Senate debates

Thursday, 28 June 2012


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

1:57 pm

Photo of Simon BirminghamSimon Birmingham (SA, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for the Murray Darling Basin) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to continue this debate on the Migration Legislation Amendment (The Bali Process) Bill 2012. This is a very complex and serious issue, but it is underscored with one very simple question: how do we stop the human tragedy of lives being lost at sea with minimal impact on the human rights of those we are trying to save? That is the simple question that this parliament should be seeking to answer. That is the question the Australian public, the media and the polity generally are all seeking to have addressed. It is perhaps more than some are saying at present, which is simply that we must do something to stop lives being lost at sea. I agree that we must do something to stop lives being lost at sea. But that 'something' must be an option that has the least impact on the human rights of those people whose lives we are trying to save.

There has been, I think, a realisation—an awakening of sorts—across the Australian community and across the body politic about this issue and the need to genuinely stop human trafficking, the need to genuinely stop people-smuggling, and the need to genuinely stop the boats that come to Australian waters carrying those seeking asylum. That awakening has been that there is a real threat to the lives of these people. It is sad that it has taken the loss of so many lives for that awakening to occur universally across this parliament and across the community. It is a fact that the coalition have long known. We have long known that it is in the best interests of those who seek to make the voyage that they be discouraged from doing so—just as it is in the best interests of Australia in terms of how we maintain integrity and support for Australia's migration program and, in particular, the humanitarian and refugee impact of our migration program for us to control our borders effectively. So I welcome that the fact that everyone now appears to agree that there is a need to stop the people smuggling.

The division between the parties lies on just how to stop the people smuggling. Those questions of how and the policies that stem from trying to answer those questions must be addressed by looking at two factors—firstly, of course, what will actually work, what will make a difference; and, secondly, what will work in a way that does not compromise the other principles that Australia should hold dear. On the first question, about the legislation before us, which provides for the government's so-called Malaysia solution, the answer is unknown. As Senator Brandis said in his contribution today, Mr Andrew Metcalfe, who has been quoted and cited by many in this debate, has acknowledged that the Malaysia option is untested and that it is conjecture as to whether or not it would work. We do know that past policies appear to have had an effect and appear to have slowed—indeed stopped—the arrivals. We do not know whether the Malaysia option could achieve the same outcome.

On the second question, as to whether it would work and whether it could be implemented without compromising other core principles that Australia should hold dear, the answer is clear. The option of the Malaysian approach proposed by the government and made available by Mr Oakeshott's bill would compromise other principles that Australia holds dear. It would compromise the core principle that Australia has held dear for many decades—ever since we signed and ratified in 1951 the United Nations convention in relation to refugees. In 1951, under the Menzies government, Australia took that step and decided that it was appropriate that we guaranteed those who sought refuge in this country a certain standard of protection. This bill, if passed, would strip those protections—protections that have existed since 1951—from those who may arrive on our shores and be sent to Malaysia. I am unwilling—and I am pleased that the coalition is unwilling—to strip those sorts of human rights protections from our migration laws.

Let's look in particular at what it would seek to strip. It would strip from our Migration Act section 198A. Under section 198A, if the minister for immigration is to send people to an offshore country for processing, he is required to acknowledge that that country:

(i) provides access, for persons seeking asylum, to effective procedures for assessing their need for protection; and

(ii) provides protection for persons seeking asylum, pending determination of their refugee status; and

(iii) provides protection to persons who are given refugee status, pending their voluntary repatriation to their country of origin or resettlement in another country; and

(iv) meets relevant human rights standards in providing that protection;

These are core protections that the Howard government enshrined in the Migration Act to ensure that people who were subject to offshore processing were guaranteed appropriate human rights protections. The Labor government, through this bill, will take those protections out. They will take those protections out because they cite the High Court case that invalidated their plan to send people to Malaysia. Yes, it did invalidate their plan—and it invalidated it in part because of section 198A.

There is a question as to whether or not Nauru could still operate as an option under this. The coalition believe it could; others have disputed that. But the coalition have accepted and agreed that, if need be, those protections could be taken out of the Migration Act. However, we are unwilling to see those protections removed without replacement protections put in place. Those replacement protections, we suggest, should be, as a core standard and a core minimum, that a country be a party to the UN refugee convention. It is a simple test—a test that at least would pass the High Court with a clear yes or no. Is the country a party to the UN refugee convention or is it not?

Does that, in and of itself, guarantee the human rights of those who are sent to that country? No, of course it does not. I recognise and acknowledge that just being a party to a UN convention does not guarantee rights. There would need to be a second test applied at the policy level, by whoever the government of the day is, and that would be as to whether those rights actually will be and can be guaranteed in that country. Malaysia would fail on both of those tests. It would fail the test of whether it is a signatory to the UN refugee convention because, of course, it is not. And it would fail on the test of whether human rights protections can be guaranteed for those we send to Malaysia, because quite clearly, transparently, those human rights protections cannot be guaranteed in Malaysia. We knew they could be guaranteed in Nauru, even though Nauru was not at that stage a signatory to the UN refugee convention, because Australia operated the facilities on Nauru. When we detained people on Nauru to assess their application for refugee status, it was Australia that ensured adequate education facilities for children who were there, adequate health facilities for those who were ill, adequate protections across the board for every person who went to Nauru. None of those protections, none of those education facilities, none of those health facilities, none of those safeguards could be guaranteed for the people that the Labor Party proposed to send to Malaysia—not one of them.

If this bill were to be passed, if the Labor Party were to get its way, how would we look—as an apparently compassionate, humanitarian country that signed the UN refugee convention in 1951—when the first person that we sent to Malaysia found themselves ill and was denied health care or was unable to access health care that could have been life saving? How would we look when that person—a minor, potentially—found themselves in Malaysia needing education and was unable to access education services? How would we judge ourselves if indeed somebody were to find themselves in Malaysia unable to access basic justice services if they are attacked or, indeed, subjected to torture or other forms of inhumane treatment?

This proposal fails every decent test of human rights. Don't just take my word for it. This morning my colleague from the other place Judi Moylan, the member for Pearce, spoke at a press conference. Ms Moylan's record is impeccable on these issues. There is barely a parliamentarian in this place who has spoken with as much passion and concern for those seeking asylum as Judi Moylan has. Her words this morning were:

The Oakeshott bill is actually the worst of all options, because the government actually removed section 198A from that bill, which was some of the protections we would normally afford to asylum seekers.

Ms Moylan, the member for Pearce, with her impeccable record of concern for refugees and asylum seekers, described this bill—of all those that were canvassed in the long debate in the House of Representatives yesterday—as the worst of all options. There is no way that this Senate should allow the worst of all options to be passed. There is no way that this Senate should allow to be carried into law something that would strip from those who are desperate and those who are seeking a new life basic protections of their human rights.

There have been numerous things said by those opposite during this debate, both here today and in the other place yesterday. Ms Gillard said, 'We must get something done.' She embraced, she claimed, the Oakeshott bill because it would ensure that she could not claim a win and the opposition could not claim a win but that we could leave this place and get something done. It is not enough to get something done; you must get the right thing done. And the right thing would be to pass legislation through this parliament that we could all be proud of because it guaranteed continued protection of the human rights of those seeking asylum whilst providing disincentives for people to make the dangerous boat journey to Australia and risk their lives. Such legislation would bring back the policies of the Howard government that did appear to work, that did stem the flow of boats and that did see, by 2007, that flow basically reduced to zero.

It is the Labor government of Mr Rudd and Ms Gillard that unwound those policies and that created this problem. I know that the steps they took were in some ways done with good intentions and that many had heartfelt concern that the policies that had been enacted were cruel. We now know, though, that policies that encourage people to come to this country and encourage people to potentially put their lives on the line have even more devastating consequences.

We should not take the Prime Minister's advice to 'just get something done'. 'Something' will not suffice. It must be the right thing. I take to task words that I heard Senator Bilyk and others use today, that this is the only bill that can be passed. That is not true. This may be the only bill that is on the Notice Paper but it is far from the only bill that can be passed. We saw just before I spoke a change to procedures of the Senate for today that added another piece of legislation for passage through this place today.

I am confident that if the government were willing to drop its inflexible position and talk to the opposition about passing the legislation that Mr Abbott committed yesterday to be willing to pass, it could sail through this place very quickly and it could sail through the other place very quickly. I am confident that, having willingly given whatever time is necessary in this place to debate this topic today, the coalition would equally willingly give whatever time was necessary to debate a proposal that actually had a chance of getting through this parliament and making a difference. So instead of stubbornly coming into this place and saying to us, 'This is the only bill that can pass today; therefore you must support it,' the government should grow up. The government should recognise that this bill is not going to pass but there are options that could and that those options should be embraced.

Lastly, I take to task what Senator Feeney said before me. He acknowledged the Greens for being consistent in their position but then somehow suggested that the coalition had not been. Nothing could be further from the truth. The coalition established temporary protection visas and the coalition established offshore processing at Nauru. The coalition opposed the Labor government's repealing of temporary protection visas and the coalition opposed the Labor government's unwinding of offshore processing at Nauru. And the coalition today supports the reinstatement of temporary protection visas and the reinstatement of offshore processing at Nauru. Our position could not be any more consistent and could not be any clearer. This stands in stark contrast to those opposite, who have flip-flopped throughout this. As I acknowledged before, this is perhaps based, I am sure based in many cases, on the best of intentions but they have now come to the worst of all possible solutions.

I finish by reminding the Senate of the question I posed at the start: how do we stop the human tragedy of lives lost at sea with the minimal impact on the human rights of those whose lives we are trying to save? The answers to that question are clear. They have been delivered before in the policies of the Howard government. They should be delivered again, and the answer is most certainly not sending these people to Malaysia.

2:17 pm

Photo of Lee RhiannonLee Rhiannon (NSW, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to support my Greens colleagues speaking in this debate. This Australian parliament is seeing two days of very historic, significant debate. I had the opportunity to hear some of the speeches in the House of Representatives and I have been able to listen to all the speeches in the Senate today. I certainly acknowledge that many MPs are looking for a humane approach to refugees who wish to come to this country. But the bill before us should not be supported. As Senator Christine Milne said, the Migration Legislation Amendment (The Bali Process) Bill 2012 is a political solution, not a solution for asylum seekers. The Greens are opposing this bill because we want to welcome refugees to Australia, refugees who have a right to come to this country. We are opposing this bill because we want to save lives.

The Greens' commitment to work with all parties and crossbenchers to find a solution is clearly reflected in the amendment that Senator Milne has moved. That amendment sets out some very specific ways that we could come together to ensure safety of refugees who so often take a very perilous trip when they decide to leave their country. That Greens amendment covers providing safe pathways for refugees, increasing our humanitarian intake of refugees, increasing funding to the UNHCR, entry into urgent discussions with all parties about how to bring more resolution to this issue, and establishing a multiparty committee in the context of the refugee convention to further develop this work. People seeking asylum have the right to seek refuge in Australia and the essence of this bill is that it denies that right. That is what is so fundamentally wrong with this bill and why it should be opposed.

In the context of having this important debate in the parliament and considering how refugees are able to come to this country, it is worth remembering that this issue has not been always so deeply politicised as we are seeing now. In the 1970s and 1980s there was a bipartisan approach that was reflective of our responsibilities. In that period there were waves of refugees coming from both South-East Asia and South America wanting to come to Australia. They were politically fraught times but there was a unity between the political parties in our parliament that did not politicise the issue, did not use refugees and attacks on refugees and a whole lot of implications about their rights, the types of people they are and what they were doing here, to try and win elections.

This is a time when we need to remember that former prime ministers Whitlam, Fraser and Hawke actually worked together—again I emphasise that this issue was never featured in elections, and it was complex—on how people who were seeking refuge could be given safe passage. That was worked on in a collaborative way and that was achieved. I draw senators' attention to a recent most important speech that former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser gave when he delivered the 2012 Whitlam Oration. I recommend that senators read it. There are a number of quotes relevant to our debate today and there are two that I would like to share with the chamber. In reference to refugees coming here from South-east Asia, Mr Fraser stated:

Gough Whitlam did not play politics with this. It would have been easy to do.

He went on to say:

Bipartisanship on issues of immigration was maintained.

That saved lives. That brought dignity to people and made it easier for those refugees, when they came to Australia, to be able to settle here. But, most importantly and most relevant to what we are discussing now, it meant that the government of the day was able to work with those communities looking for refuge in Australia so their passage was as safe as possible.

Mr Fraser also said—and this is relevant to today and it is a very sobering comment:

Our treatment of refugees, and the poisonous debate engaged in by our major political parties has done Australia much harm throughout our own region.

I am opposing this bill for many reasons. Many of them are very personal. I visit Villawood quite often. I have met refugees whose stories are just so heartbreaking. They are heartbreaking for what they have gone through and heartbreaking for what they are now enduring. I am opposing this bill because of the two refugees I met recently who came here as children and who spoke at the Greens event for Refugee Week: Juma Abraham, from Sudan, and Masihullah Mobin, from Afghanistan. Their stories made me very proud of humanity and proud that I had the privilege of meeting these people but also quite ashamed about what human beings periodically do to other human beings. They have lost so many relatives. It is lucky that they are alive here now. But they are in Australia and they are so thankful. I am particularly thinking of Masihullah today, because he was on a boat that overturned. His only relative who was sent with him, when he was 15, died on that boat, and Masihullah had a horrendous time before he was able to come to Australia.

I am also thinking of many of the people I saw in a film recently that I have already spoken about in this parliament, called Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea. I would recommend that all MPs see this. It really does bring clarity to the issues that we are discussing today. This film was made by Jessie Taylor and Ali Reza Sadiqi. These two filmmakers went to Indonesia and met many of the people who are seeking refuge here, who are just seeking a better life somewhere. It explained clearly that the queues do not exist—that is meaningless. It explained the decades and decades that people have to wait, the corruption that exists within the process that they have to go through, often even within the UNHCR process, and just why they feel so hopeless in their lives. Then you start to understand why they get on these boats. You saw sometimes the boats break up, and you expected that people were losing their lives. You felt that you had got to know many of the people that you met in the film—their wishes and their hopes for the rest of their lives and for their children. The end of the film was very moving. It showed photos of those people and, underneath, a description of what had happened to them. With so many of them it was 'drowned', 'missing' or 'settled in Australia'. That was how the film ended, and it was very moving for everybody. I speak of that because they are the people that I am thinking of when I consider this bill. This bill is a betrayal of those people and all people who have a right to seek refuge in this country.

We have heard many speakers. I was disappointed with some of the comments many of the Labor speakers made because they were not acknowledging that this bill is a misuse of international law, that this bill pushes Australia's responsibility under international law onto other countries. This bill is in effect another form of deterrence. I am not denying that many in the Labor government have very humane feelings and are distressed by what is happening, but there clearly is a desire here within the Labor government, in bringing forward and backing this legislation, that the boats will stop. Under this bill, people can be sent to other countries. What we have here is a failed policy. It is a failed policy for refugees and it will be a failed policy in terms of Labor's desire to use this legislation to stop the boats.

I think it is important to reiterate that people seeking refuge have a right to do so. Naturally they will look to Australia. Many people think that is because we are a wealthy country in the region. What goes with that is a huge responsibility, much of it a moral responsibility as well as a legal responsibility. But, from the many talks that I have had with refugees and people who work in this area, I know that people also look to this country because we have such a fine record of welcoming refugees to this country. I just spoke about what happened in the 1970s and 1980s. That is in our memory. It was such a fraught time. The Vietnam War divided this country so deeply, but we came out of that, and people who wanted to take refuge in this country from Vietnam were allowed to do so, and it was done with unity across political parties.

Senator Cameron said that people are crying out for compromise. We have heard that statement made quite often in this debate. What we need to reflect on is: how can you call it compromise when this bill that Labor is supporting—and may have had a considerable hand in getting off the ground—contradicts the refugee convention? This is not a compromise. A compromise is when you ensure that the outcome you are trying to achieve is to some extent achieved. But we are not getting anything better for refugees here. There is no improvement in the current standards for refugees coming to this country. This bill takes things backwards.

As Australians, we need to recognise that we have responsibilities to accept refugees. The number of those seeking refuge in our country will fluctuate. At times, I think we should be willing to accept many more refugees to this country—when wars break out, when there are natural disasters, when people are being persecuted. Sri Lanka is an example at the moment. The civil war has ended, but so many Tamils are taking to boats, and it is because of the extreme persecution in that country. It is similar with Afghanistan. Why are people doing that? Because of the persecution that is continuing in that country, as well as the war. That is why people are taking to the boats in an attempt to escape. Attempted genocide, wars, natural disasters—these are driving people to come to our country, and these are issues that also need to be addressed. I obviously recognise that we have an immediate issue here with the boats, but we cannot divorce what we are facing here from why people make that extraordinary decision to leave their home, to leave their country, to leave their communities, to seek a better life—often just to seek safety in the first instance.

In this debate we often hear terms like 'queue jumpers' and 'risks to the national security of our country'. The term 'border security' is frequently used. We hear talk about people smuggling. I think so much of that language politicises this issue, and again it is a reminder of how far we have moved away from the times of the seventies and eighties, when there truly was a bipartisan position, but a bipartisan position based not on the lowest common denominator in terms of how we treat refugees but on honouring our responsibility under the refugee convention.

I think it is worth also remembering, when people talk about people smuggling, that essentially, across the world, there are informal and formal networks of people moving across borders to seek a better life. That is what is happening. Part of our responsibility is how we respond to that issue, because so often it is a perilous journey that people take.

Australia's responsibilities to refugees, I believe, should also ensure that their journey is not life threatening, and this bill will not save lives. It is an abuse of the refugee convention and therefore of refugees. For all those reasons, it should not be supported.

2:31 pm

Photo of Trish CrossinTrish Crossin (NT, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise this afternoon to provide some input into this debate on the Migration Legislation Amendment (The Bali Process) Bill 2012. I guess when I started in the Senate, quite a number of years ago now, the issue of refugees and their rights, what it meant to them and what it meant to this country probably were not exactly on my radar. I had provided my service to the community through education, and I came to the Senate with a knowledge of rural and regional Australia and Indigenous Territorians, having lived at Yirrkala and then in Darwin.

Through the course of my time in this parliament, I became involved in the Senate's legal and constitutional affairs committees. I was involved in the legislation and references committees in opposition, when the legislation committee was chaired by Marise Payne, and since we have been in government I have become Chair of the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee and Deputy Chair of the Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee. You might say: what has that got to do with today's debate? Well, the legal and constitutional affairs committee deals with all matters to do with immigration and citizenship. That is the committee that deals with every piece of legislation, pretty much, that comes into this parliament that has anything to do with immigration. We have looked at a whole range of issues, particularly in the last four or five years. We have looked at each and every time that the Migration Act has needed to change for the character test. We have looked at the situation in detention centres. We even looked at the Malaysian solution—shall we say—when it was sent to us as a reference. We also sit three times a year at estimates and we question and listen to officials from the Department of Immigration and Citizenship.

Through that process I have come to understand exactly why people get on a boat and what Australia's role is in this, but, even more so, what our role in this is internationally. If you sit and listen to the experts that we hear from at estimates—and I am going to say that they are experts; they are the likes of the secretary of the department, Mr Andrew Metcalfe, who has been in Immigration for many, many years, and the very senior officers that he brings with him to estimates, who deal with this every minute of every day, who know every figure, who know every fact, who know every explanation, who know exactly what is going on around this world—you build up a bank of knowledge about why we have got to the situation that we are in today. It is pretty hard to go through that bank of knowledge in a 20-minute speech, and I caught some glimpses of it yesterday in the House of Representatives, but you build up a bank of knowledge that gets you to understand that life is pretty good in this country—in fact, it is damn good in this country—but life is pretty traumatic for a lot of other people in certain countries around this world.

Life is so bad for some of these people around this world that we could never possibly imagine what some of these people have been through. We heard Senator Ludlam's explanation today about a little boy who gets off a bus and sees his father and brother shot before his very eyes. We say that in 20 words or less and in three seconds or less, but just pause for one minute and think about the lifelong image and feelings that that person then takes with them for the rest of their life. Let us talk about the women who are fleeing from Afghanistan and Iran. Let us talk about the men who are running away because they are so frightened for their lives. It is very hard, I think, as Australians to try and really imagine and have any empathy with these people when we know that we will hardly ever or never be confronted with that situation in this country.

Let us put that in the context of what other countries are experiencing—the flow of refugees into Europe, even into places like the United Kingdom, and into other places around the world. A couple of years ago when I was representing this parliament at the IPU and we were over in France and Italy, they were talking about 38,000, 40,000 and 45,000 people a year trying to flee from their countries and get into those European countries. We are debating today less than 5,000 people. We are having an argument today about whether we will increase that quota to 20,000, in a country as big and brave and bright and beautiful as Australia. Sometimes, when I sit here and I hear some of the arguments, I do not get it. I just do not get it. I have been known to say publicly, on the record, that I am not in favour of offshore processing one little bit. I actually think we should have a processing centre in Indonesia and I actually think we should take from Indonesia more of the refugees who have found their way to that country. Then I stop and think and wonder whether that would just put pressure on that country, whether more people would just find their way to Indonesia. So that is probably not a solution either. But certainly I was never in favour of the Malaysian agreement, and people know that in the last 12 months many of my colleagues on this side spoke out publicly about that agreement. I do not think it is the ideal thing. I have wanted the safeguards about the UNHCR being involved. I desperately want Malaysia to sign the United Nations convention, as well. I want the assurances about minors that I heard people speak about yesterday.

But the thing that I want more than anything else is to try to assist people in Indonesia who are refugees and are so absolutely desperate that they flee for their lives and the lives of their families and risk their lives by taking that trip on a boat. I am going to go to that for a few minutes. A couple of months back my husband was on the jury in Darwin for one of the crew of those boats and, once the trial was over and the crew were found guilty and convicted, he was able to talk about the case and the situation. Think about the fact that most of the crew get on these boats believing they are going on a fishing trip, or they are conned and told that they are just taking a group of people to another island in their archipelago, and then, hundreds of kilometres out to sea, they are met by another ship which they and all the people are shunted onto without their agreement. Think about the fact that they have limited water or limited supplies on that boat because they think they are going for two days but end up going for many days. Think about the fact that there are people out there who are willing to sell that commodity to people. But there are also people who are so desperate for their own safety and a future that they get on that boat no matter what. I think that is where we lose sight of what we are actually trying to achieve here.

Of course, I represent constituents on Christmas Island. I have gotten to know and really love that community in my 14 years as a senator; but, by God, I have seen that community change over those years. I saw that community change the minute the coalition decided they were going to build the most grotesque establishment in which to put refugees. To me, words still cannot describe the detention centre on Christmas Island. You have just got to go there and look at it, stare at it, and wonder how we could possibly ever have built such a thing in this country. It was to my great sadness that I learnt, once we got to government, that we were going to have to open it and put people in there.

The Christmas Island community is pretty strong and pretty resilient, but they are tested time and time again by people crossing the seas, crossing those waters, desperate for a free life. We all have very vivid recollections of the tragedy on the Christmas before last, when people—it is true; I heard people talk about it yesterday—actually stood on the rocks at the cove on Christmas Island and, before their very eyes, in front of them, saw that boat smash and people lose their lives, when they were literally just an arm's length away. I went up with Warren Snowdon to the memorial service that they had on the island. I have fought very hard for them to get an emergency management officer, who they have now got, and for better equipment on the island, which they have now got. But in the last week we have seen two more boats. In the last week we have seen my ordinary constituents, people who live a very different life on a day-to-day basis on Christmas Island, having, as emergency services workers, to put on those clothes, get in that ambulance and go down to that wharf to help drag body bags off the boat, help people onto the island and help get into the hospital people who had nearly drowned and lost their lives but who were at least still alive.

Christmas Islanders can stand a lot, but I tell you what: I often wonder at what point those people are at breaking point. We offer them counselling; and they are great community, so they can provide each other with support—plenty of cuddles and cups of tea. But I will never forget the stories that some of those constituents have told me personally about the horrors of that boat smashing on those rocks the Christmas before last. And of course last week the people of Christmas Island had to step up again, and they have had to step up again this week. Tragedy after tragedy is on their doorstep—literally on their doorstep. They see the dreadful outcomes when those Navy vessels come into their port. One thing I want to do today is publicly acknowledge that community: the nurses, the doctors, the ambulance drivers, the people who put together the emergency kits, the radio operators, the people who just make cups of tea for the nurses and police and doctors and psychiatrists while all this is going on, and the administrator Brian Lacy and now the acting administrator Steve Clay who have all had to pull together again.

So where does that leave us as we come to this debate in this chamber again today? As I said, I am not a big fan of the Malaysia agreement. One of the things I have seen though in the last 48 hours is us as a government trying to compromise and find a solution to this. We have worked through the Malaysia agreement as part of the Regional Cooperation Framework, in conjunction with Indonesia and Malaysia. We have always ruled out Nauru, but I think that, with what we are seeing now week after week, with so many people desperate to get on a boat, we need to reach a compromise in this parliament.

For whatever reason, people are conned into throwing away their papers. We hear that time and time again in the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee, which I chair. People are told one story on a boat. They are told, 'It's probably best for you when you get to Australia if you don't have any papers with you. It will be easier.' That is wrong. They are probably told, 'Really, you won't need those papers. You'll get new ones when you get to Australia.' That is wrong. How are they to know the difference? But if you listened to Senator Eric Abetz's contribution this morning, you would think that those people would deliberately throw those papers away. Think about that: why would they do that? If you were trying to come to this country for a better life because you were that desperate to protect yourself and your family, you would want all the evidence in the world you possibly could. I do not believe for one minute they deliberately throw those papers away. They put their trust in the people who are trying to get them here, and that is what they do because they think that is in their best interests. But really what is in their best interests is that they never have to get on that boat at all because they know that there will be no opportunity for them to be here.

I know that the coalition are wedded to temporary protection visas, and I know that if you look through the transcripts of the departmental secretary, Andrew Metcalfe, time and time again you will see that the evidence is very, very clear. Once TPVs were introduced, the number of boats coming to this country actually increased, because a TPV did not allow family migration and reunion while you had that visa. If people who were seeking refugee status had family in this country, they knew they could not get here by reunion, so they got on those boats. The statistics are there. If you look back through estimates, if you look back at the charts which the department gave us time and time again, you will see that because of the way in which TPVs were handled in this country they did not stop the boats. People did not say, 'Oh, I'm going to get a TPV; therefore I won't get on a boat'. People said: 'My family in Australia has a TPV; I'll never be able to have any family reunion under the migration program, so I'm going to get on a boat to be with them anyway.'

What have we done in a spirit of cooperation? We have said: over the next 12 months let's have a look at that. Let's have an inquiry. Let's do what we are really good at in this place: get all of the evidence from the experts, throw it in front of a select committee or a Senate committee and let's have a really good look at the effect of TPVs and whether they were effective or not. That is a compromise. That is a negotiated outcome. I do not understand why the coalition do not see that we are meeting them halfway here—that we have not totally ruled it out. If, at the end of the day, the inquiry says TPVs are going to be useful and workable, then the pressure would be on us, I would have thought, to reintroduce them.

We do not like the Nauru situation, either, because most people who ended up at Nauru were actually deemed to be genuine refugees and were brought to this country as well. So it really was not a deterrent. It was really a turn to the left for some people for a few months, but they ended up here anyway. But, in the spirit of cooperation and negotiation, we have said we will put that back on the table and we will open Nauru again. And we have said we would increase the quota to 20,000. As with all negotiated outcomes and in all stand-offs—and I have been there many times as a trade union official and I have been there many times when I have had belligerent teenagers who wanted more money out of me when they went to the movies or they wanted that extra hour coming home late at night—there is always a compromise and there is always a middle ground. In the last 24 hours I think we have found that middle ground. We have found the compromise. We will have Nauru as well as Malaysia, we will increase the quota and we will have a look at the effect of TPVs. I really just do not get why you will not support that.

For those of us who are still very wary about this whole situation, there is a 12-month caveat. I wondered last night what else you would want in order to pass this legislation. The only thing I could think of was is this. I say to the coalition: is your attitude 'our way or no way'? Is it my way or the highway? That is just not going to work in this situation. We really do not know if any of those solutions will work. We really do not know that. Every successive government has tried something different. Sometimes the boats come and sometimes they do not. Sometimes the rest of the world is peaceful and we do not have the situations in Iran and Afghanistan, and then suddenly we do. It is there before our very eyes, and we have thousands of people wanting to flee those countries to improve their own situation.

But people get on those boats and it is incredibly dangerous. They lose their lives. I do not stand for one minute the crocodile tears I saw in the chamber yesterday. We are all saddened by what we have seen. I could not have been sadder than when I stood on those cliffs at Christmas Island surrounded by islanders who were still traumatised by what they went through. If you are going to do something today, do something for my constituents on Christmas Island. Do something for the people who are in the Navy and the customs and border protection departments of this country. Stop that trauma and stop them having to deal with such incredible duress in their working lives.

People have a right to seek refugee status in this world. They have a right to do that. We have signed a piece of paper under the heading of the United Nations to say that we recognise that and we support those people. What we have to do now is make sure that, when seeking asylum and seeking refugee status, they do it in a very safe way—they do not put their lives at risk, they do not put their family at risk and they do not put their future at risk.

I am really saying to the coalition today: have a break sometime this afternoon and re-assess this. Re-assess where you are going. If this is not the solution, then what is? What is the solution? This is a compromise for a 12-month period. Even though I am not going to give it the full tick and I do not give it 10 gold stars, I am at least prepared to say, like Anthony Albanese, that we have got to do something so that people do not put their lives at risk and so they end up getting the safe and secure future that they deserve in this world.

2:51 pm

Photo of Penny WongPenny Wong (SA, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Finance and Deregulation) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to follow what was a very good speech by my colleague Senator Crossin. I want to start by discussing the historical context of this debate, not so much because I want to apportion blame but because I think we need to understand why it is this has become in this country such a difficult debate, why it is that positions have become so entrenched and why it is that this parliament has become so diminished by the inability of its members to shift from entrenched positions.

This is a debate which takes place in the shadow of past events, past conflicts, past elections. I was elected during the election which has come to be known as the Tampa election. That was the election I was elected in—something which I have always thought was somewhat sadly ironic. It was an election which, despite the protestations, the verbiage and the verbal sidestepping, was firmly about the politics of immigration, asylum seekers and race. It was an election in which those issues were far more than dog whistle; they became foghorn issues. And no-one who campaigned in that election and saw what was happening in our community as a result of the decisions of the then government and the public statements of the then government would have any doubt about that fact. It was an election which I think was a regrettable milestone in Australian politics.

In my first speech to this place I spoke about the fact that, over our history since white arrival, race had been an uncomfortable topic for us. We were of course a country that, for example, had a bipartisan commitment to a White Australia policy for many years. But after the dismantling of that policy—and I pay tribute to both parties of government for that; both sides of politics had people who worked on that issue—you would have to say when it came to the issues of migration, the issues that tapped into some of that unfortunate undercurrent, there was a sensible centre in Australian politics that sought to moderate the debate and that was made up by people of goodwill in the Labor Party and in the Liberal Party. Let us not forget, the moderates in the Liberal Party were very important over many decades on issues of immigration and race in this country to ensure that what could have been an incendiary issue at times was not made so. The sensible centre, the voice of moderation: that is what was needed in the past and that is what is needed today. As I said, I think that sensible centre enabled difficult issues to be managed and to be handled in the national interest. It recognised that care needs to be taken by elected representatives, by leaders, to ensure that such issues do not become incendiary in the electorate in the way that we have seen at times in Australia's history.

Of course, there were notable exceptions to that, and I count probably first amongst those the former Prime Minister Mr Howard, who is known for his comments in 1988 in which he argued for a reduction in Asian immigration, something that those of us who understand discrimination firsthand will never forget. I will never forget that debate and what it meant for me, my family and my community. Mr Howard was the Prime Minister who, when Pauline Hanson said we were in danger of being overrun by Asians, defended her right to speak, not the rights of people whom she was attacking—a failure of leadership that will never be forgotten.

This same Prime Minister and ministers in his government engaged in some of the most brutal politicking in recent times on issues of asylum seekers in the lead-up to the election in 2001. We all know what occurred in relation to the Tampa vessel, which has been discussed at length and is now part of the history books and of course was also taken through the courts. A refusal by the government to accept asylum seekers was played out, if I may say so, for maximum political effect. We also know that that was the government responsible for the events which led to what is known as 'kids overboard'—the 'certain maritime incident'—in which ministers asserted that children of asylum seekers had been thrown overboard, a fact that was not correct, a fact that was untrue. Ministers in that government described asylum seekers as queue jumpers. Ministers in that government linked the issue of asylum seeker policy to a pipeline of terrorists. We had a Liberal government who refused to let children out of detention because that would mean the end of mandatory detention, notwithstanding the pleas from the medical community and others to do so.

It is difficult to reconcile those facts and so many others with the newfound compassion for asylum seekers that some in the Liberal Party purport to have. Forgive us for finding that difficult to reconcile. It is difficult to reconcile their newfound desire to ensure that the refugee convention is sacrosanct, when it was never the case when they were in government that this was such an important point of policy and point of principle. It is difficult to reconcile that with their position whereby they say, 'We will tow boats back to a country that is not a signatory of the refugee convention, but we will not allow you, through an arrangement where both governments are engaged and the UNHCR is engaged, to send people back to Malaysia.' Those two positions are not consistent. It is not for me to justify that; it is for those opposite. But I think most people—responsible listeners, reasonable listeners, reasonable observers of this debate—would say: how is it possible that you can go from a position where you say 'we don't like queue jumpers', where you draw a link to a pipeline of terrorists, where you do not care about the refugee convention, to a position where you would vote against this legislation on the basis that Malaysia is not a signatory? It really beggars belief.

But I did not want to come in here just to talk about who was right and who was wrong, because I think what is more important now is to say: what do we do? One of the consequences of the politicisation of this policy area has been that it has become nearly impossible to have a sensible policy debate. People have become entrenched in their positions and that has led, as I have said, to gridlock—and this is to the diminution of this parliament. We need a sensible centre to find a practical response. Instead, it is a debate where we see extreme views dominating, preventing the answer being found. It is a highly politicised debate, a highly charged debate, a highly emotional debate, a debate in which it is easy to take a position that is counter to any practical response.

In this context I make reference to my own policy journey on this issue. Others in the Labor Party have spoken about their own journey as well—including my friends Senator Crossin and before her Senator Cameron, Mr Steve Jones in the other place, and others. Many of us in the Labor Party expressed concerns prior to coming to government about offshore processing. For us it was very much linked to the history that I have just described of the Howard government's response and the way politics was so brutally played out then. In the Labor Party in the past many people have expressed their great concern regarding offshore processing, but I would say this: I do not believe it is tenable any longer to argue that push factors alone are responsible, and I do not think it is tenable for us to say that we do not have a responsibility to try and find factors which deter people from getting on boats. That is my position. The loss of life that we are witnessing demands a response.

I want to say something briefly about the position of the Australian Greens. My difficulty with the position of the Australian Greens is that there really is no practical response. The hard, inescapable truth is that words will not prevent anyone getting on a boat. I understand the view of the Greens party on offshore processing and the refugee convention. However, I again say it is easy to come in here and speak about words, speak about a convention, but what we are charged with today is working out what legislative response we can put in place to prevent people getting on boats. Many fine words have been spoken in the last two days in this and the other place. There have been many tears shed. Speaking fine words and showing genuine emotion have their place but as political representatives we are called today to do far more than that—we are called to try and find an answer. The answer, particularly in this debate, can be found only if people are prepared to compromise. This is a debate where the extremes mean there is no common ground and there is no answer.

Let us review briefly why the legislation before the chamber reflects a compromise from the Labor government's position. I commend Mr Oakeshott for bringing this bill forward, because the bill is a genuine attempt to find that common ground and compromise. There have really been three matters at issue between the government and the coalition. They are the Malaysia arrangement, the opening of a detention centre on Nauru and temporary protection visas. The government's position has previously been that we did not wish to proceed with the opening of a detention centre on Nauru because we accepted the advice given that that would not be an effective deterrent. What has the Prime Minister said we would do? She has said that if this legislation is passed we will proceed to do that—we will proceed to open a detention centre on Nauru.

The Labor Party has also had longstanding opposition to temporary protection visas. Senator Crossin went through what the government is proposing in respect of that system—a process to examine it, run by agreed reviewers, independent of government and agreed with the opposition. Terms of reference, as I recall, will also be agreed with the opposition, and the report will go to both the Leader of the Opposition and the Prime Minister concurrently. As someone who was in opposition for many years prior to becoming a minister in a government, I know that is an offer that would never have been contemplated by the Liberal government. We also wish to proceed with the arrangement with Malaysia because the advice we have is that that will provide a deterrent. So there has been substantial compromise by the government.

In light of that I find it extraordinary that we see coalition senators come into this place saying again and again why it is that they cannot support this compromise. Effectively what they are saying to the chamber, and to the Australian people, is that their way is the only way: 'We are not prepared to do anything other than what we want to do; we are not prepared to work with the government or the crossbenchers in the lower house to support legislation that will deal with this issue; the only legislation we will accept is legislation that reflects our policy.' Had the government taken that position, this bill would not be before the chamber—it would not have passed the lower house. But the government has been prepared to compromise. As I said, regrettably this is a debate that has been dominated by too many extreme views. It has a particularly sad history. When you have a debate dominated by the extremes, where you have people unwilling to compromise, answers fall through the cracks. In this area that has some tragic consequences.

I do not stand in this chamber, and nor do I think any government senator stands in this chamber, saying that this bill is the complete answer. What we collectively face as a nation and as a parliament is an enormously complex policy challenge, an enormously complex policy problem, which is not cured by sound bites or three-word grabs, a policy problem the world is grappling with and that involves millions of people seeking a better life in a different country. I do not stand in this chamber saying that I believe this bill is necessarily the complete answer, but I do know this: it is the only answer before us. It is the only answer that can become law today. It is the only chance for this chamber to put in place a legislative response today which has the capacity to prevent more tragedy. I say to those opposite and to the Australian Greens, we should do all we can to prevent more tragedy.

3:08 pm

Photo of Ursula StephensUrsula Stephens (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I have been listening all day to the contributions on the Migration Legislation Amendment (The Bali Process) Bill 2012 from senators on all sides of politics. It seems to me there is fundamental agreement that there has to be some way through, some way to break this impasse. For me, without reflecting on the position of any individual person or on the concerns they have raised—I believe the issues raised have been heartfelt—it now comes down to a public policy issue. I know that probably sounds a bit corny. But, when you think about where we are, the issue of asylum seeker policy in Australia and the fate of boat people seeking refuge is what, in public policy terms, would be called a 'wicked problem'.

A wicked problem is a complex policy issue which goes beyond the capacity of any one organisation, individual or group to resolve, understand or respond to. A wicked problem is one that is very difficult to define because it has many factors, multiple causes and a lot of interdependent issues. The issues in a wicked problem are very unstable and unpredictable, as we have seen in this case. Since the debate started yesterday, yet another boat has appeared on the horizon—another issue for us to factor into our considerations. A wicked problem is one that is socially and politically—and, in this case, internationally—complex. A wicked problem is one the responsibility for which cannot be sheeted home to just one individual, one organisation or, in this situation, one nation. Wicked problems are often characterised by chronic policy failure and that is certainly the case with what we are being confronted with here.

Importantly, wicked policy problems are often immune to being resolved by appealing to the facts, because disagreement about the facts is merely a ruse to mask the underlying politics of the issues. I think that very fairly describes what this debate has been reduced to. It is a hugely concerning issue. When an issue is simplified into competing stories, as we have seen in this debate, and each story is used to propose a different policy solution, the truth is that none of the stories are completely wrong—but none of the stories are completely right either. Each story focuses on some partial aspect of the debate. That is what we are confronted with today. No individual and no party can take the moral high ground here—frankly, there is no moral high ground to take.

The Oakeshott bill we have in front of us is a genuine effort to resolve the political impasse, to address this wicked problem. If we do not conclude this and allow government agencies to move on a regional solution, we will remain with a political impasse that is about the life and death of hundreds of men, women and children. These are people deserving of the same dignity and respect every person deserves and they are the same people whom every speaker today and yesterday has expressed concern about. For me, that is the wickedness of this problem.

Australians are worried. They watched the debate unfold yesterday and they are watching us today. As is everyone else in this chamber, I am getting hundreds of calls and emails in my office at the moment. People are saying: 'For goodness sake, do what you are elected to do and fix this now. Take some decisive action. Stop playing petty politics with people's lives and do the right thing.' Every one of us is getting those messages all day, every day—in our inboxes, over the telephone, in our electorate offices and here at Parliament House. This morning, among the many we have been receiving, all New South Wales senators got this email, one which captures what so many of us are concerned about:

Dear Senator

I know this morning you will be discussing and hopefully voting on the Oakeshott bill regarding the safety and arrival of asylum seekers by boat. As a voter in NSW I wanted to let you know that I want you to vote for the bill and pass it. I don't believe the bill contains all the answers to this important issue, and I do have concerns about some aspects of it. But not voting for it will allow the status quo to continue, that is two boats sinking and more than 100 people dying in the last week. I know you will consider all the information, and will do some soul searching. Please, as senators, work together, put aside party politics, and DO SOMETHING! Pass this bill, and review its effectiveness in a year.

Again, as a NSW voter, I WANT YOU TO PASS THIS BILL.

I have to say that, like many of my colleagues, I wish we could resolve this complex, wicked problem through onshore processing. I accept that few in this parliament support that view, but it does not stop me arguing for it and, even though I advocate an onshore solution, I am supporting this bill simply because it allows the executive government to take decisive action. I am reminded in all this of the observation that all it takes for evil to win is for good, decent folk to do nothing. I believe I am surrounded by good, decent folk in this place and it makes me ashamed, on behalf of Australians, that the parliament has been reduced to inaction, that partisan politics has created this paralysis, because I believe the nation deserves better—in fact, humanity deserves better.

What we are confronted with today is the statistics we have heard throughout the debate. Minister Carr spoke in the chamber about the UNHCR's global trends. They go to the heart of the enormity of the problem which is being confronted globally. He spoke about his pride and I share his pride that Australia is a generous nation—we are proud of our nation's record of resettling people who are seeking refuge from persecution and strife; that we have a long history in this country of doing it well; and, that we are acknowledged around the world for being generous about these issues. As he said, we rank in the top three resettlement countries world wide.

Our nation has been built on refuge and asylum from the earliest days. From the first colonial settlement, that is what Australia has been built on. We have always said as a government that the asylum seeker case load would change according to the factors in asylum seekers' home countries. So when I talked earlier about a wicked problem I was trying to say that there is no black and white here, that the asylum seeker debate shifts constantly depending upon the failed states around the globe, persecuted minorities and the outcome of the Arab spring. The issue is not fixed; it is a transient, complex issue. It is not one we can contain, it is not one we can manage; it is a challenge that we have as a nation to do the right thing by people who are seeking asylum and to manage the expectations Australians have that we will do our best to deter people smuggling and people risking their lives in these boats.

When we had this debate last year about the High Court decision and the report of the Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee about Australia's agreement with Malaysia in relation to asylum seekers, quite a bit of information was put into the public domain for the first time about the potential number of people who have drowned taking this perilous journey on the boats we do not even know about, the ones that disappear off the radar, the ones that initial intelligence tells us are planning to leave Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Indonesia and head for Australia. The biggest conundrum we have, I think, is to understand that we do not even know the numbers. That in itself is a horrific responsibility for us—that we do not even know how many people have drowned. They are lost to their own countries and they are lost to us and nobody can even register the fact that they no longer exist. What an extraordinary responsibility that should bring to all of us.

I ask all of my colleagues in this place to say: 'This impasse has to be broken. We have to do something.' The proposition before us in the Oakeshott bill is a very genuine attempt to resolve this issue, to give it our best shot, to come to the way in which we can remain committed to the Malaysia agreement, which everybody says is the best way to break the people-smuggling trade and to take away the avenue that allows desperate asylum seekers to embark on that horrible journey. At the time the minister dealt with the Malaysian government, he satisfied himself about many of the issues which have been raised here today—the way in which we can work so closely with the UNHCR, how he takes seriously his responsibility as the guardian of minors who are part of this process. These are all hugely humane issues which have been taken into account.

For me, the biggest disappointment is the partisan political nature of the way in which the debate has sunk into hyperbole and hypocrisy. Partisan politics forget the fact that we are talking about real people, real lives, families who have dreams, hopes and aspirations. We cannot just remain the privileged ones who are allowed to follow our dreams, our hopes and our aspirations. The Australian people expect us to step up to the mark, to make sure that there are orderly arrangements, to provide a framework that allows the best humanitarian considerations to be brought into play under a regional cooperation agreement, to effectively find a way to get rid of the people smugglers' product—this trade in human misery; that is what they are doing. We have a responsibility to do what we can to stop that trade. We have a responsibility to step up to the mark with regard to taking genuine refugees and asylum seekers, so our consideration of increasing the number of refugee places in Australia is a really important concession.

We have been discussing Nauru. Ten thousand people live in Nauru, with barely enough water or food to feed themselves, and no economic opportunity—yet we have now agreed, as part of this compromise, to reopen Nauru as a processing centre. And we all know what happened when Nauru was previously used as a processing centre, don't we? Almost all of the people who were placed in Nauru eventually came to Australia anyway. So Nauru will be used as a processing and transfer base. This is at the same time that we are trying to put into place protections under the agreement that will allow people to be treated with some dignity and respect, and allow us to step up to the mark in terms of our human rights considerations. It will allow us to think about the challenging issues of education, health care and employment, and about how we, now suffering a skills shortage, can start to work with countries to build some economic capacity in a population that may one day go back.

We cannot just leave the parliament today, whatever time we get out, without having resolved this, without having broken this impasse, without giving the executive government—and it would not matter which colour it was—which has responsibility for dealing with these issues, the authority and the opportunity to work with our regional partners. In the Bali process, we had the opportunity—and the Prime Minister is meeting with the Indonesian Prime Minister and President next week—to say, 'We're looking for a regional cooperation agreement that is in all of our interests.' If we do not do that today, well, shame on all of us, because we will have let down the people of Australia who elected us to come in here and be decent legislators. If we cannot do that, then, really, it is a pox on all our houses.

It is distressing to me that, on a matter of principle like this, there is no absolute, right answer and no absolute, perfect solution. We all have to compromise. We all have to come to a position where we commit to working in the national interest and in the interests of these wretched, desperate asylum seekers, and work our damnedest to break this horrible trade that is peddling human misery. As I said, it takes good, decent folk to do something, and I am asking all of you as good, decent folk to support this bill.

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

Mr Deputy President, on a point of order, if I may: the coalition has been faultless in its cooperation with the government to facilitate this bill. I was wondering if the minister might be able to advise us why we now have nine government speakers on the speakers list that were not there this morning. We had pulled people from the list to facilitate the government, and we would just like an explanation, because otherwise I can indicate that the coalition will insert speaker for speaker. We will not forgo speaking positions so that the government can filibuster on the basis of doing a deal somewhere behind the scenes. I know that happens from time to time, but there are other bills that need consideration.

Photo of Stephen ParryStephen Parry (Tasmania, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Abetz, I will take that as seeking leave to make a comment, which you have done—

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

Which is fair enough.

Photo of Stephen ParryStephen Parry (Tasmania, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

rather than as a point of order.

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

So we're not going to get a response?

Photo of Mark FurnerMark Furner (Queensland, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I also rise to speak in the second reading debate on the Migration Legislation Amendment (The Bali Process) Bill 2012. I guarantee to Senator Abetz on behalf of the government that we are not filibustering on this particular bill. There are people on this side in government who are genuine about seeing this bill passed. Some of us over here have a strong appreciation and involvement in this particular area and as a member of the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee I consider it my right to have the opportunity to speak on this particular bill.

Today is an opportunity for all of us to put an end to the unnecessary loss of life we have seen, and not just this past week. There is a history of loss of life on our seas, for more than a decade now. I can cast my mind back to the seventies, when many Vietnamese people were coming down the coast of my home state of Queensland trying to escape the oppression and difficulties in their homeland. The number of lives lost then was around the same that we are seeing at present in terms of the capsizing and loss of boats on our shores.

As I said, this is an opportunity to stop people making the decision to risk their lives by getting into a boat in the hopes of being settled in Australia. I know that it is a very attractive destination. A lot of my migrant friends tell me quite often how proud they are, how lucky they feel, to be in this country. It is easy to understand why people wish to travel to this country to escape the oppression, conflict or other terrible situation in their homeland. This is a real opportunity to break the people-smuggling model, by showing there is no point in their risking the lives of others. When I say risking the lives of others, I am referring directly to our men and women in the Australian Defence Force and to our men and women in the Customs service and other agencies who deal with these poor refugees who arrive on our shores as a result of those filthy people smugglers. People smugglers are in it only for the sake of a dishonest dollar and have no regard for the lives and future of the refugees they pour into those disgraceful sinking boats. We believe that this bill is the right way to move forward. We call on those opposite and on the Greens to compromise, as we have, and join us. We have put in an effective border protection policy and we know that it will work. All it needs is a commitment, some compassion and willingness and no more bloody mindedness or belligerence from those opposite. They should come forward today and do something about this terrible situation we face.

Without the support of the other parties we will leave this place with no solution to an issue that will escalate over the winter break and with no deterrent to the people smugglers, who have no respect for human life, only for the money that desperate people in search of a better life pay them to be taken across dangerous seas. How many more lives will be lost before an effective policy is implemented by this parliament?

I referred earlier to the tragedies involving loss of life among those escaping South Vietnam in the 1970s. Let us look more recently, say, at the last decade. In 2011, SIEV10 sank with the loss of 353 men, women and children, in 2001 a couple of elderly asylum seekers died when their boat sank near Ashmore Reef and in 2009, an explosion on board SIEV36 resulted in five men dying, several asylum seekers suffering serious burns and several Australian personnel receiving serious injuries and narrowly avoiding death. I will get back to the issue of the effect on our brave men and women in the Australian Defence Force later. Also in 2009, 12 Sri Lankans died in the Indian Ocean when their boat sank. In 2010, north of Cocos Islands in the Indian Ocean, five men died when they left their stricken vessel. I do not think anyone will ever forget the terrible scene on our television screens in December 2010 when SIEV221 was crashing onto rocks on Christmas Island, killing 30 men, women and children along with a possible 20 more. More recently, just in the last week or so, on 21 June, up to 90 people lost their lives in a capsized boat, followed by around four losses just the other day.

During the estimates hearings, we on the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee hear quite often about the experiences the Department of Immigration and Citizenship has when dealing with issues associated with refugees and border protection. In fact, the department has indicated at estimates that up to possibly 1,000 people have lost their lives in our waters—1,000 people, don't those opposite think it is time we acted on this issue?

Earlier today, we heard from the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Senator Bob Carr, speaking on this bill. He hit the nail on the head when he said that people tend to focus regionally on this issue, but this is a global matter that is affecting many countries. In fact, around 43 million people around the globe are displaced, more than a quarter of whom are refugees. He said there are two million Afghan refugees in Pakistan and one million in Iraq and there are refugees from Sri Lanka, Syria and Iraq. We are not the only nation in the world that is dealing with asylum seekers. We need to remember that we have a duty of care to assist these people who are seeking asylum and to ensure that no more lives are lost.

The opposition say that they do not support our Malaysian policy because Malaysia is not a signatory to the UN convention on refugees. However, when they were in government Nauru was not a signatory to the convention. At the last election, when they used it as their policy, it was still not a signatory to the convention. Mr Abbott is happy to turn the boats back to Indonesia, but it is not a signatory to the convention. That has implications for our relationship with Indonesia. We have built up a healthy and cohesive working relationship with that country and its government. Suggesting that we can turn boats back or turn them around will cause all sorts of diplomatic problems for the relationship we have with Indonesia.

In fact, the countries from which many asylum seekers are fleeing are signatories to the UN convention, including Iran, Afghanistan, Somalia and Sudan, just to name a few—there are a lot more. This proves that protection is not always available from a country that is a signatory to the UN refugee convention. It is a flawed argument that those opposite make on this issue.

I will reflect on evidence that has been provided through estimates, because it is relevant to this debate. One example comes from Mr Andrew Metcalfe, the Secretary of the Department of Immigration and Citizenship, who told us in February this year that an offshore-processing solution would deter the boats. He said:

It is not just my view but also the department's and other experts' clear view that that would have had a very high chance of success and would have made a very substantial difference to the number of boat people coming to Australia and the number of people dying as a result.

He later indicated to the committee:

It is inevitable that we will continue to see boat arrivals, and we have factored that into the forward estimates for that very reason. Sadly, given the history of the last 10 years, we have seen hundreds of people drown, and there is no reason to believe that the people smugglers are not going to put people in that position. The danger of the voyage is inherently risky. The seas can be very deceptive. The seas near Java can appear calm, and further out into the Indian Ocean towards Christmas Island it can be very dangerous, as we saw with SIEV221 that crashed at Christmas Island. Sadly, I suspect that if we continue to see arrivals we will continue to see people drowning.

That is coming from the longstanding Secretary of the Department of Immigration and Citizenship, Mr Andrew Metcalfe. He has now resigned his position. I understand that he is having a bit of break.

Once again concentrating on estimates, on 22 May this year, Ms Vicki Parker from DIAC told us that the Malaysia solution was the safer option to towing boats back to Indonesia. She said:

In terms of the comparison between tow-backs to Indonesia and the arrangement with Malaysia, I guess they are similar except that one is a virtual tow-back in terms of Malaysia in that it is returned by air—or not necessarily returned, because the people may not have come through Malaysia. But it is using a safe means of taking people back.

The government relies upon the evidence and views of its departments to deal with particular issues. Here is another example of a department giving competent advice on how to deal with people smugglers and boat arrivals.

Also during estimates, we heard from the Chief of Navy, Vice Admiral Ray Griggs, who has been involved in towing boats back. He told the Foreign Affairs Defence and Trade Legislation Committee on 19 October 2011 that in his experience:

There are risks involved in this whole endeavour. As I said, there were incidents during these activities, as there have been incidents subsequently, which have been risky. There have been fires lit, there have been attempts to storm the engine compartment of these boats, there have been people jumping in the water and that sort of thing. Again, I am going back to 2001.

Not only does turning boats back put the asylum seekers' lives on the line but also those of our defence personnel. Vice Admiral Griggs told the committee this happens when the boats are set on fire. I can relate to that.

As Chair of the Defence Subcommittee, I take an active role in defence engagements in our sphere. I think it was in 2009 when I took the opportunity to go on the Australian Defence Parliamentary Program on Operation Resolute in Darwin. It was an amazing opportunity. On this occasion, two Liberal members of the House of Representatives also participated in that particular experience. Unfortunately, there were no Liberal or coalition senators. I was the only senator from the government on that trip. It gave me an opportunity to see what the men and women do up there, in Darwin, during Operation Resolute, in dealing with people smuggling, boat arrivals and border protection.

There is a three-partisan commitment of the Navy, the Air Force and the Army to deal with this issue. They have been dealing with it for many, many years now, and they do an excellent job. We were fortunate enough to go out on one of the Armidale class ships to see firsthand a training exercise on how they deal with an illegal fishing boat. They had an old SIEV, which they had captured. They use it for this exercise. They came up alongside it and went through a number of procedures, such as instructing it to pull aside, stop their motors and so on. Naturally, the exercise shows you what can happen in circumstances where those on the boat could set it on fire or start putting sharp objects out the side of the boat and making it difficult for the boarding party to arrive on the boat to take control.

These were live examples in the training exercise that we were fortunate to experience during Operation Resolute. But what struck me as odd was this: you do not have to be a rocket scientist to work out what could happen in an engagement on an unsafe part of the waters, miles out from the harbour of Darwin where you cannot see land, and one of the opposition Liberal members asked the captain or one of the senior crew what would happen if they reached a situation where they decided to tow the boat back to its place of departure. I thought to myself: naturally, you are going to see what we just saw; people are going to be setting fire to the boat; they are going to be wrecking the engines and so on. They were the exact the words that the senior naval personnel spoke to the Liberal member for my seat of Dickson, Mr Peter Dutton. People who are on the ground, doing this job day in day out, know that tow-backs will have no advantage. It will it put their lives at risk. I have just informed the Senate that Vice Admiral Griggs indicated that that is an issue in itself. So we do not want a situation where we are going to put our men and women at risk as a result of tow-backs—but that is certainly the policy of the opposition. It will not work, it has not worked and it certainly will not work in the future.

Also during the recent estimates, the Acting Secretary of the Department of Immigration and Citizenship, Mr Martin Bowles, told us in the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee that boats are sabotaged so that they are unable to return to Indonesia. He said:

We have seen a range of boats that are disabled, which makes it exceptionally difficult in a practical sense to turn them around. It is still happening—we get a lot of calls from boats in distress ...

He continued:

An observation I have made since I have been around is that there are a lot of boats that appear to be disabled for one reason or another. I cannot speculate really on whether it is happenstance or deliberate, but there are a lot of them.

He also told the committee that he believed cooperation was the key to effective policy. He said:

Based on what I have seen to date, I believe the solution lies within a regional context.

He also noted a decline in irregular maritime arrivals after the government released its proposed Malaysian solution. So, there you have it once again: the experience of a senior person who is involved in this particular area indicating that as a result of our release, just last year, of a policy that will work, he experienced a decline in attempted arrivals onto our shores. In noting a decline in irregular maritime arrivals after we released that policy he said:

What I said yesterday in relation to Malaysia, particularly in relation to what the flow of irregular maritime arrivals in Australia has been like, was: with the announcement of the Malaysia arrangement, we saw quite a significant drop in the number of arrivals for a period of time. The High Court intervened in that process, and then there was a protracted period of discussion around: is it possible to get legislation through and things like that?

I am not going to go into that particular space but as soon as it was quite clear that the legislation would not proceed we saw quite a significant jump in activity in November and December of last year.

You can see there is a need to ensure we get this policy right so that it will deter the people smugglers and the boat arrivals onto our shores.

On the issue of what we as a government have been doing with respect to border protection, we have committed to an increase of more than $2 billion over the last three budgets to bolster the Australian border security regime. We have enforced the law. We have disrupted potential maritime ventures involving more than 7,400 potential irregular immigrants and there have been more than 280 arrests offshore. We have also detected and intercepted more than 99 per cent of boat arrivals before they reach the mainland. That compares with 90 per cent when the Liberals were in government.

The key message we need to make today in reaching an outcome is that there needs to be a compromise. No longer can we be belligerent or bloody minded, and incessantly say 'no'. We need to come to this chamber and compromise. It is for the opposition to ensure that they consider a compromise and reach a suitable outcome to ensure that people are deterred from reaching our shores— (Time expired)

3:47 pm

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

Today, the highest duty facing the parliament is to end the iniquitous trade that has led to the deaths of so many people, to end the business of people smuggling and to end the attraction that so many desperate people find to climb aboard unseaworthy vessels and attempt the journey from Indonesia, or other countries, to Australia. On that I think the parliament would be united.

But what we are not faced with today is a single immutable choice, which we either accept or reject, as to how to actually do that. The government has consistently characterised this debate today as being about their solution or no solution. But there are other alternatives to that.

Photo of Penny WongPenny Wong (SA, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Finance and Deregulation) Share this | | Hansard source

How can you as a moderate stand in here and make that contribution. It is a disgrace.

Photo of Michaelia CashMichaelia Cash (WA, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Immigration) Share this | | Hansard source

What about the Left of your party? They have completely compromised themselves on this.

Senator Wong interjecting

Photo of Stephen ParryStephen Parry (Tasmania, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

Order! Senator Wong, your speakers have been listened to in complete silence. Senator Cash, I also ask you not to interject. Can the debate continue in the tone that it has been running so far: without interjection.

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

I stand by the comment that it is utterly inappropriate to accept a solution from this government. This government has demonstrated so many times over the last four years that it cannot get this issue right, that it fails again and again to work out what is going on and diagnose the problem and identify a solution. We are absolutely right in rejecting the one black-letter solution this government offers us, which is to send asylum seekers to Malaysia and nowhere else, because Malaysia is not the option. Indeed, of all the options available to the government Malaysia is absolutely the worst.

We need to be aware that there are amendments before the chamber today. There are amendments from the Australian Greens and from the coalition. Presumably, if either set of those amendments were to be successful, this legislation would pass the parliament this afternoon and become the law of Australia. I assume the Greens have put forward their amendments in the hope that they would be passed, and that would make the bill palatable to them. It has not been entirely clear from what they have said in the chamber—I am looking for some kind of acknowledgement, but I am not seeing it at the moment.

Senator Ludlam interjecting

We will find out from Senator Ludlam in a minute what their position is, but I assume they are putting forward amendments in good faith to amend a bill to make it acceptable to the Greens. It would be very irregular to move an amendment to a bill that you do not intend to support, irrespective of whether or not the amendment gets up.

For our part we have moved amendments that we stand behind. If these amendments were passed and incorporated into the legislation it would allow this bill to pass this afternoon and become law. So, we are not faced with the government solution or no solution. We are faced with the government's solution or an amended government bill that makes this legislation consistent with the human rights standards on which Australia has operated for so long with respect to the treatment of refugees. Although there are three amendments on the page, effectively they are one amendment. The amendment says that in designating a country to be an offshore assessment country that country should be determined by reference only to the fact that the country is a party to the refugees convention or the refugees protocol. That is the only thing that we are asking the government to accept in order to make this bill passable by the parliament today. The other place is still sitting. We could easily send an amended bill to the other place. It would pass and the thing would become law. There is nothing else stopping this from becoming law except the government's unwillingness—to quote the word used so often in the chamber this afternoon—to compromise. Compromise works two ways. We are prepared to compromise. You say that you brought a compromise to the parliament, but you have not bothered to work this compromise through with either the coalition, the largest group of parties in the parliament—

Photo of Penny WongPenny Wong (SA, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Finance and Deregulation) Share this | | Hansard source

You will regret this. You will look back on this and regret this.

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

Deputy President, I have sat through a large number of contributions to this debate today. I have not once interjected on any speaker, although I have been mightily tempted to do so. I ask your protection against the intervention of this minister.

Photo of Stephen ParryStephen Parry (Tasmania, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

Order! I ask for order on both sides. I will make two comments. Firstly, senators should direct their remarks to the chair, not across the chamber. Secondly, interjections are disorderly and they are not assisting the debate. The tone of the debate has been fine up and until now and it would be nice to continue in that manner. Senator Humphries, you have the call. Please direct your remarks to the chair.

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

The coalition prefer the option of processing asylum seekers on Nauru. We believe that that is an obvious and logical thing to do because there are already facilities, built at Australian taxpayer expense, on Nauru. The government of Nauru is keen for Australia to reopen its facilities there. There are no human rights concerns about operating the facilities on Nauru, firstly, because Nauru has now signed the refugee convention and, secondly, because, even if it had not, Australia would operate the facilities on the island, as it did between 2001 and 2007. There is no question that we can supervise and ensure the maintenance of the human rights of those who are processed on Nauru. We have said that we prefer Nauru. But the effect of the opposition's amendment is not to mandate Nauru. This is not the opposition saying, 'You must process asylum seekers on Nauru,' and the government saying, 'You must process asylum seekers in Malaysia.'

Photo of Penny WongPenny Wong (SA, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Finance and Deregulation) Share this | | Hansard source

We have agreed to Nauru.

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

You are saying that if this legislation passes—

Photo of Stephen ParryStephen Parry (Tasmania, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

Order! Please address your remarks to the chair, Senator Humphries. Order, Senator Wong.

Photo of Penny WongPenny Wong (SA, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Finance and Deregulation) Share this | | Hansard source

Tell the truth.

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

I am telling the truth.

Photo of Penny WongPenny Wong (SA, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Finance and Deregulation) Share this | | Hansard source

We have agreed to do Nauru.

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

You have agreed to allow a future government to do Nauru. You are not going to do Nauru, Senator Wong.

Photo of Stephen ParryStephen Parry (Tasmania, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Humphries, your comments should be made to the chair, not across the chamber. That does not assist the debate.

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

If the government's legislation is passed, they will process all of the refugees who come into Australian waters in Malaysia, in a country which canes people for being refugees and nothing else. In the five years between 2005 and 2010, it has caned almost 30,000 unlawful entrants to Malaysia. Malaysia has laws built into its system of justice which allow the corporal punishment of people, including children, for committing any of a range of minor offences. Children may be whipped, not more than 10 strokes a light cane, I am pleased to say, but they may under the law of Malaysia be whipped for committing certain offences if they are refugees. I am not going to use my vote on the floor of the Senate today to perpetrate that kind of injustice. I want better solutions for those to whom Australia has a duty of care. It is a pity that the Labor Party is not prepared to make the same kind of—

Photo of Penny WongPenny Wong (SA, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Finance and Deregulation) Share this | | Hansard source

Did you even read the offer?

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

You can speak later if you want, Senator Wong. Give me my chance to say something. The opposition is prepared to accept the processing of refugees in any country that has signed the refugee convention. And there are 148 of them, with quite a few in this region. Any one of those countries with which Australia might negotiate an arrangement could be an acceptable place to send refugees. The government proposes, if it passes its legislation today, to process them in only one place: in Malaysia, which has an appalling record with respect to the treatment of refugees. That is consistent with my conscience. I am very surprised indeed that there are some senators who have previously said that they were not prepared to accept Malaysia who have stood in this place today and said that they find that within their contemplation.

The other extraordinary thing about this government's plans are how untested they are and how shaky they are as a realistic proposition for dealing with the processing of refugees. There is great opposition within Australia, rightfully, to the Malaysian deal. But it may surprise some senators on the other side of the chamber to learn that there is also opposition to this arrangement within Malaysia. Only earlier this week, a senior representative of the People's Justice Party—the party headed by Anwar Ibrahim that in nine months will be contesting elections in Malaysia and which has, I am told, a very good chance of forming the next government of Malaysia—said this:

The Malaysia-Australia refugees exchange agreement is not acceptable to the Malaysian public. Asylum-seekers deserve to be treated with dignity, and cannot be sent to and held in places against their will. The opposition coalition, consisting of the People's Justice Party, Islamic Party and Democratic Action Party, will continue to object to the scheme. The Australian government's insistence on pursuing this plan will not help to build a friendly relationship with the Malaysian people.

He finished by saying:

The scheme is inhumane.

This is Malaysia; this is a Malaysian politician; this is one of the leaders of the party most likely to form a government after the next election telling us that they do not think that the Malaysian solution is a good idea. And yet the Australian government purports to tell us that it is a great idea: 'Let's send them to Malaysia.' I don't think this government has thought through this situation, because it is looking for a political solution, not a solution which is consistent with our obligations to those people to whom we owe a duty.

So many myths have been perpetrated in the course of this debate this afternoon, by the Australian Labor Party in particular. They persist with this ridiculous argument that Nauru did not work when we were in government, and they define that to mean that most people who were sent to Nauru ended up in Australia anyway. First of all, that is factually incorrect. The majority of people who were diverted under the Pacific solution of the Howard government to Nauru did not end up in Australia. Only 43 per cent of people ended up being resettled, with humanitarian visas, in Australia. And it was that fact which was crucial in breaking the business model of the people smugglers—because, if you had a product you were trying to sell which had less than a 50 per cent success rate, why would you, as a refugee, no matter how desperate, want to buy it? Why would you want to put US$10,000 into a people smuggler's hands if you had less than a 50 per cent chance of getting to Australia? That fact, and the other steps that the Howard government took to end the trade of the people smugglers, did work—it did result in the trade being virtually stamped out. As many people arrived in the last six years of the Howard government's application of that solution as have been arriving every month in the last couple of years under the solution employed by the Rudd and now Gillard governments. Of course it worked: because it stopped the boats; it actually did stop the boats.

As Senator Brandis pointed out earlier today, when you stop the boats, you stop the deaths at sea. There have been at least 550 deaths at sea that we know about—of course, we will not always know about a death at sea; people don't advertise the fact that they are leaving Indonesian waters and heading for Australia, but we know fairly reliably of at least 550 souls who have perished in the sea between here and Indonesia. That did not happen during the Pacific solution, because people did not come on boats; there were virtually no arrivals in boats, and that is what saved people's lives. People had objections to that solution. People did not like aspects of that solution, because it left people in legal limbo for a relatively long period of time—and I accept that as a criticism you can make about the solution—but, demonstrably, it also saved lives. It ended the business model of the people smugglers; it was worth doing then and it is worth doing again now.

Senator Furner was among others who made the claim that we did not have a country to which we sent asylum seekers during that period under the Howard government which were parties to the UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. Nauru was not, at that stage, a signatory. That is true: it was not a signatory to the UN convention on refugees. But our concern was to make sure that we discharged our obligations to international treaties and so forth with respect to the treatment of refugees, so we ensured that those obligations were met by actually seeing that Australia supervised the provision of services to people on Nauru. We knew that they were being properly treated, because we actually had Australians providing the services. If we send people to Malaysia, we cannot have that same guarantee, when Malaysia as a nation refuses to sign the UN convention. We operated the facilities, we knew what was happening to the refugees; it was an acceptable way of being able to ensure that their rights were being upheld. The proof of that fact is that, when the High Court brought down its decision in October last year, striking down this government's ridiculous Malaysian solution because it was in breach of Australia's human rights obligations, it did not find that a Nauru solution, or a model like it, would fall down, because there were other ways of ensuring Australia met its obligations. That is the crucial point.

As I said, we are not insistent that processing be in any one country. We accept that there are many alternatives and we invite this government to explore those alternatives if it wants to. At one stage, it in fact told us that it was exploring those alternatives. It told us it was looking at reopening the facility on Manus Island, in Papua New Guinea. What happened to that proposition? It appears to have lost interest in it. In fact, it talked about a 'regional solution' at one stage—that there be a regional solution to the problem of asylum seekers. What is regional about the solution that the government now has two years later? At best it is a bilateral solution with one country: Malaysia, and that one country becomes the receptacle for Australia's diverted asylum-seeker intake. And of course it is a very costly proposition to Australia because, for every 800 refugees that we divert to Malaysia, we have to accept 4,000 coming here. If that is the currency the government wants to work with—800 to Malaysia; 4,000 to Australia—what will that do given that, in the period since this solution was announced, some 8,000 people have come to Australia by sea? Does that mean that we would need to accept from Malaysia some 40,000 people as our trade-off with this notorious and ridiculous people swap? I don't think so.

Let me conclude as I started, by saying that we are not faced with Hobson's choice here. The ALP have characterised this as their way or the highway, that there is only one solution to this problem—and it is to accept the legislation that is before us today. This legislation could be changed in a very small way by probably 50 words being added to the legislation, or substituted. These 50 words broaden the range of opportunities for the government to process asylum seekers but ensure that we do not breach our obligations to the human rights of those people who come within our obligation of care by ensuring that we do not send refugees to countries that have not signed the refugee convention. That is the fair and decent thing to do. That is a solution that stands right in front of us today. It is only a vote away from being implemented. I urge this government to cut the rhetoric of 'We're the ones who are going to compromise; why don't you?' and accept that you could make a very big step. You could compromise very clearly by simply voting for the amendments moved by Senator Abetz, ending this farce and ending, most importantly, this iniquitous trade in people run by the people smugglers.

4:08 pm

Photo of Scott LudlamScott Ludlam (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to add some comments to this debate on the Migration Legislation Amendment (The Bali Process) Bill 2012. It has been interesting, having spent most of the day in here, that despite the fact that this parliament is bitterly divided on this issue, there is a striking degree of agreement across the chamber about what we are seeking to prevent. What we are seeking to prevent most immediately, after the few days we have had, are deaths at sea—people undertaking these voyages and finding themselves in unseaworthy vessels in heavy waters and drowning on their way to what they hoped would be a better life in Australia. Although there has been a certain amount of back and forth across the chamber this afternoon, it has been a remarkably respectful debate, given how strong feelings run on this issue.

My office has been getting, as I am sure all senators have, a lot of correspondence and phone calls urging us to compromise—urging us to just do something, to just make this stop—and pass legislation that will prevent these things that appear to us as images on television screens. They appear to our search and rescue crews as human beings struggling to stay afloat, and they appear to the people most concerned as life-or-death situations on the high seas. The tone of some of the correspondence we are getting—and Senator Humphries hinted at this in his contribution—is: what use is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights if you are drowning, and it is pitch black, and you have no hope of reaching shore?

Believe me, if this bill we are debating would prevent those deaths, we would all be on the other side of the chamber. But we will be voting against this bill when it comes up, for the simple reason that we do not have any confidence that it will prevent these horrific scenes we have been witnessing over the last few weeks. I think we are being presented, in essence, with a false choice: 'Just do something; do anything that will work.' Of course we would, if it worked. Compromise is the essence of politics. It has been proposed that politics is in fact the art of compromise, the art of getting the best out of a situation. If we thought a life would be saved or a boat could be prevented from foundering, then of course we would be voting for the bill and then making the best of it from there.

I wonder whether senators have visited the memorial out at Yarralumla. It is a remarkably moving place. I only visited it for the first time a year or so ago, and it took a while for us to get what it was telling us. It was put there, as I am sure all senators are aware, as a memorial to the tragedy of the SIEVX, the suspected illegal entry vessel. It is a tragedy that our country remembers pretty well, and I think it is also a sombre reminder of just how long and how divisive these debates have been in this country. It is quite an experience. You walk through a long line of white poles that wind through the grass. It is a very quiet place down by the lake. Most of the poles have a little dedication on them, a name of a person. But a large number of them do not have names, because we do not know exactly who they were. There is a sign that tells you exactly what the memorial is. About three-quarters of the way down, the path of poles branches out in the shape of a vessel and then you realise, with horror, that this is the vessel that this huge number of people were crammed onto when it came apart at sea.

The memorial represents a number of things for me—among other things, the compassion of the Australians who put it there, and the schoolkids who learnt a little bit about the individual lives that are just numbers to most of us. If you care to, you can go down there and learn a little bit about the people and about the horror they experienced. There were 353 people on that boat, a tiny little boat in an enormous ocean. The tragedy occurred during the period of the former government, well before I got into this place, at a time when the debate was at fever pitch. The system of TPVs that are now back on the table—I believe the coalition is proposing to bring them back—was in place. It was a time when the deterrence effect of a bunch of different policy instruments was being proposed to deter people from making these risky voyages. If there is one thing this chamber agrees, it is that we do not want people dying on their way to this country.

But of course the flaw in that logic, and the flaw in the logic that underpins this bill that we are debating today, is that the deterrence effect has to be scarier than a war, it has to be scarier than an internment camp in the north of Sri Lanka, and it has to be scarier than torture, or having cigarette butts pushed into your body, as some of the Tamils showed us. I visited a young guy called Joe who was incarcerated in the Perth airport detention centre. It is quite a small centre, it is relatively well run, it is obviously approachable—you can get to it; it is not parked way out in the bush. I and a colleague took the opportunity on a number of occasions to visit some of the people, most of them Tamils, who had fled the war in Sri Lanka. They showed us photographs of their relatives who had been tortured and murdered. They showed us some of the scars and the wounds that they still carried. It made a lasting impression on me.

To try to deter people who have reached the kinds of places that have been described in a bit of detail during the debate—these camps and these queues that people talk about, the endless waits with no guarantee of any kind that you will ever be resettled anywhere, let alone Australia or perhaps New Zealand—you have to realise just how serious your deterrent effect is going to need to be. The people who are fleeing some of these horrific situations have experienced things that most Australians, fortunately, will never—we hope—have to experience. You have to be scarier than war and you have to be scarier than torture. Compared to war or torture, the various proposals and counter proposals about where we dump people offshore, in the event that they do try to make these voyages, must seem very mild. Bitter experience, as modern history has shown, is no deterrent—it is in fact no such thing.

I had the good fortune a couple of years ago—and I to hope to visit there again in a couple of weeks—the Mae La Oon refugee camp up on the Thai-Burma border, where 50,000 people live under bamboo within sight of the Koren side of the border. Along that border a bitter civil war between the Koren people, together with some of their northern neighbours, and the Burmese regime. There are somewhere in the realm of half a million to a million Burmese now on the Thai side, many of them in gigantic internment camps. I visited one of those, and people are safer there than they are in their home country, but it is a pretty fine margin. To get a sense of their hopes and expectations, they have makeshift schools, they are teaching themselves primary health care and basic medicine. When I was there, completely out of the blue, I was able to give a computer award to kids who were training themselves to build computer hardware and who were then walking back across the border to home. There are display boards in the refugee camp showing when people would come to take them out of there and give them a new life in Australia. Some of them have been there for years and years and years. Perhaps they will be able to go home, but we know many of the people fleeing Afghanistan, a country that we are currently helping to occupy, may never be able to go home. The Hazaras who have made their way through various countries between Afghanistan and here may never be able to go home.

A deterrent has to be worse than some of the conditions in Afghanistan—for example, the Taliban poisoning schools because they happen to be educating young women or the United States and NATO forces using white phosphorus and drone strikes that blow entire families away in the hope that they will get the guy they are after. That is what we are competing with in our attempt at deterrence, which, of course, will not work. There were somewhere in the realm of 42½ million people on the move at the end of 2011—refugees like those I met in Thailand, internally-displaced people and people seeking asylum. There is reasonably robust modelling that presumes by mid-century—if we continue to stand by while the climate changes—anywhere between 100 million and 500 million people will be on the move. That is one of the reasons it is important that we pause today to consider how our decisions—on people numbering in the dozens and the hundreds who are attempting to reach our shores, on where we attempt to dump them and how harsh our deterrence should be—will shape future responses, when vastly larger numbers of people are on the move. We are already seeing the way this is shaping domestic politics in North America and in western Europe, where they are coping with much larger refugee flows than we do here in Australia. There will be up to half a billion people on the move by mid-century if climate change gets a grip. I raise that not as a distraction from the immediacy of people trying to reach our shores now, but as a gauge for the responses—with degrees of compassion or pragmatism—we bring to bear on these debates now will potentially shape us or scar us as we move into the future.

The Greens will be voting against this legislation. It is a bit unfortunate that Senator Humphries has left the chamber, because he put a reasonably sensible question during his contribution along the lines of the second reading amendment that was moved by Senator Milne and Senator Hanson-Young earlier this afternoon on behalf of the Australian Greens. It is incumbent upon us on the crossbenches who are proposing to vote against this misguided legislation to come up with a counterproposal that makes sense and will meet the need.

Senators may have had time to read over the amendment that the Greens have moved, and I want to step senators through it, so that you are very clear about our intention. Two clauses in the amendment propose to deal immediately with the people who are seeking asylum today. I should also note, partly by way of response to Senator Humphries' questions to me across the chamber, that all of the clauses in this proposal do not need legislative effect. They could be put into practice immediately. That is our proposition, no matter the fate of the amendment when it is put to the vote. Part (vi) proposes to codify Australia's obligations under the Safety of Life at Sea Convention, which we signed in 1974 across all relevant agencies. I think what we are hearing collectively in this building from the Australian community is: 'Act now. We will work out some of the detail later. But act now to prevent loss of life at sea.'

Part (v) of the amendment proposes that we enter urgent discussions between Australia and Indonesia to address the critical need for cooperation and effectiveness of intelligence sharing and resourcing between Australia and Indonesia in order to save lives at sea. Senator Milne spoke at some length in her contribution about how rapidly that that could occur—that we engage in immediate high-level talks with the Indonesian government about the degrees to which we can assist them in resourcing air and sea search and rescue efforts so that we get early warnings. If the risk of drowning is not a deterrent for people making these journeys, I have no idea what is. These are two sensible things we could put in place, no matter the fate of this bill later today, that would go some way towards addressing the horrific loss of life that we are witnessing right now.

Part (ii) of the proposed amendment deals with one step upstream with why people climb onto these vessels. It is important to remember that all the competent crew are gone. All the people who know how to pilot these vessels have been interned. Some of them are in Australian internment camps; some are impounded in Indonesia. All the seaworthy vessels are gone. We have been breaking them up. In an attempt to help and improve the situation, we have made things worse by breaking up boats and incarcerating crew. So what can we do to take the pressure off people, the pressure that they feel, the pressure that was there in the Mae La camp to just circumvent this damn queue—because if it is not going anywhere, then why wouldn't you? Part (ii) of our amendment proposes to increase Australia's humanitarian intake from 13,750 to 20,000—why not effective tomorrow, Friday morning? Increase that intake and start to clear the backlog in those camps. That then creates the sense of hope that, 'Maybe we don't need to put our lives and the lives of our kids at risk on these nasty little unseaworthy vessels, because things are moving.'

We have heard contributions in the debate about how we resettled, using a variety of partnerships with countries in the region, people fleeing from Indochina during and after the Vietnam War. The reason that that worked was that there was a sense that people would end up somewhere, that they are not still going to be there 20 years later. Part (iii) proposes to immediately increase funding to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees—we have proposed a $10 million increase; of course that is negotiable—to boost the capacity of refugee status determination assessments in Malaysia and in Indonesia. Can we just create a small increase in institutional capacity? Senator Hanson-Young pointed out in her speech earlier today that we are proposing to spend $3 billion incarcerating people in Australia—some deterrent that is going to be. Yet we spend a tiny fraction of that amount enabling the UNHCR and local authorities to process people and get them into resettlement destinations.

Under part (iv), having dealt with the immediacy of the emergencies of death at sea, having started to come to grips with the reasons why people put themselves on these vessels in the first place and having created a sense of hope in the camps and worked to build regional alliances, we propose a multiparty committee to do some of the longer term and deeper thinking about how we adapt to these issues, which are not going away. No bumper sticker is going to stop the boats, no matter how tough we talk in this place. The proposal is to establish a multiparty committee that would be charged with developing a framework for a long-term regional solution which is underpinned by the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the related 1967 protocol. All parties and Independents would be invited to the table to sit with experts, to sit with Amnesty, to sit with refugee advocates, to sit with refugees themselves, heaven forbid, and to sit with the UNHCR to develop a longer term strategy to pull the venom, the blaming and the finger-pointing out of the debate, after we have dealt with the short-term immediate emergency that confronts us at the moment.

To answer Senator Humphries's question, we will not be supporting this bill, but we have put these parts of the amendment together firstly to test the consensus and the will of the chamber, because very few of these things that I have just read into the record were invented by the Australian Greens. These are ideas that have come forward from the major parties, from the Independents, from experts in the field, from refugee advocates. So none of this is particularly new, but we believe that this is a sensible formulation to deal with the emergency and to deal with the longer term crisis that we face. We will submit that amendment to the will of the chamber when it is put to a vote. I also want to point out that all six of the items in the amendment are consistent with our obligations under domestic and international law and also all six could be enacted without legislative enforcement this afternoon if there were a will to do so. I will certainly commend that amendment when we put it to the vote.

Lastly, by way of closing, I would like to acknowledge some of the people who have been working away in my community in Western Australia to support Joe and people like him and their families, who have made their way by arduous and sometimes downright tortuous and fraught journeys to Australia, only to find themselves behind barbed wire in places like the Perth Airport detention centre or places far worse than that.

My first experience with this was when I worked for my dear friend Robin Chapple MLC when the Port Hedland detention centre, which I think was one of the first ones that ever opened, was still operative in Hedland. When we got there that night I had never seen a detention centre before. I was only dimly aware of what they were for and who was behind the razor wire. I got there at about 8 o'clock at night and they were throwing food over the wall in plastic bags, because if you have guests you feed them. The busload of activists that had brought themselves up from Perth to have a direct experience were treated to quite a feast, actually, that had been cooked inside the Port Hedland detention centre and then hurled over the wall. That was the hospitality that they greeted us with. It still hurts me today to recall the kind of hospitality that we had greeted them with in return.

In Perth there are way too many people and too many groups to name who have carried on their advocacy through the various phases of this debate. In particular the Refugee Rights Action Network—Phil, Victoria, Mary-anne and others, including Anne Petersen; the folk working for Amnesty International who have been so steadfast; and friend and colleague Andrew Bartlett, who, in many ways, led the earlier iterations of this debate in this place. Those people put themselves out there and in some cases put their lives on hold in order to meet the immediate human need, the human suffering that is in front of us directly. But they rely on us to do the policy work, and that is the responsibility that is before us now, no matter what our political allegiances.

4:28 pm

Photo of Kate LundyKate Lundy (ACT, Australian Labor Party, Minister Assisting for Industry and Innovation) Share this | | Hansard source

Yesterday's vote was a milestone vote in the House of Representatives, with the crossbench and the government coming together to support a private member's bill to the end the impasse on asylum seekers. In the midst of two recently capsized boats and tragic deaths at sea, this milestone represented a compromise by the government which was not taken lightly but was taken to save lives. There is now only one bill that can pass the parliament before we rise and that is the one we are debating here, the Migration Legislation Amendment (The Bali Process) Bill 2012.

We cannot continue to allow people to risk their lives and lose their lives at sea. In the midst of these two recently capsized boats and many lives lost, we have an obligation as a parliament not to go into the winter recess for six weeks without coming to a solution on all sides with this issue. Six weeks is too long and the opportunity exists right now to resolve this.

The government's legislation is a strong compromise on all sides. It is a private member's bill sponsored by the member for Lyne, with an amendment from the member for Denison, that brings together both Labor and coalition offshore processing approaches. It is a genuine attempt to end the politics, to have a true compromise, and it is the only bill that can be passed by the parliament today. It is not a time for narrow-minded views or placing politics above the lives of people.

This compromise bill has a number of protections built into it. The bill requires the minister for immigration to, within 14 days of declaring an offshore assessment country, put a request in writing to the UNHCR and the International Organisation for Migration to provide a formal statement of their views of the arrangement, including the arrangements that are in place to provide appropriate treatment to those people transferred. In making a decision to declare an offshore assessment country, the minister must have regard to whether the country will not expel or return a person taken to that country where their life or freedom would be threatened on the basis of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership of a particular social group, and the country will make an assessment, or allow for an assessment, of whether the transferees are refugees as defined under the refugees convention. A transfer may not occur in the absence of a written agreement with the receiving country, and the declaration would be made by legislative instrument.

The bill also requires the minister to table a range of materials pursuant to the arrangement, including a copy of the designation, a copy of the written agreement, a copy of the statement of the minister's reasons for thinking that it is in the national interest to designate an offshore processing country and a statement about the minister's consultations with the UNHCR and IOM, including any formal statement received from those organisations. The minister must, as soon as practicable after 30 June each year, provide an annual report to the parliament on efforts to counter people-smuggling, trafficking in persons and related transnational crime under the Bali process.

We have seen goodwill coming from some members of the opposition but sadly too few. Those on the other side who understand the situation and understand we need to have a compromise unfortunately do not make up the majority, and we find ourselves confronting a barrage of both hypocritical statements and negativity—as we do with so many matters. I would like to address some of the hypocrisy that is flying around the senior ranks of the opposition at the moment. In July 2010 the shadow immigration spokesperson, Mr Scott Morrison, said in relation to the UN convention:

This was a document drawn up in a very different world. I think it's important that the Convention does not become a tool for people smugglers to impose their clients on nations in a way that is unhelpful for the way those nations want to run their own immigration programs.

Scott Morrison also said on Lateline on Monday:

It was never our issue with ... Nauru as to whether they were the signatory to the Refugee Convention

In August last year the opposition leader was asked if they would prefer Nauru to sign up to the refugee convention, and he responded:

Look, this business of requiring that they sign the convention is simply a furphy that's been raised by the Prime Minister.

Now, because of convenience, the opposition heavies are pleading that the reason they cannot support this legislation—a private member's bill that has the support of the government and two Independents—is that these countries have not signed up to the UN convention. It seems obviously hypocritical and an argument of political convenience. Instead, we should be looking to work together to ensure that we can legislate today for a response and a solution to this life-threatening problem.

To set the record straight I would also like to address some of the untrue and misleading statements mentioned by Senator Abetz this morning. Senator Abetz's first misleading claim was that the Malaysia solution has failed based on the number of arrivals since it was first announced. This is extremely disingenuous. The Malaysia arrangement was never implemented—the High Court stopped it. That is why we are at the place we are at now and contemplating this legislation. The legal advice is that, given the High Court case, there is no prospect of any offshore processing being pursued without legislative change, so we will only ever give the Malaysia arrangement and Nauru, together, a chance to work if this bill passes through the parliament. To claim that the Malaysia approach has failed because of the number of arrivals is directly misleading—it has never been implemented—and the very legislation we are now contemplating would allow that arrangement to be put in place and the solution to be implemented.

The second claim Senator Abetz made was that if the Malaysia arrangement were implemented people smugglers would send children and families. Again this is misleading. While the Australian government would be sensitive to the individual circumstances of asylum seekers, the government is clear that there would be no broad exceptions. This is a tough approach, certainly, but if the government were to make broad exceptions then you would see how the people smugglers would be able to adapt to that. This is exactly what happened when the former government introduced temporary protection visas. TPVs denied family reunion rights to asylum seekers, so we saw people smugglers putting more women and children on boats. Those are the facts of the former government's policies.

The third claim put forward by Senator Abetz was that Nauru worked. It did not. The overwhelming majority of those found to be refugees were resettled in Australia, and Nauru offers nothing more than being like Christmas Island, only further away. That said, in the spirit of compromise the government is prepared to establish a centre on Nauru as part of the legislative package—but only because it will be part of a regional framework involving the arrangement with Malaysia. Nauru, within that arrangement with Malaysia and the regional framework, can be part of a genuine regional solution to managing irregular migration. To say that Nauru worked is patently untrue, but it is a crutch that the opposition have lent on again and again. When tested by our effort to get support for compromise, they back away from it at a hundred miles an hour and then resort to the first disingenuous argument I mentioned before, about the UNHCR's status.

The fourth claim was that TPV's work. This is plainly wrong as well. Temporary protection visas did not stop the boats. Thousands more arrived after TPVs were introduced and, tragically, the percentage of women and children on boats increased after they were introduced. The coalition is fond of saying that TPVs took the sugar—that is, permanent protection visas acting as some kind of incentive—off the table. People smugglers would not be able to market a permanent visa to asylum seekers, so the theory went. The reality, however, of the experience of temporary protection visas is that more than 95 per cent of TPV holders who were irregular maritime arrivals went on to get permanent visas to live in Australia. Why? Because they were genuine refugees. This outcome hardly suggests that TPVs could be perceived as an effective deterrent.

The fifth claim I would like to challenge is that the coalition had some genuine compromise plan of increasing the humanitarian program to 20,000. That is no compromise at all. We have already said that we want to move to an intake of 20,000. This was just one of the many issues discussed at the Labor Party National Conference. Furthermore, at the time Labor outlined our target of 20,000, the coalition condemned us. On ABC NewsRadio, on Thursday, 1 December 2011, Mr Scott Morrison, the opposition spokesperson for immigration, said:

Well the Minister has gone from a five for one swap to a thirty for one swap to take to the National Conference. I mean, the last time we increased to that level at 20,000 was when we had a genuine Indo-Chinese refugee crisis right on our back door. Now they’re the sort of circumstances when you entertain those sorts of increases.

The reality is that this cynical proposal was about getting the coalition backbench to vote for the coalition's amendment.

There are two major proposals on the table—Malaysia and Nauru—and we are prepared to do both. The only genuine compromise is one which involves both of these solutions. That is what a compromise bill is. The Senate will also recall that our Malaysia arrangement included an increase in the humanitarian program by 1,000 per year. So this putting forward of the 20,000 as some sort of coalition compromise is not in fact a compromise—it is a backflip and a catch-up, and disingenuous in the context of the current debate.

I believe the Australian Greens also need to be held accountable today. They should not be able to absolve themselves of the responsibility to come to the table and be part of a compromise to get this bill through the Senate. I remember vividly their non-negotiating stance on the CPRS, the original bills which would have seen a price on carbon implemented well before this coming Sunday. If the Greens had been willing to come to the table and compromise back then, we would have had an emissions trading scheme implemented and fully established by now. But, because of their intransigence in that debate, this country was set back in taking action on climate change. I would not like to see the same approach of intransigence and refusing to compromise on this bill. I acknowledge that the Greens are not comfortable with the Labor government's approach but, given the implications and the current political dynamic, I urge them to reconsider their position. It is most important that we do legislate today and see this bill through. This is the only chance we have, as I mentioned, before the winter recess.

I also take this opportunity to respond to other statements made by the Greens today in their second reading contributions and in relation to their second reading amendment. Firstly, the Greens party have said we have only been taking some 60 refugees per year out of Malaysia and Indonesia. Actually we have taken over 1,500 this year alone. Over the past 10 years we have taken over 5,000. I think that misunderstanding is indicative of the complexity of these issues.

Secondly, the Greens party also say that we should increase our intake to 20,000. With 43 million displaced people around the world—and I think it is important in all these debates to remember that we are talking about a relatively small proportion, in fact quite a minute proportion, of the challenge the world is facing—that is not an answer on its own. However, we have indicated to the Greens that, if we are able to implement the Malaysia arrangement, we will be in a much better position to contemplate increases to our refugee intake.

Thirdly, Australia and Indonesia already share intelligence and cooperate closely. To imply otherwise is, again, just incorrect. It is done in a low-key and effective way, as you would expect with intelligence sharing. Finally, it is offensive to suggest that Australian agencies need our SOLAS obligations further codified and that, in the absence of such additional codification, they are not giving their all in maritime rescue situations. I felt it was important not only to challenge the misleading and inaccurate statements made by members of the opposition but also to call the Greens to account over their foreshadowed opposition to this incredibly important bill.

4:42 pm

Photo of Chris EvansChris Evans (WA, Australian Labor Party, Leader of the Government in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank all senators who have contributed to this debate on the Migration Legislation Amendment (The Bali Process) Bill 2012. I think it has generally been a positive debate, but I think we risk missing the opportunity to do something positive here. During the debate, people have expressed their views, their concerns and their attitudes—and that is an important part of the public debate. But today is a debate about a bill and about a response. It is about whether we do something or do nothing.

I fear the Senate is about to do nothing. I want to urge all senators to think again, to focus on the challenge before us, to focus on their deep concern at the deaths that have been occurring—people losing their lives in tragic boat incidents. I urge senators to focus on that and to ask themselves what our role here today is. Is it to debate temporary protection visas? Is it to debate which government has a better record on boat arrivals and managing our borders? Is it about our views on detention? No, it is about none of those things. It is a bill about allowing the government to respond to a situation which has worsened and allowing the government to make decisions aimed at stopping the sorts of tragedies we have seen in the last few days. I acknowledge that many members have been moved by those experiences. A number of members cried in the House of Representatives. I know a couple of senators here today were tearful. I understand the depth of feeling but we do not come here to express our feelings. We do not come here to express our view that somehow we would prefer the world to be different. We have to focus on the challenge at hand and the challenge at hand to allow the government to make a response which will help us tackle the problem. That means passing a bill which allows us to make arrangements with Malaysia to provide a deterrence to people undertaking these risky journeys at the hands of people smugglers, who care nothing about the lives they lose. We know the organisers do not get on the boats themselves. They push the boats off, having taken the money from passengers, and care not whether they survive at sea. We have to focus on that. If we do not focus on that, we will leave the parliament today having failed to meet the challenge, a challenge the Australian people expect us to meet, a challenge I think we all expect us to meet.

I pay tribute to those senators who sought over the last few days to bring this issue to a more positive conclusion and to overcome the impasse we have had in this parliament for many months. The government has tried all day to get this bill through. The Prime Minister has engaged with anyone who would talk to her about their concerns, about their ideas, in order to get us to a point where we can pass this bill. The indications to me are that we may not be successful in that endeavour and that will be a crying shame. It will be a lost opportunity. It will mean that we will leave this place without having an adequate response, something that may assist us to save lives and to undermine the evil people-smuggling trade that is flourishing at the moment in South-East Asia.

I note that Senator Xenophon, who has been unwell, has, in his normal flamboyant and eye-catching way, made a contribution to the debate despite not being here. He has sought to be paired with the Labor Party when it comes to a vote on the bill. I understand he is seeking to support a number of amendments moved by the Greens and the coalition, if the bill survives the second reading. He has made it clear that, despite his reservations, he supports us doing something. He says, 'To do nothing is far worse.' He is dead right. He is removed from the atmosphere of Parliament House, he is in his sick bed in Adelaide but he understands from a distance what the Australian public want and what they expect of the parliament. He has asked to be paired and I appreciate the coalition have paired him to vote with the government in support of this bill. He makes it clear, as do many others, that this is a challenging decision for him, that he has reservations, but he centres on the key point I want to make to all senators—that is, we have to focus on doing something. While some people will argue that they prefer we did it this way or that way, they would prefer we try this or try that, we have a stark option today: do something, as contained in the bill, and do something positive, something as advised by the people responsible for the management of this in the Public Service who say that this has a chance of working and that this is our best option.

The Howard government started us down this path when they began the Bali process. They recognised that one-nation-only responses will not deal with the challenges we face. They recognised that we had to engage more closely in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and all through the region. They brought together, through the Bali process, 40 countries with an interest in people-smuggling issues and irregular people movement in the region. That organisation has been focused on our challenges and the challenges of other countries.

Importantly, we need to have a broader perspective in Australia. The debate in Australia always assumes that we are the only ones facing this challenge. The irregular people movement and asylum seeking movement across the world is a massive issue. It affects Europe, the Americas and Asia. We have to work with other nations to try to manage that flow, to assist people who are fleeing persecution or war or just straight poverty. We have to put ourselves in their shoes, to understand their position and try to respond in a humane and compassionate way which will serve Australia's national interest. I think this bill does that. This bill gives us the opportunity to provide strong deterrence, which I know some people regard as hard and which I have found to be a difficult issue to come to terms with. This bill gives us an opportunity to increase our intake of refugees from Malaysia and to support them in their much larger problem than ours in managing refugee populations. I have not seen the latest UNHCR figures, but they have hundreds of thousands of people in their country who are refugees or people moving through and seeking somewhere safe. Our problems are small by comparison. By working with them I think we can come to answers which will suit both our countries and helps stabilise the region. We do have strong engagement with Indonesia. Over many years they have been assisting us in trying to manage these issues. Some of the criticism made of Indonesia is very misplaced. They have challenges, like us, in managing this problem, but they have engaged constructively with us to deal with these issues. So I urge the opposition and the Greens to think again, to focus on the challenge of today's debate—not on the broader issue that will be with us for many years but on the opportunity today to make a difference, to do something that might help, something that might eventually save lives, by preventing further people from embarking on that journey.

The Greens have moved a second reading amendment. I indicate on behalf of the government that we will not be supporting that amendment, and that has been conveyed to the Greens leader, Senator Milne, I understand. The government have a longstanding commitment to improving company operation with the international community to enhance the treatment of refugees across the region. As I say, we worked strongly through the Bali process to achieve that. Many of the points in the Greens amendment are, I know, directed at improving the lot of refugees and our management of migration issues, but many of them are in fact things that this government have been actively engaged in. One aspect of the Malaysian arrangement is that we are trying to settle more refugees from Malaysia as part of that attempt to stop the flow of people and provide options for the settlement of those populations. I am advised we have taken 1,500 refugees out of Indonesia and Malaysia in 2011-12. I know that when I was minister for immigration we started the process of taking more refugees from those countries as part of a broader response to ensure that there was less movement organised by people smugglers and that people had genuine pathways to have their claims for asylum assessed. So, while I understand the sentiments behind the Greens amendment, the government will not be supporting it. We think it diverts us, if you like, from the key consideration today, what we want to focus on.

The debate has wandered far and wide, and some people have made political points about who is 'purer' than whom, but none of this matters. None of that is of any interest to the Australian public and none of that goes to the heart of finding a response to the terrible circumstances we are confronting. So it is important that today we focus with some clarity on this challenge.

I think we will have let the Australian people down if we leave here saying that we have again reached an impasse, that we have again failed to implement a measure that would help prevent further tragedies. There has been goodwill from a lot of people to try to break that impasse in the parliament, and I think we have made progress. But, at the end of the day, people here will be held accountable for whether they acted today or not. Saying that they would prefer the world to be a better place where there could be more settlement of asylum seekers, and that they think they have a better solution, does not answer the fundamental challenge, which is: what did you do when you had the chance to act? Where were you when you had the opportunity to do something? Were you hiding behind a political stance? Were you hiding behind the politics of the day? Were you expressing compassion but doing nothing? That is where we are today. We have the opportunity to act. We have one chance in this sitting of the parliament to provide a response that assists. There are no options other than action or inaction, making a difference or not making a difference. I urge all senators to put aside their feelings and their politics, and ask themselves: 'Do I think that this would make a difference to the number of people getting on boats?'

Photo of Michaelia CashMichaelia Cash (WA, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Immigration) Share this | | Hansard source

No, it won't assist. That's the point.

Photo of Chris EvansChris Evans (WA, Australian Labor Party, Leader of the Government in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator, I do not know that you have argued that the Malaysian arrangement will not assist stopping people getting on boats; if so, that is the first time I have heard you put that argument.

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

No, it's not!

Photo of Chris EvansChris Evans (WA, Australian Labor Party, Leader of the Government in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

You have said you will not support it. You have said you will not support it. I have not heard you say it would not assist.

Senator Cash interjecting

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

No, it won't.

Photo of Chris EvansChris Evans (WA, Australian Labor Party, Leader of the Government in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

Well, that is an interesting position.

Opposition senators interjecting

I do not want to get into a slanging match with the opposition. I just want to ask them to think again about whether or not their actions today will serve Australia well—whether their actions today are in the best interests of Australia and of the people getting on those boats to seek asylum here. This is a tough decision for a lot of people—

Photo of Mitch FifieldMitch Fifield (Victoria, Liberal Party, Manager of Opposition Business in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

What about the 2007 changes?

Photo of Chris EvansChris Evans (WA, Australian Labor Party, Leader of the Government in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator, I am happy to debate those changes with you. I am happy to do that at any time. But today you have the opportunity to do one thing. You have the opportunity to do something or to just sit there and say: 'We won again, because we stopped anyone doing anything positive. We were negative and we stopped anything effective happening.' You take great pride, it seems, in saying that. What I ask you to do, Senator, is put aside your politics and your self-interest, and do something that all the people who provide advice to government have said will assist in slowing the flow of people to this country. That is what I ask of you.

We have bent over backwards in accepting the amendments regarding Nauru. We accepted a proposition that provides some compromise. But what we are asking you to do today is to vote for a bill that has a one-year sunset clause. We are asking you to rise above the politics and say to yourselves, 'It's a bill that lasts for one year that allows us to try to see if we can't make a difference.' That is all we ask of you—to support a bill for one year that allows the elected government of the day to try to make a difference and prevent people drowning. We are asking you to give us that cooperation for one year. It does not stop you arguing your political position. It does not stop you doing or saying whatever you like. But it does allow the government—

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

Mr Acting Deputy President, regrettably, the tone of the debate has been lowered by the continual reference by the Leader of the Government in the Senate to you—

Photo of Gavin MarshallGavin Marshall (Victoria, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

What point of order is this?

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

The point of order is very clear, and everybody knows what it is: you cannot refer directly across the chamber. One of the reasons we have that in our standing orders is that invites interjection and lowers the tone of debate.

Photo of Mark BishopMark Bishop (WA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you, Senator Abetz. All remarks should be addressed to the chair.

Photo of Chris EvansChris Evans (WA, Australian Labor Party, Leader of the Government in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

When there is a call for statesmanship, that is what we get from Senator Abetz. That is what we get as leadership—some narky little debating point.

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

Very personal.

Photo of Chris EvansChris Evans (WA, Australian Labor Party, Leader of the Government in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator, you do yourself no favours. Mr Acting Deputy President, I urge senators to focus on the challenge and say that we get one chance in this session of parliament to make something happen that may work. I urge the Senate to support the bill and give the government the opportunity to make a difference, to implement something that may well save lives.

Photo of John HoggJohn Hogg (President) Share this | | Hansard source

The question is that the second reading amendment moved by Senator Milne be agreed to.

5:12 pm

Photo of John HoggJohn Hogg (President) Share this | | Hansard source

The question now is that this bill be read a second time.