Senate debates

Thursday, 20 June 2013


Asylum Seekers

3:54 pm

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

At the request of Senator Fifield, I move:

That the Senate notes Labor’s failure to secure the borders and stop the boats.

Without a doubt, the Australian people have come to learn that when it comes to border protection in this country their current Prime Minister—I think we on this side and the public use that term 'current' very loosely, given that we are coming to the end of what is known as the killing week; we have one more week to go, and it may well be a killing week—is very long on rhetoric, but when it comes to the actual policy delivery of stated goals she fails at every stop.

The Prime Minister needs to understand that, despite her announcement yesterday, which came with a lot of fanfare, that she is off to Indonesia to meet with the Indonesian President, she cannot pull the wool over the Australian people's eyes. When it comes to border protection in this country, the Australian people gave up on Labor a long, long time ago. It is very convenient that the Prime Minister, knowing that an election is but a few months away, has suddenly found a renewed interest in border protection in Australia.

You might recall, Mr Deputy President, that prior to the 2010 election we had not heard a lot from Ms Gillard about border protection. Suddenly, when she realised that the Australian people were going to cast a vote she found a renewed interest in this policy. What did she do? She raced off to the Lowy Institute and announced what has gone down in history as the Labor Party's failed East Timor solution. There is a pattern of behaviour: consistent failure after failure after failure and then, suddenly, weeks before an election there is a renewed interest in border protection policy and a grandiose announcement is made. We know what happened to the East Timor plan—it fell flat on its face like so much when it comes to border protection under a Labor government. We know that the only reason the Prime Minister is going to Indonesia is so that she can say to the Australian people, after so many years of doing absolutely nothing to secure Australian borders: 'It's election time. Guess what? I am finally doing something.'

As the shadow minister for immigration said, I think the Australian people see right through this Prime Minister on this issue. They know that she not only cannot be trusted to come up with a plan on this issue; she cannot be trusted to implement one either. The trust quotient for this government on border protection is in deficit—ironically, just like the Labor budget—and no amount of grandstanding by the Prime Minister is going to change that fact.

When Australians read the front page of the Australian this morning they saw that Dennis Shanahan had written an article entitled 'Kevin Rudd's date with destiny looms'. In his article, Mr Shanahan says:

The Labor Party is heading towards a change of leadership next week.

Julia Gillard's supporters and defenders are slipping away, and Kevin Rudd faces increasing pressure to drop his unrealistic conditions of being drafted and to stand.

Mr Shanahan goes on to predict:

Right now it looks like Rudd by Friday week.

The Australian people and, quite frankly, those Gillard supporters who have not quite made the move over to Mr Rudd need to remember one thing. If they do change to Mr Rudd next Friday, thinking that will make a change to border protection policy in this country, they are going to be sadly disappointed. Mr Rudd in a speech to the parliament in June 2002, commenting on the Migration Legislation Amendment (Further Border Protection Measures) Bill and reflecting on national security under the then Howard government, said:

It depends on concrete measures taken in each of these substantive domains so that this nation is truly secure, not simply projected to be secure through the political rhetoric of this government.

Isn't it funny? You can say one thing in this place when in opposition and then find that, when you get into government and fail time and time again, as Mr Rudd did when he was Prime Minister, your words come back to bite you:

… this nation is truly secure, not … projected to be secure through the political rhetoric of government.

When it comes to Ms Gillard we know it is all political rhetoric, because these are the facts.

In just the last two days that we have all been here in Canberra—and I am going to have to discount today because I have not yet been brought up to speed on the number of boats that have arrived—on Tuesday and Wednesday of this week, we have witnessed the arrival of two more illegal boats, with a total of 140 people on them. That is on Tuesday and Wednesday of this week alone. What does that translate into? In this month alone—and remember we are but 19 days into this month—Australia has witnessed the arrival of more than 2,000 people. In this month alone, because of this government's border protection failures, Australia has witnessed the arrival of just over 2,000 people. We are currently seeing arrival rates of 100 people per day. One hundred people per day are arriving illegally in this country by boat because of the failure of those on that side of this chamber in relation to border protection policy.

Contrast that with the record of the Howard government. There are 100 people per day arriving currently. How is this for a compare and contrast? Fewer than 250 people arrived in the last six years of the Howard government. And those on that side have the audacity to stand up in this place and say that we are not dinkum when it comes to securing the borders of this country. In the last six years of the Howard government, 250 people arrived. When we lost office in 2007, four people were in immigration detention who had arrived here illegally by boat. In the last three days under this government, the boat arrivals for the last six years of the Howard government have been well and truly exceeded. If that is not a policy failure of the most grotesque kind, I do not know what is.

Almost 45,000 people have now arrived illegally by boat in Australia since August 2007. Numbers do not really mean a lot sometimes. You need to put them into context. So let us put boat arrivals under the Gillard-Rudd Labor government into context. Forty-five thousand people have arrived here, at a cost to the Australian taxpayer now in excess of $10 billion, because of the failed policies of those opposite. The Australian Bureau of Statistics tells us that 32,085 people live in Gladstone. So they have exceeded the population of Gladstone. In Tamworth, there are 36,157 people, the ABS say. They have exceeded the population of Tamworth. In Devonport, Mr Deputy President, in your home state of Tasmania, there are 22,770 people. So the number of illegal boat arrivals under this government is double the population of Devonport. In my home state, Geraldton has a population of 31,364. We have well and truly exceeded the population of Geraldton. That is the very sorry factual history of border protection failure under the Rudd and Gillard Labor government.

With Dennis Shanahan's predictions looming, everybody knows the mood in this place has just gone dead this week. We all read the news. We hear what the Labor Party people say to us quietly behind closed doors. Why would you go back to Mr Rudd? We all know what you think of him, because you told the Australian people that earlier this year. Crikey! The people of Australia know exactly what you think of Mr Rudd. You yourselves went on record to tell the Australian people what you thought of him. Why would you go back to the man whom you politically executed almost three years ago, with one of the reasons for the execution being that he failed to stop the boats coming to this country? If he was such a failure three years ago, how has he changed in any way? Has he suddenly had an epiphany and gone: 'You know, I was wrong. I was wrong to wind back the proven border protection policies of the Howard government.' Has Mr Rudd had that epiphany? No, absolutely not. The Australian people have the right to ask those opposite.

You are playing with our Prime Minister. We may not elect the Prime Minister directly like they do the President in America, but I can tell you that Australian people think they do, and they did not look kindly on those opposite when the person that the Australian people believed they voted for as Prime Minister was taken out during a backroom deal one late night, on 24 June 2010. If next week those on the other side determine that they want to take out Ms Gillard, just to save their own political skins, the Australian people again will judge them very, very harshly. What the Labor Party need to understand—and the Australian people understand this, because Australians are not stupid; Australians are actually very smart when it comes to policies in this country—is that, if they take out Ms Gillard next week and replace her with Mr Rudd, the only thing that will change in the Labor Party will be the person at the top.

The Labor Party need to understand that, when it comes to border protection in this country, if you are not going to change your policies, if you are not going to revert to the proven policies of the former Howard government, then nothing changes. Mr Rudd has made it quite clear he is not apologetic for the rollback. He is not apologetic for setting the policy framework in Australia that has now directly contributed to what is widely considered to be the grossest dereliction of duty by a government in our history. Why would you, honestly, go back to him?

The Australian people are not stupid. You can change Ms Gillard next week, you can put in Mr Rudd, but at the end of the day if you are not going to change your policies, if you are not going to get a spine, if you are not going to show some backbone, if you are not going to reintroduce the former proven policies of the Howard government, then, quite frankly, nothing will change.

Going back to Ms Gillard, though, honestly why would you stay with her given her failures? Do you remember, Mr Deputy President, when the Prime Minister was the shadow minister for immigration and the Howard government was going through the process of tightening Australia's border protection laws? It was a very tough thing to do but we on this side like tough policy; we rise to a challenge. So we introduced our former tough border protection policies, which the Australian people know, because we have been consistent since August 2008, when the wind back began, we will do again. But what did Ms Gillard say at this time? Those on the other side say we have catchcries. Ms Gillard was very famous for her catchcry: another boat, another policy failure.

When you want to talk about boats arriving under the former Howard government, these are the statistics. This is from the department's own website; this is not from Senator Michaelia Cash, senator for Western Australia. These are the department's statistics. When we introduced our proven border protection policies, what was the result of them? Every time we stand up and say we are going to reintroduce the proven border protection policies of the Howard government, those on the other side say, 'But you will not stop the boats.' Hold on, because these are the statistics. We introduced the policies and in 2002-03 zero boats arrived. Compare that to when those policies were not in place under the Howard government—and we admit boats arrived under us. We do not resile from it like they do on the other side; we admit it. The fundamental difference between us on this side and those on the other side is that we stand up and we say, 'You are right.' When we got into office, boats were arriving. But we took tough decisions. We said that the No. 1 responsibility of a Commonwealth government is the security of the nation. The No. 1 responsibility of a Commonwealth government is to ensure the security of our borders. So we introduced the Pacific solution.

As I was saying, these are not my statistics. This is not Michaelia Cash making these statistics up. These are the facts. Those on the other side do not like them but it is their department who published these statistics. In 2002-03 zero boats arrived. How can you argue that our policies did not stop the boats when that is a fact? In 2003-04 one boat arrived—one whole boat in an entire year. Contrast that with the situation under the current government. They can snigger all they like on the other side but the Australian people know that under the current Gillard government 100 people are arriving per day. It was one boat in one year in 2003-04. In 2004-05, lo and behold, under the former Howard government we reverted back to zero boats arrived.

What do we have currently under this government? Almost 45,000 people have arrived, and under Ms Gillard herself, the Prime Minister who gave us the reason that she had to execute the former Prime Minister, Mr Rudd, in the dead of night of 24 June 2010. We all remember that night well because the third anniversary is coming up shortly. The reason that was given when they fronted the cameras afterwards and said they had to take out Mr Rudd was that Mr Rudd had failed to solve the border protection policy that he himself had created. It was another boat, another policy failure—under the current Prime Minister's own catchcry. But 589 boats carrying 38,115 people have now arrived since Ms Gillard politically executed Mr Rudd. So much for stopping the boats.

But it is not just the people; it is the financial cost to the Australian people. Those on the other side could not care less about that. They all smile because it is not their money they are spending; it is the Australian taxpayers' money. Like the good socialists they are, unfortunately for them one day they just run out of other people's money and there is nothing else to spend. In the last four years the grotesque border protection failures of that government have cost the Australian people in excess now of $6.6 billion. Under the former Howard government in the year that we lost office this portfolio was costing the Australian people $85 million per year, and in the last four years under those opposite it has cost the Australian taxpayer in excess of $6.6 billion. There is only one political party in this country that is committed to stopping the boats. We have done it before and we will do it again. (Time expired)

4:14 pm

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

I must say that this is probably the most difficult policy issue that the parliament and the people of Australia have had to deal with certainly in my time in this place. Having just heard Senator Cash's contribution to this debate, I think this is also the saddest policy debate that we have had over the last three years in this parliament. It is sad because today is World Refugee Day. Today is the day when the world should be celebrating the fact that, after World War II—with the atrocities of the Holocaust and the mass persecution and genocide of people from other nations for reasons of their colour or their race and through no fault of their own—the world came together and said, 'We must stop this. It can never happen again.' The world spawned the refugee convention in 1954 and the protocol in the early 1970s. On a day when we are meant to be celebrating the fact that the world can open its arms to people who flee persecution and to parents who decide to put the interests of their kids and their safety before anything else, we have to listen to that. Those opposite could say on World Refugee Day that they are committed to supporting the United Nations refugee convention and the principle that Australia is a place where people can seek refuge; but they come in here and again try to score political points on this issue because they see an opportunity to win an election around it. I think it is downright sad.

We are a wealthy nation. Our living standards are some of the best in the world. Our real incomes are some of the highest in the world. We have the third highest minimum wage in the world. For generations in this country we have recognised that we as a collective and as a people have a duty, a moral responsibility, to care for others who are fleeing persecution. We have opened our doors to them—and look at the nation that it has built. Arthur Calwell, the immigration minister in the 1940s and 1950s, said we must populate or perish. Since then, seven million Australians have come to this country as migrants and refugees. They have settled in peace, harmony and mutual respect. They have made a better life and, importantly, contributed to our nation. They built the nation that we are today. They built the economy that we have today.

It is something that I feel strongly about because my wife's grandparents came here as postwar migrants from Italy, seeking to flee the devastation of World War II in their country. They are two of the seven million who have come to this country and made a contribution. They had children. Their children became doctors and lawyers and factory workers. They had grandchildren. They became nurses and other people who contribute to this country.

Of those seven million Australians, 800,000 have been refugees who have come here seeking to flee persecution and find a better life. They have done so legally because the world said in 1954 that people have a right to safety, to protection and to live with their families without the threat of war and without the threat of persecution and genocide because of the colour of their skin or their background.

We have welcomed migrants from all corners of the globe. Traditionally, they came from the UK; then they began to come from the Americas, from postwar Europe, from Asia and, more recently, from the Middle East. We have welcomed them—and we have welcomed them because there has been bipartisan leadership. There has been a collective understanding by the leaders of our nation since we got rid of the White Australia policy that it was not only the right thing to do but was also beneficial for our economy, that if we were going to grow as a nation this would be the right thing to do.

And look what it has spawned. Our nation's greatest asset now is not our natural resources, not our institutions; it is our people, our diversity. If you go into any Australian home now, you will generally find an ancestry different from the traditional one. We boast about 260 different ancestries in this country now. We speak 400 different languages at home. We practise many different religions and theologies. We do it in peace, in mutual respect for each other, in harmony and, importantly, in a way that grows our economy, makes us all better off and gives us all greater living standards. And we only ask one thing of those people who come here: that they respect Australian values and laws, and that they make their contribution—and 99 per cent of them do.

This government is committed to immigration. We are committed to multiculturalism and we are committed to the United Nations refugee convention. That commitment is symbolised by the fact that over the last 12 months we have implemented a policy of increasing our humanitarian intake of refugees. We have increased the humanitarian intake from 13,000 refugees per year to 20,000. We have worked with neighbours in our region to deal with this issue. We have worked, through the UNHCR, to ensure that we are doing our bit as a nation to settle those who are seeking asylum throughout the world. And we have done so to the tune of 800,000 people over the course of our history.

The issues that have dominated the political debate in recent times have been asylum seekers and boat people—people getting on boats, paying people smugglers and coming to this country. In the context of us welcoming refugees and in the context of our history and of the contribution that refugees make to this country, Australia has been a welcoming place for refugees and has been generous in the spirit of the United Nations refugee convention. But in these times you simply cannot have vulnerable people, particularly children, getting on a boat and coming here in unsafe conditions. You cannot have policies that encourage that, unfortunately. I did have a sympathetic approach to this issue, until I saw those shocking, horrifying images of people drowning on the rocks at Christmas Island a couple of years ago—particularly children, flailing in the water, in the rough surf. Bystanders watching, yet unable to do anything, saw kids drown. You just cannot have a policy that encourages that. We cannot allow helpless, vulnerable people, particularly children, to get on unsafe boats anymore. We just cannot do it.

But we still want to be sympathetic to refugees. We still want to meet our commitments through our humanitarian intake. I do not think you can persecute anyone who is trying to do the best thing by their kids, really, and ensure that their kids remain safe. But, as a surf lifesaver for 28 years, it saddens me that we have to see those images of people in the water, with children, having to be rescued or, in certain tragic circumstances, drowning.

So the issue becomes: how do we maintain that generous history, that generous disposition to refugees, that tradition of resettlement—resettling those who are seeking asylum, as they are legally entitled to do in accordance with international law—and do that safely? How do we do that without encouraging people to get on boats?

It is not a policy failing. It is not an unwillingness to deal with this issue. It is not, as Senator Cash says, a willingness to waste taxpayers' money by those on the Labor side of politics. It is not that at all. We want to solve this issue. And we would like to be able to do it in consultation—in partnership, really—with those opposite.

Unfortunately, we could not get that outcome because of the nature of this parliament. Because of the nature of the hung parliament we could not get a resolution on the floor of the parliament to this issue. We tried: we put a resolution to the parliament that would have got around the problem of the High Court decision regarding the Malaysia people-swap agreement. It did not work. I am not going to go into the reasons why it did not work, but it did not work. In the wake of that, the government said: 'Let us try to take the politics out of this issue; let us ask some people who do not come with any political baggage to this debate but have some experience with it. Let us ask them to advise this parliament—not the government, importantly, but the parliament: the elected representatives of the people of Australia. Let us ask them to come up with a workable solution to this issue.'

That is what the expert panel on this issue was entrusted to do. The panel was headed by Angus Houston, a very well respected military leader in this country. It also had Paris Aristotle, a very well respected refugee advocate, and Michael L'Estrange, who has also worked in this area for many years. They came up with a series of recommendations. They tried to take the politics out of this issue. The panel came up with 22 recommendations advising the parliament on what they thought was the best course to deal with this issue, to ensure that we met and continued to meet the commitments that we had made through international treaties and agreements to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees—the commitments that we, like many other nations, made to the rest of the world in the wake of World War II. How do we continue to meet those commitments but ensure that people do not get on boats and risk their lives?

The panel came up with 22 recommendations. The key point that they outlined and underlined in that set of recommendations was that, if it was going to work, you needed to adopt all 22 of them; you could not pick one, pick the other and say, 'We're not going to do a few of the others.' They needed to be adopted as a whole package. That is the key point. One of those recommendations was the Malaysia people-swap agreement. Unfortunately, again because of politics, we have not been able to implement all 22 of those recommendations. Of course, the expert panel said: 'Well, if you cannot implement all of those 22 recommendations then this will fail.' And, unfortunately, we have been unable to get that agreement. I think we have been unable to get leadership from some members of parliament on this issue.

The saddest thing on this is that, unfortunately—I have got to say this—I think that those opposite see this as an opportunity: a political winner. They see this as something that can win them the election. The truth is that, regardless of who wins the election, this problem will go on into the future.

The reason that this problem will remain is that there is a human catastrophe of catastrophic proportions occurring in Syria at the moment. Our nation's foreign minister, Bob Carr, has outlined the magnitude of the devastation that is occurring in Syria at the moment. Close to one million people are now in refugee camps bordering Syria, in Jordan and Lebanon. They are not going to go away. They are not going to disappear into thin air. That problem is going to remain beyond the election. People are still fleeing persecution in Afghanistan. They are still running away from the Taliban. There are still problems in Iraq that people are fleeing. There are still problems in Burma. We cannot stop that. Those refugees who exist because of that persecution are going to do what any human being would do, and that is: try to protect their kids. So that is the fact about this. You cannot ignore that. Just as those opposite seek to ignore the effect of the global financial crisis on the world economy over the last five years and the reasons why our budget is still in deficit, you cannot ignore the fact that there are people who are fleeing persecution.

There has been a level of debate in this country about how we deal with the issue, and the coalition have said that they will stop the boats—they will turn back boats on the high seas. That is their prerogative; they can come up with that policy as an attempt at a solution. But when you analyse this issue—when Australian people have a look at the issue in detail—the argument is wafer thin. The reason the argument is wafer thin is that people who have experience in this area of trying to implement a policy like this—the likes of former Admiral Chris Barrie, the former head of the Navy—have said that it will not work, because it has not worked in the past. Unfortunately, some of these people smugglers are ruthless. When they are confronted with a turn-back on the high seas, they disable the boat, and we have all seen what the terrible consequences of that are.

The second point to make is that the Indonesian ambassador himself—the Indonesian government's representative in this country—has said publicly to the Australian public that the Indonesian government will not cooperate and will not cop the Australian government turning boats around on the high seas. Why would they? Those on these boats are generally not Indonesian nationals. The Indonesian government have made it very clear that they will not cop boats being turned around on the high seas.

So the question that remains to be answered and that those opposite, unfortunately, have not been able to answer—not one of them: not Mr Abbott, not the opposition spokesperson, Scott Morrison, and not Senator Cash—is: if you turn around on the high seas a boat that contains refugees, where do they go? Perhaps someone on the other side of this chamber, throughout this debate, can answer this question: if you turn refugees around on the high seas, where do they go? Where do they go if Indonesia is saying, 'You can't come here and we won't cop that, because you're not Indonesian nationals'? Where do they go? More importantly, what does the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees think about turning around boats that are unsafe—they generally do not have enough life jackets or enough food or water, and they generally have children on them—on the high seas? That is the political reality of this issue. That is why the rhetoric might be fine but, when you dig down and analyse the policy, it will not work. That is why the great tragedy and the great shame of this whole thing is that there has not been political leadership on it.

In 2001, when the Tampa turned up on our shores, there was in some respects a political crisis. It stopped the nation. It was the issue that everyone was talking about. John Howard developed a policy to deal with that, and he got bipartisan support for many of the elements of that policy. He got political leadership from the Leader of the Opposition at the time, Kim Beazley—much to Kim Beazley's detriment, I must say. Kim Beazley received numerous motions from Labor Party branches and letters from members of the public saying, 'Don't do this; it's the wrong thing to do.' But he put the nation's interests first. He showed political leadership on this issue, and he worked in a bipartisan manner with the government of the day to solve the crisis. The great shame about this whole debate is that in this 43rd Parliament we have not had that political leadership from the Leader of the Opposition.

4:34 pm

Photo of Brett MasonBrett Mason (Queensland, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Universities and Research) Share this | | Hansard source

There has been a lot of talk about what is Labor's greatest policy failure, and there have certainly been plenty of policy failures to choose from. I used to think the carbon tax was Labor's greatest policy failure. Who else except Labor and the Greens could think that it was a good idea to unilaterally impose a tax on our most successful sector of the economy, a tax more severe than any other major economy has inflicted on its citizens, a tax that everyone now knows will have no effect on temperature or climate? I thought that was Labor's greatest policy failure. We were told how much the rest of the world was doing to address the issue of climate change. Remember when we were told that? But none of our trading competitors were doing too much at all. Brazil, Russia, India and China were not doing too much at all, let alone the United States and Canada. They are in fact doing very little. China, we always hear about. We are still hearing from the government today about how much China is doing with respect to climate change. But we now know they are building three new coal-fired power stations a week and their emissions increase every year by the same amount that Australia emits every year. With the collapse of the price of carbon in the European Union, Labor's carbon tax has again been exposed as a millstone around Australia's neck. How anyone could seriously think that by tying its own hands and going on its own Australia could do anything for the climate in the absence of a genuine global agreement involving the world's economies and major emitters is literally beyond me.

There are arguments that have been canvassed so often in this parliament I have to repeat them because clearly that is a huge policy failure. In the end, you cannot believe that Labor and the Greens would instil a policy across this nation and our economy, but they did it; always style over substance. Labor and the Greens did it, which is a shocking policy failure. Others, less generously than me, say that Labor's greatest policy failure was its mining tax. Once again, Labor homed in on the strongest sector of the economy, our minerals export industry—the only industry that was saving Australia from a recession—and decided it would be a good idea to start killing the goose that was laying the golden egg. That was Labor's idea. In the end, what an appalling policy failure it was, because it turned out that the mining tax was not raising any money. That, even for Labor, was a first. It was another shocking policy failure.

Others still say that Labor's debt and deficit are their greatest policy failure. The carbon tax, the mining tax and shocking public debt from Labor's obsession with spending, with splashing the cash around, with throwing money at every problem with little to show for it at the end have resulted in five record budget deficits in a row. They have also resulted in a record net debt of over $190 billion and the prospect of the $300 billion debt ceiling being breached within the next few years. That is on the cards. Labor's debt remains the greatest threat to the livelihoods of young Australians and those yet to be born. In their social democratic drive to make Australia more like western Europe, the Labor Party and the Greens have saddled our country with a structural debt that never ever goes away. Does anyone believe that this lot would ever pay back public debt? Does anyone in the world believe that? They have not done it in western Europe or in the United States. If this lot had their way, there would never be a repayment of public debt.

The Australian Labor Party always likes to talk about social justice—'social justice' being the key words. Is it socially just for this generation to live on the largesse of Australia's young people and those yet to be born? Is it fair for young people to pay the debt for our generation? Is that socially just? You should ask a Greek teenager what they think about their politicians, about their parents' and their grandparents' generations. They are disgusted. The same would happen in this country if the Labor Party and the Greens got away with it. Public debt remains the greatest potential crisis. Maybe neither carbon tax nor the mining tax nor even public debt are Labor's greatest policy failures. Maybe when historians in the future look at this bizarre interlude called the Gillard-Rudd prime ministerships, they will conclude that Labor's greatest and most tragic failure was its trashing of Australia's immigration system.

Labor's failure to secure our borders and stop the boats might not be as costly as Labor's other failures. It is expensive, as Senator Cash points out, though it may not be as costly as some of the other ones, like the carbon tax, the mining tax and certainly public debt. But what distinguishes this policy from all the others is this: its sheer pointlessness and hubris. That is what makes this policy about how to deal with the boat people very, very different. This was not an issue that Labor had to address. There was no problem when Labor came to power in 2007. John Howard had largely fixed the problem after the spike in boat arrivals in 2001 and in 2002. The Pacific solution, temporary protection visas and strong enforcement have worked. As Senator Cash pointed out, in 2008 only eight boats bearing 179 asylum seekers arrived in our country. That is all.

Mr Rudd, Australia's second worst Prime Minister and the man who wants to be Prime Minister again, I am told, by the end of next week, made a decision to change all that. He decided to soften the rules. In doing so he sent all the wrong signals to countless thousands of people out there—many of whom, I agree, are no doubt genuine refugees; I think we would accept that—who wanted to reach Australia and live in our country, and, of course, to people smugglers, who want to help them achieve those very goals. He sent all the wrong signals and the results are here for all to see. My friend Senator Cash, who knows far more about these issues, has pointed these out. They are worth remembering.

There have been 725 boats since Labor came to power, with over 44,000 people seeking asylum. Two thousand have arrived just this month so far, at 100 people a day on average. Recall that in the whole year of 2008 only 179 people arrived by boat. In June this year, it would take less than two days to reach that entire total. It is an extraordinary change. We have seen $6.6 billion in cost blow-outs, so it is expensive—over $6½ billion in cost blow-outs. Asylum seekers are spilling out over Christmas Island and into mainland Australia because infrastructure cannot house them all. We now know that as well. We know the farce of the Indonesian solution and then the Malaysian solution, which were not solutions at all. There have been numerous other attempts by Labor to fix the problem they created, without acknowledging that there is a problem and without acknowledging that the system put in place by the coalition government had actually worked. That is never acknowledged. Everyone knows it, but it is never acknowledged. Last, but definitely not least, some 1,000 people drowned in the sea while trying to reach Australia. As my friend Senator Cash reminded me, that is 1,000 people that we know of.

So why did we have to go through hundreds of boats, tens of thousands of arrivals, billions of dollars and thousands of lives wasted—all the upheaval, all the embarrassment, all the debate and all the horror? Why did we have to go through it? After all, you would think: if it ain't broke, don't fix it. Why did Labor, Mr Rudd and Ms Gillard decide to fix something that was not broken? The answer is actually quite simple, and I have raised this before. This is the problem with social democratic governments: moral vanity—the vain belief that Labor and the Greens and the left know best and are the conscience of the world and the democratic world. That was the problem with Mr Rudd.

The left, the Labor Party, the Greens, all their cheerleaders in the universities and in the media—the media all backed the Labor Party, as always—and all those people in the arts and the not-for-profit sector backed the Labor Party. They are running away now, but they all backed the Labor Party and the Greens. They thought: 'How caring! How sharing! What a great idea!' No-one says that anymore, do they? You cannot find anyone who says it now. There is this sort of insider crowd—those who have a sort of moral conscience that, apparently, we, most Australians, do not have! These are the people that Nick Cater in his recent book Lucky Culture talks about: the insider crowd, those with a well-developed conscience—none of whom, of course, vote for the coalition! That is the argument of Mr Rudd.

In the Labor Party's view of the world, in the left's view of the world, people who disagree with them, who do not share their views or their methods, people on the centre-right of politics, are heartless. We are heartless, our side of politics! We are morally blind; we lack compassion, decency and humanity—that is what they say. That is why Mr Rudd changed the policy and weakened it. That is what Mr Rudd did—because we lack compassion! We lack ethics; we lack a common morality! The left, on the other hand—the Labor Party—of course, as Mr Rudd used to remind us, is enlightened, compassionate, humane, smarter, better, more understanding and more caring than we are! That was always the argument from Mr Rudd. As someone once observed, the left always thinks that the right is not simply wrong but evil.

So, for the Labor Party and for the left in this country, for the insider crowd, Australia's immigration policy became another opportunity to engage in this sort of political psychodrama, another opportunity to show the world how good—oh, how good; oh, how compassionate; oh, how enlightened—we are, and to receive the cheers of the crowd at the United Nations in New York. Oh, how wonderful! It did not matter to them that the immigration policy was working and that the refugee policy was working smoothly, achieving its objective of offering protection for asylum seekers from right around the world, without confronting Australia's government and society with the challenge of a flood of asylum seekers dying—literally dying—to reach our shores. It is all this political psychodrama for the left—sacrificing everyone and everything else for the sake of that warm feeling that they are right and that everyone else is not only wrong but immoral, dangerous and deluded. It is this sort of self-referencing morality that, I have to say, people in the coalition cannot stand. Mr Rudd is playing out a psychodrama right now for the leadership. But far worse is the hubris that attended his weakness on the policy protecting our borders.

So what are the costs of Labor's moral vanity? Firstly, there are the lives lost because of Labor's moral vanity. Softening our border protection policy has sent tens of thousands on a mad dash to reach our shores across dangerous seas and often in unseaworthy boats. Already, at least 1,000 men and women have drowned in the Indian Ocean. Moral vanity actually kills. It is not trendy, it is not sexy, it is not pretty; it actually kills.

Secondly, there is the financial cost of Labor's moral vanity. The budget blowout is about $6.6 billion. Every new boat is costing Australian taxpayers about $13 million. Our refugee infrastructure cannot cope; it is bursting at the seams. And there is no end in sight. How many more boat arrivals can we accommodate? Clearly, tens of thousands more want to come to our country. And why wouldn't they? Just this morning my Brisbane office received a phone call from a gentleman who wanted me to know that a plane full of asylum seekers from Christmas Island and elsewhere now arrives at the Brisbane Airport every night at 2 am, where they are transferred onto minibuses and taken to various locations throughout Brisbane, including a backpackers hostel in West End which has been cleared of tourists for that purpose.

This is now policy on the run. This simply is not sustainable. Perhaps the farthest reaching cost of Labor's moral vanity is the damage to our immigration policy, the point we discussed before. For some time now, there has been a bipartisan as well as a social consensus in Australia about immigration—and that is a good thing. Immigration has been seen as a good thing, something that benefits our country, that enriches us in many tangible and indeed intangible ways. We are rightly proud that Australia has accepted millions of migrants who have helped to build our country. We are rightly proud of our refugee program and the fact that our intake of refugees is the second highest per capita in the world. Both the migrant intake and the refugee intake have steadily increased under John Howard and then under the Labor government—and Australians have accepted that, there has been no argument with that.

But this is now at risk because, in their attempt to demonstrate how much more compassionate and humane they are than the coalition, Labor have thrown open the doors and lost control of our borders. They have outsourced our generous humanitarian migration program to the people smugglers and to the criminals. That is the problem. They have made a joke of our refugee program and our migration policy. Labor's monumental failure in handling the refugee program is now sapping public confidence in our immigration program and destroying that important public consensus on immigration.

Sadly, you cannot blame the average person in the street who feels this way, having been exposed to all the incompetence, hypocrisy and vain moral posturing of this government. The Left does not like the concept of user pays. They are wary of private health and they are wary of private education. They bristle at the concept that a person's wealth and ability to pay should determine the treatment they get or the services they receive. 'It's not egalitarian, it's not fair, it's not just,' they say; Labor does not like that idea. Yet this hostility to user pays disappears when it comes to the refugee program—because what is our refugee program under Labor other than a system whereby those who can afford it are the ones who get to Australia?

What Labor has in effect said to the refugees around the world is this: 'You are welcome in Australia. We will accept you as a refugee, as long as you can afford to fly to Indonesia from the Middle East or from Africa or from wherever you are and then pay another $10,000 to a people smuggler to ship you across the sea to Australia.' That is what Labor is telling the world. What Labor and the Greens have created is a business class refugee program—and this is supposed to be fairer and more compassionate than the coalition's policy. How is that fairer to some penniless widow with three children, rotting in a refugee camp somewhere in Kenya or in Pakistan or in Asia, who will miss out on places in our refugee intake because their spots have been taken by somebody who has been able to pay their way to Australia? How is that fair? Over the past three years 8,000 people in camps, seeking out protection, have been denied a place because those places have gone to boat people. The recent increase in the refugee intake has all gone to boat people. How is Labor's refugee policy more compassionate than before, with the 1,000 people who drowned on the way to Australia? Labor has turned our refugee policy into some sort of reality TV show: The Amazing Race meets Survivor! Somehow if you get here it is all okay. It is not good enough.

Apparently the Prime Minister is off to Jakarta, and she will solve the problem. The certain thing is this: there was not a problem when Labor went into government. It is time they got over their moral vanity and finally conceded that they have to return to coalition policies.

4:54 pm

Photo of Ursula StephensUrsula Stephens (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Oh dear! There are many, many times in this chamber when I am really proud to be a representative of the Australian people and the Australian parliament. And today, on World Refugee Day—when everyone's focus is on the global trends report of the United Nations refugee agency—we are reduced to this kind of a nonsense debate about something that is a critical issue and something that we should all care about. We should not be having psychodrama nonsense carrying on. We should not be having people warning us that our words are going to come back to bite us; in fact, I think that is a lesson for everybody here.

It really is quite shameful, because we all know that this debate on border protection is about the political impasse that has been a part of this parliament since 2010. It is an issue that we have been fighting on for 12 years. We have been fighting about this since the Tampa. And, in all of that time, people have been dying. We know that. We have seen, time after time, the horrible tragedy of people who have perished at sea, the distressing footage of men, women and children losing their lives. And it is simply because at a time when all else had failed and the government had asked an independent panel to come up with a solution, a plan that would help us to break this impasse in our parliament, we were not able to get the opposition to agree to the 22 recommendations—in particular, the Malaysia solution—that would allow us to fly people back. That is our conundrum, and that is the huge moral dilemma we have.

No amount of political posturing, psychodrama, stamping of feet or screaming across the chamber is going to negate the fact that, on that side of the parliament, there is no willingness to resolve this problem. If there really was a concern about the people who are perishing at sea, then we would have people come to the table to negotiate some actions. That point was made just this week by Paris Aristotle, who spoke on 7.30. Paris Aristotle is a very decent, honourable man; we all know that. His reputation is unbelievable, and his experience working with people who have dealt with trauma and torture. He understands what motivates people to get on these boats, and he also understands what needs to be done. He made this very salient point. He was so distressed, but what he says was:

… the first thing it's going to take is for the Parliament, as a whole, not just the Government, but the Parliament as a whole to come together and agree on a strategy for addressing this issue. But it has to be a comprehensive strategy, one that builds a better regional system that engages Indonesia and Malaysia and other countries in our region to try to provide an alternative pathway but also to disrupt and intercept the activities of people smugglers. In order to reduce the numbers of people that one, feel compelled that they have to get on boats and two, don't have another option other than doing that at the moment.

So, his plea to all of us is to be a little bit more mature about our role as national legislators, to be able to actually come to the table.

We now have a week of the parliament left. We have one week to resolve this issue before this parliament is dissolved. Paris Aristotle says that this is not moral posturing, that there is an ethical dilemma here—a 'wicked' policy problem that cannot be resolved. His concern really is that because the images have disappeared from our television screens—and because the debate is now a screaming debate of 140 characters on Twitter and 'stop the boats' and all that kind of nonsense—people have lost touch with the humanitarian crisis that is happening in the world and the humanitarian challenge that we as a very developed nation need to take our fair share of. Paris Aristotle says that it does not make it any less serious, disastrous or desperate just because we are not seeing this happening. We should take our understanding that people—babies, children, women and men—are dying in large numbers and deal with that seriously and genuinely.

But I think it is the absence of the vision which is making it easier for people not to address this issue properly. That is really what he is saying. He is saying that it is not having this at the forefront of our minds which is allowing us to diminish this debate to what we are seeing in the chamber today. I am embarrassed that that is the case. I am hugely embarrassed for all of us, for all Australians who are concerned about refugees, that this debate has happened on World Refugee Day.

One of the key elements of the Malaysia solution is the capacity to fly people back. The evidence is clear that that strategy works. If we cannot fly people who are not genuine refugees back, we can at least fly them halfway. That is why the Malaysia agreement is so important. Regardless of the fluffery we hear from the opposition, we need the coalition to allow us to do that.

But we know that this is not really about good public policy, regardless of what we have heard this afternoon. It is all about the politics. On the substance, it is only at the margins that we and the coalition disagree. We both support offshore processing, we both support mandatory detention for the purposes of assessing the refugee status of asylum seekers and we both support working with Indonesia, Sri Lanka and other countries which are critical to stopping this hideous trade in people. We both believe that, so the substantive differences are only at the margins.

But the politics are being allowed to poison this debate. It is the coalition's overt strategy to exploit this issue for political advantage. If anyone thought that were not true, I will give you a little bit of evidence to support my claim. A quarterly essay by David Marr last year shone a light on how WikiLeaks had revealed the coalition strategy to exploit the boats in a very interesting way. The article said:

In late 2009, in the dying days of Malcolm Turnbull's leadership of the Opposition, a "key Liberal party strategist" popped in to the US embassy in Canberra to say how pleased the party was that refugee boats were, once again, making their way to Christmas Island. "The issue was 'fantastic," he said. "And 'the more boats that come the better." But he admitted they had yet to find a way to make the issue work in their favour: "his research indicated only a 'slight trend' towards the Coalition."

So in 2009, after we had dealt with the issue of the Tampa and moved on, a senior Liberal Party strategist went to the United States embassy here in Canberra and said he thought the increase in boat numbers and boat people was fantastic—the more the better—and how disappointed they were that they had not yet worked out the wedge message.

That is why we are having this debate today. The Liberal Party refuses to allow the government to implement our policies because they see political advantage in having more boats. They see the political opportunities created for people like Senator Cash to come in here and scream nonsense down the microphone, as in the diatribe we just had to listen to.

We do not agree on everything but we should all at least agree that we have a responsibility to try to stop people dying. Senator Mason certainly expressed his concern about the people dying at sea. Nobody has the moral high ground on this issue and nobody has the moral high ground on life or death. But the government of the day should be given the power it needs to stop this from happening. Senator Thistlethwaite nailed it when he said that Kim Beazley had done just that. He gave that authority to John Howard, the Prime Minister at the time. He gave John Howard the power he needed after the Tampa incident.

But this vexatious opposition has denied the government the same rights. That is why we are having this heinous debate began. People are really sick of this. They are sick and tired of this issue. People are very concerned about what is going on, but the misinformation, the fearmongering and the tactics being used are insulting. Enough is enough. If the opposition really did care about the refugee crisis and really wanted to do something for these people who risk their lives at the hands of the people smugglers, they would be at the table seeking a genuine solution and they would be prepared to accept the fine recommendations of the people who produced the Houston report.

I want to remind people of what did work. We know that the fear of drowning at sea has not put people off—the boats keep coming. Frankly, nor has offshore processing in Nauru or Manus. What has stopped them is the threat of flying people home. We saw the group of Sri Lankan economic refugees who were put on a plane and sent home. That would have sent a very strong message to people that this is not the way to seek refugee status. The fear of death does not put people off but being sent home a few weeks after they have set sail at sea certainly does.

So what do we do now? The Prime Minister is going to Indonesia next week. She is going to have some discussions, as part of the regional strategy that came out of the Bali process, about a comprehensive plan to deal with the mass migration and mass refugee issue that is a growing crisis across the world. The UNHCR released its annual report this week, and it amounts to a reality check for the debate in Australia. The report reveals that in 2012 the refugee crisis reached levels unseen in the previous decade. I refer to an article in The Age by Michael Gordon, reporting on the UNHCR's annual report. It says:

By the end of the year, some 45.2 million people were considered forcibly displaced due to persecution, conflict and human rights violations, the highest level since 1994.

This is an indicator of the number of people desperately fleeing persecution and why we have boats coming to Australia. The article goes on:

An estimated 7.6 million people were newly displaced, either across an international border or within their own country, during 2013—the highest number in one year since 1999.

Earlier this week we heard the most appalling, devastating statistics from the Minister for Foreign Affairs about the situation in Syria and surrounding areas—a million people fleeing into Lebanon. What is Australia dealing with? A very small number in the overall scheme of things. Those UNHCR numbers equate to about 23,000 people around the world fleeing their homes every day—more than the total number of asylum seekers in Australia throughout 2012. That puts things into perspective. It is a reality check for Australia. We are a generous country, but we are 49th in the number of refugees hosted in 2012 and we ranked 11th in the number of asylum seekers who have lodged claims but have yet to receive a decision. We have to ensure that what we are doing will address this key issue.

I tried to find some alternative propositions from the conservative think tanks—an idea of what Tony Abbott and the Liberals are planning to do. I could not find anything of substance from the Menzies Research Centre or any of the conservative think tanks, but I did find the Australian Conservative Truth website. The Australian Conservative Truth is a blog 'motivated to provide the correct reality of what is going on,' and it does invite people to 'Feel free to leave your comments, and use any articles you find interesting/useful.' There was a very useful article entitled 'How the Abbott Liberals will Stop the Boats'. These are propositions from the conservative side of politics:

1. Australia will cease being a signatory to the UN Convention on refugees ...

That is a helpful one. It goes on:

2. Anyone arriving in Australia or attempting to arrive in Australia illegally will be returned to their last place of port … This would have an immediate effect on the criminal people smugglers currently freely operating out of … Malaysia … and … Indonesia.

3. Abbott will recognise the legitimacy of the democratically elected Buddhist government of Sri Lanka, and all illegal Sri Lankans will be returned without delay.

4. Malaysia and Indonesia will face harsh diplomatic, foreign aid and trade sanctions should they continue to allow the illegal people trafficking operations through their countries …

5. The Australian Crime Commission will advise the Abbott Liberals that proponents of sharia law … are in fact engaged in criminal … activities … in pursuing and advocating sharia Law in Australia. Islam will be outlawed …

6.The Abbott Liberals will stop funding the people smugglers … and will cease all welfare payments to all and any illegal immigrants.

7. The Abbott Liberals will arrest any groups and people associated with organising the illegal people trade.

8. Australia will no longer participate in the worldwide people-trafficking industry, currently masquerading as a humanitarian refugee program.

The article goes on and on. The problem I see in finding something like this as one of the top search results for what an Abbott government would do to stop the boats is that there is no information—there are spurious claims by Mr Abbott and Mr Morrison and members of the coalition that they have the answers. We know that is simply not true. There is no way that we can stop the boats when people are in such a desperate state without addressing the comprehensive framework that has been put in place by the Bali process and which enables us to engage with the Indonesian government, which the Prime Minister is going to do, and with the Malaysian government, which the Prime Minister is seeking to do but cannot get the support of the opposition.

I challenge Mr Abbott and Mr Morrison, if they are serious about trying to address the issue of people smuggling and illegal boat arrivals, to sit down with the government before this parliament rises next week and talk this through.

5:14 pm

Photo of Gary HumphriesGary Humphries (ACT, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Defence Materiel) Share this | | Hansard source

I had not planned to start in this way but, in my contribution to this debate on border protection, I need to start by addressing the issues that Senator Stephens has just raised. Senator Stephens has engaged in an intellectually dishonest exercise of telling us that she does not know what the policy of the alternative government is with respect to stopping the boats, so she has resorted to going onto the internet and finding a so-called conservative website and, by implication, attributing the policies of that website to—

Government Senator:

A government senator interjecting

Photo of Gary HumphriesGary Humphries (ACT, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Defence Materiel) Share this | | Hansard source

I did not mishear. What was the purpose of raising that rather extraordinary contribution about this conservative website except to, by implication, tar the Abbott opposition with the views put forward on that website? That is the purpose for which you engaged in that exercise, Senator Stephens, suggesting that we will revoke our membership or our participation in the refugee convention, that we will outlaw people advocating sharia law and that we will forcibly return everybody who has come from Sri Lanka. Senator, that is beneath you.

Let me make it perfectly clear that the views of that website do not represent the policies of the alternative coalition government. Secondly, the policies put forward by the Abbott opposition have been plain and clear for at least the last five years. If you do not know what we propose to do in this space, then you obviously have not been listening. Because, time and time again, the opposition has set out what it would do differently to this government and to suggest that, somehow, we have a policy vacuum in this space is utterly dishonest. We have made it clear that we will restore temporary protection visas. We have made it clear that we will have an effective offshore program, not the mishmash of policy solutions which has tumbled out of this government over the last five years and that we will turn back the boats when it is safe to do so. Those are our policies. We have made them perfectly plain for a number of years and, to suggest that there is some lack of clarity about that is a claim so disingenuous it could only have come from a government which, on this issue, is utterly desperate. It is a government which has run out of ideas, a government which has failed on every count and a government which is, frankly, no longer trusted by the Australian people. I suspect that, even on the Left, there is a lack of trust in the government to actually solve this problem.

Senator Stephens invited Mr Abbott and Mr Morrison to sit down with the government before the end of next week to talk the talk and sort out this problem. Frankly, why would Mr Abbott or Mr Morrison talk to this government, this government which has lost its way so comprehensively on this question and which has so comprehensively run out of ideas? How many different policy solutions has the Rudd-Gillard government gone through in attempting to solve this problem and stop the boats? How many has it gone through? Let us count them. First of all, when it was in opposition it announced that it was opposed to the policies of the Howard government. We had Senator Stephens making pious statements about how Kim Beazley had authorised John Howard to pursue his policies to repel the boats, as though somehow Kim Beazley had signed up to what John Howard was talking about when in fact the Beazley, Latham and Crean oppositions comprehensively opposed, at every step of the way, the policies of the Howard government in this space.

Senator McLucas interjecting

Yes, it is true, Senator McLucas. In particular, we recall one media statement by the then shadow spokesperson on immigration, Julia Gillard, with a banner headline 'Another boat, another policy failure'. That was your policy. You opposed the offshore processing that we had executed on Nauru and Manus Island. You were opposed to it. You made political hay out of it. Yet we are getting pious statements today from the government: 'We think it's terrible that this issue is being exploited; we shouldn't make that kind of use of refugees.' You exploited refugees endlessly every day that the Howard government was in office, a government that executed a solution which actually stopped the boats. Do not lecture us on that subject.

You came to office in 2007 and then, in August 2008, you changed the policy: 'We'll have onshore processing from now on.' What happened? Steadily, in increasing numbers, the boats began to arrive—boats which had not arrived for the last six years since the Pacific solution was implemented, in 2001. The boats that had not come during those intervening six years began to return, in 2008. They began to return in increasingly large numbers. More and more people climbed aboard those boats. The shopfronts in Indonesia and elsewhere of the people smugglers were reopened. They got back into business and they began to ply their trade. It was increasingly obvious to the Australian people over that period that the government's policies were failing. The test of success that they had applied—that is, the number of people who arrive by boat; 'another boat, another policy failure,' a quote by Julia Gillard—was failing, on their own admission. Boats were arriving in increasingly large numbers.

Julia Gillard deposed Prime Minister Rudd this time three years ago, very memorably, and said, 'I will fix this problem.' So the next policy alteration came from the Labor government: 'This time we will process unauthorised arrivals on East Timor. We'll send them to Timor—got the problem solved.' That policy fell apart almost immediately, largely because they had forgotten to talk to the parliament of East Timor about processing refugees in that place. In due course, the government of East Timor said, 'No, we're not going to do that.'

So a third policy position had to be developed, in a hurry. What will it be? 'We will have a regional processing centre somewhere in South-East Asia and all the nations of the region will send their refugees to this regional centre and Australia will also be able to direct people to that place.' That policy was announced almost three years ago. When is it going to happen? When are we going to have our regional processing centre for refugees? Of course, it has not happened and it is never going to happen, for reasons that are extremely obvious if people care to give it any thought at all.

Then the government announced its notorious Malaysian solution, a solution which was so utterly inappropriate and so undermined human rights that it began to lose the support of many on the Left, dismayed by Labor's frequent and unpredictable changes of policy. Then, having previously condemned the idea of ever sending refugees to Nauru, the government announced it would send refugees to Nauru. Yet, despite all of these changes of policy, the boats keep coming and people keep dying at sea.

So the suggestion that we should sit down with this government and talk about how we can solve the problem of the boats is just laughable. There is only one way of solving this problem and that is to get a government which has a proven record of being able to deal with this issue. It has been implied or outright suggested in the course of this debate that somehow, whatever its failings in the area of policy delivery may be, it is the Labor government which brings compassion to this debate. It is the one that at least cares about and delivers better outcomes for refugees—and I have heard this claim made in the past on a number of occasions. As a member of the small 'l' wing of the Liberal Party I want to explain to the Senate tonight why I think that the only compassionate approach to dealing with the issue of illegal boat arrivals of refugees on our shores is to adopt the policies that were implemented by the former, Howard government. We can do that by looking at the arguments here in a kind of SWOT analysis, and comparing what Labor is doing with what the Howard government did and what we propose to return to. Let us look at the alternatives in that light.

So where do the strengths of Labor's approach lie? Is it that Australia, by engaging in this policy, essentially, of open borders, obtains a result where more refugees are settled in Australia? Of course the answer to that is no. Many people imagine that, if the boats are arriving, we are at least accepting refugees who would not otherwise get a place in Australia. As has been made clear in this debate, that is not true. Australia has long had a policy of accepting refugees. A target of 13,800 humanitarian resettlements has long been Australia's policy, and that target was met even during the years under the Howard government when the boats stopped coming. So, in fact, there is no link between the number of refugees that are accepted by Australia and resettled on a humanitarian basis, and the number of illegal boat arrivals. However, I note that the government, in an attempt to buy back some of the support that it was losing from the Left previously, has recently announced that it is increasing that target to 20,000, albeit at huge extra cost. So we do not actually accept and process more refugees under the approach adopted by Labor; we simply do so at a much greater cost.

As to which is better on cost, Labor's approach or ours, the cost of processing refugees who arrive by irregular means and dealing with border protection issues this financial year has now climbed to $2.2 billion. That is $2,200 million being spent every year on dealing with this issue, which is four or five times what it was costing Australian taxpayers under the previous, Howard government. That is a blow-out of $10 billion under this government—bearing in mind that that is without one single extra refugee being resettled in Australia as a result of the change of policy. We are not buying another $10 billion worth of humanitarian resettlements by spending this extra money; we are simply resettling people on a much more expensive basis because the thrust of our program is being put into the irregular maritime arrival context rather than into the planned resettlement through organisations such as the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees or the International Organization for Migration. So, again, on the question of cost, Labor's policy is a fiasco, a total failure.

As for public confidence, what can I say? Public confidence in this government's ability to handle border protection has all but disappeared. I think you would be hard-pressed to find even a dyed-in-the-wool Labor voter who is prepared to say they think the government has got that right. It is clearly an utter collapse of public policy, and the public sees that.

On one measure, one extremely important measure, in my SWOT analysis, there is a very, very telling black mark against this government's border protection policies, and that is the cost in human lives. Whatever the supposed lack of compassion that might have been at work under the Howard government in its extended detention of people in places like Nauru—but let us not forget that at the end of the Howard government there were four, not 40 or 400 but four, people still in detention on Nauru—and even if you think that that is a high price to pay for a policy to deter the boats, you cannot possibly argue that that cost is too high if you contrast that with the cost of this government's policy: the 1,000 souls who have died at sea, encouraged by Labor hanging out the shingle saying, 'Come by boat and you will find a place in Australia.' Those are 1,000 deaths which did not happen under the previous six years of the Howard government's policy, and those deaths at sea will continue unless we have a change of policy. If this government cannot execute that change of policy, it should step aside and let another government do just that.

So, on that analysis, there is nothing to recommend this government's approach—absolutely nothing. It is, on every criterion you care to name, a failure, and it has to change.

I mentioned that Senator Stephens, in her contribution, made some extraordinary remarks. She seemed to be implying that it was a lack of bipartisanship, compared to what has happened in the past, that was the problem. This is a government that has had failure after failure after failure in this area, but it wants us to believe that if only it could get the Malaysian solution in place it would solve the problem. At some point we have to be able to say: 'You don't have the capacity to solve this problem. You have a demonstrated lack of performance here. Let's pretend for the moment that you can't produce a solution with the Malaysian solution.' But Senator Stephens, in suggesting that it is all going to be all right as long as we can get the Malaysian solution in place, said that the government of the day needs the power to resolve this problem. I think she was effectively saying: 'Well, just let the government do it. The parliament shouldn't be able to stop this. The government should be able to make this decision unilaterally.' I have to say it is a very strange principle. She went on to say that at least Kim Beazley gave John Howard the authority to deal with the problem when he was in government, implying again, I think, that somehow Labor had waved through the Pacific solution and given its blessing to allow the Howard government to get on with the job.

I was in the parliament at that time, and I know that Senator Mason, Senator McLucas and a number of others in the chamber were also. I do not remember ever having the blessing of the Labor Party for anything that the Howard government was doing in that space whatever—nothing. We were ruthlessly attacked every day on this policy, evidence of which is that notorious headline under the opposition's immigration spokesperson's name: 'Another boat, another policy failure'. Senator Stephens, in her suggestion that many people around the world were fleeing their homes because disruption, civil unrest and so on, seemed again rather coyly to be implying that the push factors were really to blame for the boats coming across the sea. I do not believe that anybody believes that anymore. I think the evidence of the way the boats stopped in 2001 when new policy was applied and the way they started again in 2008 when that policy was reversed makes it amply clear that it is pull factors which are determining the flow of numbers. If anyone has any doubt about that, I suspect they only need to wait until the new government comes to office and changes those policies to see just how true that actually is.

We have a government with a policy in total free fall—a government whose credibility on this issue has been utterly shredded. It has demonstrated through repeated policy failure that it simply cannot solve this problem, and it is urgent and important that we do so. I want Australia to stand as a beacon to other countries of the way we can compassionately and fairly offer people the chance for resettlement here—to deal with what, sadly, is an international problem of people who are refugees and who desperately need a home. I want Australia to be seen as a place which offers people that refuge under a planned humanitarian resettlement program, where all or almost all of our refugees are resettled here by virtue of a decision consciously made by the elected government of Australia that it will identify this group of people in this refugee settlement centre in this part of the world to be the beneficiaries of Australia's largesse and bring them here for resettlement. That is an honourable program and a program that Australians will have confidence in, if we can return to that. We do not have that program now. We have a program which is utterly failing and which Australians almost universally acknowledge as such. It is time this government, which can't even start such a program, got out of the way and let a new government do just that.

5:34 pm

Photo of Catryna BilykCatryna Bilyk (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It is really amazing that those on the other side have taken such attitudes to this most serious issue. I do not think they are very serious or very honest in their approach to this important issue. If they were really serious about this motion why did Senator Mason—who I really quite like and respect and spend a lot of time in estimates with—start his discussion on this debate with a discussion on the carbon tax? Why would they raise the carbon tax in this debate, as if this debate was nothing but a shameful act of political opportunism? Why did he then move onto the mining tax? Why did he then talk about debt and Greece? Why did it take Senator Mason six minutes and 20 seconds before he mentioned the substance of the debate?

The opposition in this place today have demonstrated that they have no wish to discuss this issue seriously and they have shown this parliament complete and utter contempt. The Australian people deserve better from those opposite. They preach and pontificate on this issue as though they have the silver bullet to solve the problem of Australia's irregular maritime arrivals. But what they really have is a political strategy to strike fear into the hearts of Australians—with talk of 'illegal boats' and a 'peaceful invasion' at the expense of desperate people who are fleeing persecution and trying to make a better life for themselves.

While people smugglers trade in human misery, those opposite seek to make political capital out of the issue. If the federal opposition were even remotely interested in finding a solution, they would listen to the experts. Three eminent Australians, for example, who have strong expertise in this area, examined all the available evidence and provided advice to the government on what needed to be done to stop the flow of irregular maritime arrivals. The Houston report clearly stated that the old policies no longer worked and that a cooperative regional framework was a key component of the solution. It said that Australia should continue to develop cooperation with Malaysia on asylum issues. But the opposition rejected the Malaysia solution—instead of seeking to strengthen Australia's ties with our region over asylum issues, they sought to undermine them. In the time I have been in this place, I do not think I have ever seen such a brazen exercise in rank hypocrisy.

Senator Stephens mentioned that we on both sides agree on most of the policy. We agree on offshore processing. We agree on mandatory detention for the purposes of assessment. We both support working with countries like Indonesia and Sri Lanka and the other countries that are critical to stopping this heinous trade in people. But those opposite continue to attack the government over irregular maritime arrivals, when the continuation of the problem is a product of their obstruction in this place. Last year they stood in this place and voted against the policy that the expert panel said would work to stop irregular maritime arrivals. They voted against the compromise bill put forward by Mr Oakeshott. They rejected compromise and a solution that the experts said would be effective. Shame on them.

Despite all their excuses, there can really only be one plausible reason why the opposition rejected the Malaysian arrangement. Do you know why that is? It is because they were worried that it might have worked. It suited their opportunistic political interests for the boats to keep coming. The coalition's rejection of the Malaysian solution was a victory for the people smugglers—I admit that. But it was because those on the other side would not support it. Why did they constantly ignore expert advice and reject a regional solution?

When you pick apart their so-called policy on the issue, all that remains is a series of three-word slogans. The policy that the Leader of the Opposition espouses that he would 'turn back the boats' is a complete fantasy. We know what happened in the Howard era when this policy was attempted before. We know that in their desperation to get to Australia, asylum seekers are willing to disable or even sink their vessels, risking not only their own lives but those of the staff on the boats that were sent out there. How many boats were turned back successfully? Only four. Four boats were turned back successfully, and every subsequent attempt had to be abandoned because of riots, fires or threats of violence towards Navy personnel. Australia's Border Protection Commander, Rear Admiral David Johnston, and other experts have warned that turning back the boats presents a risk to the lives and safety of defence personnel and asylum seekers. The policies of those opposite fly in the face of that expert opinion.

I would draw the chamber's attention to comments that Admiral Chris Barrie made very recently—in fact I think I heard him comment this week. He said: 'You can imagine that the opposition in government might be able to secure an arrangement with Indonesia. It might be possible for two armed forces to work together to execute some sort of policy. What worries me is that we have not got that far and we are making statements about what we are going to do without the agreement of the government of Indonesia. I connected the dots on this. When I look at the numbers that are starting to arrive in boats now, I wonder to myself if this is connected to the 14 September election date. Furthermore, it puts our people in the Navy, Border Protection Command and Customs in a very difficult situation—being, if you like, between the jaws of dealing compassionately with these people who want to come to Australia and policy being driven by people who, frankly, really do not want to see the problems for what they are. Putting our commanders and ships' companies in that situation, I think, is a terrible position for us to be in.'

I would also like to draw the chamber's attention to an article published in The Canberra Times on 13 February 2012, which stated:

The Coalition's pledge to turn back asylum seekers' boats is illegal, costly and would expose Australian naval personnel to harm, formerly secret Customs advice says.

The advice also shows the Howard government's attempts to forcibly return boats often failed, and details how the policy had relied on assuming, without evidence, that Indonesia agreed with it.

…   …   …   

It showed Customs and naval staff only tried to return 12 of the 173 vessels they intercepted, and fewer than half of those attempts resulted in the boats returning to Indonesian waters. In at least two cases, the interventions led to deaths, either through drownings or fires on board the boats.

''There were very few benign or compliant boardings under the policy, and a pattern of objectionable and belligerent behaviour quickly became evident ... PIIs [potential irregular immigrants] frequently became hostile and occasionally inflicted self-harm,'' the brief says.

I repeat that the coalition's pledge to turn back asylum seekers boats is illegal, costly and would expose Australian naval personnel to harm and cause potential irregular immigrants to frequently become hostile and occasionally inflict self-harm.

I would like to quote one more section of the aforementioned article, which went on to say:

''Even if there was consent to the vessel being 'turned back', Border Protection Command notes that when it boards these vessels, nearly all of the vessels are found in a poor condition and poorly maintained. It is therefore difficult in many situations to properly determine that the vessel would be seaworthy enough to allow the vessel to continue on without the loss of life.''

Mr Abbott and those opposite know that their 'tow back the boats' policy is in tatters but they are just not game enough to admit it to the Australian people. I would like to know how the coalition plans to tow boats back to Indonesia without the country's cooperation. The Indonesian ambassador made it clear in a statement on 31 May that Indonesia would not cooperate with attempts to return asylum seekers to Indonesia. The Indonesian ambassador said: 'I think it's not possible for the coalition to say that it has to go back to Indonesia, because Indonesia is not the origin country of these people. No such collaboration will happen between Indonesia and Australia to bring back the people to Indonesia.' The ambassador could not have put it more clearly.

When pressed on this in an interview for The Guardian, shadow foreign minister, Ms Julie Bishop, said:

… professional diplomats are paid to present particular views but what goes on behind the scenes can be quite different. What people say privately can be different to what they say publicly…

Maybe in the opposition, but I do not think that the federal opposition is brazen enough to accuse a senior diplomat of being duplicitous—or maybe they are. I think she did. What does this say though about the future of any relationship with Indonesia if the coalition wins government? It is something that I think the people out there listening really need to think about.

We on this side understand the importance of a strong relationship with Indonesia. Indonesia is a major partner for Australian regional border security and in related forums that sponsor Australia's participation in annual consultations between ASEAN directors-general of immigration and DIAC senior officials. Indonesia is also co-chair of the Bali Process on People Smuggling, Trafficking in Persons and Related Transnational Crime, commonly known as the Bali process. The Prime Minister's visit to Indonesia will build on Australia's strong and productive partnership with Indonesia in combating people-smuggling activities.

As I said earlier, our governments agree on and share the view that people smuggling is an abhorrent activity that has to be stopped. Our governments have worked closely in addressing this serious issue bilaterally and in regional focused initiatives, including the Bali process. The criminalisation of people smuggling in Indonesian law, strongly supported by the government, was a significant step forward in the push to disrupt people-smuggling activity regionally. We have worked cooperatively with our Indonesian neighbours.

Our government has worked closely with Indonesian authorities to combat people-smuggling activities for many years. It has renewed the memorandum of understanding on immigration, cooperation and border control management between the Australian and Indonesian governments. Our government's engagement in Indonesia is focused on supporting whole-of-government efforts to combat people-smuggling activity and irregular people movement. It is focused on collaboration on immigration matters at the operational and technical level and it is focused on ongoing work to increase protection space in the region. This includes: working with the Indonesian immigration authorities to enhance analytical, intelligence and biometric matching capabilities to assist in identifying people who may not be travelling to Indonesia for bona fide purposes; providing training to Indonesian immigration officials on documentation examination, immigration intelligence and facial recognition; and an ongoing border management systems partnership to enable reliable detection of people of concern to Indonesian authorities.

The Leader of the Opposition knows his flawed policy is detested by the Indonesians, which is why he did not have the courage to raise this dangerous policy when he visited Indonesia. It is time for the coalition to give up their political opportunism on this issue. It is time for them to come clean with the Australian people and fess up to a few simple truths—like the truth that this is a complicated challenge without a simple solution, like the truth that a regional framework has to be part of that solution and Australia cannot address this problem by going it alone, like the truth that asylum policy cannot be conducted through a series of thought bubbles and three-word slogans. I condemn this motion by Senator Fifield today, I condemn the rank hypocrisy, and I condemn the opportunism.

I would like to reiterate the words that Senator Stephens quoted from Paris Aristotle on 7:30 earlier this week:

… the first thing it's going to take is for the Parliament, as a whole, not just the Government, but the Parliament as a whole to come together and agree on a strategy for addressing this issue. But it has to be a comprehensive strategy, one that builds a better regional system that engages Indonesia and Malaysia and other countries in our region to try to provide an alternative pathway but also to disrupt and intercept the activities of people smugglers. In order to reduce the numbers of people that one, feel compelled that they have to get on boats and two, don't have another option other than doing that at the moment.

As I said, I strongly condemn this motion by Senator Fifield today and the rank hypocrisy and opportunism taken by those on the other side on this issue. As long as those on the other side think that they can gain any political advantage from this issue, it will take a long time to extract even an ounce of honesty from them.

5:49 pm

Photo of David FawcettDavid Fawcett (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to address this motion, and I do not intend to cover in any detail things that have been well canvassed by colleagues on this side of the House or things covered in the many articles in the media and by commentators for people who follow this affair. Suffice it to say, having had a former career in the other place when Mr Latham was the then Labor leader, I never thought there would be anything that I would agree with Mr Latham on, but on Q&A recently, when the issue of asylum policy and border protection came up, he was quite forthright and direct in saying that the former Prime Minister, John Howard, and his government got it right. Why did he say that? Because the Howard government recognised that the policy of the Australian government was significant in whether people chose Australia as a destination. The recent articles about people who are making the journey from Africa to Australia through multiple intermediate points highlights the strength of that pull factor.

What I would like to talk about is the fact that border protection is part of our national security policy. The failures that this government have made in this area, which have directly resulted from their ill-advised scrapping of the Howard government measures, have had unintended consequences and costs in a number of other areas to do with national security. Operation Resolute is the Australian Defence Force's contribution to the whole-of-government effort to protect our borders. It is a huge operation that covers things like irregular maritime arrivals as well as maritime terrorism, piracy, robbery and violence at sea. There is a whole raft of areas that we should be putting assets and people towards. At any given time there are over 500 ADF personnel at sea, in the air or providing functions in support of this operation.

Where has the effort been focused in recent years? Clearly, it has been on the border protection task against maritime arrivals. The unintended cost of this has been to the personnel and particularly to the equipment that has been used. The Air Force's AP3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft, which provide much of the surveillance capability, are not just something that you decide to fly for countless hours without a burden. That burden comes not only in the usage of the flying hours, which is something so important that the allocation of those flying hours is in the budget. Those flying hours have to cover other operational deployments. For example, we have had P3s in the Middle East, providing operations there. They are training to work up to anti-submarine operations and they are support for submarine training. There is a raft of areas where those flying hours, if they are used in this task, are not available to other operations of the ADF. So we see capabilities—like anti-submarine warfare capability—taking a dive in terms of the number of crews that are worked up to an operational level. That is because resources have been directed into this activity, as a direct consequence of this government's poor management of our borders.

But it is not only the flying hours. Every time you fly aircraft, the airframe itself accrues fatigue and there are a number of components on the aircraft that have a life span. The more they are used, the quicker they wear out and you need to replace them. So there is a direct cost to the additional flying hours that are being flown by the ADF in these aircraft in support of this task.

The Armidale class patrol boats are also an asset that the ADF deploys in this operation—Operation RESOLUTE. There have been a number of media articles highlighting the fact that, because of the increased rate of usage and also the fact that the boats are going further out into unfavourable sea conditions, fatigue has caused cracking. The first vessel where this was noted was HMAS Armidale herself. So, of a 14 boat fleet, they are being worked at such a rate that there is now considerable concern about the ability of these boats to work to their full capacity. They been limited, for example, to operating in seas of less than 2.5 metres, which is about half of their designed capacity.

This is in part because the people smugglers have realised that they can essentially dial a taxi service. When calling for assistance earlier and earlier and setting out in rougher conditions, they know that the Australian Navy will respond, meeting our humanitarian and law of the sea obligations. But that means that our crews are going further out to sea in rougher conditions, which is not only putting them at risk but also causing damage to our assets. Not only are these vessels being damaged but we also seeing others stand by, such as major fleet units and people involved with the transfer of refugees or asylum seekers ashore. So there are a number of direct flow-on effects in the maritime space.

News articles show things like C17 aircraft returning Sri Lankan asylum seekers. On the one hand people say, 'That is a good thing; we are sending some people home.' But, again, there is an unintended consequence here. There is a cost that is absorbed by the Defence department, because it now has to take an aircraft—again, with more flying hours and more fatigue accrual—and that aircraft then cannot be devoted to another task, whether that be supporting land force units or other parts of the ADF that are training. So, again, we see a reduction in capability, which just drives cost later. The use of ADF assets, as an absorbed function, is costing Australia.

When the Howard government was in power, one of the projects that it was looking to go ahead with was procuring unmanned aerial aircraft or unmanned aerial vehicles for surveillance tasks. They are effective because they can remain aloft for long periods of time. They do not have the same manpower costs, because you are not paying to have multiple crewmembers airborne and crews to rotate through. So there are considerable savings. But what was one of the first things that the Rudd government did? In 2009, then Minister for Defence, Fitzgibbon, cancelled the $1.5 billion project for the Global Hawk. We have seen that the Orion aircraft has had to be used for this task because nothing else is available. Again, this is because the Labor Party has not managed our national defence capability well.

Now, some time down the track, we are seeing defence writers in the newspapers saying that Australia has a serious gap in its defence against the timber-hulled refugee boats because of gaps in the various radar systems. So the government is now looking at the Triton, an unmanned aerial vehicle, some years too late. It is better late than never and I am sure it will have good capability, but we could have been developing the expertise in this capability and sparing a far more expensive and resource intensive asset to do this job if the decision had been made earlier.

It is not only our national security here that has been poorly managed and had unintended consequences. One of the things that Australia has always done well, and which I support, is our foreign aid program and our willingness to help those around the world who are less fortunate. But now what we see is that what we thought was only taking $375 million—taking from Peter to pay Paul—out the ODA budget to support what is happening with the processing of refugees, was actually just a cap. That is a year-on-year measure. The budget papers show that the government is expecting to divert nearly $1 billion from the aid budget to cover domestic asylum seeker costs over the four years to 2015-16. That is a disgraceful, unintended consequence. It is a cost that is being borne by the people who can least afford to wear that cost, as a direct result of the poor decisions of this government to scrap the effective border control measures that were in place under the Howard government.

In supporting this motion, I am not going to go over again, at length, all the numbers and statistics. They are quite horrific. But I do want to highlight that, as well as the immediate debate at hand that people are having, there are unintended consequences and there are costs that are being borne by the Australian taxpayer. There are costs to our defence capability and national security and there are costs to people, such as those who would normally be recipients of our overseas development aid, because that money has been diverted. Up to nearly $1 billion has been diverted from that program not to bring additional people to Australia and not to somehow expand our refugee program but just to deal with completely unnecessary costs that are not required to be there. We could have used that money, if we wished to, to far more effectively help people in other nations who needed our help, whether it was directly there or as part of our already well-established and very generous refugee program that did what people are calling for, which is processed them where they were and provide them travel and support to come here to Australia—which is a far safer, humanitarian and sensible approach. The system is in place but it has been undermined by the poor decisions of this government which not only have made life more difficult for refugees but also have had many unintended costs.