Senate debates

Tuesday, 11 September 2012


Instrument of Designation of the Republic of Nauru as a Regional Processing Country

12:38 pm

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

I move:

That, for the purposes of section 198AB of the Migration Act 1958, the Senate approves the designation of the Republic of Nauru as a regional processing country, by instrument made on 10 September 2012. [F2012L01851]

Yesterday, acting under section 198AB of the Migration Act 1958, the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, the Hon. Chris Bowen, designated by legislative instrument the Republic of Nauru as a regional processing country. In accordance with the legislative amendments to permit regional processing, which came into effect on 18 August 2012, the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship presented to the House of Representatives the following documents: a copy of the designation; a statement outlining why it is in the national interest to designate Nauru as a regional processing country; a copy of the memorandum of understanding with Nauru signed on 28 August 2012; a statement about the minister's consultations with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in relation to the designation; a summary of advice received from the UNHCR about the designation; and a statement about the arrangements that are in place, or are to be put in place, in Nauru for the treatment of persons taken there. These documents were also tabled in the Senate yesterday for senators' information.

I call on my colleagues in the Senate to approve this designation to enable the first transfers of offshore entry persons to Nauru for processing in accordance with the new regional processing arrangements. The government takes our international commitments seriously and, to this end, appointed an expert panel on asylum seekers, led by Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston AC AFC (Retired) and including Professor Michael L'Estrange AO and Mr Paris Aristotle AM, to provide direction on a way forward for Australia to prevent asylum seekers from risking their lives on dangerous boat journeys to Australia. The report of the expert panel was released on 13 August and the government is highly committed to implementing all 22 recommendations of the report. In the weeks following, we have been working through those recommendations to respond to the complex and difficult issues we collectively face. Matters such as these are life or death, and they need to rise above politics. Last month the government passed legislation to provide the legal basis for establishing offshore processing centres to give effect to the recommendations in the Houston report that the panel considered needed to be implemented as a matter of urgency.

This designation will be another step forward in the government's commitment to deter people from taking the dangerous boat journey by expanding safe and regular pathways for resettlement and not providing any advantage to asylum seekers who pay people smugglers to enter Australia illegally. Regional processing is a key component in ensuring a long-term response to people seeking asylum in our region. This government has always been resolute that to work closely with our regional partners is the best way to strengthen the region's response to irregular movement and people smuggling. In 2011, as co-chairs of the Bali process with Indonesia, we produced the regional cooperation framework that was endorsed by ministers at the Bali process ministerial meeting in March 2011. Since then, Australia has committed to establishing and maintaining a regional support office which will coordinate practical measures to implement the framework. This regional support office was officially opened in Bangkok yesterday.

The memorandums of understanding with Nauru and Papua New Guinea, together with the designation of Nauru as a regional processing country, send a message loud and clear that countries in this region are willing and prepared to take the action needed to ensure the integrity of their borders and undermine people-smuggling networks. The message to people smugglers is that asylum seekers will have their claims assessed not in Australia but in Nauru. Further, to undermine the business model of the people-smuggling trade the government has committed to increasing the humanitarian program. As a country, we have a rich tradition of providing refuge to those in need of protection. This has continued with the government's commitment to increase our humanitarian program from 13,750 places to 20,000 places annually, the biggest increase in Australia's refugee intake in 30 years. These measures together, and as part of the full suite of Houston report recommendations, reinforce the message that Australia provides no advantage to those who pay people smugglers to enter Australia.

The government is also continuing to work on implementing the Malaysia arrangement. The government has been in regular contact with Malaysia, which remains firmly committed to implementing the arrangement, and that communication will continue. In 2012-13 Australia will resettle around 1,350 UNHCR mandated refugees from Malaysia. This meets the commitment provided under the arrangement with Malaysia, as entered into in July 2011. However, the government's immediate priority is to establish regional processing in Nauru and Papua New Guinea and to begin resettling more refugees from Indonesia and other countries in our region as part of our increased humanitarian program. For the minister to designate a country as a regional processing country it must be deemed in the national interest to do so. The minister has clearly and publicly stated his view that designating Nauru as a regional processing country is in the national interest. Those reasons are: it will discourage irregular and dangerous maritime voyages, thereby reducing the risk of loss of life at sea; it will promote a fair and orderly humanitarian program that retains the confidence of the Australian people; it will promote regional cooperation in relation to irregular migration; and it will address people smuggling.

The new legislation states that the minister is required to consider whether countries have given Australia certain assurances about what will happen to an asylum seeker who is taken to a regional processing country. This is an important requirement, allowing transfers to be effected—but not at any cost. Further, as the minister stated yesterday, and as set out in the minister's statement of reasons, Nauru has given Australia the assurances around the principle of nonrefoulement and the assessment of asylum claims in line with the refugee convention.

The government also believes that it is important for Nauru, as a sovereign state, to have input into the development of any arrangements, and it has been keen to do so. The government is dealing with people seeking protection, and there is a need for fully considered arrangements to be put in place. By presenting the designation and the accompanying documents in accordance with the legislation, the government is providing senators and the parliament with the opportunity to be satisfied that they are appropriate. Again, I would like to call on my colleagues here in the Senate to approve this designation to enable the first transfers of offshore entry persons to Nauru and to provide the circuit breaker to irregular maritime arrivals called for by the expert panel's report.

12:46 pm

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

I rise to speak on behalf of the coalition on the motion before the Senate in relation to the instrument of designation of the Republic of Nauru as a regional processing country under section 198AB(1) of the Migration Act 1958, and to indicate that the coalition will be supporting the government's motion.

I also indicate on behalf of the coalition that I will be moving an amendment which is designed to add clarity and strength of purpose to the motion by requiring the government to implement the full suite of the coalition's successful border protection policies. Doing so will send a clear and strong message to the people smugglers that the Australian government is resolute in its determination to stamp out their criminal activities, which have already cost so many lives lost at sea on the perilous voyage to Australia.

With this motion, the Labor government finally brings to an end what has been a decade of denials and a decade of denouncing and demonising the coalition for the strong and effective policy position in relation to border protection that it took when in office. Today is a historic day in this parliament because, in relation to Australia's border protection, Labor senators will stand alongside coalition senators and vote to establish Nauru as a country for offshore processing. And, in standing alongside coalition senators and signifying their support for offshore processing, Labor senators are making a very, very significant admission to the Australian public. As the shadow minister for immigration said in the other place, Labor's admission is made:

… through gritted teeth and after having been dragged kicking and screaming over years to this point.

The admission that Labor Party senators will be making today in voting to affirm this designation by the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship is this: Labor got it so horrifically wrong 4½ years ago when it abolished offshore processing on Nauru and other critical measures that had been implemented by the Howard government.

In watching Labor senators standing before and beside coalition senators today and in voting in support of this instrument of designation to make it part of Australian law, the Australian people are witnessing what is now going to be recorded as possibly the greatest political backflip by any government of all times. Why do I say that? Because no less than nine weeks ago the minister, the Prime Minister and those on the other side continued to maintain their position that offshore processing on Nauru would not work. To understand the magnitude of the backflip that the Gillard government and the Labor caucus have performed all you actually need to do is refer to the terms of the instrument of designation and the reasons set out by the minister which he has provided in support of the instrument—bearing in mind that this is a minister who right until but a few weeks ago has been telling the coalition and has been telling the people of Australia that offshore processing will not work and that Labor would not relent on their position in relation to Nauru.

Mr Acting Deputy President, if you go to paragraph 13 of the reasons for the designation, the minister states:

I consider designating Nauru to be a regional processing country will discourage irregular and dangerous maritime voyages and thereby reduce the risk of the loss of life at sea; …

He goes on to say:

I consider designating Nauru to be a regional processing country will promote the maintenance of a fair and orderly Refugee and Humanitarian Program that retains the confidence of the Australian people; …

All you need to do is go to the Hansard and you will see that throughout the history of the Howard government, and throughout the history of the former Rudd government and the current Gillard Labor government, these are the exact points which the opposition has been making for over a decade. You would almost believe that it was the shadow minister for immigration who actually wrote the reasons for the minister's decision in relation to the designation, because it is exactly what the opposition has been saying for the last 10 years. Now what we have in black and white, tabled now in the Senate, is the Labor Party finally admitting that the coalition's border protection policies were right and the Labor Party, for the last four years, have got it so very, very wrong.

The gravity of the admissions by the Labor Party in the instrument of designation are evident when you consider the statements made by the former Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, Chris Evans, both in November 2008 and reaffirmed last night in response to an answer on the television program Q&A. He said:

Labor committed to abolishing the Pacific Solution and this was one of 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.

And, of course, we have a Prime Minister who has consistently maintained her own opposition to offshore processing and the Pacific solution even as far back as when she was in opposition. On 13 May 2003 Ms Gillard said:

Labor will end the so-called Pacific solution—the processing and detaining of asylum seekers on Pacific islands—because it is costly, unsustainable and wrong as a matter of principle.

How wrong the current Prime Minister was, how wrong the Labor party was, and how wronged the Australian people have been by the current government.

In relation to the points consistently made by the Prime Minister over at least a decade whenever she demonised offshore processing, let us now look at what the reality is in the reasons for the minister's decision as tabled today in the motion that is before the Senate. In relation to the Prime Minister's constant demonisation, in which she said that offshore processing was going to be costly, this is what the instrument says at paragraph 23. These are the minister's own words:

I think that the cost of irregular maritime voyages, in terms of the loss of human life and in respect of the substantial financial and resourcing costs to the Commonwealth in dealing with such arrivals (estimated to be in excess of $5 billion over the forward estimates period), means that it is in the national interest to attempt to reduce the number of such voyages, and to do so urgently.

That is the minister now criticising his own policies in relation to border protection as being far more costly than offshore processing will ever be. The costs of the failure of the government over the last four years, as evidenced in the minister's own reasons for his decision, are now estimated to be—and this is not the coalition speaking; these are the Labor government's own words—in excess of $5 billion.

In relation to the Prime Minister's statements that offshore processing is unsustainable and wrong as a matter of principle, let us again go today to what the minister, in his reasons that have now been tabled in Senate, says in relation to offshore processing—bearing in mind that the government has consistently demonised the coalition whilst we were in government and whilst it has been in government after it unwound the Howard government's proven border protection policies. This is now Labor's position:

I think that it is in the national interest to take action that is directed to discouraging irregular and dangerous maritime voyages to Australia and thereby to reducing the risk of loss of life at sea.

The party that demonised the former Howard government when it introduced offshore processing and has consistently demonised the current opposition for the last 4½ years when we dared to tell it it had got it wrong by reneging on offshore processing has now adopted the coalition's policy on border protection.

It cannot be forgotten by the Australian public how the Labor government has ended up in the position that it is in today. We have seen policy failure, denial, inconsistency and inaction that have rendered a government so weak when it came to border protection that it had to ask an independent panel for advice on how to solve the mess that it itself had created. Of course, as has been referred to in the reasons for the decision, we have the handing down of the Houston report by a panel which was hand-picked by the government; the coalition had nothing to do with the members of that panel. The government wrote the terms of reference for the Houston report, and what was then handed to the government was possibly the most damning critique that has ever been made about a government in Australia. That critique was made by the government's own hand-picked panel. Ultimately we all know what the outcome of the Houston report was. The Houston report has recommended to the government that it adopts the coalition's policy of offshore processing, and that is exactly what the Labor Party will be doing when they stand alongside coalition senators later on today and support the motion that is before the Senate.

The Australian people are quite right to ask why it has taken the Labor government so long to get to a position which it was given when the former Howard government lost office in 2007. It has taken the arrival of 24,634 people on 421 boats for the government to get to the point which we are at today. In fact, just yesterday we had the 10,000th person arrive this year alone under the current government's border protection policies. Ten thousand people have arrived in Australia this year under the current government's policies. As also set out in the instrument of designation, it has also taken the loss of no fewer than 704 lives at sea. These lives have been lost since October 2009. That is the minister talking; that is not the coalition talking. That is an admission by the minister. That is what it took for the Labor party to be dragged kicking and screaming to the point which we are at today. But, despite these very clear admissions in the minister's reasons for his designation, the Labor Party refuse to go the full distance when it comes to solving Australia's border protection problems. The coalition has made its position in relation to border protection abundantly clear: the government cannot expect Howard government outcomes—and the government is on the record as saying it wants to stop the boats and break the people smugglers' model—and cannot expect to do that as the Howard government did if it is not prepared to put in place the full suite of the former Howard government's policies as recommended by the government's own hand-picked experts on the Houston panel. The government is still engaged, unfortunately, in a half-hearted solution. It is still engaged in dealing with this matter in less-than-half measures. That is why I mentioned earlier that the coalition will be moving an amendment to this motion. In doing so, I move that the following words be added to the motion:

At the end of the motion, add “and in addition to the opening of offshore processing on Nauru, calls on the Government to implement the full suite of the Coalition’s successful border protection policies and:

(a) restore temporary protection visas as the only visa option available to be granted to offshore entry persons found to be refugees;

(b) issue new instructions to Northern Command to commence to turn back boats seeking to illegally enter Australia where it is safe to do so;

(c) 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

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

In moving that amendment I remind the Senate that for many years now the current government has been telling the people of Australia that you cannot turn boats around despite the fact that that was the policy that former Prime Minister Rudd took to the 2007 election. They have been telling us that you cannot turn the boats around despite the fact that, when the Australian people cast their vote at the 2007 election, that is exactly what they voted for in a Labor government because Mr Rudd's policy at that time was to turn the boats around. In any event, the Labor Party have shown their total contempt for Mr Rudd in politically executing him and in the fact that they do not want to have anything to do with what he says. That is why they had to turn to the independent panel.

What did the independent panel and the Houston report say in relation to turning back the boats? It said at page 53, paragraph 3.77:

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

So, whilst I might want to say the coalition has been vindicated, the irony of this is that Mr Rudd has been vindicated. Mr Rudd, who was politically executed by those on the other side because, apparently, he had failed when it came to discharging Australia's border protection policy, has had his policy of turning back the boats, which was the coalition's policy, vindicated by the Houston panel.

The Houston panel has also recommended prohibiting family reunion through Australia's humanitarian program for people arriving by boat and instead making boat arrivals apply for family reunion through the family stream of the migration program. Again, this is nothing more and nothing less than the coalition's policy of temporary protection visas, and we would endorse this recommendation of the Houston panel. Again, the Houston panel have done nothing more and nothing less than come to the same conclusion that the coalition came to under the former Howard government: if you truly want to stop the boats, if you truly want to break the people smugglers' model, you need to implement the full suite of the Howard government's policies. For four long years Australia's borders have been weak, lives have been lost at sea, Australia's reputation with its nearest neighbours has been tarnished, costs have blown out and people smuggling as a business has been allowed to flourish, all because the Prime Minister and Labor were too stubborn to admit that they got it wrong. It was sheer stubbornness and nothing else they put before the national interest.

Perhaps the greatest shame for the Australian public is this: the lives lost at sea over the past 4½ years and the $5 billion of Australian taxpayers' money that has now been spent and which the Australian taxpayer will have to pay back with a lot of interest on top—all of that need not have happened. In November 2007, when we lost office and the Labor Party assumed office, they were given the greatest gift that any incoming government can be given. Apart from the fact that we left them $22 billion in the bank and apart from the fact that we left the Labor government a legacy of zero debt, we had also solved the border protection problem for the incoming Australian government. We had done exactly what they have been saying they wanted to do for the last 4½ years. The former Howard government took very tough measures, but we stopped the boats and broke the people smugglers' models.

That does not mean that we do not support refugees. It was under the former Howard government that we actually lifted the intake of refugees. The difference between us and Labor, apart from what they are now doing, which is adopting our policy, is that we believe that Australians should determine who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come. We will always go to UNHCR camps and choose refugees who have done the right thing by this country—refugees who do not have the means or the opportunity to jump on three plane flights, go to Indonesia, jump on a boat, pay a people smuggler and destroy their documents in order to come to this country.

In the event that the coalition's amendment is not accepted or does not pass this place, on behalf of the coalition I reaffirm to the Australian people that, if and when a coalition government is next elected to this country, it will implement the full suite of the former Howard government's policies. Too much has been lost over the past four years because of the Prime Minister's stubbornness and her refusal to pick up the phone to the President of Nauru.

1:07 pm

Photo of Sarah Hanson-YoungSarah Hanson-Young (SA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Mr Acting Deputy President, I would like clarification. Now that Senator Cash has moved her amendment, are we debating the amendment or the substantive motion?

Photo of Sean EdwardsSean Edwards (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

We are debating the substantive motion, as I understand it, with the amendment included.

Photo of Sarah Hanson-YoungSarah Hanson-Young (SA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you. I think it is an extremely sad day today to be standing here and seeing both the Labor Party and the coalition lining up, shoulder to shoulder, as Senator Cash has already outlined, to approve the dumping of refugees offshore on Nauru. It is a mistake. I want it clearly put on the record that the Greens do not believe that this will (a) save people's lives or (b) stop the boats from coming in the first place. It is clear that there has been no attempt by this government to overcome the issues that led to the horrors of the past. We know what happened the last time the Pacific solution was established, under John Howard. People's lives were ruined. Children were turned insane. Many people took their own lives. Depression wreaked havoc across the detention centre. And all for what? In the end, these very vulnerable people were found to be genuine refugees who needed protection and were resettled in Australia. The overwhelming majority of people that we put through the horrors of the Pacific solution mark I were found to be in genuine need of protection, yet we had made them suffer. We had put them in even more dangerous circumstances and pushed many of them to the point of self-destruction.

None of those mistakes have been addressed by this government's designation today—despite the fact that the Houston panel said that, if we were to open Nauru, there would be a list of things that would need to be done to ensure that it was actually in line with our obligations under the refugee convention. I want to list those things, because not one of them has been addressed by the designation put forward by the minister this week. The protections and welfare arrangements would need to include treatment consistent with human rights standards, including no arbitrary detention. There is nothing about this in the designation document or the supporting documents in either the MOU with Nauru or the advice from the UNHCR, which, by the way, is quite scathing of the government's attempts to designate Nauru as a place where we will now be dumping refugees.

The list includes the need for appropriate accommodation. Yet we know that the designation clearly says that for at least six months refugees will be housed in tents, in the middle of the monsoon period. Further, there needs to be appropriate physical and mental health services. There are no caveats on how refugees—people who are suffering from torture, persecution, post-traumatic stress from the experience of fleeing their homelands and war—will actually be given appropriate medical, physical and mental health assistance. We know that the health assistance given to asylum seekers in Australian detention centres is not adequate. The government has admitted that itself. The service provider, International Health and Medical Services, IHMS, whom the government has just contracted to run the health services in Nauru, has said very clearly that it cannot offer adequate services to refugees who are detained for long periods of time in remote locations. The whole designation that has been put forward by the government today is designed to lock vulnerable people up, out of sight and out of mind, on a remote location for long periods of time. Yet the exact same health service delivery company, which has criticised the way that government has run detention centres here in Australia, has been contracted to run the medical facilities on Nauru. It clearly will not happen. We are, without doubt, going to see the horrors of John Howard's Pacific solution repeated all over again.

The list also includes the need for proper access to educational and vocational training programs. We will see how that goes, because there is nothing in the designation that says this has to happen. There needs to be application assistance during the preparation of asylum claims. The designation is absolutely silent on who will be running the claims for asylum. Will they be Australian officials, or will they not? What training will they have? Who is paying for them? And on what basis are they going to be given proper assistance? What access will refugees have to lawyers on Nauru? There needs to be an appeal mechanism against negative decisions on asylum applications that would enable a merits review by more senior officials and NGO representatives with specific expertise. None of that is in the detail put forward by the minister. There needs to be monitoring of care and protection arrangements by a representative group drawn on from government, civil society in Australia and Nauru. Again, none of that is in this designation. There needs to be provision of case management assistance to individual applicants being processed in Nauru. These are all the things that the Houston report said had to be included in this designation, yet none of them are.

The government have lied. The government have lied not just to the Australian people but also to the refugees currently being detained on Christmas Island and in Darwin who have been told that they are going to go to Nauru. The government have lied to the Australian people and they have lied to this chamber, because none of the recommendations in the Houston report that had to be put in place are here in this designation. The list of safeguards were there because we know that the last time we sent people to Nauru we sent them mad. The last time we sent refugees to Nauru was a black stain on Australia’s reputation for how we treat refugees—some of the world’s most vulnerable people. Rather than addressing the mistakes of the past, the Labor Party has lined up with Tony Abbott to reinstate the harshest, nastiest, cruellest aspects of John Howard's legislation and to take it on as their own. I can see members of the coalition nodding their heads in agreement. They have tricked the Labor Party; wound them in hook, line and sinker. This isn't Labor's policy; this is Tony Abbott's. And yet it is all being dressed up by Minister Bowen as somehow being able to stop the boats from coming. Well the boats have not stopped coming, have they? In fact, refugees themselves continue to say that until there is a safer option what else do they do? We need to make sure we resettle more people directly, implementing in a genuine sense the increase to the humanitarian intake.

I just want to go to the advice that the UNHCR gave to the government in relation to this designation. I think it is very important to note that when the minister gave his press conference yesterday he forgot to mention that the UNHCR did not support what the government was doing. The advice from the UNHCR clearly says that the key things that would need to be taken into consideration have not been appropriately dealt with for Australia to move ahead and start dumping people in Nauru. I will read from their advice:

… it is not clear from the information available to us that transfer of responsibilities of asylum-seekers to Nauru is fully appropriate. Whilst UNHCR welcomes steps taken by the Government of Nauru to accede to the 1951 Refugee Convention last year, at present, there is no domestic legal framework, nor is there any experience or expertise to undertake the tasks of processing and protecting refugees on the scale and complexity of the arrangements under consideration in Nauru.

It is clear that the UNHCR are not happy and have not given their blessing for Australia to start dumping refugees in Nauru. They are concerned that this myth of the no-advantage test endorsed by the government continues to be peddled and used as a justification for why we should be dumping men, women and children on Nauru. I will read again from the UNHCR's advice:

The issue of timely durable solutions for refugees needs careful consideration. In particular, the 'no-advantage' test endorsed by your Government contemplates a time-frame that is assessed against and consistent with the period a refugee might face had s/he been assessed—

and, quoting the government—

'by UNHCR within the regional processing arrangement'. The practical implications for this are not fully clear to us.

Come on. You are not only dudding the Australian people; you are also dudding yourselves. This is an inhumane policy. We will see the mental health epidemics that we saw last time. The Labor Party's Pacific solution is going to be as harsh, as mean, as cruel, as dangerous as John Howard's was. And it will fail. It will fail because people need proper protection. People will continue to keep running until they feel they have a safer option.

The long-term indefinite detention that this government has so forcefully grabbed hold of is in stark contradiction to our obligations under the refugee convention. And that is why organisations around the country strongly oppose this designation put forward by the government today: Amnesty International, the Refugee Council, Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, the Australian Council of Trade Unions, the Australian Council of Social Services, the Federation of Ethnic Communities' Councils, the Australian Nursing Federation, the Australian Medical Association—the list goes on and on and on. Oh, and this one is very interesting: Labor for Refugees. You know what? There is no Greens for Refugees. We do not need a Greens for Refugees, because it is very clear what our policy is and what we stand for. And we do not stand for adopting John Howard's policy, Tony Abbott's policy, introducing it as our own and thinking that we can just dump refugees offshore, out of sight and out of mind.

The experts tell us that the best way of offering hope, protection and care for refugees is to increase the humanitarian intake and resettle people directly. I was interested to hear on the radio this morning that Paris Aristotle said that the boats will not stop until we properly increase our intake and take more people to Australia through a safer option, not waiting for them to board a dangerous boat only to lock them up and punish them. I was also interested to hear that the minister's excuse for why this designation should go ahead is because it will send a message to people smugglers that refugees will have their claims assessed in Nauru. Is he delusional? Do people smugglers really care where refugees are having their claims assessed? They have already collected their money! The Australian people are smarter than this. The Australian people know that punishing refugees—children, pregnant women—is not going to be the way that you punish the people smugglers. It is interesting to look back at some of the things that senators in this chamber have said in relation to detaining people and refugees on Nauru. Senator Doug Cameron only in September last year said: 'We should not go there. This is not a Labor policy. It doesn't equate to Labor values.' Senator Chris Evans said, 'The Pacific solution was a cynical, costly and ultimately unsuccessful exercise introduced on the eve of a federal election by the Howard government.' The Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, said, 'We will end the so-called Pacific solution because it is costly, unsustainable and wrong as a matter of principle.' On another date the Prime Minister said, 'The Pacific solution is an unsustainable and costly failure.' Who can trust the Labor Party to do the right thing by refugees? Who can trust the coalition to do the right thing by refugees? No-one believes that either the ALP or the coalition can be trusted to care for refugees, because they have proven over and over again unable to do it.

This designation has no protections for refugees. This designation will send children, unaccompanied minors and pregnant women to be locked up in a refugee camp for years and years and years on end with no legal responsibility, with no legal protection—not even the UNHCR or the International Organization for Migration want a bar of it. The IOM said they were asked to take on the contract for running the asylum seeker and refugee detention camp in Nauru. The government begged them to do it and the IOM said that they would not have a bar of it because it was too rushed and the arrangements and the agreements for how people would be protected are simply not there.

So the government has instead contracted Transfield Services. An engineering, mining and construction company is going to be running our refugee camps on Nauru. I would like to ask the minister what on earth Transfield Services understands, has experience in or knows about running a refugee camp full of hundreds of refugees who have fled war, torture and persecution? If it were not so serious, you would think this is a sick joke. What kind of training will these staff have? There is nothing in the designation about that, despite the Houston report clearly saying that these things need to be in place. What type of access will the media have to the detention centre in Nauru? There is nothing in the designation about that.

Several weeks ago in this place when we were debating legislation that stripped out all of the legal protections that used to be in the Migration Act, Senator Lundy, representing the minister, stood here until late in the night telling us that all of these things would be fixed in the designation. They are not there. They were never going to be there. The Labor Party has no intention of putting forward a proposal that looks after refugees, because this is about appeasing Tony Abbott and the coalition rather than standing for a humane policy that will protect people and will save lives. This policy is already a failure and it has not even been implemented properly yet. You are already hurting people, not saving them and not protecting them. Mr Acting Deputy President, I foreshadow that I will be moving an amendment. (Time expired)

1:27 pm

Photo of George BrandisGeorge Brandis (Queensland, Liberal Party, Shadow Attorney-General) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Hanson-Young asserts that the government has adopted Mr Tony Abbott's policy in relation to asylum seekers. If only that were true, because, although the government has adopted one element of the coalition's policy—that is, the reintroduction of the Pacific solution and the reopening of Nauru—unfortunately, for reasons that are incomprehensible to me, the government has not adopted the other two critical elements of the coalition's successful policy—that is, temporary protection visas and turning boats around in the limited but occasional circumstances in which that can safely be done.

The Pacific solution was a suite of policies. Those were the three elements: offshore processing on Nauru and Manus Island, temporary protection visas and turning boats around where it was safe to do so. All three elements were necessary in order to deprive people smugglers of the capacity to say to vulnerable people, 'We can guarantee you a permanent settlement in Australia.' All three elements were necessary. So it is beyond my comprehension why the government, having protested for years that it would never embrace the Pacific solution, at last, and at the cost of many hundreds and perhaps more than a thousand lives, swallowed its pride and decided to do so and yet still resists adopting the other two elements of the suite of policies that worked. So while we are glad that the government, after so many years, after so much stubborn pride, after the loss of so many innocent lives, at last saw the wisdom of returning to offshore processing, it is still resisting adopting the other two elements of that successful suite of policies. So we can have no confidence at all that this incomplete, partial adoption of the coalition's successful policies will produce the outcome the government hopes it will produce. Having told us for years it would not produce a favourable outcome, the government now says, 'Well, we think it will produce a favourable outcome.' But we in the coalition say to the government, 'Unless you adopt all of the elements of the successful policy, there is no reason to be confident that the tide of refugee arrivals will dry up.'

I listened with care to what Senator Hanson-Young had to say and I am bound to say that many of the claims she made were simply false—in particular, the claim that the Howard government did not adopt a compassionate policy when it comes to refugees. Senator Hanson-Young, you are evidently unaware of the fact that under the Howard government the refugee intake under the humanitarian settlement programs run by the Australian government were increased to the highest level they have ever been—a level which remains today.

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

That is why people were sewing their lips together!

Photo of George BrandisGeorge Brandis (Queensland, Liberal Party, Shadow Attorney-General) Share this | | Hansard source

It was the Howard government that lifted to the highest level that any Australian government ever did our humanitarian intake, and yet that is mocked by the Greens in their posturing moral vanity. Senator Hanson-Young asserts that the loss of life is the responsibility of those who adopt a tough policy. The reverse is true. The wicked people in this business are not the refugees. The refugees are the gullible people. Refugees are vulnerable people. The wicked people are the people smugglers.

Photo of Sarah Hanson-YoungSarah Hanson-Young (SA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

What are you doing about it?

Photo of George BrandisGeorge Brandis (Queensland, Liberal Party, Shadow Attorney-General) Share this | | Hansard source

I will tell you what we are doing about it, Senator Hanson-Young. What we did about it in 2001 was deprive the people smugglers of a product to sell, so they could not entrap or induce these gullible and vulnerable people to part with, in many cases no doubt, their life savings to embark on an inherently hazardous risk and put themselves and their wives and their children at risk on the high seas. That is what we did. If you want to know whether that policy worked, let the statistics answer your question, Senator Hanson-Young.

From the time that the Pacific Solution was adopted by the Howard government in September 2001 until the time when the Pacific Solution was, in a moment of folly, abandoned by the Australian Labor Party in 2008, do you know, Acting Deputy President Edwards, how many asylum seekers came to Australia, how many asylum seekers put their own lives, their families' lives and their children's lives at risk on the high seas? It was 301 people in six years. Those are the statistics. Since the Labor Party in its foolishness in late 2008 abandoned that successful policy do you know how many people have embarked on that hazardous journey, put themselves and their wives' and their children's lives at risk? As of today, 24,697 human souls have embarked on that perilous journey—in the case of the children, unbeknownst to them the risks to which they were being exposed—in less than five years.

In fact, the statistics I quoted include the first year of the Rudd government up to the time when the Pacific Solution was abandoned, so I should correct myself. It was 24,697 people since the election of the Rudd government, but almost all of those people—all bar 25 in fact—have arrived since November 2008. So in less than four years 24,697 people compared with 301 people over six years. And you say, Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, that we were not compassionate! How many lives were saved by depriving the people smugglers of a product to sell? How many lives were saved? We will never know, but this we do know: in addition to those nearly 25,000 people who arrived in Australia in the last four years, we know for certain that another 704 have drowned—men and women and boys and girls and babies have drowned. And those are only the bodies that have been recovered or accounted for. We know that an additional inestimable number as well—undoubtedly many hundreds—have also drowned. That is the price of bad policy. That is the price of giving people smugglers an incentive to entrap gullible and vulnerable people by assuring them safe passage to Australia and then loading them onto leaky vessels which have led to the deaths of more than a thousand of them. That did not happen after the Howard government reintroduced the Pacific solution.

There could not be a debate in which the issues are more serious because we are talking about the lives of innocent people. I honestly do not know how Senator Hanson-Young and her Greens collaborators can sit over there in that corner of the Senate chamber and say that a policy which led to the deaths of more than a thousand innocent people is a policy that is acceptable to them but that a policy that avoided the loss of those lives and that reduced the number of unlawful asylum seekers to a trickle—301 people in six years—was not a compassionate or an effective policy.

Photo of Sarah Hanson-YoungSarah Hanson-Young (SA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

What about the children who—

Photo of George BrandisGeorge Brandis (Queensland, Liberal Party, Shadow Attorney-General) Share this | | Hansard source

'What about the children?' I hear Senator Hanson-Young ask. Yes, Senator Hanson-Young, what about the children who would be alive today if the Howard government's policy of putting the people smugglers out of business had not been abandoned with your support?

As I said at the start of my remarks, we are glad that the Labor Party has seen sense. It took Air Marshal Houston and his committee to bring them to see sense but we are glad that the Labor Party has seen sense by restoring the Nauru processing centre and the opposition will of course support the motion moved by the government. But it gives us no joy or pleasure that it has come to this, that the government, through its hubris and stubborn pride, delayed for so long reinstating policies which for so long it refused to accept because they had been policies embedded by its political opponent. It is a shame but nevertheless the government has at last seen that it was wrong and that John Howard was right.

Senator Hanson-Young got that part right, that the government had seen that the Pacific solution denounced, condemned and anathematised for so many years by the Labor Party was right and that the Labor Party's approach for all those years was wrong. I suppose in a spirit of generosity one gives credit to an opponent who eventually acknowledges they were wrong and their opponent was right, but this is not a political game. This is a decision of policy choices on which people's lives depend and therefore we on the opposition benches implore the government: if you are prepared to take that important first step and reinstate Nauru, take the remaining steps which so far you have not been prepared to take and reinstate temporary protection visas so that no people smuggler will ever be able to say even to a credulous client, 'I can guarantee you a permanent resettlement in Australia,' because even the most credulous refugee will know that at most they will get a temporary protection visa. We implore the government as well to strengthen the deterrence of people smugglers by adopting a policy of turning boats around. We acknowledge that that will rarely be possible but there have been occasions in the past when it has been possible and the fact that there is the threat that that might happen is itself part of the deterrence of people smugglers.

I want to finish by saying a word about temporary protection visas because there has been a lot of foolish and ignorant talk about the justice of temporary protection visas. The temporary protection visa which was issued by the Howard government to asylum seekers gave, as its name suggested, those people protection. It gave them a right to stay in Australia for a period of years and if at the end of that period, a three-year period, the circumstances in their country of origin from which those people were fleeing had not improved, so if the peril from which they fled had not abated, they were entitled to renew the temporary protection visa and if on the expiry of that period again the circumstances in their homeland were unimproved they could renew it again. So the temporary protection visa gave to refugees everything that a genuine refugee can legitimately ask for under the refugee convention; that is, protection from persecution in their homeland for as long as the circumstances of that persecution remain. Now I struggle to see what is wrong with that. I struggle to see what is unjust about that. The very definition of a refugee in the refugee convention is a person driven out of their homeland by the justified fear of persecution. A genuine refugee is not a person who leaves their homeland because they want to; a genuine refugee is a person who leaves their homeland because they have to. If you were a genuine refugee who had left your homeland involuntarily and under the threat or fear of persecution, you would want to return home if that fear had gone away—for example, if there were a regime change in your homeland, if militias who were responsible for persecution had been brought under control, or if a change in the political circumstances that caused you to flee from your homeland had gone away, you would want to go home. Everybody wants to be in their own homeland. So a genuine refugee has nothing to fear from a temporary protection visa. If they still face the risk of persecution, they are protected for as long as they need to be. But, if the risk of persecution has disappeared, then they no longer need to seek refuge. Why on earth the government would not adopt this just measure, which complies with the refugee convention and whose only effect is to act as a disincentive to people smugglers, is beyond my comprehension.

This has been a bitter debate. The bitterness is in part, no doubt, a product of the frustration that people have felt at the intractable nature of this problem. But at last—way too late in the piece but at last—the government is grasping towards a solution by adopting one of the three elements of the Howard government's demonstrably successful policies. It is not too late, Senator Bob Carr. It is not too late for the government to complete the job and embrace the other two elements of the Howard government's successful policies. But I fear that the half-heartedness that lies at the heart of this Labor government continues to dominate this debate.

1:47 pm

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

I rise today to oppose the government's move to send to Nauru refugees who are seeking asylum in our country. It is inconsistent with the refugee convention and with our responsibilities as a nation to people who are refugees. Why is the government doing it? The government has told us that it is doing it because the whole point is to stop people getting on boats. They said that it is not about sending people away—'out of sight, out of mind', as the Greens said at the time. No, they said, it is about stopping people from getting on boats and risking their lives coming to Australia. The Greens said at the time that it would not deter people from getting on boats to come to Australia, because deterrence does not work. It has not worked and it will not work.

The Greens said that the best way to prevent people from getting on boats is to offer them a safe pathway; that is, increase the humanitarian intake and invest money in helping the UNHCR to assess people's claims in Indonesia and also closer to the areas where they have been forced to flee. That has been the Greens policy and it is consistent with the human rights convention. That is the action that would stop people getting on boats, or at least it would act as a disincentive for some of them to get on boats. But, no, the government insisted that this is about stopping people from getting on leaky boats, and that is the argument that the coalition put as well.

What has occurred is exactly as the Greens argued—and not just the Greens; all the refugee advocacy groups have been saying exactly the same thing. An overwhelming number of submissions to the Houston inquiry said exactly the same thing, and the experience since the government drove this through the parliament has been a record number of people risking their lives on boats. The government has failed in its No. 1 supposed ambition, which was to stop people getting on boats. There is a record number of people on boats. I think it is up to 2,150 since this policy was instigated. It has been a massive failure in terms of alleviating the real concerns that the Australian people have had, and rightly so, about people losing their lives at sea.

The Australian Greens have always argued that we need to codify our responsibilities in terms of the safety of lives at sea. On the day that this whole issue came to a head in this parliament, I did point out that Australia knew on the Tuesday afternoon that the boat in question was in trouble, that we did not rescue people until they were in the water on the Thursday, and that at some point questions would need to be answered about why we did not go to their rescue until Thursday. We have obligations under the safety of life at sea convention. Those obligations should be codified. There has been an uneasy tension for a very long time between the deterrence model of the Howard government—which has been embraced by the Gillard government—and our obligations under the safety of life at sea convention. The Greens argued very strongly with the Prime Minister for not only an increased humanitarian intake and increased investment in assisting the UNHCR in regional assessment but also codification of our safety of lives at sea obligations. One of the things I do welcome is the talks that the government has entered into with the Indonesians to try to facilitate better search and rescue capacity, because we do know that the Indonesians have that search and rescue capacity to be able to meet the needs of people who are getting into difficulty in those boats coming from Indonesia. But having said that, when Senator Lundy was defending the legislation she said very clearly that she rejected the Greens' claim that the government 'are not adhering to our international obligations'. Yes, in the document that the minister has tabled it has become quite clear that he is making the decisions and he says: ' Whether or not the assurances referred to above are legally binding, I expect that Nauru will act in accordance with them … as a consequence …' That was the reason why the Malaysia solution was struck down by the High Court. They were not legally binding and this legislation particularly and explicitly states that they do not have to give legally binding undertakings. But, in terms of international obligation, the minister said:

The content of Australia’s international obligations is contestable. In particular, there is a range of views held by lawyers, academics, non-government organisations and others as to the content of Australia's international obligations with respect to persons transferred to another country, some of which differ from the Department’s position.

Yes, indeed they do. The overwhelming majority do and that is why they legislated to get around our obligations under international law. He goes on to say:

On the basis of the material set out in the submission from the Department, I think that it is not inconsistent with Australia's international obligations (including but not limited to Australia's obligations under the Refugees Convention) to designate Nauru as a regional processing country, notwithstanding that this will create a duty under s 198AD to take offshore entry persons to Nauru (subject to the exercise of my personal non-compellable power in s 198AE).

However, even if the designation of Nauru to be a regional processing country is inconsistent with Australia's international obligations, I nevertheless think that it is in the national interest to designate Nauru to be a regional processing country.

There we have it. Senator Lundy told us in the Senate that she rejected absolutely the claims that they are not adhering to international obligations and the minister actually touts it in the documents he has put in the parliament. What is more, when you go to the letter being tabled from the UNHCR in relation to obligations, the UNHCR specifically goes on to say:

… it is not clear from the information available … that transfer of responsibilities for asylum-seekers to Nauru is fully appropriate.

There we have the UNHCR making its views perfectly clear and it particularly goes to the no-advantage test. Senator Lundy told us in this parliament that it would all be spelt out and we would know exactly what that meant. And we do not. Were we misled? Of course we were misled. The government came in here and told us, yes, we would have the details of the no-advantage test and we would not be in a position of having people sent offshore indefinitely. Yet the government refused to allow the 12 months and we still have no understanding whatsoever. What is even worse, we have a situation where the government is saying that the no-advantage test will apply and indefinite detention is there. On the other hand, we have a situation where the countries concerned—particularly PNG—are saying that they want to move people out of detention as quickly as possible. How are those two things consistent? Furthermore, we now know that refugees are going to be housed in tents for at least six months. We know that the facilities are not finished and yet we were not told that. That was not even conceded in the debate.

In other words, we were told a whole pack of disingenuous stories when the government brought in this legislation. We were not told the length of time people would be there. There was no acknowledgement they would be stuck in tents, no acknowledgement that it was not consistent with international law. This is all about sending people away and the huge embarrassment the government has now is that more people have arrived, to the extent that Nauru is already fully catered for—even when it is at maximum it will take 1,500 and we have already had 2,150 arrivals. Now we will have Manus Island and that will be full as well. That is why the government is now trying to open Malaysia, which means we are getting to the point where we are going to have littered throughout this region a whole lot of Australia's offshore detention centres. There will be offshore detention centres throughout the region because Australia will not acknowledge that it got it wrong, that in fact it is not a deterrent to send people offshore. This is going to be an extremely expensive exercise in terms of the impact on the refugees' health and wellbeing. It is going to be extremely expensive in terms of the amount of money it costs Australia. And yet it is not going to do anything to reduce the numbers of people coming to Australia in boats.

The best way of doing that is to set up safe pathways, as the Greens have articulated. In response to the offensive remarks of Senator Brandis, I remind the Senate that it was the Howard government who brought in temporary protection visas and it was under the Howard government that 353 died when the SIEV-X went down. They were overwhelmingly women and children who were denied the opportunity to come and stay with their male relatives in Australia. That is why they were on the boat. To this day we have not had the inquiry we should have had, the royal commission we should have had into the sinking of the SIEV-X. Senator Sinodinis knows exactly what happened with the SIEV-X. He was in the office at the time and he ought to make a statement to the parliament at some point as to what exactly happened in the Prime Minister's office at the time that the SIEV-X sank offshore Australia. That is not going to go away. As long as we are here we are going to continue to ask questions about what actually happened.

I return to the issue of sending refugees to Nauru where the facilities are not adequate at this point and where people are going to suffer. We still have unlimited detention on Nauru and have not been told how long the Gillard government believes a no-advantage test is. I think it is incumbent on the government to tell us that.

Debate interrupted.