Senate debates

Wednesday, 15 August 2012


Migration Legislation Amendment (Regional Processing and Other Measures) Bill 2012; Second Reading

5:41 pm

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

'The single most important priority in preventing people from risking their lives on dangerous maritime voyages is to recalibrate Australian policy settings to achieve an outcome that asylum seekers will not be advantaged if they pay people smugglers to attempt dangerous irregular entry into Australia instead of pursuing regular migration pathways and international protection arrangements.' So said the government's own hand-picked panel operating under the government's own self-drafted terms of reference. A hand-picked panel and self-drafted terms of reference—and the verdict? One of the most stinging critiques ever of government policy by a panel hand-picked by government with self-drafted terms of reference.

This report explodes and exposes the government's four years of failure and falsehoods in relation to the causes of the tsunami of illegal arrivals in our country. After 22,000 illegal arrivals by boat, after over 600 deaths at sea, after a $4.7 billion cost blow-out funded by the Australian taxpayer, and after the government's own panel has told the government the exceedingly obvious, all of which fully vindicates the coalition's consistent policy position over the last decade, we have the government without even an 'if you please' let alone a full-scale apology coming into this place with a half-baked solution. The proposal which represents just one pillar of a three-pillar solution is to be welcomed, because one pillar is clearly better than none. So the coalition will support the Migration Legislation Amendment (Regional Processing and Other Measures) Bill 2012. But let us be crystal clear: the coalition's policy prescription worked, it stopped the boats and it will work again.

The coalition has always stood for strong border protection. The bill, whilst not ideal, is moving in the right direction, so the coalition will support it. In showing our support, coalition senators will curtail their contributions to facilitate the bill's passage, albeit—and I want to make this point very, very clear—that each and every one of us on the coalition side would be fully justified to speak our full 20 minutes normally allocated to highlight the avalanche of epithets and abuse those opposite and their fellow travellers in the commentariat threw at the member for Berowra, Mr Ruddock, the former Prime Minister and, indeed, all of us who argued against Labor's ill-advised policy shift.

Not content with the fiscal and humanitarian damage they caused, those opposite engaged in a verbal rampage of vilification against the coalition on the workable solution they so wilfully scuttled. I recall the claims of the government leader in this place in answer to former Senator Ellison's questioning about Labor relaxing border protection. This was back on 13 October 2008—and I quote Senator Evans:

I do not accept that any changes to detention policy in this country have led to an increase in arrivals. First of all, there has not been an increase in arrivals and, secondly, we know that the indefinite long-term detention of arrivals did not prove to be a barrier to people continuing to make the journey.

He went on to claim on another occasion that the Pacific solution was regarded internationally as a stain on Australia's reputation. Such was the hysteria Labor tried to peddle. Today, without any apology and without any 'if you please', they are reintroducing part of the Pacific solution; specifically, Nauru.

Now, just chanting 'Nauru' is not going to be a solution. We will monitor Labor's administration of this very closely. We have form from this government in the area of pink batts, Building the Education Revolution and the National Broadband Network, just to mention a few areas where the initial headlines were exceptionally good but the underlying policy was non-existent and the administration was absolutely appalling. If Nauru is to work we need policy conviction and commitments.

A Labor senator earlier today said that indefinite detention was not on the agenda. Let us be quite clear on this: the panel made it exceedingly clear—this is Labor's hand-picked panel—that if you are going to send a message it has to be firm and clear. The panel did use diplomatic language, and I accept that. But let us analyse what they actually said. They said that the boat people should not get a better outcome by virtue of coming here by boat. What does that mean—no advantage? It means that they should not be provided an advantage over the 10 million refugees around the world awaiting resettlement. It means they should get no advantage over the 100,000 seeking resettlement in Malaysia. They should get no advantage over the 5,000 waiting in Indonesia for resettlement. So what does this mean? This panel's recommendation means that the boat people will have to join the queues, and they will need to wait in line.

As I have said in these debates before: there is no social justice in any way, shape or form in giving advantage to people who deliberately bypass safe haven after safe haven after safe haven and then destroy their documents and pay criminals to gain entry into Australia, whilst there are others who have been waiting in refugee camps for nigh on two decades and who do not have the financial wherewithal to pay criminals to get them access into Australia.

During this past break from the parliament I personally spoke with refugees on the Thai-Burma border awaiting resettlement. It is very confronting when you have such a discussion with a person who has been displaced since 1994. Do those people understand that there is a queue? Yes, they do. Do they understand the need for some order in this area? Yes, they do. Do they understand that giving precedence to the illegal arrivals delays their resettlement? Yes, they do. And might I add that apart from visiting a refugee camp in Thailand I also visited a compound in Indonesia where a would-be boat person was housed who had never set foot in a refugee camp, and who had relatives back home drip-feeding him money from his accounts that he had been able to get a relative to manage. I make no apology for saying that my sympathy lies with the person who arrived in Thailand in 1994 rather than the would-be boat person who is still able to manage his financial affairs, courtesy of relatives, back in his former country. The point I seek to make on behalf of the coalition is that the government needs to send an unambiguously clear message: if Nauru allows easier access to resettlement than for the other 10 million then Nauru will have failed.

Whilst the coalition has pursued a three-pillars approach for over a decade, with temporary protection visas, offshore processing and turning back the boats, the ALP has pursued a three-pillars approach as well—one of ideological idiocy, wilful waste and desperate denial. The coalition did not need to outsource its policymaking in this area, as the government has done with this panel. Indeed, the Leader of the Opposition, Mr Tony Abbott, on over 100 occasions called on the Prime Minister to pick up the phone to Nauru, and she refused. I understand that the government now finally has. There were four wasted years because of a deliberate refusal to pick up the phone. It is four years too late, but at least it has been done.

Let me also deal with the issue of turning back the boats, something that Ms Gillard supported whilst she was in opposition and then absolutely condemned, and now she sort of talks about virtual turn-backs. But, of course, we now know that Ms Gillard is a policy void in this area because she has outsourced, as has the Labor Party, the government's approach to an expert panel. But this is what the expert panel said on page 53 of their report in relation to turn-backs. I quote from paragraph 3.77:

Turning back irregular maritime vessels carrying asylum seekers to Australia can be operationally achieved and can constitute an effective disincentive to such ventures …

It is very clear. I do accept that at the end of that sentence there is a caveat that says 'only in circumstances where a range of operational, safety of life, diplomatic and legal conditions are met'. But clearly it is something that can be operationally achieved and can constitute an effective disincentive to such ventures. So why have the Labor Party and their fellow travellers in the commentariat sought to demonise the opposition year after year after year when we have said that that is part and parcel of the proposal to stop this dangerous game of people smuggling? Make no mistake: it is Australian policy—and these are not the coalition's words but the words of the Labor government's hand-picked panel—that 'the single most important priority in preventing people from risking their lives is to recalibrate Australian policy settings', and one of them, of course, is turning back the boats.

So if there are—and I understand and accept this—genuine Australians who are concerned about the number of deaths at sea then I say: ensure you stop the boats. When the Howard government stopped the boats, guess what: the deaths at sea also stopped. When the flood of boat arrivals started again with the election of the Rudd government, the number of deaths at sea also regrettably increased. I have said on a previous occasion and I repeat that I do not blame the government for the deaths at sea. The criminal people smugglers bear that consequence on their conscience. But, if we know that our policy settings are assisting the criminals, we have a duty and an obligation to ensure that they are put out of business. Clearly, according to Labor's own expert panel, turning back the boats is one of those measures that can work. That is why the coalition remains committed to its strong, fair border protection policy; that is why we believe the government is not going all the way that it should go; and that is why, on behalf of the coalition, I move:

At the end of the motion, add:

     but the Senate:

(a) notes that the Government has accepted the Coalition's policy of offshore processing of asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Island; and

(b) calls upon the Government to implement the full suite of the Coalition's successful policies and calls upon the Government to immediately:

(i) restore temporary protection visas for all offshore entry persons found to be refugees;

(ii) issue new instructions to Northern Command to commence to turn back boats where it is safe to do so;

(iii) use existing law to remove the benefit of the doubt on a person's identity where there is a reasonable belief that a person has deliberately discarded their documentation; and

(iv) restore the Bali Process to once again focus on deterrence and border security.

We have had four wasted years—four years of failed policy. We have had 22,000 arrivals that have displaced others. We have had hundreds of deaths at sea. We have had a $4.7 billion blow-out that the Australian taxpayers have had to fund. The coalition will support the legislation, but we do say that the stance we have taken in the face of vile vilification from those opposite and the commentariat, and the fact that we have withstood that vilification, has now been vindicated by this report. We commend the bill to the Senate, but we also say that things could be taken a lot further to ensure that these criminals are put out of business once and for all, as they were under the Howard government.

5:59 pm

Photo of Christine MilneChristine Milne (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise today to oppose the legislation before the Senate. I do so saying that I think it is a tragedy in Australian public life that we have got to the point where the government and the coalition are trying to outdo each other on the level of cruelty and punishment they are prepared to inflict on refugees who are seeking asylum in our country.

The fact of the matter is everybody talks about a problem. The problem will not be fixed. What is the problem? The problem that is being cited is that people are losing their lives at sea on leaky boats and we have to stop that. I could not agree more, and I will come to that in a moment, but actually that is the fig leaf. The problem that the Houston panel refers to and that is spoken about in here by the government and the coalition is deterrence. Both of the major parties in Australia want to deter asylum seekers—refugees—from coming to live in our country. The whole message is: 'We do not want you in our country. We want to deter you from coming and we want to punish you so that we give the message out there clearly to the rest of you that we do not want you in our country and we will punish you if you try to come here. What we're going to try to do is punish you by taking you to Nauru, by taking you to Manus Island, by taking you to Malaysia, by leaving you in indefinite detention. That is the punishment so the message goes out to you and your families that we do not want you here. Don't even try to come; because, if you do try to come, that's what we're going to do to you.'

Why are we putting in place this notional view of deterrence when we are talking about people who are genuine refugees? No amount of punishment that we give people is going to be worse than the situation from which they have run. Women are running from Afghanistan because of the treatment that they are getting in that country. Recently there was the killing—the murder—of a woman in Afghanistan accused of adultery. She was murdered. A video about it went out around the world, and we had people in Australia from both the government and the coalition saying: 'This is terrible, this is terrible. This is why we need to be in Afghanistan.' Yes, it is terrible. But what if that woman's friends—what if people watching—decided they had to leave Afghanistan because it could be them next? We are saying: 'Yes, you should leave Afghanistan; it is a terrible situation. But we don't want you here. Go somewhere else. Land yourself up in a camp in Malaysia. Land yourself up in a camp in Indonesia and stay there. If you attempt to come here, we will send you into indefinite detention on Nauru, on Manus Island, in Malaysia or wherever else. We'll punish you. It's not enough you've been punished once; we have to punish you again.'

What is the crime that they have to be punished for? Their crime is that they have run away. They have been persecuted and have run away, and we say, 'No, we don't want you here.' We then go into this ridiculous language of advantage and disadvantage. 'Queue jumpers'—that is an invention of the Howard government. It assumes there is some sort of orderly queue of people running away from persecution. There is not. They are in all kinds of situations in Malaysia and Indonesia. But with this idea of advantage what people fail to realise is that Australia refuses to give visas to people from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka because we already think they are too great a risk that they might want to come to our country. They are so great a risk we will not give them a visa. Without a visa they cannot travel; they cannot come through normal channels.

Let us face it: 13,750 people can come to Australia on humanitarian refugee status now. We take over 200,000 people, but not these ones. If you can get a visa, you can fly in and seek asylum when you get here, and you can get that from many other countries—but not from these countries, because we deem them to be such a risk. So they get to these camps and have no hope of getting resettlement. They get to the point where they think the only hope they have is to get on a boat and hope they can get to Australia, hope they can be assessed as refugees—many of them are already assessed as refugees in Indonesia. And we say, 'No, our priority is to deter you.'

When the Greens stand up and say, 'If you are genuinely concerned about saving lives at sea, what you need to do is give people safe pathways to Australia once they are assessed as a refugee so they don't have to get on a boat', what is wrong with that?' The answer is, 'Open borders; we couldn't possibly risk it.' Nobody is talking about open borders. What we are talking about is lifting the humanitarian intake to recognise that, when there are periods of war and persecution around the world, there is an increase in the number of people seeking asylum. Australia, the land of the fair go, the generous country, takes less than two per cent of the world's refugees, and yet we feel like we have to deter them because suddenly we are going to be overcome by this two per cent of the world's refugees.

Let me go to the issue of people dying at sea. I will not have it that Senator Abetz stands there and says there is any vindication of his policies, because there is no vindication of his policies. There is no vindication of his general policy at all. I go particularly to this claim that former Prime Minister Howard stopped the boats. Firstly, what he did was excise territory so that when boats turned up they were not counted because they were not turning up in Australia. That is why there was a change in the figures: it is how they counted them. Secondly, they brought in temporary protection visas because they said, 'If we take away the rights of asylum seekers to apply to bring their families here, that'll deter them, that'll teach them, that'll punish them.' It led to the wives and children getting on the boats because they had no other way of joining their husbands, their brothers, their fathers in Australia. They died on the SIEVX. Three hundred and fifty-three people died because of temporary protection visas. That is forever on the conscience of Prime Minister Howard, Senator Sinodinos and everyone else who worked in that office at that time and exempted themselves from telling the truth or even turning up to the Senate inquiries.

To this day we have not had a royal commission into what happened with the SIEVX. How is it that that many people drowned and disappeared? Who knew? Where were our coastal surveillance people? Why did we leave it? Which vessels turned up there and shone their searchlights onto people in the water and then sailed away? Labor made it part of their policy, in 2004, to have a royal commission into this. That was dropped by Prime Minister Rudd. I want a royal commission into the SIEVX, and I would like that extended to the loss of the other boats that have come in the intervening years because there is a terrible tension between the policy of saying, 'We want to deter people, therefore we don't want to make it look as if we're a search and rescue service'—as the coalition would have said. No, we want to leave people to the very last minute; and so the tension is between deterrence on the one hand and Australia's obligation to save lives at sea on the other. The reason we have so many people suffering post-traumatic distress in the Navy and the rescue services is they know that people are in trouble but they are not being sent immediately, because we have to balance deterrence with rescuing people.

A boat went down recently with the terrible loss of life of 90 people. We knew they were in trouble on Tuesday afternoon but we did not tell the Indonesians until Thursday afternoon that we were going into their search and rescue zone to rescue those people because they were already in the water by then and 90 of them drowned. I want to know who made the decision not to go on Tuesday afternoon. I want to know who made the decision not to say to the Indonesians, 'We are going into the search and rescue zone,' because we Australians know the Indonesians do not have the physical capacity with boats to do so. The only boat they have cannot go out in swells of more than four metres. We know they do not have the boats. We know they do not have the electronic surveillance to know where people are. We do. We know where those boats are. We knew the Indonesians could not rescue them and yet we did not go. I want to know why.

Let us get this on the record: if you want to save lives at sea it is possible. One of the good things that has happened, as I have been calling for codification on saving lives at sea, is that the Prime Minister moved, over the winter break, to help the Indonesians develop more capacity for rescue. One of the excellent things that has come out of the Houston report is a recommendation that we codify our responsibilities under Saving Lives At Sea so that everybody in the chain of command—from intelligence identifying where a boat is through to the people on the ground rescuing them—has a consistent set of instructions and knows exactly what they are supposed to do. Let us have that on the record and let us see when we start getting calls for some decent and proper recommendations for the people who are doing everything in their power to save lives. This is not a criticism of the people who are out there trying to do the rescues. All of those people are trying to do the right thing and their frustration is that they know that, in many cases, they could have gone earlier and did not. That is not their fault.

I go to the actual policy of what is being recommended—sending vulnerable people, children, offshore. This legislation says that the minister relinquishes his guardianship responsibilities—his or her, it may be a male minister—so children coming on these boats can be put into detention indefinitely. Why do we think that is fair? Why do we think that is humane? Why do want to punish children? Because we want to send a message to their families that we do not want them here?

They are not temporary protection visas but they might as well be. The government wants to change the act so that the males who come cannot seek family reunion. That is exactly the logic that led before to 353 people, mainly women and children, drowning—and we are doing it again even though we know that is the result. It will lead to people knowing the only way they have any chance of coming to Australia is to get on a boat because they are not going to be allowed to apply through the special humanitarian opportunities and will be put at the back of the queue in terms of the assessment of refugee status and family reunion status. It will be years and years—decades—before it happens and that is why they have no choice. That is what is going on here.

One thing I think the Australian community has not realised is that there has been all this talk about protecting their rights: 'Yes, we will send them to Nauru; yes, we'll send them to Manus Island; yes, we'll send them to Malaysia—but don't worry, we'll protect their rights.' Why are we having to debate this and legislate? The rights already exist in the legislation at section 198A. Those rights are there. The reason we are doing this is the High Court said that we cannot guarantee people's human rights in these other places because they are not enshrined in law in Malaysia. We cannot guarantee to a person in a camp in Malaysia that they will be treated with decency and have their human rights respected. We know that people have been beaten and sexually assaulted, that they cannot work or send their children to school. Their rights are not enshrined—but we are required by law to do that and that is why the High Court said that the Gillard government's attempt to put people in Malaysia was against the law. The law codifies our obligations under the human rights convention and the refugee convention.

This parliament is now saying, 'Well, we'll get around the High Court by removing human rights protections from Australia's law.' What this clearly says is there is nothing legally binding about what will happen in relation to this. There might be people of good intent, and so on, but there is nothing legally binding in place. So people's rights cannot be protected under what is being proposed here.

The other issue with it is this decision to excise the whole of the Australian mainland from the Migration Act so that everyone can be punished equally. Instead, the decent thing to have done would have been to repeal the excision of Christmas Island and the rest of the territory that was excised. We should have just got rid of the excision and had the whole of Australia operating under our migration law and our human rights obligations. I feel ashamed that our parliament is stripping human rights out of the migration law. We heard today of the Labor Party's proud tradition in being part of drafting the global human rights convention and I thought how ironic it is that we have a new member of parliament for the Labor Party standing up and saying how proud they are of being part of a tradition that drafted human rights on the very day that the Labor Party is moving to strip out of law human rights that people fought so hard to get a global treaty to implement. And the coalition is standing up there, beating its chest and saying, 'Aren't we marvellous, because we have now got Labor to agree with us and we are going to the bottom of a very rotten barrel.'

In terms of other things that this set of propositions does, there is the issue of permanent, indefinite detention. It is hard to believe in a country where we think we respect the rule of law that we could be saying to people, 'We are going to send you away and you are stuck there indefinitely,' when we know that the last time this happened people ended up with quite severe mental illness as a result of the experience. Patrick McGorry said recently that after six to 12 months people have psychological disturbance from being in detention, yet we are prepared to proactively do that to people. We are saying, 'You might be okay now, but we're going to lock you up and there is a high probability you're going to end up with a mental illness and psychiatric disturbance because of this, and we don't care; that is part of your punishment.' And then what happened, of course, was when it was all found to be so appalling, the taxpayers of Australia have had to pay out compensation for the way people were treated in the Nauru detention centre—and we are doing it again! If we do not learn the lessons of history we are condemned to repeat them, and this Senate is now repeating the lesson of history, which is that Australia's global reputation is now trashed, as it was during the Howard government years.

People around the world are going to be looking at us and saying that Australia wants to be on the United Nations Security Council, it wants to get on a global security council and it has just shown that it has zero respect for the United Nations, for the treaties of the United Nations, particularly when it comes to human rights and refugees, which are central issues pertaining to security and how you respond to security crises around the world. I would be surprised if there were any other civilised countries in the world—and by that I mean countries that respect human rights—that would think it was appropriate to vote for Australia to go onto the Security Council. We have embarrassed ourselves. We have an opportunity in this century—it is the first time ever that Australia has been well located in a global context to take a leadership role. We are an Asian nation. We have so much to offer in terms of leadership, democracy, human rights, decency, a fair go, multiculturalism—all those things we have to offer. We had an opportunity to engage in the region in a leadership role in a regional framework that respects human rights, that underpins the regional framework with human rights. We could have then said, having increased our own intake, 'We will now ask other countries to assist us to take people,' but we have not.

The government ought to be ashamed. The Greens are standing here pleading with the Senate to think about our nation. What sort of country do we want to live in and how can we have self-respect as Australians if we harden our hearts when people ask us for help?

6:19 pm

Photo of Doug CameronDoug Cameron (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise with a heavy heart to speak on this bill. I think it will become clear as I go through my contribution why I say that. The first thing I want to say is that I listened intently to Senator Abetz, who spoke about the Pacific solution. I do not know any expert anywhere in the world who thinks there is some quick solution to the problem of refugees and asylum seekers around the world. There is no quick and easy solution.

I want to state my deep disappointment that the bill that was before the Senate in June failed to pass. In my view, that bill was far from perfect but it provided for a better policy outcome than does this bill. In terms of the humanitarian values that I hold on this issue and the policy outcomes that I would prefer, I believe that this bill is a step backwards from the position that was before us in June. I have already indicated my disappointment with the Greens for what I believe is an immature political position that they adopted in June. As on carbon pricing, on this issue their political puritanism and their complete unwillingness to make any compromise on what they call their principles has given us this bill, which is a lesser bill in my view than that which was before us in June. For the Greens, any compromise on their part is an unconscionable backdown that cannot be tolerated. For everyone else, according to the Greens, failure to agree with them is an unconscionable sellout.

As Waleed Aly points out in the current edition of the Monthly, 'The Greens are perfectly capable of shedding crocodile tears when it comes to the human rights of asylum seekers.' When the Greens refused what may ultimately have been a disingenuous offer from the coalition to increase the refugee intake to 20,000 and limit processing times to 12 months, largely reflecting Greens policy, they knocked it back because of their humanitarian concerns about processing on Nauru. As Aly points out, 'Apparently, asylum seekers' human rights must be protected even if it kills them.' Let me just remind the Greens what the UNHCR had to say about the government's arrangement with the government of Malaysia. The UNHCR:

… welcomes the fact that an additional 4000 refugees from Malaysia will obtain a durable solution through resettlement to Australia. The potential to work towards safe and humane options for people other than to use dangerous sea journeys are also positive features of this Arrangement. In addition, the Malaysian Government is in discussions with UNHCR on the registration of refugees and asylum-seekers under the planned Government programme announced in June on the registration of all migrant workers.

The Arrangement and its implementing guidelines contain important protection safeguards, including respect for the principle of non-refoulement; the right to asylum; the principle of family unity and best interests of the child; humane reception conditions including protection against arbitrary detention; … and the ability to receive education, access to health care, and a right to employment.

That is what the UNHCR had to say about the Malaysian agreement—an approach that provided the basis for a truly regional approach to dealing with asylum seekers but an approach that the Greens were too pure to accept, and they rejected it. And here we are with Nauru and Manus Island staring us in the face because of what I believe was the political immaturity and the intransigence of the Greens. But, clearly, the greatest shame on this issue lies at the feet of the coalition.

We hear much in this place about the history of political parties. As I have done on many occasions in my time here, I want to quote Robert Menzies. In a radio broadcast on 24 July 1942, Menzies had this to say about his Liberal creed:

Fear can never be a proper or useful ingredient in those mutual relations of respect and goodwill which ought to exist between the elector and the elected.

And so, as we think about it we shall find more and more how disfiguring a thing fear is in our own political and social life.

If there is ever an example about a disfiguring position in political life it is the situation that we face now with the propositions and the fear campaigns being run by coalition on the issue of refugees and asylum seekers.

The inflammatory rhetoric of the coalition is all about fear. It is totally against the Menzies creed. It is about fear and loathing for asylum seekers. The inflammatory rhetoric never misses a beat. The coalition rail against asylum seekers. The dog whistle is turned up to full volume. They cast doubt, without any evidence, on the credentials of asylum seekers. They insinuate that they might be terrorists. The claim they could bring disease to Australia. They fabricate claims of them throwing children overboard so that they might be considered unworthy of coming to this country. They claim that the very act of boarding a boat is un-Christian. The fact that the asylum seekers might actually be religious Hindus, Buddhists or Muslims matters little when the dog whistle is set at full volume. There is only one religion according to the coalition monoculturalists.

The cowardice of the coalition was on full display yesterday in the other place. In his contribution to the debate on this bill, the Leader of the Opposition could not help himself, dragging the debate straight into the gutter, as he does every single day. If anyone is responsible for the risible state of political discourse in this country, it is the Leader of the Opposition, Mr Abbott. He lives in the political gutter. He is incapable of lifting himself out of it.

What sort of political coward, other than Mr Abbott, would try to distance himself from the grubby remarks of a shock jock by repeating them unprompted and completely out of context in the parliament? That is what Mr Abbott did yesterday when he claimed, adopting the old coward's rhetorical trick, to not endorse the stupid and grubby remarks of Melbourne shock jock Neil Mitchell. The best way to repudiate Mitchell would have been to ignore him. By not ignoring Mitchell, Mr Abbott effectively endorsed him by giving him undeserved prominence.

While ever the likes of Mr Abbott, Mr Morrison and many of those opposite continue with the campaign of fear and loathing they have waged against asylum seekers for well over a decade, it will be difficult to crush the lies, to allay the ill-founded fears, to promote understanding and to draw on the better angels of Australians' nature that should characterise public debate on this issue. I will not shirk the task of waging the battle from the other side of the debate.

Why do refugees seek asylum in Australia? Why do they do this from all around the world? I listened to Senator Abetz, and there was not one mention of the reasons people are en masse trying to flee their native country and seek resettlement and refuge in countries around the world. The whole underpinning of the reason that people flee their own country was never mentioned. They do it because of racial persecution—something that I am sure the coalition would claim they do not support. They do it because of religious persecution—but I suppose unless you are a Christian it does not really matter! They do it because of political persecution. Some of them do it for economic reasons, because they are living in abject poverty with absolutely no hope for themselves or their family into the future. Some of them have suffered famine and they leave because there is famine and they seek refuge from famine. They seek refuge from dictatorships. They seek refuge from tyranny. They seek refuge from war. Yet these people, who are seeking refuge and support around the world, are treated to the dog whistle and the politics of fear from the coalition.

International law recognises that people at risk of persecution have a legal right to flee their country and seek refuge elsewhere. From March this year Australia adopted a complementary protection regime. This allows for protection of people who may not fit the strict definition of a refugee but who, should they be returned to their country of origin, will suffer a real risk of personal harm.

It is appropriate to look at some of the myths that abound in relation to asylum seekers. There is the myth that boat people are queue jumpers. The fact is that in Iraq and Afghanistan there are no queues for people to jump. Australia has no diplomatic representation in these countries and supports the international coalition of nations who continue to oppose these regimes and support sanctions against them. There is no standard refugee process where people wait in line to have their applications considered. Few countries between the Middle East and Australia are signatories to the 1951 Refugee Convention and, as such, asylum seekers are forced to continue to travel to another country to find protection.

That is why I find it bizarre that the Greens are still arguing that there should be no arrangements made with any country unless they actually sign off on the international conventions. I would prefer countries signed off on the international conventions, but that is not likely. So the Greens' position is that we then disenfranchise the majority of nations between here and the Middle East from playing any practical and positive role in a regional approach to dealing with refugees and asylum seekers. I think it is hypocrisy; I think it is stupidity; and I think it is ideological purity gone mad. I think we need to actually deal with some of these issues that we are faced with.

It is no secret that I opposed the proposition for this legislation in the party room. It is public knowledge. I did that because I wanted time to actually read the report, analyse the report and consult on the report with a number of my colleagues and friends, who for years have been supporters of refugees in this country. I wanted to get the view of the refugee groups and I wanted to get the views of the UNHCR. But that was not a position supported by the majority of my colleagues in the party room, and that is why the debate is on here today. And it is a debate that will continue, because there is no solution to the issue of asylum seekers fleeing. I take the view that, if you are fleeing for your life, no amount of deterrents will stop you looking for a safe haven—and I think that is what we have to understand when we try to get a regional approach to refugees put in place.

We heard Senator Abetz laud the so-called Pacific solution. I do agree with the previous speaker, who indicated that there was no solution. That is true—there was no solution. In fact, 43 per cent of the refugees who went to Nauru were ultimately resettled to Australia, some 27 per cent to New Zealand and, according to refugee groups, they believe that the others who returned to their country of origin, if they had stayed in Nauru, would have been resettled as well. So almost everyone who went to Nauru under the so-called Pacific solution ended up being genuine refugees and ended up being resettled.

The argument from the coalition that we should reintroduce temporary protection visas is, again, another spin, another lie and another deception—a deception to try to place some respect on that outrageous Pacific solution. The former Commonwealth minister for health, a Liberal, Dr Michael Wooldridge, had earlier described as 'deeply flawed and dangerous' the spurious claim that Australia should only be a temporary haven for refugees before they are sent back again when things get better, arguing that creating insecurity and uncertainty, as these views undoubtedly do, is one of the most dangerous ways to add to the harm that torturers do.

Out of the mouths of Liberals comes the truth—courageous Liberals; Liberals that were not prepared to accept the rhetoric and spin, and lies and misinformation that the coalition claim as their Pacific policy. It is clear that turn-backs will not work. It is okay for Senator Abetz to cherry-pick some aspects of the report, but the report clearly says that things have changed since the turn-back situation. Paragraph 3.78 on page 54 of the report says:

Circumstances have changed since the limited number of turn-backs of irregular vessels carrying asylum seekers in Australia over a decade ago. The legal context has changed. The attitudes of many regional governments have evolved …

And I could go on. The argument that you can turn the boats around without legal consequences, without safety consequences and without getting agreement from the nation that you are trying to turn the boats around to is exposed and destroyed in this report. Far from endorsing turn-backs, this report says you cannot do it. And yet we still have the lies and the rhetoric and the misinformation being peddled by the coalition to try and say that you can turn boats around, when the experts clearly say you cannot do it.

In my view, it is time for the Greens to get rid of their ideological purity and to start behaving like a mature political party. It is time for the coalition to stop lying to the Australian public, to stop misrepresenting and vilifying and demonising people who are in genuine plight and who are looking for refuge in this country. It is time we lifted the standards in this country. If we had done so earlier, we may not have needed Nauru and Manus Island; we could have had a decent policy in this country. (Time expired)

6:39 pm

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

I too rise to speak on the Migration Legislation Amendment (Regional Processing and Other Measures) Bill 2012. I would like to put the debate today into context. This is a government that has performed what is now going to be recognised as one of the greatest political backflips of all time. This is a government that for the last four years has claimed to the people of Australia and to the coalition that offshore processing on Nauru will not work. This is a government that, just six short weeks ago, condemned the opposition for wanting to include Nauru as an offshore processing centre. This is a government that was prepared to do absolutely nothing at all on border protection rather than concede that Nauru should be reopened to house asylum seekers. This is a government whose then Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, Senator Chris Evans, said on 17 November 2008 in an address to the Refugee Council of Australia:

Labor committed to abolishing the Pacific Solution and this was one the first things the Rudd Labor Government did on taking office. It was also one of my greatest pleasures in politics. Neither humane nor fair, the Pacific Solution was also ineffective and wasteful.

The minister arrogantly reconfirmed those words yesterday in question time, in answer to a question from Senator Abetz. Jump forward to today, 15 August 2012, and what are we faced with as a parliament? What is the Australian public faced with by way of policy? After four years of Labor telling the coalition and the people of Australia that Nauru would not work, and that the Pacific solution was neither humane nor fair and that it was ineffective and wasteful, on Monday, former Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston—the man hand-picked by the current Gillard Labor government to advise them on border protection, because Labor had abrogated their policy-making responsibility in this area—said that Nauru will work.

Policy failure, denial, inconsistency and inaction had frozen the government's decision-making ability and rendered this Labor government so incapable that it had to turn to an independent panel to solve its border protection debacle. The coalition has been telling the government for years, based on the evidence, that Labor's border protection policies have failed. We have repeatedly told the government that Labor's policy has developed a business model for the criminal smugglers; that it has created opportunities for those smugglers to make huge profits by putting desperate people on boats and sending them out to sea. And indeed, Air Chief Marshal Houston's expert panel has confirmed that pull factors created by Labor's policies were significantly responsible for the resumption of the people smugglers' criminal activities after the abolition of the Howard government's policies.

Air Chief Marshal Houston's expert panel report is without a doubt the most devastating critique that has ever been made of government policy in this country. And I remind Australians that this is not a coalition report; this was not a coalition panel. This is a government report. The government asked for it, the government received it and the government now owns it. This was an expert panel that was hand-picked by Ms Gillard herself. The government—and Ms Gillard—wrote the terms of reference for the committee. The government—and Ms Gillard—then charged the committee with its inquiry. And now the government has the findings of the expert panel. The fact is, as much as those on the other side want to discount this, the findings of the expert panel substantially endorse the coalition's approach to stopping the boats.

For years now, the Labor government has been telling the people of Australia that you cannot turn back the boats. Angus Houston and the expert panel say that you can. Indeed, on page 53 of the Report of the Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers, at paragraph 3.77, it states:

Turning back irregular maritime vessels carrying asylum seekers to Australia can be operationally achieved and can constitute an effective disincentive to such ventures …

The expert panel made a total of 22 recommendations. Those recommendations included that offshore processing in Nauru and on Manus Island at Papua New Guinea be established as soon as practicable. Offshore processing has always been the coalition's policy. The expert panel also recommended the prohibiting of family reunion through Australia's humanitarian program for people arriving by boat, instead making boat arrivals apply for family reunion through the family stream of the migration program. Again, this is in the spirit of temporary protection visas, which are coalition policy.

The expert panel also recommended turning back irregular maritime vessels in operational conditions where it can be achieved and that this can constitute an effective deterrent to these ventures. Again, this continues to be coalition policy. The expert panel also recommended that the protections for asylum seekers set out in the Malaysian people swap are inadequate. Again, this has been the coalition's consistent position on the government's Malaysian people swap deal. These findings—the findings of the government's own hand-picked expert panel—reflect what has been the coalition's consistent position on border protection in Australia.

I remind senators that it was back on 13 July 2010 that the Leader of the Opposition, Mr Abbott, first said to Labor members that they should advise the Prime Minister to pick up the phone to the President of Nauru. Twenty-three times before the last election the Leader of the Opposition, Mr Abbott, said that, if the government were serious about stopping the boats, the Prime Minister should pick up the phone to the President of Nauru. History now records, however, that the Prime Minister refused to do that. She refused to do that before the election. She refused to do that after the election. She refused to do it when the High Court ruled the Malaysia solution invalid. She refused to do it in January of this year after discussions between the coalition and the government. And the Prime Minister refused to do it just six weeks ago. On 106 occasions Mr Abbott has respectfully urged the Prime Minister to pick up the phone to the President of Nauru. If only she had not refused, we may have been able to save desperate people from making a potentially deadly voyage across open seas in a leaky boat.

The last four years have seen one of the greatest policy failures of this government. The reason we say that is that the Labor government, when they assumed office, were handed a solution in the form of the Howard government's border protection policies and, when elected, they deliberately and wilfully set out to dismantle those policies. The result of this deliberate and wilful dismantling of what were proven border protection policies and what had achieved the results that the government is telling the people of Australia it wants to achieve today with its border protection policies is this: the arrival of 389 boats, carrying 22,718 asylum seekers. If you want further confirmation of the extent of the policy failure that this government has wreaked upon this portfolio area, it is that the number of boats under Prime Minister Gillard alone has exceeded the number of boats and the number of people who arrived in the 11 years of the Howard government.

The Labor government and the current Prime Minister should apologise to the people of Australia for their abject failure when it comes to protecting Australia's borders. They should apologise to the people of Australia for dismantling the Howard government's proven border protection policies. They should apologise to the mums and dads of Australia for the billions of dollars they have now wasted over the last four years—to the tune of $4.7 billion of taxpayers' money in budget blow-outs because of their mismanagement of border protection policy. Australians are now paying an additional $1.1 million per day because of Labor's failure in this important area. This is not good news for the mums and dads of Australia who cannot afford to pay their electricity bills because of the impact of the carbon tax on them. The blame for this can be put squarely at the feet of an incompetent Labor government. They have failed Australians when it comes to border protection, and it is the Australian taxpayer who has to clean up Labor's mess.

The government should also apologise for offering a business model to the people smugglers, who have by their criminal actions caused untold suffering to the families of the over 1,000 people who lost their lives at sea attempting to make the dangerous journey to Australia by boat. The sad reality is that none of this waste, none of this mismanagement and none of this loss of life need ever have occurred. Why? Because we gave the Labor government the solution when they were elected in November 2007. We gave them the greatest gift that can ever be given to a political party in this country. We solved Australia's border protection problems.

The coalition is on the record as always supporting offshore processing at Nauru and at Manus Island. That was our policy and it continues to be our policy. To those on the other side who want to say that this is Nauru mark II, you are incorrect. You are adopting the coalition's policy in this regard. For those on the other side who want to say that there was razor wire on Nauru under the coalition government, that is just blatantly wrong. For those who want to say that the IOM is now involved under Labor, well, guess what? The IOM was also involved when the coalition was in power and was operating Nauru.

There is one fundamental difference though between what the coalition did and what the Labor Party, by this bill, are proposing, and that is the issue of indefinite detention. Whilst this Labor policy is supported by the coalition, we do acknowledge that asylum seekers may end up being in indefinite detention on Nauru. They were never indefinitely detained under coalition policy. Under the Houston report and under this legislation, they may well be indefinitely detained by this government.

Australians can only imagine what might have not occurred had the government not unwound the coalition government's proven border protection policies. The Labor Party could not help themselves. Even as late as 27 June this year, Minister Bowen was on the record as stating:

The Opposition says … that a detention centre on Nauru would work as a disincentive. We disagree …

Then on 28 June 2012, the minister said:

It has been a matter of record in this House that Nauru, a Christmas Island style detention centre further away, will not break the people smugglers' business model.

We have now done a full circle. An expert panel had to be commissioned by a government that lacked the political will and the political judgment to take the necessary steps and make the hard decisions in this portfolio area—decisions that the Howard government took when they were faced with a very similar situation in the early 2000s. The government now have the expert panel's report that effectively endorses the coalition's policy on border protection.

The Houston report has given the green light to Nauru and it has given the red light to Malaysia. In relation to Malaysia, the expert report panel made it clear that Malaysia, as proposed by the government, does not have sufficient protections. The Houston panel said that very, very clearly: the Malaysian people-swap protections under Labor do not measure up. It is something that the expert panel has said. It is something that the High Court has said. And it is something that the coalition have consistently said and that is why at all times we have opposed the government's Malaysian people-swap deal.

Australians have to wonder why we are debating this legislation today when we could have been debating it years ago. Australians have to wonder why the government over the last four years have consistently pretended that Nauru would not work. Why did the government invent and propagate the wild and indeed false claims that Nauru would cost billions? Why the stubbornness that has now done so much damage to Australia? Too much has been lost over the past four years and Australians are right to continue to question the disastrous judgement of a Prime Minister who continually gets it so wrong.

Today, the shadow minister for immigration has written to Minister Bowen on the costings for Nauru. We undertook to examine the costings for Nauru and our costings come in considerably lower than those of the government's. Today, we have written to the government and shown them how we believe that Nauru should be developed. We will be watching the government very, very closely as to how they spend taxpayers' money in this regard. They did not heed us in relation to what we have been saying about Nauru over the last four years and they have been proven wrong. Please do not now disregard the evidence of our costings again because of sheer stubbornness. If they can properly implement Nauru based on the Nauru costings that the coalition have, I would advocate to them to take on this advice.

The coalition's policies on border protection have been proven to work. Ms Gillard has been proven to be wrong about Nauru. She continues to be proven to be wrong when it comes to temporary protection visas and turning back the boats. In supporting this legislation, the coalition have made it very, very clear to the government that we support this legislation, but it is only one step forward under a three-pronged approach. They will not get the Howard government results if they do not fully implement the Howard government's policies.

On the implementation, the coalition know that if the Labor Party, to appease its own left wing, turn Nauru into a perceived soft option, the people smugglers will continue to recognise Labor's lack of genuine commitment. The people smugglers' business model will not be broken and they will continue their criminal activities, and the boats will continue to arrive. In government, the coalition will ensure that the management of offshore processing on Nauru is appropriate to protect the rights of asylum seekers, but we will not allow Nauru to be seen by the people smugglers as a soft option.

As a member of the coalition, I welcome the government's monumental backflip in relation to border protection policy and the fact that they have finally decided to agree with Nauru as an offshore processing destination and Manus Island as an offshore processing destination, and adopt what has proven to be good coalition policy. Whilst the coalition support the legislation today, I remind those on the other side that we in no way step back from our policies and our commitment to the Australian public that, if and when we are elected, we will reintroduce temporary protection visas and we will turn back the boats where it is safe to do so. These are the policies that worked under Mr Howard and these are the policies that will work again.

These proven policies were not introduced in the last six weeks; they are the result of more than 10 years of successful implementation and continual refinement under a government that took its role and responsibility in relation to border protection very seriously, and those policies will be reinstated by a future coalition government. The coalition have been consistent on border protection and the Australian public acknowledge that and they know that. They trust us when it comes to protecting Australia's borders.

The contrast they have is this: a Labor government that has held every position under the sun when it comes to protecting Australian borders. The Australian people simply cannot trust Labor. Australia is only in the mess it is in today because Labor, when it was given a solution, took deliberate and wilful steps to create a problem. History now records what has been the result of that problem, and Labor has adopted failed policy after failed policy in a pathetic attempt to clean up their tragic mess. (Time expired)

6:59 pm

Photo of Richard Di NataleRichard Di Natale (Victoria, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I am deeply saddened to be speaking today to oppose this Migration Legislation Amendment (Regional Processing and Other Measures) Bill 2012 because I believe that we, the parliament of Australia, are making a grave mistake—a mistake that generations to come will find very difficult to understand. I do know that this is a tough decision and I do know that there are no easy answers. The movement of people fleeing persecution and seeking protection in foreign lands is a problem that has occurred for many centuries; it is a problem that has escalated in recent decades; and it is an issue that is far beyond the power of this parliament to resolve.

I also know that there are many good people in this place who have wrestled with their conscience, who have listened to the arguments and have formed the view that punishment is necessary because they believe it acts as a deterrent to others and, in doing so, might prevent deaths. They are wrong, but they are driven by good intentions.

I do fear, however, that there are also many others in this place who believe that punishment is necessary, not because they have ever believed that refugees have a right to seek our protection or that we as a wealthy domestic sanctuary should provide protection to these people. We have in this country a long and sometimes deeply shameful history when it comes to race and it is hard for me to escape the fact that race is one part of the equation when it comes to immigration policy. 'We decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come' has nothing to do with concern for the most vulnerable people on this planet and everything to do with the sorts of cold-hearted and sometimes racist attitudes that have driven this debate for more than a decade.

As a young doctor I learned about the Hippocratic oath, the key tenet of which is: first do no harm. This piece of legislation violates that key principle. We hear much about 'deterrence'. That has become the word around which this debate has been framed, but let us call it what it is. What we are really saying is that it is acceptable to inflict punishment, to inflict suffering, to inflict misery on one group of people in an effort to try and change the behaviour of another group of people. That violates that key principle, the principle I have always held dear: first do no harm.

If what we were being asked to do today was to turn our backs on people who need our protection, that in and of itself would be bad enough. But we are not only being asked to do that; we are being asked to actively inflict more pain and suffering on the lives of some of the most vulnerable people on this planet. Imagine at the age of 16 being on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border and watching your family being removed from a bus and being shot before your eyes. Imagine returning home and being told: 'You're next.' Imagine then fleeing your culture, your traditions, your language, your friends and family, arriving in a foreign country, finding your way across the seas in a perilous journey and then being told that you will be imprisoned, detained, with no prospect of your claim being assessed and processed in a timely way and not knowing what your future holds. That is what we are being asked to vote on today with this bill. That alone is cause not to support it. But there is evidence that that sort of punishment, as severe and as harsh as it may be, will not work, will not stop people from seeking sanctuary in this country and may in fact make their suffering and the suffering of others worse.

This is a debate that has been based on assertion, not evidence. We now are in an era of post-truth politics, where if you say something often enough and for long enough it becomes the truth—and so it is with the mantra 'We stopped the boats.' There is good evidence that there were a number of factors outside of the control of the Australian government that resulted in the changes in boat arrivals to this country. In fact, we saw one of the greatest tragedies in Australian waters in our history with the sinking of the SIEVX well after many of the harshest elements of the Pacific solution were introduced. This is a case of correlation, not causality. Some people in the opposition need a lesson in the distinction between correlation and causality. Just because something happens while you are in government does not mean that you are responsible for it.

Of course, there is the question of whether the practical nature of the solution put in front of us will stop people from coming here. We have already heard accounts from people waiting in places such as Malaysia and Indonesia who have told us that this will not change their decision because the alternative is something they simply cannot contemplate. Think about that. You are fleeing a situation where you face near certain death, you are sitting in limbo where you have no access to education or health care, no prospect of seeing your family, the potential for imprisonment and the potential that already exists of dying at sea, and a change that says, 'We will process you and if that claim is successful then at some point you will be welcomed into Australia.' Why would you choose not to make that trip?

Perhaps more concerning is the evidence that was presented to us that in fact it may make matters worse, that in some instances, in a small number of cases where people's behaviour may change, they may choose to take a riskier journey. We have heard evidence now of trips to New Zealand. We know that parts of the Tamil community are arriving in Canada. We know that simply because people do not drown in Australian waters does not diminish the fact that they drown and die elsewhere. If it results in simply an outsourcing of the misery and suffering occurring in Australian waters, then surely that is not a reason to pursue this policy.

I heard from Senator Cameron earlier about his response to the Greens' position. I will not respond in detail to his comments. I know that his words, like many others in his position, come from a place of anger. I can only imagine what it would be like to spend a good part of your life arguing against a policy, then to argue within your own party for taking some time to reflect and think about whether this is the best course of action for the nation, only to be denied and, worse still, to be forced to come to this place and defend that legislation. His anger is understandable.

Much has been spoken about compromise. I heard that quite a lot from Senator Cameron. Compromise is an interesting notion when it comes to a debate like this. It somehow implies that the truth lies between two political viewpoints, that the right thing to do lies between two political decisions. The truth is that the right thing to do, the moral thing to do, has no relationship whatsoever with the views of what one part of politics might say or what the other side of politics might say. The truth is independent of what we say in this place, and in fact in some instances compromise means no more and no less than a betrayal of the things that we believe in. So I know that that has been the mantra from some people within the Labor Party and within the opposition and, indeed, from within the media, but I say to them that compromise means nothing if it achieves an outcome that results in more pain, more suffering and more misery for some of our most vulnerable members of the community.

I too, like Senator Cameron, wanted to take some time to reflect on what other groups might have said about this position. I was fortunate enough to be in a cross-party meeting where we heard presentations from a number of people and a number of groups, groups like Amnesty International, the Human Rights Commission, academics and others. We have subsequently heard from groups like the ACTU, the Uniting Church and a number of other people working within this area of public policy. What has become clear is that they believe that we as a nation are making a grave mistake. We have heard much about the Houston report and the expert panel, but let us not forget that that panel ignored many of the submissions made by groups like Amnesty and others that recommended that we take a different path. They too are experts and I listen to what they have to say.

I have also heard a lot of talk about the notion of finding a solution to this problem. We need to ask ourselves: who is this solution for? Are we trying to solve a political problem or are we trying to solve an issue that affects the lives of refugees? What I have not heard is people asking refugees and asylum seekers themselves what is in their interest. Many of us purport to act in their interest—well, if we are doing that why not ask what is in their interest? We do not do that because the answer provides us with an uncomfortable truth. They do not want us to go down this path. The reality is that this is a solution to what is a domestic political problem and what we have got here is a political response, a political solution.

I know that this is a tough decision for many people in this place. I understand that. But I do fear what will come as a result of the action that we are taking here today: the memories of people protesting in detention centres in far-flung places, the memories of young children scarred by their experiences in long-term detention. I fear that what we are seeing here is not a solution but in fact the creation of a terrible, terrible problem. I do understand that many people in this place are genuinely torn. I do understand that people have wrestled with their conscience. I do understand that. But we need to understand that as a rich and wealthy nation, being able to offer protection is a sign of strength and not weakness, that being able to offer a helping hand rather than turning our back, is a principle by which we should all live our lives. We should be motivated to do what is right, not what is politically expedient. And we should be motivated to compromise only when compromise brings us closer to that aim, not when it means that we can sweep a very, very difficult and genuinely discomfiting debate from the pages of the newspapers.

In closing, I believe that we as a nation are making a tremendous mistake. I think that what we must do now is everything we can to ensure that this piece of legislation is improved. It is why the Greens have an amendment that puts a time line on the time that will be spent in mandatory detention. The thought of a young 12-year-old going to Nauru and returning from that place as an adult is one that is, for me, far too difficult to contemplate. I hope that we can look at that amendment and at least make a bad piece of legislation slightly better. I do hope that we are not here again in the lead-up to another election campaign, trying to defend the indefensible.

7:15 pm

Photo of Fiona NashFiona Nash (NSW, National Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Regional Education) Share this | | Hansard source

I too rise to speak on the Migration Legislation Amendment (Regional Processing and Other Measures) Bill 2012. I do not think that there is anybody in this place who does not react to tragic loss of life, and we certainly have seen that. I think it has affected everybody in this place and, certainly, people right across the nation. There is no doubt that this is a very, very difficult issue.

But I think what has been so concerning for the Australian people is the inability of this Labor government to do anything about it to date. That has really concerned people. People I talk to—mostly across regional areas, where I spend most of my time—have been so concerned with the government's complete inability to deal with the issue. It has affected a lot of people, and certainly they have had no confidence that the government has been able to do anything to try and deal with this issue.

Let us not forget: when we were in office this situation had all but been resolved. When the coalition left office there was a handful of people in detention. We had policies in place that had acted as a deterrent for the people smugglers, that significantly slowed down the boats and, indeed, it left us with a handful of people in detention. This is the important point that many people have not raised and which has been missed over the last few years, I think. It is the fact that the Labor government chose to change that policy. They chose to change the policy that had been working to stop the tide, to stop the flow of the boats coming to the country. We need to recognise that it was this Labor government that made that change.

We have seen in recent times a lot of focus and a lot of spotlight being put on the coalition—to date, from previous times until now—that we would not compromise and that we would not agree with what the government wanted to do, and it was all the coalition's fault that there could not be any kind of resolution to this issue when it came to things like the Malaysian solution. But if the government had never changed the policies in the first place we would not have been in that position. It was not the coalition's fault that the government's policy in this area simply was not working. We were not going to sign up to a plan with a country that was not a signatory to the international refugee conventions. We were not going to do that, and I think that was absolutely the right thing to do.

I think there was probably a lot of headshaking across the nation today and yesterday when we saw the change from the government in this policy. And we are supporting it—there is no doubt about that. It very much reflects what the coalition had in place. But the headshaking I refer to is the utter confusion and dismay from the Australian people that the Labor government and the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, were so stubborn that they refused to change the policy to a policy that was going to work simply because of their stubbornness. One of my colleagues in the other place—indeed, it was the shadow foreign minister—last night referred to the fact that the government was stupid. I think she was absolutely correct because the definition of stupidity is doing things the same way and expecting a different outcome.

That is exactly what the government has done over the last period of years. They kept doing things the same; they refused to change to the policy that had been proven to work, and now it has been put forward by the Houston report that it will work—what they see will work. I think the Australian people are absolutely dismayed that it has taken this long—this long!—for the government to bring in legislation to this place, under good advice, that will work and that will do the right thing by all those people. It will act as a deterrent, reflecting the coalition policy and what we have been asking the government to do for the last four years.