Senate debates

Thursday, 28 June 2012


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

1:33 pm

Photo of David FeeneyDavid Feeney (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Parliamentary Secretary for Defence) Share this | Hansard source

I am very pleased to make a contribution to this very important debate on the Migration Legislation Amendment (The Bali Process) Bill 2012. I would like to begin by saying that my thoughts, and I am sure the thoughts of all of my colleagues, are with those personnel from Customs and the Royal Australian Navy who have in recent days faced a harrowing task on the high seas rescuing those who are in the water and retrieving the corpses of the dead from the embrace of the sea. I am sure that all of us are thinking of them, and of the stresses they face, and are mindful of the fact that while we are here in this place debating this issue they are serving us and their country in that very difficult role.

The Senate today faces a simple choice. It is a choice between on the one hand sticking to fixed ideological positions and refusing to face up to our responsibilities, which of course in my judgment would be a betrayal of our duty as parliamentarians, and on the other hand passing a bill that is not perfect, one that does not meet all of the requirements of any of the parties but offers some prospects of dealing with the very serious problems we face.

There are, for all intents and purposes, three parties in the Senate: the government, the coalition and the Greens. We have differing positions on what to do about this problem, but this Senate can never pass any legislation unless at least two of those three parties join together to pass it. On this issue the parliament will remain impotent and the problem will continue to fester unless two of the three parties here face up to their responsibilities and pass a bill that addresses the problem of unauthorised boat arrivals. That bill inevitably will be a compromise. It will not meet all of the requirements of any party. That is the nature of compromise. But since no one party has a majority here we in fact have a duty to compromise.

The government has put forward a bill that embodies a compromise between our position and that of the coalition. It has not been an easy thing for us to do. Many of us are unhappy about it but we accept that it is our duty as the government party to take that initiative. Oppositions also have duties, although in recent years that fact seems to have been lost in this Senate. It is true, as Lord Randolph Churchill said, that the first duty of an opposition is to oppose. But it is not the only duty an opposition has. Sometimes the duty of an opposition is to put the national interest first and come to a compromise with other parties. That is what Kim Beazley did in 2001, in the wake of the Tampa affair. I well remember the storm of criticism that Kim Beazley endured from both Labor Party MPs and supporters for supporting in many respects what John Howard did in response to the Tampa incident. And of course the main beneficiary of that storm was the Greens party, who benefited from the large number of Labor voters who were offended by the stand Kim Beazley took at that time. But it was a price that Kim Beazley was willing to pay because he was a patriot who saw that the national interest had to come ahead of party interest.

In his remarks to this Senate, Senator Scullion talked about the need for a sophisticated policy response. I entirely agree with him. But alas we have not seen a sophisticated policy response from those opposite. Rather, we have seen a slogan, 'Stop the boats'—a slogan empty of the sophistication that Senator Scullion called upon this Senate to employ. Senator Scullion accused the government of being fixated on the prism of politics when alas it is the prism of politics that has fascinated and trapped those opposite. We have an opposition that puts party interest ahead of the national interest. It is the empty slogan of 'Stop the boats' that has handcuffed the opposition from playing its proper role here today.

The damage that will be done if the coalition parties reject this legislation will be immediate. There will be damage in the form of more people risking their lives at sea and, tragically, it will inevitably result in more people losing their lives at sea. There will be damage in the form of the diversion of our defence assets from their tasks of defending Australia to the task of border protection. Our defence personnel perform this difficult and dangerous work without complaint. But it is not what they enlisted to do and it is not what the Australian taxpayer is paying our Defence Force to do. That is the responsibility that the opposition will incur if they reject this legislation today. That is the odium that they will bear. That is their choice.

It might be said that the Greens will bear a share of that odium, because they are also intending to oppose this legislation. I agree that it is unfortunate that the Greens are continuing to oppose this legislation. But the Greens at least enjoy the virtue of being consistent. They have always been opposed to offshore processing of unauthorised boat arrivals. That is their position and they are sticking to it. The Greens have always preferred to vote for 100 per cent of nothing rather than 80 per cent of something. That is, tragically, the conduct of a protest movement that has senators in this place.

But the coalition parties have no such excuse, because they have always been in favour of offshore processing. They were perfectly happy to send unauthorised boat arrivals to Nauru and Manus. The coalition are not opposing this bill because they are opposed to the principle of offshore processing. So why indeed is the coalition opposing this legislation? They say that they want offshore processing and we are offering offshore processing. They say that they want to send unauthorised boat arrivals to Nauru and we are agreeing to make that possible, despite the fact that many on our side in this chamber are opposed to it. They say that they want to bring back temporary protection visas, and we have agreed to a bipartisan and independent examination of that possibility—again against our better judgment and against the strong convictions of many on this side. We have shown our willingness to compromise all along the line and the coalition has shown none.

Why is that? Is it because the coalition is in fact interested in policy outcomes? Not at all. The coalition is interested only in political victory. This is the prism of politics that Senator Scullion spoke of. Physician, heal thyself. The coalition are concerned only with blocking any initiative that comes from this Labor government or, for that matter, from the Independent members in the other place. Senator Scullion also called upon the government to swallow its pride. Our pride has been swallowed. This is a bill that was moved by an Independent member of the House of Representatives. We saw that as an appropriate mechanism for ending the political stalemate that has so bedevilled this issue. As the Prime Minister said, no-one wins, no-one loses and we get something done. The opposition are determined to render this parliament impotent and unworkable to further their demands for an early election. This opposition is concerned solely with politics, with opinion polls and with short-term advantage.


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