Senate debates

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers

Asylum Seekers

3:03 pm

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

I rise to take note of answers given by Senator Evans to questions asked by Senator Abetz, I move:

That the Senate take note of the answer given by the Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Science and Research (Senator Evans) to a question without notice asked by the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate (Senator Abetz) today relating to asylum seekers.

As Senator Abetz stated in his question to Senator Evans today during question time, on 17 November 2008 the then Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, Senator Chris Evans, said in an address to the Refugee Council of Australia at the Parramatta Town Hall:

Labor committed to abolishing the Pacific Solution and this was one the first things the Rudd Labor Government did on taking office.

He then rather arrogantly stated in this speech, and he confirmed those words today:

It was also one of my greatest pleasures in politics. Neither humane nor fair, the Pacific Solution was also ineffective and wasteful.

Jump forward to today, 14 August 2012, and what do we, the coalition and the public of Australia, now have? After years of telling the coalition and after years of telling the people of Australia that Nauru and the Pacific Solution will not work, after years of telling the coalition and the people of Australia that Nauru and the Pacific Solution were neither humane nor fair and that the Pacific Solution was also ineffective and wasteful, yesterday former Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston—the man hand-picked by the Gillard government to advise them on border protection because the Labor government had totally abrogated their responsibilities in this regard—said that the Pacific Solution will work, and has in fact advocated a return to it.

For years now, the Labor Party has been telling the coalition and telling the people of Australia that you cannot turn the boats back. Again, what did we have yesterday in the report that was handed down by Mr Houston? He has again said that there certainly are circumstances in which you can turn the boats back. For four years Australia's borders have been weak, lives have been lost at sea and Australia's reputation with its nearest neighbours has been completely, totally and utterly tarnished. Costs have blown out and people smuggling as a business has been allowed to flourish, all because those opposite—the Labor government and the Prime Minister of Australia—were too stubborn to admit that they got it wrong in August 2008 when they made the deliberate and wilful decision to roll back the proven border protection policies of the Howard government.

The last four years have seen what has been described as the greatest policy failure by any government in Australia since our inception. The Labor government inherited a solution. They were given one of the greatest gifts a government can ever be given when they take power, and that is that we had border protection policy in this country under control. But that was not good enough for those on the other side, and they set about deliberately and wilfully to dismantle the proven border protection policies of the Howard government. In fact, on 6 May this year—on that one day alone—more boats and more people arrived in Australia unlawfully than in the last five years of the Howard government. If you want further proof that the decision by the Labor government to dismantle the Pacific solution has resulted in disastrous consequences for this country, you need look no further than this statistic: under Prime Minister Gillard—under her watch alone—the number of people who have arrived in this country unlawfully has exceeded those that arrived during the entire 11 years of the Howard government.

The Labor government should apologise to the people of Australia for their abject failure when it comes to border protection. They should apologise for dismantling the Howard government's proven border protection policies, which they have now been told worked, stopped the boats and broke the people smugglers' model; they should apologise to the taxpayer for unnecessarily wasting billions of dollars, to the tune now of in excess of $4.7 billion; and they should apologise to the Australian people for offering a business model to the people smugglers who, by their criminal actions, have caused untold suffering to those who lost their lives at sea. (Time expired)

3:09 pm

Photo of Matt ThistlethwaiteMatt Thistlethwaite (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I just cannot believe that we are continuing to bicker over this issue before the Senate. Australians have had enough of this. They have had a gutful of this issue, and they simply want us to get on with it. Over the last five weeks, the Houston committee have been working on this issue. Yesterday they delivered their report to the Prime Minister, the Australian parliament and the people of Australia. There are a set of recommendations in that which, the committee makes clear, are a package. They do not want this parliament cherry-picking some elements of the package and rejecting others. They want it adopted as a package, because they see it as the only way that we can get a credible solution to this important issue and stop people drowning on the open seas.

The Labor Party—the government—has indicated it is willing to compromise. Yes, we are willing to compromise. We are willing to accept Nauru. We are willing to accept Manus Island. We are willing to accept a compromise to get a resolution to this issue. That is what we are willing to do, unlike those opposite and the Greens, who were not willing to compromise in the Senate six weeks ago when a solution was reached by the House of Representatives.

What are the Houston committee's recommendations? They recommend increasing the humanitarian intake from 13½ thousand to 20,000 and eventually, over time, to 27,000. The government has agreed to look at this and will implement this. They have highlighted bilateral cooperation as an important element of this package, something that the government has been working on with our regional neighbours, particularly Indonesia and Malaysia. They point out that the Malaysia negotiations are an important part of this package. Former Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston and the committee say:

The Panel recommends that Australia continue to develop its vitally importantcooperation with Malaysia on asylum issues, including the management of a substantial number of refugees to be taken annually from Malaysia …

They recommend that the government continue to work on the Malaysia plan. They also recommend the reopening of Manus Island and Nauru. The government is giving that a tick: we are going to move to reopen Manus and Nauru. But, importantly, what they say also is that temporary protection visas will not work. An important element of the opposition's program will not work. They also say that tow-backs, under the current circumstances, will not work, and they clearly make the point that turn-backs cannot be done without the agreement of Indonesia. We have discussed this on numerous occasions in this place, and it has been in evidence before Senate estimates from Admiral Chris Barrie and others, who have said that it endangers the lives of Australian Defence Force personnel. It endangers the lives and the welfare of those in the Royal Australian Navy who have to undertake this dangerous tow-back policy. Is that the policy that you are advocating? Is that what you are advocating, despite the advice of the leader of the Australian Navy, who said that it would endanger personnel? The other issue is that people just disable the boats. They deliberately disable the boats to make sure that you cannot realistically turn them around.

Let us get on to the facts about this. The Australian public want the parliament to move on. Labor has accepted the recommendations of the Houston committee. We are going to implement them. We hope that we get the support of the opposition in doing that, but what this is really about is the fact that we actually have a solution to this important issue, and those opposite cannot bring themselves to agree that we have a solution on this.

So let us look at the major issues affecting Australians. The economy in Australia is AAA rated; you cannot get any better. That is a tick for the government. The minerals resource rent tax has been up and running and is being implemented, ensuring that we are spreading the benefits of the mining boom—tick. The carbon pricing legislation has gone through and is up and running. The sky has not fallen in and what people have said is that it has not been disastrous—tick. Now we have a solution on the verge of being reached in respect of asylum seekers—tick. Now the focus shifts to you. You have to explain to the Australian public your $70 billion black hole in your election costings. The focus will now shift to you, and that is what this is about. (Time expired)

3:14 pm

Photo of Nigel ScullionNigel Scullion (NT, Country Liberal Party, Deputy Leader of the Nationals) Share this | | Hansard source

It is rare that I rise in this place to start my remarks by offering some advice to the other side. There are some times in life when you realise you have simply got it completely wrong. We have all been through that. It is a little humiliating. But my advice to you for the future speakers is simply to do it with some dignity. This is a humiliating but, I have to say, welcome backdown, and we need to acknowledge that it has come at some cost, and that is why we need to give it a bit of dignity.

This has come at a fiscal cost—a contribution of some $4.7 billion—and there are 22,518 people who, if this policy had been adopted when the rest of the world knew it should have been instead of taking some cheap political position, would not have been forced to put their and their families' lives at risk. They came across in 386 vessels; and, sadly, those vessels were not in the finest of conditions, so over 600 lives were lost. Who would know what the real number is? Who would know the real cost?

We also have the massive profits and underpinning of international crime. We are underpinning international crime organisations that are also involved in other people smuggling and smuggling in the transport of drugs. We know that international organised crime is a bad thing and yet we—not those on this side but this nation and those on the other side—gave them a reason to operate.

We have been asked to believe that somehow this is a different Pacific Solution. Again, those on the other side: Nauru is in the same place on the map. It has the same postcode; nothing has changed. In fact, it has exactly the same phone number. Certainly Mr Abbott has asked on no fewer than 130 occasions, pleading with the Prime Minister to pick up the phone, so it is not as if we have not known exactly what you need to do.

We have had some commentary about some of the positions in terms of turning the boats around. It is interesting to note what the Prime Minister had to say on turning the boats around. This was back in 2002: 'And we think turning the boats around that are seaworthy, that can make the return journey and are in international waters fits in with that.' She seemed to be flip-flopping a bit, though. She went on in 2010, very recently:

I speak of the claim often made by opposition politicians that they will, and I quote: 'turn the boats back'. This needs to be seen for what it is. It's a shallow slogan. It's nonsense.

But then she had a bit of an epiphany. In 2011 she said:

They believe they are coming to Australia, but they end up somewhere else. It is a virtual turnaround of boats.

Sadly, we have seen flip-flopping on almost everything. On the temporary protection visas, back in 2002 she said people 'would in the first instance get a short temporary protection visa'. Again in 2002 she said, 'We want the short first-instance temporary protection visa'. In 2010 she said, 'The Rudd government is proud of its reforms in abolishing temporary protection visas—closing the so-called Pacific Solution'. I am not surprised that people are confused about their position.

We also had Senator Evans in this place. He said in 2008, 'the Pacific Solution was a cynical, costly and ultimately unsuccessful exercise introduced on the eve of a federal election by the Howard government'. I am very surprised those opposite are not standing up and simply admitting it is a humiliating but necessary backdown and treating this with the dignity that this issue deserves.

I urge all Australians, whilst those on the other side are now acknowledging the mistake that they made, to think for a moment, as we consider this issue and before we move on, of the vanity of four years. The cost of the vanity of the four years was 22,518 people, $4.7 billion of taxpayers' dollars that could have been spent on other things and, particularly, well over 600 people who, very sadly, lost their lives. (Time expired)

3:19 pm

Photo of Lisa SinghLisa Singh (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Today is not a day about proclaiming political wins. It is a day when all sides of politics have to stop the blame game, the political point-scoring and rise above all those arguments for the basis of humanity. Senator Scullion talks about dignity. Senator Cash's contribution to this previously was anything but dignified. In fact, the Hansard will record in history—

Photo of Mathias CormannMathias Cormann (WA, Liberal Party, Shadow Assistant Treasurer) Share this | | Hansard source

You are responsible. Don't you understand responsibility and accountability?

Photo of Alan FergusonAlan Ferguson (SA, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

Order on my left!

Photo of Lisa SinghLisa Singh (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

that the contribution by Senator Cash on this matter was anything but dignified; in fact, I would have to say it was probably one of the most appalling contributions she has made to this Senate. It is because she has chosen to politicise this issue when we have now heard from an independent expert panel that has come out with a report that the government has in principle accepted which breaks the political deadlock and ends the politics. Instead of that, Senator Cash has to start the politics all over again and cherry pick the parts of the Houston report which suit her best.

One thing that the expert panel made very clear is that the report should be taken as a package. The recommendations within the report should be taken as a package and should not be cherry picked. In fact, if one is to cherry pick as Senator Cash done and look at Manus Island, Nauru or PNG, they in fact are a very small part of this report—a very small part of a very broad package about how we address the issue of those seeking asylum in this country.

One very important part of the package which Senator Cash chooses to overlook because it does not suit her political point-scoring is that the Houston report looks at increasing our humanitarian intake to 20,000 and, in five years, eventually to 27,000. That is so significant that it actually makes Australia a country with one of the highest humanitarian intakes per capita in the world. I am proud to be part of a government that is going to increase the number of people who are able to seek asylum in this country by accepting the recommendation to increase our humanitarian intake to 20,000 and then to 27,000. That is what I want to see my government doing, and that is exactly what it will be doing.

We are a welcoming country. We welcome refugees to our country; we do not demonise and denigrate them. Under the Howard government, we had 11 years of demonising asylum seekers in this country and the ongoing politicisation that followed. That is why we continue to be in a political deadlock with the opposition. They continue to refuse everything that is put on the table. We have compromised. We have tried to negotiate and come to an agreement with the opposition; but, no, that does not suit their political games. Now that the expert panel has come out with a report, the opposition continue to find a way to politicise and demonise the process, the ultimate process, for those seeking asylum in this country. That is incredibly regrettable.

It is incredibly regrettable that Mr Abbott has not been able to resist that temptation, and neither has Senator Cash, here, today. In her contribution, she gave an appalling account of the issue of asylum seekers in this country. These are people in need. They are people who need very much our government's support, our parliament's support, to end the deadlock that has been at the heart of this issue. People in this place spoke very passionately and emotionally about this issue at the end of our June sittings, and it is now back with us at this time. Particularly in the last week of parliament, it was issue that we needed to address. (Time expired)

3:24 pm

Photo of Dean SmithDean Smith (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to take note of answers given by Senator Evans to questions asked by Senator Abetz. Labor has grown deaf and blind to the frustrations of Australians regarding our borders. Yesterday was a day that Australians have grown tired and weary waiting for. During their wait, their cynicism about the national government and the political process that underpins it has been magnified and grown heavy. Across the country, Australians are tired of the politics that has broken the protection of our borders, shamed our reputation amongst our neighbours and risked the lives of many.

Much is open slather in the sport that is Australian politics, but this episode is gross ineptitude by a Labor government at its best, or it is the most shameful exercise of political survival. The embarrassment and shame of senators opposite is well justified. The government's reluctance to properly and comprehensively address our border protection priorities has come at great cost. There have been 22,518 arrivals in 386 boats since November 2007—a hefty cost to our border protection. In five years, more people have arrived by boat than in the entire period of the Howard government.

In the hop, skip and a jump that is Labor's attempt to restore the integrity of our borders, the Houston report and more particularly the government's decision to embrace Manus and Nauru as part of a solution is a welcome but long-awaited first step. Labor's conversion to a more robust and effective position on border protection is taking too long. It is important and worthy to acknowledge the importance of this long-awaited recognition that offshore processing at Manus Island and Nauru will have a positive effect on reducing the incentive for vulnerable people to take risks. The government's failure to quickly endorse a comprehensive plan is staggering. That plan should be simple. It has been tried and tested and it has passed with flying colours. That plan is offshore processing at Manus and Nauru, it is the resurrection of temporary protection visas and it is a will to turn back boats when it is safe to do so.

While the community has lost faith in Labor and its leaders, a group of three has successfully fulfilled the role of policy making for an inept Labor government. The Houston report gives Australians a road map for restoring their borders, rebuilding the pride of their country in the region and stopping vulnerable people from undertaking a risky path to a better life. We have a report, we have a road map, but we are still left with a government with a poor record of implementation. The question that Australians should now ask is: can Labor be trusted to implement a policy that they were reluctant to embrace in the beginning? The emphasis is important:'reluctant to embrace in the beginning'.

In 2003, the Prime Minister was against offshore processing and the Pacific solution. She said that Labor would end the so-called Pacific solution—the processing and detaining of asylum seekers on Pacific islands—because it was costly, unsustainable and wrong as a matter of principle. As Deputy Prime Minister, her government dismantled the coalition's successful Pacific Solution policy. In 2008, her colleagues said that Labor was committed to abolishing the Pacific Solution, and this was one of the first things that the Rudd Labor government did on taking office. 'It was also one of my greatest pleasures in politics,' said Labor's Senate leader.

I believe that it is powerful reading to sometimes take note of the comments in our media, and today's Australian newspaper is an important and powerful one. Sometimes it is easy to dismiss the powerful observations that are often made by our media commentators, but two comments today stand out to me. The first comment is:

… that the dismantling of the Howard government's border protection policies and their replacement with onshore processing has been a powerful pull factor behind the sharp increase in asylum-seeker arrivals by boat in recent years. The panel recognises that in order to stem the tide of asylum-seekers, this pull factor must be urgently addressed by implementing policies, including offshore processing, that deter people from undertaking dangerous boat journeys to Australia to seek asylum.

The second comment—and I will finish on this point—is:

… the Labor Party's decade-long vacillation on asylum-seeker policy, which has been defined by backflips, policy reversals and an irrational opposition to past Coalition policies that demonstrably worked.

(Time expired)

Question agreed to.