House debates

Thursday, 20 June 2013

Matters of Public Importance

Asylum Seekers

3:53 pm

Photo of Ms Anna BurkeMs Anna Burke (Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

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 impact of the Government's five years of border protection policy failure.

I call upon those 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—

Photo of Scott MorrisonScott Morrison (Cook, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Immigration and Citizenship) Share this | | Hansard source

Today is World Refugee Day and I think it is important that in this place today we acknowledge that. There are 10½ million people classified by the UNHCR as refugees—men, women, children, mums, dads, sisters, brothers, grandparents; 10½ million people under the mandate of the UNHCR under the refugee convention. These are 10½ million people whose lives have been uprooted by violence, by hate and by persecution. There were 12½ million such people 10 years ago when the Howard government was dealing with the issues on our borders to the north. In the most recent report that has been provided by the UNHCR, it is disturbing to note that the most significant increase in that figure to 10.5 million people, in terms of refugees defined by the UNHCR, is the increase out of Syria. I am sure all members of this House would agree about the seriousness of that situation and would be grieved at the situation in Syria and the increase in the numbers of people now being defined as refugees coming out of Syria. There were 19,900 in the previous report, and in this report there are 728,218. These are deeply disturbing numbers. These are numbers that have not played into the things we are seeing to our north, but they are part of the global issue that relates to the matters of world refugees. We have had many debates in this place on this issue, but there is one thing I am sure is true: whatever position you take on how the matters of our border protection should be addressed, I am quite confident that, in this place at least, members of this House come to the issue with a concern for people.

On World Refugee Day, we need to acknowledge that. We may differ, and we do differ—we differ significantly on how this matter should be addressed in terms of our border protection but, putting that matter in its context, the broader global issue is one that I think we all understand and on this day I think that it is important we note it. Important in the debate that follows on from that, when it comes to refugees, is the debate about asylum seekers who are seeking to come to Australia.

The sad truth about the 10½ million people—or 10.4 million in the previous report—that are defined as refugees is that 99 per cent of those around the world will never see a resettlement outcome. One of the things that need to inform this debate is the notion of resettlement in Australia. No matter how many numbers of places there are in Australia, less than one per cent of people are going to be resettled around the world. Resettlement is not the global answer, and anyone who suggests so has very little knowledge of this topic. It does not matter what, frankly, the intake is from Australia: unless it is 10.5 million together with our other major partners who undertake resettlement around the world we are going to fall well short.

The answer to the global refugee problem is over there, but the answer to the issues we are having on our borders is over here. That is the difference in this debate. We can stand as members of this place and we can acknowledge the global humanitarian stain of the issue of refugees, and it has been with us for all time, sadly. We can stand proudly in this place and acknowledge that 700,000 refugees have been resettled in Australia since the Second World War. That is something that we can all commend. We can commend those people who work in our community in the settlement services program, which enjoys bipartisan support in this place. We can commend the work they do trying to resettle legitimate refugees into our community, and helping them on the pathway to a sustainable life here in Australia—a happy life, a safe life, a peaceful life, a prosperous life. That is the thing that Australians should commend themselves on today, because we are a generous nation. But we are not mugs. It is World Refugee Day today but, sadly, every day under this government is People Smugglers' Day.

On the issue of border protection—and that is why I have sought to distinguish these issues very clearly—this is a government that has failed us like none other. I am proud, like other members who sit on this side of the House, and as a member of the Liberal Party in particular, to be part of a party that in 1951 signed the refugee convention under Prime Minister Robert Menzies. There were 1.5 million refugees at that time. There are 10.5 million today. A lot has changed since then and, frankly, a lot has changed as to how the refugee convention is now contorted and interpreted and used—whether it is by advocates or by the smugglers themselves—and how it is interpreted in the courts, which I think goes well beyond the original intention of that document which was signed by the Menzies government. That is a debate that I am sure will continue. That is a debate the coalition participated in and one we have expressed great reservations over. Significantly, the issue we face in this country is people who move beyond their country of first asylum, their secondary movement from one place into our region and then on to Australia.

The Indochinese refugee crisis was a very different situation, which the father of the House will remember well—he was in this place when the matter was addressed, as part of the Fraser government. It was a genuine regional problem generated from within our region with people directly fleeing from within our region. The Fraser government responded and should be commended for doing that. I am sure that an Abbott government would respond in the same way if we were faced with a similar regional crisis. But we are not faced with a regional crisis; we are faced with a people-smuggling crisis and that is something this government has failed to understand from the outset.

Of course, it was the Howard government that stopped the boats and stopped the business of the people smugglers. I say in response to the Prime Minister, if she wants three words about the Howard government's plan, it is this: it did work. They are the three words she should understand about the stop-the-boats policies of the Howard government: they did work, whether it was turning back the boats where it was safe to do so, whether it was temporary protection visas, whether it was the offshore processing or whether it was establishing the Bali process. The Bali process was focused under the Howard government as a regional deterrence framework, not a regional accommodation framework, which is what we get from the government today. The government has taken that Bali process off course, turning to regional processing hubs and magnets to draw even more people into the region. The coalition have a very different view—that is, deterrence. We believe deterrence works because it did and it will again, and that is the nature of our policy.

The record of this government is that it has taken a different approach. The first immigration minister this government had described as his proudest day the abolition of the Pacific solution, the abolition of temporary protection visas and the turning back of the promise of the then opposition leader, Mr Rudd, who became the Prime Minister. Mr Rudd promised before the 2007 election he would turn boats back and then recanted on that when he came to office and abolished those policies.

In 2007-08 there were 25 people who turned up on three boats, an average of two per month. In November 2007 there were just four people in detention who had arrived by boat. The budget for managing illegal arrivals by boat was $85 million and 4,706 people received offshore humanitarian visas. After applying offshore, they were granted the visas and, combined with the refugee program, the offshore component of our refugee humanitarian program was over 75 per cent of the total intake. What do we see today? We see 24,824 people have arrived this financial year illegally by boat. We are now at a rate up from two per month to more than 3,000 per month. More than 23,000 people are now in the system. And I expect there are many more since that figure was advised in Senate estimates, who are in the system today and who arrived illegally by boat, up from four when this government started.

The budget is up from $85 million to $2.9 billion next year, as we learned today. That is based on an average monthly arrival of 1,000. Today we are operating at an average monthly arrival of over 3,000. So in 10 days time a miracle is going to occur. The number of illegal arrivals to Australia by boat is going to fall by two-thirds in 10 days. That question was put to the Treasurer today. He said he stood by that forecast. It is absurd. That level of delusion and denial by the government on this issue is their greatest area of failure. They simply do not get it. They simply do not believe in the responses that are necessary to address it. It is a failure of resolve. It is a failure of belief in the policies that worked. That is why they abolished them and that is why they will not return them.

Sadly, there is the reduction in those who are receiving offshore humanitarian visas under this government. It fell from over 4,700 in 2007-08 to 714 last year, in 2011-12. Less than half for the first time in our refugee and humanitarian program; the offshore humanitarian program established by the Fraser government, and for the first time less than half those have come from applications offshore. That is a great shame and I think that is a great indictment of the performance of this government.

The minister will tell you that he has increased the intake to 20,000, and so there will be more. But what he neglects to tell people is that the 20,000 figure that the minister is using includes all the visas he would hand out to people who arrive illegally by boat. Now, 25,000 are likely to turn up this financial year, so he is already on a 5,000 deficit for a start. Where that leaves all of those 40,000-odd who are applying around the world for these places in the orderly process I do not know.

But the difference with the coalition policy is this: of the 13,750 visas that we have committed to, not one of those will go to someone who arrives illegally by boat. Not one! Temporary protection visas are not part of that quota. We will not be dipping into the quota for people who are applying offshore, which will include those coming from Syria. It will include those who are still in Iraq, it will include those in Afghanistan, it will include those in Malaysia and it will even include those in Indonesia and in the Thai camps, where many of our members have visited—the member for Brisbane has visited those camps. We will not be dipping into their visas to deal with Labor's mess that they have left on our borders, if we are elected later this year. But this government will. They will continue to take those visas any which way they can.

We know the failures; we know that more than a thousand people are dead. We know there are more people arriving by boats claiming asylum than arrive by plane claiming asylum—that was achieved last year for the first time ever. We know of the asylum freeze under Prime Minister Rudd that laid the platform for the riots that occurred. We know that despite the promises of the then minister that he would come down tough, that just one person, I think, ultimately had their visas rejected. We know about the East Timor farce. We know about the solution that was heralded before the last election—the last time the Prime Minister got agitated about this issue. She goes out there and makes commitments before the election, and we see her doing the same thing today.

We know about the Malaysian people flop, and we know about it because this minister and this government know that they have no policy on the Malaysian people flop. He could tell me, if he can, in his response where the Malaysian government's agreement is to the recommendation from the Houston panel to include the protections they said were necessary to proceed with the agreement. The minister opposite knows this; there is no such agreement. They do not agree to it. I know they do not agree to it because his predecessor told me. His predecessor informed me and the shadow foreign affairs minister that they would not agree to legally-binding protections for people sent to Malaysia. So the Malaysian people swap is a mirage—it does not exist! They have nothing to put on the table when it comes to that issue, other than to wave it around as an excuse to do absolutely nothing. Nothing! Absolutely nothing!

We have the Captain Emad farce—and I could not go through this MPI, of course, without mentioning Captain Emad.

An opposition member: And his family.

He sailed in and he flew out, and the government was none the wiser either way. But his family remains in public housing here in the ACT.

There is the community-dumping policy. But Mr Deputy Speaker, know this: the coalition has the resolve and the coalition has the policies, and it will get done. We cannot afford another three years of the failures under this government; the cost, the chaos and the tragedy that has followed from their decisions. They can go and look their electors in the eye and explain to them the cost, the chaos and the tragedy. After six years, the Australian people have had enough; they want a change and they know that the coalition can deliver that change on 14 September.

4:09 pm

Photo of Brendan O'ConnorBrendan O'Connor (Gorton, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Immigration and Citizenship) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to respond to the member for Cook. Firstly, I would like also to reflect on Refugee Day today. I think it is important that the parliament recognise a very important day for refugees around the world. In fact, on Saturday I was at an event recognising our 800,000th refugee—just in excess of what was referred to by the member for Cook—arriving and being settled in Australia since World War II. It is a remarkable figure. Eight hundred thousand of eight million people that have come to this country—so approximately 10 per cent of the intake of people we have had—are refugees who have built this country, who have made this place their home, who have made this country better and bigger than it was and who have contributed in a way of which we can all be proud. We have a great record in responding to people who are in danger, providing a haven for people who might be fleeing persecution, and that record should not be denied. I agree with the member for Cook insofar as us recognising that.

I also think it is important to talk about the level of displacement. The member for Cook talks about a figure in excess of 10 million. In fact, beyond even the determined or approximated number for refugees, there are—according to the UNHCR—45.2 million around the world in situations of displacement, meaning that more people are refugees or internally displaced than at any point since 1994. In this place yesterday, I believe—certainly in this week—the member for McMillan went to the comments in The Guardianfrom the UK from authors Oliver Laughland and Nick Evershed. They go to the issues of numbers. They talk about the fact that there were 1.1 million new refugees around the world in 2012, the highest rise in new refugee numbers since 1999. They also show that the annual UNHCR global trends in displacement report highlights that last year 7.6 million people were newly displaced due to conflict or persecution. On an average day in 2012—so in one average day last year—23,000 people were forced to flee their homes around the world, which is more than the total number of people claiming asylum in Australia for the entire year. So around the world there were 23,000 people displaced, which is higher than those that are looking to claim asylum in an entire year in Australia. That is a remarkable, and quite frightening, number of people in such an awful situation. The statistics also reveal that Australia had 0.3 per cent of the world's refugees at the end of 2012, or just over 30,000. Pakistan had the highest number of refugees, with 1,638,456—which is nearly 17 per cent of the world's total—and Australia had 2.14 per cent of the world's asylum seekers at the end of 2012, with just over 20,000. South Africa, for example, had the highest number, with 230,442, constituting 24.6 per cent of the total number of asylum seekers globally. In the case of comparing us with South Africa, you can see the challenges they have in dealing with more than tenfold the number that we have to deal with.

I think that sometimes gets lost in this debate. This is a global problem, this is an international challenge, and, so far as our own region goes, it is a regional challenge requiring a regional response. It is important, therefore, that if we are to do this successfully and see a reduction or cessation in vessels arriving in such a manner, if we are going to see fewer people endangering their lives, then we do need to have the compact with the region. We do need, through the Bali process, to find ways to do that. That is not an easy thing to do—no one is suggesting that from this side of the House. There has been a view that if we coin a slogan we can realise a solution, but I think that it is just disingenuous and dishonest to suggest that. That is what the opposition have done for over three years—coin a slogan and suggest that somehow they have got a fi The interesting thing is that nobody agrees with them. The experts do not agree with them. The agencies of government that advised the Howard government do not agree with them. No eminent person or person with experience in border protection, refugee settlement or diplomatic matters has come out and agreed with the opposition leader, because it is a fraud. The 'turn back the boats' policy is an element of the 'stop the boats' fraud. Their 'turn back the boats' policy does not exist except in the minds of those opposite. The opposition leader pretends that he has a 'turn back the boats' policy. What does he have?

The former immigration minister is here in the House. I know he sits through every debate, living through some glory days. The fact is that he knows that, without the agreement of Indonesia, it cannot work. He knows that and he also knows that the discussions that have occurred between the opposition and the Indonesian government have not gone to the issues of turning back the boats, because they will not raise it, because they know the President will say no. We have had the Vice President of Indonesia say, 'We're not going to support the "turn back the boats" policy.' We have had the ambassador for Indonesia say, 'We won't be supporting the "turn back the boats" policy.' We have had the foreign minister of Indonesia say, 'We won't support the "turn back the boats" policy.' We have had a former admiral of the Navy say that, if we were to embark on this mission, we would be endangering the lives of naval personnel. We know the dangers that are likely to occur if we are to turn people back on the high seas in the manner in which the opposition are suggesting.

During the last election, we saw the opposition leader say he would have a 'boat' phone sitting on his desk so he can pick up the phone and call the master of the vessel and tell them to the turn back that boat. What a brave opposition leader that would be, sitting behind a desk on a 'boat' phone and telling people who are the ones who have to deal with these matters how to conduct an operation.

Judi Moylan, I think, gave an honourable speech in her valedictory this week and I was witness to her contribution. She has been a fine member of parliament. She quite rightly pointed to the fact that that policy will endanger the lives of men, women and children. She made it very, very clear that to suggest that we return vessels in that manner is unconscionable. It is dangerous not only to those on the vessel, because of the likelihood of sabotage, but also for our own naval and Customs personnel. We saw that with SIEV36, where there was an effort to sabotage that vessel. Five people died in April 2009 and others could have died too, including our own personnel. Of course, it is foolish for the opposition to suggest otherwise.

We have also seen a change insofar as the opposition suggesting it can stop the boats. I refer to an interview given by the member for Cook on 13 March 2013. In this interview there were two interviewers but the person asking the questions was Mr Andrew Bolt—who I would not say was an enemy of the opposition but a dear friend of the opposition. On five occasions he asked the member for Cook when we will see the boats stop if they are elected. The member for Cook gave five answers. His first answer was, 'I don't put time frames on this.' That was a good answer. So it is now: 'Stop the boats. I don't put time frames on it.' His second answer was, 'I'm not making such forecasts.' So it is now: 'Stop the boats. I'm not making such forecasts.' His third answer was, 'We'd like to see it happen as soon as possible.' So, it is now, 'Stop the boats,' and the subtitle is, 'We'd like to see it happen as soon as possible.' His fourth answer was, 'I'll let you interpret what it means.' So now: 'Stop the boats. But you can interpret what that means.' Andrew Bolt was just trying to get an answer out of the shadow minister and he asked, 'When are you going to stop the boats?' His fifth answer was, 'That's what we're attempting.'

We know why the member for Cook went on that show. He thought that Andrew Bolt was going to say: 'How are you going to solve this? You are remarkable people. You're going to fix all these things.' He did not expect to be asked the question, 'How are you going to stop the boats'. He asked him five times. On each occasion he could not answer because he does not know how to stop the boats or when the boats will stop under those policies because not one agency in this country supports the proposition put by the opposition leader that you can turn back the boats. Nobody supports the proposition put by the opposition. It is a slogan. It is unworkable. It is unsafe.

It was quite right that Judi Moylan raised concerns about these issues. We can have this banter across the table, but the reality is these are very serious issues. The only way there is going to be a sustainable solution to this issue is by having a compact of countries of origin, transit and destination. The only way that can happen is engaging responsibly, not saying one thing privately to them and coming out and publically verballing people from another country. Not going, as the member for Cook did, to Malaysia, standing up, talking to the media and traducing the reputation of Malaysia while on its own soil; not attacking Malaysia in the way he did.

If he thinks he is going to have some relationship—if he is ever appointed a minister; if they are ever elected—with Malaysia, after the effort he put into traducing the reputation of that country, well I can assure the House he is very, very deluded. Malaysia will not forget the way in which he went about attacking the human rights record of that country. The fact is Malaysia put forward an arrangement that should be considered. Malaysia put forward and arrangement that—

Opposition Member:

An opposition member interjecting

Photo of Brendan O'ConnorBrendan O'Connor (Gorton, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Immigration and Citizenship) Share this | | Hansard source

Look, if we were to agree upon this in the parliament, we would be able to return people to a transit country safely. We would be able to do that without potentially causing the deaths of our own personnel, causing deaths of men, women and children on the high sea.

Even if you had any doubt about it at all—even though this has been recommended by the former Chief of the Defence Force Angus Houston, even though it has been recommended by Michael L'Estrange, a former diplomat; even though it has been recommended by Paris Aristotle—even if you had any doubt about the efficacy of transferring people in that manner, the fact that you do not even want to embrace it, the fact that you will not even support it if it came into the parliament, is a real tragedy. They will not support the Malaysia arrangement not because it will not work; they will not support the Malaysian arrangement because they are afraid that it will work.

Now why would you not listen to the experts in relation to these matters; why would you not give it a go? Even if there was a skerrick of doubt in relation to the effectiveness of that arrangement, why would you not put that forward? Because you want to see more boats come. You rub your hands together every time a vessel arrives in our waters, an unseaworthy vessel on a perilous journey with people who could—well they are risking their lives at sea. That to me is an unconscionable response to a very important issue that is before this debate. We should be undertaking that arrangement, but we are not doing that. And that is, I think, a shame and it is something the opposition should rethink.

We have an opportunity to realise the Malaysian arrangement and give it a go, as advised by the experts. But in the end, this opposition will stand in the way of the government realising that proposition for fear of it working. It is not because they think it will not work but because they are afraid it will. I think that is a dreadful shame because this issue is very serious. It goes to our border protection, yes. It goes to our management. It goes to our immigration reputation. But it also goes to what happens to people on the high seas and what we must do to ensure that the chances of people dying at sea are reduced.

This is a global problem. I agree with what the member for Cook said at the commencement of his contribution. This is a global problem and it is a regional problem, but it needs a regional solution. It is not going to work with a slogan and it is not going to work attacking Indonesia or Malaysia. (Time expired)

4:24 pm

Photo of Michael KeenanMichael Keenan (Stirling, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Justice, Customs and Border Protection) Share this | | Hansard source

As we have been sitting here having this debate, the government has put out another announcement: another boat has arrived. It has arrived very close to Darwin, because our Border Protection Command have a very difficult time in intercepting the sheer volume of boats that are arriving under Labor's failed border protection regimes. Those announcements can occur up to five or six times a day at the moment. People smugglers have ramped up their activity to a level we have never before seen in our history.

We are all politicians in this place. We all follow politics closely and we all know what is going on in the government at the moment. Basically, we have got a group of warring tribes who occupy the Treasury benches and they are totally consumed by their own internal politics.

I went to the Midwinter Ball last night. I enjoyed it very much and I congratulate those who organised it in aid of the charities that they supported. And I kid you not, I was speaking to one person who swore to me black and blue that we would have a change of Prime Minister on Monday—it was definitely going to happen on Monday. I spoke to another person who said, 'No, no, it won't be Monday. It will be Tuesday.' Finally, a third party said to me, 'No, no, no, that is not going to happen. It will happen on Thursday. We will have a new Prime Minister on Thursday.' That means that the Prime Minister might be safe if she comes to work on Wednesday, but of course I did not actually talk to that many people so it is quite possible that people are saying that she could go that day as well.

The point that I am making is that regardless of what happens next week, regardless of who emerges as Prime Minister, whether we have the member for Lalor or whether we have the member for Griffith, nothing will actually change. That is why the Australian people are so over this. That is why it really makes no difference who emerges as Prime Minister. Under Prime Minister Rudd we had 139 illegal boats arrive. That was considered so serious by the current Prime Minister that she said it was one of the reasons she needed to take over from the member for Griffith as Prime Minister. Then subsequently her record—after saying that Kevin Rudd's record was so bad with 139 boats—is that 590 illegal boats have arrived under her watch. It is a rate of illegal boat arrivals that we have never before seen in our history.

It is hard to know who is going to be worse for protecting our borders: the Prime Minister who introduced the measures that led to this very sorry state of affairs, or the Prime Minister who said she was going to do something about it and has made things so much worse. All the Australian people can take from this is that nobody on the government benches has any idea about what to do apart from continuing their policy of abject surrender to the people smugglers. That is all we have from the Labor Party—abject surrender to the people smugglers. The government's policy is now just to shrug their shoulders and say, 'Oh well, it has got nothing much to do with us. We are only the government.'

The worst thing about this is that it would not be occurring if the Labor Party had come into office and just left well enough alone. They inherited a border protection policy that worked, one that meant that boats were not arriving, one that meant that people smugglers were not active and that people were not coming here in leaky boats on the high seas. They took that solution and created a problem. In a fit of moral vanity they abolished those proven measures that actually worked, reinvigorated the people-smuggling trade and, since then, we have had this record number of illegal boat arrivals—almost 45,000 people on 729. But in fact it is 730, because we have just had another arrival announced.

What we are seeing from the Labor Party at the moment is less of a government and more of a circus. It is far more of a circus. I am surprised that cabinet ministers do not walk in here with a red noses and large multicoloured wigs. I am surprised that they do not arrive in a cabinet meeting in a very small car. The point is that nobody on the government benches has any idea about what to do with the challenges that are facing this country. Whether it be the current Prime Minister or whether it be the member for Griffith, the people smugglers know that they are the ones who are going to remain in charge. Nothing is going to change. We could have the former Prime Minister who broke it, or we could have the current Prime Minister who has made it so much worse. No matter what the Labor Party does, we are not going to get a resolution to this very serious problem.

What we need to do of course is ensure that we return to a suite of policies that we know works. How do we know that they work? We know that they work because they have achieved the goal that we need them to achieve—that is, when we implemented them in the past they smashed people smuggling: temporary protection visas, turning the boats back when it is safe to do so and a genuine approach to offshore processing that means that people do not actually set foot on mainland Australia. What we have at the moment is a circus running this country and it is time we brought the curtain down.

Debate interrupted.