Thursday, 16 August 2012
Migration Legislation Amendment (Regional Processing and Other Measures) Bill 2012; Second Reading
Prior to question time, I had been speaking on the Migration Legislation Amendment (Regional Processing and Other Measures) Bill 2012. In closing, I have some comments to add by way of context. We get so rapidly lost in this debate and it has been chased down into a dark corner. Once in a while it is worth pulling back to take a look at what is happening in the world that we are part of. In 2010, the number of asylum seekers arriving in Australian waters by boat was about 6½ thousand. But that very same year, the UNHCR estimates that there were 43.7 million forcibly displaced people in the world. That includes refugees but also internally displaced persons—those in camps or those on the move. I repeat: 43.7 million people are forcibly displaced in the world. So 0.014 per cent of them came to Australia by boat. After visiting Australia this February, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, urged Australians to appreciate the scale of the humanitarian crisis that they are trying to contend with and the very small—not inconsequential but, on a global scale, small—nature of our role in it. Against the setting of 57,000 people reaching Malta and Italy by boat in 2011 and another 100,000 asylum seekers reaching Yemen by boat, Mr Guterres said:
It is very difficult for me as High Commissioner, who has to deal with the whole world, to be convinced that 6000 is a very important problem.
I understand that in the psychology of Australia, the collective psychology, this is an important problem … but you need to understand also the global perspective.
He called for moral leadership and he said the risk of a populist approach by politicians was that vastly exaggerated fears 'all too easily manifest into statements and acts of xenophobia against foreigners—be they refugees, migrants or others'. That sounds familiar, doesn't it?
It is not to say that for these 6,000 people the high commissioner referred we are not primarily responsible, once they start making their way here, to make sure that they are protected, to make sure that they are not risking their lives. And if they have set out on these voyages in unseaworthy vessels with crews who are not always competent to pilot the boats in the first place, it is a primary responsibility to make sure that they are not abandoned, that distress calls are relayed immediately to emergency services, in this case the naval personnel, both here and in international waters and the Indonesian authorities. That is our responsibility. We have put a number of propositions forward. Senators Milne and Hanson-Young have detailed exhaustively what we believe should happen now without recourse to this parliament, without even being involved in how degraded this debate has become, because these things do not require legislative effect to happen now and we can be providing much safer pathways for people who do make these voyages.
While the government jumps on implementing the findings of the Houston report, or the very narrow interpretation of what those findings were, I want to recall that six months ago the inquiry into the immigration detention system made a number of findings that have simply been ignored and set aside. Just in March this year, that inquiry recommended that asylum seekers be detained for no longer than 90 days. And a majority of the joint committee found that asylum seekers who pass initial health, character and security checks should immediately get a bridging visa or be moved into community detention. One of the reasons for those findings is that indefinite detention is damaging to mental health. People are killing themselves in our immigration detention system; they are self-harming; they are sewing their lips together. They have nowhere to go, they have no idea when they are going to be released, and it is making them mentally ill. This is now a very well understood, if we are concerned about saving lives. I will not throw accusations across the chamber that members on this side do not care. Everybody cares. Nobody wants to see people drowning. I think one of the things we should have done a long time to ago was to turn down the temperature in here. Nobody wants people to die, but nor do I think anybody in their right mind wants people to go out of their minds in indefinite detention behind barbed wire, for no crime, for undetermined periods of time—and it could be forever—as a deterrent effect for those left behind. It is not only morally bankrupt, but the logic is not there. It is not going to work.
The question that I will rest my contribution on is: what happens in six or eight months time when we have got people behind cages in Nauru, on Manus and around the region, and the boats keep coming? What is going to happen when the bumper sticker that Mr Abbott has been trading under falls off the bumper? We will then realise that we have been having the wrong debate. We must protect people who try and make these voyages. We must remember why they make them in the first place. Most of all, we have to lose this delusion that locking people up is going to be more of a deterrent than the things that they are fleeing.
This debate will have to be reopened, it will have to be resumed, if this bill does not fix anything. We have stumbled down a very dark rabbit hole on a false premise that border security is somehow related to how we treat desperate people fleeing desperate circumstances. It is not just about upholding international legal obligations, although of course that is very important. But if it is not going to work then why are we doing it? If it is just a headline for today or tomorrow then not only are we selling out and doing an enormous disservice to the people who come here but it is doing damage to how we perceive ourselves as a country. We are better than this. I will be voting against this bill when we put it to the vote later this afternoon.
I get sick and tired of feigned emotion like that exhibited by the lead speaker for the Greens and of the illogical arguments of the Greens and, prior to today, of the Labor Party as well. While there are some Greens senators here, can I ask them a question. We take in a certain number of refugees. We can argue all day about whether it should be 13,000 or 20,000 or 27,000 or five million, but whatever it is we have an upward figure. The question is: what do you say to one of the 250,000 refugees living in a squalid refugee camp in Breidjing in Chad when they are next on the list? They are following the UNHCR rules, they have been determined to be refugees by the UNHCR and they are sitting in that squalid camp awaiting their turn, but every time some wealthy person who can pay $10,000 a head—the sort of money people in a refugee camp in Chad could not even dream of—comes out of the system and lands illegally in Australia, that person languishing in the squalid camp in Chad has to wait another year.
Senator Ludlam was talking about a fair go, that Australia is recognised for a fair go. What is fair to those living in those squalid refugee camps in Chad if every time someone comes here ignoring the system, jumping the queue—and I will say it and say it again—then someone else suffers? That is why I have always said—and I have said this many a time before—we have to discourage those who would enter Australia illegally, jumping the queue, and be fair to all of those who have been determined to be genuine refugees. These people coming by boats are not refugees; they are asylum seekers. Their determination, their status, has yet to be determined by either Australia or the UNHCR. But there are people who have been determined as being genuine refugees living in squalid camps all over the world, waiting their turn to get to the promised land of Australia or New Zealand or Canada or Britain or the United States. But every time we take someone out of the system then they have to wait longer.
I want someone from the Greens to tell me how that is fair, how that is humane. You have certain rules and everybody follows them, and I can tell you that every one of those people in the refugee camps in Chad would be barracking for us. In fact I have to say that at the Brisbane show on the weekend when I was at the LNP booth there, I actually had some of those refugees come up to me and finger-chest me and said, 'You tell Tony Abbott he is right. We had to wait our turn. Everybody should follow the rules.' So that it is why I am here. Please get someone from the Greens. Get Senator Hanson-Young back and let her tell me what is fair about a system where those who have been waiting for five, six and 10 years in squalid camps should be put back because someone has decided to pay a criminal to get them to the top of the queue.
There are around 11 million refugees in Australia and the figures change each year. What do the Greens want us to do? Do they want us to look after them all, to take in 11 million? That would be great. I would love to be able to do it. But Australia cannot afford it. This government is going very close to breaking our country already just as the Labor government did in Queensland. It is going to be an even longer time before we can be more generous. I would like to see the Australia's refugee intake go up beyond the 13,000-odd that it currently is, but it does cost money. I know that under the Gillard government we have been wasting money by the bucketload in any number of ways. One of them is in preparing Christmas Island and a dozen other places around Australia as detention camps and employing all of these guards and people to look after them. The budget has already blown out and it would be better, I suggest, put into getting genuine refugees into the system and allowing us to put up the 13,000-odd number. But they have to be paid for and Australia has to be able to afford it. Per capita, Australia does pretty well with its refugee intake.
There is a lot more I would like to say on this bill but we are keen to get at least this small step forward through the parliament, so I and others have been asked to restrict our comment and I intend to do that. But I did want to speak to associate myself with the comments made by all of my colleagues on this side. This is not the solution. It is one-third of the solution, one part of three that have been proved to work. The first is offshore processing, which this bill will do, so we support it. But the other two, the temporary protection visas and the turning the boats around where it is safe to do so, should be implemented. I do not think this is going to be as effective as it should be.
One thing I do agree with Senator Ludlam on is that we will be back debating this. The Labor Party took six years to admit they were wrong, a humiliating backdown, but at least they are going in the right direction now and that is good. But we will be back here, because it will not work without the other two legs of the three-legged approach to stopping it. I do not have time, but I do not think that it needs me to explain how those three elements actually stopped the flow of illegal immigrants to Australia all those years ago. It worked. Why Ms Gillard was persuaded by the Greens to that policy is distressing—I know why: because she needs their support. To dump that policy that was proved to work just distresses me. We are going back to the Howard years, thankfully, but we are only one-third of the way. We need to do the other two parts and I look forward to the day when we can do that so it does provide a fair go for all of the refugees who unfortunately exist on our planet.
The subject matter of the Migration Legislation Amendment (Regional Processing and Other Measures) Bill 2012—people-smuggling, asylum seekers, their humane and fair treatment, the loss of life at sea—presents a complex and diabolical problem. This is not an easy decision to make. I have always preferred the idea of onshore processing. I believe that when people come to our country seeking asylum, we take on the responsibility for their welfare while they are processed. But since late 2001, at least 964 asylum seekers have perished at sea. They are the ones we know about. It is the ultimate tragedy that people who are so desperate have risked everything and lost their lives. We all do not want to see another life lost in this way. If this legislation will go some way towards achieving that aim, then I cannot in good conscience oppose it.
What is proposed is far from the ideal option, but it is the one that is before us today. It is a classic Hobson's choice. Right now we have to decide to take it or leave it. The asylum-seeker debate is one fraught with passion and angst. While many of us in this place may have drastically different opinions, I do not believe for a second that any of us do not realise the heavy responsibility that we face today with this legislation. Not one of us wants to see desperate people hurt or abused or damaged further. I will be moving a second reading amendment calling on the government to commission a further report by the expert panel on asylum seekers within 12 months of the commencement of this bill.
Mr Acting Deputy President, I am very grateful for your procedural guidance and I will do so
The report that is proposed in the second reading amendment will look at any human rights or other issues that have arisen from this legislation, as well as considering whether it has been successful in reducing the number of people attempting to reach Australia by boat. The government will also be required to release and publish the report within 14 days of its receipt.
My intention with this amendment is to put in place some sort of safeguard to make sure we are on the right track and that this legislation is achieving its aims. It will also ensure that there is further debate on these issues and that this legislation needs to be constantly monitored to be scrutinised properly. Many would say this is only the first step, because we need to make sure that appropriate regional cooperation is in place to make sure that this proposal operates properly.
Human rights issues are, of course, vitally important. Australia still has a moral and ethical responsibility for the people who are moved offshore under Australian legislation. We must take every step to ensure that people are treated fairly and humanely and with dignity and respect. A further review of this legislation is also necessary to make sure it is acting as an appropriate deterrent for people smugglers and those desperate enough to try and reach Australia by boat. The ultimate aim we are trying to achieve is fewer people risking their lives in this dangerous crossing, and we need to know that this legislation is working.
I also want to make it clear that we should not consider the passing of this bill as the end of the issue. The government has already agreed to increase Australia's humanitarian intake from 13,000 to 20,000 places a year, rising to 27,000 within five years. I strongly support this. We are a big country with a big heart. We have the capacity to welcome more refugees and we should exercise that capacity.
Even if we succeed in reducing the number of people undertaking the dangerous journey to Australia by sea, we cannot forget that it does not reduce the number of refugees in the world or even in our region. We have a responsibility to do all we can for these people; we must make sure that this increase does not make us complacent, and that the knowledge of 'doing good' makes us forget those waiting in offshore in camps.
Clearly one of the lessons from the past experience under the Pacific Solution was that protracted, prolonged displacement in far-flung islands of the Pacific very rapidly causes serious and long-term psycho-social harm to people. We do not want to go back to those experiences.
But we can also only imagine the irreparable mental harm refugees suffer when they witness loved ones dying at sea.
The government has already stated that it will work with the high commissioner on the details of setting up regional processing centres, and that is a good thing. I support the government's position on this and I strongly encourage it to begin this consultation as soon as possible. I also want to note the comments of the 2010 Australian of the Year, Professor Patrick McGorry—an expert in mental health, and a person for whom I have a very high regard. Professor McGorry was not afraid to speak out against the government both during his time as Australian of the Year and more recently, and he, too, has very serious concerns about the mental health impacts of offshore processing. These are wise voices, and we can listen to them and learn from them.
We also cannot forget the many legal issues surrounding this debate. I acknowledge that the government is seeking to resolve some of these issues, including the treatment of minors. We also need to focus on appropriate sanctions for people smugglers—not so much the crews, who are often under duress, and we have seen evidence of that more recently—but the individuals, the masterminds who are operating these networks and who profit from human misery. These aspects are vital to the functioning of this legislation.
I support the steps that the government has taken so far, and I call on them to continue to be open and transparent with the Australian people as far as these difficult legal issues are concerned. This is a debate that has affected the entire country for many years. We all feel deeply about what should or should not happen, and now that we are working towards a possible solution we must recognise the personal stake many Australians have in this argument.
I would like to take this opportunity to recognise the work done by the expert panel on asylum seekers, comprising the former head of the defence forces, Angus Houston, refugee advocate, Paris Aristotle, and Professor Michael L'estrange, the former head of foreign affairs. I think it is a strong endorsement that Paris Aristotle has supported the recommendations of the report, given his long history of supporting refugees in Australia. I understand that this was a very difficult issue for him. Given his previous strong opposition to offshore processing, some have criticised him for changing his approach. But in reality he faced the same challenge we are facing today: weighing up the risks of more deaths at sea versus the need to support and accept those seeking asylum. In an article in the Sydney Morning Herald yesterday Mr Aristotle summed up the dilemma:
When you're confronted with that reality—
of deaths at sea—
… and you have the capacity to try and construct a different way that would prevent that but, at the same time, provide thousands more people with protection, and you decide not to do it for whatever reason, then I can't really live with myself on that basis.
I don't want to stay awake at night thinking about this issue and imagining how terrified a young kid or a woman would be in a violent ocean, slipping below the waterline with no one around to save them or protect them. The images of that are just too horrific.
He is right. It is just too horrific.
Mr Aristotle went on to stress the importance of a regional framework to replace the current chaos and to establish a better and more humane way of dealing with asylum seekers. I agree with him. We must not forget that this is only one stage of an incredibly complex issue and an incredibly complex process, and I hope that the current and any future governments will commit to seeing it through. But as Mr Aristotle said:
There are risks that we're going to have to monitor carefully, and work hard to ensure that they don't result in damaging people. But there are greater risks with doing nothing.
I believe the intentions of this legislation are, on balance, good, and that a further report by the expert panel will give us an indication of whether the bill can live up to that intention.
I want to emphasise that this is not the end of this debate there is more, much more to be done. Offshore processing must not be a case of 'out of sight, out of mind' because this is ultimately not about plans, or intentions, or numbers, or statistics, or pictures on a screen or political debates. This is about our fellow human beings, and it is our duty to do our best by them.
I am not closing the debate on the Migration Legislation Amendment (Regional Processing and Other Measures) Bill 2012. Twelve years ago I had the honour of being Premier of New South Wales, charged with the responsibility for the Sydney Olympics. Together, with the support of all of the people of Australia, we helped present to the world what came to be called the spirit of Sydney 2000. It was that spirit—the spirit of the people of Sydney and the people of Australia—that brought the games to such glorious success. We were able, with good heart, to emphasise the welcoming and generous character of the people of Australia. We told the world of our pride in our diversity.
That spirit was based on a profound reality—the great changes that had transformed this nation as a result of the bipartisanship which had prevailed on all matters relating to immigration for more than 40 years, going back to the prime ministerships of Harold Holt, John Gorton and Gough Whitlam. Here let me recall how that bipartisanship prevailed even in the bitter period after 1975 when the Fraser government had to deal with the issue of the Vietnamese boat people. To the credit of all parties and to the enduring benefit of Australia, Australian humanity and the essential decency of the Australian people, those policies won over party politics. Could there be a finer example of where bipartisanship and true national interest went hand in hand? That is the first perspective I ask the Senate to take towards the legislation arising from the Houston report. When it comes to the response of the Australian people, when they make their considered and informed judgement, I will back the spirit of Sydney 2000 over the spirit of Tampa 2001 any day.
My second perspective is Australia's special position as a nation of immigrants. Nobody disputes the fact that it is for Australia and its government, parliament and people to decide who comes here. But our responsibility for decisions about immigration, including refugees, is only part of the story. The overwhelming majority of us belong to families whose members as individuals made the historic decision to come here—a quarter of us within this generation. Australia is made up of millions of individual stories, and some of the most inspiring of those Australian stories are told by refugees and the Australian children of refugees. Australia should be the last country in the world whose political leaders or media should seek to demonise or dehumanise refugees from any quarter.
The third perspective is Australia's international standing and reputation and, let me emphasise, our international obligations. We have accepted these obligations for more than half a century—binding obligations under the 1951 refugees convention and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness. We have solemnly accepted these obligations, and they cannot be treated as something optional, to be set aside when inconvenient. We are bound equally by international covenants such as the Law of the Sea. Through our domestic implementation, these are all laws of this Commonwealth as much as any other legislation passed in this parliament. In the context of international laws and covenants by which we are bound, when you have said, 'Stop the boats,' you have said nothing. As a significant maritime nation, this island continent depends more than any other country on the order and stability underwritten by the observance of international laws and covenants.
After the United States and Canada, Australia has the largest annual humanitarian intake. Last financial year our intake was nearly 13,750. Including this year's expected intake, over the past five year our intake amounts to nearly 68,000 people. In the last 65 years, Australia has resettled over three-quarters of a million people through our humanitarian intake. As the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, said during his address to the Lowy Institute for International Policy this year:
Australia’s continued commitment to taking in thousands of refugees each year, often from some of the most protracted situations in Africa and Asia, is to be commended. On a per-capita basis, Australia is UNHCR’s biggest resettlement country.
In 2011, Australia was the eighth largest donor to UNHCR, providing a total of $49 million, and our contribution to it has been increasing annually. Last year our core contribution was up by 11 per cent. Next year our contribution will increase by 12.5 per cent.
At present there are 43.7 million displaced people around the world, almost twice the population of Australia. Of these, more than 10 million are refugees. Four point three million people were newly displaced last year. That is a record for forced displacement around the world. Push factors are very real. The changing nature of forced displacement is testing the whole international humanitarian system. The whole situation is growing in complexity. According to Mr Guterres:
Conflict and upheaval, the traditional drivers of displacement, are increasingly compounded … by a number of inter-related and mutually reinforcing global trends. These include population growth, urbanization, food and water scarcity, and, most dramatically, the effects of climate change.
Two point seven million people have fled Afghanistan, 1.4 million have fled Iraq and 1.1 million have left Somalia. More than a quarter of Somalia's population has been displaced by conflict, violence, drought and famine. The UNHCR estimates—this is a very current example—that one million people have already been internally displaced in Syria and 1.5 million people inside Syria are in need of assistance. A hundred and fifty thousand people have fled Syria. They are living in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq. Just consider this: close to a quarter of them are children. Closer to home we have seen pressures in the region. In Myanmar, for example, at the current time poverty and discrimination are leading to the movement of ethnic minorities through that country and beyond it.
Few refugees return to their country of origin. Last year, for example, out of an estimated global refugee population of 10.4 million, only around 532,000 were repatriated voluntarily. That was the third lowest number of voluntary returns of refugees in a decade. As Mr Guterres said in his speech on the 60th anniversary of the refugee convention in December last year:
Resettlement opportunities also still fall far short of requirements, with spaces available for only ten per cent of the nearly 800,000 refugees needing resettlement worldwide today.
A protracted refugee situation is one where at least 25,000 refugees have been in exile for more than five years. If you use that definition, nearly two-thirds of the world's refugees—over six million people—are in protracted refugee situations. The burden of this is falling on less developed countries with less capacity than Australia to shoulder such a burden. The largest refugee-hosting countries in the world last year were Pakistan, Iran and Syria. It is estimated that Pakistan, for example, hosts 1.7 million refugees.
The government has taken steps to pave the way for this bill. The Prime Minister spoke with the President of Nauru and Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea on Tuesday. We already have an MOU in place with PNG, and PNG's prime minister, Peter O'Neill, has confirmed with the Prime Minister that his government's position on this remains unchanged. I spoke with the PNG foreign minister on Tuesday, and he reaffirmed PNG's willingness to work with Australia in developing responses to this challenging regional problem, including the establishment of a regional offshore processing centre on Manus Island. On Tuesday I instructed officials from my department to proceed immediately to PNG and Nauru to discuss next steps with government officials on implementation. Our High Commissioner to Nauru has spoken to the President of Nauru, who is supportive of Nauru's involvement in offshore processing arrangements. A reconnaissance team of officials will also visit there later this week to discuss implementation of processing centres in these locations.
But let me be clear: this is part of a larger plan. Mr Aristotle, whose work is so appreciated and observations are so valuable on this matter, articulated this plan:
… we want to build a system and the centrepiece of this is not Nauru and Manus. Everybody has been focusing on those things because of the politics, but the centrepiece is all about creating a proper and fairer system in the region for people to apply to - one that would be safe and produce outcomes in a more timely way
He said that in the Age on Wednesday. This is exactly what this government has been doing. As co-chairs of the Bali process, we are already working closely with Indonesia through the recently established Bali Process Regional Support Office to develop initiatives for cooperation under the regional cooperation framework.
The Houston report offers a course of reason, compassion and integrity. The people of Australia rightly expect us to protect the integrity of our borders. They expect us to preserve the integrity of Australia's international reputation. They expect us to observe the integrity of our humanitarian obligations. They expect us to maintain the integrity of our Defence Forces and their proper role in the protection and integrity of our shores. It goes without saying that in such a complex matter there will be—there must be—compromise, revisions, changes and flexibility. But compromise along the lines of the Houston report and this legislation does not mean any loss of integrity in pursuit of our national, regional and international interests and objectives, nor do I for one deny the legitimate contest of the political parties in this or any other matter. It is the lifeblood of a parliamentary democracy. But I do believe that we shall best serve Australia and best help save lives if we return to the spirit which informed the debate and moulded policy during the last three decades of the 20th century. In this spirit I commend the bill.
How often have we heard it said that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. That, I think, is what has characterised this debate, which tragically has waged now for four years and which tragically has cost an unknowable number of lives. But we do know that that number is in excess of 600. It may be many more.
I do not have any doubt about the good intentions of Senator Chris Evans when, I remember, he stood up in this chamber in August 2008, almost exactly four years ago, and said how proud he was to be announcing the abandonment of what he called the inhumane policies of the Howard government. I do not doubt his good intentions and I do not doubt his good faith.
But good intentions are not enough. If you are to govern, you have to make hard decisions; and, sadly, four years ago the government, then led by Mr Kevin Rudd, found itself incapable of making a hard decision. It made a self-indulgent decision. It decided in the name of a phony appeal to humanitarian values to abandon policies which demonstrably worked and to instate policies which I am bound to say the opposition warned at the time would imperil lives. And what is even worse and more culpable is the fact that with the passage of the years, as it has become clear beyond argument that a terrible policy error was made in August of 2008, that the warnings the opposition sounded in August 2008 had tragically turned out to be true, this government, under two successive prime ministers—Mr Rudd and Ms Gillard—adhered stubbornly to those failed policies as people were drowning and as Australia's borders came to be out of control.
Do you know, Mr Acting Deputy President, how many unlawful asylum seekers have come to Australia during the life of the Rudd and Gillard Labor governments? As of today, as best we can estimate, 22,718. And that does not include the more than 600 souls who perished at sea. The number of boats that have arrived since the election of the Labor government in the last less than five years is 389. In the six years during which the policies of the Howard government were in operation—the policies that Senator Evans was so proud, in the name of humanitarianism, to repeal—there were 16. That is fewer than three a year. Those figures are not in controversy; they are not in dispute. They are the empirical evidence of a catastrophic policy failure with unimaginable human consequences. Yet through four long years, under two prime ministers, this Labor government adhered stubbornly to that catastrophic policy failure.
I am glad that at least in respect of one of the three elements of Mr Howard's successful policies—that is, offshore processing and the reopening of the Nauru and Manus Island detention centres—the government has finally seen the light. I cannot begin to understand why the government still stubbornly refuses to adopt the other two of what has been called the three-legged stool of policies that as a suite, as a group of policies, worked—that is, temporary protection visas and turn-back of boats when it is safe to do so, as it sometimes though not commonly is. I do not understand why a government that admits that its policy has failed, admits it has to go back to the Howard government's policies, would adopt only one of the suite of three. But, nevertheless, the opposition supports this bill because it is some progress.
I do not want to rehash arguments that I made in this place when the matter was last debated before the winter recess, but I listened carefully and respectfully to Senator Bob Carr's contribution a moment ago and I could not help thinking to myself: 'Senator Carr, why didn't you say that seven weeks ago when the matter was last before the Senate? What has changed in seven weeks?' All that has happened is that the government at long last has realised that it was wrong, and yet it has lacked the grace to say so.
We as members of parliament are all fallible human beings. We all make mistakes. Governments of both political persuasions sometimes make mistakes. This was a particularly catastrophic mistake. It had unimaginably sad human consequences. But, having accepted that a mistake was made, having accepted the need to go back to at least one of the key Howard government policies after four years defiantly hurling every insult and all manner of abuse at the opposition for advancing the very argument the government now accepts, why wouldn't you at least have the grace to acknowledge to the Australian people that you got it wrong? I do not think people would think less of the government if they did that. I actually think they would think more of the government if they did that. But, in any event, we have had the same level of intellectual dishonesty after the backflip as we had for four years before the backflip.
The opposition welcomes the government's decision to restore one of the important elements of its successful policy. We hope it works. We have no confidence in the absence of the other two elements of what was a package of policies that it will work, but we hope it does. But we cannot, I am bound to say, have a great deal of respect for a government which, having embraced policies for four years in the face of all evidence and all reason, which it roundly and utterly condemned, now embraces that very policy and yet still decides to politicise this issue by attacking the opposition.
I would like to thank all honourable senators for their contributions to the second reading debate on the Migration Legislation Amendment (Regional Processing and Other Measures) Bill. I remind senators that this bill has two very clear purposes. The first purpose is to tackle people-smuggling and reduce the tragic loss of life at sea that is too often a consequence of people making the dangerous journey to Australia by boat. Secondly, these amendments will ensure that those people who arrive by boat will receive no advantage in their processing. The background to this bill is long and, in many ways, unfortunate. This bill was first introduced in the wake of a High Court decision that turned on its head the common understanding of the executive power to transfer offshore entry persons to third countries for processing of their claims. That decision belied past practice and belied the government's legal advice.
In response, the government moved immediately to legislate to restore to the executive the power that had previously been understood to exist. I remind senators that the rationale for these amendments was to tackle people smuggling, the distressing consequences of which we have seen repeatedly in the months since. The government believed, and believes, that arrangements such as the one struck with Malaysia are the best way of going about this. These arrangements ensure proper protections in the recipient country, provide more refugees in need with effective protection, and discharge Australia's moral and legal obligations.
However, the opposition sought to quibble with the Malaysia arrangement. So, instead of passing the government's previous bill, the coalition set about a course of obstructionism under the fig leaf of an amendment that Australia should only deal with countries that have signed the refugee convention. No matter that Nauru had not signed the convention when John Howard sent asylum seekers there from 2001; no matter that convention signatory countries include our largest source countries, Afghanistan and Iran, as well as countries such as Sudan and Somalia; no matter that the opposition's own policy is to tow asylum seeker boats back to Indonesia, which is not a signatory to the convention; and no matter that most of the countries in which most asylum seekers in our region wake up in the morning are not signatories to the convention. The government engaged in all manner of efforts to broker a compromise, in the same way that John Howard had enlisted Kim Beazley's cooperation in 2001 to permit the transfer of asylum seekers to Nauru.
I remind the Senate that, if Mr Beazley had not given the Howard government his support in 2001, there would have been no offshore processing at Nauru and no Pacific solution. The Senate needs to be reminded that, since January this year, the government, in the spirit of compromise, put offshore processing at Nauru on the table, as boats continued to arrive and lives were put at risk, and the current opposition continued to oppose in what has become a well-earned trademark of the word 'no'.
The opposition calculated that the national interest was secondary to political ambitions, to a desire to see boats arrive or not arrive for their own narrow interests. So the government sought a new approach; a fresh approach. We engaged a panel of undisputed experts to prepare a holistic report and provide recommendations on the best way forward. Former Chief of the Defence Force, Angus Houston, former secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and Liberal Party policy adviser, Michael L'Estrange, and a man who has made caring for refugees his life, Mr Paris Aristotle, worked intensively and single-mindedly on their report over the past six weeks. The government received their report on Monday and has given in principle support to all 22 recommendations.
As the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship summed up yesterday in the House, this key principle, which underpinned the Houston panel recommendations, means that those people who can afford to come or are inclined to come to Australia by boat are not given advantageous treatment over those who are waiting elsewhere for resettlement in Australia. I remind senators that this bill will achieve these objectives by giving effect to recommendation 7 of the Houston panel report, which recommended that:
… legislation to support the transfer of people to regional processing arrangements be introduced into the Australian Parliament as a matter of urgency.
The bill before the Senate today, passed by the House yesterday, is designed to enable the government to transfer asylum seekers arriving at excised offshore places to designated regional processing countries for the processing of their claims while ensuring their protection from refoulement.
These amendments will allow the government to lawfully work with regional partners to implement regional offshore processing. These amendments are one part of a regional solution and the government will pursue a holistic approach, as the Houston panel report makes clear, by measures such as progressing processing on PNG and Nauru, increasing the number of places under the humanitarian program and pursuing the introduction of the Malaysia agreement. With this holistic approach we will save people's lives and break the trade of people smuggling. I commend the bill, as amended by the government's amendments, to the Senate.
I move the second reading amendment standing in my name:
At the end of the motion, add:
but the Senate calls on the Government to:
(a) after at least 9 months, but no later than 12 months, of the commencement of the provisions of this bill, commission a further report by the members of the Expert Panel of Asylum Seekers, to consider all aspects of the offshore processing legislative framework (including any human rights and other consequences) and to determine whether this framework has been successful in reducing the number of irregular maritime arrivals; and
(b) require this Panel to complete such a report within three months; and
(c) publicly release this report within 14 days of its receipt by the Government.