Senate debates

Wednesday, 15 August 2012


Migration Legislation Amendment (Regional Processing and Other Measures) Bill 2012; Second Reading

5:41 pm

Photo of Eric AbetzEric Abetz (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations) Share this | Hansard source

'The single most important priority in preventing people from risking their lives on dangerous maritime voyages is to recalibrate Australian policy settings to achieve an outcome that asylum seekers will not be advantaged if they pay people smugglers to attempt dangerous irregular entry into Australia instead of pursuing regular migration pathways and international protection arrangements.' So said the government's own hand-picked panel operating under the government's own self-drafted terms of reference. A hand-picked panel and self-drafted terms of reference—and the verdict? One of the most stinging critiques ever of government policy by a panel hand-picked by government with self-drafted terms of reference.

This report explodes and exposes the government's four years of failure and falsehoods in relation to the causes of the tsunami of illegal arrivals in our country. After 22,000 illegal arrivals by boat, after over 600 deaths at sea, after a $4.7 billion cost blow-out funded by the Australian taxpayer, and after the government's own panel has told the government the exceedingly obvious, all of which fully vindicates the coalition's consistent policy position over the last decade, we have the government without even an 'if you please' let alone a full-scale apology coming into this place with a half-baked solution. The proposal which represents just one pillar of a three-pillar solution is to be welcomed, because one pillar is clearly better than none. So the coalition will support the Migration Legislation Amendment (Regional Processing and Other Measures) Bill 2012. But let us be crystal clear: the coalition's policy prescription worked, it stopped the boats and it will work again.

The coalition has always stood for strong border protection. The bill, whilst not ideal, is moving in the right direction, so the coalition will support it. In showing our support, coalition senators will curtail their contributions to facilitate the bill's passage, albeit—and I want to make this point very, very clear—that each and every one of us on the coalition side would be fully justified to speak our full 20 minutes normally allocated to highlight the avalanche of epithets and abuse those opposite and their fellow travellers in the commentariat threw at the member for Berowra, Mr Ruddock, the former Prime Minister and, indeed, all of us who argued against Labor's ill-advised policy shift.

Not content with the fiscal and humanitarian damage they caused, those opposite engaged in a verbal rampage of vilification against the coalition on the workable solution they so wilfully scuttled. I recall the claims of the government leader in this place in answer to former Senator Ellison's questioning about Labor relaxing border protection. This was back on 13 October 2008—and I quote Senator Evans:

I do not accept that any changes to detention policy in this country have led to an increase in arrivals. First of all, there has not been an increase in arrivals and, secondly, we know that the indefinite long-term detention of arrivals did not prove to be a barrier to people continuing to make the journey.

He went on to claim on another occasion that the Pacific solution was regarded internationally as a stain on Australia's reputation. Such was the hysteria Labor tried to peddle. Today, without any apology and without any 'if you please', they are reintroducing part of the Pacific solution; specifically, Nauru.

Now, just chanting 'Nauru' is not going to be a solution. We will monitor Labor's administration of this very closely. We have form from this government in the area of pink batts, Building the Education Revolution and the National Broadband Network, just to mention a few areas where the initial headlines were exceptionally good but the underlying policy was non-existent and the administration was absolutely appalling. If Nauru is to work we need policy conviction and commitments.

A Labor senator earlier today said that indefinite detention was not on the agenda. Let us be quite clear on this: the panel made it exceedingly clear—this is Labor's hand-picked panel—that if you are going to send a message it has to be firm and clear. The panel did use diplomatic language, and I accept that. But let us analyse what they actually said. They said that the boat people should not get a better outcome by virtue of coming here by boat. What does that mean—no advantage? It means that they should not be provided an advantage over the 10 million refugees around the world awaiting resettlement. It means they should get no advantage over the 100,000 seeking resettlement in Malaysia. They should get no advantage over the 5,000 waiting in Indonesia for resettlement. So what does this mean? This panel's recommendation means that the boat people will have to join the queues, and they will need to wait in line.

As I have said in these debates before: there is no social justice in any way, shape or form in giving advantage to people who deliberately bypass safe haven after safe haven after safe haven and then destroy their documents and pay criminals to gain entry into Australia, whilst there are others who have been waiting in refugee camps for nigh on two decades and who do not have the financial wherewithal to pay criminals to get them access into Australia.

During this past break from the parliament I personally spoke with refugees on the Thai-Burma border awaiting resettlement. It is very confronting when you have such a discussion with a person who has been displaced since 1994. Do those people understand that there is a queue? Yes, they do. Do they understand the need for some order in this area? Yes, they do. Do they understand that giving precedence to the illegal arrivals delays their resettlement? Yes, they do. And might I add that apart from visiting a refugee camp in Thailand I also visited a compound in Indonesia where a would-be boat person was housed who had never set foot in a refugee camp, and who had relatives back home drip-feeding him money from his accounts that he had been able to get a relative to manage. I make no apology for saying that my sympathy lies with the person who arrived in Thailand in 1994 rather than the would-be boat person who is still able to manage his financial affairs, courtesy of relatives, back in his former country. The point I seek to make on behalf of the coalition is that the government needs to send an unambiguously clear message: if Nauru allows easier access to resettlement than for the other 10 million then Nauru will have failed.

Whilst the coalition has pursued a three-pillars approach for over a decade, with temporary protection visas, offshore processing and turning back the boats, the ALP has pursued a three-pillars approach as well—one of ideological idiocy, wilful waste and desperate denial. The coalition did not need to outsource its policymaking in this area, as the government has done with this panel. Indeed, the Leader of the Opposition, Mr Tony Abbott, on over 100 occasions called on the Prime Minister to pick up the phone to Nauru, and she refused. I understand that the government now finally has. There were four wasted years because of a deliberate refusal to pick up the phone. It is four years too late, but at least it has been done.

Let me also deal with the issue of turning back the boats, something that Ms Gillard supported whilst she was in opposition and then absolutely condemned, and now she sort of talks about virtual turn-backs. But, of course, we now know that Ms Gillard is a policy void in this area because she has outsourced, as has the Labor Party, the government's approach to an expert panel. But this is what the expert panel said on page 53 of their report in relation to turn-backs. I quote from paragraph 3.77:

Turning back irregular maritime vessels carrying asylum seekers to Australia can be operationally achieved and can constitute an effective disincentive to such ventures …

It is very clear. I do accept that at the end of that sentence there is a caveat that says 'only in circumstances where a range of operational, safety of life, diplomatic and legal conditions are met'. But clearly it is something that can be operationally achieved and can constitute an effective disincentive to such ventures. So why have the Labor Party and their fellow travellers in the commentariat sought to demonise the opposition year after year after year when we have said that that is part and parcel of the proposal to stop this dangerous game of people smuggling? Make no mistake: it is Australian policy—and these are not the coalition's words but the words of the Labor government's hand-picked panel—that 'the single most important priority in preventing people from risking their lives is to recalibrate Australian policy settings', and one of them, of course, is turning back the boats.

So if there are—and I understand and accept this—genuine Australians who are concerned about the number of deaths at sea then I say: ensure you stop the boats. When the Howard government stopped the boats, guess what: the deaths at sea also stopped. When the flood of boat arrivals started again with the election of the Rudd government, the number of deaths at sea also regrettably increased. I have said on a previous occasion and I repeat that I do not blame the government for the deaths at sea. The criminal people smugglers bear that consequence on their conscience. But, if we know that our policy settings are assisting the criminals, we have a duty and an obligation to ensure that they are put out of business. Clearly, according to Labor's own expert panel, turning back the boats is one of those measures that can work. That is why the coalition remains committed to its strong, fair border protection policy; that is why we believe the government is not going all the way that it should go; and that is why, on behalf of the coalition, I move:

At the end of the motion, add:

     but the Senate:

(a) notes that the Government has accepted the Coalition's policy of offshore processing of asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Island; and

(b) calls upon the Government to implement the full suite of the Coalition's successful policies and calls upon the Government to immediately:

(i) restore temporary protection visas for all offshore entry persons found to be refugees;

(ii) issue new instructions to Northern Command to commence to turn back boats where it is safe to do so;

(iii) use existing law to remove the benefit of the doubt on a person's identity where there is a reasonable belief that a person has deliberately discarded their documentation; and

(iv) restore the Bali Process to once again focus on deterrence and border security.

We have had four wasted years—four years of failed policy. We have had 22,000 arrivals that have displaced others. We have had hundreds of deaths at sea. We have had a $4.7 billion blow-out that the Australian taxpayers have had to fund. The coalition will support the legislation, but we do say that the stance we have taken in the face of vile vilification from those opposite and the commentariat, and the fact that we have withstood that vilification, has now been vindicated by this report. We commend the bill to the Senate, but we also say that things could be taken a lot further to ensure that these criminals are put out of business once and for all, as they were under the Howard government.


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