Senate debates

Monday, 15 March 2010

Matters of Public Importance

Border Protection

Photo of Scott RyanScott Ryan (Victoria, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The President has received a letter from Senator Parry proposing that a definite matter of public importance be submitted to the Senate for discussion, namely:

The Rudd Labor Government’s border protection policy which is responsible for:

Weak and porous borders;
Chaos at the Christmas Island detention facility;
Unsafe attempts to arrive in Australia by sea because of a weakened stance of border security;
Encouraging people smuggling.

I call upon those senators who approve of the proposed discussion to rise in their places.

More than the number of senators required by the standing orders having risen in their places—

The Acting Deputy President:

I understand that informal arrangements have been made to allocate specific times to each of the speakers in today’s debate. With the concurrence of the Senate, I shall ask the clerks to set the clock accordingly.

4:43 pm

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

I am sure it was not necessary to actually gauge the level of support in the Senate, Mr Acting Deputy President, because this is an issue which concerns not just those on this side of the Senate chamber but indeed many Australians. In fact, I will go so far as to say that the government knows, the whole of the Senate knows and the Australian people know that Australia’s border protection policy at this time is in a state of free-fall.

Since the point about 18 months ago when the Australian government announced that it was dumping the previous government’s border protection policies and putting its own more relaxed policies in place, some 4,100 arrivals by boat have come to our shores and the policies that were previously in place have been discarded. The effect is that the Australian people can discern that a policy change has made something go badly wrong with Australia’s border protection policies and they want to know why. Clearly Australia’s borders in the last 18 months have become an open door, encouraging asylum seekers to undertake dangerous journeys in often unseaworthy vessels, in numbers unprecedented for at least a decade.

The government, the Senate and the Australian people also know that this chaotic situation, this deterioration in the security of Australia’s borders, this free-fall of a policy, is the direct product of a decision announced by the Rudd government to relax the previous firm policies of the Howard government. What is perhaps more disturbing is that we have seen, in the light of this evidence of a collapse of policy, a government paralysed by indecision, a government unable to determine how it will cope with this obviously failed policy, which constantly looks to effect external factors in Australia’s border protection but fails to consider or be prepared to undertake the adjustment to the internal settings to make Australia’s borders more secure. And that is a matter for which the government stands condemned.

As of yesterday, we have had 24 boats arrive illegally in our waters during the course of 2010. Almost 2,100 people have arrived by boat in just the first 10 weeks of 2010. That is an indication of a policy which has utterly and completely failed to deter people from undertaking such a hazardous journey. Under Labor, people-smugglers in our region are doing a roaring trade. We have gone from a situation where there were about three illegal boat arrivals per year, during the last six or seven years of the Howard government, to a situation where there are two or three boat arrivals per week—in fact, they have been almost a daily occurrence in recent days. It seems as though the government is trying to make the Guinness Book of Records for the most boat arrivals in a single year. Clearly, what we are seeing is an unprecedented ramping up of the numbers—and the government appears to be utterly and completely powerless to prevent that from happening.

This situation has of course been seen in Australia’s past. Back in 2001 the Howard government was facing a similar situation; it faced a surge of boat arrivals. Many thousands of people were crossing the seas in boats. The Howard government was faced with a very considerable challenge. What it did was to make changes to the Australian border protection and immigration systems so that the signals that were sent to those people who chose to undertake those journeys—and, more importantly, to those people who facilitated those journeys: the people-smugglers—were changed. As a result there was a dramatic reduction, in the years following that change of policy in 2001, in the number of boat arrivals on Australia’s shores and in Australia’s waters.

Something happened after that change of policy in 2001; in 2008 there was again a change in outlook. Again, from about August 2008 we saw a surge of boat arrivals. The question is: what caused that surge to occur? We know there has been turmoil in places such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, all of which have produced asylum seekers. But each of those conflicts goes back much further than August 2008; they started many years before and were producing refugees many years before. We know that in 2001 there were, according to the UNHCR, some 12.1 million refugees around the world. In 2008 that number had fallen to under 10½ million refugees. So what is it that caused, in about August 2008, Australia to once again be targeted so heavily by those seeking asylum? This is not just a trend or a blip in the statistics; it is a surge—it is as though a faucet has been turned on which previously had been merely dripping.

Since that something—that change—in 2008, 92 boats have arrived in Australia’s waters. The obvious culprit for that change was of course the change of policy announced by Minister Evans on behalf of the government in August 2008, a change which signalled a more relaxed border protection policy. The fact is that boats have been arriving at this country’s borders at much greater rates than comparable countries around the world. The UNHCR reports that in 2009 Australia experienced a surge of 30 per cent in the number of applications made for asylum in this country. That might appear to indicate a world in which great instability was present, and perhaps it does reflect some instability in the world. But other countries in similar circumstances have not experienced that kind of change. For example, in the United Kingdom—and we heard the minister today tell the Senate that Europe is still receiving the majority of applications for asylum—we have seen not an increase but a reduction in the number of people seeking asylum, by something of the order of six per cent. Clearly, this is not simply what is going on around the world. It is not simply global push factors which are influencing the arrivals on our shores; it is something about Australia’s policy settings which is leading to that occurring. And it appears that the government is unable or unwilling to act on those settings.

We know that Australians are concerned about the security of their borders. That is very clear. And we know that from what the Prime Minister himself had to say on his last day as the Leader of the Opposition, the day before the 2007 election. As opposition leader he said: ‘I will turn back the boats.’ That was his response to the question of border security: ‘I will turn back the boats.’ And yet, as the Senate was told just last week, since his government has come to office no boat has been turned back—not one. He attempts to blame other factors for the fact that the government is faced with this surge of boat arrivals; but, unconvincingly, he fails to identify any of the factors that he himself has control over—namely, the sense of Australia having an open door with respect to such arrivals, a sense reinforced by the enormous increase in the size of the Christmas Island detention facility to accommodate those large numbers of people crossing the sea in unseaworthy vessels. So we have a very dangerous situation—a sense that Australia’s security has been diminished, that our borders are porous, that our policy is in free-fall, that we are unable to exercise any kind of influence on the policies of the people-smugglers who drive this trade. We see a government paralysed by indecision in the face of all of this. The Australian people expect better than that.

Mr Rudd, only a couple of weeks ago, said that the government needed to be apologetic about some of the things it had done. He said:

... we didn’t anticipate how hard it was going to be to deliver things, particularly given the burdens imposed on us by the global financial crisis last year. But that’s no excuse.

He went on to say:

The public expect you to honour the things that you have said.

The public were expecting that the Rudd government would hold a strong line with respect to unauthorised arrivals and the government has failed to deliver on that promise.

Christmas Island, which was once labelled a white elephant by the Labor Party when in opposition, has now become the linchpin of the government’s response to this crisis. It has become a much larger centre and is constantly being increased in size by the government, with an accompanying blow-out of $132 million, because of the extra arrivals in our waters. At the beginning of this financial year the government estimated that 200 arrivals would occur each year. The 2,100 that have already arrived this financial year indicate how badly the government has miscalculated the size of the problem it is facing. We have to act to deal with that situation and the government has failed to do that.

People recognise failure when they see it. They know that the government has dropped the ball on this issue. People-smuggling is an industry: it has entrepreneurs, customers, a product and profits. The changes that the government announced in August 2008 revved that industry to life. They gave it purpose and, in particular, they gave its entrepreneurs a product to sell. The government claim that the fact there has been a surge since then is a coincidence. They claim it just so happens that international factors have generated extra people coming to our shores. The Australian people know that it is no coincidence. They know full well that the unprecedented number of arrivals on our shores is the result of a government which has lost its bottle; is unable to control its own policies; has left Australia’s borders vulnerable and has, incidentally, put at risk the lives of many people who get on boats to cross the sea in perilous circumstances—in some cases never to arrive at their destination. We need to make sure that the government acknowledges its failure and does something about it. Australians expect no less in a crisis of this dimension.

4:55 pm

Photo of Catryna BilykCatryna Bilyk (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Once again from those on the other side of the chamber we have a fear and smear campaign regarding illegal boat arrivals. The Rudd government is committed to protecting Australian borders and to the safety of the Australian people. I wonder what the opposition would be doing regarding boat arrivals if they were in government at the moment. Would they be towing them back? Would they be turning them away and leaving them to flounder?

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

You were going to do that!

Photo of Catryna BilykCatryna Bilyk (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Would they not be taking up their responsibilities under international law? By the sounds of it that is exactly what they would be doing. Australia has responsibilities in these areas and Australia takes those responsibilities seriously. The fact is: we have maintained the border protection policies of the Howard government.

Photo of Michaelia CashMichaelia Cash (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Very long stretch.

Photo of Catryna BilykCatryna Bilyk (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

That is, a system of excision, mandatory detention and offshore processing.

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

Pacific solution!

Photo of Catryna BilykCatryna Bilyk (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Mr Acting Deputy President, I sat very quietly and listened to the alleged information coming out of the opposition’s mouths. I would appreciate it if you would call to order their interjections while I have my 10-minutes worth of speech. The Rudd government acts in accordance with our international legal obligations and it takes those obligations seriously, as opposed to those on the other side of the chamber, who do not have an immigration policy. They do not have a policy, they have a five-point dot plan and one of those dot points is to reintroduce TPVs. There is nothing too brilliant about those on the other side of the chamber except that they stand up and continue to run these fear and smear campaigns. They are trying to make the people of Australia anxious—earlier in the year Philip Ruddock talked about terrorists coming in on boats. The opposition have to get behind their new leader because they have had so many leaders since the change of government they have to make this one feel as though they are behind him and are not going to roll him as quickly as they rolled all the others.

I did listen to Senator Humphries because I find that he is usually quite a rational person and I can usually have a fairly rational conversation with him. But it was as though he thought the opposition had a magic wand and that everything they did was covered with beautiful fairy dust, or something, from this magic wand but that everything we did was tainted. I know that the person who wants to be the next leader on the other side has been seen in a tutu and a crown. Twice I had to watch that on a plane coming up from Hobart last night. That was fairly entertaining! But it was not as entertaining as Senator Humphries thinking that there is a magic wand somewhere that only the opposition hold and that everything we do is wrong. I think Senator Humphries might be missing out on a bit of media excitement too. He probably wants to run out and do a bit of media a bit later in the day.

People do not go in these boats just for a holiday; they come here because they are seeking refuge. A large proportion of those people are actually found to be refugees. Off you go, Senator Humphries, the media is probably waiting. Do not let the facts get in the way of a good story out there, will you? Situations around the world mean that large numbers of displaced persons are looking for settlement and can be targeted by and, unfortunately, fall prey to people smugglers. We do not condone that and we do not support people-smuggling. In fact, only last week the Indonesian President, while he was here, had discussions regarding actions they will take in regard to people smugglers.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees 2008 Global trends report, there were 42 million forcibly displaced persons worldwide at the end of 2008, including 15.2 million refugees. Those on the other side can sit there and smirk about this, but I feel they have no sense of moral judgment about how to treat these people. People-smuggling is not just an issue for Australia; it is a global and a regional problem. The commitment of our neighbours through bilateral cooperation and the Bali Process on People Smuggling, Trafficking in Persons and Related Transnational Crime are critical in addressing this most serious issue.

The Australian government has an orderly and planned migration program and places a high priority on protecting Australian borders from irregular maritime arrivals by maintaining an effective and visible tactical response program of aerial, land and sea based patrols. The Australian government’s Border Protection Command uses a combination of customs and border protection and defence assets to deliver a coordinated national response to security threats in Australia’s maritime domain. The Australian government remains vigilant and committed to protecting Australian borders. Under the Rudd government, Australia has one of the toughest and most sophisticated border security regimes in the world. The Rudd government has maintained the border protection policies of the Howard government—a system of excision, mandatory detention and offshore processing on Christmas Island of all irregular maritime arrivals. I do not know how many times we have to say it, but the other side seem to put cotton wool in their ears when it comes to hearing that message. The government also allocated $654 million in the 2009 budget to substantially increase aerial and maritime surveillance and detection operations and boost resources to stop people-smuggling.

What is the difference between the Howard government’s policy and the Rudd government’s policy? The difference is that Labor believes in treating asylum seekers humanely and is committed to meeting Australia’s international obligations under the United Nations refugee conventions. I will say it again for those on the other side—and I will say it very slowly so that they can let it sink in: the Rudd government takes border protection seriously. They are far too busy running around with their fear and smear campaign, trying to make people feel anxious about it. If they were genuinely concerned, they would at least come up with an immigration policy rather than their fanciful five-dot-point effort. How long has it taken the opposition to come up with these five dot points?

As I said, in the 2009 budget $654 million was dedicated to a whole-of-government strategy to combat people-smuggling. The opposition just do not want to accept this. Whenever they can come in and harp about it, that is what they will do. They knew that the numbers of illegal boat arrivals would increase, because they were actually the ones who built the Christmas Island facility. It was built under their government. Either they built it just to give jobs to their mates and give them something to do or they built it because they thought there was going to be a use for it. One presumes that they did build it because they knew there would be a use for it—and now they are complaining because it is being used. Maybe they would have preferred that facility to stay empty for a bit longer, get rusty and not have any use or do any good, in memory of that wonderful Prime Minister, John Howard. I am surprised it was not named after him.

Labor is committed to stopping people-smuggling and to ensuring that people who enter Australia do so by the correct channels. But, in situations where people do not, we need to make sure that they are cared for in a humane way so that they are not put at any more risk. Quite frankly, to tell them to turn around and go home again just puts them at greater risk than ever. I suggest the other side take a deep breath—thank you, Senator Bernardi, I am pleased you are listening because usually you do not. Take a deep breath, settle down about it and realise that this is part of the bigger world and not just part of the little, not-in-my-backyard mentality that they are so keen on portraying.

5:05 pm

Photo of Russell TroodRussell Trood (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Governments have obligations. There are no obligations more important to governments than to maintain the sanctity of borders. Nothing is more important to any government than ensuring its border integrity. Far from being trivial on this matter, we in the opposition regard the maintenance of Australia’s border sanctity as one of the most important issues that a government has to confront. It is the first responsibility of every government and it is this responsibility that this government, the Rudd government, has completely failed to give attention to.

Our territorial sovereignty is under constant challenge from people smugglers and asylum seekers. The numbers are incontrovertible. Senator Bilyk seems to be in denial about the challenge we face. In 2008, from August there were seven boats. In 2009, the number went up to 61. Already in 2010 the figure is 24. Just looking at 2009, in that year the 61 boats that arrived were carrying 2,792 people. This year, so far 24 boats have arrived carrying 1,191 people—a total since August 2008, as Senator Humphries said, of 92 boats carrying 4,162 people.

There is a debate about the reasons for this. There are many different perspectives held by those in this debate, and they offer different explanations as to why this is the case. I am one of those who believe that this is a complex matter, that there is a range of reasons why the boats keep coming, but at the very least there is a plausible argument that ALP policy is an important contributing factor. The argument for that position is not just plausible. There is in fact a direct correlation between the changes in the Rudd government’s policy on this issue and the increase in the number of boats arriving over this two-year period. The numbers have increased while the Rudd government has liberalised its policies.

What are we to make of this? Rational people are entitled to draw rational conclusions about the nature of this connection between the easing of policy and the number of people who have come to Australia over that time. The government’s response is to be in absolute denial about this proposition. The government absolutely denies and cannot accept any relationship between the easing of its policy and the changes in the incidence of arrivals. If we were to accept the trend—which is unmistakable—and to project it from 2010, with 24 arrivals already this year, by the end of 2010 there would be in the vicinity of 96 boats and 4,764 people, according to my calculations. That is the trend. Of course, events might intervene—the numbers might not be that high or that low—but that is the trend which the government seems completely unable to acknowledge. It refuses to acknowledge the relationship between these two events.

It seems very clear to me that denial and refusal lead to bad policy. An inability to acknowledge the correlation between these factors leads consistently to bad policy. If I had a couple of hours—and I do not, sadly—I could outline the wide range of the shortcomings of these policies, but let me just pick up on a couple of matters. Senator Bilyk referred to the detention centre that the coalition built whilst we were in office. Why did we build it? We built it in preparation. We built not in the expectation that it would soon be filled but because we were concerned to ensure that Australia was put into a position where, should it be necessary, we would be able to deal with this challenge. The Labor government has failed completely to deal with the challenge of the increasing number of people who might come to our shores over the next six, nine or 12 months or even longer. When the minister is pressed about what will happen if the Christmas Island detention centre is full, he says, ‘I will send them off to Darwin perhaps.’ The reason that is a possibility, of course, is that we also recognise that we might need the facilities in Darwin for future policy contingencies.

The point is that the Rudd government, having been in denial about this problem, has done nothing. It has failed to turn its mind to the possibility that those projections that I mentioned are accurate, that there will be more asylum seekers, that the heinous people smugglers will ply their trade very successfully and that we will need more accommodation for these people. The Rudd government has to face up to the reality of the shortcomings of its policies. It has to face up to the reality of its policies not only with regard to detention centres but also with regard to Indonesia. Everybody who is concerned about this issue—everybody who pays serious attention to the people-smuggling problem—recognises that Indonesia is part of the solution. Yet from the very beginning the Rudd government seems to have been absolutely determined to humiliate Indonesia for its management of this issue. It did so over the Oceanic Viking, on which the Indonesians were forced into taking a position, and as we stand here today the Jaya Lestari remains in the port of Merak with 240 people on board. It has been there for four months and there is no solution in sight to the plight of those people on board.

In the mind of the Rudd government, it is a problem for the Indonesian government. During estimates, it was quite clear that the Rudd government had washed its hands of the whole problem, having in the first place asked the Indonesian government to tow this ship into Indonesian waters and do us a favour by protecting it from the dangers of the high seas. Indonesia did that favour for us, but we have left it with a problem that it is unable to address unless we provide some kind of assistance, and we absolutely refuse to do so. In estimates, Mr Woolcott, who was then the people-smuggling ambassador, said:

… it is a matter for Indonesia to find a way to get the passengers from the Merak boat to end this embargo.

It seems unwilling to take that course. (Time expired)

5:13 pm

Photo of Louise PrattLouise Pratt (WA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The opposition have their assessment of the Rudd government’s border protection policy just plain wrong. Why have they got it so wrong? It is because they have chosen to be blinkered when it comes to the truth about the number of boat arrivals; it is because they choose to use scare tactics instead of the facts in this debate; and it is because they choose to ignore the fact that the Rudd Labor government is hard at work protecting our borders and strengthening Australia’s people-smuggling laws. So let’s look at the facts about the Rudd Labor government and border protection. Fact 1: the highest number of boat arrivals on record occurred when the Howard government was in office. That record was set in 2001. In that year, more than 5,000 people arrived in 43 boats. Fact 2: the second-highest number of people arriving in boats was in 1999, also under the Howard Liberal government. In that year, 3,721 people arrived by boat. Fact 3: the third-highest number of boat arrivals was in 2000, also under the Howard government, when 2939 people arrived. When we cut out the scare tactics, these are the real facts.

The United Nations refugee agency, the UNHCR, has reported that there were 42 million displaced persons worldwide at the end of 2008, including more than 15 million refugees. Naturally, these displaced people are looking for stable places to resettle. They are looking for somewhere stable to resettle because of the troubled state of their home countries, not because of our immigration policies. There are good reasons for reaching this conclusion. When boat arrivals were at their height in the Howard era, the main source countries were Afghanistan and Iraq; now the main source countries are Afghanistan and Sri Lanka. Why Iraq then and Sri Lanka now? This change in source countries points to changes in the domestic conditions in those source countries. This is what is driving changes to boat arrivals; it is not changes in our immigration policies.

You can see that our immigration policies are not driving arrivals from the fact that other developed nations, with a range of different immigration policies, are facing the same issues of refugees fleeing and seeking asylum within their borders. For example, there have been increases in the number of asylum claims in Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Norway and Poland. This is a global problem. To pretend otherwise is misguided and misleading, and that leads to misguided policies. Fortunately, the Rudd government understands this, and that means we are in a better position to address it, unlike the opposition. We know that, because of their vulnerability, displaced people are targeted by and fall prey to people smugglers. The Rudd government is very aware of the fact that the abhorrent practice of people-smuggling is both a global and a regional problem, and we are acting accordingly.

So, once again, look at the facts. Fact: the Rudd Labor government has increased border protection resources for our country. Fact: the Australian government has committed more than $654 million to implementing a comprehensive people-smuggling strategy. Fact: the Australian government is working with our regional neighbours to identify, deter, prevent, intercept and prosecute people smugglers. Here are examples of our comprehensive and well-targeted border protection policy implementation. First, the Australian Federal Police, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Department of Immigration and Citizenship and the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service have increased their presence in our region by recently setting up and expanding liaison posts devoted to deterring irregular migration. Second, agencies are working closely with their counterparts in other countries, exchanging and gathering information and strengthening our regional capacity to mitigate irregular migration to Australia. Third, our regional approach was boosted last week when our government and the Indonesian government adopted an Implementation Framework for Cooperation to Combat People Smuggling and Trafficking in Persons. The framework, developed under the Lombok Treaty Plan of Action, reflects the cooperation between the two governments as co-chairs of the Bali Process, as well as the 2006 bilateral MOU on migration and border control management. This cooperation involves law enforcement and other agencies working together to prevent, disrupt and bring to justice people smugglers and people traffickers. Fourth, the Rudd government is doing even more to strengthen our border protection policies. You can see this from the fact that, just two weeks ago, the Attorney-General introduced a bill to amend our anti-people-smuggling legislation framework. This will allow the harmonisation of existing offences between acts, create new people-smuggling offences, improve investigative tools and extend penalties for those convicted of people-smuggling offences. This is in addition to the vigilant and visible aerial, land and sea based patrols that are already very effective. Our strengthened offshore approach is working.

Since September 2008 there have been 102 disruptions of people-smuggling ventures in Indonesia and the arrest of 54 people-smuggling organisers. I am proud of the fact that the Rudd government has ended the inhumane practices of the Howard government such as keeping children in detention and temporary protection visas. We have done this in favour of a whole-of-government strategy to combat people smuggling and address the problem of unauthorised arrivals. This means that finally we have a real plan and a commitment to strengthening our borders. This is instead of the Liberal government’s approach. Frankly, I do not think the Howard government cared about the number of asylum seekers arriving, providing it could vilify them and score political points. Labor’s approach is working. However, the simple fact is that, while there is conflict and instability in the world and people face violence, conflict and persecution in their own countries, we will continue to need to work hard as a nation to address this problem, no matter who is in power. The difference is that Rudd Labor is actually committed to the task, whereas the opposition is only committed to scoring cheap political points from a complex problem.

5:22 pm

Photo of Michaelia CashMichaelia Cash (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

In question time today, the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, Senator Evans, in response to a question that was asked by Senator Humphries, actually defended the arrival of what is now the 92nd boat since the Labor government commenced the winding back of the coalition’s strong border protection policies. The arrival of what is now the 92nd boat since August 2008 was held up as a policy success by the minister. That is an absolute joke. It is even more of a joke when you look at what the Deputy Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, said when she was the opposition’s spokesman for immigration under the Howard government’s watch. When a second boat arrived, she said, ‘Another boat, another policy failure.’ If 92 boats are considered by Rudd Labor to be a policy success, God help Australia when they finally admit to a policy failure.

The people of Australia have long been asking, ‘What is it going to take for this government to end its state of denial in relation to its failed border protection policies and admit that the special deals and the policy changes that it has made have weakened Australia’s strong border protection regime and have issued an open invitation to the people smugglers?’ Do you think it might be the arrival of the 60th boat? No, because the arrival of the 60th boat is now a dim distant memory. What about the arrival of the 70th boat? Did it take responsibility then? No. What about the arrival of the 80th boat? No responsibility was taken then. And what do we have now? The arrival of the 92nd boat. This is the Prime Minister’s response:

We believe that we have got the balance of policy right.

You have got to be kidding me. The only balance that the Prime Minister has got is that which is in favour of the people smugglers. Rudd Labor is the best friend that a people smuggler will ever have. This is catastrophic policy failure, possibly like we have never seen in the history of border protection in this country. Mr Rudd’s pre-election promise to the people of Australia that he would keep our borders secure was nothing more and nothing less than a vote-buying statement. Now, with the complete, total and utter failure of Labor’s border protection policies, Mr Rudd is interested only in scoring cheap political points to deflect away from his policy failings. Despite the arrival of the 92nd boat, this government refuses to take responsibility.

With Rudd Labor, it is always someone else’s fault. It can never honestly look at a policy failure and say, ‘Yes, that was our fault; we shouldn’t have made that change.’ It is never, ever Kevin Rudd’s fault. When it comes to the failure of Labor’s border protection policies, it is consistently full of excuses. We saw it yet again in question time today. The government’s favourite excuse for the border protection failure is that it is always due to the push factors, but it is never, ever due to pull factors created by this government. We heard the minister in question time yet again give this as an excuse for the 30 per cent increase in unlawful boat arrivals to Australia in 2009. This is an excuse that has well and truly run its course.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees last week reported that push factors have been easing in Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, providing increasing opportunities for those previously seeking asylum to return home. But can the minister stand here in this place and actually admit that? No, he cannot, because that then undermines the excuse that it is global push factors that are bringing unlawful people to this country. Then we had the comments from Dr Palitha Kohona, Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, who said on ABC’s Lateline in November 2009:

I think this talk about the push factor is an over-exaggeration. If there were, as I said, a push factor, why didn’t they go across to India which is so close by, 22 miles away from Sri Lanka? Instead they head all the way to Australia. There must be another reason than simple push factor here.

Yes, there is another reason. We know what that reason is: it is called the Rudd Labor pull factor. We have all known, because it is on the record, that for several months now the number of illegal immigrants from Sri Lanka has been declining. The government refuses to release this information because, if it does, once again its excuse in relation to ‘the push factors’ will be undermined.

Those on the other side continue to spruik the rhetoric that they have not taken steps to soften the coalition’s strong border protection policies. They have. They have abolished the Pacific solution, they have abolished temporary protection visas, they have abolished the 45-day rule and they did a special deal for those on the Oceanic Viking. If that is not taking steps to soften Australia’s border protection regime, then I do not know what is. What has been the effect of those Labor policy decisions? The effect is quite clear. We have seen nothing more and nothing less than the biggest surge in people-smuggling since 2001-02 when the coalition’s tough strategy put people smugglers out of business.

According to the monthly statistics of the Department of Immigration and Citizenship, there were 1,749 people detained on Christmas Island as at 12 February 2010—well in excess, as we know, of the capacity for Christmas Island. And what is the Labor government’s response to this? It issued a press release last year when the Christmas Island statistics had reached 1,287 and said that Christmas Island had a reconfigured capacity of 1,400 which would be boosted to 1,600 by December. We have now exceeded that figure. That is the Labor government’s policy response to the border protection issue: ‘We will just increase the capacity of Christmas Island’—great news for the people smugglers but hardly the decision of a responsible government. The Leader of the Opposition, Mr Abbott, is correct when he says that people are entitled to think that the Prime Minister has dudded them when he assured them that Australia’s security would be safeguarded by his government. That was nothing more and nothing less than Ruddspeak for, ‘I want your vote and I will say anything to get it.’

5:30 pm

Photo of Claire MooreClaire Moore (Queensland, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

As you know, Mr Acting Deputy President, it is always important to find things in these discussions on which we can agree. It has been difficult, but I think we can come to a cross-party agreement that there is a genuine need to wipe out the scourge of people-smuggling across our planet. That is something we can agree on, and that is about it really for the points of agreement. It is really important that we understand that, and certainly the Rudd government has consistently said that. Before our election, during the campaign for the last election, we talked about the need to keep our country safe; we talked about the need for effective border security. But we also talked about the need to take up most righteously our international obligations and to ensure that we as a country get the balance right between compassion and concern for those people in our part of the globe who are seeking asylum, and the need to have border security.

Consistently in the contributions we have heard from across the chamber, it is very rare that we have heard the term ‘asylum seeker’ used. It is an understanding across all nations, and particularly in unity with the United Nations refugee organisation, that we understand that across our globe there is a need for people who are facing war and terror in their own countries to seek asylum elsewhere. Australia is part of the Asia-Pacific region. There is no argument about that across the chamber either, so I should be pleased; there are two things we agree on. But we made clear in our pre-election promise that we would work effectively within the UN process; we would understand what our obligations were as a country and that we would ensure that we would make our borders secure; we would ensure that people seeking asylum would receive their rights to be treated with compassion and by the law; and that most assuredly we would ensure that, to the best of our ability, no further boats would be lost on the oceans and that we would maintain that scrutiny of our neighbourhood in that process. That is the basis of our whole policy.

It seems to me quite disappointing that once again, with an election looming, which certainly colours the passion around some of the debating issues we have heard, there is an attempt to demonise those people who most need consideration—that is, the people who are seeking asylum. We should be demonising those who are trying to make a profit and trying to make a gain out of those people, and that reflects in the policy that the Rudd government has taken forward not just within Australia but across the international debates around the scourge of people-smuggling as to the need for tough penalties for people who are found to have broken that law and also for effective policing across many nations not just in the local Pacific and Asian areas but across international communities. We look at trying to break the networks that have arisen to take those people who are most in need, to use them and to try to make money out of them through people-smuggling. That is one element of our policy: to ensure that the issues around people-smuggling are criminalised, that there is swift action taken, that anyone who is found to be breaching those laws is brought to justice, both within Australia and internationally, where the AFP can be involved. I do not think that anyone can argue that that is not the process.

The other side is to ensure that Australia’s borders are as safe as they can be, and certainly we have heard from some other speakers in this debate about the budget allocations that have been made to ensure that we have more scrutiny of the seas around Australia, so that we ensure that through our coastguard and through other elements, such as our Navy and using those people who are working on the international aspects of security, we are scrutinising the known routes that are taken by the people who tend to use boats as their means of transport. Consistently this debate seems to focus on people using boats, although we all know that looking at border security is much more than that and we have to ensure that all ways of coming to Australia receive effective scrutiny. And that has also been a process we have used in Australia through the Australian Federal Police and the various parts of airline security as well as working with the legal system through the Attorney-General’s Department. So we have those aspects covered as well.

But if you are looking at the people who are using the horrors of the boats to come across the seas, in this place we have heard particularly confronting evidence about the dangers that people are exposed to when they use that method. I remember former Senator Linda Kirk, when she was in this place, talking many times about her knowledge gained through her work in South Australia providing support to asylum seekers. There were the individual stories of people who had, through sheer desperation, been forced for various reasons to seek their chance for asylum by getting onto the boats and using that system—and certainly when we are approaching debate on that system we have to be sure that we differentiate between those people who are making profit, the people smugglers, and those people who are genuinely seeking asylum.

The process that the Australian government has in place is very clear, and we have received some criticism from people who think we are being way too tough in our maintenance of a very strong mandatory detention program. Of course it is different to that which was used by the previous government. The way it saw mandatory detention is considerably different to the way the Rudd government sees it. The Rudd government is particularly clear that it sees that everybody who comes into this country without the due process of seeking visas, so coming into this country that way, is subject to a form of detention as they receive identity and health checks to ensure that they are understood to fit the laws of our country. We also work with the UNHCR particularly carefully to ensure that people are clearly defined on their needs to fit the definition of asylum seeker, and that will continue to be the basis of the policy.

We have heard the minister clarify, after being asked the same question on many occasions in this place and in a range of different ways, what our policy is. People who are coming to this country need to be subject to health and security checks to determine that they are real refugees, that they are genuine people fleeing terror and conflict and that they are seeking a new life in safety. What we found, through the process on Christmas Island, was that the vast majority of people who, through the horrors of people-smuggling, ended up on Christmas Island and found their way to this country under the previous government and under this government did meet the requirements of that policy. When their identities were clarified, when they had the benefit of health checks and when they were interviewed to find out what their reasons were for seeking asylum, the vast majority of people were determined to be true refugees under international law.

That little point seems to be somehow lost in the argument. When people are so quick to attack the policies of the government they forget that the people who are in the middle of this discussion are actually those who are requiring our support and compassion because they are genuine refugees. They have had to flee circumstances that I do not think anyone in this room can genuinely understand. For a whole range of reasons, they have been forced by their circumstances to flee.

I got quite confused for a while when I kept hearing about pushing and pulling. Nonetheless, ‘push factor’ seems to be a particularly sanitised term to describe areas that are caught up in horrific struggles and postwar situations, particularly in our region. The vast majority of people seeking asylum in this country in the last two years have come from Afghanistan, and no-one can argue about the warlike situation in Afghanistan. The fact that our own troops are there indicates that there is a warlike situation. The people who sought asylum and went through the processes of assessment told us clearly about their circumstances and talked about horrific discrimination, war and horror where their families were divided and where they felt unsafe. Under those circumstances, they were drawn to taking amazing risks. On that basis we should be able to consider the issues that they have told us about and to work through the process with respect.

Most importantly, we need to ensure that we have clear policies on security, and the government has spread out through its budget processes the increased security measures it is taking. There is the expanded process for Christmas Island so that there is accommodation for more people. The minister has already presented a plan for the future of the facility at Christmas Island should there be too many people on the island. There has been nothing hidden. It has been clear. It has been strong. What it has had is a degree of realism that was not shared in previous governments. It acknowledges the role of the people, ensures their rights are maintained throughout this whole debate and makes sure that people’s terror and people’s pain are not translated into easy political lines. Too often that is lost in the debate. We lose the circumstances of those people about whom we are speaking. That is not something that the Rudd government will do.

We will continue with our determination to accept our responsibilities as a government and to accept our responsibilities in the international arena to ensure that people who are seeking asylum receive respect while their circumstances are clearly checked. For anyone trying to enter this country for other purposes and who are not genuine refugees, the process of deportation will continue. We had, in the last two years, a number of people returned to their places of birth or to other areas where they were able to be located.

Nonetheless, there is a plan, despite the strident accusations from those on the other side, and a commitment from this government to continue, without being diverted by having numbers thrown across the chamber and allegations made, to be part of the international community working effectively on a worldwide issue, which, sadly, is an international problem and one where we each have to play our role.