Senate debates

Wednesday, 10 October 2012


Manus Island

10:29 am

Photo of Gary HumphriesGary Humphries (ACT, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Defence Materiel) Share this | Hansard source

I rise to speak about the thrust of the motion and what the government has moved today, but I will start by making reference to the remarks of Senator Hanson-Young a moment ago.

Senator Hanson-Young has described the processing of refugees and asylum seekers in places like Nauru and Manus Island as being callous, cruel and anti-refugee. I accept that her position and that of the Greens, unlike that of the government, has been consistent throughout this debate. They have always argued for onshore processing and they have always argued against offshore processing in places like Manus Island, Malaysia and Nauru.

But I remind the Senate in considering this issue today that, unlike the situation we are often in of debating an abstract Greens solution to a problem, we have actually seen the Greens' solution to the boat issue implemented over much of the last five years. We have had the Greens' policy working, and the consequence of that policy has been 26,347 people arriving since 2007 on 446 boats and, most conspicuously, most spectacularly and most horrendously, the deaths of over 700 people in that process. I, for one, am not prepared to be lectured about how cruel the implementation of an offshore solution might be when the alternative we have seen in place for the last four years has led directly to the deaths of 700 people.

In the last six years of the Howard government, when the Pacific Solution was fully in train and fully implemented, we cannot be sure, but there were probably no deaths at sea because there were almost no boats coming to Australia's shores. That, by itself, is sufficient reason to reject a continuation of the failed policies of the last four years based on onshore processing of asylum seekers.

I listened to Senator Lundy's speech with considerable interest. In fact, everything that Senator Lundy said in the course of her remarks, with the exception of the reference to the 20,000-people humanitarian intake increase, could have been said by an immigration minister in the Howard government. It was a complete articulation of the Howard government policy, although she failed to mention that there were other elements of the Howard government's policy which have not been implemented as part of this government's policy.

It is probably not of great value to rake over the fact that, in the course of moving from an effective offshore processing solution which operated throughout the last six years of the Howard government to today's partial re-instatement of the Howard government's Pacific Solution, we have been through at least four iterations of the government's policy. After being told that offshore processing did not work we were then told, after hundreds and thousands of arrivals, that maybe it did work and we could have offshore processing happening in East Timor. Then it would happen on a regional processing centre which has never transpired. Then it would happen in Malaysia. In fact, at one stage in the course of that iteration of options Manus Island was also talked about as an option for the government to pursue, and this was openly entertained. The government's pride was too much at risk to reopen the Howard government's detention centre on Nauru, but it was prepared to entertain the option of Manus Island. For some reason it did not pursue that particular option.

We have seen change after change in the government's policy, and to be frank it is very poorly placed today to lecture us in this chamber about what we should do to fix the problem of unauthorised boat arrivals. It has demonstrated that it has absolutely no idea, and today has only the option of returning to the successful solutions of the former government in order to be able to fix this problem—or so the government thinks.

The point about this motion is that while it picks up another piece of the solution that was employed by the Howard government prior to the 2007 election it does not fully pick up the policies which were effective in deterring the business of people smugglers, the flow of boats and the deaths at sea. It does not do those things because it leaves out key elements of that policy. It refuses to acknowledge that turning back boats in certain circumstances was an effective policy that was absolutely devastating to the effectiveness of the product that the people smugglers were selling.

People climbed on to those boats that they had paid US$10,000 or whatever the cost was to get a place on those boats and they headed a couple of hundred kilometres off the coast of Indonesia only to be intercepted and turned back by an Australian naval vessel. Quite possibly the boat would return to the same port from which it had departed and then other asylum seekers in that place or in contact with people in that place would realise they had done their dough, wasted their $10,000 as they had not got very far. The damage to the business case of the people smugglers by such actions was enormous. That is why in certain circumstances the tactic was employed successfully and legally under the Howard government. The absence of that particular policy tool today is another reason that this government's policies are under great doubt. In my opinion it is quite likely that these policies will not succeed in replicating the success of the former government's policies.

The government also refuses to reinstate temporary protection visas to underscore the fact that arrival in Australia in this fashion does not give one a permanent capacity to stay in the country or to bring other family members here. Removing that particular capacity does an enormous amount to undermine the attractiveness of arrival by boat. My party has always argued that we should do our utmost to deter those kinds of arrivals, and the deaths at sea of over 700 people in the last four years has reminded us all of how sensible and appropriate such a policy is.

I note with interest that the government is now touting proudly—and Senator Lundy did this in her remarks—the fact that a number of people who were either transferred or going to be transferred to Nauru have elected to return to their country of origin, specifically to Sri Lanka. I understand that some 46 adult men have left Christmas Island to avoid being transferred to Nauru and have returned to Sri Lanka, as well as a couple of others who got to Nauru and returned to Sri Lanka through other means. The fact the government is making much of those instances is significant. If we wind the clock back a little we would recall that when the government was still in the mode of denying that offshore processing was going to work it kept telling us that Nauru did not work. Why didn't Nauru work? It did not work because most of the people who were processed there ended up back in Australia. That is an interesting use of language: most people processed there—that is, those who got to Nauru and went through the process of being processed—ended up back in Australia.

But those figures ignored the fact that under the Pacific solution a large number of asylum seekers never got to Nauru. They either never went to Nauru or went to Nauru and elected to leave and go back to another country or to their current country of origin because they chose not to go through the process of being assessed for a visa to come to Australia. Those people were excluded from Labor's calculation of the success or otherwise of Nauru because it did not suit their case. In fact, if you include those people who arrived by boat in Australia and who were either sent to Nauru or were going to be sent to Nauru but were diverted back to their country of origin, only 43 per cent of those who made boat journeys under the Pacific solution actually ended up with visas to live in Australia. That was the statistic which made the Pacific solution a success but it was the one that the Labor government denied or fiddled with in order to claim that the Pacific solution was in fact a success. They were happy to white out those people who chose voluntarily to return to another country in claiming that the Howard government solution did not work but today they are very happy to claim that those people going back to their countries of origin is in fact an indication of Labor's success in their replication of some kind of boiled-down or pared down version of the Pacific solution.

The policies that are being pursued to date after the dismantling in October 2008 of the Howard government solution have manifestly failed. By boat, 26,347 people have arrived. There have been 446 boat arrivals. The government, for this financial year, has calculated its spending on dealing with this issue based on the arrival of 5,600-odd people but we have seen since the beginning of the financial year averaged arrivals of 2,000 people per month. We have already exceeded the quota for arrivals for this financial year, and it is only three months old.

Clearly this government still has no idea. Clearly this government does not understand how to solve this problem. It is time that they either fully embrace the policies that were effective in the past or they accept that they cannot do that and let another government take over and deal with this problem effectively—if indeed they have not already so trashed the effective solution to this problem, have not so stimulated the trade of the people smugglers and made those businesses boom in a way which they simply did not between 2001 and 2007. They have not done that to such an egregious extent that it is no longer possible to push that genie back into the bottle.

Let me simply repeat what has been said by many coalition members and senators in the course of debates here and in the other chamber: while the coalition welcomes the fact that the government is dismantling its own previous failed attempts at restricting the unauthorised arrival of people by boat, it has not implemented the Pacific solution that was so effective under the former government. While it has half-heartedly embarked on this process, while it has left so many key pieces of the puzzle out it will not in all likelihood succeed in preventing arrivals of people by boat. I say that with the greatest concern and sadness because, while people continue to make those perilous journeys on boats, they continue to risk their lives. Once again, Australia will need to examine how it can take further steps to prevent that loss of life at sea.

The coalition, as Senator Cash indicated, will support this motion but we acknowledge this is only a very small piece of a solution which the government is very far from having found.


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