Senate debates

Thursday, 28 June 2012


Migration Legislation Amendment (The Bali Process) Bill 2012; Second Reading

10:36 am

Photo of Matt ThistlethwaiteMatt Thistlethwaite (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

I speak in support of the Migration Legislation Amendment (The Bali Process) Bill 2012. I have been a surf lifesaver for 27 years. I have devoted much of my life to volunteering to help keep safe the lives of others on our beaches and our waterways. The images of vulnerable people without the training, capacity and competence to handle themselves in the ocean, particularly young children, in distress in the water, flailing about, desperate to be saved in the wake of a boat sinking—with some ultimately drowning—simply breaks my heart. It breaks my heart because, like in so many of the rescues that occur in the ocean and on our beaches, the situation is avoidable. Situations like this will be avoided if this Senate today passes this legislation and provides us with an opportunity to stop vulnerable people who are seeking asylum being exploited by unscrupulous people smugglers selling the promise of a safe passage to Australia on our high seas for a very high price—a very high price indeed.

The reality is that these people are getting on unsafe and overcrowded boats. They are being cast onto the open seas in hopelessly unsafe circumstances, a recipe for disaster. And unfortunately disaster is what we often see. We all saw the harrowing images of desperate people being cast on the rocks at Christmas Island last year. Only last week this nation again had to confront images of people, including women and children, desperate to be saved as their boat sank on the open seas. And yesterday yet again we as a people and as a parliament were confronted with the reality of people smuggling in this region, a reality that will not go away unless this parliament takes action today.

Politics is the art of the possible. Today we have the possibility of removing the product that people smugglers are selling to vulnerable people and of removing the incentive to get on unsafe boats. We can make that a reality. Vulnerable people will no longer get on unseaworthy and overcrowded boats and risk drowning at sea. We can make a workable multiparty compromise solution to this a reality today by supporting this legislation. This piece of legislation can provide an effective deterrent to people smuggling and is the only piece of legislation that can do so. On the eve of this parliament going into a winter recess for six weeks, I cannot see how any of us can in good conscience can do anything other than support the legislation before the Senate today.

This bill has passed the House of Representatives. It received the support of the majority of the members of the House of Representatives last evening. The bill is a compromise. It represents parliament at its best, its members working together to solve what is a difficult public policy issue in the interests of this nation and, importantly, in the interests of the lives of those vulnerable people who are getting on boats. This bill ensures that offshore processing in countries that are part of the Bali process on people smuggling will become a reality. The Bali process is a regional forum involving 43 member nations. It is a process of negotiation involving our regional partners, including Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. This government have always said—and many of those opposite have always said—that if we are going to strike a reasonable and workable solution to this issue it must be done in cooperation with our regional partners. Here we have a bill that delivers that.

This process has the input and will continue to have the input of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The bill is consistent with the advice of the Department of Immigration and Citizenship and representatives of the Australian Navy. It has been negotiated in the spirit of compromise. In that spirit, the government agreed to an amendment moved by the member for Denison to allow this policy to be looked at again in 12 months time through the provision of a sunset clause so that we can assess the effectiveness of the bill we are debating today in providing a workable and ongoing solution to the problem of people smuggling in this region.

Unfortunately, those opposite have said that they will not support this legislation. I could say that they are being obstructionist and negative. But the reality is that it is just terribly sad. Without this compromise, without this bill passing, we will go away from this place for the winter recess and people smugglers will continue to ply their trade on the open seas. Vulnerable people—including children—will continue to get on boats, risking their lives. Australians needs to ask themselves why the opposition is not compromising on this issue. Why is the opposition not allowing the executive government of this country to implement a policy that it believes will provide a workable solution to the problem of people smuggling?

Is it any wonder Australians are losing faith in our democracy? At a time when we should be putting some of the petty bickering that goes on in this place aside and rising above the politics—at a time when we should be working together—we are not. And that is simply sad, terribly sad.

When the Tampaarrived on our shores, about a decade ago, the nation was confronted with a political crisis. Our political leaders were forced to confront the issue, in similar circumstances to what has occurred in this parliament over recent days. And the government of the day, the executive of our nation at the time, the Howard government, negotiated and came up with a policy to deal with the crisis. But the difference between the circumstances that prevailed a decade ago and the circumstances of today is that the Howard government implemented that policy response with the full cooperation of the opposition and the Leader of the Opposition and the Labor Party at the time, Kim Beazley. Despite the fact that, what the Leader of the Opposition was agreeing to was inconsistent with Labor Party policy, despite the fact that there were many MPs in the Labor Party caucus who were opposed to what the Howard government was putting forward, and despite the fact that many of the rank-and-file members of the Labor Party were opposed to what was being put forward, the Leader of the Opposition at the time put the interests of the nation above politics. He put the lives of vulnerable people above politics to reach a bipartisan compromise solution to the issue. That was the way the Labor Party conducted itself in opposition on this very important public policy issue, dealing with a crisis in immigration—in stark contrast, unfortunately, to the conduct of those opposite in the present crisis. I think it is sad to see that those opposite cannot show the same spirit of bipartisanship and the same leadership that was shown by the then Leader of the Opposition, Kim Beazley.

We have a current crisis—there is no doubt about that. And the Gillard government, the executive of this nation, has developed a policy that will provide an effective deterrent to the product that people-smugglers are selling. It will provide a deterrent to the incentive to people to get on boats and make that unsafe journey. And that is the only way to save lives. It is unfortunate, but it is the reality—it is the Realpolitik of the situation.

Unfortunately, the Greens are also saying that they are opposed to this bill. Senator Hanson-Young has given a very passionate outline of the reasons the Greens are opposed. And I can understand their wish to maintain their purity on this issue and their policy of increasing the humanitarian intake and onshore processing. But the fact is—and this was recognised by Senator Hanson-Young—no matter how much we increase the humanitarian intake, no matter how much onshore processing occurs, it will not stop vulnerable people getting on boats and risking their lives on the high seas. It will not stop the product that the people smugglers are selling, and that was admitted by Senator Hanson-Young. Unfortunately, purity that leads to the continued risking of lives of vulnerable people on our high seas will quickly become impurity if further tragedies occur.

No matter how much you increase the humanitarian intake, and process people onshore, it will not stop the product that the people smugglers are selling; it will not stop those unsafe journeys. One child drowning is one child too many. We must provide an effective deterrent, and the executive government of this country believes that this policy will do that, that this compromise plan will do that. That is consistent with the advice that the government has received from the immigration department. It is consistent with the advice that was given by the former secretary of the immigration department to an estimates hearing, Andrew Metcalfe—a person who has been described by former immigration minister Amanda Vanstone as a 'first-class public servant'.

I do not doubt the opposition's passion on this issue. But what I do dispute is their belief that the executive government of this country should not have the support of the opposition to implement a policy that the government believes will work. That is the way the Labor Party conducted itself in opposition on this issue, and the coalition should show the same courtesy.

With respect to the opposition's adherence to Nauru, we are opposed because we believe Nauru will not provide an effective deterrent. We are opposed because the advice of the experts in this field is that circumstances have changed—90 per cent of those people who went to Nauru who were found to be genuine refugees were processed and ended up in Australia. That is not an effective deterrent to the people smugglers. Do we think that they don't know this? Do we believe that the people smugglers don't know these statistics, don't know that if someone can make passage to Australia and end up on Nauru the likelihood is that they will be granted asylum and end up living in Australia? Of course they know. That is why the opposition's policy will not provide an effective deterrent. Their policy of turning boats around on the open seas is just downright foolish and dangerous. It places the lives of Australian Defence Force personnel at risk, because circumstances have shown that asylum seekers—in particular, people smugglers—will simply seek to disable the boats if they are confronted with the prospect of the Navy attempting to turn them around. The Indonesian government knows this. That is why they do not support the process of turning boats around on our high seas. In respect of temporary protection visas, again, the overwhelming majority of people under this scheme ended up as permanent residents in Australia. That is not a defective deterrent. The people smugglers know this, and they will ply their trade accordingly.

We have an opportunity before us today to provide a workable solution. For the past 12 months there has been a stalemate in this parliament on this issue, and finally we have had a negotiation in the face of a crisis—a workable compromise reached by the House of Representatives. It is incumbent upon this Senate and us as representatives of our various states to give that serious consideration, to look at all the facts and to provide a solution to this issue. Tony Abbott is a surf lifesaver. He has made much mileage of that—we have all seen the images of him in speedos and the red and yellow cap. I think it is about time Tony Abbott and the opposition showed some of that spirit of surf lifesaving, of putting ahead the protection of people and their lives in the sea, of developing and working towards a workable compromise, of stopping the vulnerable being cast on unsafe boats onto the sea.

Today we all received a letter from the Australian Multicultural Council. It is a plea to us, as members of parliament, to work together on this issue and to attempt to come to a workable compromise. The letter says, 'Now is the time to reach out across party lines and find a comprehensive bipartisan solution.' I could not agree more. We have the opportunity before us today to agree to a workable bipartisan solution. This parliament is at its best, and the faith of the Australian people is maximised, when we work together in the face of crisis, when we negotiate and compromise on workable solutions. We have the opportunity to do that today, and in the spirit of compromise—in the spirit of negotiating a workable solution—I urge all senators to agree to this bill.


No comments