Senate debates

Thursday, 16 May 2013


Migration Amendment (Unauthorised Maritime Arrivals and Other Measures) Bill 2012; Second Reading

9:50 am

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

I indicate to the chamber that the coalition will not be opposing the Migration Amendment (Unauthorised Maritime Arrivals and Other Measures) Bill 2012. The reason we will not be opposing the bill is that the substance of it is consistent with the coalition's long-held position in relation to the offshore processing regime and, in any event, it is fundamentally the same bill as the one that was introduced by the Howard government in 2006 and, which I note, was passed by the House of Representatives.

The stated objective of the bill is to expand the existing offshore processing regime to apply to all persons arriving on mainland Australia unlawfully by sea. It will replace the concept of 'offshore entry person' with the concept of 'unauthorised maritime arrival'. The effect of the bill is that persons who arrive on Australian soil by boat without a valid visa will be subject to removal to an offshore processing country and will be processed according to that regime—that is, the bill will effectively excise the Australian mainland from the Migration Act. It is intended to be a disincentive aimed at discouraging potential unlawful immigrants from making the hazardous sea voyage to Australia.

While the coalition will not be opposing, and in fact is strongly supporting, the passage of this legislation today—and I note for the record that the coalition voted with the government to rearrange the business of the Senate today to ensure that this bill was given precedence and that the coalition gave up our private senators' time this morning to ensure that this bill is facilitated in a timely fashion—I do believe we need to consider why the government has introduced this bill, given that when the same bill was introduced in 2006 by the Howard government those on the opposite side of the chamber howled in opposition to it. These are the facts that Australia is faced with today.

Five years ago in November 2007, when this Labor government was first elected to office, there were just four people in immigration detention who had arrived in Australia illegally by boat. When the Labor government was elected to office in November 2007, maintenance of Australia's immigration detention network was costing Australian taxpayers less than $100 million per annum. In fact, it was costing approximately $85 million. Today there are well in excess of 15,000 illegal maritime arrivals in Australia's detention system, whether they are on bridging visas in community detention, in alternative places of detention or in the detention network itself. This government's spectacular record of failure in relation to this portfolio worsens when you consider that the number of people who have arrived since November 2007 is 40,772 on 673 boats. It is a fact, and that is one of the reasons whereby the government and Minister O'Connor today came to the coalition quite literally on bended knee and begged us to facilitate the passage of this legislation, which we agreed we would do. It is a fact that Australia is now witnessing what is an unprecedented rate of boat arrivals and that is, without a doubt, the sole reason the government has done an about-face in relation to policy in this area.

April 2013 is now on record as the month with the largest number of asylum seeker arrivals, with 3,300 people arriving by boat in that one month alone. March 2013 saw over 2,500 asylum seekers arrive and even though we are only two weeks into May, we have already seen 1,500 asylum seekers arrive. What that means—and perhaps the reason the government again came to the coalition on bended knee today, with Minister O'Connor begging shadow minister Scott Morrison for his assistance in relation to the facilitation of this legislation through the Senate—is that Australia has witnessed approximately 66 people arriving by boat per day this year. That is solely attributable to this government's grotesque failure in relation to border protection policy.

This bill was introduced into the parliament by the former Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, Mr Bowen, on 31 October 2012. The proposal set out in the bill reflects some but not all of the advice of the Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers, which recommended that an arrival anywhere in Australia by regular maritime means should result in such individuals having the same status as those arriving at an offshore place which has already been excised from the immigration zone. The effect of this bill will mean that irregular maritime arrivals anywhere in Australia will make that person liable to regional processing arrangements.

Given the hysteria of the government in 2006 when we introduced what is effectively the same piece of legislation—which I believe the government now acknowledges, given they have today come cap in hand to the coalition, is part of a suite of policy measures which indeed does stop the boats—I believe it is appropriate to put on the record comments of those at the time and what the Labor members said in relation to the Howard government's legislation and to note that today they are the ones who are begging us, the coalition who stopped the boats, to now support them in their efforts to restore part of the former Howard government's strong suite of border protection policies, which clearly, by the passage of this legislation, they now admit they were wrong in rolling back. Take, for example, the comments of the former minister for immigration, the minister who in the other place introduced what is effectively the former Howard government's bill. This is what he said back in 2006:

This is a bad bill with no redeeming features. It is a hypocritical and illogical bill. If it is passed today, it will be a stain on our national character ... If it is passed, it will be repealed by an incoming Labor government.

History now records that it was, in fact, repealed by the incoming Labor government. History also now records the facts I have outlined for the record today—that Australia has now been subjected to an unprecedented number of illegal boat arrivals. Under this government, we are heading towards 41,000 arrivals in 2013, which equates to approximately 66 arrivals per day.

Despite the fact that Minister Bowen in 2006 took a completely different stance on legislation which had been proven to work and to stop the boats, we see that same minister, now in government, acknowledging that Labor have made one of the greatest—if not the greatest—policy mistakes of all time. They are now backing the coalition to side with them and support what is effectively Howard government legislation.

What did Mr Simon Crean say at the time the Howard government's bill was passed?

The bill is shameful and xenophobic.

  …   …   …

It is a bill that should be opposed.

I note that by 2012 Mr Crean had clearly had a change of heart.

What did Mr Anthony Albanese have to say at the time?

This bill is wrong in principle and it is wrong in motivation.

  …   …   …

This bill is a disgraceful shirking of responsibility by Australia and it must be rejected.

  …   …   …

I reject the bill as being fundamentally abhorrent to everything I believe in …

  …   …   …

It has been a test of the Australian Labor Party and we have risen to the occasion, and that is why we are rejecting this legislation.

Clearly Mr Albanese has also come to the realisation, as have the majority of Australians, that Labor were wrong in 2006 and that they were wrong in 2008 when they repealed the Howard government legislation. But they are right today to come into this place and to ask the coalition to assist them in facilitating the passage of what is effectively the former Howard government's legislation.

Why has the Labor Party done an about-face? Why did the Labor Party—the current minister, Mr O'Connor— come to the shadow minister, Mr Morrison, and effectively beg him to assist Labor in passing this legislation today? These are the reasons. Over the life of the Howard government, 1999 was the year of the greatest number of boat arrivals—86 boats arrived in 1999. In comparison, this year 86 boats arrived just between 1 January and 14 April. The greatest number of asylum seekers arriving in any one year under the Howard government was in 2001—5,550 people arrived in 2001. In comparison, the Gillard government managed to exceed that figure in just the eight weeks covering March and April of this year.

What did we, the former Howard government, do? We realised we had a problem and we took strong and decisive action, which included the action set out in the bill before the Senate today. What was the result of the former Howard government's strong border protection policies? In 2002, the year after the Pacific solution was introduced, the number of boats arriving in Australia was reduced to zero. In 2003, one boat arrived; in 2004, zero boats arrived; in 2005, four boats arrived; in 2006, six boats arrived; and, in 2007, five boats arrived. The fact of the matter is this: the Labor Party cannot deny that, when they assumed office in November 2007, they inherited a solution from the former Howard government. In August of 2008, they proceeded quite deliberately and arrogantly to wind back the proven border protection policies of the former Howard government. We have now come almost full circle and we stand here today in the Senate implementing—or re-implementing—a further plank of the former Howard government's border protection policies.

Will this go far enough? Absolutely not. I have put forward a private senator's bill to reintroduce temporary protection visas. That is something which this bill does not do. I would say to those on the other side: if you really are fair dinkum about stopping the boats and if you really do want to return, as you are telling us, to the former Howard government's policies, you must also give urgent consideration to restoring temporary protection visas as part of the suite of policy measures.

There is a difference between the Howard government bill and this bill. One of those differences is—lo and behold—their effectiveness. The government's March 2012 decision to allow all offshore entry persons access to merits and judicial review through the RRT and the courts severely weakens the effectiveness of this bill and will prove to be very costly to taxpayers—bearing in mind that the cost to taxpayers of the government's failed border protection policies is now in excess of $10 billion. When the coalition introduced its bill in 2006, the bill's impact would have been much more significant than that of the current bill and would have denied all asylum seekers access to merits and judicial review.

Whilst the Labor government have significantly watered down a number of previous coalition initiatives, consequently diminishing the potential impact of this bill, the broad principle of this bill is, as I said at the outset, consistent with coalition policy and we will therefore support it—notwithstanding the gross hypocrisy of Labor. In 2006, Labor were screaming from the rooftops that the very provisions which they have begged us to support today—the very provisions which, under the Howard government, were proven to work—were anathema to them. I commend this bill to the Senate.

10:07 am

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

I rise to speak in opposition to the Migration Amendment (Unauthorised Maritime Arrivals and Other Measures) Bill 2012. The Australian Greens are in strong opposition to the idea of removing Australia's entire mainland from our migration zone. When John Howard, back in 2006, proposed to do this very thing here in this place, not only did we have members of the Labor Party speaking strongly against it; we even had members of the coalition speaking strongly against it. When John Howard proposed to strip all migration law rights away from people based on their arriving on the Australian mainland, one of the reasons that that bill did not end up passing the Senate was that even Barnaby Joyce

Photo of John WilliamsJohn Williams (NSW, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Joyce.

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

believed that this was bad policy. Even Senator Barnaby Joyce knew the madness of this policy. It must be pretty bad when you have got Senator Joyce arguing for the rights of refugees and the rights of vulnerable people under basic rule-of-law provisions.

I urge all members in this place to search the back of their conscience and to think about why this is really being put forward and why there is an urgency for it to be rushed through. There is no urgency, of course, except the continued failure of the government's already harsh, inhumane and cruel no advantage rule and offshore processing, which have not worked to stem the flow of people in our region who are desperate to seek protection. The Prime Minister on this issue is always looking for somebody else to blame, and now it is that we have provisions on the mainland that uphold the rule of law—that is bad and that has got to go, according to the Prime Minister and this Labor government. And of course Tony Abbott's opposition are going to support this legislation, because it is their policy. This is the Labor government implementing John Howard's policy and Tony Abbott's policy. That is what is going on here. We do not have to wait until 14 September; we have already got the opposition's policy. The Labor government have done all the Liberal Party's dirty work when it comes to beating up on refugees, dog whistling on immigration and stripping away laws that protect the most vulnerable in our community.

This bill effectively excises the entire mainland of Australia from the ordinary operations of the migration zone so that, wherever somebody may arrive, they do not have the right to seek protection under normal circumstances. This expands the already existing two-tiered system that is in direct contravention of the refugee convention, which clearly identifies that we should not be discriminating against people and their right to protection, care and safety based on their mode of arrival. It is simply wrong. It is unacceptable under the refugee convention. Yet here we are this morning seeing exactly that happening—both the government and the opposition doing away with, violating, the letter and the spirit of the rights outlined in the refugee convention.

As I said, the Howard government had already attempted to do this. In 2001, they set up a system which treated refugees who arrived by boat differently—not to protect them, not to care for them, not to deal in a practical way with their vulnerability and needs. No, no; it was to demonise them, to whip up fear and hatred and to send a signal to the nastiest, darkest parts of our psyche, where we may think that somehow, because somebody is a refugee and had to come by boat, they are a bad person. That is precisely why John Howard changed these rules in 2001 and that is precisely what the Labor government, hand in hand and shoulder to shoulder with Tony Abbott's coalition, are doing today.

This is yet another stark and very, very disappointing example of the government locked in a race to the bottom with the coalition over immigration and refugee policy. Punishing refugees for seeking protection in Australia is the central concept of this bill. Let us not beat around the bush. This bill does nothing to save people's lives. This bill does nothing to protect and help and care for vulnerable refugees, including children. This bill does nothing to help these people and it will not save their lives. This bill is all about punishment and all about whipping up fear and hatred and demonising people because of how they arrived and where they have come from. The fact is that the majority of people who arrive here by boat—whether it is in the already excised zone or the small handful of people who find their way to the mainland—are people who could not come to Australia by plane because they never would have got a ticket without a visa, because of the countries that they come from, because of their need to flee from torture, from persecution, from war. This bill goes right to the heart of discriminating against refugees because of the places they have had to flee.

Of course, as we know, just as happened in 2006, this bill has been widely criticised by a range of legal and human rights experts. This bill went to inquiry, and it was universally condemned. The only supporting evidence to this inquiry came from the government's own department. Not one independent voice in support of this piece of legislation came forward. Not one independent voice of support exists for this legislation.

In fact, let me just go to what the United Nations and their human rights and refugee committees have said in relation to this piece of legislation. We know that the UNHCR in Australia have said that they are extremely concerned that the measures to excise large portions of the territory to set up systems which substantially reduce fundamental refugee protection rights sets a negative precedent internationally.

This is not about building a regional protection framework; this is doing the absolute opposite. This is about gross, bottom of the barrel, crass domestic politics here in Australia. This is about the Labor Party competing with Tony Abbott as to who can be the toughest, the cruellest, the meanest on refugees.

Photo of John WilliamsJohn Williams (NSW, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Mr Acting Deputy President, I rise on a point of order. I ask Senator Hanson-Young to refer to those in the other place by their correct titles. She started off with 'Barnaby Joyce' instead of 'Senator Joyce', then continued on about 'Tony Abbott'—

Photo of Cory BernardiCory Bernardi (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you, Senator Williams; I understand your point. Before you continue, Senator Hanson-Young, Senator Williams is absolutely correct: you have, on a number of occasions, referred to other members of parliament without their correct titles. You have corrected yourself on one of those occasions, and I should have drawn it your attention earlier. So, please, would you adhere to the Senate standing orders.

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

Thank you, Mr Acting Deputy President. This is crass domestic politics that is based on the Labor Party competing, in a race to the bottom, as to who can be the cruellest, the nastiest, the meanest, the harshest on refugees. A race to the bottom with Mr Abbott's coalition—that is what this piece of legislation is about.

The UNHCR goes on to say that, if each one of the 148 other countries around the world that have signed on to the refugee convention took this attitude and changed their laws in this way, it would undermine the entire convention. This legislation is out of step with not just the letter but absolutely the spirit of the convention. We know that the Refugee Council has said that they are extremely concerned about this as well—that it violates our obligations. It strips away people's rights, and it will likely cause serious harm to people fleeing from persecution and torture. It will cause more harm, more damage, to people who are already fleeing some pretty unsafe and harmful circumstances. That is what the experts are saying.

We know that many of the church groups around the country are extremely concerned about this as well, from a moral perspective as well as a legal one. We have seen Elenie Poulos, the National Director of UnitingJustice, attached to the Uniting Church, say that this is a shameful piece of legislation that undercuts our moral responsibilities as a nation towards vulnerable and oppressed asylum seekers.

This is a bad piece of legislation and is only designed to hurt people and not care for them. There is nothing in this legislation that will save people's lives—in fact, unfortunately, all to the contrary. People's lives are going to be at more risk. People are going to suffer more. Children will not have rights. Despite the need for protection, they will not now have access to lawyers. They will not have any legal assistance at all. They cannot even make a claim for refugee protection under this legislation. They can be sent, of course, offshore to one of the cruel camps—whether that is Manus Island or Nauru or wherever else this government or the coalition decide they want to start dumping vulnerable refugees. This bill exposes vulnerable people to indefinite detention in inhumane and cruel camps.

As to those who may be lucky enough to be put on a bridging visa after suffering in detention, they will have no work rights. They will have no access to proper education or medical services. They will have no way of being able to rebuild their lives and protect their children. In fact, children and families under this legislation will be pushed into poverty even further.

This legislation exposes more people in immigration detention to inadequate legal assistance and legal oversight—in fact, not just 'inadequate'; they have no rights at all. Whether you are the vulnerable family of someone who has been fighting for democracy in Iran or a Hazara family from Afghanistan, you have no rights for proper protection under this piece of legislation.

What is the urgency for us to have to rush this piece of legislation through? It is not going to stop people coming here by boat; we know that. We know that being harsh to people, deterrence policies, do not stop people taking those dangerous journeys when that is the only option they have. We have seen that proven over the last six months.

Back in August last year, we saw this again—the Labor Party implementing the coalition's policies on offshore detention, on stripping out protection and on the no-advantage rule. We were told that was going to slow the boats. It has not slowed the boats at all: we have four times the number of people fleeing to Australia than we did last year. It has not stopped people taking those journeys. It has not saved people's lives.

In fact, the unfortunate thing about all of this is that no-one is safer—no-one is being kept safer or treated better; no-one's rights are being upheld. In fact, the exact opposite is happening: we are now subjecting children to institutionalised child abuse in the detention camps of cruelty on Manus Island. That is the reality of the policies that are coming from this government, backed up by Mr Abbott's coalition. These policies are not saving people's lives; they are not caring for people. These policies and this legislation are subjecting people to further harm and torture.

I will be moving three amendments to this legislation. The first amendment is in relation to allowing for media access to these detention camps that Australians are paying billions and billions of dollars for. We saw the budget come out on Tuesday night and we know that offshore processing is costing Australian taxpayers more than $7½ billion. In fact, if you include this year and the forward estimates, it is costing $10 billion to detain children and their families on Manus Island, in inhumane conditions, damaging them for the rest of their lives—$10 billion. There is of course no media access to these detention centres, because the government do not want the Australian people to see how badly we are treating our fellow human beings. They do not want the Australian conscience to be pricked by the truth of what is going on in these camps. The amendment that I will be moving in relation to that is to allow media access to our detention centres, particularly those offshore on Manus Island and Nauru.

The second amendment is about allowing the Australian Human Rights Commission to enter those camps and be able to inspect them—because we cannot trust either this government or any government run by the coalition to treat vulnerable refugees and their families properly. We know that every time we actually get a glimpse into what is going on in these awful places, we see that people are not being treated right, that it is inhumane, that children are suffering. We should be allowing the Australian Human Rights Commission to go inside and inspect. I ask you, Mr Acting Deputy President: if there is nothing to hide, why not let them in?

The third amendment is a very important one, in relation to removing children and their families from Manus Island. It is a horrible place. It is a cruel place. It is an inhumane place. Even adults should not be there. Vulnerable refugees do not deserve to be treated like animals, as we have seen from the footage that was leaked through the Four Cornersreport only some weeks ago. Children are suffering on Manus Island, and it is time they were brought to the Australian mainland and cared for properly. This amendment will ban any government from being able to detain children, remove children to those awful places of abuse and cruelty—they are inhumane. Those children must be brought to the Australian mainland and cared for.

As a mother I have a responsibility to stand in this place and argue for the rights of those children. I call on every senator in this place to stand up for those children's rights as well, and do what you would want if they were your children.

10:28 am

Photo of Matt ThistlethwaiteMatt Thistlethwaite (NSW, Australian Labor Party, Parliamentary Secretary for Multicultural Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank all senators for their contributions to the second reading debate on the Migration Amendment (Unauthorised Maritime Arrivals and Other Measures) Bill 2012. Dealing with the issue of irregular maritime arrivals has probably been the most difficult public policy issue that our nation has dealt with in the last 25 years. I do not believe that anyone in this parliament believes that Australia should take an immoral or heartless approach to refugees. And certainly our history demonstrates and proves that this nation has been most welcoming of people coming from difficult circumstances, fleeing persecution, fleeing war and settling in Australia.

This government's commitment to supporting refugees coming to this country is highlighted by the fact that we have increased the humanitarian intake of refugees to 20,000—I believe the largest settlement program of any nation throughout the world. But what we cannot allow to continue to happen are events such as those that occurred on 15 December 2010, when 50 innocent women and children drowned in shocking circumstances before the eyes of this nation on the rocks at Christmas Island. We simply cannot allow, as a nation with a heart, those circumstances to occur again.

The Gillard government empanelled a team of experts, headed by Angus Houston, to develop a set of recommendations to try and take the politics out of this very difficult issue and to come up with a workable solution for the long term. That panel consulted and reported, and they came up with 22 recommendations. They made it very clear to the government and to the nation when they made those recommendations that they must be accepted as a whole, a full package—that you could not seek to pick out and implement elements of it. They made it clear that it needed to come as a full package for it to be effective.

This bill delivers on one of those recommendations. It delivers on the advice of the experts that the government consulted to attempt to take the politics out of this issue. That recommendation is recommendation No. 14. It says:

… arrival anywhere on Australia by irregular maritime means will not provide individuals with a different lawful status than those who arrive in an excised offshore place.

That is, irregular arrival by sea anywhere in Australia should make the person liable to regional processing arrangements. That is necessary to ensure the no advantage principle is adhered to. The panel's reasoning in making this recommendation was the need to reduce any incentive for people to take even greater risks with their lives by seeking to reach the Australian mainland to avoid being subject to regional processing arrangements. The report states:

The Panel considers that all possible measures should be implemented to avoid creating an incentive for IMAs taking even greater risks with their lives by seeking to reach the Australian mainland. As a complement to facilities in Nauru and PNG, the Panel recommends the Government bring forward legislative amendments to the Migration Act 1958 so that arrival on the Australian mainland by irregular maritime means does not provide individuals with a different lawful status than those who enter at an excised offshore place, such as Christmas Island.

That is making it very clear to the Prime Minister, to the executive and to the nation what they expected as an effective means for ensuring a deterrent to people-smuggling. The panel also emphasised—and the government has consistently reiterated—that this recommendation in the report is part of an integrated set of proposals. To be effective in discouraging asylum seekers from risking their lives, the incentives and disincentives the panel recommended must be pursued in a comprehensive, coordinated manner. This includes incentives to encourage greater use of regular migration pathways and international protection arrangements and disincentives to undertake irregular maritime voyages, including the application of a no advantage principle and regional processing arrangements. The legislative amendments proposed in this bill are part of that integrated approach.

The bill was referred to the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee for inquiry and report. I thank the committee for their report, tabled on 25 February 2013. I thank those who provided submissions and of course those who appeared before the committee. The bill involves complex issues, and I commend the manner in which the committee has captured and reported these complexities. The report states:

… the committee supports the intent of the Bill, subject to one important amendment.

The committee recommended that the bill be amended to require the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship to report annually to both houses of parliament in respect of matters relating to unauthorised maritime arrivals, including arrangements for assessing their refugee claims as well as the arrangements relating to accommodation, health care and education. Additionally, the committee recommended that the minister report on the number of asylum claims by unauthorised maritime arrivals that are assessed and determined to be refugees during the 12-month period. The government amendment that will be moved in the committee stage reflects this recommendation and will require the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship to cause that to be laid before each house of the parliament within 15 sitting days of that House after the end of the financial year.

The government does not support the amendments that have been put forward by the Greens, as that would be contrary to the recommendations of the expert panel, which the government has accepted and is implementing. The bill marks an important further step in giving effect to the recommendations of the panel and will remove yet another incentive for asylum seekers to take greater risks with their lives to reach the Australian mainland.

In respect of the claim that this is excising the Australian mainland, let me reiterate that this bill does not purport to excise the Australian mainland from the migration zone. The definition of the migration zone is not being amended in this bill. Instead, the bill defines individuals subject to regional processing based on their status as unauthorised maritime arrivals—that is, by arriving in Australia in the migration zone, by sea, without a visa in effect. This is in contrast to the current situation, where an individual is only subject to regional processing if they enter regional Australia in an excised offshore place such as Christmas Island.

In summing up, this government is fully committed to delivering a proper and sustainable regional solution through the full implementation of the recommendations of the expert panel that was led by Angus Houston. No-one should doubt this government's commitment to implementing all 22 of the recommendations of the expert panel to break the people smugglers business model and help to stop people dying at sea. That is how responsible governments develop policy—listening to the advice of experts.

I thank all senators for their contributions to this debate and I commend the bill and the government amendments to the Senate.

Photo of Cory BernardiCory Bernardi (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The question is that the bill be read a second time.