at the table, Minister Bowen, who said that this was a 'dark stain on the character of Australia'—these people are not consistent. As I said, at least the Greens are consistent. We are consistent. The only inconsistent ones in this debate are the Labor Party, because they have had so many incarnations and conversions on the way to the Pacific solution—not on the road to Damascus, I can tell you; it is on the road to Nauru and Manus Island—that no-one believes them anymore. People came up to me when I hosted Tony Abbott in my electorate last week and they were saying to us, 'Are you certain you can stop this situation?' And we said, 'Yes, because we've done it before, and it works.'
I heard the member for Berowra in this place say that, when he brought in these measures, he did not know which would work the best of the suite of three measures, but he said that, when you put them all together, they worked. Unfortunately, this government has only got one real part of that suite, one leg of the three-legged stool—and that is the Pacific solution.
Temporary protection visas, which Tony Abbott wants to move a private members' bill on, will test the government to see if they are real in wanting to give a further deterrent. Because, as we know, and you have to explain to people in the electorate—which I do—temporary protection visas allow people to come here and, while their status is being determined as to whether they are genuine refugees or their countries are safe enough to return to, they can have some work rights.
And I tell you what is cutting through to the electorate also—Tony Abbott's enunciation of the fact that we should be allowing these people to be receiving Work for the Dole type payments, because people do not want those arriving here without a legal reason to do so getting on our welfare system. We know that this measure allows them to earn 89 per cent of Newstart. So there you are: you have people in my electorate who are doing it really hard, and I tell you what makes them really angry—and I would be pleased if the minister at the table would listen to some of these. I have people ringing up my electorate office, or emailing me on a daily basis, who are trying to get here legitimately. A gentleman from the Boddington Gold Mine emailed me today. He has a good job, he pays a lot of tax—about $40,000 a year—he has married an overseas lady, who is pregnant, and he is having real problems getting her to Australia before the birth of the child. And then they see the fact that, if you turn up by boat, you can come straight in and live in the burbs and probably get a house out of it as well. That is what makes them really cross. The number of migration issues that come through my office from people legitimately trying to come here and bring their families, or to reunite or to bring their skills here—it is disgraceful. And yet they see thousands of people coming—30,000 since the government have been in office; 8,000 since they introduced their version of the Pacific solution. And they try to get one member of their family in. No wonder they are so cross and upset with the way the government are treating our immigration policies.
But going back to all of those who wanted to vilify us on this issue—the minister at the table has probably had his ears belted all day—there were right-wingers like the member for Watson, Tony Burke, saying, 'Australia is better than this bill,' 'The legislation before us today undermines our sovereignty,' 'It is offensive to our decency,' and, 'It makes a mockery of this parliament,' The member for Hotham said, 'Labor opposes it outright,' 'There is nothing you can do to this excision bill that will fix it,' 'We will not seek to amend it; we will oppose it in its entirety,' and, 'This bill is shameful and xenophobic.' What happened six years later? 'We are remade, morphed, reborn; we have a different view—we turned 180 degrees. We don't believe in anything we believed in before.' It is just woeful. Of course, we are not going to oppose the bill, because it is the bill we brought to this parliament six years ago.
I will be interested to see what some of the members of the Labor Party do if this comes to a vote—though it will probably be a mickey because we are supporting it. The member for Fremantle has been very outspoken on what a disgraceful set of measures these are, yet I imagine that, if it does come to a vote, she will vote for these measures. She tried to say before that she did not vote for them because there was a mickey, but she did not cross the floor and join those on the mickey vote. She told the Fremantle Herald, when I wrote to her newspaper, that she supported these measures, after saying she could not, would not and did not vote for them. The only reason she did not vote was that it was a mickey vote. I will be pointing this out in the Fremantle Herald when this vote comes up.
The electorates of other left-wing members of this parliament should know their duplicity on this issue as well. In 2006, the Leader of the House, when the parliament was debating the legislation last time, said:
Today this parliament is debating a bill that reduces us as a parliament and as a nation.
… … …
This bill is wrong in principle and it is wrong in motivation.
… … …
This bill is a disgraceful shirking of responsibility by Australia and it must be rejected. The Australian Labor Party rejects it.
That is what the member for Grayndler said. What do the people in the electorate think? As I said, there have been quite a few backflips. On Monday, 26 November, under the headline 'Charities will struggle to help refugees', the West Australian reported:
WA charity groups have condemned the Federal Government’s policy to dump thousands of refugees in the suburbs, saying they cannot deal with any extra demand on their already overstretched resources.
We know that the shortage of public housing in Western Australia is 20,000, so how will the demand be met? In that report, Anglicare Western Australia executive Ian Carter said the policy 'lacked foresight'. St Vincent de Paul said it was 'inhumane'. I could go on.
NEW rules denying asylum seekers the right to work for up to five years will be relaxed …
It quotes the minister, Chris Bowen, who, the article said:
… wanted over time to work out how people arriving by boat had 'appropriate support and care, and where appropriate they have some mechanism in place to be able to support themselves'.
That is code for, 'How are they going to get a job?' You are either going to give them a temporary protection visa—a decent, honest visa—or you are going to give them this mickey mouse visa that essentially allows them to cheat. I spoke on the Migration Amendment (Reform of Employer Sanctions) Bill yesterday, where the provisions against anyone who allows someone to work illegally are being toughened up. So the poor old employer cops all the hammering and fines and everything if he allows someone to work in this country who is not legally entitled to do so. This is only going to encourage people on the breadline to try to get work in the black economy.
This is a disgraceful exhibition of hypocrisy by the Labor Party. They are not doing it properly. They are not going to solve this problem unless they take a deep breath, realise they made a total mistake in 2007 and adopt the full suite of measures of the Howard government, which worked and stopped this evil trade.
This is not an easy issue for governments to deal with. It is not an easy issue for the community to deal with. It is a difficult question where time changes the way in which solutions should be looked at. There was a time when people would come to a parliament like this and argue that the White Australia policy was right. People changed their minds about that. Old policies were changed and new policies were adopted. So I understand that views that people may have had in the past have changed as circumstances have changed, but I do not agree with these changes. Obviously, while my politics are left of centre, they are not 'in the Left', and the characterisation by the previous speaker of people's views as fitting a particular grouping is simply not true.
My approach to policy has always been that we allow the markets to dictate what happens unless there is market failure. Can there have been a greater market failure than what has occurred with close to 40 million people seeking asylum around the world and not having a permanent place to live? There simply cannot be a greater issue that requires governments to act against the way in which society has broken down in some countries and left such large numbers, almost twice the population of Australia, looking for a permanent home because either their existing home is no longer safe or they have been kicked out and are no longer able to stay there. So I do not approach this necessarily with just a bleeding heart; I approach this matter in the same way that I approach every matter, and that is from the point of view of an absolute market failure and the question of how we deal with it. In that context, it is completely understandable that governments may change their minds on issues, but in this case they have done so wrongly.
There were two main reasons that I chose to enter parliament. One was to make sure we got rid of Work Choices and the terrible effects that was having on families, particularly families that commute a lot, as they do on the Central Coast. The second reason was the way in which we treat those people who are less fortunate than us but may not have been born in this country. I was concerned with how we deal with them in a humane way that does not affect the integrity of Australia's borders or make Australia a less secure place. So I am particularly disappointed. I understand the government is searching in a very difficult situation for a solution, but I am very disappointed that they have taken the step of supporting something that they quite rightly rejected in 2006.
Let's be very honest about this. It is just a tricky technical nonsense to actually say that Australia is not part of Australia for the purpose of people seeking asylum. But it is even more tricky than that because it is only not Australia if you have come by boat. And it is even more tricky than that, because if you get on a P&O cruise liner in Fiji and then come to Sydney Harbour and seek asylum, again, you are not affected by this legislation. So the government has picked a particularly inhumane and tricky way of trying to deal with what is a major global problem that requires not short-term political point scoring but long-term solutions that are going to make sure that the people who are in most need are looked after.
I can understand the pressure on the government when you have an opposition that has its head in the sand about these issues and will continually look at pointscoring rather than at positive solutions to this. I listened to the member for Melbourne's contribution and I think the Greens have also failed in this area. They had the opportunity to support the government in talking about regional processing and looking at solutions that go beyond one country. They failed in relation to that and they cannot come in here and say that what they are doing is right. They played the politics of this as well. So we have all parties playing politics with people's lives and ignoring the facts that are there.
Australia is not one of the most generous refugee intake countries in the world—we hear the opposite all the time, but it is simply not true. We are the 14th largest economy yet we accept 0.03 per cent of the world's refugees. I have heard other contributors, including the member for Melbourne, talk about what Australia did in the aftermath of Vietnam. We were accepting about six per cent of world refugees at that time. We are now taking in 0.03 per cent.
One of the other points that has been made—and both parties have made a lot of it—is that stopping the boats will save lives. Well, cutting off someone's last line of escape is no great favour. If you are killed by the Taliban you are just as dead as if you drown. People who are making this very difficult decision about getting on a boat are not doing it for any other reason than that this is their last hope. The argument is often put—and the member for Canning was trying to make this point—that the boat arrivals are not genuine refugees, they are here for economic reasons. That is simply just not true, and it does not hold out in terms of the acceptance of asylum seekers, ultimately, when their claims are processed. If you are looking at where the non-genuine overstayers are then it is clearly plane arrivals. Only between 20 to 40 per cent of plane arrivals who seek asylum in this country are successful. Compare that with the 85 to 90 per cent of people who arrive by boats; clearly, the argument that people are getting on boats to seek some economic advantage just cannot be made out. They are coming because they are desperate, and 85 to 90 per cent of them are successful in having their claims met. They are indeed genuine asylum seekers.
The argument is also put that these people are queue jumpers. Can I say that with close to 40 million seeking asylum in the world it is a terribly long queue. If there were a queue to join, it would take you 135 years to work your way through that queue before you were processed here. So that whole argument is absolute nonsense. It is a cover for people who are racist. That is simply what it is and it has to be said that that is what it is. People who say that there is a queue are actually saying, 'We do not want these people coming here. We do not care about what their circumstances are. We simply do not want them in this country. That is it.' That is a much more honest position to put. We hear, particularly from the coalition, people talking about hypocrisy and so forth. Well, put your argument that you do not want foreigners per se coming to this country, because there is no queue, and if there were one it would take 135 years.
Look at how someone from, say, Afghanistan would seek asylum in Australia. The argument would probably be that they would go to the Australian embassy to seek asylum. But the address of the Australian embassy is, for security reasons, quite clearly and obviously kept secret. So there is nowhere to go in Afghanistan if you want to seek asylum in Australia. It is an absolute nonsense that there is some queue that people can go to and line up in.
These are some of the issues that have been raised as to why we should not be taking people. I actually think that the minister in 2006 made a very good speech, and I know it has been quoted a lot. What he said in 2006 holds just as much now as it did then. He started by saying that in 1951 the United Nations Convention for the Protection of Refugees came into force. The world realised the mistakes of the 1930s, when many western nations turned their backs on Jews fleeing persecution in Germany. Collectively, we said, 'Never again.' I am sure that all of us involved in public life would like to think that we would have done the right thing in those circumstances and stood up for those facing the worst of circumstances, regardless of whether it was popular or unpopular. He went on to talk about the then Migration Amendment (Designated Unauthorised Arrivals) Bill, saying that if it passes parliament 'it will be the day that Australia turned its back on the refugee convention and on refugees escaping circumstances that most of us can only imagine'. He said:
This is a bad bill with no redeeming features. It is a hypocritical and illogical bill. If it is passed today, it will be a stain on our national character. The people who will be disadvantaged by this bill are in fear of their lives, and we should never turn our back on them. They are people who could make a real contribution to Australia.
That was true six years ago and it is equally true now. The government find themselves reacting to the politics and they need to be above that.
I represent the electorate of Dobell. The only time a Labor member lost the seat was in 2001, at the Tampa election. At that particular election there were big posters right around the electorate saying, 'We choose who comes to this country.' We were all saying what a terrible thing that was, yet here we are trying to reproduce almost exactly the same type of legislation—reacting to the same things that happened then. The government are doing it for political reasons. They think that if they are tough in relation to this area they will be rewarded at an election. They are simply ignoring history if they believe that. In 2001 we lost Dobell. We lost some seats even though the approach of the Labor Party at that time was to say: 'We will do everything that Prime Minister John Howard is saying. We support it all. We are not disagreeing with it.' We were trying to make sure there was no difference between us. The Labor Party have clearly not learnt their lesson. They have not learnt their political lesson and they need to get their moral compass back on track in relation to these issues. They did after a period of time in opposition. By 2006, they were fine, looking at these issues in a rational way. They are reacting to very difficult circumstances. They are reacting to a public policy issue that is not easy and does not have a magic bullet solution, but most of all they are reacting to the political bait that is being put by the opposition. It is wrong morally and it is wrong electorally for the Labor Party to go down this path.
I have thought a lot about what I am going to do in this. I will be opposing this legislation. I have thought a lot about it because of the way in which people in my electorate voted in 2001. Do you know what? Sometimes you have to do what is right. Chris Bowen, the minister, as the member for Prospect back in 2006, said, 'You've got to take a decision, even if it will be unpopular, as long as you're sure that it's right.' It is right that this bill is defeated. Australia is Australia. We cannot play tricky word games and try to pretend it is something it is not. We hold ourselves out to be part of the world community. We need to show that we are mature enough to take responsibility on a range of these issues and we should reject this bill wholeheartedly.
As a dear friend of mine often says, prefacing remarks in a political conversation: 'To know where we are today, we have to go back to where we began.' We began with the Australian community's outrage over women and children, and thousands of others, detained behind razor wire, languishing on temporary protection visas in a land where the liberty, freedom and the rule of law are a given, and taken for granted. This bill is yet another step to take us back full circle to a place of national shame. It directly offends the tenet, values and arrangements negotiated by me and others which were passed into law by the Howard government in 2004, then tested and reaffirmed under a set of different circumstances in 2006. That agreement went to the heart of protecting the most vulnerable individuals from life behind a razor-wire fence. It went to the heart of how we treat genuine refugees seeking solace within our shores. The wrongs that were righted removed a disgrace. This proposal is a disgrace and it bring disgrace upon us all.
I stand today more in sorrow than in anger. With injustice and indifference at its core, this proposal to excise the Australian mainland from the migration zone resurrects the legislation proposed in 2006 by the then Howard government. I opposed it then; I oppose it now. If this were not of such a serious nature I would have thought it were a joke. This legislation joins Tasmania with Christmas Island, 5,399 kilometres apart! Though we differ, my party has been entirely consistent in support of this policy position under the leadership of John Howard, Brendon Nelson, Malcolm Turnbull and Tony Abbott. In stark contrast, other members of this House called the 2006 genesis of this bill as being immoral and xenophobic. They were right then. This policy reversal is wrong now. Today, these same representatives sit as members of executive government, parroting their predecessor's policy disgrace. That our leadership—and I am talking about both parties—has come to an enabling consensus on this matter is not a display of unity and bipartisanship; rather, it is a retreat from leading the national debate to a higher place for a greater purpose. I said in 2006 that my decision then to oppose similar legislation was made because it was in the national interest of this Great South Land that it continue to be a passionate protector of the rights of genuine refugees. My position is unchanged today for the sake of our national interests both at home and abroad. I oppose this legislation now as I did its predecessor because it is offends the stand—and it seems today that these words were spoken so long ago—I made in 2006, when I said that Australia should remain:
… a place where dreams come true, where the impossible becomes the possible and the probable becomes the inevitable … where people find a sense of belonging … a place of hope for generations of new immigrants.
I stand tonight in a place of discomfort and controversy in a debate that is complicated, divisive and polarising. In this moment I can choose to be either at peace with my party, unified in opposition to this poor excuse for a Labor government or at peace with my heart for this nation. I choose to be at peace with my heart for this nation. I oppose these Labor Party bills and all who join with them in their intent to enact unjust laws which while they are on our statutes will remain a blight on our national integrity.
Today is a rare day for the government. Today this government is doing something which makes sense, which has a chance of working, which might restore some integrity to Australia's borders and which might act as a deterrent to the repugnant trade of people smugglers who traffic in human misery.
The objective of the Migration Amendment (Unauthorised Maritime Arrivals and Other Measures) Bill 2012 is to expand the existing offshore processing regime to apply to all persons who arrive unlawfully by sea to mainland Australia. You could be forgiven for thinking that the objective of this bill sounds familiar. That would be because it is familiar. This bill is almost a carbon copy of the bill passed by the House of Representatives under the Howard government in 2006 when it expanded offshore processing to apply to people arriving on mainland Australia. How embarrassing it must be for the government to introduce this bill into the House. Maybe the answer to the question of why the government is doing so lies in the difference between what the now Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, Mr Bowen, is saying now and what he had to say back in 2006 when he, along with his Labor colleagues, opposed the Howard government's introduction of the almost-identical bill. The now minister described that bill then as a 'stain on our national character'. But what is he saying today? Ms Ellis, who is now also a minister, said that the bill was 'ludicrous', 'harsh', 'inhumane' and 'gutless'—and it went on and on. The hypocrisy of the government's U-turn is absolutely breathtaking.
Tragic and unacceptable loss of life and unprecedented budgetary disaster have flowed from Labor's staggeringly incompetent border protection policies. Labor's border protection policies should be likened to an employment program for people smugglers. The Howard government put the people smugglers out of business; Labor resurrected their business. Since November 2007, when Labor announced that it was dismantling the coalition's border protection polices, there have been 30,000 unauthorised maritime arrivals. This is more people than live in cities such as Alice Springs, Warrnambool, Nowra, Albany, Maryborough and Devonport. It is about 1½ times the number of people who live in cities such as Goulburn, Armidale, Whyalla and Mount Isa.
Since November 2007, Labor's failures on our borders have got worse. The government's policies have been half-hearted, and it has made policy switches from one month to the next. The government is not up to the job, and it is not up to the commitments that it has made. More than half the number—that is, 15,403—of the 30,057 unauthorised maritime arrivals under this government have turned up this year, and more than a third—that is, 10,146—have turned up since 1 July. More people have turned up on more boats in 2012 alone than in the entire 11½ years of the Howard government yet Labor still refuses to acknowledge that it got it horribly wrong when it abolished the Howard government's policies, and it continues to get it wrong by refusing to restore them. This is what happens when intractable political incompetence blinds sensible decision making. Sadly, this dynamic occurs all too often in this government.
At the average rate of arrivals over the full term of the Howard Government, it would have taken John Howard more than 25 years as Prime Minister to reach the number of unauthorised maritime arrivals that have occurred under Labor in less than five years. Under the Howard government's policies, it would have taken more than 500 years to reach 30,000 unauthorised maritime arrivals. Labor's record on border protection shows breathtaking incompetence. It reads as follows. Since the last election, Labor's failures on our borders have increased threefold: in Labor's first term there were 7,349 illegal boat arrivals; so far in Labor's second term there have been more than 22,000. The average monthly rate of arrivals over Labor's second term is almost four times higher—and at current levels it is 10 times higher—than it was in Labor's first term. Absolutely tragically, under Labor's policies more than 1,000 people have perished at sea. At least 8,100 people who have been waiting offshore in desperate circumstances have been denied Australia's protection because they did not come on a boat.
I heard the member for Dobell expressing an interesting slant on border protection policy. He said that there is no such thing as people waiting in queues and no such thing as a United Nations humanitarian refugee waiting list. But I have been to refugee camps. I have spoken to people who have been interviewed. I have been to the Thai-Burmese border and seen the 140,000 people there who are waiting offshore and who are applying under the correct processes to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Also, the budget has blown out. It has blown out to $6.6 billion and counting, including $1.7 billion this year.
This Labor government's policy has done incredible damage to Australia's humanitarian and immigration programs. It has been a public policy disaster in humanitarian terms and also in budgetary terms. There is no other way to describe it. This will put an incredible pressure on public housing. There are agencies like the Red Cross and others who are doing an incredible job, but these numbers keep rising. There will be incredible pressures put on state governments in terms of health and education.
This bill will replace the concept of 'offshore entry person' with the concept of 'unauthorised maritime arrival'. It will mean that more persons who arrive on Australian soil by boat will be subject to removal to an offshore processing country and they will be processed according to that country's regime. What this means is that the bill will effectively excise the Australian mainland from the Migration Act, which is intended to be a disincentive for people to make the journey to Australia.
Labor continues to fail to implement the full suite of measures the coalition had in place. Every day, when they say they will bring out a policy, they keep retreating. Today we saw a retreat, again, on work rights. They were not going to introduce work rights; now they are softening on work rights with the temporary protection visa update and changes that they announced a few days ago. This policy keeps evolving and changing; no wonder people smugglers continue to send people here; they have absolutely no surety about what the government is going to say from one policy decision to the next, or what they are going to stick to.
This government has continued to change its policy from day to day. We introduced these measures in 2006. The impact of these measures would have been much more significant if this government had introduced the full suite of measures. This bill is a step in the right direction and the coalition will support it. The challenge for the Labor Party now is to embrace the complete policy and political honesty, adopt the remainder of the coalition's border protection policies and put people smugglers out of business.
But do not hold your breath for that one, Deputy Speaker. That is too much policy logic from Labor, and after five years of policy failure it is probably expecting a bit too much.
Before I speak to the bill I would like to acknowledge in this chamber the very courageous and wise words of the member for McMillan. I feel privileged indeed to count him as a friend and to have him as a colleague in this place.
The Migration Amendment (Unauthorised Maritime Arrivals and Other Measures) Bill 2012 gives effect to recommendation 14 of the Houston expert panel, which proposed excising the Australian mainland so that a person arriving by sea, without a visa, cannot apply for a protection or other visa unless the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship determines that it is in the public interest to lift that restriction.
The practice of excising parts of Australian territory started in 2001, and a bill to expand the excision of the Australian mainland was introduced and passed in the House of Representatives in 2006. As my colleague said, he and I and other colleagues, the former member for Cook, who is somewhere in the gallery, and the former member for Kooyong, opposed that bill at that time. But so concerning were the measures outlined in that bill that the Senate Legal and Constitutional Committee, chaired by then government Senator Marise Payne, recommended that 'the bill not proceed'. It was withdrawn when it was clear it would not pass the Senate—not because of the terrible ramifications of that piece of legislation, but because it simply was not going to pass in the Senate, and that would have been an embarrassment to the government.
The report included a number of recommendations to limit the effects of the bill should the government still elect to introduce it. These were fairly extensive but went to transparency, procedural fairness, special consideration for women and children, parliamentary and/or ombudsman scrutiny of operations on Nauru and Manus Island and a sunset period of 18 months for the operation of the legislation.
This bill before the House has the same intent. It effectively warehouses people in a foreign country and continues a pattern of punitive, arbitrary, indefinite, mandatory detention. These are people: men, women and children who have not been convicted of any crime. May I say, that in looking at these issues over a lengthy time line—I think it has been a 10-year period—there has been more than one inquiry a year into the effects of mandatory detention, and all of them have warned government of the dire consequences of this policy. Yet governments of both persuasions have ignored all of those reports—some of them from their own parliamentary committees.
What really concerns me is that this legislation places these people out of reach of the Australian legal system and casts doubts as to whether any review process will ever be available to them. Our democracy is underpinned by the rule of law, which requires, as a minimum, access to judicial review of administrative action, the right to a fair trial, the right to private communication with a lawyer and access to the courts. This bill is a crack in each of those foundation stones of our democracy. That is why people out there ought to be concerned about the passage of such legislation in unseemly haste in this place. We should ask the question: who or what will protect these people from processing errors? Who or what?
In justifying these extreme measures, the expert panel report provided just two paragraphs of reasoning for such a draconian piece of legislation. On the statistics alone, it is difficult to justify the excision of the whole mainland. In the decade since 2001, a total of five boats have managed to get as far as the Australian mainland—and those five boats carried only 86 people. This is not an avalanche, a tsunami or an invasion. It is hardly a number to give rise to the implementation of such an extreme piece of legislation—a piece of legislation which discriminates against an asylum seeker simply on the basis of the mode of travel they used to come to this country.
Yet we continue along this path, with this bill being the final legal brick in the creation of fortress Australia. Let us be clear: Australia has signed the refugee convention, but it seems the government has no intention of meeting its obligations under that agreement. This bill, combined with the recently passed Migration Legislation Amendment (Regional Processing and Other Measures) Bill, the existing legal framework, the memorandum of understanding between Australia and Nauru and Papua New Guinea, and the new no-advantage test, completes a cunning suite of legislation and international agreements devised by government to effectively avoid Australia's obligations under the refugee convention.
First, international law is underpinned by the simple but powerful principle of 'pacta sunt servanda', namely that every treaty in force is binding on the parties to it and must be performed by them in good faith. In the exercise of its sovereign capacity, Australia, when it acceded to the Refugee Convention, made a solemn set of commitments to other states. If it were to dishonour those commitments, it could hardly expect to be taken seriously if it then complained when other states chose to dishonour their commitments under a whole range of treaties and conventions from which Australians stand to benefit.
The article was worth reading in its entirety and I had a conversation just this afternoon with William Maley on these issues.
Under this new regime, asylum seekers will, at the very least, spend years languishing in detention in foreign countries even if they have been assessed as a refugee, and they may never be able to successfully apply for asylum in Australia. A dissection of the suite of measures uncovers the devil in the detail. Take, for instance, Nauru. The MOU states that refugees will be processed under Nauruan law. This is confirmed by Australia's Department of Immigration and Citizenship in material given to asylum seekers. But, to apply for an Australian refugee visa under regulation 866.21 of the Australian Migration Act regulations, the applicant must be a person to whom 'Australia has protection obligations under the Refugee Convention.'
This is an incredible sleight of hand. It is difficult to see how any asylum seeker can argue Australia's protection obligations are applicable when they are determined to be a refugee in Nauru, under Nauruan law, which is now a signatory to the refugee convention. When I speak to lawyers, it is clear that they can barely understand the complexities in this suite of legislation. Consider the consequences for just one moment. We have shovelled off these desperate people to a country which simply cannot absorb or resettle them, in the process potentially extinguishing any legal claim they have to resettle in Australia. They will, as a result of the government's deliberate policy choice, languish in detention centres offshore for years at Australian taxpayer expense.
I hear speeches in this place about the huge cost of our asylum program. We could avoid that by treating these people decently, resettling them quickly and processing their claims quickly and efficiently. I will not go into that right now, but there is no justification for the huge expense to Australian taxpayers of this flawed policy. We need to ask ourselves what value we place on the rule of law if we are prepared to extinguish it for a political purpose. There can be no other reason for the sweeping changes in this bill.
Consider, for instance, the fact that, from 1 July 1998 to 27 July 2012, there were 79,498 protection visa applications from people who arrived in Australia by air. This is more than double the total number of people arriving by boat over the same period and it is 924 times more people than have arrived on the Australian mainland. Yet this bill will not affect air arrivals. These people, some of whom arrive in Australia with no intention of returning to their country of origin, will not be removed to an overseas detention facility. They will have access to merits review and will live and work in the community despite the fact that, statistically, only about 20 per cent to 30 per cent of them qualify for refugee status. That compares to 90 per cent of the people who arrive by boat qualify. How can this glaring difference in the way people are treated be justified? Why do we continue to demonise and penalise people who arrive by boat? It is difficult to accept the argument that Australia's approach of stripping away the protections contained in an international convention designed to protect human dignity and respect for human life should have any legal or moral force.
Addressing this issue requires more than tag lines. We must engage in a constructive regional dialogue and must first work to find durable policies in the source countries. We must use diplomacy and work with our neighbours in the region to address the common concerns about refugee flows, not just to resolve the political problems in Australia but to seek cohesive, humane policy for the region. This should include consultation with countries in the region to seek agreement to set up UNHCR approved regional processing centres and it should include a commitment by Australia to lift its refugee intake to a more realistic level. Under this process, people could not pick and choose a country to resettle in but would be allocated, as has been done successfully in the past, during the Indochinese conflict for example. I know that was slightly different, but there is no reason why this cannot be achieved. It is harder, it is slower but it is more sure.
Perhaps also it is time to discuss with the UNHCR the renegotiation of our humanitarian intake so we can relieve some of the pressures in the region, be good neighbours and take the bulk of our humanitarian intake from the immediate region, where the problem currently exists. These are matters worthy of discussion if we really want to stop people losing their lives crossing the ocean between Indonesia and Australia.
It will not be a quick political fix that resolves these matters. Rather, it will be the intelligent, diligent application of diplomatic skills and goodwill, and sensible policy making and sensible legislation. It may take longer but it will be surer and will produce a much improved humanitarian response.
I would like to finish with another quote from the article by Bill Maley and Penelope Mathew. The article begins:
Australia's refugee policy is now in a total mess. Rather than being guided by principles or even a measured pragmatism, it reflects the knee-jerk response of politicians who are desperate to win votes from the least informed parts of the electorate.
Like my colleague the member for McMillan, my heart is heavy when I have to come into this place and once again speak in this way about legislation being considered by this House.
In all conscience I cannot support this piece of legislation.
I acknowledge the contribution of my colleague the member for Pearce. She has been consistent in her views and certainly has cared sufficiently to express them.
Unfortunately the stark reality behind the Migration Amendment (Unauthorised Maritime Arrivals and Other Measures) Bill is that the government has lost control of Australia's borders. It is a simple but inescapable conclusion demonstrating a serious policy failure, and after listening to the member for Pearce we can understand just how serious. This action represents the inability of the government to perform even the most fundamental function. A sovereign nation's borders are a part of its very definition. The first way we define a country of the world is to define its borders. This has been the way of human history. Nations have waxed and waned, and that has usually been measured by the expansion and contraction of their borders. Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece and Rome are historically defined by the borders they established and defended, and the same applies to civilisations around the world. Wars over borders have been fought throughout history—border issues are probably the cause of more wars than all the other causes combined. Throughout history leaders have been defined by their ability to manage and defend their nation's borders. So, when history reflects on the current government and its ability to manage Australia's borders, it will, unfortunately, only see dreadful, dismal failure.
Worse still, in my view, this has become not only a border protection failure but also a humanitarian, social and economic failure. When Labor came to power in 2008, purely driven by cheap politics it simply dumped a successful border protection policy. We did know that policy was a success—only four people were in the detention system at that time. But rather than build on that success the Labor government abandoned it—for all of the wrong reasons. Unfortunately, this has been done at a cost to the community. As I said, there is a social cost, there is an economic cost and there is a humanitarian cost. There is a border protection cost. It is interesting that the Labor government has come to this, given that it was a Democrat in the United States, John F Kennedy, who said, 'Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country'. That sentiment is important in this debate.
Most Australians are proud of their country and fiercely defensive of our borders. Most Australians do not agree with Labor's approach of abandoning our border protection. They are angry and frustrated. They are angry and frustrated not only because the government has jeopardised Australia's strong border reputation but also because of the financial blow outs that have been revealed. This does cause the social challenges in our community that I have referred to. It does impact on social cohesion, and people do become very concerned about what this approach is costing and who is paying for it. I am frequently asked, as I suspect many members of this House are, particularly in relation to aged care, about what has come out of the ACFI funding model for some of the smaller service providers as opposed to what this policy failure is costing. That is what this type of failure unfortunately causes in the community.
As I said earlier, this was a program that did cost, as we heard earlier, less than $100 million five years ago under the coalition government but it is now costing more than $1 billion under this government. The government said it would spend just $100 million in each of the years of 2010-11 and 2011-12, but they have spent $879 million and $1.2 billion respectively. The government went back to the parliament last year asking for another $295 million to cover the budget blow out, and the year before it needed an extra $120 million.
My constituents have got to the point where they do not believe that the Labor government can stop the boats or fix this mess. They know this is a dreadful policy failure, and I am concerned about its divisive nature in the community. The people do know that the coalition government had to deal with this in the 1990s. There was a dramatic increase in the number of boat people arrivals, from hundreds in 1998 to 1,000 in 1999—a tenfold increase since the early nineties. By 2001, the then coalition government made it clear that Australia needed to protect its borders and that it would take strong action to do so. In 2001, people smugglers made it to Australia 43 times. Thanks to the tough coalition policies of 2002, in 2002 they only made it once. Over the remaining years of the coalition government, 25 boats entered Australia illegally. That is an average of 3½ boats a year from 2002 to 2008.
As I said, there were only four people in the immigration detention system when Labor achieved government in 2007. But, in 2008, the Labor government cast aside that policy and basically threw open Australia's borders. In 2009, people smugglers reached Australia 61 times. In 2010, they earned their illegal income through 134 successful incursions. This basically put the vile people smugglers back in business, and I just cannot accept that. The floodgates reopened. Unfortunately, since Labor abolished the coalition government's Pacific solution, over 30,000 people have arrived on over 500 boats. When I look at that figure of 30,000-plus people, I see a city the size of Busselton, in my electorate. We also know of the tragedies that came with those boats—dreadful tragedies. At least 1,000 asylum seekers and crew have lost their lives at sea, and not one person to date has been processed offshore. Illegal boat arrivals are now occurring at the highest rate on record. We have gone from an average of three boat arrivals a year in 2002 to the arrival of, on average, 2,000 asylum seekers per month in recent times. It is just appalling, in my view, that people smugglers believe they are in control and in charge—and they are clearly making a fortune.
We need a solution to this problem, because the current approach is haphazard and just a mess, and we as a coalition have solutions to offer. The shadow minister for immigration, the member for Cook, has provided a bill this week that provides such a solution. The process that we are seeing from this government is in constant confusion. The re-establishment of temporary protection visas is an essential plank of a real response to people smuggling, and the member for Cook's bill will provide real action. Temporary protection visas were a vital and effective tool in ending the trade in human misery that is people smuggling.
The government of course has used a spurious argument in defence of its refusal of this effective tool. According to the Report of the Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers released in August this year:
TPV grants from inception to abolition (1999-2007) was 11,206.86. Of the 11,206 people granted a TPV, 9,043 were irregular maritime arrivals. Of this number 8,600 (95 per cent) were eventually granted a permanent visa in Australia.
The Labor argument is that this somehow demonstrates that TPVs were ineffective. The reality is vastly different. TPVs did not prevent genuine asylum seekers coming to Australia, most of whom gained residency; but they did provide a real disincentive for those who were not genuine refugees.
The member for Berowra eloquently talked about the refugees waiting in camps who cannot afford to pay people smugglers exorbitant amounts of money, such as $10,000 or more. It is appalling that these TPV holders were able to gain priority over those who are in camps around the world and who have been denied access to Australia because we have people smugglers plying their vile trade and people who can afford to pay them. I do not support that at all. We need policies that address this but, with this government, that is exactly what we do not have. The Report of the Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers does not identify temporary protection visas as a failure, and the government should stop misleading the community in this way.
Of course, I understand why the government remain opposed to real solutions: they would have to acknowledge the successful policies of the coalition government. Most Australians understand that strong leadership involves acknowledging your mistakes and correcting them, but this government is not capable of that. Instead, the Labor government have brought another bandaid bill into this House to try and patch up what is a dreadfully failed policy—there is no doubt; we cannot cope with the 2,000 arrivals per month—and people simply do not trust them to get it right. How can you trust a government that cannot protect its borders, that cannot get border protection right? It is a fundamental responsibility of government.
To go back to where I started, there is no doubt that this is not only a border protection failure; it is also a humanitarian failure, a social failure and an economic failure of core government responsibility and core government policy.
I rise to foreshadow an amendment I will be moving to the Migration Amendment (Unauthorised Maritime Arrivals and Other Measures) Bill 2012 which would put into law the Bali process. I know I have been banging on about this all year, but I know it has the support of both major political parties in this chamber and, I would hope, the support of the vast majority of all members here.
The amendment will require an annual report from the minister, whoever that may be, on the Bali process and the work of government in the implementation of the Bali process, to be made to this House. It is good work that is being done, across party lines, offshore, that was started in 2002 by Alexander Downer and is continued under the current government, and, I understand, represented in the process by the minister at the table tonight, Minister Bowen.
The Bali Process on People Smuggling, Trafficking in Persons and Related Transnational Crime is co-chaired by the governments of Indonesia and Australia. It brings together participants to work on very practical measures to help combat people smuggling, trafficking in persons and related transnational crimes throughout our Asia-Pacific region. It is the best we have in regard to the issues associated with slowing the movement of people within our region and trying to deal with issues of criminality associated with people-smuggling and trafficking. It is the mid- to long-term solution that so many people are looking for as the circuit-breaker to much of the short-term language that we hear dominating this debate in Australia today.
Even Paris Aristotle today in the Sydney Morning Herald again made the compelling case that only a mid-term, comprehensive, regional response will address the issues before the House. Speaking with reference to The
Report of the Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers, of which he was a member, Mr Aristotle said:
The panel presented an integrated package of 22 recommendations knowing it would take time to implement them … The report’s most important components were measures to establish an effective regional processing and protection framework that would build a safer system.
… … …
None of the measures are quick fixes, nor can they work on their own. The howls for immediate success and claims that it must have failed even though it has not been fully implemented are examples of the shrillness characterising this debate.
So that is one of the expert panel members in today's media in an opinion piece reflecting not so much on this legislation but on the ongoing debate that has gone off the rails in Australia today, and on the false expectations that are put to the Australian people from short-termism.
None of the issues in question and at stake that challenge public policy in this area will be nor can be fixed by short-term solutions. They need mid- to long-term solutions and they do require Australia to work with our near neighbours. If we try to go it alone in any particular policy way we will fail, and that is regardless of who is the minister of the day, and regardless of the government of the day, and regardless of which political parties are involved. Unless we work with our near neighbours in a coordinated way, as part of a regional process, we will fail. The recommendations that were made by the expert panel highlight that, and, again, people like Paris Aristotle have been highlighting that today. It is the reference point, the safe port, in all of this for public policy in regard to the Bali process, which is the bipartisan piece of work in all of this, and is something that I hope we can get codified into Australian law today.
So, like the expert panel, I am certain that regional cooperation and bilateral agreements will be central to the successful implementation of the recommendations of what is now known as the Houston report, and it is essential for the successful establishment of things such as offshore assessment and to protect against loss of life at sea. The movement of refugees in the Asia-Pacific region is not an issue that Australia can deal with in isolation in the absence of cooperation with other countries in our region. While Australia can establish regional processing arrangements in the short term, Australia's domestic policies alone will not easily deter those refugees who are desperately seeking protection from persecution.
The irregular movement of people affects many countries in our region, as much as if not more than it affects Australia. By and large, those who seek refuge in Australia have transited through the territory of one of Australia's neighbours before they arrive here. Movements into other countries in the Asia-Pacific region, on raw figures alone, are higher than movements into Australia. It is a myth that has made its way into the Australian community that it is any other way. Without a doubt, many of our Asia-Pacific neighbours are more challenged by more movements of asylum seekers than we in Australia are, largely because we are surrounded by water. That alone significantly slows the movement of people to Australia.
Therefore, we need to work with our near neighbours, not only on issues of people seeking asylum but also on issues that are equally challenging, if not more challenging, and which should challenge us as they should and do challenge our neighbours: issues of criminality associated with smuggling, and—for me, the most insidious of all crimes—the crime of trafficking in persons, a crime to which, in my view, Australia does not give the priority attention that it deserves as an issue of great prevalence throughout the Asia-Pacific region. As I say, in my view, if we are going to have a hierarchy of crimes then that is the worst one of all.
The countries of the Asia-Pacific region therefore share a substantial common interest in forming long-term strategies to regulate the movement of people. Indeed, this shared concern has already given rise to multilateral cooperation. As stated before, the Bali Process on People Smuggling, Trafficking in Persons and Related Transnational Crime provides the best regional mechanism through which Australia can encourage and cooperate with other countries in our region on matters relating to irregular migration and related issues.
The Bali process is particularly relevant in the context of this bill. It is committed to assisting other countries adopt best practices in asylum management in line with the principles of the refugee convention. Whilst there are countries involved in the Bali process that are not signatories to the refugee convention, this is our best chance as a region to put together a framework. Certainly Australia's obligations as a signatory would not allow us to act in a way that is in breach of our obligations under the refugee convention. Therefore, that is the standard that is set for the Bali process and the principles behind it.
Australia's ultimate long-term goal relating to refugees is to see the countries of the Asia-Pacific region treat all refugees in a way that is consistent with the principles of the refugee convention through this Bali process. Only through encouraging our neighbours to protect people from persecution can Australia truly discourage people from making dangerous boat journeys to Australia. That is done in a spirit of cooperation, not in a spirit of paternalism. This is an exercise in trying to work together on the full range of issues that challenge us all.
Mindful of this long-term imperative of the refugee issue, this House must acknowledge the central role of regional cooperation and the Bali process in informing sustainable and effective policies in this area. It is, therefore, my view—and, I hope, the House's view—that it is appropriate that we insert into this legislation the idea of having 12-monthly reports on the Bali process to the House. Certainly I hope it is an amendment that is considered in its spirit by all.
I thank members for their contributions to the second reading debate on the Migration Amendment (Unauthorised Maritime Arrivals and Other Measures) Bill 2012. This bill amends the Migration Act 1958 in accordance with recommendation 14 of the report of the expert panel on asylum seekers which stated that arrival anywhere in Australia by irregular maritime means should provide individuals with the same status. That is, irregular arrival by sea anywhere in Australia should make a person liable to regional processing arrangements. At the forefront of the panel's reasoning in making this recommendation was the need to reduce any incentive for people to take even greater risks with their lives—such as staying longer on a boat to avoid Christmas Island, Ashmore Reef or some other excised place—in seeking to reach the Australian mainland and avoid being subject to regional processing arrangements.
As the panel emphasised, and as the government has acknowledged, the recommendations in this report are an integrated package. We have not accepted or rejected each recommendation; we accepted them all as a whole. Therefore, we are moving to implement every single recommendation. This is something that I have freely acknowledged many times publicly and it is indicative of the fact that we are the only party—not those opposite and not the Greens party—implementing all the recommendations of the expert panel's report.
Yes, this bill is directed squarely at boat arrivals, but so is the expert panel's report. As members would recall from the emotional but ultimately fruitless parliamentary debate of some months ago, the expert panel was prompted by people getting on boats and dying at sea. Hence the government implemented this as a circuit-breaker to get a breakthrough. We got the recommendations and we have been implementing them. Those arriving by plane are not the ones dying en route to Australia and are not the focus of this bill. Those arriving by plane are not risking their lives to get here. The very clear and universally agreed aim of the policy changes underlined by the expert panel's recommendations is the need to remove the incentive for people to take the dangerous journey by boat.
Clearly the expert panel makes a very strong recommendation for this bill, as I say, in order to remove what could be a perverse incentive to stay longer on boats. This bill is not about excising the Australian mainland from the migration zone. The definition of the migration zone is not being amended in this bill. Rather, a person will be subject to regional processing based on their status as an unauthorised maritime arrival—that is, by arriving in Australia, in the migration zone, by sea without a valid visa. This is in contrast to the current situation where an individual is only subject to regional processing if they enter Australia at an excised offshore place such as Christmas Island.
I have freely admitted and acknowledged that people will very obviously take a range of views on this issue—about this issue in particular and about the general issue more broadly. As I have said in other places, if after deeply considering all the issues people reach a different position and their moral compass points a different way, I will acknowledge and respect it. But people who argue entirely for onshore processing must acknowledge that that will continue to provide an incentive to come to Australia by boat. Without taking difficult decisions such as this, it would mean, inevitably, more deaths at sea. That is the simple fact.
I want to deal with the contribution of the member for Melbourne. In his speech he said that this government has not implemented extra pathways to Australia. He said, 'If only this government would implement some way for people to get to Australia more safely, if only this government would provide more places for those people in Indonesia, that would be the right thing to do.' The member for Melbourne seems unaware that we are doing exactly that. The member for Melbourne seems unaware or chooses to ignore the fact that this government has increased the humanitarian program to 20,000 places—the biggest increase in the humanitarian program in 30 years. As has been noted publicly this week, that is not a universal position across this chamber anymore. It was for a little while. It is not anymore. This government is committed to increasing the humanitarian program. In fact, we have done so. More visas have been issued offshore as a result of the increase to the humanitarian program.
What we will not do is focus that increase in the program entirely and exclusively on Indonesia. That would be to say that Australia's entire humanitarian program should be focused on those who can at least get to Indonesia, if not to Australia, because they can afford a people smuggler to get them to Indonesia or can get to Indonesia under their own steam. Our humanitarian program is about much more than that. It is about providing those alternative pathways, but it is also about providing hope to people who could not possibly afford a people smuggler—people in camps in Africa, people in camps in the Middle East, people in camps in Thailand and elsewhere in Asia—and other people who cannot make it to Indonesia. The Greens take a short-sighted approach that says, 'We're focused on Indonesia.' That is ignoring our moral responsibility to those in different parts of the world who deserve at least the chance of resettlement in Australia. So I completely reject the assertions of the honourable member for Melbourne, who just wilfully ignores the fact that this government has increased the humanitarian program to 20,000 places—yes, at some substantial cost to the budget because of the substantial resettlement support that we provide. The member for Melbourne seems to have not noticed this in the public debate in recent weeks, as the Greens regularly ignore things which are inconvenient to their argument. I suggest perhaps they are not alone there in this House occasionally.
The government continues to implement the panel recommendations and more. Today we saw another transfer of people back to Sri Lanka, people who are not exercising Australia's international obligations. We are swiftly returning them to Sri Lanka. So people who are coming to Australia for economic reasons are clearly being dealt with by our law and being returned to Sri Lanka—something that the Howard government was never able to achieve. Swift returns to Sri Lanka, in some cases within days of arrival, are being done by this government, because we have seen an increase in people arriving in Australia from Sri Lanka and a lot of this is clearly for economic purposes. But what we will not do is ignore our obligations under the refugee convention. We will at least hear the reasons for people's travel to Australia.
I know the opposition would turn boats around on the high seas—in my view, a breach of the refugee convention. We will not do that. But what we are doing is safely returning people to Sri Lanka. We are not conducting difficult and unsafe operations on the high seas but safely returning people by aeroplane to Sri Lanka. We have returned a very considerable number of people in recent weeks and we will continue to do so. We have also seen some voluntary returns, to Sri Lanka in particular but other nations as well—Iran in particular. But Sri Lanka is the nation which has received the most voluntary returns. Since 30 August more than 600 Sri Lankans have returned home, which I think underlines the point that people smugglers are selling false promises about what awaits people in Australia. They are selling the false promise of a fast track to a visa and what we are very clearly doing is giving the lie to that promise, taking action which is swift and which clearly shows the message.
The Australian government's policy is clear. We want to resettle more refugees in Australia. We want to give more people the chance of life in Australia. We want to see 20,000 refugees resettled in Australia every year, which would make us the largest resettlement country in the world per capita and the second largest in absolute terms for UNHCR referred refugees. Certainly on some of the measures we are very close to Canada in terms of resettlement. It is this side of the House which is doing that. It is this side of the House which is committed to doing that. It is only this side of the House which is committed to giving more people the chance of life in Australia while also taking the difficult decisions to dissuade people from risking their lives to get to Australia by sea. It is very easy to say that that is not necessary. It is the government which has a responsibility to do so and we will continue to do so.