Senate debates

Wednesday, 8 March 2023


Migration Amendment (Evacuation to Safety) Bill 2023; Second Reading

9:31 am

Photo of Paul ScarrPaul Scarr (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | Hansard source

At the outset, can I say I deeply respect Senator McKim for the introduction of this bill, the Migration Amendment (Evacuation to Safety) Bill 2023. I respect his passion with respect to this subject. More than that, I think he demonstrates that passion and concern in terms of the actions which he and his office take to advocate for personal cases and individual cases. Senator McKim puts his argument with great passion, and I think it's based on a foundation of deep care for the people who are in the invidious position of being in regional processing centres. I respect his motives in terms of bringing forward this bill.

In terms of Senator Green's contribution, I think Senator Green appropriately summarised the activities of the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee. We received submissions from a very wide number of stakeholders who gave detailed evidence with respect to their concerns regarding the impact of regional processing on individuals. I commend each of those organisations for their advocacy in this regard, and I also commend them for the services and support they provided to people in regional processing centres.

This is not an easy issue. Over the time I've been a senator I've developed relationships through my office with people who have been in regional processing centres, and sought to assist them, in particular in terms of advocacy, to provide a pathway for family and friends, in particular after Afghanistan fell to the Taliban, to come to Australia. That is very difficult; many of those people are located in Pakistan, Iran, Turkiye and other countries, and there is an overwhelming demand for the humanitarian visa allocations which this country provides. This is not an easy issue at all.

One thing Senator McKim did not address in his contribution, and which was not addressed in his dissenting report, is the fact that between 2008 and 2013 some 50,000 people arrived by boat in this country. That's 820 boats that arrived in this country. Those boats, organised by people smugglers, organised by people preying on the most vulnerable in our world, led to a situation where Australia's system was essentially being overwhelmed, and approximately 1,200 people died at sea—an absolute tragedy. I commend everyone in Australian Border Force and our armed forces for their efforts and the tasks they had to undertake in response to that unfolding tragedy. Regional processing, under Operation Sovereign Borders, was in fact introduced to address that particular problem. It was introduced to address that problem of 50,000 people arriving between 2008 and 2013, by 820 boats, with at least 1,200 dying at sea. That was the issue. I think any contribution to this debate needs to recognise the fact that there was an unfolding issue which caused the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd government to introduce regional processing. Those facts need to be considered and weighed in the course of considering this private member's bill.

The tragedy of that was that the Howard coalition government had effectively managed to deal with the issue of people smugglers providing boats for the most vulnerable in our world to arrive on these shores in an uncontrolled fashion. The problem had been solved. We wouldn't even be having this debate if it were not for one of the biggest policy failures, certainly in my lifetime, from any public administration at a federal or state level. That was the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd government reversing the previous policies of the coalition government.

Senator Green can talk about the actions that are currently being taken by the present government, but, again, any reasonable and balanced contribution to this debate needs to recognise that this issue had been addressed, and there would not be people currently on Nauru and in PNG but for the fact that the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd government reversed the previous policy of the Howard-Costello coalition government and then had to scramble to introduce regional processing. That's why we're having the debate—the failure of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd government. That's a fact.

It was that failure that led—between 2008, when Kevin Rudd came into government, and 2013—directly to 50,000 people seeking to arrive in this country by boats arranged by illegal people smugglers. There were 820 boats, with 1,200 deaths at sea. It was one of the biggest public policy failures I have seen in my lifetime. So it's a bit rich to sit here and listen to Senator Green's contribution, which seemed to say that everything was light and intelligent understanding and only a Labor government can fix this problem, when it was the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd government that failed to address this issue and changed Australia's policies, which directly led to 50,000 people arriving in Australia as unauthorised maritime arrivals. Those are the facts, indisputable, and any contribution in this debate, to be seen as reasonable and balanced, should recognise that, especially those contributions from the other side.

It is also a fact that the coalition government, when it came to power under Tony Abbott and then Malcolm Turnbull, actually did take positive steps to arrange third-country resettlement. That is also a fact, and, again, it indisputable. There has been plenty of publicity about a phone call between former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull and then president Donald Trump of the United States with respect to those arrangements which had been entered into by a previous coalition government. Again, that's a fact.

But the issue we now have to deal with is: how do we humanely and appropriately deal with those people who are still within Nauru and Papua New Guinea, recognising that Papua New Guinea is no longer a regional processing centre? I agree with the majority report from the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee that this private member's bill, however well intentioned, is not a bill which is going to fundamentally address this issue and which, perversely, could actually lead to a restart of the people-smuggling business, even though that's not the intention. I recognise that that's not the intention, but that is my fundamental concern.

We cannot get back to a place where we have coming to these shores hundreds of boats organised by people smugglers and where we have people, including women and children, dying at sea. We simply cannot allow ourselves to go back to that place. We have to as quickly as we can, and as humanely as possible, deal with those who are on Nauru and in PNG, but we can't change the policy parameters in any way that will lead to a restart of the people-smuggling business. We did that once before as a country. The people-smuggling business was broken under the Howard coalition government. It had stopped. The policy levers were changed—however well-intentioned that was—and then 50,000 people arrived, unauthorised maritime arrivals, in 820 boats organised by the illegal people smugglers. That's the reality. That's what happened.

We can't give ammunition to the people smugglers to recommence their trade when their commodity is the most vulnerable human beings. We simply cannot allow that to occur. It would be irresponsible in my view—however well-intentioned—to allow that awful trade in people to recommence. That is the fundamental reason why I and those sitting on this side of the chamber in dealing with this very difficult issue recommend that the Senate reject this bill.

With respect to regional processing, we need to be respectful of those who this place, through our policies and our legislation, has imposed burdens on in implementing what the Australian government policy is. I do commend all the people in the department of immigration, in Border Force and throughout the Australian government who have had to deal with this awful issue over so many years. We don't want to again get into a position where Australians in our armed forces and Border Force are forced to deal with horrific scenes of people dying at sea and being lost at sea. We simply can't let that recur.

Having carefully read Senator McKim's private senator's bill, the intention is clearly to bring an end to regional processing. I respect that perspective. That would be the effect of the bill. With the way it's drafted I don't think it could have any other effect. In my view the great danger posed by that is that it would provide ammunition for the people smugglers to recommence their vile trade in the most vulnerable people.

With those comments and in conclusion, I deeply respect the work that Senator McKim does in this place and I deeply respect his passion in relation to this subject, but, considering the facts and the background, I'm firmly of the view that this is the wrong course and it would present a real risk that the people-smuggling business would recommence and we would go back to that period between 2008 and 2013 when 50,000 people arrived on these shores—the subjects of the vile people-smuggling trade—on 820 boats and there were at least 1,200 deaths at sea. From my perspective, this chamber simply cannot let that occur, however well-intentioned this private senator's bill is.


No comments